To All The World
The world is a confusing place right now. We believe that faithful proclamation of the gospel is what our hostile and disoriented world needs. Do you believe that too? Help TGC bring biblical wisdom to the confusing issues across the world by making a gift to our international work.
Invitation to Leviticus
The Book of Leviticus was written by the covenant mediator par excellence of the Old Testament: Moses, the servant of the Lord. According to the opening of the book, “the LORD called Moses and spoke to him” (1:1). He received divine revelation from the Lord at Mount Sinai and inscripturated these words as Israel awaited further direction on the next stage of their wilderness journey. The Mosaic authorship of this biblical book has long been denied within the scholarly community, as its “priestly” nature dates it in the post-exilic era, according to the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis (also known as JEDP). Recent work has redeemed the antiquity of the “priestly” code, as evidenced, for example, in Deuteronomy’s dependence on the ceremonial regulations in Leviticus. This work has restored confidence in its Mosaic connection.
With the Mosaic setting in place, it becomes clear that Leviticus was written during a watershed moment in the history of Israel. After 400 years of oppression in Egypt, the Lord redeemed his people through the mediatorial leadership of Moses, to honor the promise that he made to Israel’s forefathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod 3:13–16). They were liberated to journey through the wilderness until they met with their redeeming God at his holy mountain, Sinai, where the Lord established his divine, holy covenant with them. Part of this covenant revealed the designs of the tabernacle and the holy investitures of the high priest (Exod 25–31). The purpose of the tabernacle was to be a dwelling place for the Lord so that he could reside among his people. Exodus ends with the construction of the tabernacle and the glory of the Lord taking his place within his new holy tent (Exod:34).
Leviticus opens in this historical setting with the glory-presence of God among the Israelites. To have the Lord within their community was an extraordinary blessing, as the Lord and his people longed to be in intimate communion with each other. However, the presence of the altogether holy God posed certain challenges. Beloved of the Lord as Israel may have been, they were a “stiff-necked people” (Exod 32:9; 33:3–5), and no unholy person or thing could be in the presence of this holy God and survive (Lev 15:31; cf. Exod 3:5; Josh 5:15). Having God among them required atonement for sins; thus, the ministry of the priesthood was needed. Although the priests are first mentioned in Exodus 28–31 in connection specifically with Aaron and his family line, their actual work is described in greater detail in Leviticus. The most significant means the priests would use for their work of atonement was a sophisticated sacrificial system (Lev 1–7). The goal of these sacrifices was to make the people holy so they could dwell in intimate fellowship with the Lord.
In this sense, there is an intriguing similarity between the garden of Eden and the Book of Leviticus. Since the days of Adam and Eve in the garden, the Lord desired to be in holy communion with his people. This communion appeared lost when sin entered the world (Gen 3:1–14; Rom 5:12), but the Lord would not be deterred from his desire to be in fellowship with his image-bearers. He was the one who performed the first act of sacrifice to atone for the sins of this first family (Gen 3:21), providing the paradigmatic means by which fellowship would be restored with his. Although people offered sacrifices before Leviticus, we find the most complete description of their usage in this book. Israel’s sins could now be atoned, and the holy bond with their God could be restored. This system is applied throughout the Old Testament and at momentous occasions in the history of redemption (cf. Josh 5:10–12; 1Kgs 18:36–39; 2Kgs 23:21–23; Ezek 46:1–24; Zech 14:16–21).
There is, however, a logical tension within this system: can the sacrificial offering of animal and plant life truly atone for the sins of image-bearers? We are told in the New Testament Book of Hebrews that this cannot be the case, for “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). Even the ministerial work of the priesthood was inadequate since these priests required atonement for their own sins first before they could atone for the sins of others (Heb 7:27; cf. Exod 29:1–46; Lev 1–5). As gracious and blessed as this Levitical system may have been, it was only a shadowy copy of the future greater sacrifice by a greater high priest. The New Testament proclaims loudly that this greater sacrifice and priest came in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is because of the Book of Leviticus, however, that we can understand and rejoice in the truth that the death of Christ on the cross was, in fact, a sacrifice through which “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10). It is also because of Leviticus that we can see Jesus Christ not only as the royal son of David (Matt 1:1) but also as the high priest greater than Aaron, who “has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily” (Heb 7:27). No other book of the Holy Scripture provides the necessary foundation to appreciate the nature of the atoning work of Jesus Christ like Leviticus. Even though this wondrous book of Holy Scripture is sadly neglected by the modern church, its importance is without comparison. We would do well to bring attention to this portion of Scripture and reevaluate its benefits in our corrupted world that is in dire need of the atonement for sins that only comes through the messianic work of Jesus Christ as both the true lamb of God (John 1:21) and the true high priest (Heb 7:27).
The Lord desires to be in a communion bond with his redeemed people. Because he is holy, his people must also be holy. The Book of Leviticus describes the sacrificial system in which his covenanted people can become holy as he is holy.
“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’”
— Leviticus 19:2 ESV
I. Regulations on Sacrifices (1:1–7:38)
II. The Institution of the Priesthood (8:1–10:20)
III. Regulations on Ritual Cleanness and Uncleanness (11:1–16:34)
IV. Regulations on Holy Living (17:1–25:55)
V. Covenant Sanctions (26:1–46)
VI. Regulations of Vows (27:1–34)
There is a rationale to the order of these literary sections. Recall that the Book of Exodus may be subdivided into two sections. Exodus 1–18 is the narrative about the covenant mediator Moses. Exodus 19–40 is largely the covenantal instruction the Lord gives to his redeemed people at Sinai. Leviticus shares similarities with this second half of Exodus. First, the two major institutions of the tabernacle and the Aaronic priesthood find their covenantal origins in Exodus 25–31: the design of the tabernacle in Exodus 25–27, and the holy garments of the high priest in Exodus 28–31. Second, the tabernacle, which is the main subject of Exodus 25–31, is repeatedly mentioned in Leviticus 11–16 as the location of sacrificial acts of the priests (16:16, 33; cf. 15:31). The significance of the tabernacle reaches an apex on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, thus making it central in the work of atonement for Israel. Third, the tabernacle and the priesthood are the focus of attention in each book respectively: Exodus 35–40 describes the construction of the tabernacle, while Leviticus 8–9 describes the inauguration of the Aaronic priesthood. Fourth, there is a record of false worship in both books: Exodus 32–34 describes the idolatry of the golden calf, and Leviticus 10 recounts the false sacrificial offering of Nadab and Abihu. Fifth, each also applies moral law to two different spheres of Israelite life. Cultural and social laws are generally found in Exodus 21–23, while ceremonial and religious laws are found in Leviticus 11–25. Both literary sections are also filled with divine commands and “if . . . then” grammatical constructions.
The moral law is revealed in Exodus 20, and its application is found from Exodus 21 through Leviticus 25. Following standard treaty-making procedures of the ancient world, this is followed immediately with the sanctions of the covenant (Lev 26). The Book of Leviticus closes with redemption laws (ch. 27).
Given these observations, we can see a structure that brings the administrative contents of the Mosaic covenant in both the second half of Exodus and Leviticus into a literary and covenantal whole. This makes the section on sacrifices (chs. 1–7) stand out, which is the first area of discussion below.
A. Civil and Societal Regulations (Exod 21–23)
B. Prescriptions for the Tabernacle and Priesthood (Exod 25–31)
C. False Worship of the People (Exod 32–34)
D. Construction/Celebration of the Tabernacle (Exod 35–40)
E. Sacrificial System (Lev 1–7)
D. Inauguration/Celebration of the Priesthood (Lev 8–9)
C. False Worship of the Priests (Lev 10)
B. Prescriptions for Clean/Unclean Distinction (Lev 11–16)
A. Holiness Regulations (Lev 17–25)
Regulations on Sacrifices (1:1–7:38)
The Book of Leviticus begins with the most significant part of the book: the regulation and uses of sacrifices. There are five major kinds of sacrifices in this section to atone for the sins of the people (1:2–6:7) and the priests (6:8–7:38) that are used throughout the book: burnt offerings (1:2–17; 6:8–13), grain offerings (2:1–16; 6:14–23), peace offerings (3:1–17; 7:11–36), purification offerings (4:1–5:13; 6:24–30), and reparation offerings (5:14–6:7; 7:1–10). This is expected since Exodus ends with the completion of the tabernacle. Now that the holy God resides in his holy tent within the Israelite community, the systematic use of sacrifices is needed to remain in the presence of their redeeming Lord. Even the priests are not exempt; their sins must first be atoned for so that they may implement these sacrifices for the sake of the people.
1:1–2 Before the description of the sacrifices, Moses is called to meet with the Lord at the “tent of meeting.” There, the Lord reveals his divine word to him (1:1), who in turn is called to share this with his fellow Israelites (1:2). Indeed, the phrase “The Lord spoke to Moses” or “the Lord spoke to him (referring to Moses)” is repeated countless times in Leviticus; it marks the opening of nearly every chapter of the book. This vertical direction of communication from the Lord to Moses confirms the heavenly origin of all that follows. This is significant since the practice of animal sacrifices, official priestly figures, and other religious specifics found in Leviticus are not unique to Israel. There are archeological discoveries that attest that such practices were also done by the nations surrounding Israel. What makes the Levitical code special is the fact that these directions are given by the Lord with a redemptive goal. Sacrifices in the ancient world were commonly performed to manipulate the gods and coerce favor from them before major events, such as battles. This secular approach is foreign to the Levitical system. For this reason, the sacrifices in Leviticus are the only religious practice in the ancient world that is a shadowy copy of the one and final sacrifice of Christ.
The tabernacle is frequently called “the tent of meeting.” The reason for this may have been that this was the location where the Lord would “meet” with Moses when he revealed his divine word. The Hebrew word for “meeting” (mo’ed), however, also has the sense of the heavenly witness of the angelic council, which emphasizes the holy character of this tent. This also suggests that the when the Lord met with Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting, in an extraordinary way Moses was taken into the divine presence of God in his divine council. That the attribute of holiness is the most salient feature here is further supported by the fact that the tabernacle is just as frequently called “the sanctuary,” which has at its root the word “to be holy.” In fact, the word “tabernacle,” though prevalent in Exodus, rarely is used in Leviticus (8:10; 15:31; 17:4). All this confirms the necessity of the sacrifices, as this provides the only means by which Israel may become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod 19:6) and holy as the Lord is holy (Lev 19:2).
1:3–17 After informing Israel that the sacrifices are to come from the “herd of the flock” in verse 2 (meaning from one’s personal possessions), the Lord begins his instruction with the first of the five major sacrifices, the “burnt offering.” The reason that the burnt offering begins the section is most likely due to the fact that it was the most common. This is an animal offering. Although various kinds are listed—cattle (1:3–9), sheep or goats (1:10–13), or dove or pigeons (1:14–17)—the order is determined according to their value. Cattle were the most costly of animals, then sheep, then birds such as doves. Regardless of the type, they are to be “perfect,” meaning they must be free of any physical defects, and a “male animal,” since males are generally considered more valuable than females (1:3, 10; cf. 4:22–31). The Hebrew word for “burnt offering” (‘olah) means “going up” or “the rising thing.” The animal sacrifice is totally and completely burnt up and goes up in smoke. The scent of the sacrifice must have been extremely pleasing, as each section dedicated to the three kinds of animal sacrifices ends with the description of the smoke as a “pleasing aroma to the Lord ” (1:9, 13, 17).
There is a common ritual practice for all three kinds of animal sacrifices. The worshiper brings the animal and lays hands on it (1:3–4) at the entrance of the courtyard of “the tent of meeting.” The laying on of hands is a symbolic gesture that represents the transfer of sins from the worshiper to the sacrificial animal. At this point, the Israelite worshiper and the priest perform integrated yet distinct acts to complete the sacrificial ritual. This is to prevent the priest from becoming ritually contaminated. The worshiper slaughters the animal by the bronze altar (1:5, 11) and drains its blood. He then skins, guts, and chops the animal into pieces, and washes several of the dirtier parts (the hind legs and the entrails) to remove any traces of waste matter (1:5, 6, 9). Meanwhile, the priest prepares the altar by arranging the wood for the fire by sprinkling the side of the altar with the drained animal blood. Finally, the animal is burned piece by piece (1:7–9).
This procedure is followed for each type of animal for the burnt offering, with a slight modification for birds, where the priest does the bulk of the work. The action required of the worshiper is to remove the animal’s “crop and content” (1:16). The precise meaning for the Hebrew words for “crop and content” is difficult to determine. The Greek translation suggests something like “feathers,” while other commentators say it refers to the sac at the base of the throat. Regardless, it is discarded into the ash pit at the east side of the courtyard. This seems to parallel the removal of the entrails and washing the hind legs of the sacrifice.
2:1–16 Leviticus moves on to give instruction on the second major sacrifice, the grain offering. The grain can be offered uncooked (2:1–3) or cooked (2:4–10). The cooking can be done in an oven (2:4), on a griddle (2:5–6), or on a pan (2:7). There are also specifications and regulations that must be followed regarding particular ingredients and their inclusion in the offering of the firstfruits of the harvest (2:11–16). Each of these subsections ends with the description of the grain offering as a “pleasing aroma” before the Lord (2:2, 9, similarly in 2:16), just like the burnt offering. Unlike the burnt offering, a portion of the grain is given to the priests (2:3, 9). Not only does this provide for the daily provision of the priests, but it also suggests a communal relation between the Lord and his priestly servants. Although the grain offering sacrifice can be offered alone, in the Old Testament it is more commonly accompanied with animal sacrifices. This gives the sense of a complete meal of both bread and meat and, thus, “a most holy part of the Lord’s food offerings” (2:3, 10, 16).
The worshiper prepares the grain offering, uncooked or cooked, and presents it to the priest, who takes a handful as an offering at the altar while keeping the remainder for himself. This handful is a “memorial portion” (2:2, 9, 16), a reminder to the worshiper of the sacrificial atonement needed for their continued fellowship with the Lord. Whether the grain offering is uncooked or cooked, it must have salt and oil (2:13). It cannot have yeast or honey (2:11–12). The rationale for the inclusion and exclusion of these ingredients is not given. Perhaps the salt is meant to remind the worshiper of their self-identity as priestly people, since salt is associated with the priesthood (Num 18:19; 2Chr 13:5). The salt is called “the salt of the covenant with your God” (2:12), referring to the Mosaic Covenant. This confirms the priestly identity of the people, since it was at Sinai that they were told they are a “royal priesthood” (Exod 19:6). The exclusion of yeast had precedence in the Passover, as the unleavened bread of the Passover meal was prohibited from having yeast. This is a constant reminder, therefore, of the Exodus event and the redeeming work of the Lord in Egypt. While yeast reminds Israel of where they came from, honey points to where they are going. It is a reminder of the fruitfulness of Canaan as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Lev 20:24). The appropriate time for honey, therefore, is when they settle and flourish in their new covenanted homeland, not during the harshness of their wilderness wanderings.
3:1–17 Following the instructions for the burnt offering (1:1–17) and grain offering (2:1–16), the peace offering immediately follows. The procedures for the sacrifice of the peace offering are similar to those for the burnt offering. The same kinds of animals are used: the cattle of the herd (3:1–5), the lamb of the flock (3:6–11), and the goat (3:12–16); and the animals must be without any blemish or defect (3:1, 6). The worshiper brings the animal to the tabernacle and lays hands on it, which has the same symbolic significance as in the burnt offering. The animal is slaughtered, and its blood drained (3:2). Although there is no mention of the skinning, gutting, chopping, and washing of the animal pieces, these actions most likely followed, since they were performed in the burnt offering as well. The priests take the blood, sprinkle it on the side of the bronze altar, and take portions of the animal to offer up to the Lord (3:2–5). Finally, this is also considered a “pleasing aroma to the Lord” (3:5, 16).
