The book of Leviticus (Leviticus 1)

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God gave the contents of Leviticus to Moses (see Leviticus 27:34) while the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, and historical Jewish tradition assigns primary authorship of the book to him. Leviticus repeatedly states that God conveyed to Moses specific laws (e.g. 1:1, 4:1, 6:1), a reality confirmed in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 10:5). But Moses most likely did not compose Leviticus in its final, edited form.

Not all scholars agree that Moses was the primary writer/complier of this or the other books of the Penteteuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). See The Documentary Hypothesis under Genesis 7).

If Moses did indeed write Leviticus, as well as the other four books of the Penteteuch, he must have done so during the exodus period, widely accepted among conservative evangelical scholars to be from approximately 1440 to 1400 B.C.

It is likely that the Israelite priests and Levites read Leviticus, as did the lay people who took part in the exodus and subsequent desert wandering. Succeeding generations of Israelites no doubt also studied the book to learn God’s laws for worship and sacrificial practices and to be reminded of their calling to be His holy people in covenant relationship with Him.

In comparison to the books around it, Leviticus may seem difficult to the casual or first-time reader. Instead of miraculous, suspense-filled stories and narratives about prominent people, we read page after page of meticulous detail concerning regulations for offerings, the installation of priests, distinctions between what was ritually clean and unclean, principles for holy living etc. True, this seeming minutia played a key role in the Israelites’ spiritual growth and development, but what do we gain by reading about it?

Leviticus picks up where the book of Exodus left off. The tabernacle had been built, and now the priests (Aaron’s sons), assisted by others from the tribe of Levi, needed to understand and follow proper, worship-related protocol. The other Israelites, who were familiar with the worship and sacrificial practices of the ancient world, needed to learn God’s worship-related laws and regulations – what was and was not acceptable to Him in terms of ritual and sacrifice. Relationships were at the heart of God’s covenant with Israel – His people’s relationship with Him and with one another.

Leviticus reveals God’s directives regarding rituals, ceremonial “cleanness”  and the behaviour by which the Israelites could be made holy before their holy God (e.g. Leviticus 11:44-45) and worship Him in a consecrated manner. It was essential that God’s people understood and practice holiness – separation from sin, being set apart for the Lord’s exclusive purpose and glory. The formal procedures regarding Israel’s religious observance, the details of which are included in Leviticus, played a central role in people’s everyday spiritual life.

As you read, think about how God regulated the Israelites’ communal, religious and personal lives in  order to establish them as His holy people and to teach them about holy living. The Lord wanted to bless them but required them first to be obedient and to maintain a holy awe of Him.

Notice the numerous regulations directly related to the tabernacle (chapters 1-16), which God’s Presence now occupied. He wanted His people to present their sacrifices properly (1:1-7:38), to set up and maintain the priesthood in a special way (8:1-10:20) and to carefully differentiate between what was ritually clean and unclean in His eyes (11:1-16:34). Why*? Because God wanted them to take His Presence seriously.

Pay attention to the code of holiness (17:1-25:55) that covers everything from sexual behaviour to punishing serious crimes to religious observance. To reinforce the weight of these laws, God delineated near the end of this book (26:1-46) the respective consequences of disobedience and obedience.

Did you know that other ancient cultures viewed sacrifices as “food for the gods” (see Ezekiel 16:20, cf. Psalms 50:9-13), but Israel’s offerings – though sometimes called “food” metaphorically (Leviticus 21:6, 17, 21, 22:25) – were viewed as gifts to God that He would receive with delight (3:11, 16)? Did you know that the phrase “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” represents a statement of principle: The penalty was to fit the crime, not to exceed it (24:20)?


 

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