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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Leviticus

- Leviticus

by Thomas Constable

Introduction

TITLE

The Hebrews derived the title of this book from the first word in it, wayyiqra’, translated "And He [the Lord] called" (Lev_1:1). "And" or "then" is a conjunction that shows that what follows in Leviticus is a continuation of the narrative of Exodus. There is no break in the flow of thought. This is the third book of the Torah (Law).

The English title comes from the Vulgate (Latin version), which called this book Liber Leviticus. The Vulgate title came from the Septuagint (Greek version), which had as the title Leuitikon, meaning "relating to the Levites." This title is appropriate since the book contains requirements of the Mosaic Covenant that relate to the Levites, or more specifically, the priests.

"It would be wrong, however, to describe Leviticus simply as a manual for priests. It is equally, if not more, concerned with the part the laity should play in worship. Many of the regulations explain what the layman should sacrifice. They tell him when to go to the sanctuary, what to bring, and what he may expect the priest to do when he arrives. Most of the laws apply to all Israel: only a few sections specifically concern the priests alone, e.g., chs. 21-22. The lay orientation of the legislation is particularly noticeable in ch. 23, where the whole emphasis lies on the days that must be observed as days of sabbath rest." [Note: Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, p. 3.]

DATE AND WRITER

Almost all Jewish and Christian scholars regarded Moses as the writer of all five books of the Law until about 150 years ago. [Note: See the excellent discussion and critique of the Documentary Hypothesis in Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus, pp. 23-38.] God evidently revealed the material Moses recorded in Leviticus after He renewed the covenant with Israel (Lev_1:1; cf. Exo_34:1-28). Leviticus is unique in that it is largely a record of God’s instructions to Moses.

"There is no book in the whole compass of that inspired Volume which the Holy Spirit has given us, that contains more of the very words of God than Leviticus. It is God that is the direct speaker in almost every page; His gracious words are recorded in the form wherein they were uttered." [Note: Andrew A. Bonar, A Commentary on Leviticus, p. 1. For a fuller discussion of authorship and date, see R. K. Harrison, Leviticus, pp. 15-25, Wenham, pp. 8-13; or Allan P. Ross, Holiness to the LORD, pp. 33-42.]

SCOPE

As noted, Leviticus contains revelation that was particularly appropriate for the priests. While ritual and legal matters predominate, Moses wove them into the historical narratives so, as one reads Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers in order, there is chronological movement forward. As we shall see, the legislation appears in the narrative at significant and reasonable places.

"The content of Leviticus supplements and completes that of Exodus in the religious and social spheres-and particularly the religious and ritual aspects of the covenant as made, broken and renewed actually at Sinai; this would be reflected by the terminal blessings and curses of Leviticus 26." [Note: Kenneth Kitchen, "The Old Testament in its Context: 2 From Egypt to the Jordan," Theological Students’ Fellowship Bulletin 60 (1971):3.]

"Leviticus enlarges upon matters involving the ordering of worship at the divine sanctuary that are mentioned only briefly in Exodus. Whereas the latter described the specifications and construction of the tabernacle, Leviticus narrates the way in which the priests are to care for the sanctuary and throne room of the Great King. The work is a fundamentally important legal treatise because it contains the regulations by which the religious and civil life of the Hebrew nation was to be governed once the land of Canaan was occupied." [Note: Harrison, pp. 13-14.]

Historically the book fits within the one month between God’s occupation of the tabernacle (Exo_40:17; Exo_40:34-38) and the taking of the census at Sinai (Num_1:1-3). However because it contains so much legal material, we should consider it along with the rest of the Mosaic Law that God began to reveal in Exodus.

"It carries on to its completion the giving of the law at Sinai, which commenced at Exodus 25, and by which the covenant constitution was firmly established." [Note: C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch, 2:261.]

PURPOSE

"Though the covenant arrangement up to this point clearly specified the need for Israel, the vassal, to appear before her Lord on stated occasions and singled out first Moses and then the priesthood as mediators in this encounter, there yet remained the need to describe the nature of the tribute to be presented, the precise meaning and function of the priesthood, the definition of holiness and unholiness, and a more strict clarification of the places and times of pilgrimage to the dwelling place of the great King. This is the purpose of the book of Leviticus." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "A Theology of the Pentateuch," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p. 56.]

"The central theme of the book is holiness. The book intends to show how Israel was to fulfill its covenant responsibility to be ’a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exo_19:6; Lev_26:5 [sic 2])." [Note: John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, p. 323.]

"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." [Note: Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 84.]

"How to maintain the vital covenantal relationship between the Israelites and their God is the concern of the book of Leviticus." [Note: Samuel J. Schultz, Leviticus: God Among His People, p. 7.]

