Lecture 4: Leviticus
Course: Understanding the Old Testament
When we come to the book of Leviticus, we have a continued emphasis on God’s holiness and His work with His people. We found out in chapters 25 through 31 that the Lord has called priests to minister to His people who are themselves a kingdom of priests to the nations. We learn in chapters 35 to 40 of Exodus that these priests will minister in the midst of the people at a tabernacle which is a portable worship center. In Leviticus we move on to find out what these priests will do and what God expects of the people.
The book of Leviticus stresses the fact that God is holy and His people are to be holy. What does this term ‘holy’ mean? Basically it means ‘set apart,’ set apart for a special purpose, unique, unusual. So Israel is holy because it is set apart to be God’s people, His kingdom of priests. Yahweh is holy because He is set apart to be the creator, the God, the only God. He is also set apart morally, He is different than people, He is completely sinless and flawless and has no imperfection. So Israel is to be holy in that they will do what God has asked them to do. They will be set apart from the world; they won’t act like the world; they won’t believe like the world; they will not live like the world. So they are to be holy even as God is also holy.
The book of Leviticus is set in the wilderness in the desert area where the people are living. It is about the same time as the book of Exodus in fact we find out later in the book of Numbers a whole year has not yet passed since they were delivered and the day of Passover has occurred.
The book of Leviticus unfolds in the following several sections. First chapters 1 through 7 describe the sacrifices a holy people will offer to their holy God. Next, Leviticus 8 through 10 describes the holy priests who will offer the sacrifices with the holy people to the holy God. The third section of Leviticus is chapters 11 to 16. This section is about what it means to be ceremonially clean or unclean and we will need to define what clean and unclean is as we discuss that section. The fourth part of Leviticus, I think, is simply one chapter. At the heart of Leviticus, at the middle portion, the middle point of the first five books of the Bible, we have a description of an observance called the ‘Day of Atonement.’ The one day of the year in which God would receive a sacrifice to forgive all the sins of the people for that entire year so that everyone who participates and believes would receive forgiveness. The fifth section is Leviticus 17 to 27. This section describes a holy society living for a holy God, being His priests in the world.
The book of Leviticus is really a utopian book. It really describes an ideal society. In the book of Leviticus we see what a society would be like if it lived fully for the Lord, always confessing its sins, always having faithful ministers and priests, always taking care of the physical needs of the poor. Always being clean and pure sexually, always protecting the poor and the weak and the needy. Always being an example in the middle of the earth of what a nation can be that fully serves the Lord. Now unfortunately these societal principles were never really enforced in Israel and so the world never got to see what this sort of ideal society would look like. But it gives us an example of what God can do in the world, what He wants to do through His people. It also gives us a down payment on what it will be like when we are with God forever and all things are set right.
On to the contents of the book. The first seven chapters deal with sacrifices. Israel must offer five types of sacrifice. Each one has its own specific purpose and its unique form of presentation. Three types deal with sins that have been committed while two allow worshipers to express joy and gratitude to God. Allowances are made for poor members of the covenant community. Their sacrifices won’t cost as much as what wealthier Israelites can offer. The three types of offerings that cover the people’s sin are: burnt offerings, sin offerings and guilt offerings.
A burnt offering is given for general sins (1:3-17). Apparently, burnt offerings were a confession of general sinfulness, not unlike the phrase we use from the Lord’s Prayer ‘forgive us our debts.’ We often ask the Lord to forgive us of our sins without us offering a great specific list of those sins. A burnt offering was offered on a regular basis so that people could show that they knew that we sin every day and that we are generally genuinely sinful persons. People who are poor may bring birds as their sacrifice while those who can afford to do so bring a male from their herd or flock. I want to emphasize that sin is costly and the sacrifices show this. It would not have been cheap for people in an agricultural economy to give up an animal like this. So their very offering of the burnt offering would show the seriousness of the sin and how seriously they take God forgiving them.
