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LeviticusThe word “Leviticus” is derived from the name Levi, which was the priestly tribe of Israel. As such, they were the religious and moral leaders and many of the commands given by God deal with them specifically. In fact, the commands in Scripture can be divided into three rough categories which I will call religious, moral, and national. There are some occasional overlaps between these types of commands, and of course other people may make other distinctions. But as I am writing this, you’re stuck with my ordering here! Before digging in to the details, let us examine these three types generally.
It can be difficult to classify certain laws into one of the above categories, especially if we restrict ourselves to the point of view of our hypothetical time traveler who has no knowledge of the New Testament. Therefore, while we do well to keep the distinctions in mind as we do our Biblical survey, I’m not going to emphasize getting classifications correct here. (We will look more into the logical deductions one can make from these classifications after our Biblical survey is completed when we engage in a more systematic theology, built from our entire knowledge of Scripture.) For now, let’s just do an overview of the law in general.
A. ReligiousThese cover the rules and regulations with how man interacts with God. They encompass any command dealing with how God wants to be worshiped and what the people should or should not do in regards to sacrifice, spiritual purity, or anything else related to the ceremonies or rites of the people.
B. MoralMoral laws deal with the way that human beings are to treat each other. These laws include the prohibition against murder, lying, etc. that we saw in the end of Exodus. In general, the moral laws tend to be the ones that even those outside of the nation of Israel tended to hold, and in fact most of us hold to the majority of them today as well.
C. NationalNational laws are those laws that dealt solely with the country of Israel. These laws were designed to make Israel distinct from the other nations, and include such things as the dietary laws. What they prohibit is not immoral in and of itself. Rather, the moral standing of such actions is determined by God’s (sometimes arbitrary) decree that His people should do certain things and refrain from certain other activities.
The book of Leviticus begins with rules on burnt offerings (chapter 1), grain offerings (chapter 2), and peace offerings (chapter 3). Both burn and peace offerings typically involved sacrifices of animals. In each case, the animal being presented must be without blemish. Animals could include sheep, goats, and birds (namely, turtledoves and pigeons) for burnt offerings, and animals from the herd for peace offerings. Burnt offerings needed to be male (Leviticus 1:3), but peace offerings could be from any gender (Leviticus 3:1). The other commonality seen in every animal sacrifice is that the person presenting the sacrifice would put his hand on the head of the animal, signifying the transfer of his own guilt onto the sacrificial animal. Thus, when the animal was killed, the penalty for the sin was imputed to the animal.
In distinction to the animal offerings, when grain offerings were given, only a portion of the grain was burnt on the altar. The rest went to the priests as part of their income and food allowance. Even though the priests would consume the food, it was still considered “a most holy part of the LORD’s food offerings” (Leviticus 2:3).
Leviticus 4 gives us some more information about another type of offering. This time, we are introduced to it with God’s preface: “If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done…” (Leviticus 4:2). What this implies first of all is that it is possible to unintentionally break the law of God. The second implication is that even if it is unintentional, it is still a sin. In other words, breaking the commands of the LORD, even by mistake, needs some kind of atonement. We cannot just overlook someone’s immorality on the basis of “they didn’t know.”
This has some bearing once again when we view a topic such as Original Sin. To paraphrase an argument Augustine presented in his book Confessions, we know that babies sin because they engage in behavior that, if they were adults and not children, would justly be condemned. For example, a child who wants a toy will often resort to violence to coerce another child into handing over the toy. No one ever has to teach children to be selfish, but to enforce good manners takes a lot of work. This is why if an adult behaves in such a manner, at the minimum he is looked down upon for his “childish” behavior, and in some cases he is imprisoned for the same behavior that is overlooked when a child does it.
Naturally, we excuse children because we know that they “don’t know any better” but that doesn’t change the objective nature of the behavior. In other words, as the argument goes, if it is wrong for one person to hit another person over the head and then steal his toys, it is wrong even if the person who engages in that behavior does not know it is wrong.