Although the peace offering is similar to the burnt offering, there are significant differences. First, there is no mention of birds for the peace offering; the reason for their exclusion is unclear. Second, female animals can be sacrificed, whereas only males are acceptable for burnt offerings. The inclusion of female members of the Israelite community as recipients of the atoning grace of the Lord is made more explicit with the use of female animals. The most outstanding difference is that, unlike the burnt offering that is offered up to the Lord in its entirety, the worshiper may partake of portions of the sacrificial meat for this offering (7:16–27) along with the priests (7:31–34). What is offered to the Lord is the fat (3:3–4, 9–10, 14–15) and the blood of the offering (3:17), for “all fat is the Lord’s” (3:16). Why the fat belongs to the Lord is not stated, but since the fat is the tastiest portion of the meat, it is fitting that this should be given entirely to the Lord. The name “peace offering” suggests that there is peace with the Lord and that his people can now share a time of fellowship with him in this celebrative feast. The redemptive flow of the first three sacrifices heads in this direction. The burnt offering is for the Lord alone. The grain offering includes a portion for the priests. The peace offering is a feast that includes the priests and the worshiper. The final verses (3:16–17) are important because they provide instruction on what can or cannot be eaten and the perpetual nature of this ritual practice that is to continue across generations.
4:1–5:13 The last two sacrifices are the “purification offering” (4:1–5:13) and the “reparation offering” (5:14–6:7). A close examination of these two shows that they share notable similarities, which may explain why they are grouped together. Both focus on the sins of people, whereas the previous three sacrifices focus more on the animal (or grain) used in the sacrifice. For this reason, the sacrifice itself is secondary to the sins of the people. Both deal with two kinds of sins: unintentional sins and sins of omission. Since there is more focus on sin, there is logically more emphasis on the atonement than the previous three. We are told only once in Leviticus 1–3 that the purpose of the sacrifice is “making atonement” for the worshiper (1:4). We are told this repeatedly, however, in Leviticus 4–5. Even the names of the final two sacrifices reveal this fact: “purification” is based on the Hebrew word for “sin,” and “reparation” on the Hebrew word for “guilt.” These two also stand distinct from the previous three in that, within this opening section of Leviticus 1–7, the phrase “The Lord spoke to Moses,” which opens the Book of Leviticus in 1:1, occurs again only in 4:1 and 5:14.
The name “purification offering” already reveals the primary purpose of the sacrifice: it is to purify the sinful worshiper and the location of worship (tabernacle). The concern of this sacrifice, therefore, is to cleanse the community of the impurity brought on by sin. Two kinds of sin are in view. The first is the unintentional sins mentioned in 4:1–35. The second is sins of omission in 5:1–6. Unintentional sins are not specifically defined, but sins of omission are categorically listed in 5:1–6. Those who commit either sin are in need of the purification offering. 4:1–12 is the purification practice for the high priest; 4:13–21 for the congregation; 4:22–26 for a leader; and 4:27–35 for the common people.
The order of these groups reflects their importance within the overall community. According to verse 3, the high priest represents the community as a whole, since his sin also brings “guilt on the people.” This suggests an implicit federal theology, similar to what Paul teaches in Romans 5:12–19. The significance of “the whole congregation” is obvious since this is, in fact, the whole congregation. The location and ritual of purification for the first two kinds of peoples, therefore, differ from the last two. Once they become aware of their unintentional sin, a sacrificial bull without blemishes is brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting, hands are laid on its head, and then it is slaughtered (4:3–4, 13–15). Bulls are more expensive animals, which speaks to the significance of both the high priest and the congregation. The priest takes a portion of the blood, sprinkles it seven times on the veil of the Most Holy Place, and smears some on the horns of the incense altar in front of the veiled doorway (4:6–7a, 17–18a). The remainder of the blood is poured out at the base of the bronze altar (4:7b, 18b). The fat portions of the sacrifice are offered up completely, just like the peace offering, while the rest of the animal is taken outside of the Israelite camp and burned (4:8–12, 21).
The location of this ritual is primarily within the Holy Place, just outside the Most Holy Place. This suggests that sins defile the sanctuary, which would then require its purification by blood. The two parts of the bull may also represent a two-part atonement. Restoration with the Lord is needed, which is represented by the seven-fold sprinkling of blood and the offering of fat. Sin, however, must also be judged and destroyed, which is represented by the burning of the remaining parts of the sacrificial bull outside of the Israelite camp. All this is the “purification offering” (4:21). It is the combination of these acts that “makes atonement” for the represented peoples leading to forgiveness (4:20). This two-fold act of atonement is a precursor for a similar, yet grander, work of atonement performed on the Day of Atonement (ch. 16).
The leader in 4:22–26 and the commoner in 4:27–35 follow a slightly different procedure than the high priest and congregation. Once the “leader” or the “common people” realize their sin (4:22–23a; 27–28a), they are to bring a goat without blemishes (male for leaders, female for commoners), lay hands on it, then slaughter it (4:23b–24; 28b–29). The blood is sprinkled on the bronze altar outside of the Holy Place, the remaining blood poured out at the base of that altar, then the fat offered up like a peace offering (4:25–26; 30–31). Unlike with the priest and congregation, the location of the sprinkling of blood is not the Holy Place, but rather outside at the bronze altar. This suggests that their sins may not pollute the inner sanctuary, but only the outside area around the altar. The sacrificed animal is not a bull, but a less costly goat. If a goat is too expensive, then a “lamb” can be used as a substitute with no change in the ritual act (4:32–35). For the common people who may find a lamb or goat too costly, Leviticus allows them to substitute with something they can afford: two birds (5:7–10) or even flour (5:11–13). Regardless of the sacrifice, the purpose remains the same, and it is constantly repeated throughout this section on the purification offering: to make atonement” for the sins of the people (4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13).
In general, the purification offering is interested more in the worshiper and the items of the tabernacle that need purification than in the actual sacrifice itself. Even unintentional sin is an offense to the holy God, and it pollutes his holy tent as well as his people. In order for the Lord to continue to dwell among his people, atonement must be made for both the sanctuary and the people. The purpose of the “purification offering” is to do just that.
5:14–6:7 The fifth and final sacrifice is the “reparation offering” (also called the “guilt offering”). As mentioned earlier, this is similar to the “purification offering.” Just like the “purification offerings,” this sacrifice deals with unintentional sins (5:14–16; 6:1–5) and sins of omission (5:17–19). The unintentional sins are separated into two categories. One is those against “the holy things of the Lord,” most likely referring to the tabernacle. This is probably a short-hand reference to the sins of the high priest and congregation from the purification offerings, since their atoning work has to be performed in the Holy Place. The second kind of unintentional sins are those against “neighbors” (6:1). Since this is not mentioned in the purification offering, these sins against neighbors are given greater attention (5:1–5).
There are also differences between the purification and reparation offerings. Whereas the purification offering is concerned with cleansing from sinful impurities, the reparation offering focuses on payment of debt, or reparations, brought on by sin. Another difference is the lack of a detailed description of the ritual practice for reparations. We are given just a brief and general instruction in 5:18 and 6:6–7: the sacrificial animal is given to the priest who atones for their sins. It may be that the sacrificial practice of the purification offering is presumed here, thus the lack of details. By effect, this highlights the sacrificial elements that are mentioned here as more significant. From this perspective, the importance of this offering is clear.
According to 5:16, the act of reparation is a three-fold process. First, there must be restitution of what was unintentionally taken away. Second, an additional fifth (20 percent) must be added to the restored item. Finally, a ram must be sacrificed. Thus, the worshiper must make amends for their wrongful act by restoring what was taken and even compensating the offended party (either God or his neighbor) by including an additional percent. This reconciles a horizontal relationship. However, the holy God was offended by this sin as well, so the sin must be paid for (expiated) and God’s wrath satisfied (propitiated). Thus, a ram is also included. Unlike with the purification offering, there is no flexibility in the kind of sacrificial animal; it can only be a ram (5:15), which is a rather costly beast, and the ram must be without blemish. If the worshiper does not have a ram in his flock, then he is allowed to bring its equivalent value in silver shekels based on the currency rate determined by the tabernacle officials.
In all of this, repentance is the goal. Not only does this require the acknowledgment and confession of the wrongful act, but to make amends it also includes an additional 20 percent compensation on top of the restoration of any items that were taken or affected. This may seem steep, but it vividly signifies the impact of sin and how thoroughly it must be dealt with. The reparation offering is also a reminder that we cannot sin against others without also sinning against the Lord; atonement is also needed to restore the worship with the Lord. The purpose of the ram, therefore, is to “make atonement” for the sins of the people (5:16, 18; 6:7). This is a costly and powerful reminder that we are to “love the Lord your God” (Deut 6:6; Matt 22:37) and also to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39).
6:8–7:38 This section repeats many of the themes of the previous section (chs. 1–5) but applies them to the priest. When comparing the two sections, it becomes clear that Leviticus 1–5 addresses the atoning needs of the Israelite and his duties in the sacrificial rite, while Leviticus 6–7 focuses on the priesthood and their role in the sacrifices. For example, the grain, purification, and reparation offerings in Leviticus 6:14–7:10 follow the ritual practice for laymen laid out above with only negligible differences. A priestly grain offering is mentioned in 6:19–23, in which every priest offers a grain sacrifice on the day of their anointing. This is totally dedicated to the Lord.
Regarding the burnt offering (6:8–13), the main concern is to ensure that the fire of the bronze altar is never extinguished (6:9, 12, 13). Whenever the priest approaches the altar each morning to clear away the ashes from the fire, he is required to wear priestly garments that cover his entire body. When he goes outside of the Israelite camp to discard the ashes, he must change into regular clothing. In other words, specific clothes must be worn when a priest serves in the tent of meeting, even for something as mundane as removing ashes. Other clothes are for common uses. This prescription maintains the distinction between holy clothes and common clothes.
The peace offering is given an extended treatment here (7:11–38). Three kinds of peace offerings are mentioned (7:11–18): thanksgiving (7:12), vow, and freewill (7:16). A thanksgiving offering is given by the worshiper in gratitude for the Lord’s care of him. A vow offering is made when the worshiper swears to offer the sacrifice if the Lord were to fulfill a certain need. A freewill offering is made voluntarily as an act of loyalty to the Lord. All three are to be offered to the Lord with leavened or unleavened bread prepared in a variety of ways (7:12–15). The inclusion of bread is not surprising, given the communal nature of this offering. This combination of meat and bread gives the sense of a full meal that is shared with the Lord, the priest on call, and the priest offering the sacrifice. The impression is one of peace and celebration among all parties. Interestingly, there are specific time restrictions for each of the peace offerings (7:16–18). The thanksgiving offering must be consumed completely on the day of the sacrifice, while the vow and freewill offering can be consumed up to the next day. Nothing can be saved to the third day, as the offering is now defiled. The reason for these limits is not provided, but the fact that the thanksgiving offering must be eaten on the first day suggests that this is the superior offering of the three.
In addition to the time restraints, other prohibitions are given. Anything that touches an unclean thing is made unclean (7:19–21). This applies to people, animals, and even the meat of the peace offering, which would no longer qualify as an appropriate sacrifice of any kind and must be burned. The consumption of fat and blood is also strictly forbidden (7:22–27).
Since the priest is the anointed servant at the tabernacle, it is fitting that a portion of every layman’s peace offering is given to that priest, with the exception of the fat and blood (7:28–36). Specifically, the priest is given the breast (7:30) and the right leg (7:33), both of which are considered some of the best portions of the sacrifice.
We are repeatedly told that the main purpose of the five sacrifices is “to make atonement” for the sins of the people by both paying its debt and satisfying the wrath of God (1:4; 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7, 30; 7:7). That language is striking because it gives the impression that these sacrifices really do atone for the sins of the community, whereas Hebrews 7:26–27 says they are only a reminder of our sins and that these sacrifices cannot take away sins at all. There is already a logical tension between the worshiper and his representative sacrifice, as one is made in the image of God, while the other is not. One way to resolve this tension is to recognize the sacramental nature of these sacrifices. It is not unusual of sacraments that there is a close connection between the object in use and the theological reality it represents. Baptism in the New Testament is an example of this. Because it represents salvation in our union with Christ (Gal 3:27; cf. Rom 4:11; Col 2:11–12), there is a one-to-one correspondence between the two. Thus, Acts 2:38 can say that baptism is required “for the forgiveness of sins.” 1 Peter 3:21 even says baptism “now saves you.” The bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper also have that same correspondence, which is why Jesus says of the communion elements, “This is my body” (Matt 26:26; 1Cor 11:24). As an Old Testament sacrament, the sacrificial system also has the same deep connection with its theological reality, which is why it appears to give the real spiritual benefit of atonement.
The Institution of the Priesthood (8:1–10:20)
This section of Leviticus turns our attention from the sacrifices to the anointed officers who are called by the Lord to perform these sacrifices on behalf of the Israelite community: the priests. It begins with the installation of Aaron and his sons as priests (8:1–36). Having been anointed as the paradigm priest, Aaron takes over for Moses and offers sacrifices for himself and the people (9:1–24). This ceremony ends with a celebrative manifestation of the glory of God (9:23–24). Israel has reached its redemptive apex at this point.
Obedience is also outstanding at this early stage of the priestly ministry, as Moses, Aaron, and his sons are repeatedly described as obedient “as the Lord commanded” (8:4, 9, 13, 17, 21, 29, 36; 9:6, 7, 10, 21; 10:7, 13, 15). This is a reminder that the priestly regulations of Exodus 28–29 are being followed to the letter. We see this repetition when the tabernacle is built meticulously in Exodus 35–40 according to its design in Exodus 25–27. Therefore, it is not surprising to see the fiery manifestation of the glory of God celebrate the establishment of the priesthood in Leviticus 9:23–24. This is also what happened in Exodus 40:34–38 with the final construction of the tabernacle.
What is surprising is how immediately everything comes crashing down in Leviticus 10 as Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offer false worship that results in their immediate execution. Just as Israel quickly found themselves in idolatrous worship at Sinai (Exod 32–34), so the Aaronic priests were led astray in their sacrificial duties. Both disasters are a reminder of the presence of a holy God in their midst and the sobering reality of how easily their corrupt natures can offend that holiness.
There is a redemptive progression from Exodus to Leviticus. Exodus 25–40 is primarily interested in the construction of the holy dwelling of the Lord, the “tent of meeting.” The book ends with its full construction and the glory of the Lord filling his new home (Exod 40:34–38). Now that the Lord has a physical abode in which to reside with his people, a sacrificial system must be established that will atone for the all their sins and impurities (thus Leviticus 1–7). Once the sacrificial regulations are in place, the only missing component in the overall theology of atonement is the priesthood to administer these sacrifices at the holy sanctuary of God. This is the primary interest of Leviticus 8–10.
8:1–36 Chapter 8 begins with the anointing ceremony of Aaron and his sons to the priestly ministry. There are seven subsections, each marked with the phrase that Moses, Aaron, and his sons obeyed “as the Lord commanded” (8:4, 9, 13, 17, 21, 29, 36). Not only does this regular recurrence remind us of the priestly regulations of Exodus 28–29 (see above), but it also provides an organizational structure to chapter 8 as it begins each of the seven sections mentioned previously. Moses also plays a major role here as the priestly mediator behind the Aaronic priesthood.