"New Testament theology makes full use of the idea of holiness. All Christians are holy, ’saints’ in most English translations. That is, they have been called by God to be his people just as ancient Israel had been (Col_1:2; 1Pe_1:2; 1Pe_2:9-10; cf. Exo_19:5-6). But this state of holiness must find expression in holy living (Col_1:22; 1Pe_1:15). Sanctification is expressed through obedience to the standard of teaching (Rom_6:17-19), just as in Leviticus through obedience to the law. Peter urges his readers to make the motto of Leviticus their own: ’Be holy, for I am holy’ (1Pe_1:16). The imitation of God is a theme that unites the ethics of Old and New Testaments (cf. Mat_5:48; 1Co_11:1)." [Note: Wenham, p. 25.]

". . . the principles underlying the OT are valid and authoritative for the Christian, but the particular applications found in the OT may not be. The moral principles are the same today, but insofar as our situation often differs from the OT setting, the application of the principles in our society may well be different now." [Note: Ibid., p. 35.]

". . . the Levitical rituals are still of immense relevance. It was in terms of these sacrifices that Jesus himself and the early church understood his atoning death. Leviticus provided the theological models for their understanding. If we wish to walk in our Lord’s steps and think his thoughts after him, we must attempt to understand the sacrificial system of Leviticus. It was established by the same God who sent his Son to die for us; and in rediscovering the principles of OT worship written there, we may learn something of the way we should approach a holy God." [Note: Ibid., p. 37.]

GENRE

Leviticus is essentially a narrative document that relates the events that transpired in the life of the Israelites while the nation camped at the base of Mt. Sinai. However most of the material in the book is legal in genre. The legal sections prepare the reader to understand the narrative sections not only in Leviticus but also in Numbers and the rest of the Bible.

"The story exists for the sake of the laws which it frames." [Note: D. Damrosch, "Leviticus," in The Literary Guide to the Bible, p. 66.]

There are two clear narrative sections (chs. 8-10; Lev_24:10-23). However, the hinge chapter in the book, chapter 16, reads as narrative even though it is legislative (legal) material. As a whole, this book, like the rest of the Torah, is theological instructional history. [Note: Longman and Dillard, p. 83.]

A    Legal chs. 1-7

B    Narrative chs. 8-10

A    Legal chs. 11-15

        C    Legal written as narrative ch. 16

A    Legal Lev_17:1 to Lev_24:9

B    Narrative Lev_24:10-23

A    Legal chs. 25-27

IMPORTANCE

". . . it is no exaggeration to claim that the Book of Leviticus has had more impact on Judaism than any other book of the Old Testament. Traditionally it was the first book taught to Jewish children, and over half the commentary of the Talmud is concerned with understanding its contents." [Note: Rooker, p. 22. See also Ross, pp. 42-58, for discussion of the main theological revelations in Leviticus, and pp. 58-65 for explanation of the interpretation and application of the Law in the church.]

"Without a basic knowledge of Leviticus, Hebrews will remain a closed book to the Christian." [Note: Herbert M. Wolf, An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch, p. 165.]

OUTLINE

"At first sight the book of Leviticus might appear to be a haphazard, even repetitious arrangement of enactments involving the future life in Canaan of the Israelite people. Closer examination will reveal, however, that quite apart from the division of the work into two basic themes, many of the chapters have their own literary structure. Examples of this can be seen in material patterned after the fashion of a Mesopotamian tablet, with its title, textual content and colophon, as in Lev_1:3 to Lev_7:38. [A colophon is an inscription, usually at the end of an ancient book, giving facts about its production.] Other chapters exhibit a distinct form of construction, which would doubtless prove extremely valuable for purposes of memorizing the contents. Examples of this are to be found in the triadic pattern of the leprosy regulations introduced by the phrase ’The Lord said to Moses’ (Lev_13:1; Lev_14:1; Lev_14:33), or the concentric arrangement of propositions (palistrophe) in Lev_24:16-22. A particularly attractive literary form is the introverted (chiastic) passage occurring in Lev_15:2-30, suggesting considerable artistic ability on the part of the writer." [Note: Harrison, p. 15.]

