Leviticus is the third book of the Torah (Pentateuch). Its English title reflects a Latin form of the ancient Greek title for the book, Leuitikon. This work was likely titled Leuitikon because its foci are the rituals and worship practices officiated by Aaron, the high priest, and his descendents, all of whom belong to the tribe of Levi. The current Hebrew name for the book, wayyiqrāʾ (“and he [the LORD] summoned”), follows the custom of titling ancient literary works, including biblical books, according to their opening word(s) and thus is not descriptive of the book's contents. The rabbinic title for the book, tôrat kōhănîm (“the instruction of the priests”), is perhaps most fitting, for it accurately describes both the book's ritual instructions for the priests themselves and its ritual and ethical commands whose discharge the priests are to supervise among the Israelite laity (Hos 4:6; Hag 2:11–14; Mal 1:8; 2:7–8).
Authorship, Date, and Literary History.
Like the rest of the Torah, Leviticus is traditionally attributed to Moses. It is, however narrated anonymously and never claims itself to be the work of Moses, who is instead the main human character in the narrative and the recipient of the divine speeches that make up the bulk of the book. This presentation of the book's contents as divine revelation is a literary trope meant to purchase authority for the laws composed and compiled by the book's authors.
Modern critical scholarship assigns Leviticus to the Pentateuchal Priestly source (P), which appears primarily in Genesis-Numbers and is so named because its ritual content, theological ideas, and literary style reflect a priestly origin. This Priestly source was likely penned by several different, anonymous authors or groups of authors, and evidence drawn from Leviticus itself suggests that portions of the book may have been earlier, shorter units that were subsequently incorporated into the larger composition. For example, the introductory statement in Leviticus 1:2 contemplates animal offerings but not grain offerings. This focus suggests that the instructions for burnt offerings and well-being offerings in chapters 1 and 3, which apply to animal offerings alone, are the proper referents of this introduction. These chapters were likely once contiguous but have subsequently been separated by a later insertion of the instructions for grain offerings in chapter 2. Similarly, the omission of birds from Leviticus 1:2 (which considers only animals from the herd and flock) may indicate that 1:14–17 are a later addition to the other animal offering instructions in chapters 1 and 3.
There are two main compositional strata in Leviticus. P (“Priestly”) comprises most of chapters 1–16. H (“Holiness”) includes the “Holiness Collection” or “Holiness Code” (in German: Heiligkeitsgesetz—chapters 17–26, so named because of its persistent concern for holiness, including its repeated exhortation to the Israelites to be holy); the addendum on vows, dedications, and tithes in chapter 27; and brief interpolations in chapters 1–16. These two strata are distinguishable on the basis of ideological and stylistic differences. In addition to these two major strata, some scholars (especially European) have attempted to identify further sublayers of composition. Although it is clear that more than two authors are represented in the book, the paucity of reliable evidence for differentiating between them oftentimes makes proposals for further stratification overly speculative.
Assigning absolute dates to P and H is a persistent challenge. However, relative dating of these strata vis-à-vis each other as well as in relation to the other Torah sources is fairly certain. From the time of its initial identification in the second half of the nineteenth century, scholars viewed the Holiness Code or Collection (Lev 17–26) as a preexisting composition incorporated by P into its own narrative and laws (Graf 1866; Wellhausen 1957; 1963). However, from the mid-twentieth century, with the German scholar Karl Elliger (1966), and especially in the work of scholars such as Israel Knohl (1995) and Jacob Milgrom (2000; 2001), most scholars now agree that H is the later stratum and was composed to revise, supplement, and complete P. Yet even as H introduces several innovations into its literary forebear, it agrees with P's basic historical myth and religious ideology.
