Introductions: Leviticus

from Feb 15, 2012 Category: Articles

Who wrote it? When was it written and why?

These are some of the important questions to answer as you explore any book of the Bible. To aid you in your study of God’s Word we have been adapting and posting some of the detailed book introductions found in The Reformation Study Bible. Today, we continue a series through the Pentateuch. 

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The Book of Leviticus

Author | Date & Occasion | Characteristics & Themes


The conclusion that Moses wrote Leviticus derives from the internal character of Leviticus itself and of the Pentateuch as a whole, as well as from Old and New Testament references to Moses as the author of the Pentateuch. For a more complete discussion of issues relating to Mosaic authorship, see “Introduction to the Pentateuch” in The Reformation Study Bible.

Date and Occasion

The precise date Leviticus was committed to writing remains somewhat uncertain, though it doubtless occurred during the wilderness wandering prior to Moses’ death (c. 1406 B.C.)

Leviticus everywhere reports the words of God to Moses and his brother Aaron, but it never states when and how these words were written down. The precise date Leviticus was committed to writing remains somewhat uncertain, though it doubtless occurred during the wilderness wandering prior to Moses’ death (c. 1406 B.C.). The majority of critical scholars place the writing of Leviticus in the postexilic era (c. the sixth century B.C.), many centuries after Moses. This view is improbable, however, because the content of Leviticus does not fit such a late period: the worship of the second temple differed significantly from that enjoined in Leviticus, and Leviticus is presupposed or quoted by earlier books such as Deuteronomy, Amos, and, most obviously, Ezekiel. Other arguments against the origin of Leviticus in Moses’ time are also unconvincing. The book reflects the ideals of worship and holiness that were accepted in Israel from the time of Moses to the fall of Jerusalem in 587/86 B.C.

Characteristics and Themes

No book in the Old Testament presents a greater challenge to the modern reader than Leviticus, and imagination is required to picture the ceremonies and rites that form the bulk of the book. However, it is important to try to understand the rituals in Leviticus for two reasons. First, rituals enshrine, express, and teach those values and ideas that a society holds most dear. By analyzing the ceremonies described in Leviticus, we can learn about what was most important to the Old Testament Israelites. Second, these same ideas are foundational for the New Testament writers. Particularly the concepts of sin, sacrifice, and atonement found in Leviticus are used in the New Testament to interpret the death of Christ.

The God of Leviticus, whose essential character is shown to be holy life, is shown in the Gospels to be present in Christ and His redemptive work.

Precisely because the rituals of Leviticus are so central to Old Testament thinking, they are often obscure to us, because the writers did not need to explain them to their contemporaries. Every Israelite knew why a particular sacrifice was offered on a specific occasion and what a certain gesture meant. For ourselves, every hint in the text must be grasped to understand these things, and a judicious reading between the lines is sometimes required.

Leviticus is part of the covenant law given at Sinai. The ideas that inform the whole Sinaitic covenant, including God’s sovereign grace in choosing Israel and His moral demands, are also presupposed here. Certain themes are especially prominent in Leviticus. First, God is present with His people. Second, because God is holy, His people must also be holy (Lev. 11:45). Since man is sinful, he cannot dwell with the holy God. Contact between the sinner and the divine holiness may result in death. Hence, atonement for sin through the offering of sacrifice is of paramount importance. These themes may be elaborated as follows.

1. The Divine Presence. Every act of worship is performed “to the LORD” (e.g., Lev. 1:2), who dwells with His people in the tabernacle of meeting. Because God is present in the Most Holy Place, entry is barred to all but the high priest once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:17). Though God’s presence is usually invisible, He may manifest His glory on special occasions such as the ordination of the priests (Lev. 9:23, 24). The greatest of God’s gifts is that He deigns to dwell with His people (Lev. 26:12).

