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Leviticus receives its name from the Septuagint (the pre-Christian Greek translation of the OT) and means “relating to the Levites.” Its Hebrew title, wayyiqra’, is the first word in the Hebrew text of the book and means “And he [i.e., the Lord] called.” Although Leviticus does not deal only with the special duties of the Levites, it is so named because it concerns mainly the service of worship at the tabernacle, which was conducted by the priests who were the sons of Aaron, assisted by many from the rest of the tribe of Levi. Exodus gave the directions for building the tabernacle, and now Leviticus gives the laws and regulations for worship there, including instructions on ceremonial cleanness, moral laws, holy days, the sabbath year and the Year of Jubilee. These laws were given, at least for the most part, during the year that Israel camped at Mount Sinai, when God directed Moses in organizing Israel’s worship, government and military forces. The book of Numbers continues the history with preparations for moving on from Sinai to Canaan.
Leviticus is a manual of regulations enabling the holy King to set up his earthly throne among the people of his kingdom. It explains how they are to be his holy people and to worship him in a holy manner. Holiness in this sense means to be separated from sin and set apart exclusively to the Lord for his purpose and for his glory. So the key thought of the book is holiness (see notes on 11:44; Ex 3:5)—the holiness of God and his people (they must revere him in “holiness”). In Leviticus spiritual holiness is symbolized by physical perfection. Therefore the book demands perfect animals for its many sacrifices (chs. 1–7) and requires priests without deformity (chs. 8–10). A woman’s hemorrhaging after giving birth (ch. 12); sores, burns or baldness (chs. 13–14); a man’s bodily discharge (15:1–18); specific activities during a woman’s monthly period (15:19–33)—all may be signs of blemish (a lack of perfection) and may symbolize human spiritual defects, which break spiritual wholeness. The person with visible skin disease must be banished from the camp, the place of God’s special presence, just as Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. Such people can return to the camp (and therefore to God’s presence) when they are pronounced whole again by the examining priests. Before they can reenter the camp, however, they must offer the prescribed, perfect sacrifices (symbolizing the perfect, whole sacrifice of Christ).
After the covenant at Sinai, Israel was the earthly representation of God’s kingdom (the theocracy), and, as its King, the Lord established his administration over all of Israel’s life. Israel’s religious, communal and personal life was so regulated as to establish them as God’s holy people and to instruct them in holiness. Special attention was given to Israel’s religious ritual. The sacrifices were to be offered at an approved sanctuary, which would symbolize both God’s holiness and his compassion. They were to be controlled by the priests, who by care and instruction would preserve them in purity and carefully teach their meaning to the people. Each particular sacrifice was to have meaning for the people of Israel but would also have spiritual and symbolic import.
For more information on the meaning of sacrifice in general see the solemn ritual of the Day of Atonement (ch. 16; see note on 16:1–34). For the meaning of the blood of the offering see 17:11; Ge 9:4 and notes. For the emphasis on substitution see 16:21.
Some suppose that the OT sacrifices were remains of old agricultural offerings—a human desire to offer part of one’s possessions as a love gift to the deity. But the OT sacrifices were specifically prescribed by God and received their meaning from the Lord’s covenant relationship with Israel—whatever their superficial resemblances to pagan sacrifices may have been. They indeed include the idea of a gift, but this is accompanied by such other values as dedication, communion, propitiation (appeasing God’s judicial wrath against sin) and restitution. The various offerings have differing functions, the primary ones being atonement (see note on Ex 25:17) and worship (see chart, p. 151).
The subjects treated in Leviticus, as in any book of laws and regulations, cover several categories:
- The Five Main Offerings (chs. 1–7)
- The Burnt Offering (ch. 1)
- The Grain Offering (ch. 2)
- The Fellowship Offering (ch. 3)
- The Sin Offering (4:1—5:13)
- The Guilt Offering (5:14—6:7)
- Additional Regulations for the Offerings (6:8—7:38)
- The Installation and Ministry of Aaron and His Sons (chs. 8–10)
- The Ordination of Aaron and His Sons (ch. 8)
- The Ministry of the Priests (ch. 9)
- The Death of Nadab and Abihu and Attendant Regulations (ch. 10)
- The Distinction Between Clean and Unclean (chs. 11–15)
- Clean and Unclean Food (ch. 11)
- Purification After Childbirth (ch. 12)
- Regulations for Skin Diseases (13:1–46)
- Regulations for Mildew (13:47–59)
- Cleansing from Skin Diseases (14:1–32)
- Cleansing from Mildew (14:33–57)
- Discharges That Cause Uncleanness (ch. 15)
- The Annual Day of Atonement (ch. 16)
- Holy Living (chs. 17–26)
- Eating Blood Prohibited (ch. 17)
- Unlawful Sexual Relations (ch. 18)
- Various Laws for Holy Living (ch. 19)
- Punishments for Sin (ch. 20)
- Regulations for Priests (21:1—22:16)
- Acceptable and Unacceptable Sacrifices (22:17–33)
- The Annual Feasts (ch. 23)
- Rules for Oil and Bread in the Tabernacle (24:1–9)
- Punishment for Blasphemy (24:10–23)
- The Sabbath and Jubilee Years (ch. 25)
- Covenant Blessings and Curses (ch. 26)
- Regulations for Offerings Vowed to the Lord (ch. 27)
© Zondervan. From the Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Used with Permission.
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