H informs its supplementation and revision of P by appropriating and revising portions of the Pentateuchal Elohistic source (E) and Deuteronomic source (D). Hallmark examples of such appropriations are found in H's septennial year and jubilee laws in Leviticus 25. In these laws, H combines the Elohistic agricultural release (Exod 23:10–11) and the Deuteronomic debt release (Deut 15:1–11, itself a reworking of E's septennial-year law) and transforms them by freely reworking their requirements, infusing the seventh year with the ideology of Sabbath, and inaugurating a hitherto unknown fiftieth-year Jubilee release. Following especially the example of D, H joins in this chapter the septennial release law with rules for manumission from slavery. In so doing, however, H informs its rules for perpetual foreign slavery (Lev 25:44–46) with the language of E's slavery laws (Exod 21:2–11) as well as P narrative (Exod 1:13–14). The resulting legislation, though borrowing extensively from identifiable literary sources, steers a novel course and is not beholden to the norms of any of its forebears. Instances of literary revision such as these inform a relative dating for H as subsequent to E, D, and P.
Of the Pentateuchal sources, scholars are most confident in assigning an absolute date to D. In 1805, W. M. L. de Wette suggested that Deuteronomy is a “pious fraud” that should be associated with the “discovery” of a law book during the reign of Josiah and the subsequent religious reform instituted by that Judean king (2 Kgs 22—23). Though not without problems, associating a Deuteronomic law book with Josianic reform dates at least a core of the book of Deuteronomy to the late seventh century B.C.E. (ca. 620). A more solid basis for assigning a seventh century date for Deuteronomy is the literary appropriation in Deuteronomy 13 and 28 of the Neo-Assyrian Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, a text that dates to 672 B.C.E. This mid- to late-seventh-century date for Deuteronomy establishes, in light of H's borrowing from D, a terminus post quem for the composition of the H stratum of the Pentateuchal Priestly source, and with it, the completion of the main body of the book of Leviticus. In addition, strong ties between Ezekiel, who began to prophesy in 593, and H also suggest a late preexilic or exilic date for H.
Dating P is more difficult. Because there is no evidence of direct innerbiblical allusion between P and the non-Priestly Torah sources (J, E, D), intra-Pentateuchal literary interactions only facilitate dating P in relation to H. Building upon what can be learned of H's date in relation to D, however, P might be viewed as roughly contemporary with D. The single instance of literary correspondence between P and D (in the food laws of Lev 11 and Deut 14) is consistent with this view: Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 share an earlier, common written tradition that is then freely adapted by P and D for its own respective literary context (Moran 1966; Meshel 2008).
Scholars have also pursued other methods for dating P. One of the most prominent of these alternative methods is linguistic analysis and has been pioneered especially by Avi Hurwitz (1982, 1988). Eschewing the literary and historical content of biblical texts, this approach investigates the grammatical and lexical characteristics of the language of biblical texts and, anchored by texts that can be dated by other means, develops an historical typology of biblical Hebrew. This typology can then be used to date otherwise undatable texts. Such studies, though disputed, have suggested a preexilic date for much of the P source. In sum, much of the material in Leviticus may be preexilic, but it has most likely been revised, added to, and edited through the early postexilic period.
The historical contexts in which Leviticus was composed and that inform its perspectives are likewise difficult to identify with certainty. If the bulk of P can indeed be dated to the preexilic period, its prescriptions probably reflect at least part of the ritual of the (late) First Temple. However, the entire book of Leviticus is an archaizing composition. It is set at Mt. Sinai and narrates the events of the first month of the second year after the Israelites departed from Egypt (Exod 40:17; Num 1:1). As noted already, this archaic setting—and especially the book's claim to tell the story of divine revelation to Moses—establishes the proper pedigree for, and thus the legitimacy of, its prescriptions. However, it reveals virtually nothing of the actual historical setting and impetus for the book's composition.
Scholars have demonstrated the fruitfulness of comparisons between Israelite rituals described in Pentateuchal Priestly literature and those from elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Central practices in Leviticus such as sacrifice, purgation, and the disposal of impurity are productively elucidated by comparisons with similar rituals in other ancient Near Eastern texts. Resemblances among these rites suggest that the rituals described in Leviticus may reflect real practice from ancient Israel and thus may bolster the claim that the book's instructions reflect the rituals performed in the preexilic Jerusalem Temple.