Sin offerings are brought, according to chapter 4 and verse 1, when anyone sins by mistake and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands. This sacrifice, the sin offering, addresses specific, not general, sins that people commit. Despite being done by mistake rather than by open rebellion against God and His word such sin still has a negative effect. They are still a violation of God’s commands and thus a sacrifice is required. But unlike the burnt offering, the sin offering is for specific types of sins. Most of this offering is burnt up but a sin offering part of it can be eaten by the priests according to chapter 6. So you see that the priests, in part, earn their living off the sacrifices the people brought. Of course, if the priest wanted to be dishonest this system could be very corrupt so we need good and holy priests for this system to work.
Guilt offerings cover specific sins committed by mistake that harm a neighbor. When this situation occurs the worshipper must make restitution to the neighbor first and then bring the same animal as in the sin offering. I think it’s important for us to remember that some sins that we commit do harm others and we need to make restitution. One needs to give back what has been taken from the person. So those are the first three offerings: burnt, sin and guilt for people’s sin.
The next two offering are about expressing gratitude to God. A grain offering and a peace offering are really about praise and thanksgiving. Part of a grain offering is to be burned up and a priest may eat the rest. The peace offerings are to be male or female animals that are treated like sin offerings. These sacrifices, though, the grain and the peace offering, are offered in hopes that God will continue to bless the people and as a way of thanking the priests for their work.
Now whenever a sacrifice is made a set ritual is observed. First, the animal or object is presented for inspection at the entrance of the worship area. Second, the worshipper places a hand on the animal’s head, which means the person claims responsibility its death. Again, in an agricultural community where you make your living off the land and off animals as quiet frankly my family did when I was growing up, the loss of an animal is a very personal thing. So the worshipper places a hand on the animal’s head and claims responsibility for its death. Third, the worshipper kills the sacrifice, the priest doesn’t do this. He will instruct the worshipper but the worshipper kills the sacrifice. This act also forces the individual to see the consequences of sin. Fourth, the priest then takes some of the animal’s blood and sprinkles it on the altar and the appropriate portion is destroyed and the appropriate portion is saved for the priest usages.
Now I want to note several theological truths emerge in Leviticus 1 to 7. First, God forgives sin because of these sacrifices. The people’s obedience to God’s direction concerning sacrifice is part of the covenant relationship. Its God’s way of saying you may be forgiven if you will by faith bring what I ask and do as I have directed. Second, these offerings are specific and personal. Excuse making and blaming others for individual transgression – that is eliminated. Third, this system demonstrates God’s fairness – rich and poor alike are equal before God and both can afford the sacrifices God requires. Fourth, each of these elements points to God’s mercy. Regardless of the sin a loving, covenant God stands ready to forgive. God knew from the beginning that people would break the commandments He set forth. It is not alright that they sin but because He is merciful and gracious and abounding in loving-kindness, He offers a way that people may be forgiven. So while He knew they would sin and that sin is not alright, He does not expect the people to be sinless, to be flawless moral beings. He knows their weakness. He knows their sinfulness. And He makes a system so that their sin might not stand between them and God.
Priests Are Set Aside for Covenant Worship (8–10)
In Leviticus 8 to 10, priests are set aside for covenant worship. Priests are mentioned many times in Exodus and Leviticus. Now I want to remind you that Aaron is the high priest, the chief priest, and his sons are to follow him. Aaron and his sons and indeed the whole tribe of Levi, one of the 12 tribes of Israel, are to be Israel’s high priests, priests, and priestly assistants. It is interesting to note as you read these passages all the different things that the priestly group did. Again some of them were handling animals. Some of them were setting up and taking down the sanctuary. Some of them were carrying animal entrails and blood if I may say though so away from the place. Some of them were teaching the word of God. Some of them were praying with the people. There were many, many roles.
And to begin this work, Moses ordains or sets aside priests, makes the priests holy setting them apart for the work of God according to chapter 8. And without delay Aaron and his sons begin completing their tasks. They offer sacrifices and lead worship according to chapter 9 and the Lord approves of what they do. In chapter 10 we find out how serious it is that people would do the work of the priest appropriately and according to God’s ways.
