“You Shall Be Holy to Me; For I the Lord Am Holy”

The Origin and Significance of the Book of Leviticus

If we are honest with ourselves, it is easy to wonder, Is there really a place for the book of Leviticus in the modern church? The Revised Common Lectionary, the most common in use among the various denominations of Christians, assigns only one portion of Leviticus to be read in the course of its three-year cycle (Lev 19:1–2, 15–18); and the passage of Leviticus that we read is, of course, a passage that later appears on the lips of Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus seems to epitomize the irrelevance of the OT for so many Christians. Indeed, the obscurity of the entire religious world depicted in Leviticus—animal sacrifice, dietary taboos, regulations about bodily discharges—can be downright alienating to contemporary readers.

Nevertheless, Leviticus continues to secure its place among the Christian Scriptures by proving that its transformative message is truly the word of the Lord—even today. The striking fruit of the priestly book is evident in the ministry of Rob Bell, whose church was founded with a compelling sermon series on Leviticus![1] Our story as Christians is dependent upon the narrative of the OT. And at the heart of the OT narrative is the Pentateuch. And right smack in the middle of the Pentateuch is the book of Leviticus. It is my belief that in the context of modern culture, there are significant reasons why the message of Leviticus is particularly relevant. Lester Grabbe has observed that “the book of Leviticus is starting to reclaim its place as a profoundly theological writing with a deep spiritual message,”[2] and it is the aim of this short paper to show this reclamation at work.

In considering the significance of the book of Leviticus, we will also be concerned with its origin. The original contexts out of which the book of Leviticus rose may shed a great deal of light on its abiding meaning for today: Insofar as context determines meaning, we will be better able to understand the meaning of Leviticus the better we understand its contexts. As we will discover, even if we are not able to pinpoint with precision the details of the origin of Leviticus, the hermeneutical value of letting these Scriptures resonate with different contexts yields a better understanding of their significance for different readers—including ourselves. After an initial discussion regarding the origin and context of Leviticus, we will turn to explore the book’s distinctive vision of holiness as embodied in two of its central themes: priesthood and ritual.[3]

Origin

In considering the origin of Leviticus, we are immediately confronted with the reality that the text itself claims to derive from a meeting between Moses and Yahweh: “The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: Speak to the people of Israel …” (Lev 1:1). So the question is raised, To what extent is it realistic to trace Leviticus to the Mosaic period? Before considering issues of historicity, however, it is important to acknowledge that within the narrative world of Leviticus, we are certainly to understand the setting of the text to be a real encounter between Moses and Yahweh; and insofar as we give ourselves over to the narrative world of the Pentateuch in order to understand the text, to this degree we must locate the origin of Leviticus where Leviticus itself tells us to: After the tent of meeting was constructed at the foot of Mount Sinai, Yahweh met Moses there and spoke to him the words of Leviticus. So the first context in which we place Leviticus is the period immediately after the Exodus, when the Israelites are first learning what it means to live as the people of God.

Having acknowledged the importance of the narrative context of Leviticus, we may now turn to consider its possible historical contexts. There emerge two viable periods of composition, each of which enlightens our reading of the text in a different way. The first possibility is that Leviticus is an early product of the exilic period, taking shape sometime around the first half of the sixth century b.c.e.[4] It is not difficult to imagine the significance of locating Leviticus during the exilic years of Israel’s history. If the book of Leviticus originated in the context of the Jewish diaspora, then this immediately rules out the possibility of readers carrying out the things that Leviticus commands—there is no tent of meeting for the diaspora community! In this case, in the words of Mary Douglas, “the skeptical likelihood that the book is a beautiful fantasy, a vision of a life that never was, hangs heavily over the interpretation.”[5] Nonetheless, it seems to me that constructing this beautiful vision of life would itself be a liturgical act—a worshipful forming of the imagination—and not a naïve idealism. In line with this, it has been suggested that, in the context of exile, the ritual reading of Scripture itself took on the role previously played by the physical sacrifice.[6] We will return to these liturgical reflections under the section dealing with ritual.

The other possible context in which to locate the origin of Leviticus is that of the post-exilic period.[7] Under Persian rule, Jews were allowed for the first time in many years to return to Jerusalem and begin reconstruction of the Temple. Against this background the significance of the book of Leviticus takes on a different shape. The text would be understood as calling the community to reestablish and renew their rich priestly heritage—a heritage that was not fully possible to embody apart from the Temple.[8] In the light of a post-exilic context, then, we would understand the agenda of Leviticus to be one of “liturgical renewal,” very much intending its specific instructions to be followed diligently. This context thus lends a different meaning to the text than do either the immediate narrative context or the possibility of an exilic origin.

