You may be surprised that I would place this book at number eight in the books of the Bible to read. It is a difficult book to understand in its many details. However there are good reasons to meditate on this book. First, it is the third book of Moses which are some of the most important books of the Old Testament. Second, it is referred to forty times in the New Testament. Third, it brings out two themes that are very important for Christians to know: holiness and sacrifice.
This is a very "unLutheran" thing to say, but I believe the Book of Leviticus is a book that should first be "felt" before we try to understand it. In your first reading of this book don't worry about understanding all the details. The two things you should grasp more than anything is the sense of holiness - That even though God can walk among us, He does so on the condition that we are made holy in His presence. Second, it was the sacrifices (and particularly the blood) that made the people holy and made it possible for them to be with God and He with them. This idea of holiness and sacrifice comes to a great climax in the person of Jesus. He is, as the demons even confessed "The Holy One of God" (Mark 1.24). Yet, we sinners are able to approach Him and be with Him because He is also "The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1.29).
The English title "Leviticus" comes from the Levites, who were chosen to serve in the Tabernacle. However, they are only mentioned once in this book. The book is really a sequal to Exodus. Exodus told us about the formation of Israel around the presence of God in the Tabernacle. Leviticus tells us about what was done in that Tabernacle to maintain the holiness of God's people in the presence of the holy God. "Holiness with Sacrifice" might be a better title.
Leviticus has many, many little details about sacrifices and maintaining holiness. We don't continue those sacrifices because Jesus fulfilled them: "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace" (Ephesians 1.7). Now, our focus is on the details of Jesus' life, death, resurrection and second coming. But these details of the past sacrifices of Israel help us understand and appreciate the person and work of Christ who brings us holiness by His blood. As Paul also said, these sacrifices were a "shadow of things to come, but the substance is Christ" (Colossians 2.17).
1. Sacrifices - The Way Unholy People Come to a Holy God (1-7)
2. The Priests Who Stand Between God and His People (8-10)
3. Maintaining Holiness in Daily Living (11-22)
4. The Feasts (23-25)
5. Conclusion - Blessing & Punishments; Service and Offerings (26-27)
The theme verse is 19.2 “You shall be holy as I the LORD am holy.” Compare this to 1 Peter 1.15-16: "but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy.'"
Sacrifices - The Way Unholy People Come to a Holy God (1-7)
Chapter 01 - Burnt Sacrifice
Offering of burnt sacrifice (voluntary) for atonement, unblemished, all burnt (herd, flock, birds).
Chapter 02 - Grain Offering
Grain offering, part burned, part for the priests, no leaven or honey, seasoned with salt.
Chapter 03 - Peace (Fellowship) Offering
Directions for those parts of the offering that are to be burned whether it is from the herd or flock. The special portion for the LORD was the choice part, the fat. The people and priests could eat the rest (but not the fat or blood). (Blood was never eaten, Leviticus 17.11)
04 - Sin Offering
The sin-offering was for unintentional sins. If a priest, or the people as a whole, or a ruler of the people sinned unintentionally, a bull was to be killed, it’s blood sprinkled and poured out, it fat to be burned on the altar and all the rest burned outside the camp. If a common person sinned unintentionally, the sin-offering was a female kid or lamb. This brought atonement and forgiveness. Note here God’s concern for the removal of all sin, even unintentional sin.
05 - Trespass (Guilt) Offering
The trespass or guilt offering was for sins that were known and were confessed. The offering was a female lamb or goat, or if that was unaffordable, two pigeons, or a tenth of an ephah of flour. (Chapter 6) If the sin involved the holy things of the Tabernacle, then the offering was of a ram. If the sin involved loss, he was required to make restitution and add one fifth of the value of the thing he stole or lost.
06 - The Burnt Offering, Grain Offering, Sin Offering
The earlier directions focused on the reasons for these offerings. This section focuses on how the offerings are made. The burnt offering burned all night on the altar and it ashes taken out in the morning. A handful of the grain offering was burned. The remainder was eaten by the sons of Aaron in the court of the Tabernacle as unleavened bread. Sin Offerings are eaten by the priests.
07 - Trespass/Guilt Offering, Peace/Fellowship Offering
Further directions on the Trespass/Guilt Offering, the Burnt Offering, and Grain Offering. The Peace or Fellowship Offering was subdivided into three types: Thanksgiving, Fulfilling a Vow, or Freewill Offering. Moses again emphasizes the prohibition against eating fat or blood as in chapter tree.
Chapters 8-10 Focus on the Priests Who Stand Between God and His People
08 - Aaron and Sons Consecrated
These sacrifices follow the order given by the LORD on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 29.10-34. Moses washed Aaron and his sons and clothed them. Reminds us of baptism. He anointed the Tabernacle and Aaron with oil. Moses offered a Sin Offering and a Burnt Offering. Two more rams were offered as well as bread. The blood is placed on the right ear, thumb and toe to symbolize a kind of covering with blood. These were special offerings for the consecration of Aaron and his sons. Finally, they were all confined to the Tabernacle for seven days to complete their consecration.