In 8:1–4, Moses is commanded by the Lord to take Aaron and his sons along with the necessary elements for a sacrificial offering and gather at the entrance of the tent of meeting; that is, the entrance into the courtyard (8:1–3). He did just that. In light of the fact that the priesthood, the final component needed for the work of atonement, is about to be established, this must have been an exciting time for Israel. 8:5–9 begins with a description of the priestly clothing of Aaron and his sons. After being washed in water to represent their ritual purity, Aaron is dressed in his priestly clothes. In 8:10–13, Moses follows the instruction of God in Exodus 40:9–11 and anoints the tabernacle and Aaron. The sons of Aaron are also clothed with similar clothing as Aaron. In 8:14–17, Moses leads the atonement ritual by offering a purification sacrifice. He follows the procedures as outlined in Exodus 29:10–14 and applies blood upon Aaron, his sons, and the bronze altar. In so doing, he makes atonement for all these. Next, Moses offers two kinds of sacrifices. The first is a burnt offering (8:18–21). The second is an “ordination” offering, which is a kind of peace offering (8:22–29) with a few modifications. The right thigh, which is usually the portion reserved for the officiating priest, is offered to God as part of his portion (8:25). More significantly, the blood, which is normally thrown against the altar (3:2, 8, 13), is applied to Aaron’s right ear, thumb, and toe (8:23–24). This act indicates that the entirety of Aaron has been purified, which enables him to begin his priestly work. In the final section (8:30–36), Moses takes some of the anointing oil and the blood and sprinkles it on the altar, Aaron, his sons, and their clothes. They were then to partake of the sacrificial meal of the peace offering, which would take place for seven days.
9:1–24 The seven days of the priestly ordination process has ended (9:1), and it is the eighth day. The Aaronic priests can now perform the sacrificial offerings; atonement can be made, and communion with God can be restored. This is a celebrative moment for Israel as their priests lead them in their first acts of worship. Moses gives the initial instructions for this worship (9:1–4), the people prepare for this worship (9:5–6), and then Aaron executes Moses’s instructions (9:7–21). Sacrifice must first be made for Aaron, and then for Israel (9:2–4). Aaron obeys. He first offers sacrifices for his own sins (9:7–14) and then for the people (9:15–21). Once these sacrifices have been made, the glory of the Lord comes to consume the sacrificial offerings (9:22–24). Given the historic nature of this event, it is not surprising that it ends with this spectacular display of the glory of God. This display assures Israel that this priestly task has accomplished its intended goal: the Lord is among them and joins their worshipful celebration by partaking of the sacrificial meal. Thus, fellowship has been restored between the Lord and his people.
There are several noteworthy observations here. The first is that the priestly clothing parallels the list in Exodus 28–39: the “coat” (Exod 28:39; 39:27), the “sash” (Exod 28:39), the “robe,” which is worn over the “coat” (Exod 28:31–34; 39:22–26), the “ephod” (a type of vest), which is worn over the “coat” (Exod 28:5–14), the “breastplate” (Exod 28:15–21), which held the “Urim and Thummim,” the “turban” with the plate that states “holy to the Lord” (Exod 28:36–38), and even “undergarments” (Exod 28:42–43; 39:28). This highly elaborate clothing holds enormous symbolic significance. The color scheme of the clothes—blue, purple, scarlet, and gold (Exod 28:6, 8, 31, 36; 39:21, 29)—matches those of the tabernacle materials (Exod 25:3–4; 26:1, 31, 36; 27:16). This similarity suggests that both the tabernacle and the priestly regalia reflect the divine glory of the pillar of fire/cloud, which is a physical manifestation of the glory of God. It is a compelling idea, since this color pattern would be consistent with the fiery appearance of radiant light. It also suggests that Israel would be visibly reminded of the divine presence of the glory of God in the architecture of the tabernacle and the clothing design of the high priestly attire.
The second observation regards the visual similarity between the clothing of the high priests and those of a military soldier. Although the Hebrew vocabulary for the two kinds of materials is not the same, the image is captivating nonetheless. This is not surprising given that the priests were often found on the front lines of warfare (Deut 20:2). This parallel further supports the nature of their duties. In addition to mediating the sacrifices to atone for Israel, they were also called to protect the sanctity of the holy tabernacle. In that regard, they were like the guardian cherub in Genesis 3:24, which was also given the mandate to protect God’s holy garden (an early type of tabernacle; see below).
The third observation pertains to the garden motif. Adam served a priestly function when he was appointed to “work and keep” the garden (Gen 2:15). The task of protecting the divine holiness fell upon the guardian cherub after Adam’s exile (Gen 3:24). This is the same task of the priests in Leviticus to protect the holiness of the tent of meeting, and it is the task given to the people of Israel. As a “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6), they are to protect the holy nature of the land, which was essentially a macro temple-dwelling of the Lord (to say nothing of the Edenic design of the tabernacle and its internal furnishings). Adam was a federal head who represented humanity (Rom 5:12), and there is a similar kind of representation in Aaron, which is why he must first offer sacrifice for his own sins before he can offer sacrifices for others (9:2–3, 7). The overall effect is to depict Aaron as a type of Adam. The priestly work, therefore, is meant to give the impression of a restoration to Eden and of communion with the Lord.
The fourth observation is the sabbatical theme which can be seen in the seven-part structure of chapter 8 and the seven-day process it took for the priestly ordination (8:35). In addition to this is the manifestation of the glory of God at the completion of the priestly worship in 9:22–24, which is identical to the manifestation of the glory-fire of God at the completion of the construction of the tabernacle (Exod 40:34–38). Similarly, the creation week was also celebrated with the Lord enthroned as the Creator-King on his Sabbath day (Gen 2:2–3). Just as the glory of the divine Creator was enthroned on the Sabbath at creation, so the divine glory was also enthroned as the Lord of the tabernacle and the priesthood.
10:1–20 The celebration that marks the end of Leviticus 8–9 comes to a screeching halt as Leviticus 10 begins. 10:1–7 records the sinful acts of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, and the resulting judgment that followed. 10:8–11 is a warning to Aaron and his remaining sons to honor and obey their priestly duties. The final section of this chapter (10:12–20) ends with the extraordinary obedience of Aaron, who follows the priestly requirements of the Lord. Whereas Leviticus 8–9 is characterized by the faithful and worshipful service of Moses, Aaron, his sons, and the people, Leviticus 10 is most remarkable for the false worship of Nadab and Abihu. The oft-repeated reminder that Moses and Aaron did “as the Lord commanded” (8:4, 9, 13, 17, 21, 29, 36; 9:6, 7, 10, 21) is in stark contrast to the shocking actions of Nadab and Abihu, “which [the Lord] had not commanded them” (10:1). This is reminiscent of the false worship of Israel, who also sinned against the Lord in covenant disobedience at the base of Mount Sinai, even after witnessing the numerous wondrous acts of the Lord in Egypt. The startling contrast between these two sections is further underscored by the disparate responses of God. At the end of Leviticus 9, the glory-fire of the Lord consumes the sacrificial offering in communion with the people. In Leviticus 10, the fire of the Lord consumes the two Aaronic sons in judgment against them.
The precise nature of the sins of Nadab and Abihu is not clear; we are simply told that they offered “unauthorized fire” in the censer at the incense altar within the Holy Place, immediately outside of the Most Holy Place (10:1). The mention of burning the incense in the censer suggests that the answer may lie here. According to Exodus 30:34–38, there is a specific mixture and measurement of spices that makes up the composition of the incense to be offered at the incense altar. The location of this altar in such close proximity to the Most Holy Place confirms its importance. An incorrect mixture of spices would compose an incense that burns with a different coloring, intensity, and duration, resulting in an “unauthorized fire.” Such incense might be fitting for the worship of foreign deities, but not for the Creator-King, the holy God of Israel. This story also suggests that worship must strictly follow the mandates given by the Lord. Worship cannot be done according to “whatever is right in [one’s] own eyes” (Deut 12:8; cf. Judg 17:6; 21:25). Extreme consequences for disobedience in worship is not unprecedented in Israel. In 2 Samuel 6:6–7, Uzza was struck down by the Lord because he placed his hands on the Ark to prevent it from falling to the ground. The Lord had given clear instructions that the Levites were the ones to carry the Ark; it was never meant to be transferred via carts or the laity (Num 3–4; 1Chr 15:2).
In Leviticus 10:3, the Lord shares a general principle that demands this extreme act. He says, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.” The phrase “among those who are near me” refers to the priests; the holy character of the Lord will be displayed through these priests, as will the glory of God through “the people” of Israel. If the priests or the people do not conform to the covenantal standards instructed by the Lord, then they will dishonor the holy and glorious nature of God before a watchful community around them. If this were to happen, the Lord himself must redeem his own holy glory by judging his own servants. Thus, the Lord warns Aaron and the people that he is the holy God who is to be revered and worshiped above all things. Aaron seems to accept this explanation by responding in silence (10:4).
After explaining the reason for the death of Nadab and Abihu, the Lord must now account for two other matters that are complicated due to the holy status of Aaron and his remaining sons. The first concerns the corpses of the two sons (10:4–5). Because their presence would pollute the sanctuary, Moses calls upon two non-priests to dispose of them. The second is the prohibition against engaging in acts of mourning (10:6–7), such as allowing their hair to remain loose and tearing their clothes (10:6). They are also not permitted to leave the sanctuary (10:7), even to be with their deceased loved one. This would be particularly problematic since contact with a corpse would neutralize their holy status. The ordination setting of this chapter most likely heightened this prohibition all the more, since the anointing oil of the Lord was upon Aaron and his sons (10:7). To violate these terms would reduce them to the same status as Nadab and Abihu, which would result in the same fate (10:6). Although they could not engage in traditional mourning rituals, Aaron and his sons most likely did their work with heavy hearts. However, they honored the Lord and did not place the glory of their children above the glory of God.
The Lord continues his instruction by addressing Aaron alone in Leviticus 10:8–11. He warns him not to partake of alcoholic drinks (10:9). He needs to be sober in order to make proper ritual distinctions (10:10) and to teach the law to the people of Israel (10:11). Although Nadab and Abihu are not mentioned here, it is difficult not to consider them as partly responsible for this warning. Their offer of an unholy mixture of spices may have been the result of drunkenness.
The eighth day of the ordination ceremony comes to an end with this final instruction to Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazer and Ithamar (10:12–20). Moses begins by reiterating how to manage the remaining sacrificial elements (10:12–15). He then becomes angry with Aaron’s two sons for burning up the part of the animal offering that is dedicated for them, thereby violating the law of the Lord like their brothers had done. Aaron speaks on their behalf (10:19). He says that their partaking of the sacrificial portion would have required Aaron to do the same. However, in light of the tragic loss of Nadab and Abihu, he could not enjoy his dedicated share with a proper heart of worship. His sons, knowing this, do not consume their share, which allows Aaron to avoid eating. Moses is satisfied with this response. It is unclear why. After all, as thoughtful as it might be, the act of Eleazer and Ithamar is still sin, although arguably not as reckless as the sin of Nadab and Ahibu. Perhaps this incident tells us that there is grace for those who sin out of a desire to properly worship the Lord as opposed to those who do not.
Regulations on Ritual Cleanness and Uncleanness (11:1–16:34)
Now that the sacrifices and the priesthood have been established, the Lord moves on to describe various kinds of uncleanness in Leviticus 11–16. This section (and the next, chs. 17–25) is anticipated in Leviticus 10:10–11, which says the Aaronic priests are to “distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.” In these chapters, they are doing both: making proper distinctions and teaching the people. We were told earlier that the purpose of the sacrificial system was “to make atonement” for the people (1:4). Atonement presumes that sin is present, which would result in uncleanness and commonness. The specifics of what determines uncleanness versus cleanness, and holy versus common, had not yet been revealed. We are given that information in these chapters. Cleanness and uncleanness are the focus of attention in Leviticus 11–16; holy and common in Leviticus 17–25. Chapter 11 describes clean and unclean animals, and chapters 12–15 focus on defilement within the human body. Chapter 12 describes uncleanness brought on by childbirth; 13–14 describes uncleanness caused by skin diseases, specifically leprosy; and 15 focuses on bodily discharges. In each case of uncleanness, the priests “make atonement” for the Israelite worshiper by means of the sacrifices mentioned earlier. The work of atonement comes to a climax in Leviticus 16, which describes the ritual celebration to be held on the great Day of Atonement.
Before we discuss the contents of these chapters, it will be helpful to define cleanness and uncleanness. Although these concepts are unfamiliar to us in the western world, they would have been familiar to those in the ancient world (including Israel) and still are among some contemporary peoples today. There are four factors to consider when reading these chapters. First, the distinction between clean and unclean is not the same as the distinction between holy and common. We can easily get the impression that the clean/unclean distinction is synonymous with holy/common; however, this is not the case. When one becomes “unclean,” they are to remain outside of the Israelite camp until they become clean (10:7; 13:46; 14:8, 40, 41; 16:27; 17:3). The direction is limited only to interactions with fellow Israelites. The desire of the Lord, however, is not for Israel to be “clean, for I the Lord your God am clean,” but rather to be “holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2). Cleanness alone is not adequate for communion with God. Cleanness permits a horizontal relationship among the people, but there must also be a vertical component to the atoning work to restore intimate fellowship with the holy God of Israel. Therefore, the clean/unclean distinction is in regard to two sides of what it means to be “common.” In other words, although four states are mentioned in Leviticus 10:10, there are truly only three: holy, clean, and unclean. If one is unclean, then they must first become clean in order to transition to the next stage—to become holy. The ultimate goal is for Israel to regain their status as a “holy” nation (Exod 19:6) in a holy covenantal relationship with their holy Redeemer.
A second factor to consider when reading Leviticus 11–16 (and to a certain degree 17–25) is that the states of holy, clean, and unclean are considered ritual, not necessarily moral, categories. This means that there are certain religious practices that a person may or may not do, and even locations that one may enter or not enter, depending on his religious state. As mentioned earlier, anyone “unclean” must be removed from the Israelite camp, and such a person definitely cannot partake of the feasting part of the peace offering. Priests are also made holy in a seven-day ordination process, so they are the only ones permitted to enter the tabernacle. Notice the non-moral nature of these prohibitions. A ritual state is analogous to an illness in modern times. An ill person should not interact too closely with others, nor should such a person go to public places until they are healed. The ritual (non-moral) nature of these categories becomes clear when we examine what makes a person unclean in Leviticus 11–16: eating certain foods, birth of children, illnesses and infections, dying and death, sexual intimacy with one’s spouse, and bodily discharges. None of these activities are immoral in and of themselves. They are, however, an outward reminder of the immoral, sinful world around us and the way the immorality of sin contaminates God’s people. Before the presence of God, sin makes a person morally unclean and creates distance between him and the Lord. Israel is reminded of the reality of this moral uncleanness in the ritual distinction between unclean and clean. To counter these external expressions of the corruption of sin, Israel is given an external expression of the atoning work of God: the laying on of hands, the sacrificial system itself, and the outward states of cleanness and uncleanness. Therefore, uncleanness is not the same as sinfulness, although sinfulness is always unclean. These are all reminders that sin is a reality with significant consequences that causes division.
Third, the atoning work of the sacrifices allows for movement from one state to the other, where the ultimate goal is to be holy. The five kinds of sacrifices in Leviticus 1–7 are meant “to make atonement” for the people (1:4), but atonement is not accomplished by any one of the five. Rarely is a single sacrifice offered up alone; rather, it is the interaction with each other in specific combinations that brings to greater reality their atoning significance. We saw earlier that the purification and reparation offerings deal with different aspects of sin, specifically its impurity and debt, respectively. They form a logical redemptive pair, atoning for the sinner and any desecration his sins bring upon the tabernacle. There is an expiatory aspect to these two offerings. Sin brings a certain level of corruption that must be neutralized. In a sacramental and shadowy form, these sacrifices do just that. The “burnt” and “grain” offerings, however, account for something different. The names alone suggest this. “Purification” and “reparation” by name presume some sense of expiation, while “burnt” and “grain” emphasize more what is being dedicated to the Lord. As the purification and reparation offerings form a sacrificial pair, so do the burnt and grain offerings. The burnt offering represents the sacrifice of animal life and grain offering that of plant life; together, the two represent all of life. The negative corruption of sin has now been replaced with the positive consecration of life to the Lord. Just as sacrifices make one clean so that one may return to the Israelite camp, the burnt and grain offerings make a ritually clean person holy before the Lord, thereby providing the vertical connection. We are given a hint of this vertical aspect when we are told that the burnt and grain offerings are a “pleasing aroma to the Lord ” (1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9, 12). Even the Hebrew word for burnt offering (‘olah) relays that God-ward direction, as it is based on the Hebrew verb “to go up” (‘alah). The sacrifices, therefore, are offered to the Lord, who receives it in the form of a smoky and pleasing aromatic offering.
