Keith R. Keyser, Gilbertsville, Pa., USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The Name of the Book: Like the other books of the Pentateuch, the English Bible follows the ancient Greek translation the Septuagint – as transliterated in Latin by the Vulgate – in titling it ‘Leviticus’. Some have objected that this is something of a misnomer because Leviticus is mostly about the priests; in contrast, Numbers deals more with the subject of the Levites. But this complaint is based on a misunderstanding of ancient people’s use of the term. The priesthood is levitical; hence they used the term Leviticus.1 In keeping with its standard practice of using early words in the book, the Hebrew Bible calls it vayiqra, meaning ‘And He called’ after the opening statement: ‘And the Lord called unto Moses’, Lev. 1. 1. The place of this calling is interesting: in Exodus chapter 19 God called from Mount Sinai with dramatic signs that said ‘stay away’ to the Israelites, cp. Heb. 12. 18-29. But Leviticus chapter 1 verse 1 opens with Him calling Moses from the tabernacle – the dwelling place that He pitched in the midst of His people. It is a book of grace that inspires the believer with the confidence that the Lord wants a relationship with His people.2
Some prefer the rabbinic Talmudic title of the book, ‘the priests’ law’.3 All of these are good descriptions of the contents of the book; it is God who speaks in Leviticus regarding the priestly offerings and the law that they taught concerning His holiness. He calls people to know, worship, and serve Him in a holy manner.
2. The Purpose of the Book
Historically, the book of Leviticus provided teaching to Israel regarding the divinely ordained Aaronic priesthood and the proper way of approaching the holy God. In this postmodern age, these lessons are also important for contemporary people to learn. People think that there are many ways to God, and that it does not matter how one approaches Him. Nor is one’s lifestyle of much consequence in the grand scheme of the universe, they assert. Nevertheless, Leviticus declares that there is only one God, who is perfectly holy and demands holiness in His human creation. Holiness is not only negative – separation from what is common or impure – it is also positive – being devoted to the Lord for His purposes and glory. It entails both separation and consecration. This book teaches God’s people in every age the importance of holiness in all of its aspects.4
R. Laird Harris recounts the context of the book in Israel’s history, putting it alongside Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy:
‘The Israelites thus encamped before Mount Sinai just short of a year. During that time Moses spent eighty days on the mountain with God. Then the people of Israel, at Moses’ instruction, built the wilderness tabernacle. During this year Moses organized the nation, built up the army, established courts and laws, and ordered formal worship. It was a busy year. Although most of the laws – both secular and profane – that Moses drew up at that time are found in Exodus and Numbers, Leviticus is the law book par excellence. Its laws, however, mainly emphasize Israel’s worship of God and the instructions for the priests. For this reason, doubtless, the LXX called the book Levitikon (“pertaining to the Levites”). Leviticus therefore does not include numerous prescriptions for secular court procedures and penalties. Such laws are concentrated more in Exodus 20-23. Deuteronomy, being a summary of both history and law, repeats some of the laws of both Exodus and Leviticus and gives other details’.5
Teaching His people ethical behaviour and holiness
Israel was a people who were called to be the Lord’s possession – a direct theocracy meant to be a light to the surrounding pagan nations. As Coates remarks: ‘The Book of Leviticus has in view a people in covenant relations with God, in whose midst God dwells, and who have movements of heart Godward . . . Here we see the manner and order of that service – the service of a free and willing people; and we learn that every outgoing of heart in the service of God is concerning Christ. Blessed service!’6 In a sense, therefore, Leviticus has missionary intentions, for it provides a roadmap for the theocracy of Israel to live differently in this world and thereby draw the Gentiles to faith in Him. One of the ablest commentators on Leviticus, S. H. Kellogg points this out:
‘[Leviticus] was given to direct them how they might live as a holy nation in fellowship with God. The keynote of the book is “Holiness to Jehovah”. More particularly, the object of the book was to furnish for the theocracy set up in Israel a code of law which should secure their physical, moral, and spiritual well being. But the establishment of the theocracy in Israel was itself only a means to an end; namely, to make Israel a blessing to all nations, in mediating to the Gentiles the redemption of God. Hence: the Levitical laws were all intended and adapted to train and prepare the nation for this special historic mission to which God had chosen them’.7
Although they never achieved this in the Old Testament era, in a future day Christ will reign over them and draw many peoples to Himself, Zech. 2. 10-12; Isa. 2. 2-4.
Why should one study an ancient book of rituals and laws?
