Leviticus Overview: Worship of a Covenant People


1. Name

The Hebrew title for the book is “and he called,” referring to the Lord calling to Moses from the Tabernacle (Lev. 1:1). Although this title does not reveal much about the general contents of the book, this expression does underscore the significance of the words that God was about to speak to Moses. It also emphasizes that Leviticus is a continuation of the Exodus story line. The Israelites have a new covenant relationship with God and now they are being instructed how to worship Him. Exodus emphasized where we are to worship God (the tabernacle). Leviticus deals with how to worship Him.

Leviticus is the Latin form of the Greek title of the book and means “about Levites.” The Levites were descendants of Levi, one of the 12 sons of Jacob (Gen. 29:34). Aaron and his family were chosen from this tribe to serve as priests and to offer the sacrifice since. God appointed the rest of the Levites to the service of the tabernacle, to assist the priests in the worship at the sanctuary. So, the title is apt, because the book is primarily about worship and fitness for worship. However, it is also addressed to the ordinary Israelites, their sacrifices and worship, indicating that worship was the duty of the whole nation, not just the priests

2. Theme

The theme has been variously stated as, Worshiping and serving the Lord,[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (England: Evangelical Press, 2002), 105.[/footnote] Holiness is essential,[footnote]J E Smith, The Pentateuch (Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co., 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote] the way to God and the walk he demands.[footnote]I L Jensen, Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), 113.[/footnote]

3. Purpose

To guide the Israelites in the ways of holiness, so they would be set apart from the world and receive blessings instead of judgment as they lived near the special presence of their holy God.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 160.[/footnote]

4. Key verse

For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (Lev. 11:45).

5. Key truths

  • God is holy, and he requires holiness from His people.
  • God’s people invariably failed to keep requirements of holiness but temporary atonement could be found in the sacrificial system.
  • God called his people to pursue holiness in every aspect of their lives out of gratitude for the mercy he had shown to them
  • God offered wondrous blessings and threatened at judgment so that his people would repent and offer vows of commitment to him.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible 160[/footnote]


I. Author

See “Lecture 1: Pentateuch Overview” for general view regarding Mosaic Authorship of Pentateuch. There are some additional points specifically related to the critical view of authorship of Leviticus which we would like to address here.

A. Standard Critical Viewpoint

Wellhausen (see sect. III.1.3 here) followed the Hegelian Evolutionary Model[footnote]Wellhausen said he “learned the most and the best” from Vatke (1835) who was an ardent Hegelian. Charles T. Fritsch, “Biblical Typology,” Bibliotheca Sacra 103 (1946): 296.[/footnote] in his theory of the development of Israel’s religion. He distinguished four alleged stages:

1. Independent tribes

During the early or Patriarchal history, Israel’s worship was free, individualistic, simple, and spontaneous.

2. Merging tribes

As the tribes began to merge in Mosaic times, the early individualism and spontaneity gave way to something more organized and united.

3. Unified tribes

With the formal unification of the tribes in the Davidic period, worship was even more centralized and organized.

4. Post-exilic nationalism

In the post-exilic era worship was ritualized and regulated in every area.

5. Critics Conclusion

Leviticus reveals a ritualized and regulated religion and so belongs to the post-exilic period. The Mosaic setting for the book is fictional.

6. Evangelical Response

a. There is New Testament support for Mosaic authorship (Mat. 8:4 and Lev. 14:20, Lk. 2:22 and Lev. 12:2-8)

b. Though not known to Wellhausen when he wrote, more recent research has shown that when Moses wrote there were other religions (eg., Ugarit) in the area with highly ritualized and organized worship.

With the discovery of other ancient law codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi , the fragments of the Sumerian laws of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (about 1875 B.C.), those of Bilalama, king of Eshnunna (about 1940 B.C), it becomes increasingly apparent that some of the so-called P laws were strikingly similar to provisions enacted in the early second millennium, well before the age of Moses…With the recent publication of legal documents from the north Canaanite city of Ugarit, still further resemblances have been coming to light, even in the matter of technical terminology.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

c. There are significant differences when the language and rituals of Leviticus are compared with post-exilic books such as Ezekiel, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah.

d. There is evidence that Deuteronomy, Joshua and Samuel build upon Leviticus (e.g., Lev. 17:10f, 1Sam. 14:33-34).

B. Mosaic Authorship

The Evangelical view is that Moses wrote the book. God inspired him to recall previous revelations in Tabernacle (Lev. 1:1f) and also previous events (Lev. 8:1-10:20; Lev. 24:10-23).

