Leviticus is the third book of the Pentateuch, named wayyiqrāʾ in Hebrew (“and he summoned”) from its opening words. The English “Leviticus” is taken over from the Latin Vulgate's Liber Leviticus derived from the Greek Septuagint. The contents of Leviticus relate not to the tribe of Levi but more generally to matters of concern to the priesthood, especially the proper procedures for various sacrificial offerings, priestly ordination, determinations concerning ritual purity, and the celebration of holy days. The Pentateuch in its final form is intended to be a single composition, and its division into five books is a later development; however apt the division may be, it should not obscure the fact that Leviticus stands in continuity with what precedes it in the Priestly code (P) and with what follows; in some cases, it presupposes them. Thus, the ordination of Aaron and his sons, described in Leviticus 8–9, conforms to instructions given in Exodus 29, and the relation of Aaron's line to other elements of Levi is explicated, in part at least, by the conflict stories in Numbers 16 and the assignment of contributions and tithes in Numbers 18.

Since Leviticus pertains to P, its contents are thought to have attained a relatively fixed form only in postexilic times; the rituals described therein are basically those of the Second Temple. Since, however, priestly circles tended to be conservative (especially the Jerusalem priesthood), much of the ritual no doubt reflects that of monarchic times, and some of it possibly even earlier periods. The priestly hierarchy of Leviticus reflects that of postexilic times, as elsewhere in P, with Aaron and his sons alone functioning as priests. Aaron is not called high priest; he is, rather, “the anointed priest” who stands apart from other priests (Lev. 4.3, 5, 16), and his prerogatives pass to another by right of succession (Lev. 6.22; 16.32; cf. Num. 20.25–29). The legal prescriptions in Leviticus, as in other parts of the Pentateuch, are generally introduced by the formula, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel’ ” (1.1–2; 4.1; 7.22–23, 28–29; 12.1–2; 18.1–2; 19.1–2; etc.; cf. Exod. 20.22; 25.1; 31.12–13; Num. 5.1–2, 5–6, 11–12; 6.1–2; 15.1–2, 37–38), but for those that pertain strictly to priests, God commands Moses to speak to Aaron or to Aaron and his sons (6.8–9, 24–25; 16.1–2; 21.1, 16–17; 22.1–2; cf. Num. 6.22–23; 8.1–2); occasionally Aaron, his sons, and all Israel are included under the same rubric (17.1–2; 22.17–18).

In a sense, such formulas bind the contents of the book together. Whether or not one holds P to be a narrative source, the action is advanced very little in Leviticus; Israel, which had already encamped at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, remained there through all that is recounted in Leviticus, departing thence only at Numbers 10. The only narrative portions are those that tell of the ordination of Aaron and his sons (chaps. 8–10, by the rite prescribed in Exod. 29) and of a blasphemer and his punishment (24.10–23), the latter narrative occasioning and including a number of laws (vv. 17–20). Although the materials contained in Leviticus are rather disparate in nature, a degree of coherence is provided in the way that many of them are fitted in. Thus, the first sacrifices narrated in P after the erection of the tabernacle (Exod. 40) are those relating to the ordination of Aaron and his sons (Lev. 8.14–9.21), and these are logically preceded by extensive instructions on the offering of sacrifice (chaps. 1–7). Thus also, the detailed rules for the distinction between clean and unclean (i.e., that which defiles; see Purity, Ritual) in chaps. 11–15 logically precede the instructions for the great Day of Atonement (chap. 16), whose primary goal is the cleansing of the sanctuary, meeting tent, and altar from the defilements of the Israelites (16.16–19).

Despite the present title given the book, and despite the book's interest in priestly ritual, extensive portions were directed largely to the lay population, in particular 1.1–6.7, which describes how certain sacrifices are to be carried out; these are initiated by the offerer, who also did the slaughtering, although for the priests are reserved the offering of blood and burning of whatever parts are to be burned. In 6.8–7.10, on the other hand, many of the same matters are covered, but now from the vantage point of priestly concerns; in the outline below in this article, these sections are labeled “supplement,” though in fact they must originally have formed a separate (albeit somewhat disorganized) collection, formulated, preserved, and transmitted in priestly circles. As might be expected, most sections within this block are addressed to Aaron and his sons. (This section, extended to 7.38, is sometimes labeled “manual for the priests,” and the previous sections “manual for the laity.”)

