The Torah: Exploring Leviticus
What’s in a name?
The opening word of Leviticus is wayyiqra’, which means “and he called.” The Jews used this word as a title for Leviticus. They also called it “the law of the priests,” “the book of the priests” and “the law of the offerings.” These designations summarized the general content of the book, recognizing it as a work intended primarily for the priesthood.
The Septuagint calls the book Leuitikon or Leueitikon, “pertaining to the Levites.” The Latin Vulgate translated the Septuagint title as Liber Leviticus, “the book of Leviticus,” which then became the title in the English Bible.
Leviticus begins where Exodus ends – at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The tabernacle has just been completed, and God now begins to teach the Israelites how to worship him. Through the book of Leviticus, God shows Israel how to live as a holy nation.
The book can be divided into six sections: sacrifices and offerings (1:1–7:38), the priesthood and the tabernacle (8:1–10:20), regulations about life (11:1–15:33), the Day of Atonement (16:1-34), living holy lives (17:1–22:33) and festivals and various regulations (23:1–27:34).
How to read this book
To us, living in a modern society, the rituals and sacrifices explained in Leviticus may seem strange. Yet portions of the New Testament can be understood only by reference to Leviticus.
For example, what does it mean for Christians to be a royal priesthood? A holy nation? For Christ to be our great High Priest? Our Passover Lamb? Much of the original context of these New Testament concepts is found in Leviticus. Furthermore, some regulations in Leviticus
go beyond the religious institutions and that deal with the events of life. The implication of those regulations is that all of life is, in fact, religious. All that we do, whether in direct worship or not, is part of our relationship to God…. God sees us as totalities, and all of our life – work, worship, relationships, creativity, family – is important to him. (Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Bible Handbook, Baker Book House, 1984, pp. 150, 152)
The book of Leviticus leads us to an understanding of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah, but we must not overlook other important elements it contains. The book is not only a record of laws and traditions that were superseded by the ministry of Jesus Christ. There are many laws, customs, traditions and principles that address such subjects as hygiene, managing the environment and moral conduct. These are sound guidelines for all people and all times.
“For example, the rules about sexual purity (15:1-33) may be seen as emphasizing the sanctity of sex and warning against its casual treatment. The need for such advice today is obvious” (ibid., p. 152). As the Evangelical Commentary on the Bible explains:
Many Christians tend to ignore what the text meant to individual Israelites or to the community of Israel in Old Testament times and go immediately to a type study of Jesus and how he fulfilled many parts of Leviticus in the New Testament. We must first examine the text to see what it meant for Old Testament Israel. Only then can we proceed to a study of Jesus. (p. 68)
Learning about God
Above all else, Leviticus teaches us that God is holy. This provides the basis of all his laws (11:44-45; 19:2-4; 20:7-8, 24-26). “Jewish sages considered [this] to be of primary importance. They felt that before proceeding to other biblical texts, children should first be educated concerning the sanctity of God and the responsibility of each individual to live a holy life” (The Spirit-Filled Life Bible, NKJV, p. 146).
In Leviticus, God is present with his people. In Israel’s worship, all sacrifices and ceremonies took place “before the Lord.” This teaches us that God is always there and that everything we do must be done in light of his presence.
We also learn that God judges sin. Because God is holy, nothing sinful or unclean can come into his presence. For human beings to develop a relationship with God, they must first be forgiven and cleansed of sin (1:1–7:38; 11:1–15:33).
The book of Leviticus also tells us to:
- Obey God (17:2).
- Worship, serve and obey God only (17:3-9; 20:1-5).
- Recognize God’s blessings (23:1-44).
- Be as concerned about every aspect of our lives as God is (18:1–22:16).
- Deal justly with each other, just as God deals justly with his people (19:1-37).
While Jesus is not mentioned in Leviticus, the sacrificial system and the office of high priest foreshadow the greater work of Christ for human salvation (Hebrews 3:1; 4:14-16). Hebrews 7 describes Jesus as our High Priest and uses the text of Leviticus as a basis for illustrating his work. Jesus is the eternal High Priest whose work far surpasses that of Aaron and his successors.
As the author of Hebrews states: “But now [Jesus Christ] has obtained a more excellent ministry…. He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6, NKJV).
Through the crucifixion, Jesus fulfilled the Levitical concept of the sin offering (Romans 8:1-4; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21; Hebrews 9:1-1-28; 10:11-12; 13:10-15). In other passages, Paul described Christ as a peace offering (Romans 5:1-11; Ephesians 2:13-18; Colossians 1:18-20).
Christ’s death and resurrection meant that the Levitical prescriptions for sacrifice and holiness have been superseded through Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:9-:19; 15:1-21; Galatians 2:15–3:5).
The concepts of separation and holiness were attractive themes to New Testament writers. The apostle Peter reflected the theme of Leviticus when he encouraged Christians to “be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” 1 Peter 1:15; see Leviticus 11:44; 19:2; 20:7). Peter also called Christians a “royal priesthood” and “a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).
Annual festivals: These festivals and holy days memorialize God’s great acts of salvation in history, symbolize the power of God and typify the anticipated future fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation for all humanity (Leviticus 23).
Tithing: Tithing is the practice of giving a tenth of one’s increase to God. The Israelites paid 10 percent of their agricultural blessings to the Levites (Leviticus 27). Giving God a tenth of what belongs to him anyway, recognizes his ultimate ownership of everything.
Covenant: Because God had made his covenant (agreement) with the Israelites, it was important that they lived according to his laws. Read Leviticus 26 and note the eight references to “covenant” (verses 9, 15, 25, 42, 44-45).
Sacrifice/offering: Israel’s sacrifices were to serve as a reminder of sin (Hebrews 10:3). An animal’s life was taken to picture that without the shedding of blood there could be no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22). But the Levitical sacrificial system lasted only until Jesus’ death, the ultimate sacrifice for all humanity’s sins.
Levites: The Levites and priests were the ministers of their day. They also regulated the moral, civil and ceremonial laws and supervised the health, justice and welfare programs of the nation.
Community health: Leviticus contains rules and guidelines regarding food, disease and sexual purity. Although some of the laws seem arbitrary, others would have promoted hygiene and community health.
What this book means for you
Leviticus reminds us of the holiness of God and the necessity of living a holy life. Sin is always serious, because God is holy and cannot live with sin. Sin stems from a mode of thinking that is contrary to God, and puts human beings in a spiritual category different from God. If a relationship with God is to be maintained, sin must be removed.
Obedience to God must be important in our lives. Leviticus 1–16 may be summed up in the words of Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
Being right with God leads us to be right with others. Leviticus 17–27 describes godly behavior toward our neighbors. These chapters can be summarized by Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
- Family life should be strengthened and protected (18:6 19:3; 20:10-21).
- The poor should be provided for (19:9-10).
- All business transactions must be fair (19:11-13, 35-36).
- Nobody should acquire wealth to the hurt of other citizens (25:8-55).
Leviticus shows that God cares for his people. He has thought through our problems and given us guidance and direction, not just in spiritual, but also in physical matters. He always has an attitude of forgiveness toward us and wants to restore us to his fellowship. God can fully restore Christians today because Jesus did what the Levitical sacrificial system could only symbolize. Only in Christ do we experience the awesome opportunity to come humbly, yet boldly, before the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16).