In Leviticus 11–16, either the purification or reparation sacrifice is always offered with either the burnt or grain offering. Only together is full atonement accomplished, and the people made holy. In the case of the uncleanness brought on by childbirth (12:2), once the mother’s days of uncleanness have passed, she is to offer a “burnt offering” and a “purification offering” (12:6). Only then has atonement been made for her (12:7). A similar combination occurs in Leviticus 14:31 for leprosy, and in Leviticus 15:30 for bodily discharges. The application of the sacrifices suggests that offering either purification or reparation offerings represents cleansing from ritual impurity, allowing for a person to reenter the Israelite camp. The burnt or animal offerings provide a way for a clean person to reach the more blessed state of holiness. Therefore, anyone who is ritually unclean must first be made clean, then he can become holy. The result is forgiveness of sins (4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18, 26). Once a person is made holy, the fifth of the sacrifices can be offered—the peace offering, by which this holy person can now share holy fellowship with the Lord as he engages in one of the most endearing relational acts in the ancient world, the sharing of a meal (9:22). When the Lord made his covenant with Israel at Sinai, they became a “holy” nation (Exod 19:6). However, that state of holiness was easily corrupted by the sin within themselves as well as external influences from their corrupt surroundings. They are reminded of their moral impurity by this system of ritual impurities. The sacrificial system atones for these sinful defilements and allows Israel to be restored to this holy communion with their blessed God. This is a general description of the sacrificial system as exceptions occurred. However, the few exceptions do not take away from the goal of the sacrificial system and the main message of the Book of Leviticus: to make the people of God holy so that they may be in sweet, covenantal fellowship with the holy Lord of the covenant.
The fourth and final factor to keep in mind when reading Leviticus 11–16 is that it has specific historical application to Israel while also pointing to a greater reality when true atonement would be made—not merely in a shadowy form, but actual, genuine atonement. We know this is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ, who “gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). The fulfillment of these sacrifices in Christ gives us a greater appreciation of what they represented in the days when this Levitical system was used. In the purification and reparation offerings, we see the passive obedience of Christ atoning for our sins on the cross. Jesus did, in fact, pay the penalty and debt of our sins. In the burnt and grain offerings, we see the active obedience of Christ in his life of faithful servitude to the will of his Father. In these two sacrifices, we see the total dedication of life to the Lord, which Jesus also accomplished for his people. Just as the purification/reparation and burnt/grain offerings allow access to a shared meal with the Lord, so in Christ there is no condemnation (Rom 8:1), but only peace with God (Rom 5:1), with whom we also can share in a fellowship meal (Rev 19:7–9; 1Cor 11:23–29). Once Christ, who is the fulfillment of all these ritual practices, has come, they have fulfilled their anticipatory task. During the Old Testament, however, they provided the instruction necessary for Israel to live with the presence of the holy God in their midst and the protocol to use the divinely established sacrificial system to make clean those who are unclean and holy those who are common.
11:1–47 This section defines what is considered clean and unclean among animal life. The immediate application of this chapter directly impacts the Israelite diet, as stated in the summary statement (11:46–47). Israel is free to consume clean animals but must avoid unclean ones. Contact with these will make them unclean and require ritual cleansing (11:39–40; 14:36; 15:4). There are three categories of animal life, each of which is classified as either edible (clean) or inedible (unclean). 11:1–8 classifies edible/clean (11:2–3) and inedible/unclean (11:4–8) land animals; 11:9–12 classifies edible (11:9) and inedible (11:10–12) sea animals; and 11:12–23 classifies flying animals. Nearly all birds are considered unclean, thus inedible. Verses 20–23 describe winged insects, which are all considered “detestable” (11:20); however, Moses still distinguishes between those that are edible (11:21–22) and those that are inedible (11:23). 11:24–45 describes how contact with an animal’s carcass will make one unclean, which requires cleansing. This includes clean animals (11:39–40) as well as unclean (11:24–28). Verses 29–38 address a class of creatures not mentioned in the previous classification: swarming things that swarm on the ground. All of these are unclean (11:41–45). In each of these cases, an individual who comes into contact with any unclean animal must remain outside of the Israelite camp until the evening so as not to contaminate the camp, the tabernacle, and fellow Israelites (11:24).
Numerous suggestions have been offered to explain the criteria of what makes any of these animals clean or unclean. None have risen above the others. One suggestion that seems most helpful is based on a theology of creation, which included clear distinctions. In the creation account, the Hebrew word badal, meaning “to make distinctions” or “to separate,” occurs often to express this truth (Gen 1:4, 6, 14, 18). It also occurs in Leviticus 11:47, which states the purpose of this chapter is “to make a distinction (badal) between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten.” The highest of all distinctions is between the Creator and the creature; however, among creatures, there were also various distinctions. In Genesis 1, animals were created “according to their kinds” (Gen 1:12, 21, 24, 25). This gives a sense of order to creation where everything is “good.” Even the categories of land, sea, and sky in Leviticus 11 have a strong Genesis 1 allusion, especially to the first three days of creation. In day two, the Lord created the sky above and the waters below; day three was the creation of the land and seas. Days four through six describe the creation of animal life that corresponds to the respective created realms of days one through three. We are not told what distinguishes these animals from each other in Genesis 1, but we are given that information here in Leviticus 11. Land life is defined as that which chews the cud and has split hooves (11:3). If a land animal does not fit both criteria, then they are considered unclean. Sea life is anything that dwells in the sea with fins and scales (11:9). Anything that swims in water that does not fit that description is considered unclean. For sky animals, none listed are clean. Perhaps this is because all these birds are scavengers that prey on dead animals, thus making them unclean (11:25). All “swarming things that swarm on the ground” are generally considered unclean and detestable (11:29). These creatures are not mentioned in the list of animal life in any of the previous sections. The reason for this might be found in Leviticus 11:42, which states that these creatures move on their “belly.” The Hebrew word used here for “belly” (gahon) is the same for the serpent in Genesis 3:14, when it is condemned to crawl on its “belly” (gahon) for deceiving Adam and Eve. The similarity to the serpent may be the cause of the complete uncleanliness of these creatures. It should also be noted that fruits or vegetables are not mentioned in Leviticus 11. A creational background may help explain why, since according to Genesis 1:29, “every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit . . . you shall have . . . for food.” The obvious exception in the garden was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:17), which would not apply in Leviticus since that tree was no longer accessible.
If this creational theology is an accurate analysis of the clean and unclean distinction in Leviticus 11, then this further clarifies the nature of the priestly task. Their work of atonement can be understood as a mandate to restore and maintain a creational order in Israel. In other words, they are charged to establish a ritualistic life in Israel that is reminiscent of idyllic life in the garden and the paradise that was lost. We already saw Adamic themes with the priesthood. There are also clear connections between the garden and the sanctuary of the tabernacle, especially in its architecture and furnishings. For these reasons, it is not surprising to see similar tasks given to both Adam and the Aaronic priests.
By the time of the New Testament, these dietary restrictions became a way to recognize the Old Testament order. With the coming of Christ, those days have passed and the new has come (Matt 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:36–38; Eph 4:22–24; 2Cor 5:17). The New Testament used the cancellation of these dietary laws as a way to declare the beginning of the New Covenant (Acts 10:10–15). In other words, the typological nature of Israel comes to an end because the reality it represented has come in the person of Christ and the kingdom he brought with him.
12:1–8 This chapter deals with uncleanness resulting from childbirth. It seems odd that childbirth causes uncleanness, especially given the high value of having children and its necessity in continuing the family line. The reason for the uncleanness is the blood loss that results from giving birth (12:4). Any contact with blood makes a person ritually unclean (ch. 17). The reasoning for this is unclear, and it is never explained in Leviticus. There is, however, a sense that blood is sacred and, therefore, belongs to the Lord, for “the life of flesh is in the blood” and “blood makes atonement by the life” (17:11); this is the rationale for why animal blood cannot be ingested in any of the sacrifices (17:12). The analogy to the fat of meats may be helpful, as this also is reserved only for the Lord.
Verses 1–5 address the uncleanness from childbirth, and the period of uncleanness varies depending on the gender of the child. There are two periods of uncleanness that the mother must go through. If the child is a son (12:2–4), then there is an initial period of uncleanness for seven days. According to Leviticus 11, a person who comes into contact with an unclean animal is made unclean for a single day (“until the evening”). The difference suggests that blood makes a person much more unclean than any unclean animal does. The seven-day period of waiting also has sabbatical allusions, which is not surprising given the creational background of Leviticus 11. Just as in creation, seven days gives a sense of completeness and finality. As with a woman having her monthly period, the uncleanness of childbirth is contagious, which means that she cannot come into contact with anyone, including family members or close friends. On the eighth day, the son is to be circumcised (12:3). This also marks the beginning of a second period of cleansing, a period of thirty-three days. During this time, the woman is not permitted to touch anything sacred or holy (12:4); again, she is still unclean, which means that she cannot yet offer atoning sacrifices. Added together, the two stages of her ritual purification total forty days. The number forty also has a sense of completeness (cf. Gen 7:4). It is difficult not to think of the wilderness wanderings, which was a period of forty years. Although that forty-year wandering is still future at the time Israel received these instructions, it is tempting to see this period of uncleanness as proto-prophetic. Just as a mother must be away from her family for forty days after going through a bloody birth procedure, so Israel must be forty years enduring the rigors of the wilderness as they journey to their new covenanted homeland of Canaan. If the child is a girl, the period of uncleanness doubles: seven becomes fourteen, and thirty-three becomes sixty-six (12:5). After this period of uncleanness, the woman is to bring sacrifices for the burnt and sin offerings to the priest at the tent of meeting; this atones for her so that she is now clean (12:6–7). If she cannot afford the required animals for the sacrificial rite, then she is given the opportunity to offer cheaper animals (12:8).
13:1–14:57 Leviticus 13–14 is dedicated to uncleanness brought on by various kinds of infections. Chapter 13 focuses on identifying the infection itself, and chapter 14 on its ritual cleansing. Although this infection has traditionally been translated as “leprosy,” this translation is limited, and even inaccurate. The text mentions some form of skin disease, thus the common understanding of “leprosy.” However, this can also be fungal infestations, such as mildew and mold, that grows on clothing or the walls of homes, causing discoloration and possibly spreading as a contagion. The ancient Israelites did not distinguish between skin diseases and fungal growth, so they used the same term (Hebrew sara’at) to refer to both. For these reasons, what is translated as “leprosy” (sara’at) must be a general term referring to some form of a serious disease that can infect organic and non-organic materials.
There are five sections that compose these two chapters. The first section, 13:1–46, focuses on how to identify whether a person has caught a disease and, if so, how to treat the person. The second section, 13:47–59, does the same with clothing. The three remaining sections are found in chapter 14, which focuses on the ritual cleansing of diseased peoples and items. The third section, 14:1–32, describes the cleansing process for people who have healed from their skin disease. The fourth, 14:33–53, describes the identification and treatment of diseased homes. The chapter closes with a summary of this entire process (14:54–57).
Two observations are noteworthy. First, no other non-organic items are mentioned besides garments and homes. Since the diseases mentioned here have the capability to infest objects, it is reasonable to include them, considering garments and homes are most frequently used in daily life. However, given the religious and theological nature of the Book of Leviticus, it seems more likely that they are mentioned here because of the high priestly garments and the tabernacle. If diseases can infect the clothing and home of the average Israelite, then they can also infect the high priestly clothes and the holy sanctuary of the Lord. To prevent this from happening, certain procedures must be followed, which is what Leviticus 13–14 details. Therefore, the regulations on infected clothes and homes have the priests and tabernacle in mind.
The second observation is a reminder that we are dealing with ritual categories. Although medical and health issues cannot be ruled out, they are secondary to the religious setting. This is evident by the fact that priests are called upon to do the diagnostic work and also to treat using sacrificial means. In each case of infection, isolation from the Israelite community is prescribed for ritual reasons as much as preventing the spread of the disease. It is similar to the time and reason a mother must be away from her family after giving birth. This is a reminder that sin, like these diseases, is abhorrent. In some cases, it even resembles the decay of dying flesh. Just as sin cuts them off from the holy presence of the loving God, these unclean diseases do the same. The external plague-like nature of these diseases reflects the internal and true infestation of the moral corruption of sin. The external work of the sacrifices, therefore, also reflects the internal and true work of atonement accomplished by the true sacrificial work of Jesus Christ.
13:1–46 This section describes the process in which priests diagnose human skin diseases through a series of tests. There are seven distinct cases, and each follows a regular pattern of investigative work. When a priest is presented with a person who potentially has a skin disease, he is to examine it. If specific diagnostic symptoms (discoloration of hair and infection being deeper than skin-level) are noticeable, then it is considered a disease, and the priest declares the person unclean. If the diagnostic observations are inconclusive, then the person is quarantined for a series of seven-day periods to see if the determining symptoms arise. If not, the person is pronounced clean.
The first case (13:1–8) concerns a “leprous disease” (13:2). After an initial examination, if there is white hair in the diseased area or the infection is deeper than the surface of the skin, it is considered an actual disease, and the person is pronounced unclean (13:2–3). If none or only one of the symptoms is present, then the person is to be quarantined for seven days, after which the priest will determine if the diseased area has increased. If there is no spreading, then another seven-day quarantine follows. After that, if the initial marks have faded and not spread, then he is clean. He is to wash his clothes “and be clean” (13:4–6). If, however, after the second seven-day period, the priest notices that there is spreading, the person is unclean (13:7–8).
The second case (13:9–17) concerns a person already declared to have a skin disease (13:9).
This case is difficult because the color “white” is used to indicate something different than before. In the previous case, whiteness is indicative of the presence of a skin disease. In this case, however, whiteness indicates healing from that disease. A body that is entirely covered with the skin disease that “has all turned white” is, in fact, healed and thus clean (13:13, 17). It is the presence of “raw flesh” that indicates the lingering disease, not the presence of white hairs: “raw flesh is unclean” because “it is a leprous disease” (13:14–15). In the previous case, disease is indicated specifically when hair in an infected area “turns white” (13:3). Here, the “white swelling” with “raw flesh in the swelling” indicates the continued presence of the skin disease. If it is present, then he is still unclean; he does not need to be quarantined because he was already living as an unclean person (cf. 13:45–46). If it is not present, and instead his body turns completely white, then he is healed of the disease and considered clean.
The third case (13:18–23) involves the presence of a white swelling or reddish spot on a healed area that was once infected. If this discolored area is a deep infection with white hair, then it is a skin disease, and the person is considered unclean (13:18–20). If, however, the two diagnostic markers are not present and the discoloration is fading, the person will be quarantined for seven days, after which the priest will determine if the discoloration has spread (13:21–22). If so, then he is unclean. If not, then he is clean (13:23).
The fourth case (13:24–28) is similar to the previous one. Instead of a healed “boil,” there is raw flesh from a burn that has a reddish-white or white discoloration. The ritual state of such a person is determined by the same examination procedure as the previous case.
The fifth case (13:29–37) deals with infections on the scalp and beard and follows a similar pattern as in case one (13:1–8). If an itchy sore is present and appears deeper than the skin, and the hair in the area is yellow and thinning out, then the person is considered unclean (13:29–30). If, however, the sore is only on the surface of the skin, then the person will be quarantined for seven days. On the seventh day, the priest will see if the sore has spread and whether both diagnostic marks (the yellowish hair and deep skin infection) remain (13:31–32). If not, then he will shave and be quarantined for another seven days. After this, if there is no spreading, no yellowish hair, or deep skin infection, then the person is considered clean (13:33–34). At any point, if the sore has spread or black hair has regrown, the person is declared healed and clean (13:35–37).