2. Holiness. The aims of Leviticus are summarized in Lev. 11:45: “You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” Man is meant to be like God in his character. That involves imitating God in daily life. The holiness of God involves His being the source of perfect life in its physical, spiritual, and moral dimensions. Animals offered to Him in sacrifice must be free of blemish (Lev. 1:3), and priests who represent God to man and man to God must be free of physical handicaps (Lev. 21:17–23). Those who suffer discharges, particularly of blood, or who have disfiguring skin diseases are barred from worship until they are cured (Leviticus 12–15). Physical health is seen to symbolize the perfection of divine life. But holiness is also an inward matter of attitudes issuing in moral behavior. The theme of holiness is especially emphasized in Leviticus 17–25, which are chiefly concerned with personal ethical conduct, summed up in Lev. 19:18 as “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

3. Atonement Through Sacrifice. Since man failed to live up to God’s righteous requirements, a means of atonement was essential so that both his moral lapses and his physical failings could be pardoned. To this end Leviticus gives the most extensive descriptions of the sacrificial system (Leviticus 1–7), the role of the priests (Lev. 8–10; 21–22), and the great national festivals (Lev. 16; 23; 25) found in the Old Testament. These great ceremonies were designed to make possible the coexistence of the holy God with His sinful people.

Through the symbols and rites it describes, Leviticus paints a picture of God’s character that is presupposed and deepened in the New Testament. Leviticus teaches that God is the source of perfect life, that He loves His people, and that He desires to dwell among them. In this we see a foreshadowing of the Incarnation, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Leviticus also shows clearly man’s sinfulness: no sooner are Aaron’s sons ordained than they profane their office and die in a fearful display of divine judgment (Leviticus 10). Those suffering from skin disease or bodily discharge, as well as those guilty of grave moral sins, are barred from worship because their imperfections are incompatible with a holy and perfect God (Leviticus 12–15). The symbols of Leviticus teach the universality of human sin, a doctrine endorsed by Jesus (Mark 7:21–23) and Paul (Rom. 3:23). Caught between divine holiness and human sinfulness, man’s paramount need is for atonement. It is here that Leviticus has the most to teach the Christian, for its ideas are taken up and developed by the New Testament in describing the atoning work of Christ. He is the perfect sacrificial Lamb, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). His death is the ransom for many (Mark 10:45). His blood cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). Above all, Jesus is the perfect High Priest who enters not the earthly tabernacle once a year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), but has ascended to the heavenly tabernacle forever, because He has not offered merely a goat for the sins of His people, but His own life (Heb. 9; 10). The rending of the temple veil when Jesus was crucified was a visible demonstration that His death opened up the way to God for all believers (Matt. 27:51; Heb. 10:19, 20). Furthermore, Leviticus restricts salvation to the old covenant community of Israel. The food laws (ch. 11) and the prohibitions on mixtures (19:19) reminded Jews of their unique status. But the New Testament opens the kingdom to all nations and abrogates the food laws (Mark 7:14–23; Acts 10), while at the same time insisting on the separation of the church from the world (John 17:16; 2 Cor. 6:14–7:1). And while the Old Testament sufferer had to wait for God to heal him (Leviticus 14), in the Gospels God in Christ drew near and healed both lepers and those with discharges (Luke 8:43–48; 17:12–19). The God of Leviticus, whose essential character is shown to be holy life, is shown in the Gospels to be present in Christ and His redemptive work.

Leviticus, the Latin form of the Greek title of the book, means “about Levites.” The Levites were the tribe of Israel from which the priests were drawn; they were responsible for maintaining Israel’s worship facilities and practices. The title is apt, because the book is primarily about worship and fitness for worship. However it is not addressed solely to priests or Levites, but also to lay Israelites, telling them how to offer sacrifices and to enter the presence of God in worship. Leviticus speaks to humanity in every age, reminding us of the depth of our sin, but also pointing us to the sacrifice of Him whose blood is far more effective than the blood of bulls and goats.

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Adapted from The Reformation Study Bible, © 2005 Ligonier Ministries.