In contrast to P, the revisionist legal innovations of H do not necessarily reflect real legal practice in ancient Judah but are instead highly scholastic in nature. Moreover, its revisions of E and D suggest that H does not mean only to supplement its non-Priestly sources but to supplant them completely. This claim is borne out with regard to both legal prescription and narrative claims. H's legislation is in many instances irreconcilably opposed to E and D. Moreover, within the compiled Pentateuch, the claims of D's Horeb narrative (Deut 5:22–31) undermine the entirety of the legislation in E and P+H. Thus, though some scholars conceive of H as the Pentateuchal redactor (e.g., Knohl 1995; Otto 1999; Milgrom 2000; Nihan 2007), it is more likely that H intends its composition simply as a revision and completion of P alone. Only at a later stage is P+H compiled and integrated with the other Pentateuchal sources to form the redacted Pentateuch.
Structure and Contents.
Leviticus can be divided into five major sections: (1) Instructions for sacrifice (chs. 1–7); (2) The dedication of the tabernacle and priests and the transgression of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu (chs. 8–10); (3) Instructions concerning ritual purity and purification (chs. 11–16); (4) The Holiness Collection (chs. 17–26, which comprises six subdivisions: (a) laws governing sacrifice and meat consumption (ch. 17); (b) miscellaneous ethical laws (chs. 18–20); (c) priestly and sacrificial rules (chs. 21–22); (d) laws governing calendrical observances (23:1—24:9; 25:1—26:2); (e) the account of the blasphemer, with related measure-for-measure laws, which interrupt the rules for calendrical observances (24:10–23); and (f) inducements for Israel's obedience, with summary postscript (26:3–46); (5) An addendum concerning vows, dedications, and tithes (ch. 27). Though dominated by law, each of these sections functions as a part of the larger plot of the Priestly narrative that begins in Genesis and extends through Numbers and the very end of Deuteronomy.
1:1—7:38 Sacrificial prescriptions
1:1—6:7 Sacrificial instructions
1:1—3:17 Instructions for food gift offerings
1:1–17 The burnt offering
2:1–16 The grain offering
3:1–17 The well-being offering
4:1—6:7 Instructions for purgation offerings
4:1–35 The purification offering
5:1–13 The graded purification offering
5:14—6:7 The reparation offering
6:8—7:38 Elaborations on the sacrificial instructions
6:8–13 the burnt offering
6:14–23 Grain offerings
6:24–30 The purification offering
7:1–10 The reparation offering
7:11–38 The well-being offerings
8:1—10:20 The dedication of the Tabernacle and priests and the transgression of Aaron's sons
8:1–36 The dedication of the Tabernacle and priests
9:1–24 The inauguration of priestly service
10:1–20 The transgression of Nadab and Abihu
11:1—16:34 Purity and purification
11:1—15:33 The purity laws
11:1–47 Dietary laws
12:1–8 Laws governing the parturient
13:1—14:57 Laws governing surface afflictions
13:1–46 Surface affliction on humans
13:47–59 Surface affliction on cloth
14:1–32 Purification after surface affliction
14:33–53 Surface affliction in houses
15:1–33 Laws governing sexual discharges
16:1–34 The Day of Atonement
17:1—26:46 The Holiness Collection
17:1–16 Laws governing slaughter and meat consumption
18:1–30Prohibitions against Canaanite abominations
19:1–37 Miscellaneous laws and the holiness of the Israelites
20:1–27 Various prohibitions
21:1—22:33 Priestly restrictions and sacrificial rules
23:1–44 The calendar of sacred occasions
24:1–9 Ritual oil and bread
24:10–23 The blasphemer
25:1—26:2 Laws governing the sabbatical and Jubilee years
26:3–46 Inducements for Israelite obedience
27:1–34 Addendum: laws governing vows, dedications, and tithes
Leviticus focuses on the requisite circumstances for establishing and maintaining God's presence among the Israelites. As such, the book's main concerns are the divine sanctuary and the ritual functions that constitute its proper administration, including its regular calendar of sacred observances (Lev 23). In its animating myth, Leviticus reflects the doctrine of divine presence and absence that is both found elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Ezek 8–11; Hag 1:7–11; 2:4–5; Mal 2:17; Ps 22:1–2) and prevalent throughout the wider ancient Near East (e.g., Ludlul Bel Nemeqi; Cyrus Cylinder). According to this view, the presence of a favorably disposed deity in the midst of a human community ensures tangible benefits and protection for that community. At a city or national level, the deity—represented by a statuary image—would reside in a temple and would be attended by a functioning public ritual. Within personal/familial rituals, an image might reside within a home shrine and be attended there.