While Leviticus never claims to be authored by Moses, the internal testimony indicates that its contents were mediated through him to the people. The book opens with the phrase “The LORD called unto Moses” (Lev. 1:1), and the expression “The Lord said to Moses” occurs 56 times.

No other book in the Bible affirms divine inspiration so frequently as Leviticus. Under the heading of the verb to speak (dibbēr) alone, the concordance lists no less than thirty-eight occurrences of the statement that Jehovah spoke to Moses or to Aaron. Nothing could be clearer than that this entire sacrificial system was no invention of the Hebrew people (either in Moses’ day or in the course of later centuries) but a direct revelation of God. Otherwise no affirmation of divine origin is to be trusted for any statement in the rest of Scripture.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]


II. Date

The setting of Leviticus is Mt Sinai. The first generation of post-exodus Israel are on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land. The book was most likely written by Moses later on the plains of Moab, to teach the 2nd generation of post-exodus Israel how to live and worship in the Promised Land. The last event it mentions is the death of Nadab and Abihu which was after Sinai. Final composition then took place after Sinai but before the death of Moses.

III. Historical Analysis

1. The setting: Mt Sinai

The introduction (Lev. 1:1) and the conclusion of Leviticus (Lev. 27:34) indicate that the setting for this book is the same as that of the final chapters of Exodus. The book contains laws given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Also, the Levitical laws of impurities (Lev. 11–16) and holiness (Lev. 17–26) presuppose the establishment of the covenant which was narrated in Exodus.

2. The time period: one month

The last event in Exodus, the erection of the Tabernacle, is dated to the first day of the first month of the second year of the Exodus (Ex. 40:17). The first event in Numbers, the census at Sinai, is dated to the first day of the second month of the same year (Num. 1:1). Leviticus, therefore, covers only one month.

3. Laws and Rituals

Compared to the rest of the Pentateuch, there is little history of events, or instruction, or experience. Rather, the book is full of ritual, rules, law, ethics, and morality. This deters many from reading the book. However, though the Levitical rituals often seem impenetrable, it is important to understand them for two reasons. First, a society’s rituals highlight what is most important to it. We can, therefore, examine Israel’s rituals to determine what was most important to this nation. Secondly, the New Testament describes the death of Christ using the Levitical concepts of sin, sacrifice, and atonement,

4. Cultural Context

Archaeological research has discovered that all of Israel’s neighbors in the ancient Near East had some form of sacrificial worship. The sacrificial terminology was similar and so were the purposes of sacrifice: to provide fellowship with the deity, to appease the gods, and to ensure continuance of divine favor.

However, there were certain important and fundamental differences.

a. Unlike the Mesopotamians, the Israelites burned their sacrifices in fire.

b. The Mesopotamians used the sacrificial animal as a means of clairvoyance. Priests believed that they could tell the future by studying the entrails of dead animals. Such practices were absent in Israel.

c. The Israelite sacrificial system was based upon and bound up with their covenant relationship with God which has no parallel in the ancient Near East.

d. Israel’s neighbors had no concept of “holiness,” a concept which greatly influenced Israel’s sacrificial system. Indeed many of their neighbors rituals were morally degrading.

e. Unlike their neighbors, not only did the sacred personnel, such as the King and/or priests, have access to the sacred precincts or to ritual instructions, but all the covenant people also, to some degree, had access to intimacy with God.

Although the sacrificial system seems strange and fallen to ours, it was part and parcel of Israel’s cultural environment. We should not be surprised that she was comfortable using animal sacrifices as a partnership of Yahweh. But we should also remember these striking differences between the way Israel and her neighbors practiced sacrifice.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 119.[/footnote]

While there may be some general resemblances or analogies which can be pointed out between these Levitical regulations and the cultus practiced by other ancient Semites, there is a complete absence of the degrading and superstitious elements characterizing the worship of the idolatrous nations during the Old Testament age.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]


IV. Literary Analysis

1. Comparative Outlines

Laws of sacrifice (Lev. 1:1-7:38)
Institution of priests (Lev. 8:1-10:20)
Uncleanness and treatment (Lev. 11:1-16:34)
Practical holiness (Lev. 17:1-27:34)
Removal of the defilement which separates man from God (Lev. 1-16)
Restoration of the lost fellowship between man and God (Lev. 17-27)
Regulations of sacrifices (Lev. 1:1-7:38)
Regulations of priests (Lev. 8:1-10:20)
Regulations of uncleanness (Lev. 11:1-16:34)
General regulations of holy living (Lev. 17:1-25:55)
Blessing and cursing (Lev. 26:1-46)
Regulations of vow (Lev. 27:1-29)
Holy worship inside the Tabernacle (Lev. 1-10)
Holy living outside the Tabernacle (Lev. 11-27)