OUTLINE

I.    The public worship of the Israelites chs. 1-16

A.    The laws of sacrifice chs. 1-7

1.    The burnt offering ch. 1

2.    The meal offering ch. 2

3.    The peace offerings ch. 3

4.    The sin offerings Lev_4:1 to Lev_5:13

5.    The trespass offerings Lev_5:14 to Lev_6:7

6.    Instructions for the priests concerning the offerings Lev_6:8 to Lev_7:38

B.    The institution of the Aaronic priesthood chs. 8-10

1.    The consecration of the priests and the sanctuary ch. 8

2.    The entrance of Aaron and his sons into their office ch. 9

3.    The sanctification of the priesthood ch. 10

C.    Laws relating to ritual cleanliness chs. 11-15

1.    Uncleanness due to contact with certain animals ch. 11

2.    Uncleanness due to childbirth ch. 12

3.    Uncleanness due to skin and covering abnormalities chs. 13-14

4.    Uncleanness due to bodily discharges associated with reproduction ch. 15

D.    The Day of Atonement ch. 16

1.    Introductory information Lev_16:1-10

2.    Instructions concerning the ritual Lev_16:11-28

3.    Instructions concerning the duty of the people Lev_16:29-34

II.    The private worship of the Israelites chs. 17-27

A.    Holiness of conduct on the Israelites’ part chs. 17-20

1.    Holiness of food ch. 17

2.    Holiness of the marriage relationship ch. 18

3.    Holiness of behavior toward God and man ch. 19

4.    Punishments for serious crimes ch. 20

B.    Holiness of the priests, gifts, and sacrifices chs. 21-22

1.    The first list of regulations for priests Lev_21:1-15

2.    The second list of regulations for priests Lev_21:16-24

3.    The third list of regulations for priests ch. 22

C.    Sanctification of the Sabbath and the feasts of Yahweh ch. 23

1.    The Sabbath Lev_23:1-3

2.    The Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread Lev_23:4-8

3.    The Feast of Firstfruits Lev_23:9-14

4.    The Feast of Pentecost Lev_23:15-22

5.    The Feast of Trumpets Lev_23:23-25

6.    The Day of Atonement Lev_23:26-32

7.    The Feast of Tabernacles Lev_23:33-44

D.    The preparation of the holy lamps and showbread Lev_24:1-9

E.    The punishment of a blasphemer Lev_24:10-23

F.    Sanctification of the possession of land by the sabbatical and jubilee years ch. 25

1.    The sabbatical year Lev_25:1-7

2.    The year of jubilee Lev_25:8-55

G.    Promises and warnings ch. 26

1.    Introduction to the final conditions of the covenant Lev_26:1-2

2.    The blessing for fidelity to the law Lev_26:3-13

3.    The warning for contempt of the law Lev_26:14-33

4.    The objective of God’s judgments in relation to the land and nation of Israel Lev_26:34-46

H.    Directions concerning vows ch. 27

1.    Vows concerning persons Lev_27:1-8

2.    Vows concerning animals Lev_27:9-13

3.    Vows concerning other property Lev_27:14-29

4.    The redemption of tithes Lev_27:30-34

Conclusion of Leviticus

Genesis reveals how people can have a relationship with God. This comes through trust in God and obedience to Him. Faith is the key word in Genesis. God proves Himself faithful in this book.

Exodus reveals that God is also sovereign. He is the ultimate ruler of the universe. The sovereign God provided redemption for people so they could have an even deeper relationship with Himself. Man’s response should be worship and obedience.

Leviticus reveals that God is also holy. He is different from people in that He is sinless. The proper human response to this revelation of God’s character is worship on the part of sinners. In order for a holy God to have a close relationship with sinful people someone must do something about sin. This is true even in the case of redeemed sinners. Atonement is the solution that God provided.

The first half of Leviticus reveals the laws that the redeemed Israelites had to observe in their public life so they could enjoy an ongoing intimate relationship with God (chs. 1-16). These included laws concerning sacrifices (chs. 1-7), the priesthood (chs. 8-10), and the means of purification from various defilements (chs. 11-16).

The second half of the book reveals God’s provisions for the maintenance of covenant fellowship in the private lives of redeemed Israelites (chs. 17-25). This involved holiness of conduct by the people (chs. 17-20) and the priests (chs. 21-22) in all their time (ch. 23), their worship (ch. 24), and their land (ch. 25).

The book closes with God formally exhorting the nation to obey and remain faithful to the covenant that He had established (ch. 26). He also gave directions concerning the vows His people would make out of devotion to Him (ch. 27). Obedience would maximize His blessings.

Leviticus focuses on priestly activity, but it is also a great revelation of the character of God and His will to bless people. In it God’s people can learn what is necessary for sinners, even redeemed sinners, to have an intimate relationship with a holy God who has entered into covenant with us. These necessities include sacrifice, mediation, atonement, cleansing, purity, etc., all of which Jesus Christ ultimately provided. This revelational value of the book continues even though its regulatory value (i.e., how the Israelites were to behave) ended with the termination of the Mosaic Law (cf. Mar_7:18-19; Act_10:11-15; Rom_7:1-4; Rom_10:4; Rom_14:17; 1Co_8:8; Gal_3:24; Gal_4:9-11; Col_2:17; Heb_9:10).

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