As we turn to consider the significance of several Levitical topics, it is helpful to keep in mind two things regarding the origin of Leviticus. First, although neither of the two possibilities that we considered as viable options for the historical origin of Leviticus would allow for literal Mosaic authorship of the book as we know it, this does not rule out the possibility of maintaining that the authority of Moses, God’s unique spokesman, lies behind Leviticus. In the words of Milgrom, “Instead of understanding the Torah’s ‘YHWH spoke to Moses’ as a claim that the laws that follow came from the mouth of Moses, we can understand the Torah as signaling that the principles underlying the laws are Mosaic principles, emanating from Moses himself.”[9] Second, whether we decide in favor of an exilic context or a post-exilic context for the original background of Leviticus, the setting is one of constant threats from without the community and a questionable identity within the community—“the anguish of living with the disasters of war and the need to rebuild solidarity”[10]—and this setting alone tells us a great deal about the significance of Leviticus. Even though we are not able to settle on any one definite historical origin for Leviticus, the consideration of different possible contexts opens our imaginations to the rich—even inexhaustible—meaning of the text; and it is precisely in this opening of our imaginations that we can expect to hear God’s word revealed in Leviticus speaking to us today.

Significance

In his study of Leviticus in the context of postmodern culture, Wesley Bergen poetically writes, “Leviticus wants us to do something. … We cannot sacrifice animals, but could we dance the text? … Can we find positive ways of acting out the impulses that drive Leviticus?”[11] In what follows we will reflect on some of these driving “impulses,” and we will begin to think about some possibilities for how the Church might “dance the text” today.

Priesthood

For our purposes the first driving impulse of Leviticus is what we might call a priestly impulse: Put simply, the book paints a picture of the ethical and ritual life of Israel—a life of holiness largely revolving around the Aaronic priesthood. “Aaron’s sons the priests” take center stage beginning early in the first chapter of Leviticus (1:5), and they remain the leading actors in much of the book’s drama. It is well worth reflecting on what might be the significance of this theme of priesthood in a book that articulates the word of God for all of us who are God’s people—priest and non-priest alike.

In order to understand the significance of the priestly impulse in Leviticus, it is important first to determine what the connection is between priesthood and people in the Levitical worldview. Our most basic understanding of priests is that they are mediators in some sense or other; at some level they represent the people to God and God to the people. Nowhere is this clearer than in the rituals of sacrifice. The instructions for offering sacrifices (specifically in chs. 1–7) depict the priests receiving the offerings from the people and in turn presenting them to Yahweh. From Yahweh’s point of view, the priests present offerings on behalf of the people; from the people’s point of view, the priests receive the offerings on behalf of Yahweh. Thus, within the narrative context of Leviticus, this representative connection between priest and people is crucial for understanding the priests’ symbolic significance among the people: The priesthood is set apart in order to embody the holiness of the people Israel in a way that the average Israelite could not due to the natural profanity of everyday life. (Indeed, the very same language regarding holiness is used of both the priests and of the people as a whole [e.g., 21:6 and 19:2 respectively].) And the people as a whole are set apart from other peoples in order to embody the holiness of Yahweh (20:26), which was meant to be a blessing to all the nations (Exod 19:5–6). As we can see, the symbolic function of the priesthood—effectively incarnating the holiness of Yahweh’s people—is profoundly significant; it is tied to the very holiness of Yahweh.

The symbolic and representative significance of the priesthood for the people as a whole explains why the holiness of Israel’s priests was the concern of all the people. In passages like 16:29–34, we see clearly that the holiness brought about by atonement is the concern of priest and people alike. Likewise, the instructions regarding the extraordinary holiness of the priesthood (ch. 21) is addressed “to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel” (21:24, emphasis mine). In an exilic or post-exilic context, the set-apartness of the Jewish people is absolutely essential to their ministry to the nations among whom they live (20:26). The priesthood is therefore significant not only because of its representative and symbolic function within the worship life of Israel, but also because it is the effective symbol of the people Israel’s ministry of holiness to the nations.