J E Smith proposes the following structure:[footnote]J E Smith, The Pentateuch (Joplin, Mo.; College Press Pub. Co., 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]


Attaining Fellowship
Though Worship
Maintaining Fellowship
Through Practice
Ceremonial and Physical
Moral and Spiritual

The structure that will be used in the following more detailed lectures on Leviticus will be:

Holy worship inside the Tabernacle (Lev. 1-10)

Holy living outside the Tabernacle (Lev. 11-27).

The division is not clear cut, as elements of one are found in the other. However, the general emphasis is certainly reflected in this division. The Bible consistently joins right worship inside the church to right living outside it.

2. Original Audience/Message

Although it was the first generation of the Exodus who received these laws at Sinai, it is more likely that the book was composed for the second generation on the plains of Moab to instruct both the priests and the people as to how to worship and live in the Promised Land, which was the land of God’s promised blessing and presence.

3. Literary Context

There is literary contrast and continuity.

a. Contrast

Leviticus appears to interrupt the flow of events in the Pentateuchal narrative. After Exodus, we must wait until Numbers for the resumption of the story of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land. In between is this book full of legal materials. If there is a “jarring” it is intentional and is to illustrate the importance of the book.

The Israelites would not have inserted Leviticus into their sacred literature if it were not important to their story. Its emphasis on personal, priestly, and national holiness was a necessary and integral part of that story. Despite its strangeness and apparent awkwardness, Leviticus plays an important role in the thought flow of the Pentateuch. It was of great significance for an ancient people the Israelites and is still pertinent for modern Christians.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 118.[/footnote]

b. Continuity

The concluding chapters of Exodus that focus on the construction of the tabernacle (chaps. 25-40) lead naturally to the opening of Leviticus, which describes the various sacrifices performed in the Holy Place (chaps. 1-7)….Hence, it is apparent that, although Leviticus is a self-contained unit, it is in its proper place and presupposes for its correct understanding the narratives of Exodus.

The literary continuity is also underlined by the connection between the closing words of Exodus and the opening words of Leviticus. “Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle Now the LORD called to Moses, and spoke to him from the tabernacle of meeting, saying…” (Ex. 40:34; Lev. 1:1).

Jensen suggests contextualizing Leviticus in the Pentateuch as follows:

Genesis: Origins of the nation
Exodus: Deliverance of the nation
Leviticus: Life of the nation
Numbers: Test of the nation
Deuteronomy: Reminders to the nation[footnote]I L Jensen, Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), 102.[/footnote]

4. Genre

It is not difficult to deduce that the genre of Leviticus is law. However, all the laws have a narrative setting (the Tent of Meeting, ch1) setting it within the overall Pentateuchal genre of “instructional history.”

The single most obvious characteristic of the book is its clear and simple structure. The high incidence of law and ritual necessitates a straightforward presentation. The purpose of the book is to provide guidelines to priests and laypeople concerning appropriate behavior in the presence of a holy God, thus the emphasis is on communicating information, not on subtle or artificial literary plays. Accordingly, Leviticus is among the least literary of the Old Testament books. This judgment is not a slight on the book, because the book does not intend to stimulate the reader’s aesthetic imagination to the same level as do other biblical books. Its interest to the original audience as well as to the contemporary reader is found elsewhere, for instance, in its theological ramifications.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 76.[/footnote]

5. Ancient Near Eastern Treaties

Though often treated as mere appendices, Chapters 26 and 27 are the key to understanding Leviticus. Lev. 26 sets out blessings on obedience and curses on disobedience. Lev. 27 encourages the readers to vow obedience and devotion to the Lord. So, Leviticus reveals what the rules are, but also why the readers should keep them (ch 26), and how (ch 27). This follows the pattern of ancient Near Eastern covenants.


V. Thematic Analysis

1. Theological progress

J E Smith highlights a progression of theological thought in the Pentateuch up to this point.[footnote]J E Smith, The Pentateuch (Joplin, Mo.; College Press Pub. Co., 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

God’s Remedy for Man’s Ruin
The Seed of Woman (Gen. 3:15)
The Problem of Sin
God’s Answer for Man’s Cry
The Blood of a Lamb (Ex. 13-14)
The Possibility of Salvation
God’s Provision for Man’s Need
The Provision for Service

2. Theological Contrast

Although there is theological continuity with the preceding book, there is also contrast.