So while we do not hold children accountable for their actions, we still rightly condemn the action itself and actively seek to train children not to engage in those behaviors. But when we are dealing with adults who do not know what is wrong, then there is a very real possibility that they will never know they have engaged in sin. Thus, to avoid having a sin that is not atoned for, God provides means of atonement for unknown sins.
First, God shows how priests can be atoned for (Leviticus 4:3-12), then how the whole congregation of Israel can be atoned for (verse 13-21), then for the atonement of a leader (verse 22-26), and finally “anyone of the common people” (verse 27-35). The main differences between the sacrifices involve who places their hand on the animal and kills it (each time, the one who sins must do both actions), and what animal is used. The priest and congregation must bring a bull, the sinning leader a male goat, and the common people a female goat. Because commoners could be poor and not have animals, female lambs were also permitted, and in chapter 5:7ff, the poor could also use grain or bird offerings. In all cases, any animal to be sacrificed must be without blemish.
Leviticus 5:14 says: “If anyone commits a breach of faith and sins unintentionally in any of the holy things of the LORD…” This shows there is a difference between breaking the moral law unintentionally, and breaking the religious law unintentionally. It should be noted that the key distinction between breaking the religious law and breaking the moral law is not due to the “breach of faith” clause, but rather that religious breaches relate to the “the holy things of the LORD.” We shall see in the next chapter (Leviticus 6:2) that deceiving a neighbor is considered a “breach of faith” as well, even though it is part of the moral law rather than the religious law.
When one sins “in any of the holy things”, in addition to the sacrifice (in this case, a ram without blemish), “He shall also make restitution for what he has done amiss in the holy thing and shall add a fifth to it and give it to the priest” (verse 16). Thus, if someone accidentally forgets a sacrifice or a tithe to the priests, he must give not only the value of what was overlooked but an additional 20% on top of it.
This is a consistent aspect of the law, requiring a fifth as a penalty, as it applies equally when it concerns frauds committed against other men. As Leviticus 6:4-5 shows, not only must one restore what one unlawfully took, but he “shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt.” While Leviticus 6 does not begin with the description of unintentional sin, it is clear that it is still referencing the same topic since it speaks of one who later “realizes his guilt.” In addition to restitution to the victim, a ram must be offered for his guilt offering.
In this way, we see that sin against our fellow man is likewise sin against God, and that there is no difference in penalty between unintentionally sinning against a human being and unintentionally sinning against God. The same sacrifice is used to atone, and the same amount of restitution is required of the one who has broken either law. This is an important clue for us to think on, because it shows how intimately linked our actions are, not just between each other but between us and God.
For that reason, the guilt offering is extremely important. Leviticus 7:1 says, “This is the law of the guilt offering. It is most holy.” There are not very many things in Scripture that are identified as being “most holy”, but the offering is one of them. The importance is easy to realize given that without this offering the relationship between God and men, as well as between men and other men, has suffered irreparable harm. The guilt offering is the only way to remove the guilt from the sinner, in that great transaction. In order to fully understand what Christ would later do on the cross, one must fully understand what it is for sacrifices to happen.
It strikes many people as barbaric that God would require a bloody sacrifice. But this largely offends us because we never truly have a real sense of the depth of our sinfulness. That is, it is easy for people to think of themselves as better than they really are. Especially when we compare ourselves to the dredges of society. Sure, I may have shortchanged a retail worker when they accidentally gave me back more money than they should have, but it’s not like I killed anyone. Right?
But this trivializes how bad sin is. The consequences of even minor sins are severe.
When we recall back to the Garden of Eden, we remember that when Adam first sinned he tried to cover himself by sewing clothing of fig leaves. After God cast him from the Garden, God fashioned clothing for humans from the skin of animals. That is the sense in which we are to understand these sacrifices. Fig leaves did not suffice as an adequate covering because tearing off the leaves of a fig plant does not necessarily result in the death of the fig plant.