With its seemingly arcane sacrificial and legal details, Leviticus is admittedly difficult for the modern reader. Nevertheless, it is part of the inspired word of God and is ‘profitable’, 2 Tim. 3. 16-17. A classic nineteenth-century commentary reminds one of this truth: ‘There is no book, in the whole compass of that inspired Volume which the Holy Ghost 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. This consideration cannot fail to send us to the study of it with singular interest and attention’.8 Studying Leviticus is recommended for the following reasons:
1. It is a tremendously theological book, discussing God’s essential being and His requirements for humanity. More than any other book it teaches the concept of holiness. Wiersbe deploys impressive statistics to make this point: ‘The word holy is used 91 times in Leviticus, and words connected with cleansing are used 71 times. References to uncleanness number 128. There’s no question what this book is all about’:9 God’s uniqueness and separation from anything evil, dark, or defiling. He is the exact opposite of anything base or impure. Moreover, He is supremely beautiful and is to be worshipped in ‘the beauty of holiness’, Ps. 29. 2. Thus, in Leviticus He demonstrates that He wants to commune with His people, but in order to do this He must deal with their sin and make them holy.10
Contrary to popular belief, the Almighty’s holiness is a reflection of His love, because sin mars and destroys His creation. His love is jealous in the purest sense of that word. He wants to preserve His beloved creatures from the impurity, pain, and separation from Himself that sin causes. Thus, even though Leviticus only uses the actual word ‘love’ twice – both times horizontally, Lev. 19. 18, 34 – the concept of God’s love is the foundation of the sacrificial system that provides people access to His presence.11 Commenting on the burnt offering, Andrew Bonar exclaims: ‘What love is here! The heart of our God, in the midst of all his own joy, yearning to pour itself out to man’!12
2. The holy life of the redeemed is depicted in the historical injunctions given to the Israelites; these have value as examples for modern believers. R. V. Court speaks of this emphasis on holy living: ‘For Israel, God’s requirements were obedience and faith, and a reflection of God’s own holy character in their daily life. The standard of the New Testament is the same, 1 Pet. 1. 16’.13 Leviticus reminds Christians that our lives should be theocentric, revolving around God and His word.
3. The nature of sin is minutely described and the divine remedy through redemption is explicitly explored. As Morgan cogently explains: ‘There are two supreme values. First, a recognition of sin, and a revelation of its nature; and second, a recognition of redemption, and a revelation of its nature. Or, more briefly, sin and redemption, the fundamental matters concerning man and his need, and God and His provision’.14
4. A basic knowledge of the book is absolutely necessary to understand the teaching of many New Testament books, such as Hebrews, 1 Corinthians, Romans, 1 Peter, and the four Gospels.
5. It is filled with types and shadows of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. A careful reading of the book will repay one with beautiful pictures of Christ, as well as many principles stemming from God’s holy character. The five principal offerings and the Feasts of Jehovah are particularly rich sources of truth regarding the Lord’s redemptive work and plan for this world.15
6. Leviticus affirms the exclusivity of Jehovah as the true and living God in contrast to the idols of the nations. House unpacks this teaching well:
‘Throughout Leviticus the one God continues to command fidelity to himself. Israel must avoid idols at all cost and must reject the worship practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites. Only one God can save. Only one God makes a covenant with human beings. Only one God reveals concrete, understandable, holy standards to the people. Only one God lifts Israel out of harmful and shameful activities to make them a holy people. Only one God forgives unreservedly and judges fairly. Only one God stands ready to give Israel a land of its own’.16
3. The Plan of the Book
Like other books of the Bible, Leviticus may be divided in several ways. Whichever approach one chooses, the book begins with the Lord speaking and inviting His people to approach Him, Lev. 1. 1. The sacrifices and priesthood explain that this is not a lightly undertaken invitation. Something must be done to permit human beings to come into their Creator’s presence without holy wrath consuming them. Therefore, the book opens with redemption (sacrifice) and mediatorship (priesthood).
4. Content Outlines of the Book
a) Chapters 1-7: Sacrifices.
b) Chapters 8-10: Priesthood.
c) Chapters 11-15: Personal purity and impurity.
d) Chapter 16: The Day of Atonement.
e) Chapters 17-22: Laws concerning individual holiness.
f) Chapter 23: Feasts of the Lord.
g) Chapter 24: Tabernacle function (lampstand and shewbread) and the penalty for blasphemy.
h) Chapter 25: The effects of the Year of Jubilee.
i) Chapter 26: Blessings and cursings pertaining to performance.
j) Chapter 27: Vows and dedication of things to the Lord.17
5. The Author and Date of the Book
Moses’ authorship of Leviticus does not appear to have been seriously challenged until the rise of the nineteenth-century sceptical critics. Nonetheless, we prefer to side with the remainder of the Old and New Testaments that clearly view him as the author of Leviticus. The other Old Testament books frequently refer to the Torah or Pentateuch as ‘the law of Moses’.18
The infallible Son of God implied Mosaic authorship when He gave instructions based on the commands delivered through Moses, as one sees when He quotes from Leviticus chapter 14 in Matthew chapter 8 verse 4: ‘And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded for a testimony unto them’. Elsewhere, the Lord referred to part of the Pentateuch as ‘the book of Moses’, Mark 12. 26. He recognized the well-known Jewish division of the Old Testament as ‘. . . Moses and all the prophets’, Luke 24. 27, and in verse 44 describing it as: ‘the law of Moses . . . the prophets . . . and the psalms’. Other instances of His verification of Mosaic authorship abound in the Gospels, e.g., John 5. 46; 7. 19; and Matt. 19. 7-8. His apostles also believed this truth. On one occasion even Abraham spoke from beyond the grave to authenticate the Pentateuch as genuinely Mosaic, Luke 16. 29!