Having reflected on the significance of the priesthood within Leviticus itself, and in light of its possible historical contexts, we may now begin to reflect on the significance of this theme for the Church today. First, it does not take a great deal of thought to realize how deeply indebted NT language about Jesus is to the priestly world of Leviticus. Insofar as the Church uses sacrificial imagery in order to understand Jesus, our Christian categories are completely dependent upon the Levitical priesthood and its sacrificial worship. As Wenham puts it, “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.”[12] Therefore, to presume to understand the sacrificial language applied to Christ in the NT without first steeping ourselves in the priestly world from which this language originates is to risk missing the point of these NT Scriptures. If the Church today desires to understand better the death of Christ as sacrifice, then we would do well to spend more time with the priests in Leviticus.

Second, the priesthood theme in Leviticus is important for the people of God as long as we continue to consider ourselves “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9; cf. Exod 19:6). This is a simple point, but, in my experience among Christians, it is one upon which there is rarely much reflection. It seems to me that understanding the people of God as a priesthood has profound ramifications for the Church. The image of the priesthood that is painted in Leviticus casts a powerful vision for what the mission of God through the Church might look like: There is an important sense in which the Church is called to be a priestly mediator between the world and God; we are called to intercede on behalf of the world and to serve the world by embodying the holiness of God. Conversely, we gain a new appreciation for what God was up to in the book of Leviticus: Rather than an exclusive patriarchal caste abolished by the grace of Jesus, the priesthood depicted in Leviticus actually gives impetus to a profoundly inclusive missionary call upon us today as the people of God.

Finally, for me personally, reflecting on the theme of priesthood in Leviticus contributes significantly to my understanding of my own calling as an Anglican priest. Certainly, there are incredibly important differences between the priesthood of Leviticus and the priesthood of the Christian Church—not the least of which is the fact that Christ alone mediates between humanity and God. Nonetheless, a Christian theology of ordination stands to gain a great deal from the priestly theology of Leviticus. Though Christian priests do not mediate in the Levitical sense of the word—they do not present atoning sacrifices to God on behalf of the people—still our ordained leaders do offer public prayers on behalf of the people of God as well as on behalf of all people everywhere. Christian priests are called to oversee the Church’s public sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving in the context of a worshipping community. So, even though we all as a priesthood of believers are called to live out a priestly mission, our ordained leaders do so in a unique way as they act publicly as priests who effectively symbolize the priestly role of the Church as a whole. Thus, for me the priestly theology of Leviticus has become an exciting way to think about my call to serve the people of God.

Ritual

To conclude our exploration of the origin and significance of the book of Leviticus, we may reflect briefly on a second driving impulse of the Levitical worldview, namely, the holistic vision of a life ordered by ritual. In Leviticus we read of a world in which a people’s imagination—their whole experience of reality—is formed by a particular approach to God. I would argue that everyone’s imagination and experience of reality is formed by a particular approach to God—it is simply that some of these approaches are conscious and reflective, while some remain unconscious and pre-reflective. All human beings order their lives by ritual, either consciously or not; Leviticus reminds us as Christians that our rituals ought to be intentional, that “the approach to God needs to be studied and practiced.”[13]

The ritual world of Leviticus reminds us as Christians that liturgy—literally “the work of the people”—is not something that happens just at worship services. By considering things as mundane—literally “worldly”—as dietary habits (11:1–23), skin diseases (chs. 13–14), menstrual cycles (15:19–24), and sexual relations (ch. 18), Leviticus deeply ties ritual spirituality to everyday life. One of the reasons why I was originally drawn to the tradition of Anglicanism is because of its commitment to this Levitical vision of life: The Book of Common Prayer offers the whole people of God a particular way of ordering their discipleship to Jesus which is mindful of the liturgical nature of all of life. Certainly this way of life carries with it the threat that the Church might find itself serving the liturgy that was meant to serve the Church—we must remember that “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27)—nevertheless, it seems to me that the Levitical impulse toward the importance of intentional ritual is faithfully represented in the holistic liturgies of the Church.

