Is Leviticus merely a book of humanly devised rituals? No. It points us forward to the sacrifice of Christ and shows how we should honor our Creator.
Leviticus is the third of the five books known as the Law or the Pentateuch. The book’s name in Hebrew is Wayyiqva and means “And He Called,” a phrase taken from the first verse of chapter 1. It rightly points to God who has the authority to proclaim the regulations and rules for acceptable worship.
The English name comes from the Greek word Leuitikon, which means “that which pertains to the Levites” (Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 1974). Actually it does not deal with the Levites as a whole but more with the priests from the family of Aaron, a division of the Levites.
The New Bible Commentary states: “The book is especially intended for the priests. Aaron and his sons are mentioned many times in it. The Levites are mentioned in only one short passage (25:32f.). But while the book is a manual for the priests, it is to be noted that many of the laws are introduced by the phrase, ‘Speak unto the children of Israel’. Obviously this is because these laws, many of which required the service and mediation of the priests, concerned the people directly and vitally and formed an important part of that Law which it was to be the special responsibility of the priests to teach the people (Dt. 31:9, 33:10; Ne. 8)” (Professor F. Davidson, A.M. Stibbs and E.F. Kevan, p. 134).
Purpose of Leviticus
The final verse in the last chapter gives a summary statement of the whole book: “These are the commandments which the LORD commanded Moses for the children of Israel on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34). Leviticus contains the vital laws and statutes that were to be preserved by the priesthood so that the people of Israel would always remember God’s purpose and plan for them.
God is holy
The New Bible Commentary says: “The immediate purpose of this book is to set forth those laws and principles by which Israel is to live as the people of God. Their God is a holy God; they are to be holy people. ‘Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’ is its emphatic demand” (p. 134).
Leviticus shows that God was present not only in the tabernacle, but throughout the camp. He was concerned how the people conducted their lives. A key verse is Leviticus 19:2: “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
God is holy, and therefore His people are to be holy. For the people to be in God’s presence required their obedience to His laws and repentance of their sins when they disobeyed (this was associated with the sacrificial system).
Once the Israelites left the wilderness and entered the Promised Land, they would encounter the pagan practices of the Canaanites. In order to resist these practices, they would need to learn the proper way to worship God. The tabernacle was the primary location for this worship, and details are given in Leviticus as to how this worship should be conducted.
The apostle Peter recognized the importance of this biblical truth when he admonished Christians to be “obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14-16).
Author and time of writing
Moses likely wrote the book during the first month of the second year of the wanderings of Israel. Since the duties of the Levites were connected to the tabernacle, the instructions in Leviticus must have been given after the tabernacle was set up. This occurred in the first month of the second year after coming out of Egypt (Exodus 40:17).
Five main sacrificial offerings were instituted:
- Burnt offering (Leviticus 1).
- Grain offering (Leviticus 2).
- Peace offering (Leviticus 3).
- Sin offering (Leviticus 4).
- Trespass offering (Leviticus 5; 6:1-7).
When the Israelites were brought out of the land of Egypt, God did not institute the sacrificial system at first. The sacrifices were set in motion later (Jeremiah 7:22) as a result of disobedience.
It is important to realize that the sacrificial system originated with God, and He never introduces or institutes any practice, procedure or law that is not beneficial and profitable. The sacrifices were temporary and pointed forward to the true sacrifice for all of mankind, Jesus Christ our Savior.
There is no need for animal sacrifices at this time in human history. This is made clear in Hebrews 10:4-12: “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. Therefore, when He [Jesus] came into the world, He said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire … nor had pleasure in them. … By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.”
True Christians are required to offer themselves as sacrifices by living a life that reflects holiness. Romans 12:1 states: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”
Outline of Leviticus
The five major offerings are explained. The priests are told to never allow the fire on the altar to burn out (Leviticus 6:13).
Most of these chapters are devoted to the sacrifices, but occasionally additional bits of information are provided. For instance, the principle of restoration as a result of deception, lying and stealing is explained (verses 1-5). The offending party was to restore the value of the stolen item plus add 20 percent.