The sixth case (13:38–39) deals with white spots. If the color is “dull white,” then the person is clean.
The seventh case (13:40–44) concerns baldness. Although baldness itself is not considered unclean (13:40), it can be a symptom of a skin disease. If baldness is accompanied by the presence of a reddish-white swelling, then it indicates a skin disease, and thus the person is considered unclean.
According to 13:45–46, any person who is diagnosed with a skin disease in any of the scenarios described above must live as an unclean person, meaning they must follow three guidelines. First, they are to wear torn cloths and keep their hair unkempt. This is similar to acts of mourning (Gen 37:34; 2Sam 1:11; Ezek 24:17), which is not surprising since they are ritually apart from their community and the Lord. Second, they are to cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” This is only done when others are present to warn them of their ritual state. Third, and perhaps the most traumatic, they are to live alone, outside of the Israelite camp, to prevent their uncleanness from spreading to other people or things, such as the tabernacle and items associated with it. They are no longer within the covenanted community; they are outside of the divine presence of God. The extent to which an unclean person must isolate themselves demonstrates the seriousness of these ritual states.
13:47–59 The second section on “leprous diseases” focuses on infected garments. If there is a greenish or reddish discoloration on any item of clothing, then the priest will quarantine it for seven days (13:47–50). After that period, if the priest sees that it has spread, then the clothing cannot be salvaged; it is to be burned (13:51–52). If it has not spread, then it will be washed and quarantined for another seven days, after which it will be reexamined (13:53–54). If the discoloration is still present, even if it is not spreading, then it is considered permanently infected and burned. If it is faded after the washing, then that area is to be torn out while the remainder of the clothing is washed a second time. After this, the clothing is considered clean (13:55–56, 58), but any return of the discolored growth means the clothing must be burned (13:57). Such measures to preserve a piece of clothing may seem odd to us, as we have easy access to any form of clothing at any time. In the ancient world, however, the making of clothes was a rather laborious process, which made all clothing relatively valuable.
14:1–32 This third section on diseases deals with ritual cleansing. Given the holy nature of the Lord and the Israelite community, the healing of these diseases alone is inadequate for reinstatement into the community. There must also be ritual cleansing as well, which involves three stages.
First, the priest comes to the healed person outside of the camp to verify that they are healed (14:1–8). Once this is confirmed, he calls for the sacrificial accoutrements for the ritual act: two live clean birds, cedarwood, scarlet yarn, and hyssop (14:4). The two birds represent the expiation of sinful impurities and the consecration of life to the Lord. The remaining items have uses that are connected to cleansing rituals (Exod 12:22; Num 19:18). One bird is slaughtered, and its blood is collected in a vessel with water. The mixture of water and blood represents the thoroughness of the cleansing procedure. Next, the priest takes the cedarwood, yarn, hyssop, and the living bird and dips them in the blood-water mixture. Then he sprinkles the person seven times and pronounces him clean as the living bird is released into the open field. Finally, the person must wash his clothes, shave all his hair, and bathe. The result of all this is a limited restoration: he is allowed to reenter the Israelite camp; however, he must remain outside his own tent for another seven days (14:8).
The second stage in the ritual cleansing is a second round of shaving, washing clothes, and bathing on the seventh day of his personal quarantine (14:9). All these acts are closely associated with cleansing processes. The repetition of this act is necessary so that the person may approach the tabernacle. It is here that he will present his sacrificial offerings, which would restore him completely to the holy community and, more importantly, to the Lord.
The third stage (14:10–20) takes place after the person’s seven-day quarantine from his own home ends—on the eighth day (14:10). This is the final step in the cleansing ritual, where the person brings his sacrificial offerings to the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting (14:11). He brings the items necessary for the sacrifices: two male lambs, a one-year-old ewe lamb, grain offering, and a log of oil (14:10). One of the male lambs is sacrificed as a reparation offering; its blood is taken by the priest and applied on the lobe of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot (14:11–14). The ear-hand-toe triad is meant to represent the entire person. The same is done with the oil from the oil log (14:15–17). The oil is also taken and sprinkled seven times to the Lord to sanctify the tent of meeting (14:16). The remainder of the oil is poured over the person’s head (14:18), which symbolizes that the cleansing has been done for the entirety of his person. To add a further sense of intense cleanness, a purification and burnt offering is sacrificed with the other male lamb and the ewe lamb (14:19–20). All these ritual acts lead up to this point, where “atonement” (14:18, 20) has been made for the person and “he is clean”; he is now reintegrated into the community in fellowship with his fellow Israelites and with the Lord. The measures taken in these sacrifices indicate a state higher than mere cleanness; not only is the person “cleansed from his uncleanness” (14:19), but he is also holy. All four sacrifices (reparation, purification, burnt, grain) are offered at the tent of meeting, which is the center of holiness. Therefore, the final goal is to make the person clean so that he may be restored as an active member of his community and, more significantly, be holy before the Lord (14:13).
Since many Israelites lived in a relative state of poverty, they could not afford the expensive animals required in the ritual ceremonies mentioned earlier. Therefore, concessions are given to allow the offering of less costly items (14:21–32), thus allowing all Israelites to participate in these rituals without exception. The poor give less flour in the grain offering, and they can bring birds instead of lambs for the animal sacrifices.
14:33–53 The fourth section on infectious disease focuses on homes that are infected, most likely by mold and mildew. The procedure is similar to what is done with skin diseases on persons. If a home is suspected of having a “leprous disease,” it is vacated while a priest examines the spot. If he sees a greenish or reddish spot, the house is quarantined for seven days (14:33–38). Anyone who enters this home or sleeps within it is unclean (14:46–47). After the seven days, the priest will examine the discolored area and inspect for spreading. If there is spreading, then the infected stones and plaster are to be replaced with uninfected materials (14:39–42). If the discolored area continues to spread, then the home must be dismantled; it is considered unclean (14:43–45). If there is no spreading, then it is considered clean (14:48), and the priest will perform the same cleansing ritual as done for people as described in 14:1–8. Instead of lambs, however, birds are offered for sacrifice (14:49–53), which also “makes atonement for the house” (14:53).
Two things are noteworthy here. First, infected homes are not immediately destroyed. Opportunity is given to salvage the home, as only the infected portions are removed. The construction of homes, like clothing, requires significant labor. For that reason, it takes extreme circumstances for the home to be completely destroyed. Second, this regulation presumes life in the land of Canaan (14:33). Some of the protocols in Leviticus presume a nomadic lifestyle with tents and camps, referring to life in the wilderness. Others presume permanent homes that are built with stones and plaster—life in Canaan. These laws, therefore, are applicable in any stage of Israel’s national life, and they provide assurance that the Lord will be faithful to his covenanted promise that the Abrahamic descendants will inherit their promised homeland (Gen 12:7; 26:3; 35:12; Exod 3:8; 6:4).
The final section (14:54–57) provides a summary of both chapters 13 and 14.
15:1–33 Leviticus 15 shares similarities with the uncleanness rituals following childbirth in chapter 12. For example, both deal with bodily fluids. Whereas chapter 12 specifically addresses mothers, chapter 15 deals with both men and women. There are five general sections that are chiastically organized: 15:1–15 focuses on abnormal bodily emissions of men, 15:16–18 on normal bodily emissions of men; 15:19–24 on normal emissions of women; 15:25–30 on abnormal emissions of women; 15:31–33 is a conclusion. Although all bodily emissions make one unclean (15:2), the level of uncleanness varies, thus requiring different cleansing practices.
15:1–15 This section focuses on abnormal bodily emissions of men. There are two different kinds: a continual discharge, and a blockage of discharge (15:1–3). In either case, the issue is most likely due to an infection of some kind that prevents the body from regulating the flow of bodily fluids. For this reason, such a person is unclean. What is intriguing in this scenario is the contagious nature of the uncleanness. Not only does the uncleanness spread to anyone or anything that comes in contact with the discharging man (beds, chairs, bowls, saddles, a person spat upon by the unclean man), but those persons/objects can also contaminate others and make them unclean, thereby becoming a secondary source of uncleanness (15:4–12). This is not the case with mothers who gave birth (ch. 12) or with those infected with disease (chs. 13–14). The case of bodily emissions, therefore, is more contagious and requires more caution. Those infected by a person with a discharge follow the normal cleansing regulation: unclean objects remain unclean until evening, and unclean persons must wash their clothes and bathe and will remain unclean until the evening (15:5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11). This is not the case, however, for the man with the irregular bodily emission. Because he is the primary agent of uncleanness, his ritual process is more sophisticated (15:13–15). After his discharge has healed, he is to quarantine for seven days, wash his clothes, and bathe (15:13). This initial cleansing process allows him to approach the tent of meeting so that he may engage in his primary ritual process: he will take two turtle doves or pigeons, offer one as a purification offering, and offer the other as the burnt offering (15:14). Once this is done, atonement has been made for him (15:15).
15:16–18 There are normal bodily emissions for men, such as semen from sexual intimacy with their wives (15:18). Although all bodily emissions make a man unclean, the ones addressed here are not due to an underlying infection but are a part of his normal routine. For that reason, the cleansing process does not demand a ritual offering. Instead, the process is simple: wash, bathe, and wait until the evening.
15:19–24 Just as there are normal bodily emissions for men, so there are for women. A woman’s normal emission is menstruation (15:19). Unlike men, however, who are unclean only until evening, women remain unclean for seven days. Although the reason for this is not given, it seems clear that this difference is due to the fact that her bodily emission is blood, which is sacred to the Lord (17:14). During this seven-day period, anyone or anything that comes into contact with the woman becomes unclean. And if anyone or anything touches these contaminated persons and things, they also become unclean. This seems to be the case with all bodily emissions. If a man has sexual relations with a woman during her menstruation, he also remains unclean for seven days, like the woman. The cleansing process for all others who are secondarily infected follows a standard protocol: washing clothes, bathing, and remaining unclean until evening.
15:25–30 Just as there are irregular bodily emissions for men, so there are for women as well. This sections pertains to the loss of blood other than during her menstruation or continued blood loss after her normal menstrual period. In such cases, she becomes unclean and contagious in the same ways as men suffering abnormal bodily emission (15:25–27; cf. 15:4–12). The cleansing process also follows the same protocol as men (15:28–30).
15:31–33 This section is similar to the closing section on ritual uncleanness (11:46–47; 12:7b; 14:54–57). The one difference is in verse 31, which states the reason why Israel is to be separated from their uncleanness—the presence of the Lord’s holy tabernacle with Israel. Uncleanness in the Israelite community would ultimately defile the holy sanctuary, which would bring divine wrath and destruction against the people. Corrupt people bring uncleanness to the tabernacle, but the sacrificial system allows for the purification of the people, the priestly officers, the holy tent, and all the furnishings and utensils within it. This reminds Israel that the goal of all these procedures is not necessarily the health of the people, but to preserve the holiness of the Lord’s residence. This is where the holy Lord dwells with his unholy people. Israel’s communion bond with their God, therefore, is fundamentally built on the need for ritual cleansing and the sanctifying work of atonement.
16:1–34 The previous section ends with a reminder of the problem of having a holy sanctuary within the midst of sinful and unclean people like Israel. The presence of the holy God requires regular ritual cleansing of the people to prevent defilement of his holy sanctuary. The close proximity of the stiff-necked Israelites, however, inevitably brings some level of corruption, requiring a regular ritual cleansing of the Lord’s tabernacle as well as the people. The sacrificial system provides the means of this atoning work (chs. 1–7), and the priests are the anointed officers of that system (chs. 8–10). The priestly application of these sacrifices is to be performed on a routine basis for daily matters that causes ritual uncleanness (chs. 11–15). There is one specific day per year, however, where these offerings are sacrificed in a particularly powerful way as sacrificial blood is brought into the Most Holy Place to purify it. There are three sanctified areas of the tabernacle: the courtyard, which is the outermost area with the bronze altar; the actual tabernacle, also called “the tent of meeting,” in which was the menorah, the table with the priest’s bread, and the incense altar; and the Most Holy Place, in front of which the incense altar was placed. This is the sacred location where the Lord in his divine glory resided (16:2), yet it was also susceptible to defilement due to the sins and uncleanness of Israel. This is what needed to be cleansed, and this is what happened on this one specific day, the Day of Atonement. The regulations on how to honor it are provided in Leviticus 16. The importance of this day cannot be overstated; it is the high point of these chapters on ritual cleanness (chs. 11–16). A proper analysis of the theology of the atonement in Leviticus cannot be done without diligent meditation on this chapter. The first section focuses on the general duties of Aaron; all the basic tasks are mentioned here (15:1–10). Details of Aaron’s tasks are given in the next section (15:11–28), and the chapter ends with the duties of the peoples (15:29–34).
16:1–10 This section opens with a reminder of the sins of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu (16:1), which suggests that the historical setting of Leviticus 11–16 was immediately following the tragic death of Aaron’s two sons. This also suggests that these regulations are intended to help Aaron avoid a similar fate. It is not enough to avoid carelessness; Aaron must also be careful to follow these protocols. His sons offered “unauthorized fire” (11:1), the result of an incorrect mixture of incense at the altar of incense. This altar is in front of the Most Holy Place, which had an elaborate veil covering its entryway and housed the Ark of the Covenant. The fact that Nadab and Abihu suffered their fate at the incense altar in front of the Most Holy Place gives the impression that they were attempting to enter into that sacred place. Thus, it seems that the combination of both the false fire and forced entry into the Most Holy Place led to their judgment. Aaron is instructed that entry into that ultimate holy dwelling is allowed, but only under specific circumstances. In 16:2, Aaron is told to learn from the lesson of Nadab and Abihu and not to enter “at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil.” Later, he is told that there is only one specific day that he is permitted into that Most Holy Place, the Day of Atonement. The reason for this limited entrance is given: “for I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.” The Book of Exodus mentions both the mercy seat and the cloud, which helps our understanding of what they represent. The “mercy seat” is the cover of the Ark (a chest that houses the tablets of the Ten Commandments), and the Ark is the only piece of furniture in this holy location. On the “mercy seat” are two angels with spread wings, which represent the divine angelic council (Exod 25:18–22). “The cloud” is the pillar of cloud that led Israel out of Egypt; this also covered Mount Sinai, where Moses “saw the God of Israel” in his heavenly throne room (Exod 24:10). Exodus 24:15–16 tells us that this cloud is a physical manifestation of “the glory of the Lord.” For that reason, as it covered Sinai, it appeared as a fiery inferno that consumed the entire mountain, bringing thunder, lightning, and earthquakes (Exod 19:16–18; 24:17). Exodus 25:9, 40 also tells us that the construction of the tabernacle is to follow the divine model that the Lord revealed to Moses on Sinai. What we see in the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant resides, therefore, is a replica of the heavenly throne room that Moses witnessed at Sinai. When the Lord tells Moses that “I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat” (Lev 16:2), this is the image of the glory-presence of the Lord enthroned as the holy Redeemer of Israel over his microcosmic throne (“mercy seat”) with the angelic council surrounding his divine presence (cf. Isa 6). This is the epicenter of holiness in Israel. For that reason, it is not a surprise that such caution must be taken before entering.
With the historical setting in place (16:1–2), the Lord reveals the basic instructions for the Day of Atonement (16:3–10). Aaron is to remove his high priestly garments, wash himself, and then put on holy linen undergarments (16:3–5). The reason for these linen undergarments is not given, but it is a much humbler attire than the grandeur of the regular priestly regalia. This is appropriate posturing given that he is about to enter the most sacred location on earth. Also, he is to prepare four animals for sacrifice. The first is a bull to atone for himself and his family (16:6). The second and third are two goats, which together comprise one sacrificial offering of purification. This purification offering has an added feature that is not mentioned anywhere else in Leviticus; he is to cast lots: one lot is “for the Lord,” and the other is to “for Azazel” (16:8). The goat for the Lord is intended to purify the people and the tabernacle, while the other is to be released into the “wilderness of Azazel” (16:7–10). We will say more about this reference to “Azazel” later. However, it is clear that the combination of the two goats make up the one purification offering. The fourth and final offering is the ram for the burnt offering (16:5).
