The Centre of the Pentateuch
The book of Leviticus sits right in the centre of the Pentateuch, framed on one side by Genesis and Exodus and on the other by Numbers and Deuteronomy. It deals with that most important matter in any religion: worship of God. It also prepares Israel for the great trek through the wilderness to the promised land by instructing it how to be holy and to remain holy before the God who now dwells in its midst (cf. Exod 40:34-38).
Clearly, it is a key book in the Pentateuch or Torah, but it is not a popular one among Christian readers. The detailed descriptions of how to sacrifice animals offend some while the laws about clean and unclean strike others as quaint and remote.
The repetitive style can bore readers, who turn with relief to the ripping yarns of Judges or Samuel. One highly rated exegete was heard to remark that reading Leviticus was like driving through the Syrian desert:dry, very dry.
Perhaps the problem lies more with ourselves than the text; do we prefer to be entertained rather than challenged?
I think it is worthwhile having a look at Leviticus, it does provide some fascinating material and has prompted scholars to come up with some innovative theories to explain its mysteries and oddities.
One might think that the name of the book means that it is for Levites. Not so; compared to Numbers and Deuteronomy, the Levites hardly rate a mention (cf. 25:32-33).
We are saddled with a Latin name derived from the Greek Old Testament, whose translators probably thought the priests mentioned in the book were Levitical priests.
The history of Old Testament priesthood is a much debated issue which we cannot go into here; suffice it to say that our book does not identify its clergy as Levites, although other books such as Ezekiel are adamant that the real clergy are the 'Levitical priests' whereas the 'Levites' are lesser bodies who look after the sacred precincts and transport the sacred paraphernalia (cf. Ezekiel 44 and Numbers 10).
Behind these texts, which critical scholarship tends to date in the exilic or post-exilic periods, one senses conflicting claims by various groups as to who is a real priest and who should officiate in the liturgy. Familiar stuff for Christians.
The early Rabbis called the book 'the priests' manual' (torat kohanim), which comes closer to the mark. Even so, only a limited portion of the book is reserved for priests (chs. 8-10; 16; 21:1-22:16).
Surprisingly given these titles, the bulk of the book is about what the people are to do. Above all, Leviticus is concerned for the welfare and good conduct of Israel as it prepares for its wilderness journey.
The Hebrew title, like Vatican documents, uses the first word of the text and in this case it is 'and (God) called' (vayiqra). The text portrays God instructing Israel through Moses who is summoned to act as mediator.
A quick survey of Leviticus reveals two major sections; chs. 1-16 which deal with cultic matters, and chs. 17-26 which deal with a mix of cultic and moral matters.
The latter is called by modern scholars 'the Holiness Code' because of the repeated refrain that 'you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy'. Along with the 'covenant code' in Exod 20:22-23:33 and Deuteronomy 12-26, it forms one of the three extended law codes in the Torah.
There are a number of differences between the two major parts, leading many to think that they come from different schools or priestly groups in Israel. Let's call them P (for chs. 1-16) and H (for chs. 17-26).
For P, spatial holiness (to be holy means to be 'set apart') refers primarily to the sanctuary, for H it is the promised land and so it is looking beyond the Sinai desert setting.
P tends to focus personal holiness on the priests whereas H extends it to all Israel (because all live in the holy land).
P's notion of holiness is more static, H's more dynamic.
P seems concerned about ritual violations of the holy sanctuary, H about violations of the covenant, and so on.
Narrative illustrating chatechesis
Narrative or storytelling, which we saw dominates Genesis and Exodus, almost fades from view here.
It is as if the narrative about human beings trying to be human stops for a while to enable them to listen to God personally instruct them about the most important thing of all: their relationship to God.
From another point of view, one can see that the static image of the desert sanctuary in Exodus is transformed as the presence and voice of God brings it to vibrant life.
Narrative may be spare in this book-there are only two examples-but they are strategically placed.
One concerns the priests in chs. 8-10; the other concerns a layperson in 24:1-23.
Each serves a catechetical function to illustrate one or more points of the surrounding law.
The first deals with the failure of some priests; the second the failure of a member of the community.