God does not use the death of animals because it gives Him barbaric pleasure in suffering and death. Rather, He uses the death of animals because death necessarily follows from sin. The original curse was that in the day Adam ate of the fruit, he would die. And spiritually he did die in that instant, which meant that inevitably his body would have to die too. In order to atone for his sin there must be death. Sin and death are two sides of the same coin; you cannot have one with the other. Only if we miss the complete abhorrence of sin can we think that blood sacrifices mean God is a sadist.
Closely linked to the idea of sacrifices is the concept of cleanliness. In general, when the Scriptures talk of cleanliness they are speaking not of dirt but of spiritual matters. Thus, cleanliness is almost always dealing with the religious law. For example, we read in Leviticus 7:21, “And if anyone touches an unclean thing, whether human uncleanness or an unclean beast or any unclean detestable creature, and then eats some flesh from the sacrifice of the LORD’s peace offerings, that person shall be cut off from his people.” The fact that the punishment is religiously oriented (being cut off from the people) instead of the typical restitution that was demanded also helps us to see that this is dealing with the religious laws.
For this reason, after the laws of sacrifice were given God moves on to the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests in chapter 8. This is important since we just saw that God is concerned with cleanliness, and that brings to mind the natural question: if one must be clean in order to not desecrate the holy things, how do the unclean priests first become clean in order to begin the process? After all, Moses has already told us that every inclination of man’s heart is sinful from youth (Genesis 8:21).
To fix that, God has Moses bring Aaron and his sons before the congregation. He first washed them with water (Leviticus 8:6) to symbolize cleaning them. Then, he clothed them with a coat and robe, placing other priestly garments on them. Then, he used anointing oil to anoint the tabernacle and the priests. After this, Moses brought the sin offering bull (verse 14). Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the bull, then Moses killed the bull and used the blood to purify the altar.
Moses then used a ram for a burnt offering, after Aaron and his sons laid hands on that animal (verse 18). After using the blood in the same manner, Moses used a second ram called “the ram of ordination” (verse 22), which was also killed. Moses put the blood on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear, right thumb, and right big toe, and then copied that with Aaron’s sons. He then completed the consecration by using the anointing oil and blood of the altar to sprinkle on Aaron and his garments, as well as his sons and their garments (verse 30). Aaron and his sons were then told to wait for seven days in the tabernacle.
One the eighth day, Aaron brought out a calf for a sin offering and a ram for the burnt offering (Leviticus 9:1-2). The people of Israel brought out a male goat, a calf, and a ram for a sin offering, an ox and a ram for peace offerings, and finally grain mixed with oil (verse 3-4). Aaron proceeded as Moses had commanded, and we read: “fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:24).
In this seemingly convoluted and lengthy process, the priests were enabled to become representatives between God and man. Having been purified and consecrated, they were now able to offer the sacrifices of the nation of Israel. This consecration was a very bloody affair, as we can see, and it also took time: a full week. It was also full of symbolism. For example, the blood symbolized death; the fact that it was sprinkled on the priests indicated that they were covered by the blood so that their sins were atoned for; the fact that it took a week also probably is intended to make one think back to creation itself, and in that regard this can be seen as the priests being “re-made” into holy and righteous people.
The importance of the purity of the priestly role was confirmed immediately after they were consecrated, for we read in Leviticus 10:1-3:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.The word translated above as “unauthorized” is also sometimes translated as “strange”, but the key concept is that Nadab and Abihu offered something to the Lord “which he had not commanded them.” The result of that was death. We are not told exactly what was offered, but it really doesn’t matter. Instead, what matters is the fact that God insists on His right to be worshipped the way that He wants to be worshipped, and to have the offerings He desires. This is not a new concept, for we remember that clear back in the beginning of Genesis God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. We therefore ought to be very careful when it comes to how we approach God and how we worship Him. We approach Him on His terms, not on ours.
In offering their “strange fire”, Nadab and Abihu were not sanctifying God, nor were they glorifying Him. Perhaps this is because in deviating from what God commanded, these two priests were actually declaring that they knew better than God what was appropriate for God, thus putting themselves above Him. But whatever the case on that regard, it is clear that the holiness of God (and sanctification deals with holiness) and His glory are both very important to Him.