16:11–28 With the general procedures given, the details of the Day are now revealed. As mentioned earlier, the sinfulness of the people brings defilement to the holy sanctuary. One purpose of the Day of Atonement is to “make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (16:16). Leviticus 16:11–19 focuses on the first stage of this process, the atonement for the sanctuary. The second stage (11:20–22) deals with the “goat of Azazel.” Finally, 16:23–28 describes the cleansing of all the participants in all the rituals performed on this day.
In order to enter the Most Holy Place, Aaron and his priestly sons must first be atoned for. Although they are chosen by the Lord to serve as priests, they are still unclean sinners and must offer a purification offering for their sins (16:11). Aaron is to offer the bull for a purification offering, then take a censer of hot coals and bring it into the Most Holy Place, which the censer fills with smoke. The smoke is intended to shield him from the glory of the Lord over the mercy seat so that he does not die (16:11–13). It also creates the sense that he has entered into the glory-cloud of the Lord, similar to Moses’s experience in Exodus 19 and 24. Once within this inner sanctuary, he is to take the blood from the bull of his purification offering and also the blood from the goat “for the Lord” (16:8) and sprinkle it seven times on the mercy seat (16:14–16a). He is to do the same “for the tent of meeting” (16:16b–17), which might be a reference to the incense altar. Then, he is to take the same blood from both the bull and the goat, smear it on the horns of the bronze altar outside of the tent, and sprinkle blood upon it as well(16:18–19a). The movement of the priest, therefore, is clear: he begins in the most inner room, then moves outward. The result of all this is that the tabernacle as a whole (the inner sanctuary, the incense altar, the outer bronze altar) is cleansed and consecrated to the Lord (16:19b).
Leviticus 16:20–22 turns our attention to the second of the two goats for the purification offering for the people, “the goat of Azazel” (16:8–10). Aaron is to take this second, “the live goat,” and place his hands on its head (16:20–21). This is to symbolize the transfer of “all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins” upon the goat (16:21–22a). Then it is released into the wilderness (16:22b). The juxtaposition of these two goats clearly demonstrates that they are two parts of the one sacrificial offering. One significant difference between them is their ultimate location. The first goat is slaughtered, and its blood is taken into the very center of holiness, the Most Holy Place (16:14–15). The blood is sprinkled onto the mercy seat, which is a microcosmic replica of the heavenly throne room of the Lord. There is no place on earth that is more holy than this location, no place that is closer to the divine presence. This is the location of the blood of the first goat. In contrast, the second goat, “the goat of Azazel,” is taken as far from this divine presence as possible. The reference to “Azazel,” what traditionally is called a “scapegoat,” is difficult to translate. It may be the name of a demonic being, which is not implausible given that Leviticus 17:7 mentions that Israel had proclivities towards sacrificing to goat demons. Regardless of its precise understanding, what is significant is the totally opposite directions the two goats go. One takes us into the core of the heavenly tabernacle, while the other leads us to the wilderness, a place of desolation and death. The blood of the first goat serves to cleanse the mercy seat so that the Lord may remain enthroned as the sovereign of Israel without executing the people; meanwhile, the sins of Israel are transferred upon the second and taken as far from the divine presence as possible. The dramatic nature of this ritual act is re-enforced by two significant factors: the polar opposite direction of these two goats, and the entrance of the high priest into the Most Holy Place to atone for the sanctuary and the sins of the people.
With the sanctuary, the priests, and the people all painstakingly atoned for, it is important that they are not immediately made unclean again. Therefore, all the participants of the atonement ritual need to wash before returning to their regular duties (16:23–28). As for Aaron, he backtracks his path, leaving the Most Holy Place within the tent of meeting, to return to the courtyard of the tabernacle. At this point, he performs the reverse actions of 16:3–5: he removes his holy linen undergarments, bathes his body, and returns to his regular priestly vestments (16:23–24a). Once he is outside, he offers the burnt offering. The purification offering was sacrificed in an elaborate ceremony with the two goats. With the burnt offering, the work of atonement has been completed for himself and the people (16:24b–25). The fat is burned up at the altar, and the remainder of the bull and goat is taken out of the camp and burned. Like the high priest, both the person who carries these remaining parts and the person who leads the goat of Azazel into the wilderness are to wash their clothes and bathe before reentering the Israelite camp (16:26–28).
16:29–34 This celebration of the Day of Atonement is to be a “statute forever” for the Aaronic priests and the people. Each year, on this tenth day of the seventh month (16:29a), this ritual is to be observed. High priests will come and go, but the duties of that office on this day remain constant (16:32–33). The people are also given a task: observe this day like a sabbath, where no work is to be done by anyone (16:29b–31).
The importance of this Day is emphasized in several key ways in this final section. First, the phrase “to make atonement” is repeated four times (16:30, 32, 33, 34). If the purpose of this day were not clear before, it is explicitly clear now. Second, the extent of the atonement is to all of Israel: the holy sanctuary, the tent of meeting, the altar, the priests, and, of course, the people. Nothing is left out; thus, the effects of the day touch the totality of Israel. Third, Israel is made clean not only ritually, but also morally as atonement is made for the people “because of all their sins” (16:30, 34; cf. 16:16, 21). Ritual uncleanness is an external reminder of the internal corruption of the sinful heart. The atoning work on this day sacramentally and typologically cleanses Israel of both ritual and moral corruption. Fourth, this day is another application of the sabbath (16:31). The sabbath is more than a day of ceasing; it is also a sign to remind Israel of her theocratic nature (Exod 31:13–17). The Lord is her King, and she is to follow his royal commands. Fifth, we are given entrance into the Most Holy Place through the mediatorial work of Aaron. This is the first time that any entry into this sacred place is mentioned in Scripture. Since the purpose of Leviticus is to establish a holy communion between the Lord and his people, the goal of this day is to provide a way into the Most Holy Place, which is the sacred location of God’s divine presence. This is similar to the sabbatical goal in the garden. Had the first Adam passed his probation, he would have entered into the eternal kingdom of the Lord’s sabbath (Heb 4:9–10), a Most Holy Place where he would be in a holy communion bond with the Lord for eternity. Just as Adam’s sins kept him from the Lord, so did the sins of Israel. This day reminds us of the coming of the great Day of Atonement when the greater high priest will offer a once-for-all sacrifice that will atone for the sins of the people, making them both ritually clean and morally holy so that the goal of this day can finally be achieved (Heb 9:11–28).
Regulations on Holy Living (17:1–25:55)
Holiness is the most outstanding theme in Leviticus 17–25; the word “holy” and its linguistic derivatives occur repeatedly in these chapters. Thus, in addition to ritual uncleanness, there is an added emphasis on moral corruption, so that the sins of Israel are more prominent, as are references to the moral law of the Ten Commandments. In fact, Leviticus 17–25 can be interpreted as specific application of several of the Ten Commandments. This is one of multiple factors that makes this section distinct from the previous section, Leviticus 11–16. In addition to its heightened focus on holiness, Leviticus 17–25 does not place the same emphasis on the ministry of the tabernacle, the role of the priests, and matters related to worship, and ritual cleanness and the presence and application of the sacrificial system are not dominant like they are in chapters 11–16. This section is not limited to the ministry of the tabernacle and the priests; instead, it deals with various other aspects of life. This difference of emphases can also be seen in the final chapter of each section. Both are highly celebrative, but they honor different things. Whereas Leviticus 16 focuses on the ministry of the tabernacle in the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 25 has the scope of the society of Israel at large in the Year of Jubilee. Despite these distinctions, Leviticus 17–25 does share some similarities with the previous section. For example, it includes further rules for priests (chs. 21–22) and a liturgical calendar (chs. 23–25). The concept of holiness is also intertwined with cleanness. An unclean person must first become clean before he can be holy. This status of holiness is the goal of the atoning work of the sacrifices and, therefore, the Book of Leviticus. While Leviticus 11–16 emphasizes the ritual cleanness in the work of atonement, Leviticus 17–25 emphasizes moral holiness. The theology of atonement cannot fully be developed without the integration of both sections.
17:1–16 Leviticus 17 serves as the transition from Leviticus 11–16 to 17–25. It shares a similarity with the previous section, especially its analysis on the significance of blood. However, this chapter says little about the priests and deals with blood spilt outside of the tabernacle (not within), which makes it fit with the following section. This chapter, therefore, acts as a literary hinge that links these two halves together.
The chapter gives two prohibitions. The first is the prohibition of any Israelite, including any foreign resident or sojourner in their camp, to slaughter an animal at a place other than the entrance of the tabernacle. This means that the only legitimate reason for taking an animal’s life is for sacrificial purposes (17:1–9). Anyone who violates this has “shed blood,” implying that an innocent life has been taken. Although animals do not bear the image of God, life is still precious and, therefore, to be treated with care. Violators are not merely removed from the community; they are “cut off from among his people” (17:4, 9). The image of being “cut off” suggests a divine act, which adds a more serious tone to this prohibition. The reason for this is stated in 17:6–7: Israel had a tendency to offer illegitimate sacrifices to goat demons. This practice is mentioned only here, and there is no historical record of this taking place. However, if they were easily led to worship a golden calf (Exod 32–33), then it is not difficult to imagine them worshiping a demon in the form of a goat. In case they thought sacrifices to these demons were permissible so long as they were done outside the camp, that thought is quickly dealt with here. After all, since the sacrificial system comes to its fullest atoning work with the “peace offering” (17:5), it would be sacrilegious for Israel to dine with a demon instead of their holy God.
The second command prohibits anyone within Israel (including foreigners and sojourners) from partaking of blood (17:10–16). Anyone who does so is not just “cut off” from the people, but the Lord also sets his face against that person (17:10). The harsh penalty is due to the nature of blood: it gives life to all creatures (17:11a, 14). This is why blood is used to make atonement; it gives life to the one being atoned for (17:a11b). This applies to all animals: domesticated animals used for sacrifices, wild animals killed in hunt (17:13–14), and also those found dead or slaughtered by other predatory creatures (17:15). Anyone who eats the animals mentioned in the last two examples is unclean and must go through the typical cleansing process: washing of clothes, bathing, and remaining outside until the evening (17:15). Omission of this cleansing ritual leads the person to sin against the Lord (17:16). These two prohibitions suggest that the daily Israelite diet was largely (though not exclusively) vegetarian, which would have made the annual feasts and peace offerings that much more celebrative.
18:1–30 Chapters 18–20 move away from the focus on worship and the tabernacle and begin to address matters pertaining to life as a whole. This passage also presumes the setting of Canaan, their promised land. When the Israelites settle there, they will face all sorts of pagan practices and immoralities, just as in Egypt. They are not to follow them; they are to live counter to the cultural norms around them and conform to the covenant the Lord made with them at Sinai (18:1–4). This warning is so significant that the Lord ends the chapter by repeating it (18:24–30). The reward for obedience is life; failure to obey results in death (18:5), meaning exile from their covenanted land and loss of the blessed divine presence of the Lord (18:25, 27–28; cf. ch. 26). The language of 18:5 is a bit surprising, but Leviticus has repeatedly made clear that anyone (or anything) corrupted by sin cannot be in the same presence with the absolute holy God. The sacrificial system functions on that premise. The fact that the Lord’s holy nature is the standard by which all things are measured is further emphasized by the repetition of the phrase “I am the Lord” throughout chapters 18–25. If Israel as a nation demonstrates that morally they are the same as the pagan nations around them (e.g., Canaan, Egypt), then the holiness of God demands that they suffer divine retribution. Ultimately, Leviticus 18–25 serves as a semi-prophetic anticipation of the history of Israel and their habitual failure and their deserved judgment that followed. Leviticus also makes clear that there is hope for redemption through the atoning work of the Lord. These regulations, therefore, are not meant to provide the hope of perfect obedience as much as they are intended to show the constant need for atonement through the gracious work of God.
Chapter 18 focuses on regulations against improper sexual unions. That this is the first moral prohibition suggests the Lord finds this to be especially deplorable. The phrase for sexual intimacy is the idiomatic “to uncover nakedness.” The act of removing clothing to reveal a person’s nakedness is an obvious prelude to physical union, thus the reference to having sex. A man is forbidden from various kinds of sexual union. The first is with “close relatives” (18:6–17). This includes family members such as the mother, mother-in-law, sisters, granddaughters, aunts, daughters-in-law, and others. Interestingly, “daughter” is not mentioned, but logically it must be included.
Verses 18–23 prohibit other sexual immoralities, ranging from sex with a woman who is menstruating, to adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality. Three things are worth noting in this section. First, the list of forbidden sexual immoralities is not meant to be exhaustive; rather, it serves as examples of a general prohibition against sexual immorality. Second, 18:21 forbids child sacrifice. Why this specific sin is included in a section on sexual immoralities is unclear, especially in light of the fact that it is mentioned later (20:2–5). This was a common Canaanite ritual, which the Lord finds particularly detestable. Perhaps the egregiousness of this sin requires that it be mentioned here with sexual sins, which the Lord also finds unacceptable and just as unholy. Third, 18:18 seems to prohibit polygamy. In the previous section (18:6–17), the first Hebrew word is “nakedness.” This is not the case in verse 18, which suggests that the sin here is not the same as those in 18:6–17 (i.e., sex with close relatives). If that is not the prohibition, what is forbidden in verse 18? It is marriage to another woman while married to her sister. This fits the context of 18:18–23, which lists general sexual prohibitions: menstruating women (18:19), adultery (18:20), homosexuality (18:22), and bestiality (18:23); included in this list, apparently, is polygamy (18:18). While this interpretation is not the only one, it does highlight the sins of numerous Israelites, including several of their kings (e.g., Solomon, 1Kgs 11:1).
19:1–37 This chapter deals with regulations and laws in various areas of life, often with allusions and applications to the Ten Commandments. The theme of holiness, which dominates chapters 18–25, is even more pronounced here. This is evident by the opening verses 1–2, which state the purpose of the Book of Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2). The holiness of the Lord as the standard of holiness is clear by the constant refrain “I am the Lord” found throughout this chapter. Holiness is measured by obedience to the commandments in all areas of life, including one’s relationship with the Lord and with others.
The people are to honor their parents and the Lord by observing the sabbath (19:3). Idolatry is forbidden (19:4). Peace offerings are to be performed properly (19:5–8). They are to provide for the poor (19:9–10). They are not to steal, lie, deal falsely, or falsely swear by the name of the Lord (19:11–12). They are not to steal or oppress others, nor curse the deaf (19:13–14). They are not to practice any form of injustice in their legal courts (19:15–16). They are to love their neighbors and not seek vengeance (19:17–18). They are to honor the proper distinctions the Lord created (19:19–20). Thus, the mixing of different kinds is forbidden, whether it be the mixed-breeding of animals, mixed-sowing of seeds, or even mixed materials in clothing (19:19). This also applies to social relations. The consequences of sexual sins against a slave woman are different than those against a free woman (19:20–22). Proper distinctions were the foundation of creation, as the Lord created according to “kinds” (Gen 1:11–12, 21, 24). We see an application of this principle of creation in the clean/unclean distinction of animals (Lev 11). Ultimately, this also explains why holiness and unholiness cannot co-exist. When the people enter Canaan, they are to avoid any fruits from trees for three years, offer the produce of the fourth year to the Lord, and then enjoy growth from the fifth (19:23–25). They are to avoid pagan practices: eating blood, practicing divination, and bodily markings or disfigurements (19:26–28). They are to have no sacred prostitutes, which would defile the land. Instead, they are to honor the sabbath (19:29–30). They are not to practice necromancy (19:31). They are to honor the elderly (19:32). They are to treat travelers respectfully (19:33–34). They are to deal justly regarding the economy, trade, and legal courts (19:35–36). In sum, “you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them” because “I am the Lord” (19:37)
Although the general order of the laws in this chapter is unclear, the basic message is not. Holiness is expressed in more than religious practices that honor the Lord; it is also expressed in moral integrity and in how we relate with others in every aspect of life.
