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Old Testament | Leviticus | Summary

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Summary

The ending of Exodus leaves the reader with the impression that the Israelites are about to depart from Mount Sinai and continue their journey toward Canaan. But no such narrative action takes place in the subsequent book of Leviticus. Leviticus consists almost entirely of instructions and regulations concerning religious practices and other matters that Yahweh relates to Moses at the tabernacle.

  • Chapters 1–7 give detailed instructions concerning the types of sacrificial offerings that can be presented to Yahweh at the tabernacle: burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, purification offerings to atone for sins, and guilt offerings for other kinds of violations.
  • Chapters 8–10 describe the consecration of the tabernacle and the formal installation of Aaron and his sons as its high priests, during which Yahweh incinerates two of Aaron's sons for offering "strange fire."
  • Chapters 11–15 cover regulations about purity, including what the Israelites may eat and how they should handle situations such as death, childbirth, genital discharges, and skin diseases.
  • Chapter 16 details Yahweh's instructions concerning an annual purification ceremony for the whole nation of Israel, called the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur.
  • Chapters 17–26 present a group of laws conventionally referred to as the Holiness Code because of statements such as Leviticus 19:2: "You shall be holy, for I Yahweh your God am holy."
  • Chapter 27 provides a final set of instructions on dedicating various things to Yahweh.

Analysis

Leviticus focuses on several areas: the sacrificial system, regulations for all aspects of life, and issues of purity and impurity. The system of sacrificial offerings to Yahweh, orchestrated by the priests in the lineage of Aaron, is to be of central importance to the religious life of all Israelites. Israelites must also pay constant attention to their status of ritual purity or impurity, because the latter precludes any participation in the sacrificial cult. The Documentary Hypothesis assigns most of Leviticus to the Priestly source, and these themes represent some of its most striking features.

The regulations restricting which foods are considered clean, or kosher, and unclean in Leviticus 11 have long been a topic of discussion. While various practical explanations have been sought for the prohibited foods—considering pork unhealthy or disease-prone, for example—none are convincing. Leviticus itself offers no rationale for these regulations other than divine mandate and the idea that these foods defile the body of the one who eats them. Though expanded and clarified by much later Jewish tradition, Leviticus is part of the foundation for the dietary system that continues to govern Jewish practice to this day.
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