After these events, the book of Leviticus then deals more with cleanliness. First in chapter 11 it teaches about clean and unclean animals. Chapter 12 talks about how women can be purified after childbirth. This chapter also gives the command that male infants should be circumcised at the age of eight-days (Leviticus 12:3). Chapter 13 deals with leprosy, which was a “catch-all” term for any skin disease. This is one of the instances where cleanliness is dealing with physical health, not just spiritual cleanliness, and the isolation of the leper would help to keep communicable diseases from spreading.
Because lepers are in a slightly different category than other people who willfully make themselves unclean, Leviticus 14 provides instructions on how a leper can be cleansed and made clean once more. It also deals with rules on how to clean a house if there has been an outbreak of disease, again to help limit the spread of any pathogens.
Continuing in the vein of cleanliness, Leviticus 15 describes discharges from a man’s body. This can be anything from pimples and boils to nocturnal emissions. The blanket assertion is: “When any man has a discharge from his body, his discharge is unclean” (Leviticus 15:2b). Here we see how uncleanliness can spread so quickly too. “Every bed on which the one with the discharge lies shall be unclean, and everything on which he sits shall be unclean. And anyone who touches his bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening” (verses 4-5, and continuing). This isn’t just due to the health factors, but also because of how cleanliness is so linked to spiritual health. Just as physical disease can spread by even seemingly minor contact, so too sin itself spreads voraciously and without ceasing.
One thing to note is that this includes emission of semen. As verses 16-18 state:
If a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water and be unclean until the evening. And every garment and every skin on which the semen comes shall be washed with water and be unclean until the evening. If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe themselves in water and be unclean until the evening.Now this particular passage can be somewhat controversial today. The fact that verse 18 specifically deals with when “a man lies with a woman” (i.e., sexual intercourse), then that would imply that verses 16 and 17 are not dealing with that scenario. Obviously, from a biological standpoint it is possible for men to become aroused and to have emission of semen just through the course of a night, especially during his teenage years. This can happen during sleep, when as far as the male knows he has no coherent thoughts of any kind.
But it would be foolish to think that these rules do not also incorporate semen emissions due to masturbation. And in that regard, it is interesting to note that while the Bible does not shy away from discussing many different shameful activities, and while clearly the authors would have known about masturbation given its biological prevalence, Scripture is silent on the morality of the action. In other words, the Bible is fine with saying what behaviors are sinful, many times in a graphic manner, but it never says it is sinful to masturbate. Still, an argument from silence does not imply permission, so this is something each believer should work out for him- or herself with the Spirit’s guide.
As we read further, the passage also covers menstrual discharges of blood in the case of women and how that affects cleanliness. Like male emissions, these also cause anyone who touches the emission to also become unclean. These may seem a bit arbitrary, but God gives a specific reason for all these rules: “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” Coming on the heels of the deaths of two priests, God is giving these rules to ensure that fewer men and women die.
God’s holiness is supremely important to Him, as is evidenced in chapter 19. We read: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” Here the command for us to be holy is predicated on the fact that God is holy. In other words, we are commanded to emulate Him. Immediately after this command, God gives a couple of specifics on how this is attained: “Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God. Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:3-4).
These commands are very familiar for those who remember the Ten Commandments listed in Exodus. But here, in addition to the command, we are also given the reason for the command. In addition to the fact that this is how we are to know how to be holy, like God is holy, the foundation for why gives those commands is a simple: “I am the LORD your God.” In other words, God simply declares His right as God to issue orders. He does not here plead with anyone or offer any argumentation as to why we should obey Him, but instead He acts just as a parent over his or her child—with a sovereign declaration that man is obligated to obey Him for no other reason than because He is God.
