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Updated on February 2, 2010

Leviticus is the third book of the Old Testament. Its Hebrew name is Vayikra, meaning "and He called", which is the Hebrew text's opening word. Leviticus is a compilation of ancient Hebrew law.

It has been traditionally ascribed to Moses, but many modern scholars believe that it was probably compiled in about 500 B.C., or 800 years after the Mosaic period. The book contains moral laws, such as the injunction to "love thy neighbor as thyself" (19:18), but it is chiefly concerned with the rules of Hebrew religious ritual.

It sets forth God's requirements of cleanliness, proper foods, and self-discipline and prescribes penalties for sin, such as the famous "eye for eye" punishment for harming another person and the death sentence for murder (24:20,21). The Dead Sea Scrolls contain several fragments of Leviticus.


The book may be divided into five sections. (1) Chapters 1 to 7 form a "Manual of Sacrifice," dealing with instructions to the people about how they are to make the burnt offering (chapter 1), the cereal offering (chapter 2), the peace offering (chapter 3), the sin offering (4:1 to 5:13), and the trespass offering (5:14 to 6:7). Instructions for the priests concerning the same offerings are found in 6:8 to 7:38. (2) Chapters 8 to 10 are an account of the consecration of the priesthood, telling of the ordination and installation of the priesthood. (3) Chapters 11 to 16 constitute the "Manual of Purification," describing the distinction between clean and unclean animals (chapter 11), the purification of women after childbirth (chapter 12), regulations for the diagnosis and treatment of leprosy (chapters 13 to 14), rules concerning sexual purity (chapter 15), and the description of the yearly ritual of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (chapter 16). (4) Chapters 17 to 26, known as "The Holiness Code," deal with regulations concerning the eating of meat (chapter 17), sexual relations (chapter 18), rules for holy behavior toward others (chapter 19), restrictions against pagan customs (chapter 20), sacrificial rules (chapters 21 and 22), the liturgical calendar (chapter 23), ritual and ethical regulations (chapter 24), the sabbatical and jubilee years (chapter 25), and a concluding homily (chapter 26). (5) Chapter 27 is an appendix dealing with vows and tithes. While most of Leviticus is concerned with regulations, there are certain narrative sections as well. Leviticus 10:1-7 tells of the death of Nadab and Abihu in punishment for not following the regulations for offering incense to God. Chapter 10: 12-20 describes the ritual error of Eleazar and Ithamar, sons of Aaron, who burned the sin offering of a goat that they were supposed to eat in the sanctuary according to the prescriptions for the sacrifice. Leviticus 24:10-14 tells of the stoning of a blasphemer. During a quarrel the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian father blasphemed the name of God. Moses commanded that he be stoned. Even these narrative sections, however, deal with the regulations concerning ritual.


Leviticus never existed as a separate book outside the Torah, or Pentateuch. The division of the Torah into the five books now called Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy is an artificial one. Consequently, one cannot properly understand Leviticus if it is taken out of the context of the Pentateuch as a whole. The material of the Pentateuch is composed of various literary strands, which scholars have labeled J, E, D, and P. The J strand takes its name from the fact that it refers to God mostly by the name "Jahweh" or "Yah-weh." E represents the tradition characterized by the use of the name "Elohim" for God. The Deuteronomic tradition, which is concerned chiefly with the law, is called D. And P is the priestly tradition, whose writers edited much of J, E, and D. Leviticus is composed entirely of priestly material.

The Pentateuch took its final shape in the 6th century b. c. In the present form of the Pentateuch, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy deal with the events described as happening during the "40-year" period of wandering between the Exodus from Egypt and the Conquest of Palestine (13th century b.c.). On the surface they seem to be describing historical events that took place in that period. Since Leviticus is composed entirely of priestly material that took its shape in the 6th century b. c., the book itself cannot properly be described as a book of history. It is rather a primarily theological and liturgical work put in a historical setting. This does not mean, however, that the material that the priestly writers incorporated in this work was invented by them at the time. On the contrary, it contains very old traditions, though not so old as the priestly writers would have the reader believe. For example, the "Manual of Sacrifice" (chapters 1 to 7) in its present form actually describes the manner of sacrifice that was customary in the Second Temple during the Post-Exilic period, or at least that of the late monarchy. The book itself, however, projects these same practices back into the period immediately after the Exodus. Another example may be seen in Leviticus 9, where the regulations for the Aaronic priesthood and the Levitical clergy are described as if they were regulations observed from the very beginning of the priesthood. In fact, they are descriptive of a much later stage in the development of Israel's priesthood.

The Priestly Tradition and the Holiness Code

One large section of the Pentateuch itself is made up almost entirely of material from P. Beginning with Exodus 25, the priestly material runs through all of the book of Leviticus and into Numbers 10:28. Leviticus 17 to 26, referred to by scholars as the Holiness Code, was not invented by the priestly writers, but taken over by them and edited into the present book of Leviticus. When the priestly writers were engaged in the composition of this material during the Exilic period, one of the main characteristics of the Judaism of that day was that of "separation," or habdalah. The Jews kept a strict separation between what was ritually clean and unclean, between Jew and Gentile, between clergy and laity, and, among the clergy themselves, between priests and Levites. This strong emphasis on the separateness of the various groups had not been characteristic of early Yahwism in the Exodus period, but when the priestly writers did their work, they read this emphasis back into that period.

The Holiness Code was incorporated into Leviticus, and it has undoubtedly undergone some priestly editing. It is extremely difficult, however, to determine which precise verses are the editorial revisions of P and which belong to the original code. The Holiness Code is one of Israel's legislative law codes, just as are the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22 to 23:33) and the Ten Commandments (Exodus 2:1-17), but the Holiness Code is of priestly origin.

In spite of the emphasis on ritual regulations in the Holiness Code, one chapter (19) illustrates that the material is not solely concerned with liturgical matters, but is also interested in moral holiness. Leviticus 19:18 contains the statement "You shall love your neighbor as yourself,"' which was quoted by Jesus (Mark 12:31, Matthew 22:39, Luke 10:27). Concern is also expressed that reverence be paid to parents (verse 3), that the poor and the sojourner be provided with food (verse 10), that honesty and justice in dealings with others be observed (verses 11-18), that one show respect for one's elders (verse 32), that strangers be shown hospitality (verse 33), and that business be conducted on an honest basis (verses 35-36).

The Day of Atonement

Leviticus 16 describes the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), which remains the holiest and most solemn day of the Jewish liturgical year. While the book of Leviticus prescribes daily burnt offerings and special offerings for specific but irregular occasions, the Day of Atonement is described as a regular, yearly observance. The part of Aaron in the narrative was carried out by the High Priest in the Post-Exilic community. The ritual of the "scapegoat" is described in this chapter, the earlier and simpler form of the ritual in verses 6—10 and the later, more elaborate form in verses 11-28. The motif of the Day of Atonement is taken up by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament when he depicts Jesus as the Great High Priest who eliminates the need for the repetition of the yearly Atonement ritual (Hebrews 9:6-28).

While Leviticus does not approach the literary heights of some of the other books of the Old Testament, it does show that the same religious questions that man asks today were asked by the ancient Hebrews. The specific answers given to those questions may not be appropriate for modem man, but we cannot help but feel a certain kinship with the questions themselves. As J. L. Mays has said, Leviticus gives answers to such questions as the following: How shall men offer themselves to God in worship? How shall sinful man approach God without a mediator? How can holiness become a way of life for man himself?


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