20:1–27 Many of the laws and regulations in Leviticus 20 are also found in Leviticus 18–19 (and other places). What is new are the penalties against those who violate those laws. 20:1–16 lists the sins that lead to the death penalty. 20:2–5 describes the practice of child sacrifices (cf. 18:21), which defiles the sanctuary and the name of the Lord. Not only is the perpetrator of this sin to be executed, but even those who ignore the sin are to be cut off. Divination is also punishable by death (20:6, 27). These two sins are so heinous that the Lord has to reiterate his call to holiness before continuing (20:7–8). 20:9–16 continues the list of sins that bring death: cursing parents (20:9), sex with close relatives (20:10–13), homosexuality (20:14), and bestiality (20:15–16). 20:17–18 describes sins that result in being “cut off” from their communities: intercourse with a sister by marriage (20:17) or a menstruating woman (20:18). 20:19–21 lists sins that bring childlessness: intercourse with an aunt by marriage (20:19–20) or a sister-in-law (20:21). Thus, there are three different penalties: death (20:1–16), separation from the community (20:17–18), and childlessness (20:19–21). The chapter ends with another call to holy obedience (20:22–27). The Lord has chosen Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). He has redeemed them and separated them from the foreign nations around them (20:24). They are no longer unholy, but holy—all due to the sovereign grace of God (20:26). This is why they are to live holy lives by making clean and unclean distinctions (20:25). It reflects the holy nature of the people, and more importantly, the holy nature of God. He is the holy Creator, and they are his creatures. When they enter into Canaan, they will face many temptations to violate their holy status. They are to reject them and keep the statutes of the Lord. Otherwise, the Lord will exile them from his divine presence (20:22). His passion for his own holiness is that precious (20:23).
21:1–22:33 The focus switches from regulations for the holy people (chs. 18–20) to holy things (chs. 21–24). Chapters 21–22 focus on the priests; chapter 23 on holy times for worship; and chapter 24 on the holy sanctuary and the holy name of God. This section logically begins with the officers who administer the holy things, the priests. Specifically, it regulates some personal matters in their lives. It can be subdivided into six sections, each ending with the phrase “I am the Lord the Sanctifier” (21:8, 15, 23; 22:9, 16, 32). The repetition of this phrase further highlights the Lord as the agent who makes the priests holy. Therefore, the priests can honor the Lord their Sanctifier by honoring their holy ministry.
The first section (21:1–9) deals with restrictions on mourning and marriage for regular priests. They are forbidden to participate in funeral ceremonies, as close proximity to a dead body would make them ritually unclean (21:1). The exceptions are funeral rites for immediate family members: his parents, his children, or his siblings (21:2–3). This does not include family members by marriage: brothers- or sisters-in-law (21:4). Although there are some mourning practices they may perform (21:10), there are others that are forbidden, as they are pagan practices that deface their bodies (21:5). This would be irreverent to the Lord, as his holiness cannot mingle with paganism. Also, defacing their bodies is inconsistent with the demand of physical perfection (21:16–24). They are to maintain their holy status because they offer the sacrificial food offerings to the holy Lord (21:6). Because the priests are the ones who make atonement on Israel’s behalf as a conduit to the Lord, a proper status of holiness for the people requires a proper functioning priesthood. The significance of their duties requires that a higher standard be placed upon them, both ritually and morally. In addition to the restrictions on mourning practices, there are restrictions against whom they may marry (21:7–9): they cannot marry a prostitute, a promiscuous woman, or a divorcee (21:7), as the behavior or reputation of the spouse directly impacts the reputation of the priest. The reputation of the priest’s is also affected by the behavior of his daughter: if she profanes herself by engaging in prostitution, then she profanes her priestly father. To protect the holy priest and the holy ministry that he administers, such a daughter is to be burned (21:8–9).
The second section (21:10–15) switches our attention from regular priests to the high priest. As expected, tighter restrictions are imposed upon him. Whereas regular priests are permitted some mourning practices and allowed to bury close family members, there is no exception for the high priest (21:10–12). In addition, he is permitted to marry only a virgin, while regular priests may marry widows (21:13–15).
The third section (21:16–24) describes physical features that disqualify a son of Aaron from the priesthood. In general, he is prohibited from possessing any physical deformities (21:17–20). If he has these deformities, then he is forbidden to offer sacrifices to the Lord, but he still retains access to the priestly portions from Israel’s sacrifices (21:21–24).
The fourth section (22:1–9) states that although physical imperfection does not prohibit a priest from partaking of the priestly foods, uncleanness does (22:4–9). If an unclean priest offers priestly sacrifices or eats the priestly foods, he suffers divine retribution and is “cut off” from his people because he has profaned the holy name of the Lord (22:2–3).
The fifth section (22:10–16) states the provision for the priestly family. In addition to the clean priest, members of his household may also eat of the priestly foods; this includes any slaves that he purchases (22:11). No one outside of the priestly community has access to the holy foods of the priests. If a priest’s daughter marries a “lay person,” then she officially becomes part of his non-priestly family and forfeits her privilege to partake of the priestly portions. If, however, she is widowed or divorced without any children to support her, then she can return to her priestly father and again enjoy the priestly foods (22:12–13). Any lay person who inadvertently eats this holy food must replace it and add a fifth of what he took (22:14–16).
The sixth section (22:17–33) describes the types of animals that may not be sacrificed. Just as physical defects prohibit priests from fulfilling their priestly duties, so physical deformities of animals prevent their use in any sacrificial offerings.
It is interesting that the physical perfection required of priests is similar to that required of sacrificial animals (cf. 22:17–25). This is not the only time the priests are depicted as sacrificial. The firstborn of Israel was consecrated to the Lord at the time of the final wondrous sign against Egypt (Exod 13:12–15); however, as a substitute for their firstborn, the Lord took the Levites for himself (Num 3:12–13, 45). Thus, they are not given a land inheritance, as the Lord is their portion (Num 18:20; Deut 18:1–2). We have seen how both the sacrifices and the priests serve as shadows of Jesus Christ as both the greater sacrifice and priest. According to the Book of Hebrews, one of the reasons the priestly ministry of Christ is superior is that he did what no other Aaronic priest could do: he offered himself. By describing this close correlation between the sacrificial animals and the priests, Leviticus anticipates the nature of Christ’s superior priesthood. Just as the priests and animals are required to be physically without defect, so they both are offered up as a substitute for others: the priests for the firstborn, and the animals for Israel.
This section on the priests ends with an exhortation to obey (22:31–33). The basis of this call is the redemptive work of the Lord who freed them from slavery in Egypt. As a redeemed people, they are free to do what they could not do before: to obey the Lord and conform to his holy standard. Therefore, by being their Redeemer, the Lord also became their Sanctifier.
23:1–44 The regulations of holy things continue in this chapter. We are no longer dealing with holy officers, but rather holy times of religious festival gatherings that celebrate Israel’s redemption. There are three sections. The first is a call to honor these appointed festivals (23:1–4). The second describes the spring festivals (23:5–22). The third describes fall festivals (23:23–44).
The opening section calls these festivals a “holy convocation” that is held at divinely appointed times. These are gatherings for worship that serve a divine purpose, so they are simply specific applications of the sabbath commandment, which is mentioned in 23:3. In the same way that the sabbath had theological significance, so also do each of these festivals.
The spring feasts begin with Passover and Unleavened Bread (23:5–14). Passover is celebrated in the first month on the fourteenth day after the Exodus from Egypt (approximately mid- to late March); Unleavened Bread begins on the fifteenth day. According to Exodus 12:2, the Exodus marks the beginning of a new year; thus, all the festivals are dated with the Exodus as the start-date. Passover and Unleavened bread constitute two parts of the same festival celebration. Passover is a one-night celebration; no other details are given. This presumes a familiarity with Exodus 12, which describes the feast in detail. Unleavened Bread, unlike the one night of Passover, is a seven-day festival that begins and ends with a “holy convocation.” During this week, Israel can only eat unleavened bread; they are also to cease from their daily work and offer daily food offerings (23:6–8). 23:9–14 elaborates on a portion of Unleavened Bread that is briefly mentioned in Exodus 34:18–20, the offering of firstfruits. Like much of Leviticus, this presumes Israel’s presence in Canaan. After they settle in the land and reap the fruits of their first harvest (23:9–10), they are to offer a grain offering of that first grain harvest and a burnt offering to the Lord. Once they do so, they can enjoy the rest of the harvest for themselves (23:11–14).
The next major festival is the Feast of Weeks (23:15–22), which derives its name from the fact that it is celebrated seven “weeks” after the sabbath of the Passover, plus one day (23:15–16). As this is the fiftieth day (23:16), by the New Testament times it was more commonly called “Pentecost.” The high point of the festival is the grain offering of two loaves of bread as the firstfruits of the annual wheat harvest (23:17). In addition to this, several animal offerings are required, some of which are reminiscent of the unblemished lamb of Passover (23:18; cf. Exod 12:5). These animal and grain offerings work together as the purification, burnt, and grain offerings that lead to the celebration of the peace offering (23:18–19). Like the Feast of Unleavened Bread, this festival day is a form of sabbath (23:21). Interestingly, in contrast to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the two loaves are specifically to be prepared using “leaven” (23:17).
The remaining “holy festivals” occur in the fall, specifically in the seventh month of the year. The Feast of Trumpets is held on the first day of the seventh month (23:23–25). It is a day of rest with a celebrative feast and the blasting of trumpets. No specific reason is given for this. However, this is not a surprising start to this month since it is the appointed time for several redemptively rich celebrations: the Day of Atonement on the tenth day (23:27), and the Feast of Booths on the fifteenth day (23:34).
The Day of Atonement (23:27–32) begins on the tenth day (23:27). The details of this day were already given in Leviticus 16.
The Feast of Booths is the last of the major festivals (23:33–44). It is observed on the fifteenth day of the seventh month and marks the end of the agricultural year. This is the final ingathering of the harvest, so it is also called the feast of “ingathering” in Exodus 23:16 and 34:22. It is an eight-day celebration with a holy convocation on the first and last days. During the intermediary days, Israel is told to dwell in “booths” (or “tabernacles”) to remember their wilderness journey from Egypt to their new homeland in Canaan.
Although each of these festivals had significant meaning for ancient Israel, they also point to greater theological realities as “a shadow of the things to come” (Col 2:17). Passover/Unleavened Bread and Weeks are the most obviously theological feasts, since the New Testament shows they anticipated the cross of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, respectively. The death of Christ on the cross atones for the people of God; this is foreshadowed repeatedly in the sacrificial system throughout Leviticus. The work of the Spirit is to bond the church to the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, so that we have been crucified with Christ and no longer live, but Christ lives in us (Gal 2:20). Just as there is a bond between the work of Christ and his Spirit, so there is a similar bond between the two festivals of Passover/Unleavened Bread and Weeks. Weeks is the only festival where the start date is not measured in relation to the Exodus, but to the Passover/Unleavened Bread. Leviticus 23:15 says Weeks begins seven weeks (or fifty days) after Passover. Both mention an offering of “firstfruits” (23:10, 17). This makes Weeks dependent on Passover.
Booths reminds Israel of their wilderness wanderings where they had to dwell in “booths” or “tents.” This nomadic life comes to an end when they settle into their homeland of Canaan. In the same way, the wilderness era of the church will also come to an end when she enters into the final sabbath-rest (Heb 4:9) at the return of Christ and the ushering in of the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev 21–22). Booths is a reminder to God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments that they are merely “sojourners” and “resident aliens” traveling in this fallen world until they reach their final homeland, which is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1Pet 1:4). From this analysis, Jesus represents the fulfillment of all these festivals. Passover portrays his coming sacrifice, Pentecost the work of his Spirit that unites his redemptive work to believers, Booths the return of Christ when he establishes the blessed homeland of God and the New Heavens and New Earth (Isa 65:17; Rev 21–22).
24:1–23 The previous section describes festival celebrations involving sacrificial offerings made at the tabernacle. Chapter 24 reminds Israel that provisions for worship at the tabernacle are a daily obligation and not restricted to these special festival times (24:1–9). A final warning is also given to avoid blaspheming the holy name of the Lord (24:10–23).
24:1–9 Whenever a priest entered the tent of meeting from the courtyard, he would see three pieces of furniture: to his right, the golden table with the holy bread of the priests; to his left, the golden lampstand in the shape of a tree (menorah); and in front of him, the altar of incense. Israel is mandated to provide olive oil regularly so that the priests can keep the lampstand burning continually (24:1–4). The priests are also required to bake twelve loaves of bread and place them on the table in two piles of six loaves along with frankincense (24:5–9). The high priest arranges the bread every Sabbath (24:8) as a food offering to the Lord. The priests are permitted to share in a portion of this bread as their due (24:9). The ritual of having continual light and food on the table gives the impression that there is a permanent dweller within this home. The message of this continued practice is clear: the Lord is always with his people.
24:10–23 This is a narrative about a blasphemer. During a fight between two men, one blasphemes the name of the Lord by cursing him. This is a clear violation of the third commandment and deserving of death. When this is discovered, he is brought to Moses and placed in custody until the Lord reveals what is to become of him (24:11–12). The problem lies in the fact that the blaspheming man is only half Israelite: his mother is Israelite (from Dan), and his father is Egyptian. In such a case, does the man still suffer death? In essence, the question is whether covenant requirements and penalties apply to “sojourners,” or whether they apply only to “native” Israelites. The answer is that the distinction between native and sojourner is not significant. The death penalty is still warranted, as foreigners and non-native residents in Israel are expected to honor the Lord and conform to these moral standards. The man is taken outside, Israel lays hands on him, and he is stoned (24:13–15, 23). The Lord takes this opportunity to update the law against blasphemy so that both “sojourners” and “natives” are accountable to follow this commandment (24:16). He also articulates other major principles of biblical law (24:17–23). If someone takes another person’s life, then they forfeit their own and should be put to death (24:17, 21b). If anyone takes an animal life, then he must replace it with the same animal: a life for a life (24:18, 21a). If anyone harms his neighbor, then he will be harmed in the same way: eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The goal is the establishment of justice: to honor the sacredness of human life and to mete out penalties that fit the crime.
25:1–55 This chapter gives the regulations on the sabbatical and Jubilee year. Chapters 21–24 focus on holy things, such as the holy priests, priestly meals, holy festivals, the holy sanctuary, and the holy name of the Lord. Chapter 25 looks at the societal life of Israel more holistically. This helps us to see that the history of Israel is intended to be understood as a cycle of sabbaths and Jubilee years. It is no wonder that the sabbath is a sign of the covenant between the Lord and his people (Exod 31:13–17). The grandeur of this year brings an appropriate end to this section on holiness (chs. 17–25) in the same way that regulations on the Day of Atonement provided a climax to the previous section on ritual cleanness (chs. 11–16). The chapter is divided into three sections: the sabbath for the land (25:1–22); the Jubilee year and its redemption of land property (25:23–38); and the Jubilee year and its redemption of slaves (25:39–55).
