The Introduction to Leviticus in the ESV Study Bible is helping in sorting through some of the foreign concepts we find in the book. For example, Moses uses unclean, clean, and holy differently than we use these terms today.

With “unclean” and “clean,” for example, most modern readers are tempted to think of that which is “nonhygienic” or “hygienic.”

In Leviticus, however, these words do not refer to hygiene at all. Rather, they refer to “ritual states.” (The word “holy” is also used in many contexts to describe a ritual state.) Understanding the concept of ritual states is very important to understanding Leviticus as a whole.

In Leviticus there are three basic ritual states:

  1. the unclean
  2. the clean, and
  3. the holy.

On the one hand, these categories guide the community with reference to the types of actions a person may (or may not) engage in, or the places that a person may (or may not) go. Those who are unclean, e.g., may not partake of a peace offering (7:20), while those who are clean may (7:19). (A modern analogy might be that of registering to vote: a person who is “registered” may vote, whereas a person who is “unregistered” may not.)

There is an important distinction between “ritual states” and “moral states.”

One who is in the ritual state of holiness is not necessarily more personally righteous than a person who is simply clean or unclean (just as a person who is “registered” to vote is not necessarily more righteous than a person who is not).

Though they are distinguished, we should be careful not to separate them:

Even though ritual states and moral states are different, the ritual states also seemed to represent or symbolize grades of moral purity.

The highest grade of moral purity was that of the Lord himself, who was “holy” and who dwelt in the “Holy of Holies.”

By constantly calling the Israelites to ritual purity in all aspects of life, the Lord was reminding them of their need for also seeking after moral purity in all aspects of life (20:24-26).

Another challenge in Leviticus is knowing how to interpret and apply the rituals and ceremonies.

In particular, how should the individual acts and objects that make up a ritual be understood? Answering this question can be difficult, for the simple reason that Leviticus rarely explains what various ritual actions or objects mean. (One of the few exceptions is 17:11, where sacrificial animal blood is said to be the “life” of the animal.)

Some help is provided, however, by asking questions about the general function(s) and the specific function(s) of the ritual.

Generally speaking, rituals may function in several ways: e.g.,

  • to address aspects of the human condition (such as impurity or sinfulness),
  • to serve as a way for the offerer to express emotions or desires to the Lord, and
  • to underscore various truths about the Lord or the human condition.

In many instances, one ritual may accomplish all of these things.) It is helpful to ask which of these general functions is in view in the ritual being considered.

Related to this, one should also ask, “What is the specific goal/function of this particular ritual as a whole?”

Answering these two questions provides an interpretative framework in which to understand the individual actions of the ritual (much as a paragraph is an interpretative framework for the sentences in it). For example, if a ritual as a whole is meant to express an emotion (general), and more specifically to express praise (specific), then the individual actions or objects of the ritual should somehow contribute to this goal.

Though this approach may still leave some questions unanswered, it will usually provide helpful guidelines and protect readers from some of the interpretative excesses of the past.

In his introductory textbook Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch Gordon Wenham makes an important point about the importance of the imagination in interpreting the sacrifices in Leviticus:

It is very difficult for modern readers to picture the sacrifices described in Leviticus, because they, unlike ancient Israelites, have never seen, let alone participated in a sacrifice. What we really need is a video showing all the different kinds of sacrifices, the burnt offerings, the peace offering, the sin offering, and so on! Just as the stories in the Old Testament are designed for reading aloud, not silently, so these ritual texts are meant for people who already have a good idea of how to sacrifice. They are just underlining important or controversial points, so that anyone offering a sacrifice would do it in a way acceptable to God.

So how can we proceed? The best way is to act them out, or alternatively, if one is more artistically inclined, produce a sort of comic strip showing each step in action. Then it becomes much easier to grasp the steps in the process and see the direction of the ceremony. But it will also show up the gaps in the instructions, things that the first readers just took for granted.

For example, Leviticus never says that the sacrificial animals had to have their legs tied before being killed. But this was the procedure in other parts of the ancient Near East and Genesis 22:9 suggests it was done in ancient Israel.

Another thing that Old Testament nearly always leaves out are the words said or sung during the ceremonies. But one can hardly suppose that the worshipper did not explain to the priest why he was bringing a sacrifice or afterwards that the priest did not give some assurance that the sacrifice had been accepted.

In Leviticus one has the rubric setting out how a ceremony is to be performed, but none of the accompanying words. It is often surmised that the Psalms were used in temple services, presumably as the sacrifices were being carried out, but again there is no hint of this in Leviticus.

Therefore, readers need to use much imagination to recreate the mood and atmosphere of the rites as well as attending carefully to the exact procedures set out in the text. (pp. 82-83)

For some more help and examples on preaching from Leviticus, this is a helpful resource.