09 - First Sacrifices in the Tabernacle
Moses directs Aaron and sons give a sin offering and burnt offerings. The people offer sin offerings, burnt offerings and peace offerings. Moses said they would see the glory of the LORD, and they did. They shouted and fell on their faces.
10 - Profane Fire of Nadab and Abihu
These sons of Aaron offered profane fire (probably entered after drinking alcohol, see vv9ff). Fire devoured them, and they are carried outside the camp. The LORD spoke to Aaron (only here for Aaron) that neither he nor his sons should drink intoxicating drink when they go into the tabernacle.
Chapters 11-22 Focus on Rules for Daily Living
11 - Foods Not Permitted and Permitted
No animals with cloven hoof and that eat the cud. No fish that have fins and scales. No birds of prey. No flying insects that creep on the ground except for grasshoppers and locusts. If you touch their carcass, you are unclean.
12 - Childbirth and Purification
For a male child the mother is unclean for seven days and the boy is circumcised on the eighth day. For a female child she is unclean for two weeks. She will continue with days of purification for thirty three (male child) or sixty six (female child) and then bring a lamb for a burnt offering and a dove as a sin offering. Or, if poor, two doves, one for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering. This will atone for her and make her clean. See special note on Clean vs Unclean.
13 - Procedures for Tsara’at
Tsara’at is the Hebrew name of the disease mentioned here. We are not sure what it was. Though many translations use the term leprosy, it was not what we know as leprosy today. There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that this disease was contagious. The main concern was whether or not a person had the disease. If so, they were not allowed in the camp or Tabernacle.
14 - Cleansing Ritual for Those Healed of Tsara’at
The first cleansing was done outside the camp with two birds similar to the Day of Atonement. After seven days another cleansing ritual involved four sacrifices: Trespass/Guilt, Sin Offering, Burnt Offering and Grain Offering. Blood and oil were put on the healed person to symbolize their complete covering by God. A two bird ritual was used for cleansing a house of this plague.
15 - Ritual Cleansing for Bodily Discharges
Bodily discharges are cleansed outside the camp and inside the camp. These discharges were normal. However the special rituals attached to them created a kind of protective barrier between sexual relations and worship. Pagan worship often connected the two.
16 - The Day of Atonement
With a sin offering (bull) and a burnt (ram) offering Aaron would take two goats to the door of the tabernacle. There one became a sin offering and the other the scapegoat which was sent into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people. Using incense and the blood of the sacrifices, he would make atonement for Israel. The Day of Atonement was the tenth day of the seventh month. It was a “sabbath,” and no work was to be done. The people were to “afflict” their souls.
17 - The Sanctity of Blood
All sacrifices will be made to the LORD, not to demons. No one will eat blood. The life is in the blood. Blood makes atonement for the soul. Eating what dies naturally or is killed by other animals makes a person clean for that day.
18 - Sexual Morality
Israel was not to live like the Egyptians. No sex with near kin. It is wickedness. No adultery. No homosexual relations or beastiality. The nations who did these things was vomited out of the land.
19 - Holiness
Be holy as the LORD is holy. Keep the sabbaths. No idolatry. Peace offerings cannot be eaten after the second day. Leave gleanings of grain and grapes for the poor. No stealing or false swearing. No cheating or mistreating the handicapped. No injustice. Love your neighbor as yourself. Shall not breed livestock with another kind. No mixing of seeds or thread. No sex with another man’s concubine. Fruit in the new land will not be eaten until the fifth year. They will eat nothing with blood in it. No divination. No shaving side of head.* No cutting in flesh for the dead nor tattoos. No prostitution. Keep Sabbaths. No sorcery. Honor the aged. Love the stranger living in the land. No injustice. No dishonesty. I AM THE LORD.
*Payots are the long sideburns worn by Orthodox Jews. Payah (פֵּאָה) means “side” Leviticus 19.27.
20 - Canaanite Practices to Avoid
No human sacrifices to Molech. Violators were stoned, and anyone looking away from this practice was cut off. No mediums or familiar spirits. Death penalty for cursing parents. Adulterers put to death. Homosexuals put to death. No beastiality. No incest. No sex during menstruation. No sex with near kin. They will not practice these things even though they were practiced by that Canaanites. They will possess the land flowing with milk and honey. They will distinguish between clean and unclean animals. They will be holy and separated from the peoples because they belong to God. Mediums will be stoned.