Division of the Text
A closer look at the book enables one to suggest the following arrangement: chs. 1-7 (laws on sacrifice); 8-10 (narrative about priests); 11-15 (laws on clean and unclean); 16 (the great day of atonement); 17:1-24:9 (laws on holiness); 24:10-23 (narrative about a layman); 25-27 (law on the great jubilee and on restoration).
One can see that each narrative is encased fore and aft by legislation, on the one hand the P material and on the other the H material.
Not only the location but also the careful arrangement of material signals the importance of Leviticus within the Torah.
One would expect the sanctuary to play a major role in the subsequent narrative.
Surprisingly, once it is all packed up in Numbers 10 in readiness for the journey, we hardly hear of it again. Why so? This and other questions will occupy us as we work our way through Leviticus and the remaining books of the Torah.
The Sacrificial System
The foundational instructions for sacrifice in Leviticus are given in chapters 1-7. The particular sacrifices/offerings named are the whole burnt offerings (ch. 1); the cereal offerings (ch. 2); the offering of well-being (from 'shalom'; ch. 3) and the sin offerings (chs. 4:1-6:7).
These instructions are not the secret preserve of priests, as was apparently the case in other ancient Near Eastern cults, but for the people as well as the priests.
Lev 6:8-7:38 is however directed to the priests, giving them particular instructions for each of the offerings named. According to 1:4, the whole-burnt offering (cf. holocaust) is for atonement but Deuteronomy 12 associates it and other rituals with rejoicing.
Leviticus may represent one among a number of viewpoints. It may be listed here to ensure that worshippers first of all recognise their unworthiness before God and seek atonement.
The great Rabbi Ishmael argued that God ordained the offering of a bull calf first to protect Israel against a repetition of the golden calf worship in Exodus 32. A Leviticus text associated with this view is 17:7 (worship of goat-demons).
According to 2:2, the cereal offering serves as a 'pleasing odour to the Lord'. It may be meant to compliment the atoning burnt offering, a gesture that symbolises the worshipper is now welcome in God's presence.
Others suggest that it assures worshippers who cannot afford an animal that their humble offering is just as efficacious. The offerings of well-being in ch. 3 are also described as providing a 'pleasing odour to the Lord'.
Overall, the sequence of Leviticus 1-3 provides a ritual to assure the penitent or needy worshipper that they are purified and welcome in God's presence in the sanctuary.
Rituals for Unintentional Sins
Leviticus 1-3 refers to the individual worshipper.
But, an individual's perspective is limited.
There are things one is unaware of or misses. Chs. 4:1-6:7 recognise this by providing rituals in particular for unintentional sins that an individual or community commits but which only later come to light.
It is vital that these be atoned for because they may have infected the individual or community.
One often becomes aware of such sins through another person.
Even though it is not explicit, this section of the legislation seems to presume honesty, trust and good will in the community.
The instructions for each animal sacrifice follow a recognisable pattern.
1)- The worshipper lays a hand on the animal, necessary to identify it as his/her offering particularly when things were busy in the sanctuary, but also, where appropriate, to symbolise the transfer of one's sins to the animal.
2)- The animal is then slaughtered at the entrance to the sanctuary/tabernacle. For Leviticus, all animal slaughter is sacred, unlike Deuteronomy 12:20-27.
3)- Blood-according to OT thought the seat of life-is sprinkled, dashed or poured on the altar. It is debated whether this symbolised purification of the worshipper or protection of the sanctuary from the pollution of sin.
4)- The animal is burnt on the altar. The entrails and fat (suet) receive special attention because, in OT thought, the suet encases (hides) the vital organs. According to some interpreters, even the way the animal was laid on the altar evoked the layout of the sanctuary; thus the animal entrails surrounded by the carcass evoked the hidden intimacy of the holy of holies surrounded by the sanctuary court.
The layout of the sanctuary for its part evoked Mt. Sinai and the space around it, which in turn evoked God's throne and the heavenly court around it. Layer upon layer of symbolism or readers' fertile imaginations? Probably a mix of both.
5)- Except for the whole burnt offering, portions were set aside for the priests (support of the clergy).
Why Sacrifice Animals?
Why this focus on animal sacrifice and what value does a long defunct and alien liturgy have for the modern reader, particularly a Christian one? A simple response to the first question, and one reflected in Leviticus, is: God decreed it.