In Pentateuchal Priestly perspective, the deity is not represented by a statuary image (although Gen 1:26–27; 5:3 suggest that God is understood to have an image). Rather, God's presence is described by the Priestly authors as his “glory” (kābôd). It first appears to Israel as a fire (Exod 24:15–18a) and then, upon completion of the Tent of Meeting, descends upon the sanctuary under cloud cover (Exod 40:34–35). During the Israelites' wilderness trek, the divine glory ascends from the Tabernacle and leads the people on their journey, appearing as a cloud by day and as fire by night (Exod 40:36–38; Num 9:15–23).
The Tent of Meeting and the “Holy of Holies” in particular are thus the habitation of the deity (Lev 16:2; Num 7:89). Through God's literal presence in their midst, the Israelites enjoy security and prosperity. To maintain this good fortune requires that the deity remain pleased in the midst of the people and thus not depart. Leviticus's rules, then, are a means of ensuring the deity's satisfaction in his earthly abode, the Israelite sanctuary, and concentrate especially upon the proper presentation of God's food offerings and issues of holiness and purity.
There are two major categories of offerings in Leviticus: food gift offerings and purgation offerings. Food gift offerings, which include the whole burnt offering (Lev 1), the well-being offering (Lev 3), and the grain offering (Lev 2), are conceptualized as God's sustenance, a concept common to ancient Near Eastern notions of sacrifice and necessitated in Leviticus by the personification of the deity and the administration of his habitation. Moreover, the descriptions of these sacrificial offerings are infused with culinary language and imagery. For example, the animal offerings are designated “the food of (his/their) god” (Lev 21:6, 8, 17, 21, 22; 22:25; cf. Lev 3:11, 16; Num 28:2, 24; Ezek 44:7). The Priestly authors also require that an animal offering be accompanied by a grain offering and a libation (Num 15:1–16) and that all offerings be seasoned with salt (Lev 2:13). These components together comprise a complete divine meal that underscores the analogy to human meals, and the smoke that rises from their presentation on the deity's “table”—the altar (cf. Ezek 44:17; Mal 1:7, 12)—is the “pleasing aroma” of sumptuous repast.
H explicitly requires that any animal eligible for sacrifice be offered as a (well-being) sacrifice at the sanctuary before its meat is consumed (Lev 17:3–7). This command supplements the P rules in Genesis 9:3–4, which permit nonsacrificial slaughter of animals for meat, provided that no blood is consumed (cf. also Lev 17:10–14). Having received the sacrificial laws, Israel is obligated to treat every slaughter of a domesticated animal as a sacrifice (though game animals, provided that they are clean, may still be eaten apart from the sacrificial ritual; cf. Lev 17:13). The Priestly source thus divides culinary history into three epochs: (1) Creation to Flood (vegetarianism, Gen 1:29–31); (2) Post-Flood to Sinai (nonsacrificial slaughter, Gen 9:3–4); (3) After Sinai (sacrificial slaughter of all domesticated animals, Lev 1–7; 17:3–7). H's view here contrasts markedly with that of D, which expressly permits profane slaughter of sacrificeable animals (Deut 12:15–27).
There is a striking correspondence between the animals eligible for sacrifice (bulls and cows, sheep and goats, birds of the pigeon family) and the animals permitted for Israelite consumption (Lev 11; 17). Such a connection provides further confirmation for the basic conceptualization of sacrificial offerings as divine fare. It also serves the sociological purpose of identifying the Israelites with their god through imitation and thus separating Israel from other groups (Lev 11:44–45; cf. Lev 19:2).