Clearly, the Bible attests that Moses wrote the book of Leviticus and the other four books of the Pentateuch. To borrow the poet William Cowper’s lines: ‘Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain’. As for its date, it was written in approximately 1445 B.C. Wenham explains the chronology of the book this way:
‘God revealed some of the laws in Leviticus by speaking to Moses from the tent of meeting, or tabernacle, Lev. 1. 1. Other laws were revealed on Mount Sinai, 26. 46. Such statements show that Moses learned the contents of Leviticus after the tabernacle had been built, but before the Israelites left Mount Sinai. This fits in with Exodus chapter 40 verse 17, which says that the tabernacle was erected exactly a year after the Israelites left Egypt. They then spent another month at Sinai, during which time the laws in Leviticus were given to Moses. Then, one month later, Num. 1. 1, Moses was commanded to prepare the people to leave Sinai to conquer the Promised Land of Canaan’.
6. Important Themes in the Book
A) God’s holiness.
B) Personal holiness.
C) Christ’s redemptive work – His multifaceted sacrifice.
E) Israel as God’s special people, separated to Himself.
F) The nature of sin and defilement.
G) The danger of bringing God what He does not ask for/the proper approach to God.
H) The uniqueness of Jehovah against the pluralism of the ancient near east (i.e., against idols).
I) Sexual morality based on divine teaching.
J) Freedom from indebtedness (Jubilee).
1 W. H. Gispen, ‘Leviticus, Book of’, ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary, InterVarsity Press, 1996, pg. 683.
2 For the way in which two gifted brothers of the past tease out the implications of this setting, see: C. H. Mackintosh, Genesis to Deuteronomy: Notes on the Pentateuch, Loizeaux Brothers, 1972, pg. 281; S. H. Kellogg, The Expositor’s Bible: Leviticus, A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1903, pg. 29.
3 A. T. Chapman, An Introduction to the Pentateuch, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Cambridge University Press, 1911, pp. 4-5.
4 ‘Leviticus speaks forevermore: Of the awfulness of sin in the light of the holiness of God, Of the plenteous redemption springing from the love of God, and Of the possibility of holiness of life, created by communion with God’. G. Campbell Morgan, Living Messages of the Books of the Bible, Baker, 1982, pg. 14.
5 R. Laird Harris, ‘Leviticus’, in The Expositors Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein, Zondervan, 1990, electronic edition, no pagination.
6 C. A. Coates, An Outline of the Book of Leviticus, Stow Hill Bible & Tract Depot, n.d., pg. 1.
7 Kellogg, pg. 20 [brackets mine].
8 Andrew A. Bonar, A Commentary on the Book of Leviticus, Expository and Practical, Robert Carter & Brothers, 1851, pg. vii [italics original]. See also: Gleason Archer Jr., ‘Leviticus’, in A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd ed., Moody Press, 1994, pg. 258 [italics original].
9 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Holy, ‘Be’ Commentary Series, Victor Books, 1996, pg. 9 [italics original].
10 On God’s distinct holiness this may be said: ‘Paradoxically, the near, revealing, holy God is also the separate, distinct, other-than-human deity as well. God may come near to Israel, but God never shares Israel’s need to repent of sins committed against self or others’, Paul R. House, Old Testament Theology, InterVarsity Press, 1998, pg. 128.
11 Contrary to what you may hear today in some sermons and popular religious songs, the emphasis in the Bible is on the holiness of God and not on the love of God. ‘Love is central in God’, wrote American theologian Augustus H. Strong, ‘but holiness is central in love’.
12 A. Bonar, pg. 18.
13 R. V. Court, ‘Introducing Leviticus’, in Day by Day through the Old Testament, ed. C. E. Hocking and M. Horlock, Day by Day Series, Precious Seed, 1982, pg. 64.
14 C. Morgan, pp. 10-11.
15 For the typical purpose of Leviticus see Kellogg, pp. 27-28.
16 W. House, pg. 152.
17 Further suggested outlines of this book can be found in the author’s book Laws for Life, published by Precious Seed Publications.
18 See 2 Chr. 23. 18; 30. 16; 35. 12; Josh. 8. 31; Judg. 4. 11; 1 Kgs. 2. 3; 2 Kgs. 14. 6; Ezra 3. 2; 7. 6; Neh. 8. 1; Dan. 9. 11, 13; Mal. 4. 4, etc.
AUTHOR PROFILE: KEITH KEYSER is a commended full-time worker, married with a young family, and is in fellowship in the assembly meeting at Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania. He ministers throughout North America and spent some time in Spain. He also regularly writes material for assembly magazines.