This may satisfy some but others hanker for more. To them one could say that sacrifice was common in the ancient Near East and in most ancient cultures; God does not obliterate a culture but accepts it and works to perfect the people who live it.
This is logical enough but what about the question of 'value'? The Letter to the Hebrews took up the challenge and argued that the OT sacrificial system prefigured, in its many forms, the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus.
Being thus fulfilled, it is no longer needed. This parallels a Rabbinic view that sacrifice would cease in the perfect messianic age. Both views see OT sacrifice as a kind of 'interim', important though it is in the Torah.
According to Gen 9:2-6, God allows the violent act of killing an animal in the flawed post-flood world to maintain human life; in Leviticus, God decrees that this same violent act will sanctify human life.
The ritual laws not only control the violent act but transform it into something life-giving. The violence of killing shows that this does not recapture the ideal of Genesis 1 but it is, according to OT faith, on the way.
A tinge of anxiety about killing animals-for food-lingers even in our modern world: witness the concern to assure consumers that 'best practices' are followed.
Christians also see value in the spiritual meaning of sacrifice while a Rabbinic view holds that 'when one studies the law of the sin-offering, he is deemed to have brought a sin-offering'.
Anthropologists have attempted to explain why animal sacrifice is so widely attested in history.
According to some, it serves as a gift to establish communion with the divine; for others it is a substitution rite or a rite of passage from one stage of life to another.
The Catholic scholar René Girard argues violence is endemic to human nature and that sacrifice is the way in which a culture confronts the evil of a primal collective murder.
The sacrifice involves the ritual slaying of a substitute (cf. the so-called scapegoat in Leviticus 16) and this is believed to expiate the primal crime.
No single theory can account for all forms of sacrifice although central elements seem to be cleansing/purification and the re-establishment of harmony and communion.
Once this perfect state is achieved, there will be no further need for sacrifice.
The Priesthood and Purity
The next block of material in Leviticus to consider is chapters 8-16. These can be divided into three sections: chs. 8-10 recount the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests; chs. 11-15 provide instructions on various aspects of 'clean and unclean'; ch. 16 outlines the procedure for the 'day of atonement (yom kippur)'. The Holiness Code in chs. 17-26 (27) will be considered separately.
You will notice a change in form in ch. 8. Instead of a list of instructions as in chs. 1-7, there is one brief instruction in 8:2-3 to prepare for the ordination. The remainder of ch. 8 reports what Moses did. The change is due to the fact that the instructions for ordaining Aaron and his sons are already given in Exodus 29-31
You will also notice that chs. 8-9 emphasise repeatedly that everything took place 'as the Lord commanded Moses'. This is a good example of Torah technique; a teaching for future generations of priests. Its message: do as Moses did and you will get it right.
It is significant that the account of ordination comes after the laws on sacrifices, not before them. It emphasises the ministerial or service role of the priests: they serve God and God's people. The text claims that Moses is given the authority to ordain. He embodies yet transcends the various forms of leadership in Israel: prophet, priest, leader, teacher, etc.
The text seems to envisage the ordination of Aaron and his sons as a once-only event that entrusts the priesthood to them and their descendants forever (cf. Exod 29:9).
However, Lev 6:22 requires each descendant to be anointed. Perhaps this served to remind the community in a public way of the priestly status of the Aaronide line.
Success and Failure
The ordination lasts 7 days, during which the ordinands are forbidden to leave the tent of meeting. This is a good example of a 'rite of passage', with the 7 days symbolising a liminal state between the 'common' and the 'sacred'.
Only on the 8th day does Moses summon Aaron and his sons to commence their sacred duties. The fire from God that consumes the sacrifice in 9:24 is a sign that the ordination is valid: the people respond appropriately.
Up to this point, all goes well. But, in a now familiar Torah pattern, success is followed by failure, blessing by curse.
The story of Nadab and Abihu in ch. 10 is 'typical'; that is, it belongs to a type of OT story that tells how those who behave badly around the sacred precincts come to a bad end.
Such stories were composed by OT theologians to remind people to mind their manners.
This one's catechetical nature is underlined by the way it has Moses point to the incinerated clerics as a kind of 'visual aid' to back up the legislation.
