III. Content and Structure

III. Content and Structure

Leviticus is part of the material Yahweh revealed to Moses at Sinai concerning the establishment of the cult as the official place of worship. Thus it fits into the broader corpus of Ex 25:1-Nu 10:10. Nevertheless, in the Canon Leviticus has been set apart as its own book. It has a formal heading in 1:1-2. This heading does triple duty. It introduces the whole book as well as the sacrificial legislation (chs. 1-7) and the first unit (chs. 1-3). This heading ties specifically into Ex 40, for Moses hears Yahweh speaking from the Tent of Meeting, which has just been set up and filled with Yahweh's glory (Ex 40:16-38). The end of the book is marked by a summary formula at 26:46, which concludes the last section and the book as a whole and possibly chs. 17-26. With the inclusion of ch. 27, a final summary statement came at v. 34.

The material in Leviticus has been assembled around topics: sacrificial regulations (chs. 1-7), putting the sanctuary into operation (chs. 8-10), laws on ritual purity (chs. 11-15), laws on holy living (chs. 17-26). At the center of the collection is the regulation for the Day of Atonement (ch. 16). The Day of Atonement removed the people's sins and cleansed the sanctuary. This day ensured that an atoned-for people could continue to worship Yahweh at a newly cleansed sanctuary.

Another important part of the structure of Leviticus is the blessings and curses in ch. 26. Blessings and curses are an integral part of the covenant. In this light, in addition to being the conclusion to Leviticus, ch. 26 stands as part of the larger complex from Ex 25:1-Lev 26:46. This genre clearly informs us that all of Leviticus is to be understood as having its authority and meaning within the context of the Sinaic covenant.

The content of Leviticus is almost entirely laws from God concerning sacrifices, worship, and holy living. The book has only four narrative passages: the ordination of Aaron and his sons and the offering of the first sacrifices (chs. 8-9), the punishment of Nadab and Abihu (10:1-7), the ritual error of Eleazar and Ithamar (10:16-20), and the punishment of a blasphemer (24:10-16, 23). God had called Israel to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (at Mount Sinai, Ex 19:6), and the punishment of a blasphemer (24:10-16, 23). God had called Israel to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (at Mount Sinai, Ex 19:6). Leviticus presents laws for sacrifice and worship by which a sinful people might approach the holy God and find forgiveness in order to become a holy people. These laws are for the laity who are to take an active part in the various rituals. In neighboring societies official religious activity was relegated to the priests, who developed such highly technical rituals that they alone were able to participate in the cultus. But the delivery of God's regulations to all of Israel about sacrifice and worship effectively halted tendencies toward an elite and autocratic priesthood.

Chs. 17-26 contain laws for holy living. Central to the regulations in this section is the command from God, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (19:2). Israel is to live according to the revealed character of God (cf. Mt 5:48). A holy life is expressed in generosity, mercy, and love toward others. The people are to love their neighbors as themselves (19:18). And they are to love the foreigner who lives among them (v. 34). The seeds are sown here to reach the high standard that Jesus set forth to love one's enemies (Mt 5:44). The people are to show mercy to the poor by not stripping their fields and by allowing the poor to glean there (19:9-10). In concern for others, landowners are to pay their hired workers speedily (v. 13). A life of love is built on the plank of justice. Merchants are to have just weights and measures (vv. 35-36). The people are to decide matters of dispute justly without deference to the rich or the poor (v. 15). The union of justice and love leads to fidelity in sexual relationships. This rules out adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality (chs. 18, 20).

To facilitate holy living, God sets aside days and seasons for worship (chs. 23, 25). These times of worship are for the people to commune with their God. By being in his presence, God sanctifies them, making their hearts holy. Worship is a transforming experience. Sanctification also takes place in obeying the laws God has given. Israel is to be a holy people. The people reach this goal by conforming to both the cultic and the moral law. The practice of fidelity in both spheres contributes to the development of personal integrity. These two ways of responding to God should not be separated as we moderns tend to do.