The Holiness Code (H), chaps. 17–26, probably stood as a separate collection before its insertion into P; it is so named because its provisions aim at maintaining the ritual purity required of God's people, and because of the formula, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19.2; cf. 20.7). The idea of holiness here, as in the rest of Leviticus and the Hebrew Bible generally, is that of being set apart. It is of Yahweh's nature to be apart and therefore holy, but people and even things can be set apart as Yahweh's possession and for his service, and in that sense they can be holy. Israel is to “set apart” the clean from the unclean, just as Yahweh has set Israel apart from the nations (20.25–26; cf. 22.32–33). Priests are set apart in a special way, but so is sacrificial meat, the sanctuary, veil, altar and utensils, the Sabbath, the jubilee year, tithes, and things vowed to the Lord—and so all these can be called holy or consecrated (8.10–11; 19.24; 21.6, 8, 15, 23; 22.9; 23.3, 20; 25.10; 27.9, 28, 30). Nevertheless, the concept of holiness is broader than separateness, for the former relates to fitting worship of the all‐holy God and to what is in accord with his nature. Some of the provisions, furthermore, especially many of those in chap. 19, express high ethical ideals, for example, concern for the poor, disadvantaged, handicapped, and aged (19.9–10, 13–14, 32), honesty in action, word, and judgment (19.11–12, 15–16, 35–36), and even the command to love one's neighbor (19.18), including the resident alien (19.33–34). The unevenness and repetition in H is attributable to the fact that it was made up of several smaller, somewhat overlapping collections before its insertion into P; later additions, intended to bring its provisions into line with those found in P, contributed further to the unevenness. The list of rewards (for obedience) and punishments (for disobedience) with which H concludes (chap. 26) forms an epilogue similar in form, content, and function to that contained in D (Deut. 28). Some scholars believe that H originally had a historical prologue that was detached when H was inserted into P. In its independent form, then, H may have resembled the treaty form, which is also found in the outline of D.

Chap. 27, on the redemption of votive offerings (i.e., things vowed to God), forms an appendix containing some early material that was probably added after the rest of Leviticus had reached its present form.

The book may be outlined as follows (primary references are given according to the Hebrew text; NRSV and some other translations differ from the Hebrew in parts of chaps. 5 and 6):

Chap. 1: The burnt offering (ʿōlâ)
Chap. 2: The cereal offering (minḥâ)
Chap. 3: The peace offering (zebaḥ šĕlāmîm)
Chap. 4: The sin offering (ḥaṭṭāʾt) for priests (vv. 1–12)
for the community (vv. 13–21)
for the princes (vv. 22–26)
for private persons (vv. 27–35)
Chap. 5: The sin offering for special cases (vv. 1–13)
The guilt offering ʾāšām (vv. 14–26; NRSV: 5.14–6.7)
Chap. 6: Supplement on the burnt offering (vv. 1–6; NRSV: vv. 8–13)
Supplement on the cereal offering (vv. 7–16; NRSV: vv. 14–23)
Supplement on the sin offering (vv. 17–23; NRSV: vv. 24–30)
Chap. 7: Supplement on the guilt offering (vv. 1–10)
Supplement on the peace offering (vv. 11–21)
Prohibitions concerning blood and fat (vv. 22–27)
Portions for priests (vv. 28–36)
Conclusion (vv. 37–38)
Chap. 8: Ordination of Aaron and his sons
Chap. 9: Their installation
Chap. 10: Revolt of Nadab and Abihu(vv. 1–7)
Some rules of priestly conduct (vv. 8–11)
Supplement on priestly portions (vv. 12–20)
Chap. 11: Clean and unclean animals
Chap. 12: Purification after childbirth
Chap. 13: Leprosy of persons (vv. 1–46)
of garments (vv. 47–59)
Chap. 14: Purification after leprosy (vv. 1–32)
Leprosy of houses (vv. 33–57)
Chap. 15: Unclean discharges
Chap. 16: Ritual for the Day of Atonement
Sacrifices and incense (vv. 1–19)
The scapegoat (vv. 20–28)
Observed as sabbath of rest and affliction (vv. 29–34)
Chap. 17: Sacredness of blood
Chap. 18: Forbidden sexual relations
Chap. 19: Various rules of conduct
Chap. 20: Penalties for various sins
Chap. 21: Holiness of priests
Rules of conduct (vv. 1–15)
Irregularities (vv. 16–24)
Chap. 22: The holiness of offerings(vv. 1–16)
Unacceptable victims (vv. 17–33)
Chap. 23: Calendar of feasts
Introduction; Sabbath (vv. 1–4)
Passover (vv. 5–14)
Pentecost (vv. 15–22)
New Year's Day (vv. 23–25)
Day of Atonement (vv. 26–32)
Feast of Booths (vv. 33–44)
Chap. 24: Service of the sanctuary (vv. 1–9)
Sanctuary light (vv. 1–4)
Showbread (vv. 5–9)
A case of blasphemy and its punishment (vv. 10–23)
Chap. 25: Sabbatical year (vv. 1–7)
Jubilee year (vv. 8–55)
 Introduction (vv. 8–22)
 Redemption of property(vv. 23–34)
 Redemption of person(vv. 35–55)
Chap. 26: Rewards and punishments
False and true worship (vv. 1–2)
Rewards of obedience (vv. 3–13)
Punishment of disobedience(vv. 14–26)
Chap. 27: Votive offerings and their redemption

See also Feast and Festivals


Joseph Jensen, O.S.B.