Its negative portrayal of priests is balanced by a positive one at the end of the chapter: Aaron gets to instruct Moses!
Clean and Unclean
This seems timely because the instructions on clean and unclean that follow in ch. 11 are addressed to both Moses and Aaron. The role of priests was important in maintaining clear distinctions between clean and unclean. Leviticus 11 lists clean and unclean animals, ch. 12 the purification requirements after childbirth, chs. 13-14 diseases that render one unclean, and ch. 15 unclean bodily emissions.
As the book unfolds, one can see that chs. 1-7 outline the sacrificial liturgy; chs. 8-10 present the priests who conduct this liturgy; while chs. 11-15 teach one how to remain holy (pure/clean) so as to participate in the liturgy.
Scholars have long debated the rationale behind the clean/unclean laws. Some see ancient taboos or ideas about diet and hygiene. There may be something in this but it does not do justice to their function in the text. As Leviticus makes clear, the laws are meant to keep Israel always oriented towards God and worship of God.
In this context, Lev 20:24-25 is significant. God says 'I have separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean'.
The anthropologist Mary Douglas believes the distinction between clean and unclean animals had a practical as well as symbolic value. The forbidden or unclean animals represented the surrounding nations; the permitted or clean animals the Israelites, and the sacrificial animals the priests.
The dietary laws reminded Israel of its special place among the nations and that it must keep itself apart from them, otherwise its commitment to God is compromised.
Prudence would be needed here to avoid sliding into a 'holier than thou' attitude.
Blood and Impurity Laws
The contemporary Jewish scholar Jacob Milgrom offers a persuasive explanation of the various laws on impurity, based on the OT view that life is in the blood (cf. Lev 17:11, 14). Any loss of blood (e.g. in childbirth) is considered life-threatening and a diminution of one's purity/holiness (note how sacrificial animals have to be unblemished).
Likewise, loss of semen was indicative of some loss of the wholeness of life. Skin diseases (it is now agreed 'leprosy' is an incorrect translation) give a person the appearance of death, as do moulds or fungi on buildings and clothes.
These last examples show that being unclean does not constitute sin in our sense of the word; however, according to OT thinking, the various forms of uncleanness sapped one's life energy and so rendered one unfit for entering the presence of the life-giving God.
By the same token, the texts claim God has mercifully revealed ways to regain wholeness (purity/cleanness) and again share fully in the divine blessings.
The day of atonement in Leviticus 16 concludes the first half of the book. The opening verses link it directly with the Nadab/Abihu incident in ch. 10; suggesting chs. 11-15 are a later insertion.
Whatever the case, the present text depicts the day as an annual event to purify both sanctuary and people.
A key component is the famous scapegoat ritual. The notions of sacred time (the day) and sacred place (the sanctuary) are combined here.
The 'Holiness Code'
As noted earlier, Leviticus 17-26 is often described as the 'Holiness Code' because of the recurring requirement 'you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy'.
Many exegetes see it as a once independent code, deriving from priestly circles associated with the Jerusalem temple, which was subsequently included in the Torah.
Others argue that it is integral with what precedes: unanimity among exegetes, ancient or modern, is a rare treat!
To make analysis more manageable, we can divide the code into the following sections: ch. 17 is about sacrificial slaughter; chs. 18-20 deal with a variety of laws and penalties; 21-22 contain instructions for the priests; 23-24 legislate for the observance of the festal calendar and other matters, among them the case of a layman who blasphemes the name; 25 is about the jubilee year; 26 closes the code with a list of blessings and curses.
Leviticus 27, probably an addition, is about the redemption of dedications.
Leviticus 17, with its stipulations about the slaughter of animals (vv. 1-9) and the correct disposal of their blood (vv. 10-16), provides a link with what precedes.
But, there are some puzzles.
It can be read as a requirement for all slaughter to be ritualised by being brought to the sanctuary. It can also be read as a way of eliminating sacrifice to goat-demons (v. 7), for which there is no reference in preceding passages of the Torah-a sign that it originally addressed a different situation to the one in the present text.
Failure to obey is tantamount to murder (v. 4) and the offender will be 'cut off', presumably by God.
