Reading through the Book of Leviticus

I’m going to try and break this summary down into little blocks because, although it isn’t a terribly long book, it is quite clinical in its treatment, since it is a dedicated ritual that was meant to guide the work of the levitical priesthood of the Hebrew nation. Hence its name. The old priests were quite clearly skilled butchers, too, and this book has been designed to join up with the end of the book of Exodus, so that all of the work of the priests is clearly given as a command from God on the holy mountain to Moses and Aaron. The central theme is that of the People being holy, set apart from all other tribes they would encounter on the way to the Holy Land and certainly all tribes and peoples they would discover in the Holy Land. It is their dedication to purity and holiness, and so to being God’s People that will win them the Holy Land, and their violation of the purity laws would dispossess even them of the Holy Land. So, the divisions of the book are as below:

I. Sacrificial offering: the first three chapters are each a description of one of three types of sacrifice: the burnt sacrifice (holocaust) of an animal, to win the Lord’s favour; the bloodless (cereal) offering of flour and oil mixed with incense, seemingly a lesser alternative to the burnt sacrifice; and the welcome-offering of an animal, designed to bring peace between people, or between people and God, and including thanksgiving. That last word, ‘thanksgiving,’ immediately draws my mind to the Holy Eucharist, for this is what Christ must have had in mind at the Last Supper. The following descriptions of sin offerings and guilt offerings, in chapters four and five respectively, are variations on the themes of the peace offering. There now follow instructions for the priests about their own daily lives performing the perpetual sacrifices that would accompany the lives of the people until the destruction of Solomon’s temple in 587 BC, and definitively with the destruction of the second temple in AD 70. So, there is the daily holocaust and the daily bloodless offering in chapter six, together with the prescribed sin offerings. Chapter seven ends the sequence of sacrificial prescriptions with the prohibition on the consumption of either the blood or the fat of the victims and the gift to the priests of parts of the sacrificed animals (being unable to themselves own land or cattle, this was to be their portion of the inheritance of the land).

II. Consecration of the priests: chapters eight and nine present respectively the rite of consecration of the Hebrew priests (here applying specifically to Aaron and his sons), the rites of the octave day of the consecration, and the sin offerings made by the priests on behalf of themselves. The prohibition against idolatry is presented throughout the book, but in chapter ten we discover that two of Aaron’s sons had decided to burn ‘unhallowed fire,’ a possible indication of their having introduced a pagan rite to the sequence, something they may have learnt in Egypt. The reaction of God is instant and they are burnt to a crisp before their father’s eyes, and the rest of the chapter is the rites of consecration being completed by their grief-stricken family members.

III. Purity laws: the next five chapters, eleven through fifteen, comprise the purity laws of the People, some (like the dietary laws) better known than others, because they regulate until today the everyday life of the Jewish community. So, here we find the description of clean and unclean animals (chapter eleven), the rites of childbirth (chapter twelve) and the control of contagion from leprosy (chapters thirteen and fourteen) and, finally, what seems to pertain to live sores in the skin and abnormal issues of blood (chapter fifteen). 

IV. The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur): chapter sixteen institutes the holiest part of the Hebrew calendar, the tenth day of the seventh month after the celebration of the Passover, when the whole People made annual atonement for sin through the offices of the levitical priesthood. 

V. Holiness of the people: chapter seventeen brings new prohibitions on the offering of any sacrifice to a pagan god, and on the consumption of blood; both will cause the offender to be thrust from the People and so lose his inheritance of the Land. Chapter eighteen is a round condemnation of incestuous relationships and unnatural sexual acts, which are said to be the characteristics of the pagan societies and should not characterise the Chosen People. Chapter nineteen further fleshes out the ten commandments, presented at the end of Exodus, and condemns the superstitions associated with witchcraft, divination and soothsaying. Chapter twenty penalises the various crimes mentioned earlier, but including here the killing of children. Chapters twenty-one and twenty-two concern personal purity of the priests and other details of the sacrificial cult. 

VI. The liturgical year: the day of Atonement has been mentioned, but chapter twenty-three provides a more detailed description of the year. So, the seven-day week and the punctuation of the Sabbath observance are followed by the prescription of the Passover (fifteenth day of the first month), the feast of Unleavened Bread, a feast of solemn assembly. There follows the prescriptions of the festival of the First Fruits, which directly followed the Passover with its own ritual and sacrifices, followed by seven weeks (of what we Christians would call ‘Eastertide’), and the feast of Pentecost or Weeks on the fiftieth day after the Passover. Then came the first day of the seventh month (roughly September), what is today celebrated as the Jewish New Year with the blowing of trumpets, and the tenth day of the same month, the aforementioned Day of Atonement. Finally, there is the period from the fifteenth day for a week, the feast of Tent-dwelling or Booths, also a feast of solemn assembly, like Unleavened Bread and Weeks.

VII. The final reminders: the last part of the book looks like an epilogue. Chapter twenty-four begins with the regulation about maintaining the lighted lamps outside the tabernacle (these lamps again, standing on the great golden candlestick, never went out until the destruction of the two temples) and ends with the condemnation of blasphemy and the death-sentence for the same and then the punishment for injury to human beings or murder – the famous eye for an eye and tooth for tooth verdict. The twenty-fifth chapter orders the sabbatical year (every seventh since the settlement of the Holy Land), which was to allow the land itself to rest, and jubilee year (the fiftieth year, following seven sets of seven years), which was a type of great reset in the ownership of the land, restoring the hereditary status of ownership of the Holy Land by the Israelite tribes. Chapter twenty-six condemns idolatry again and is a long list of punishments that the People will incur if they fall into idolatry or somehow wilfully break the covenant. And chapter twenty-seven describes the use of consecrated life and property, including the tithing system.

And that is Leviticus, in summary. I shall probably have to refer back several times to Leviticus, since the latter history of the people, even in the New Testament is peppered with calls back to this book. Every religious reform carried out by prophets and priests is an attempted restoration of this original order.

The Hebrew priesthood: incense and animal sacrifice