In chapter 10 Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, offer what the Bible calls unauthorized fire before the Lord contrary to what He commanded (10:1). Because of this error, fire comes out from the Lord and kills them. Moses tells his brother that this event proves the seriousness of God’s rules about priestly conduct. None of God’s commands is trivial or open to human innovation. The people who lead the covenant nation’s worship must have total respect for the Lord and the covenant He has made with Israel. It is extremely important that leaders understand the seriousness, the importance, the gravity of what they are doing. Whenever I lead a worship service I need to be aware of how important it is to do things God’s way. To do things with reverence and respect. To do things as He has set them forth in His word. It is not up to me to decide how we will run things. It is not up to me to innovate. It is up to me to be obedient.
Clean and Unclean (11–15)
The third section of Leviticus is Leviticus 11 to 15. With the priesthood, the sacrificial system, and the worship center in place Leviticus 11 to 15 discusses situations and conditions that make what is usually translated as ‘make a person unclean.’
What does unclean mean? Well, unfortunately we don’t have good English equivalence for our translation. There is no problem with the Hebrew texts it’s just that a matter that English doesn’t have the necessary words or at least not a single word. But unclean really means a variety of things. It can mean that it is inappropriate for someone to come to worship. So we read in the text that if someone is sick and contagious it is inappropriate for them to come to worship. Now of course we know that even today where we have fear of contagion and outbreak and flu and all sorts of things sometimes we simply have to isolate people who are ill. So sometimes unclean means it is inappropriate for the person to come.
Other times it means they are excused from participating in community life. Such persons are relieved of the responsibilities of participating depending on what the problem is. For instance, we read that a woman who has had a baby is not required to come to worship. She is not required to come for six weeks if she has a boy baby and 12 weeks if she has a girl baby. We know that it is safer for babies to be at home with their mothers and to be able to grow and to get stronger. And for the mother to recover from childbirth we know it’s important sometimes for smaller babies and oftentimes female babies are smaller, for them to be protected and nourished. And so we shouldn’t read in the Bible where it says a woman is unclean that they thought birth was dirty and that giving birth to a boy is dirty and giving birth to a girl was twice as dirty. What we need to realize is that unclean here means that the woman is not required to appear, which basically means she has a maternity leave.
There are other things that can make someone unclean: you can sin against God, you can reject the Lord, you can break the Sabbath, you could do all sorts of things and until you repented you were not to come into the sanctuary. So you were morally defiled. So just to review, unclean means inappropriate for a person to come due to illness or some other difficulty. They are excused from community life for a time because of their situation. Or, in fact, they are morally unclean, they are not right with God and have the wrong attitude and are not seeking forgiveness.
There are a lot of things in chapters 11 to 15 that puzzle us as about why something is unclean and why it is not. We are particularly aren’t sure as to why some animals are clean or unclean or why it is inappropriate for them to eat them. So there are several things that we are not quite sure about. But we can be sure God is protecting the community from epidemic, He is protecting them from exhaustion and infant mortality and He is trying to protect them from hypocrisy and moral corruption. This is what the text means by ‘unclean.’
Day of Atonement (16)
The fourth section of Leviticus is chapter 16 and this is one of the most interesting and important chapters in the Old Testament. We might put it this way: there is a nagging question remaining about the sacrificial system. Israel has the basic standards of the covenant, they have a place to worship and they have priests to lead that worship. Their sins are forgiven by a set of sacrifices and they know what specific circumstances make them unclean. But what if they fail to offer appropriate sacrifices when they sin? What if they are slack in their devotion to God? How can they renew their relationship with Him? The answer is in chapter 16.
Once a year Aaron must offer sacrifices to cleanse the priests, the tabernacle and the people (16:14-23). Let me repeat that: once a year, cleanse the priest, cleanse the tabernacle, and cleanse the people. Then God will forgive whatever sins have been committed during the previous year (16:21-22).
This Day of Atonement ceremony unfolds in four stages. First, as worshippers stand outside the tabernacle Aaron offers a sin offering for himself and his household. Second, he slaughters a goat as a sin offering for the people and remember that a sin offering is for specific sin. Third, he uses some of the blood from the bull and the goat to cleanse ceremonially the worship area. So so far he has cleansed the priests, himself, and the people and the worship area. Fourth, he places his hand on a live goat’s head and confesses the people’s sin. This act transfers the sins of the people to the goat. Then he has the animal taken far into the desert where it dies.