At least, this takes punishment for the offence out of human hands.
Leviticus 18 is a list of sexual prohibitions, 19 deals with a variety of matters, while 20 outlines the penalties for violation of a number of these laws.
The sexual prohibitions reflect a tribal lifestyle where an extended family lived in one dwelling and respecting boundaries was crucial-to avoid conflicts over paternity, inheritance, etc.
Verse 3 accuses Egyptians and Canaanites of not respecting these boundaries-Israel will show that it is 'set apart' (holy) from these nations by doing so.
Such accusations occur elsewhere, particularly in Deuteronomy, and are dangerous as we Christians have learned to our cost in relation to Jews.
Thankfully, they are offset by ancient Israel's equally damning accusations against itself.
Leviticus 19 emphasises that holiness in one's moral behaviour is not only about respecting boundaries that need to be respected but also about crossing boundaries that one may prefer not to cross.
The commitment of Israelites towards their neighbours should mirror their commitment to God; note the condemnation of a slack attitude to the liturgy in vv. 5-8.
The ethic of the chapter is captured nicely in two parallel commands: Israelites should not only love their (Israelite) neighbours as themselves (v. 18) but also the aliens in their midst (v. 34).
The penalties in ch. 20 draw this section on personal conduct to a close.
The call to be holy is even more demanding for the priests, as ch 21-22 emphasise. They are enjoined to take extra care in order to avoid becoming ritually unclean.
Defilement does not come only form outside; it can also occur within priestly circles, as 22:1-9 makes clear.
From a practical point of view, priests who are careless about ritual defilement are banned from the liturgy and hence add to the workload of other priests as well as doing a disservice to the laity. On a more symbolic level, priests above all should embody in their life and conduct the holiness to which all are called.
The Holiness Code began in ch 17 with instructions about sacrifice, the supreme expression, according to this book, of authentic worship of God.
After dealing with ethical and ritual matters in chs 18-22, the code resumes the theme of worship in chs 23-24 with instructions for the feasts.
Relationship to God frames relationship to neighbour; the two go together. As with the Decalogue, an Israelite who worships God according to the code will treat his/her neighbour according to the code. How else?
Equally, an Israelite who so treats his/her neighbour is someone who is completely loyal to the God of Israel.
Leviticus 23 begins with a reminder about the weekly rhythm of the Sabbath (v 3) before outlining the festal calendar, the core of which is a series of agricultural festivals (Unleavened Bread to which Passover became attached; vv 4-8; First Fruits to mark the beginning of the harvest 9vv 9-14); Feast of Weeks to mark the end of harvest (vv 15-22); Feast of Booths (associated with the ingathering of the harvest; vv 33-44).
We know little about the Feast of Trumpets (vv 24-25) while the Day of Atonement in vv 26-32 has already been described in ch 16. In contrast to these special events, 24:1-9 deals with everyday matters; the perpetual lamp and the regular offering of bread for the priests.
Leviticus 24:10-23 contains the second narrative in the book, about an Israelite who blasphemes the Name.
Like the one other narrative in ch 10, it serves as a catechetical instruction about a crucial matter than has so far been only briefly aired in the book (19:12); respect for the divine name.
The shift in form-from instruction to narrative-and its location towards the end of the code signal its importance.
The blasphemous use of this one word renders obedience to all that precedes a sham.
Leviticus 25 legislates for the great Jubilee every 50th year (7x7 plus 1).
It brings the code and indeed the whole book to a fitting climax with its focus on Israel's well-being.
Land acquired is to be returned to the original owners, slaves are to be released, and so on.
Fidelity to the Jubilee is a key measure of Israel's fidelity to God. It is extraordinarily idealistic and some wonder whether it was ever implemented fully.
It raises the question of the purpose of these 'codes'.
Were they designed as 'state legislation' or as theological and catechetical treatises-for edification?
The code ends with a series of blessings and curses in ch 26, like the series in Deuteronomy 28.
These were a common feature of ancient Near Eastern covenants, both religious and civil (cf. our term 'treaty'), and OT theologians were probably following time-honoured custom.
As noted earlier, ch 27 is probably a later addition.
Copyright © Mark O'Brien Catholic Institute of Sydney