Consecration of the priesthood is detailed. Literal fire from God consumes the burnt offering placed on the altar (Leviticus 9:24).
A terrible incident highlights God’s rules for the conduct of the priests when officiating at the altar. Two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, are instantly killed for bringing “strange fire” before God (Leviticus 10:1-7). Drinking of alcoholic beverages while performing rituals is also forbidden (verse 9).
Dietary laws are listed, making a clear distinction between clean and unclean animals. These are repeated in Deuteronomy 14.
These laws were in force long before the Old Covenant was instituted at Sinai (Genesis 7:2-9). Neither does the New Testament abolish God’s commands regarding clean and unclean animals. When Christ returns, these laws will still exist (Isaiah 66:15-18). As a matter of fact, God refers to those who stopped observing these laws as “a rebellious people … who provoke Me to anger continually to My face” (Isaiah 65:2-4).
These chapters outline various principles of cleanliness, sanitation, handling communicable diseases and other health measures. The treatment of leprosy formed the basis of the quarantine laws still recognized today as essential. God, who is the Creator of the human body, revealed these health laws to Moses for the good of the people. How else would Moses have come to understand these medical principles of healthy living?
The high priest was only allowed to enter the Holy of Holies once a year, and that occurred on the Day of Atonement (the 10th day of the seventh month). It was set aside as a day of fasting (Leviticus 23:27-28).
To help prevent the people from backsliding into idolatry, Israelites were only to bring their sacrifices to the priests at “the door of the tabernacle” (Leviticus 17:1-9).
Strict instructions were given not to eat the blood of any animals (verses 11-14).
Laws regarding sexual sins and relationships are outlined. Over the centuries sexual sins have been among the most dominant problems in all human cultures. Certain relationships and harmful sexual liaisons were prohibited, and these are listed in this chapter. Not adhering to these moral laws results not only in personal harm, but defilement of the whole nation.
Various laws and ordinances are outlined; with the theme that God wanted Israel to be His holy people (Leviticus 19:2). The people were commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; see also Matthew 19:19). God warns the people not to adopt pagan practices from the surrounding nations, and strongly condemns the wretched practice of child sacrifices (Leviticus 20:1-7).
This chapter outlines various regulations concerning the priesthood. The last portion deals with the type of animals selected for sacrifice. This was important, as the sacrifices pointed forward to the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ.
Chapter 23 provides a list of the feasts of God, including the weekly Sabbath. The annual holy days were not abolished but are “the feasts of the LORD,” and continue to be commanded assemblies for true Christians (Leviticus 23:2). For more on these days, see our section on “How God’s Holy Days Reveal His Plan of Salvation.”
The punishment for blasphemy is given (Leviticus 24:10-23).
The Jubilee is introduced—the 50th year when debts were canceled, Israelites who were sold into slavery were freed and land went back to its original owners. The words “proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:10) are engraved on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a symbol of freedom from tyranny and oppression.
If Israel obeyed Him, God promised tremendous national blessings and favor (Leviticus 26:1-13). However, if they disobeyed, curses would be poured out upon the nation (verses 14-46) that would lead to their ultimate downfall. Unfortunately, modern-day descendants of Israel have chosen the way of disobedience, and the curses of Leviticus 26 are already beginning to weaken the fabric of our society. (For more on this, see our section on “America in Prophecy.”)
Parallel warnings are given in Deuteronomy 28.
The principles of redemption of persons and property are described.
Choose God’s way of holiness
The recurring theme of Leviticus is that God intends His people to be holy (separated, set apart for a special purpose). Our daily lives should reflect this purpose.
God’s people are to separate themselves from the ways of the world: “Therefore ‘come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you’” (2 Corinthians 6:16-18).
It is up to each of us to decide if we want to follow God’s way of holiness. It is not the easy way and few find it (Matthew 7:13-14), but it will lead to blessings beyond our wildest dreams (Isaiah 64:4). For more about living God’s way, see “What Is a Christian?”
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.