The purgation offerings include the purification offering (Heb. ḥaṭṭāʾt, often translated incorrectly as “sin offering;” Lev 4:1—5:13) and the reparation offering (Heb. ʾāšām, often mistranslated as “guilt offering;” Lev 5:14–6:7). Though portions of these offerings are burned on the altar as well as eaten by the priests, their main function within the Priestly ritual system is to purge the sanctuary from impurities and the defilement of sin. The blood of the purification offering acts as a “ritual detergent” to remove impurity and sin from the sanctuary complex. The reparation offering serves as compensation for sacrilege against sacred items, an unknown sin (a common motif in ancient Near Eastern texts), or fraud arising from a false oath (presumably spoken in the name of God and thus sacrilege).
Leviticus requires that portions of all offerings be burned on the altar. These burned pieces are viewed as consumed by the deity and always include the richest portion, the suet (Lev 3:16–17). Remaining portions become the perquisites of the officiating priests or the property of the lay Israelite who brings the offering. The relative holiness of the offering correlates with the persons permitted to consume it. Only the priests may eat from the most holy offerings, which include grain offerings, purification offerings, and reparation offerings, and they may consume them only in a holy place, that is, the sanctuary (Lev 6:16, 26; 7:6; 10:13; 24:9). No humans eat any portion of the burnt offering; thus, its holiness status is never explicitly designated.
The edible portions of the lesser holy offerings (well-being offerings, thanksgiving offerings, votive and freewill offerings) are distributed among the priests and the lay Israelites who offer them. The immediate households of the priests may consume the portions assigned to the priests, and they must eat these perquisites in a pure place (Lev 10:14; 22:10–13). Lay Israelites are permitted to eat portions from their lesser holy sacrifices, and they may do so in any place (cf. Lev 7:21). However, they must be in a state of ritual purity when eating (Lev 7:20), and they must follow the guidelines restricting the length of time from slaughter that sacrificial meat may be consumed. Failure to follow these rules negates any favor that might be given by the deity to the offerer (Lev 7:15–18).
Holiness and Commonness.
In Priestly perspective, holiness and purity work in tandem, even as they are fundamentally distinguished from each other. In brief, purity is imperative because God, who is holy, is threatened by proximate impurity. This conviction leads to the classification of the world according to two binary distinctions: holy/common and pure/impure. Holiness is an invisible, divine effulgence that is an essential characteristic of the deity. It is also attributed to particular persons, places, objects, and time that are separated and reserved for the deity. In its most concentrated form, holiness is communicable through physical contact (Exod 29:37; 30:29; Lev 6:27; Ezek 44:19). In Leviticus, a distinction may be drawn between P and H with regard to their respective views of holiness. P limits its conception of holiness to the sanctuary and its ritual operations and officiants (“ritual holiness”), while H also imagines a “theological holiness” that is not immediately connected to the sanctuary or its rituals.
Ritual holiness is an imbued holiness. It is communicated to persons (priests) and objects for example, the sanctuary and its furniture through anointment with oil (Exod 28:41; 29:2, 7, 36; 30:26, 30; 40:9–15; Lev 8:10–12). Sacrifices, which attest two levels of holiness in Pentateuchal Priestly literature (“most holy” and “lesser holy”), are sanctified through their presentation to the deity. Holy times are sanctified by divine fiat (e.g., Gen 2:3; Lev 23). In P, the only persons who are eligible to be holy are the priests. Lay Israelites, by contrast, are defined as common/profane and prohibited from contact with that which is most holy. As such, they are barred from the inner areas of the sanctuary and from consuming the most holy sacrifices.
