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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Leviticus: Content and Structure

Note: The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, provides an excellent introduction to each book of the Bible. The first section of material is taken from this introduction.

Though its content is primarily religious ritual and law, Leviticus is part of the larger Priestly story in the Pentateuch. It recounts the delivery of its divine instructions to Moses at the tent of meeting. The book also includes two sections of narratives not dominated by divine instruction; yet even these narrative sections serve as historical context and rationale for the laws embedded within them. Situated in Leviticus, however, the priestly legislation receives powerful validation through its narrative setting. The larger Priestly narrative secures the proper pedigree for these laws: they are divine revelation mediated by Moses in the wilderness.

Set at Mount Sinai, Leviticus begins exactly one year after the Israelites' departure from Egypt, immediately following Moses's construction of the tent of meeting and its indwelling by the deity at the end of the book of Exodus. The Priestly source's plot continues in the book of Numbers from the exact moment that Leviticus ends. The date in Numbers 1:1 (the first day of the second month, in the second year) confirms that the series of divine speeches delivered in Leviticus and the other events recorded in the book ostensibly occurred over a period of one month.

Leviticus can be divided into five major sections:

  1. Sacrifice (chapters 1-7). In the Priestly source, the Israelites present no sacrificial offerings prior to receiving these laws. The sacrificial laws must precede- the consecration of the priests and dedication of the tabernacle in chapters 8-9 because Moses and the priests must know how to perform the sacrifices at these events. This section is subdivided into two parts: (a) basic prescriptions for presenting sacrificial offerings (1:1-6:7) and (b) elaborations of the preceding instructions (6:8-7:38), with particular emphasis on priestly concerns.

  2. The dedication of the tabernacle and priests and the transgression of Aaron's sons (chapters 8-10). This unit is subdivided into two sections: (a) the seven-day consecration of the priests by Moses, including the dedication of the tabernacle (chapter 8); and (b) the inaugural service of the priests on the eighth day, culminating in the revelation of the divine glory, and the subsequent transgression of Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu (9:1-10:20).

  3. Ritual purity (chapters 11-16). This section is subdivided into two parts; (a) the impurity laws (chapters 11-15); and (b) the Day of Atonement (chapter 16). The impurity laws are enumerated prior to the description of the Day of Atonement in order to clarify the impurities cleansed in the annual ritual.

  4. The Holiness Collection (chapters 17-26). This unit (also called the Holiness Code) has six subdivisions: (a) laws governing sacrifice and meat consumption (chapter 17); (b) miscellaneous ethical laws (chapters 18-20); (c) priestly and sacrificial rules (chapter 21-22); (d) laws governing calendrical observances (23:1-24:9, 25:1-26:2); (e) the account of the blasphemer, with related measure-for-measure laws, which interrupt the calendrical observance laws (24:10-23); and (f) inducements for Israel's obedience, with summary postscript (26:3-46).

  5. An addendum concerning vows, dedications, and tithes (chapter 27).

I felt it important to provide this breakdown as presented in the Introduction to the Book of Leviticus in the New Oxford Annotated Bible because it lays out so neatly the various divisions within the Book of Leviticus and describes the content therein. What I hope to do with this material is take it section by section and give you a deeper overview of the content and the necessity for the laws as presented to the people of Israel.

Not being Jewish, it is rare that we ever look at Leviticus with any serious thought. Most of the time, we are only looking at a select few passages that are often mistranslated and are attempted to be used to ostracize certain groups of people from the family of God. As we shall see, these laws were the beginning of a long process of God bringing a people into alignment with his will for us all. While we have largely ignored the law, Leviticus still has a lot to teach us about what God was thinking at the time. When placed in proper context, these laws not only make sense, but provide us with excellent boundaries for a better quality of life.

We'll find that some of the laws given to the Israelite people are antithetical to how we live today. We must ask the question, "Are we better off or worse off by not following these laws?" As we get into the material, another major question that we'll be looking to answer is "How does the Holiness Code inform our understanding of what it means to be Holy?" This last question is at the heart of this study. The concept of holiness is one that we don't talk about very often, but God gave the Israelite people very specific things to do that would "make them holy as God is holy." At a minimum, we need to know what those things are and whether they offer us alternatives to how we live today.

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