21 - Special Requirements for Priests
Priests shall not defile themselves for the dead except for near relatives. They shall not make bald spots on their heads or shave edges of beards. No cuttings in flesh. They are holy because they offer the offerings. No harlot, defiled woman or divorcee for a wife. Daughter of priest who prostitutes shall be burned. The high priest must marry a virgin. No priest with a defect can serve.
22 - Miscellaneous Rules for Offerings
Priests must not serve or eat the holy things with uncleanness. Outsiders shall not eat holy things unless purchased or born in the priest’s house. No offerings with defects. Offspring of bulls, sheep or goats stay with mother seven days and can be offered after that. Do not kill mother and offspring on the same day. The LORD who hallows shall be hallowed.
Chapters 23-25 Review the Feasts
23 - The Feasts
1. Sabbath. 2. Passover (14th of first month) 3. Feast of Unleavened Bread (15th of first month for seven days) 4. First Fruits 5. Weeks (seven Sabbaths, 50th day) 6. Trumpets (seventh month) 7. Day of Atonement (10th day, seventh month) 8. Tabernacles (15th day, seventh month for seven days)
24 - Tabernacle Lambs & Bread; A Blasphemer; Law of Retaliation
Care for the Tabernacle lamps. Twelve loaves of bread in the Tabernacle every Sabbath eaten by Aaron and his sons. A blasphemer is stoned. Law of Retaliation (Lex Talinones).
25 - Sabbath and Jubilee Years
Sabbath Year on the seventh year. Jubilee Year (50th) Each person returns to his original land possession. Land prices adjusted for the Jubilee Year. God will bless the sixth year to bring enough produce for three years to sow in the eighth year and eat in the ninth year. Help the poor. Charge no interest. May buy male and female slaves from other nations. Israelite slaves can be redeemed depending on the Year of Jubilee.
The Conclusion Emphasizes God's Concern for Obedience
26 - Blessings and Punishments
God will bless obedience. He will be their God, and they will be His people. Disobedience will bring defeat, plagues, beasts, cannibalism, destruction of high places, desolation, scattering among the nations. However, He will not utterly destroy them. He will remember His covenant.
27 - Redeeming Persons and Property Dedicated to God
This last chapter is about voluntary offerings that people could make that helped to support the Tabernacle. They could volunteer their service or their money. The valuation of service is probably based on the level of productivity for each person. (Remember that most of this work was very physical!) They could also dedicate, animals, land and homes.
This was the center of Israel's worship and the presence of God. Later, Solomon would build a temple in Jerusalem. Finally, Jesus would become the temple and the presence of God in this world.
Lot's of Blood
Chapters 1-7 cover the many animal sacrifices of Israel’s worship. Leviticus is bathed in blood. This is something God wanted to impress upon Israel. Sin is death, and death is the only thing that can atone for sin. It is also important to remember that many of the animal sacrifices were eaten. These sacrifices were akin to congregational meals today. The sacrifices also provided fellowship.
Summary: Five Kinds of Sacrifices
1. The Burnt Offering: This sacrifice was completely burned except for the skin. It was an atonement for sin.
2. The Grain or Meal Offering: These offerings were given to support the priests.
3. Peace Offering: This offering was eaten by the priests and in some cases by the worshipers.
4. Sin Offerings: These offerings were made for unintentional sins. The sacrifice varied depending on the leadership status of the worshiper.
5. Trespass Offerings: These were similar to the Sin Offerings except that they also involved money that was given as restitution for whatever loss the person’s sin may have caused.
Three Important Categories
"Holy, Clean, Unclean"
God taught the people of Israel that there were three important categories that they needed to respect as His own chosen people.
Holy = Someone or something who was clean and dedicated to the service of the LORD (sacrifices/worship)
Clean = Someone or something that could be dedicated to the service of the LORD (Holy) or could receive the services of the LORD (sacrifices/worship) and was allowed in the community of Israel. While there may have been some hygienic value in some of these distinctions, God’s concern was much more about how these outer things could be used to ensure the inner cleanliness and holiness of the heart through His word.
Unclean = Someone or something that needed to be purified before it could receive the services of the LORD (sacrifices/worship) or be allowed into the community of Israel. This was not necessarily someone or something that was sinful. It just needed the required purification.
Purification was God’s way of helping the people realize that the services of the LORD (sacrifices/worship) were special gifts from Him. Purification reminded the Israelites that they were His special (Holy) people. These rites of purification applied only to the people of Israel. St. Paul tells us that they were “a shadow” but “the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2.17). In Christ, we now have the ultimate purification and our identity as God’s holy people. Therefore the purification requirements do not apply to the other nations that God has always intended to reach with His promises (Genesis 12.1-3). They were specific to Israel to keep Israel holy until the He revealed the ultimate holiness in Jesus, the Messiah. Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians may respect these purification categories today as a kind of spiritual discipline, but since the coming of the Messiah, all eyes are on Him.