Exodus begins with enslaved sinners; Leviticus with redeemed saints. In the former book God got his people out of Egypt; in the latter, he got Egypt out of his people. Exodus is the book of deliverance emphasizing the fact of sacrifice; Leviticus is the book of dedication and sets forth the doctrine of sacrifice. In Exodus God speaks from the mount, and he approaches man. In Leviticus God speaks from the tent, and man learns to approach God. Exodus dwells at length on the erection of the Tabernacle while in Leviticus Tabernacle duties are set forth.[footnote]J E Smith, The Pentateuch (Joplin, Mo.; College Press Pub. Co., 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

3. Holiness

The word “holy” occurs ninety times in Leviticus, and the word “sanctify,” seventeen times. The Hebrew root for “holy” (in adjective, noun, and verb forms) appears 152 times in Leviticus. The notion of holiness is best understood as indicating separateness and consecration to Yahweh. The Israelites are to understand that they are separated by God, to God, for God.

“Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:45) is the theme of Leviticus. Human beings are meant to be like God in His character. That involves imitating God in daily life. The holiness of God involves His being the source of perfect life – life in its physical and moral dimensions. Animals offered to Him in sacrifice were to be free of defect (Lev. 1:3), and priests who represented God to Israel and Israel to God were to be free of physical disabilities (Lev. 21:17-23). Those who suffered discharges or disfiguring skin diseases were barred from worship until they were cured (Lev. 12-15). Physical health is seen to symbolize the perfection of divine life. But holiness is also an inward matter, one of attitudes resulting in moral behavior.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 161.[/footnote]

Standing as motivation behind the various commands of holiness is the divine statement “I am the LORD your God” which occurs forty times.

4. Ceremonial Law

In our discussion of Exodus we noted the threefold division of moral, civil and ceremonial law. We also guarded against too radical a separation of these codes, noting that it was more a threefold emphasis rather than distinction.

Some laws are both moral and civil, such as those against adultery, stealing, bearing false witness and the like. Others are both moral and ceremonial, such as laws against idolatry and Sabbath breaking. All these laws contain a moral dimension making the lines between the categories somewhat arbitrary. Furthermore, this approach to Old Testament law leads some Christians to take too lightly Paul’s injunction in 2 Tim. 3:16.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 123.[/footnote]

Although one verse near the end of the book ties all of Leviticus to the Sinai covenant (Lev. 26:46), the emphasis in Leviticus is on the ceremonial law. Exodus emphasized the moral laws and their application to Israel’s covenant life. Leviticus is more concerned with laws for covenant worship and ceremonial cleansing. The question for the modern believer is, how do these laws of sacrificial rites and ritual cleansing relate to others?

It is better to accept some laws of the Old Testament as broad and generally intended for all societies. Others are specific applications to Israelite culture and society that cannot be applied in the same way today to our Western society and culture. On the other hand, much of the world today is closer to ancient Israel than we may think. For the majority of the world’s population, the specific applications of civil law are not so far removed from ancient Israel…The Bible invites us to examine the ancient Israel as the model and example. As we compare our situation to theirs, we accept Old Testament law as confirmed by Christ, and with the help of his Holy spirit and lessons learned in Church History the specifics of how we ought to love God and neighbor should become clear.[footnote]Arnold and Beyer, 123.[/footnote]

5. Atoning sacrifice

Our consideration of God’s requirement of holiness and of His holy law leads naturally to the theme of atonement through sacrifice, as no one can live up to God’s holy character and standards. The people of Israel had been constituted as God’s special people and nation. However, they were also a sinful people. How can they draw near to God? The sacrificial system is the answer. We have already mentioned the cultural parallels and differences between Israel’s sacrificial system and her neighbors. But what is the theological principle revealed in the sacrificial system?

When God ordained sacrificial blood as the means for cleansing sin (Lev. 17:11), He established the spiritual principle that life itself, not some lesser gift, must be returned to him for the purpose of atoning for sin. The exact meaning of the Hebrew word for atonement (kipper) is uncertain. But it somehow means the animal’s sacrifice ransomed the sinner from the death of which the sinner deserved. The animal became the worshipper’s substitute and lost his life in order for the sinner to live.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 124.[/footnote]

Two emphases are apparent: sin must be pardoned and removed, and lost fellowship with God must be restored and preserved.