25:1–22 This section begins with a reminder that the land needs sabbath (cf. Exod 23:10–11). Just as man is to work for six days then rest on the seventh day, so Israel is to work the land for six years and then allow the land to rest on the seventh. That year is a “Sabbath of solemn rest for the land”; there is no sowing of fields, pruning of vineyards, or reaping of harvests. The produce of the land in that year is free for anyone to take (25:1–7). At the end of every seventh group of seven years—the fiftieth year—there is a special celebration of sabbath: this is the year of “Jubilee” (25:8–12). Whenever a person incurs a debt that he cannot repay, he might sell portions of his inherited land or even his services as a servant to a fellow Israelite to repay that debt. However, on the Day of Atonement in the year of Jubilee, the land is returned back to its original owner, and anyone who has sold himself as a slave is also set free. Since the land is used for agricultural growth each year, holding more land for more years means more resources. The value of the land is determined by the number of years until Jubilee. For example, land sold with five years left until Jubilee would provide five years of crops; however, land sold with ten years until Jubilee is twice as valuable. The worth of an Israelite selling himself as a servant is also dependent on the time left until the Jubilee. This regulation is given to prevent Israelites from permanently depriving their neighbor of their inherited land or exploiting each other into a lifetime of servitude (25:13–17). The Lord exhorts Israel to follow these regulations. He will bless the sixth year of these sabbatical cycles so the land produces enough produce for three additional years: for the seventh year of Jubilee, the eighth year while Israel works the land, then the ninth as they wait for the harvest (25:18–22).
25:23–38 This section begins with a significant reminder: the land belongs to the Lord, and the people of Israel are “strangers and sojourners” in it (25:23). As such, they are only traveling through Canaan until they reach their ultimate homeland. We mentioned the shadowy nature of the sacrifices and how they point to a greater reality; the land is to be understood in the same way. The true land where the people of God will dwell securely is not the earthly Canaan, but the heavenly Canaan. The immediate concern of this section is with the redemption of the land. If a man is forced to sell portions of his property, then a member of his family is obligated to buy it back. If the man who sold the land is somehow able to buy back his land, then he is allowed to do so for the price in relation to Jubilee (25:16). Otherwise, his land is restored at Jubilee (25:23–28). Further laws are given regarding homes. A house within a walled city does not revert back to the previous owner at Jubilee; however, the seller can purchase it back within a year. Homes in the open field, and also Levitical cities, can be redeemed at any time (25:29–34). Israelites who end up selling all their properties must be cared for by members of their family. Any loans given to such an impoverished person is to be interest-free. The generosity of Israelites to their fellow Israelites is important because it reflects the grace of the Lord to them (25:35–38).
25:39–55 In particularly desperate times, a person could sell themselves either to a fellow Israelite (25:39–46) or to a resident foreigner (25:47–55). Such a person is not a slave to the buyer because he belongs to the Lord, for he redeemed them in Egypt. As Israel is a sojourner in Canaan (25:23), so the Israelite is also a sojourner on the property of the buyer (25:39–46). If an Israelite sells himself to a resident foreigner, then a family member may redeem them at any time (25:47–55). In either case, abusive treatment is forbidden (25:43, 53; cf. 25:17). Any notions of nineteenth-century slavery in America are clearly not applicable here. The situation is more analogous to indentured servitude.
This chapter invites modern applications in the area of social justice. However, some caution must be taken. Israel was a theocratic monarchy. As such, the situations of their day are not equivalent to ours, since the theocratic state no longer continues. Second, regulations regarding land and human service are based on the redemptive event of the Exodus (25:2, 38, 42, 55). The Exodus is the reason the “service for hire” is not equivalent to slavery (25:39–55). The Lord is Israel’s true Master and King; thus, Israelites are slaves only to him (25:55). The premise of land redemption is the notion that the land is a holy residence for Israel to dwell with their holy King—a macro temple. This differs significantly from modern concepts of private ownership of land or property, which lack any redemptive significance. Third, Jubilee represents the great year of total redemption and freedom from the corruption of sin. Isaiah 61:1 prophesies of such a Jubilee. Luke 4:16–20 tells us that the year of Jubilee began with the coming of Jesus Christ, although this year will be fulfilled in two stages that parallel his two advents. At his first coming, there is freedom from the powers of sin and the presence of God in Christ. This will be fully realized at his second coming, where the people of God will be transformed into a holy and glorified humanity without any form of corruption. Then, we will dwell with our Lord in the truly Holy Land of the New Heavens and Earth (Isa 65:17; Rev 21–22).
Covenant Sanctions (26:1–46)
This chapter describes the blessings and curses of the covenant. It was common in the ancient world for treaty documents to have a section dedicated to sanctions like these. This reminds us that the Book of Leviticus is essentially covenantal. Specifically, as we discussed earlier regarding the literary structure, the laws and regulations in Leviticus are specific applications of the Ten Commandments with literary connections to Exodus 21–40. The constant repetition of the phrase “I am the Lord your God” reminds us of the opening to the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God” (Exod 20:2). This confirms its close connection to Exodus and its intrinsic covenantal nature. Thus, the inclusion of the blessings and curses is not surprising but expected.
The chapter is clearly divided into three sections: the first repeats basic and fundamental laws of worship (26:1–2). Since the primary (though not exclusive) focus of Leviticus has been on worship matters, it seems logical to remind Israel of two commandments on worship (the second and fourth), although they clearly represent the entirety of the Mosaic regulations.
The second section lists the blessings that will come to those who keep the law and regulations (26:3–13). The kinds of blessings are wide ranging: from abundant rain that will produce a rich harvest (26:4–5), to peace in the land from their enemies who will attempt to kill them and take their foods. As a result, Israel will prosper; they will be fruitful and multiply and have abundance of sustenance (26:6–10). Of course, the pinnacle of all blessings is the gift of the divine presence in their midst (26:11–13). This is the consistent goal of the Book of Leviticus, which is reiterated here.
The third section focuses on the curses, which clearly outnumber the blessings (26:14–46). This also was common in ancient treaties. As such, this is a clear injunction for Israel not to violate the covenant and offend the holiness of the Lord, as there are consequences for doing so. The list begins with general curses but grows in intensity: diseases (26:16), being ransacked by their enemies (26:17), famine (26:18–20), being devoured by wild beasts (26:21–22), and the devastation and horror of war (26:23–26). The most intense and traumatic of all the curses is exile, which is described in very graphic and destructive images (26:27–39). Of particular note is the imagery of rest to the land as a result of Israel’s exile, where each exilic year is interpreted as a Jubilee year of rest for the land (26:34–35; cf. 2Chr 36:20–21). This presumes that Israel never honored the sabbatical and Jubilee regulations on land rest. The purpose of all this is to discipline the Lord’s wayward people (26:18, 28). Even though curses dominate this chapter, this is not the end of Israel’s story. If, as a result of these curses, Israel confesses her sins and humbly repents of her rebellious ways, then the Lord will remember his covenant with the patriarchs and restore the people to their homeland. This closing message of repentant hope and restorative grace is a strong affirmation of the Lord’s mercy for his people, which he demonstrates throughout this book (26:40–46).
These blessings and curses do not merely lay out the consequences of covenant obedience and disobedience; they also anticipate what is to come. The curse of exile is not just a potential threat; it eventually becomes a historical reality. Even as Israel experienced the destruction of their land and the city of Jerusalem as they suffered through the harshness of life in a foreign land, there is still hope. Leviticus 26:40–46 provides this hope. The people need to repent. If they do so, then the Lord will restore their fortunes and restore them to their land. We see this restoration fulfilled in the ministry of Ezra/Nehemiah. This simple call to repentance and hopeful restoration is the overarching message of the historical books (Joshua–Kings) and the majority of the prophets (Isaiah–Malachi).
Just as we have seen throughout the entirety of Leviticus, there is a garden of Eden motif here as well. The blessings are reminiscent of the life God intended for Adam in the garden. In fact, 26:9 echoes the cultural mandate when the Lord commanded Adam to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). Israel can restore this blessed life by faithfully obeying the covenant laws. The curses are also a reminder of what was lost in Adam. As he was removed from the holy presence of the Lord, so Israel also would experience the same loss. The blessings and curses portray Israel as another Adam. Like Adam, Israel also failed to obey the covenantal demands; thus, like Adam, they also were exiled from the holy land. The history of God’s people, as the lives of Adam and Israel attest, demonstrates man’s inability to obey the commands of the Lord. This sadly continues into the New Testament church. What is needed is an ideal Adam, an ideal Israel—someone who can obey the holy demands of the Lord and thus merit the blessings of the covenant. This section of Leviticus, therefore, points to the greater Adam and Israel, whose “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life” (Rom 5:18). That true Israelite is Jesus Christ, and those who trust in him no longer have to fear the covenant curses because he gave himself up for us by becoming “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). Because of his sacrificial death, there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). Instead, by faith they receive a righteousness that does not come from the law, “but . . . which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9).
Regulations of Vows (27:1–34)
This final chapter deals with regulations on vows, which seems an odd way to conclude the Book of Leviticus. But if the blessings and curses in chapter 26 could be seen as God’s vows to his people and his promises for Israel’s future, then it seems appropriate for Israel to respond with their own vows to the Lord. During times of difficulty, it was not uncommon for people to make a vow to the Lord where they promised to do something or give something to him if he would answer their plea for help. In the heat of the moment, however, a rash and difficult vow could be made, something that a person is unwilling to do or give, or possibly exchange for something else. If such a vow is made, then the vow must still be honored. If they wish to free themselves from the vow, then they can pay a redemption price. The cost of this redemption depends on what was vowed. These redemption prices are generally very expensive, which may have been an implicit way for the Lord to discourage the making of vows. The overall concern of this chapter deals with commitment to the Lord, which is not something to be taken lightly. By being in a covenanted relationship with the Lord, the Israelites commit to following him and his holy regulations (Exod 19:8; 24:3, 7). The Lord did the same when he “brought [them] out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God” (Lev 26:45). He strongly proclaims his commitment when he says, “I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (26:12). Since commitment and dedication are at the heart of this divine communion where Israel is called to consecrate their entire life to the Lord as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6), it seems a fitting way to end the book.
Verses 1–8 provide the valuation prices for persons. For males twenty to sixty years old, their value is fifty shekels; for a female of the same age, thirty shekels. For males five to twenty years old, their value is twenty shekels; for females, ten. For male children from birth to five years, their value is five shekels; for females, three. It appears that men are valued higher than women, but this understanding would not be accurate. This scale is based on the value of labor in an agriculturally based community. In this setting, younger men are valued higher than older men or women since they are able to work in that physically demanding context with greater productivity. This is the basis of their worth in this context of valuation; it is productive value, not intrinsic value.
Verses 9–13 provide the valuation of animals. For clean animals, no substitute price can be paid; the vowed animal must be offered. If a substitute is offered, then both animals are lost (27:9–10). Unclean animals, however, can be redeemed by adding a fifth to the valuation price set by the priests (27:11–13).
Verses 14–24 provide the valuation of homes and land. Just like unclean animals, a home can be redeemed by paying a fifth in addition to the valuation price set by the priests (27:14–15). Vows involving land are more complex (27:16–24). The value of the land starts at fifty shekels, which equal to an entire Jubilee cycle. From the day he makes the vow until the next Jubilee, the owner who vows the land retains possession to work it and use its produce to redeem the land. That redemption price is based on fifty shekels, minus the years until Jubilee, plus a fifth. If at Jubilee he cannot afford the redemption price, then ownership of the land transfers to the Lord (i.e., priests) irrevocably. The land also remains permanently with the Lord if the man tries to sell it to another man (cf. 25:14–17). After all, he cannot sell to another what is vowed to the Lord.
Verse 25 provides the amount of gerahs per shekel. The reason for this information is not given, but its similarity to 27:3 suggests the beginning of a new section. The remaining verses (27:26–34) differ from the previous section in that 27:1–24 lists items that can be vowed to the Lord, while items in 27:26–34 already belong to the Lord and may not be dedicated. The firstborn of clean animals already is dedicated to the Lord and thus cannot be redeemed. Unclean animals, however, can be redeemed at a set valuation plus a fifth (27:26–27). No “devoted thing” or “devoted person” (Hebrew herem) can be redeemed, as they have already been devoted to the Lord (27:28–29). To redeem the tithes of land or animals, one must pay the valuation price plus a fifth (27:30–34).
The Book of Leviticus provides laws and regulations that governed Israel during their time as a theocratic monarchy, when the Lord was their holy God and King. Because of the holy status of the Lord and his covenant with Israel, everything associated with the people was also to be holy: the covenant, the land, the officers, the people, their calendar, and even their clothes and homes. These external forms of holiness, however, were only “regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (Heb 9:10). That “time of reformation” arrived with Jesus Christ. In light of Christ, what was a blessing for the Old Covenant order is now considered “obsolete” and thus “ready to vanish away” (Heb 8:13), because Jesus is the greater sacrifice who is not offered continually, but once for all. He is also the greater high priest from a superior priesthood. Everything Leviticus points to is realized in Jesus Christ (Luke 24:25–27; 44–48; 1Pet 1:10–11), and it is his shadow that is revealed in Leviticus. This does not, however, diminish the value of these holy regulations. They distinguished Israel from the pagan nations around them, protected them from destructive practices, and, most importantly, helped identify them as the covenanted people of the holy God of creation. Although the holy nature of God revealed in Leviticus requires a level of covenantal obedience beyond Israel’s ability, Leviticus also reveals that the Lord provides the way to become holy and have intimate fellowship with him. In this way, Leviticus was a proclamation of the gospel message to a people in desperate need of it.
Currid, John. Leviticus. Evangelical Press Study Commentary. Faverdale North, Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2004.
Duke, R. K. “Priests, Priesthood,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, 646–65. Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2002.
Gerstenberger, Erhard. Leviticus: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
Greidanus, Sidney. Preaching Christ in Leviticus: Foundations for Expository Sermons. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021.
Irons, Charles L. “Atonement in Leviticus.” Unpublished paper.
Kiuchi, Nobuyoshi. Leviticus. Apollos Old Testament Commentary Series. Volume 3. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.
McKelvey, Michael G. “Leviticus,” in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised. Edited by Miles Van Pelt. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016.
Morales, L. Michael. Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A biblical theology of the book of Leviticus. New Studies in Biblical Theology Series. Volume 37. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
Sklar, Jay. Leviticus. Tyndale Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
–––. Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015.
Wenham, Gordon. The Book of Leviticus. New International Commentary of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.
The text of Leviticus, excluding all Bible quotations, is © 2023 by The Gospel Coalition. The Gospel Coalition (TGC) gives you permission to reproduce this work in its entirety, without any changes, in English for noncommercial distribution throughout the world. Crossway, the holder of the copyright to the ESV Bible text, grants permission to include the ESV quotations within this work, in English.
In addition, TGC gives you permission to faithfully translate the work into any other language, but you may not translate the English ESV Bible into another language. If you wish to include Bible quotations with the translated work, you will need to obtain permission from a publisher of a Bible translation in the same language.
All scripture quotations are taken from the ESV® Bible (the Holy Bible, English Standard Version®) copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. ESV Text Edition: 2016. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated into any other language. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, is adapted from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A
Laws for Burnt Offerings
1:1 The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock.
3 “If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD. 4 He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. 5 Then he shall kill the bull before the LORD, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 6 Then he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces, 7 and the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 And Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; 9 but its entrails and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, a food offering1 with a pleasing aroma to the LORD.
10 “If his gift for a burnt offering is from the flock, from the sheep or goats, he shall bring a male without blemish, 11 and he shall kill it on the north side of the altar before the LORD, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall throw its blood against the sides of the altar. 12 And he shall cut it into pieces, with its head and its fat, and the priest shall arrange them on the wood that is on the fire on the altar, 13 but the entrails and the legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall offer all of it and burn it on the altar; it is a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD.
14 “If his offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, then he shall bring his offering of turtledoves or pigeons. 15 And the priest shall bring it to the altar and wring off its head and burn it on the altar. Its blood shall be drained out on the side of the altar. 16 He shall remove its crop with its contents2 and cast it beside the altar on the east side, in the place for ashes. 17 He shall tear it open by its wings, but shall not sever it completely. And the priest shall burn it on the altar, on the wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD.
Or an offering by fire; so throughout Leviticus