As we move further into the chapter, God gives more commands centered around how men ought to treat one another. Once again, many of the Ten Commandments are reiterated such as the command not to steal or lie (verse 11) or to profane the name of God (verse 12). And again, the reason given is “I am the LORD your God” (or sometimes just the simple “I am the LORD”). After giving several examples of what God is commanding in regards to behavior between men, He gives us the overall command: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18b).
God continues on to various other laws and statutes that He is giving for the people of Israel. As mentioned at the beginning of this section, some of the laws are only for the nation of Israel, some are religious laws, and some of them are eternal moral laws. The particulars are not necessary to delve into at the moment (although I would urge everyone to become familiar with the Law of God in your own personal devotion). Here, we can be satisfied with the fact that after giving the laws, God once again orders: “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26).
It is crucial that we understand a particular distinction here. Note that God does not say “you are my people because you are holy” but rather “you shall be holy because I have set you apart and made you my own.” In other words, the fact that Israel was God’s chosen people comes about not because of anything that Israel has done. God has decided that Israel will be His own, and therefore because God has decided that Israel is to be obedient to Him, to show that they are separated from the rest of the peoples. He did not give these laws to the rest of the world, although He could have. He gave them to the people He chose originally through Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob.
Leviticus then continues with several commandments indicating how Israel is to be holy, how Israel is to worship God, and gives more laws of various types to help people better understand what it is God expects of us. In Leviticus 24:17-22 we have the overall aspect of the law given to us:
“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.”It should be noted once again that as far as we can tell, no one ever actually did engage in literal “eye for eye” justice, but instead understood this passage as indicating that “the punishment should fit the crime.” As the old quip states, if everyone engages in taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the whole world ends up toothless and blind. But when we understand that this is intended to keep punishments on par with the crimes that were committed it makes more sense. For instance, this concept would not permit someone to take the life of someone for having accidentally knocked a tooth from another man’s mouth.
One final thing to note is the last sentence that shows these laws are to be equally applied to all in Israel, whether native Jews or visiting foreigners. There were not to be two laws, one for the visitors and one for the home team. This is ultimately traced back to the fact that the Jews were also aliens in a foreign land when God delivered them from Egypt.
That theme continues in the next chapter where the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee is announced. This was to echo back to the fact that God rested on the seventh day, so every seventh year the land would “rest” from being used as produce, hence the Sabbath Year. The Year of Jubilee would occur once every fifty years (that is, after seven Sabbath Years—which add up to 49 years total—the next year was the Year of Jubilee). During the Year of Jubilee, anyone who was enslaved was to be set free, and any land that was sold was returned to the original owner. To keep things equitable between the people, the value of the land was calculated based on the number of years someone would be allowed to keep the land (see Leviticus 25:13-17).
The reason why land was never sold “in perpetuity” was because “the land is mine” (verse 23b). Since God owns all the land, it can never truly be transferred from one individual to another. Instead, God declares His sovereignty over the ownership of the land and asserts His right to have it belong to whom He gives it.
In Leviticus 26 we find a blessing and a punishment. First, we have the promise: “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit” (verse 3-4). This promise is extended to include living in peace (verse 6), the removal of harmful beasts (verse 6), and victory in battle (verse 7). But the ultimate gain is found in verse 11-12: “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”
God’s promise, therefore, is that obedience to His law will bring about closeness to God. But what if Israel did not obey? We see that diseases, famine, and enemies will come upon Israel (verse 16). God promises an escalation of discipline so that if the people will not listen, He will “continue striking you, sevenfold for your sins” (verse 18, 21, 24, etc.). In the end, the people will be destroyed: “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths” (verse 34).
Even despite this bleak pronouncement, however, God promises deliverance: “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me…then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land” (verse 40, 42). And even when Israel is held captive, God says: “Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am the LORD their God. But I will for their sake remember the covenant with their forefathers, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the LORD” (verses 44-45).
So we see that God demands perfect righteousness for the blessings to apply, and that He disciplines disobedience. Yet He remains faithful to His promises throughout, and will always return to His people, because of the covenant He has made. We therefore can have faith and trust in the LORD that He will always be faithful and just, merciful and good.