Holiness Code: An Introduction to Leviticus
In order to understand the importance of Leviticus, it is important to understand who wrote it and why. Most scholars adhere to the theory that the Hebrew Scriptures were written over a period of time by four separate groups of individuals: Jahwist (J), Elohist (E), Priestly (P), and Deuteronomist (D). Each of these writers contributed to the overall text of the Old Testament and provided their unique perspectives of God and the people of Israel. Below is a chart that shows the differences between the writers:
Jahwist Elohist Priestly Deuteronomist
stress on Judah stress on northern Israel stress on Judah stress on central shrine
stresses leaders stresses the prophetic stresses the cultic stresses fidelity to Jerusalem
anthropomorphic refined speech majestic speech speech recalling
speech about God about God about God God's work
God walks and God speaks cultic approach moralistic approach
talks with us in dreams to God
God is YHWH God is Elohim God is Elohim God is YHWH
(till Ex 3) (till Ex 3)
uses "Sinai" Sinai is "Horeb" has genealogies and lists has long sermons
These are several obvious ways in which these writers are different, and are important in understanding how the Hebrew text was constructed. Each of these writers convey a different set of beliefs and goals regarding their relationship to the whole of Israel and to God. It is in this context that we need to read and understand the Book of Leviticus.
Leviticus was written by the Priestly writers. It's name is meant to denote the work of those in the Priestly line of David--that of the Levites--who are set aside as Priests by God to conduct all worship activities in the Temple. The Levites are descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob (Israel). According to the covenant that God made with the people of Israel after their departure from Egypt, the Levites would not inherit land as part of the Abrahamic covenant, but would be supported in their efforts by all the tribes for providing all necessary services for carrying out the rituals of the Temple.
The first ten chapters of Leviticus are focused primarily on sacrifices and their necessity for the forgiveness of sins. But Leviticus is much more than sacrifices. It also includes all that is necessary for the people of Israel to maintain holiness in the way that God is holy.
treatment for skin diseases
rites of atonement for individual and communal sin
daily, sabbath, and festival cultic rituals observed throughout the year
regulates symbolic purification of women after childbirth
ritual cleansing of cultic pollution caused by genital discharges or contact with corpses
the practice of sexual intercourse and related matters
laws for sabbatical and jubilee years
depictions of dire punishment for disobeying God's law
list of monetary value of various classes of Israelites, to be donated by one who pledges his value or that of his child to the sanctuary
This is a daunting list! But imagine if you lived in an area where vast populations of people had a large variety of belief systems that you wanted to avoid at all costs (not really difficult to imagine, in light of the diversity of thought we are faced with today) and to achieve that end--avoidance--you created a code that set you apart from all others. This is Leviticus at its finest.
What makes Leviticus special is its attention to holiness and purity, commanded by God on three occasions - "You shall be holy, for I Yahweh, your God, am holy" (Lev. 11:44, 19:2, 20:7). Spiritual practices are discussed throughout the Book of Leviticus, which is the substance of their communal life together and the foundational components necessary for a life of holiness and purity. These practices include the sacrificing of animals for the remittance of sin, the offering of food and wine during certain festivals or seasons of the year, and other gifts to the temple for ritual cleansing. These offerings were legislated, and were established as a means of redemption. Holiness and purity were deemed necessary components of their communal life and demonstrated their willingness to remain faithful to God and to one another. To violate these laws placed you outside the community.
As we begin to look at the individual aspects of the Book of Leviticus, my primary focus is the holiness of the people and their capacity to walk in holiness. We'll be asking lots of questions of the text in relation to holiness, and examine these laws in our present-day context as Christians who are grafted into the faith through Christ. In some ways, this feels like an overwhelming task. I will admit from the outset that I am not a Hebrew scholar; I am not Jewish; I am not especially trained to read the Book of Leviticus with any kind of grand wisdom. However, I do believe that my research into God's holiness and our desire to be holy; to walk in the holy, begins with the Book of Leviticus. Until we have even a rudimentary understanding of the context and content of this book, it will be impossible for us to grasp the significance of the Book of Leviticus and its import on the behavior of its adherents.