Let me read to you Leviticus 16:21 and following, the high point of this ceremony, “And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the inequities of the people of Israel and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them [that is the sins] on the head of the goat and send it away by the hand of a man in readiness. The goat shall bear all their inequities on itself to a remote area and he shall let the goat go free into the wilderness.”
The chapter goes on and says in verse 30, “For on that day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord for all your sins.” Atonement means that sin is covered. It is removed out of the sight of God and the people are forgiven. Regardless of the nature of their sins, God forgives the people.
This Day of Atonement has tremendous symbolic significance. Its comprehensive nature reveals God’s power and love. Furthermore, the priests rare entry into the holy of holies emphasizes Israel’s own commitment to the covenant. And finally the drama of the goat going into the wilderness provides an accurate picture of how God forgives sins, they go away from His sight, they are seen no more. Once covered the Lord acts as if all transgressions no longer exist. The God of the covenant offers full pardon, total forgiveness to the people of the covenant.
Later on in the New Testament in the book of Hebrews we read that God has sent Jesus Christ to be the sacrifice for our sins. And that His sacrifice is superior to this Day of Atonement. Why is it superior? Because the Day of Atonement, as wonderful as it was, was offered every year. The sacrifices that were offered for the sins, the burnt offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, they were continually offered throughout the year leading up to the Day of Atonement.
Jesus is superior in that all sins, once for all, are forgiven in His single comprehensive sacrifice for us. The people of Israel had a great forgiveness. God gave them sacrifices; He gave them the Day of Atonement. He gave them prayers, He gave them a place to worship, He gave them priests to help them worship, He gave them a great deliverance. He gave them marvelous miracles. And He gave them His word. Christ is greater not because those things were bad or weak or terrible. But because He is even better, He is God’s living word. He is God’s final sacrifice.
As great as all these things we have been studying are, as the Bible unfolds, it tells us Jesus Christ is even greater. As Paul puts it “If the glory of God that Moses saw in the wilderness and on the mountain when he met with God was too much for him to bear, how much greater is the full glory of God in Christ?” Christ is greater. These passages that we have just been mentioning Leviticus 16 and Leviticus 1 to 7 remind us that God has laid all of our sins, for all time, on Christ. That as great as what He is doing in the book of Leviticus it will be even greater when Christ comes.
Israel as a Holy People (17–27)
The last section of the book, Leviticus 17 to 27 emphasizes Israel as a holy people. God is not content to allow Israel simply to avoid sin. He tells the people how they can move towards moral excellence. And I want to just hit a few high points of this section.
In chapter 18, it’s personal holiness, especially as it relates to sexual purity, that is the topic. Now I just want to summarize a few things. Israel is to be a holy nation that is set apart, different. Different from what? Well, hear the words of 18:1-5, “The Lord spoke to Moses saying speak to the people of Israel and say to them I am Yahweh your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you lived and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan to which I am bring you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow My rules and keep My statutes and walk in them I am the Lord your God.”
So what He is trying to say is you know what happened in Egypt, you know the immorality that was there. And where you are going, to the land of Canaan, to the land that I am going to give to the people of Abraham just as I promised, they do all sorts of immorality there. They do the sort of things that God now warns Israel not to do.
What does He tell them not to do? In chapter 18, He tells them that they must not commit incest. We call that sexual abuse. You are not to use your children, your close relatives as sexual objects. Children and other family members are off limits sexually. Now, of course, we have an epidemic in the United States at least, of all sorts of child sexual abuse. That’s the way the Egyptians lived, that’s the way Canaanites lived, that’s not the way God’s people are to live.
He also mentions other sexual immorality. He talks about not committing bestiality, sexual acts with an animal. He speaks against homosexuality, that is sexual acts with someone of the same gender. And of course He also talks about adultery, the most common sexual sin of all. That is sexual relationships outside of your marriage, sexual relations with someone else’s spouse. And so, the Bible has this comprehensive approach to sexual sin and says that’s the way people who don’t know Yahweh live. You, however, are to be different, to be holy and to protect people from such sins.
In chapter 19, the key to obeying these commands are given to us. In 19:17, the text says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. But you shall reason frankly with your neighbor lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of you own people but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh.”