Theological holiness, by contrast, is available to all Israelites and is an innovation introduced into Priestly thought by H. Israelites may attain theological holiness through the proper performance of the divine commandments (Lev 19). Such holiness, attainment of which is commanded by God, is required of the Israelites because of the holy deity in their midst (Lev 19:2; cf. Lev 16:16; Num 35:34). Theological holiness, however, does not displace ritual holiness and thus does not extend to lay Israelites the privileges associated with the priesthood (cf. Num 16–18). It instead seems to be an accommodation between the divergent perspectives of D and P on the issue of Israelite holiness. In D, all Israelites are holy by definition: they are the possession of God (Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; 28:9). In P, by contrast, lay Israelites are in essence common/profane, and holiness is limited to the priests alone. H mediates between these views by allowing for the attainment of some form of holiness by lay Israelites through faithful execution of the divine rules—a requirement of the Israelites in D as well. However, H leaves unaltered P's notion of ritual holiness and the rights and requirements associated with it. Beyond its accommodation to D, H may also find a trigger for its innovative view of holiness within P, for P too endorses a distinction between levels of holiness in its differentiation of most holy and lesser holy offerings and allows laypersons to consume the edible portions of lesser holy sacrifices. P thereby sets a precedent for lay Israelite contact with holiness that H exploits and develops further.
Purity and Impurity.
Leviticus presents a similar distinction between ritual purity and impurity. In Priestly perspective, ritual purity is simply the absence of impurity, as commonness/profaneness is the absence of holiness. Ritual impurity is a real, though invisible, film that adheres to persons and objects and is communicable. Moreover, the sanctuary acts as a magnet for impurity, which over time can build up within the sacred precincts and threaten to drive the deity away. For this reason, ritual impurity must be cleansed fastidiously.
Ritual impurity must be distinguished from sin, however, for such impurity is contracted in the course of normal, daily activities and carries no moral stigma. It is defined by a basic association with death or degradation of life force. This is the reason that ritual impurity is fundamentally incompatible with the deity and thus threatens the continued presence of God in the sanctuary. The sources of ritual impurity are corpses (Lev 11; Num 19), genital discharges (Lev 12, 15), and “surface affliction” (mistranslated as “leprosy” in many Bible translations), a general term that includes a variety of skin diseases as well as molds that might affect plaster walls or fabrics (Lev 13–14).
When ritual impurity is contracted, it must be cleansed in accordance with the Priestly prescriptions. Minor impurities necessitate purification through some combination of bathing, laundering, and the passage of time. Major impurities require these rites as well as the presentation of a purification offering at the sanctuary, for major impurities penetrate into the sacred precincts and contaminate them. Failure to purify properly is sinful and carries dire consequences (Lev 15:31). At a pragmatic level, the priests are charged with the responsibility of ruling on issues of holiness and purity and maintaining such distinctions within the Israelite community (Lev 10:10–11). However, because of their regular contact with the sanctuary and the threat of its contamination, priests are themselves required to avoid virtually all impurity (cf. 21:1–15).
H supplements P's conception of ritual impurity by introducing an additional subcategory of impurity that is explicitly moral (cf. Klawans 2000, 26–42). Such moral impurity is produced by sinful actions (idolatry, incest, murder) and cannot be cleansed like ritual impurities. Moreover, the defilement of moral impurities is not limited to the person who commits sin or to the sanctuary complex. It instead extends to the entire land, which is personified in H as an idealized subject of God. For H, the land, like the Israelites themselves, is seemingly eligible to attain holiness through observance of divine instructions—most notably, the command of a Sabbath for the land (Lev 25:2–7). H thus warns that the land will turn against the Israelites in favor of God's rules by “vomiting out” the Israelites in response to their moral defilements (Lev 18:24–30; 20:22). During the ensuing period of Israelite exile, H also insists that the land must compensate for the Sabbath years that it was forced to forego by the recalcitrant Israelites (Lev 26:34–35, 42–43). The land's holiness, therefore, is more similar to H's notion of theological holiness for laypersons than to the ritual holiness of the sanctuary complex (which originates in P). It is an achieved sanctity that envisions the land as a moral agent.
