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Leviticus, Theology of

Leviticus, Theology of

Leviticus is one of the most intensely theological books of the Old Testament. It contains the core of the priestly ritual material of the Pentateuch and, in fact, the entire Old Testament. The regulations are often quite specific and detailed, being tied to the very fabric of personal and communal life in ancient Israel, but always from a markedly priestly point of view. The laws in this book carry deep theological impact for the Old Testament as well for the New Testament (e.g., holiness, purity, sacrificial atonement, forgiveness, etc.), but the most important theological issue from the point of view of the historical situation is the "presence" of God in the midst of Israel.

In the final chapter of Exodus, Moses sets up and prepares the tabernacle for the Lord (40:1-33), leading directly to his habitation there in the form of the "cloud" of his "glory" that had fire in it by night. A second and somewhat expanded description of the cloud and its function in leading Israel through the wilderness appears in Numbers 9:15-23. These two descriptions of the glory cloud and fire form an envelope around the tabernacle-related legislation in Leviticus 1:1-Numbers 9:14.

The literary and theological significance of this structure is threefold. First, the only mention of the appearance of the "glory" of the Lord to the people between Exodus 40 and Numbers 9 is Leviticus 9:23 (cf. v. 6). In that context, "the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people, " and "fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar" ( Lev 9:23-24 ). Second, the only place where the "cloud" of the glory of the Lord appears between Exodus 40 and Numbers 9 is in Leviticus 16:2, where the Lord explains, "I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover." Third, the death of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-2 occurred sometime during the same day when the Lord manifested his glory to all the people as recorded in Leviticus 9 (see esp. vv. 1, 23-24), but before the expected eating of the sacrificial meat of the sin offering by the priests on that same day (cf. 10:16-19 ; with 9:15 ). Just as fire had come out from the "presence" of the Lord and consumed the altar offerings in 9:23-24, a few verses later "fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord" ( 10:2 ). Moreover, 16:1-2 refers back to 10:1-2 as the context and basis for the careful regulation of the Day of Atonement.

Thus, the deaths of Nadab and Abihu provided an opportunity for the Lord to state the basic principles underlying priestly theology and, therefore, summarize the primary theological concerns of the Book of Leviticus. All of these concerns reflect primarily on the fact that the Lord was dwelling in the midst of Israel. He was "present" there in the tabernacle, manifesting his glory in cloud and fire.

The Threefold Theological Core of Leviticus. In 10:3 Moses explains the Lord's action against Nadab and Abihu: "This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.'" There are two categories of people referred to here: "those who approach" the Lord (i.e., the priests) and "all the people." In one way or another, the Lord will show his glory so that he is honored as holy among the people. In this instance, he accomplished that goal by striking out against Aaron's two sons who had not paid due attention to the requirements of holiness as they approached and "offered [lit. brought near'] unauthorized fire before the Lord" ( 10:1 ).

The Lord emphasized the important lesson to be learned from this incident when he spoke directly to Aaron (not Moses) in 10:9-11 and instructed him and his sons to: (1) avoid "strong drink" when approaching the Lord lest they die in his presence (v. 9; the point seems to be that this might cloud their minds and cause a similar disaster); (2) "distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean" (v. 10); and (3) "teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses" (v. 11). To understand the theology of the Book of Leviticus requires a clear grasp of two polarities (i.e., holy versus common and unclean versus clean) plus the concept of atonement, which Moses highlighted when he spoke to Aaron: "Why didn't you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area? It is most holy; it was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the Lord" (v. 17).

First, "holy" versus "common" (v. 10a) is concerned with the status of a person, place, or thing. Second, "clean" versus "unclean" (v. 10b) is a matter of their condition, whatever their status might be. Third, "atonement" (v. 17) is the primary focus of many of the sacrificial procedures for dealing with violations of boundaries or with transitions between the categories of holy and common or clean and unclean. With regard to "clean" versus "unclean, " the making of atonement was required for "cleansing" irregular or severe uncleanness (with e.g., 12:6-8 ; [the woman after childbirth] 14:18-20 ; [the leper], and Leviticus 15:13-15 Leviticus 15:25-30 ; [irregular discharges from male and female genitalia] ). With regard to "holy" versus "common, " atonement was required in "consecration" procedures for sanctifying persons, places, or things to make them "holy" (e.g., Leviticus 8:15 Leviticus 8:34 , the tabernacle and the priests ).