Eventually Jesus is going to say that love of God and love of neighbor are the key to all the Ten Commandments and all the commandments in the Scripture. And Moses is commanded to tell the people half of this truth right here, love your neighbor as yourself. You will not steal his goods, steal his wife, steal his reputation, etcetera, if you love your neighbor.
And as the passage goes on, the chapters go on, Moses tells the people not to engage in child sacrifice in chapter 20. No human sacrifice is to be done. In chapter 23 and following, he tells the people to keep certain feasts to the Lord. To use their time as a way of giving witness to other nations of what they believe about the Lord. In chapter 23 he reminds them to keep the Sabbath, one day a week for the Lord to show that He is important. To show that money, and commerce and the economy are not the most important things to the people of God.
They are also to keep the Passover. They are to remind themselves each year that God delivers them from bondage and from death and from sin. They are to gather for a Feast of First Fruits. This feast is to remind them that God is the Lord of nature. That He is the one who gives them what they need. They are to gather for the Feasts of Weeks and the Feasts of Trumpets to remind themselves that they are the people of God and that again He gives them the harvest. They are to observe the Day of Atonement that we have just been describing. And they are to gather as the people of God in the Feasts of Booths to remind themselves that they are the nation of the Lord.
In chapter 25, the Lord takes the principle of Sabbath of rest to a new level. He mentions a Sabbath year in which the people are to rest and they are to forgive debts and they are to use what has grown in the previous six years. In other words, the whole society will replenish itself, relationships will be restored, the land will be restored, and the people will have time for the Lord and one another. And they are to have a year of Jubilee, that is the fiftieth year; they are to have a year of release and liberty. The land is to lie fallow, debts are to be forgiven, the land is to return to its original owners. Servants are to be set free. In other words what God is saying the whole economy will get a rest, everything will be reset, families will be replenished, the land will be restored. The economy itself will be readjusted. God gives forgiveness and freedom to the people once a generation then.
Chapter 25 also reminds them to treat the poor kindly to make sure that the hired servant and the resident alien has his or her rights, to make certain that the rich are not favored over the poor. And in chapter 26, in a magnificent passage, the Lord tells the people that He will bless them beyond measure if they will obey Him and be His kingdom of priests, His holy nation in the land in this manner. If they will receive His word and believe it, if they will offer the sacrifices He has commanded they will receive forgiveness. If they will obey Him, He will bless them among all the nations so that the nations will see that the Lord reigns over all.
But if they disobey He will ask them to repent and come back to Him. If they continue to disobey He will discipline them through natural disasters, through failures in battle. And if they continue to persist in their rebellion, they will eventually lose the land and be driven from it until they realize that they have sinned against the Lord and come back to Him and He will restore them.
Leviticus 26 is foundational then to the rest of the Bible because this passage and as we will see in Deuteronomy 27 and 28 remind the people of the covenant what the Lord will do for them and His desire to bless them. But it also reminds them that if they sin against Him, worship other gods, turn aside from His standards, cease to give a witness to the nations about who He is, cease to treat one another with fairness and respect, He will bring disciplinary action against them until such time as they either come to their senses, turn back to Him, or He drives them from the land.
Well, at the end of the book of Leviticus we should be feeling pretty good about Israel’s prospects. Israel possesses a comprehensive statement about what God expects from them and they know what He has done for them. They know the basics of the covenant and they know its finer points. They have a place to worship, leaders to guide worship, and sacrifices that will cover their sin. They have standards that will aide them in living wisely in their relationship with God and one another, and they now have a national identity. They are Yahweh’s holy people set apart to bless the nations in the middle of the earth. This covenant relationship opens the way for them to have a new homeland if they will go to Canaan, possess the land God promised Abraham, and live for the Lord there, God will do great things for all nations because of them. It is all so very hopeful.
So to this point in the Bible we see the God who creates in Genesis, we see the God who delivers in Exodus, we see the God who is holy in Leviticus, we see God keeping His promises to Noah, His promises to Abraham, and now His promises to Israel through Moses. God has done great things. He has kept His promise to Abraham by giving him descendants and making them a great nation in the book of Genesis. And now He has given them a great covenant in Exodus and Leviticus. And what remains? Well, the land. What will God do to give the people the land? And that is our next part of our study.