Griffith-Thomas summarized the teaching of Leviticus under seven heads:

a. The Great Problem: Sin

The fact of sin is recognized in the whole book. Sin is unlikeness to God, distance from God, and wrong done against God. By sin man is excluded from nearness to God and communion with him.

b. The Great Provision: Sacrifice

The words offering and sacrifice appear over ninety times. Two other words of high frequency are blood and life. The key phrase in the book, “before the Lord,” לִפְנֵי יְהוָה appears some sixty times. The fact of redemption is the key to the whole book. The redemption is achieved through substitution, imputation, and death. The innocent animal pays the death penalty for the guilty sinner. Redemption from death is founded on righteousness and therefore is possible only through blood (life) poured out.

c. The Great Power: Priesthood

Man can and must approach God through divinely appointed mediators. Reading the Book of Leviticus, the Christian is reminded of his need for an intercessor, a priest superior to Aaron and his kin. That need is met in Jesus who offered up his own blood once for all time on behalf of sinful man.

d. The Great Plan: The Day of Atonement

Once each year the high priest was to enter the Holy of Holies with blood to atone for the sins of the priesthood and the nation. A goat was driven into the wilderness to symbolize the removal of sin.

e. The Great Possibility: Access to God

Man can come into fellowship with God and can maintain that fellowship.

f. The Great Principle: Holiness

God’s holiness demands holiness on the part of those who are his people. The word holy and its cognates appears some 131 times in the book. Closely related is the concept of cleanness. The word clean with its cognates and contrasts appears some 186 times. Leviticus stresses (1) clean food (Lev. 11), (2) clean bodies (Lev. 12:1-13:46), (3) clean clothes (Lev. 13:47-59), (4) clean houses (Lev. 14:33-57), (5) clean contacts (Lev. 15), and (6) a clean nation (Lev. 16). The verse which captures the essence of the book is , “Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

g. The Great Privilege

The Presence of God. When man approaches God in the prescribed manner, he enjoys the presence of God and consequent blessing.[footnote]G Thomas, The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1994), 110.[/footnote]

6. The divine presence

The end and purpose of the sacrifices was communion with God. The enjoyment of God’s presence would be restored.

Every act of worship took place “before the Lord” (eg., Lev. 1:5) who dwelled with His people in the Tent of Meeting…Although God’s presence is usually invisible, he did on special occasions become visible in a cloud of fire (Lev. 9:23-24). It is the greatest of God’s gifts that he deigns to dwell with his people (Lev. 26:12).[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 160.[/footnote]


VI. New Testament Analysis

1. Jesus Christ: the wedge and the bridge

The coming of Christ has had a massive impact on our understanding of the details and purpose of the Levitical code. In a way He drove a wedge between us and these Old Testament regulations, and in another way He is the hermeneutical bridge between us and the Old Testament. There is contrast and continuity.

2. The Character of God

God’s holy presence is revealed as the source of holy life and holy love, thus foreshadowing the incarnation.

The holy God of Leviticus is shown in the Gospels to be Christ, who offers life, health and holiness to all who are willing to follow him.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible 161.[/footnote]

3. Typology

The Lord Jesus and other New Testament writers showed the importance of Leviticus by the frequent use they made of it. But, whereas some books of the Bible, such as Isaiah and Psalms, abound in Christological prophecies, the book of Leviticus bursts with typology. Leviticus is essentially and intentionally a book of types.

Here are vivid pictures illustrating wonderful truths about the Savior and his people. The Epistle to the Hebrews is the New Testament counterpart to Leviticus, containing the explanation of so many of the types found there. The manner in which that letter was composed suggests that it was not a new idea to understand the ceremonies of the Old Covenant as illustrations of something more glorious to come.[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (England: Evangelical Press, 2002), 117.[/footnote]

This reminds us that the Levitical sacrifices had no power in and of themselves to atone for sin, but depended on the merits of Christ’s atonement which was still to be accomplished.

4. The Gospel according to Leviticus

Allis wrote concerning Leviticus:

This is the New Testament gospel for sinners stated in Old Testament terms and enshrined in the ritual of sacrifice; and it finds its fullest expression in the ritual of the day of atonement.[footnote]O.T. Allis, “Leviticus,” in New Bible Commentary ed. F. Davidson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 135.[/footnote]

VII. The Message of Leviticus

Original message: Israel’s covenant blessing or cursing is dependent upon observing the rituals and guidelines of holiness given by a holy God
Present message: The church’s covenant blessing or cursing is dependent upon observing the rituals and guidelines of holiness given by a holy God.