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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

Leviticus - Introduction

Leviticus is a collection of laws related to worship, priests, sacrifices, and holiness. The title, “Leviticus,” derives from the Greek and Latin titles for the book meaning “the book of the Levites.” The Levites themselves, a tribe of priests within ancient Israel, are mentioned only once in Leviticus ( 25.32–34 ). However, some biblical traditions trace the ancestry of the high priest Aaron to the tribe of Levi (Ex 6.16–20 ), and Aaron is the focus of many laws in Leviticus. The book underscores the holiness of Israel's God and the need for the priests and people of Israel to reflect that holiness in all aspects of their lives. The LORD repeatedly commands the people of Israel, “Be holy, for I am holy” ( 11.44–45; 19.2; 20.26 ).

Leviticus consists almost entirely of laws and commands with only two brief narrative * sections, 10.1–7 and 24.10–16 . The book presents its many laws and instructions as divine commands mediated through Moses and Aaron at Mount Sinai during Israel's wilderness journey from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan ( 27.34 ). However, many scholars agree that these laws actually arose later in Israel's history, from the late pre-exilic period (perhaps seventh century BCE) to the Persian period (fifth century BCE). The laws in Leviticus were probably collected over time in at least two major stages, with the earlier material gathered in chs. 1–16 and the later material concentrated in chs. 17–27 . These two editorial stages display two different perspectives on matters of holiness. The earlier material in chs. 1–16 restricted its concern for holiness to the tabernacle * or worship sanctuary, which was the seat of the divine presence in the midst of Israel in the wilderness. This earlier stage of the laws of Leviticus also viewed holiness as a concern primarily of the priests and not the whole people of Israel. In contrast, the later material in Leviticus (especially chs. 17–27 ) expands its concern for holiness to the land of Israel and to all the people, not just the priests ( 18.26; 22.32 ).

Leviticus contains many earlier traditions, but its final form probably emerged in the post-exilic period. In the midst of this crisis and transition in its national life, Leviticus helped Israel recover its distinctive identity and mission. Israel was to be a holy community centered in the worship of the LORD who dwelled in its midst. The Exile involved the end of monarchy, the destruction of the Temple, and the need to rebuild the structure of the community. The priestly manual of Leviticus provided one important resource in the reconstitution of Israel's life and identity as a nation and as the people of God.

The place of Leviticus within the Pentateuch * (the first five books of the Bible) provides an important clue to understanding its laws. The book of Exodus precedes Leviticus and includes an elaborate set of instructions for building the mobile tent of worship or the sanctuary called the tabernacle (chs. 25–31 ). The tabernacle contains the ark of the covenant, * an elaborate box, over which God appears in the midst of Israel. In spite of Israel's grave sin of idolatry * in worshipping the golden calf (Ex 32.1–35 ), God mercifully allows the Israelites to build the tabernacle (Ex 34.10–40.38 ). The laws of Leviticus provide guidelines for the conduct of worship and sacrifices connected with this newly constructed tabernacle. The laws also establish boundaries of holiness, order, and purity to preserve the life and well-being of Israel. The observance of these boundaries of holiness and purity ensures that God's holy presence among this sinful people will be not a threat but a blessing as Israel continues its wilderness journey toward the land of Canaan (Numbers—Deuteronomy).

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