The Internal Theological Structure of Leviticus. Leviticus divides naturally into two major sections, chapters 1-16 and 17-27. On the one hand, chapters 1-16 deal primarily with consecrating and cleansing the tabernacle itself. On the other hand, while chapters 17-27 continue to show concern for the holiness and purity of the tabernacle, the focus broadens to encompass the whole land and the people at large. One might say that the shift is from tabernacle holiness and purity to national holiness and purity.

This distinction between the world of the tabernacle and the everyday national life of common Israelites should not, however, lead one to conclude that the two were not connected. On the contrary, when the Israelites first arrived at Sinai one of the main features of the Lord's proposal of covenant in Exodus 19:3-6 was that Israel would become "a kingdom of priests" (v. 6). They were consecrated as such in the ritual of Exodus 24:3-8. In relation to the Book of Leviticus, the national priesthood of all the people corresponds to the need for national holiness and purity as emphasized in chapters 17-27. The family of Aaronic priests, however, had charge of the tabernacle and, therefore, the responsibility to make sure that neither they nor the people (individually or as a whole) violated the holiness and purity of the tabernacle emphasized in chapters 1-16.

A careful theological analysis of the Book of Leviticus will relate the categories of holiness and purity (i.e., holy and common versus unclean and clean) to both the tabernacle itself and the nation as a whole. Atonement applies to both and, in fact, is especially emphasized at the point of transition in the book (i.e., chap. 16, the Day of Atonement), thus once again focusing on the primary concern for the presence of God in the tabernacle. The internal theological structure of the book, therefore, features these three main topics: atonement, tabernacle holiness and purity, and national holiness and purity.

Atonement. Although structurally chapter 16 is the conclusion to the first major section of the book, it also functions as the theological center of the book and binds the two halves together. On the Day of Atonement the holiness and purity of both the tabernacle and the nation were in view. There were actually five offerings on that day: the two blood atonement sin offerings for the priests and the people (vv. 3, 5, and esp. vv. 11-19), the single scapegoat sin offering for the whole congregation (including the priests and the people, vv. 20-22), and the two burnt offerings for the priests and the people (vv. 23-24). All of these offerings are specifically said to have "made atonement."

The "sin offering" blood atonement rituals for the priests and for the people cleansed and (re)consecrated the tabernacle from their impurities (vv. 11-19). The "scapegoat" ritual, which was a different kind of "sin offering" (vv. 5, 7-10, 20-22), also made a kind of atonement (v. 10). But in this case the atonement facilitated the removal of all the iniquities of all the people of the nation by sending them away from the tabernacle and the nation on the head of the goat into the wilderness (vv. 20-22).

Therefore, the sin offering rituals on the Day of Atonement cleansed not only the tabernacle (vv. 32-33, referring to the blood rituals in vv. 11-19) but also all the people (vv. 29-31, referring to the scapegoat ritual in vv. 20-22). The "burnt offering" blood atonement rituals that followed after the sin offerings on the Day of Atonement apparently functioned on a different level (vv. 23-24). It will be recalled that according to verse 19 the sin offering blood both "cleansed" the altar and "consecrated" it. Apparently, it was the scapegoat ritual that "cleansed" the people, but it was the subsequent burnt offerings that "consecrated" them. The focus shifts from the tabernacle to the people. This shift corresponds to the distinction between tabernacle (chaps. 1-16) and national (chaps. 17-27) holiness and purification discussed above. The sin offering blood atonement procedures purified and consecrated (i.e., made holy) the tabernacle altar. The combined scapegoat and burnt offering atonement procedures purified and consecrated the people.

Tabernacle Holiness and Purity. The tabernacle holiness and purity regulations in Leviticus 1-16 fall into two main subsections, chapters 1-7 and 8-16. The first gives detailed regulations for the basic sacrificial procedures. In light of the reference to the "ordination offering" in 7:37 it seems that these descriptive ritual texts were placed at the beginning of the book as background to the narratives of "ordination" and "inauguration" of the tabernacle and priesthood in chapters 8 and 9.

The second main subsection is chapters 8-16. It begins in 8:1-2 with the Lord's command to Moses that he consecrate the tabernacle and priesthood. Chapter 9 is the inauguration of the tabernacle, which ends with the fire from the Lord consuming the sacrifices (vv. 22-24) as well as Nadab and Abihu ( 10:1-2 ). Chapter 16 returns to the Nadab and Abihu incident (vv. 1-2) as the basis for the annual Day of Atonement, the purpose of which was to purify, consecrate, and inaugurate the tabernacle, priesthood, and congregation for the next year.