The vision of an integrated life is also at work in the Levitical interweaving of ethical injunctions and ritual rubrics. An outstanding example of such interweaving is ch. 19—here we travel from sacrificial instructions (vv. 5–8) to social justice concerns (vv. 9–18) through mundane holiness rituals (v. 19) to sexual regulations in connection with slaves (vv. 20–22), and so on. Leviticus teaches the same thing as the prophets: Correct ritual without just and loving relations is unacceptable to God. Leviticus does not, however, reverse this prophetic teaching, that is, it never teaches that just and loving relations without proper ritual is acceptable to God.[14] The two are deeply intertwined; God is interested both in justice and love and in the holistic ritual life that embodies that justice and love. We ought to be interested in hearing God’s voice in Leviticus not only in connection with the conventional concerns of ethics, but also with the hope that “we may learn something of the way we should approach a holy God.”[15] These two concerns come together in the Levitical practice of the sacrificial offering as an act of communication with God and with neighbor. The sacrifices in Leviticus (e.g., chs. 1–7, 16) are means of achieving “restoration of fractured relations between God and human and between human beings themselves.”[16] Nowhere do we see this more powerfully acted out in the Church than at the Lord’s Table. In the Church’s ritual of Communion, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving over bread and wine becomes the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice of body and blood to make atonement between God and human and human beings themselves. Indeed, the Eucharist may be the most powerful symbol of continuity between the Levitical vision for the life of God’s people and the ongoing life of the Church.

Jacob Milgrom writes, “Understanding the rituals and letting them infuse our lives are the means of achieving the life of holiness that Israel’s priests imparted to their people and to us.”[17] And it has been suggested that the practice of reading the text of Leviticus is precisely the type of identity-forming ritual that God uses to bring about the infusion of holiness.[18] Let us then, as a priesthood of believers set apart to serve the world, never stop reading God’s word: “You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy” (20:26).

Bibliography

Bell, Rob. “Life in Leviticus.” Leadership 23, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 45–47.

Bergen, Wesley J. Reading Ritual: Leviticus in Postmodern Culture. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 417. London: T & T Clark, 2005.

Douglas, Mary. Leviticus as Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics. Continental Commentaries 3. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004.

Radner, Ephraim. Leviticus. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008.

Rendtorff, Rolf, and Robert A. Kugler, eds. The Book of Leviticus: Composition and Reception. Supplements to Vestus Testamentum 93. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Van Wijk-Bos, Johanna W. H. Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.

Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979.


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[1] See Rob Bell, “Life in Leviticus,” Leadership 23, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 45–47.

[2] Lester L. Grabbe, “The Priests in Leviticus—Is the Medium the Message?” in The Book of Leviticus: Composition and Reception (ed. Rolf Rendtorff and Robert A Kugler; VTSup 93; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 224.

[3] Christians tend to be familiar with some of the ethical injunctions of Leviticus—e.g., “Love your neighbor as yourself”—and therefore to conceive of the Levitical vision of holiness solely in these terms. This paper will seek to expand our understanding of holiness by focusing on the less familiar Levitical phenomena of priesthood and ritual.

[4] Although he does not think a specific date to be vital for the interpretation of Leviticus, Gordon Wenham argues that historical-linguistic considerations and Levitical quotes appearing in the book of Ezekiel both militate against a post-exilic date for Leviticus. Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (NICOT 3; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 13.

[5] Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 7.

[6] See Wesley J. Bergen, Reading Ritual: Leviticus in Postmodern Culture (JSOTSup 417; London: T & T Clark, 2005), 113–115. Cf. Terrence Fretheim on the text of Exodus: “The language creates a tabernacle in the minds of those who have none. A sanctuary begins to take shape within, where it can be considered in all of its grandeur and beauty, living once again in memory.” Terrence E. Fretheim, Exodus (IBC; Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1991), 264, quoted in Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 207.

[7] Baruch Levine concludes from both inner-biblical and comparative literary-historical considerations that Leviticus is as a whole a post-exilic book dating from the Persian period, the same timeframe narrated in Nehemiah. He suggests that it was a Priestly rather than Deuteronomic influence that exercised the final redaction of the Pentateuch. See Baruch Levine, “Leviticus: Its Literary History and Location in Biblical Literature,” in The Book of Leviticus: Composition and Reception (ed. Rolf Rendtorff and Robert A Kugler; VTSup 93; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 11–23.

[8] Cf. van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise, 206.

[9] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (CC 3; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 3.

[10] Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, 7.

[11] Bergen, Reading Ritual, 122.

[12] Wenham, Leviticus, 37. Cf. Ephraim Radner, Leviticus (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 293–299.

[13] Van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise, 193.

[14] Cf. van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise, 216n27.

[15] Wenham, Leviticus, 37.

[16] Van Wijk-Bos, Making Wise, 216.

[17] Milgrom, Leviticus, 6.

[18] Bergen, Reading Ritual, 27–43.