Notwithstanding the book's narrative fiction, the rules of ritual procedure and ethics that dominate Leviticus are not meant to be restricted to the wilderness period and locale in which they are ostensibly set. Rather, they are meant from the beginning to transcend this literary pretense and to apply in the land of Israel and to the Jerusalem Temple. H in particular makes clear this intent through its stereotypical, pleonastic exhortation, “An eternal statute for your generations (in all your habitations)” (with variation: Lev 3:17; 7:36; 10:9; 16:29, 31, 34; 17:7; 23:14, 21, 31, 41; 24:3). This refrain likely also reveals two other significant goals of the Priestly authors. First, it underscores what is already implicit in P. Ancient Israelite priests depended upon the ritual for their livelihood, and Leviticus outlines a basic system for their remuneration and legitimizes it through the larger narrative setting for its rules. Changes to these rules or a depreciation of the text's authority could constitute a serious social and economic threat to the priests. Second, this refrain appears to be a conscious attempt by H to prevent revisions to its laws akin to those that it makes to its literary forebears. It is thus functionally similar to the command in Deuteronomy 4:2: “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it,” (cf. 12:32 [Heb. 13:1]).
Finally, though dominated by detailed ritual and ethical rules, many of which are formulated negatively as prohibitions, Leviticus displays a fundamental optimism regarding Israelite religious life. A striking example of this positive outlook is P's approach to Israelite sin. Leviticus 4 outlines rules for ad hoc purgings of the sanctuary from the defilement of inadvertent sins. Such routine purification, however, does not purge the contamination of intentional sins, which penetrate all the way into the Tabernacle's inner sanctum and are therefore especially threatening to the deity. This defilement from intentional sin can only be purged in the Day of Atonement rite (Lev 16). However, Leviticus instructs that this rite be performed only once each year (Lev 16:29), creating the possibility that the deity's inner sanctum could become the most polluted area in the sanctuary complex. This potential flaw in the Priestly system of purification reveals the optimism of its authors: in the Priestly view, once Israel knows the commandments of God, they will carefully obey them. Intentional sin is expected to be a rare occurrence and thus need only be purged once each year. Unintentional sin and impurities, by contrast, are unavoidable and thus more pressing concerns.
As the third of the five books of the Pentateuch, Leviticus is rightly characterized as the center of the Torah. Yet its conceptualization as a self-standing “book” must be recognized already as a secondary development, for Leviticus was first part of the larger Pentateuchal Priestly source and thus not a separate book. As noted already, the appropriation and interpretation of material from what would become the book of Leviticus began already in the period of its composition, and this process has continued without interruption to the present.
Working from a compiled and authoritative Torah, many early Jewish interpretations of Leviticus seek to harmonize its laws with thematically similar legislation from elsewhere in the Pentateuch. For example, the Temple Scroll from the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran seeks a middle way between Priestly and non-Priestly thought on issues such as sacrifice, purity, and calendrical observance. However, it also innovates beyond them, introducing new rituals such as the Festival of New Wine, the Festival of New Oil, and the Festival of the Wood. In such instances, the laws of Leviticus become a template and generative source for new rites, and its narrative features are replicated to ensure the Temple Scroll's authenticity.
Leviticus similarly serves as a major source of rabbinic halakah in works such as the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmuds. It is also subject to homiletical interpretation in works such as the Sipra and Leviticus Rabbah. Rabbinic works treating interpretive issues elsewhere in the Torah likewise employ Leviticus for their harmonistic interpretations. For example, the halakic midrash to Exodus, the Mekilta, attempts to harmonize the different Pentateuchal manumission laws by equating the perpetual slavery of Exodus 21:6 and Deuteronomy 15:17 with the fifty-year Jubilee release of Leviticus 25:54 (Mek. Nez. 2:83–90). In light of the strong connections between rabbinic and modern Judaism, Leviticus continues to be a major influence for current Jewish practice.
In the New Testament, major themes of Leviticus are reinterpreted in light of early Christian views of Jesus. Thus, for example, in referring to Christ as “sin,” 2 Corinthians 5:21 employs the same term (hamartia) that the Septuagint uses to translate the Hebrew “purification offering” (Heb. ḥaṭṭāʾt). It is possible that this Pauline text is explicitly applying to Jesus the terminology and sense of the Priestly purification offering. Drawing in part from Leviticus, Hebrews chapters 7–10 compare Jesus with the levitical priesthood and characterize Jesus as the ideal High Priest. Hebrews here also seeks to undermine the sacrificial rituals described in Leviticus by contrasting them with what it views as the final, perfect sacrifice of Christ.
[See also DEUTERONOMY.]
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