We cannot deal with the details here, but chapters 11-15 represent a hiatus in the progress of the narrative. It is a coherent unit of regulations focusing almost exclusively on the problem of purity (i.e., "unclean and clean" 10:10b ) and its importance for the community, especially the tabernacle presence of God ( 15:31 , "You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them").

In the ancient Near Eastern world it was common for people to struggle with the fear of unseen supernatural malefic forces (e.g., witchcraft, demons, vitriolic gods, etc.) that might break out against them in the form of disease or other misfortunes in life, especially if a person should violate some sort of taboo. The Old Testament gives no credence to such fears. Instead, the only real danger is that the people of Israel might defile the sanctuary of God so that he himself might break out against them (cf. e.g., 10:1-2 ) or abandon the sanctuary altogether. Leviticus 15:31 emphasizes this point.

The emphasis on physical purity and impurity has troubled many readers of the Old Testament. It helps to recognize that, in the Old Testament, God made himself actually, personally, physically "present" with Israel by inhabiting the tabernacle. This place of physical presence was precisely the focus of the priestly worldview and theology with which the Book of Leviticus is so closely identified. The physical purity laws correspond to the physical "presence" of the Lord in the tabernacle.

National Holiness and Purity. The structure and thematic development of chapters 17-27 (the second major section of the book) is more difficult to discern than that of chapters 1-16. The relationship between these two sections of the book is likewise complicated. In general, it is not so much a matter of a change in topic as it is a shift in perspective. Chapters 17-27 offer another look at everything from the larger perspective of the community and nation as a whole. For example, although these chapters still make reference to the holy offerings, here they are viewed from the perspective of how the priests, their families, and the rest of the people of Israel should handle the offerings at communal feasts (chap. 22), or the relationship between that which has been consecrated as holy and the community at large (chap. 27).

From the perspective of purity, the clean and unclean animal laws that upheld the "wall of partition" between Jews and Gentiles in New Testament days actually provide one of the primary links between these two major sections of Leviticus and their theological emphases. According to 20:25-26, "You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds Those which I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own." There are absolutely no clean and unclean animal laws in chapters 17-20. Instead, 20:25-26 assumes chapter 11 and, therefore, uses the clean and unclean animal laws to link 1-16 and 17-27 together in spite of the obvious separation and differences between them.

From the perspective of holiness, both chapters 11 and 20 connect the clean and unclean animal laws with the "holiness formula" (e.g., "be holy because I am holy, 11:45 ), but they make the connection in two different ways. Chapter 11 focuses simply on the matter of physical contact with unclean animals (vv. 44-45). But in the context of chapter 20 the expression "You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy" refers to the intended effect clean and unclean animal laws should have on setting Israel "apart from the nations" roundabout them. It should be recalled that this setting apart of Israel from the other nations was God's intention from the very start of their national existence as "a kingdom of priests, a holy nation."

There is an obvious linguistic connection between the "holiness formula" just mentioned and the "I am the Lord (your God)" formula, which occurs frequently in chapters 18-26. Both formulas begin with "I am" and 20:7 mixes the two together: "Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. " In its various contexts this "I am the Lord (your God)" formula emphasizes the importance of exclusive worship and obedience to Yahweh because he is truly the Lord.

Israel was to have no other gods: The Lord alone was their God. This, in fact, would also have the effect of distinguishing Israel from the other nations, who worshiped and served other gods. One legitimate way of looking at the "Holiness Code" is, therefore, to view it from the perspective of the summary in 26:1-2, "Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the Lord your God. Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord." There are three categories of concern here: (1) national fidelity to the Lord (i.e., no idolatry and distinctively pure and holy community life), (2) national sanctuary and sancta reverence, and (3) national Sabbath observance. Overall, therefore, the theology of the Book of Leviticus focuses on the presence of God in the tabernacle, but that presence was to effect everyone and everything in ancient Israel.

Richard E. Averbeck

See also Atonement; Offerings and Sacrifices; Priest, Priesthood; Tabernacle; Temple

Bibliography. P. J. Budd, The World of Ancient Israel, pp. 275-98; W. W. Hallo, The Book of the People; J. E. Hartley, Leviticus; P. P. Jenson, Graded Holiness: A Key to the Priestly Conception of the World; I. Knohl, The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School; B. A. Levine, Leviticus; J. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16; idem, Numbers; H. T. C. Sun, ABD, 3:254-57; G. J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus; D. P. Wright, The Disposal of Impurity.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Leviticus, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.