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The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Study Bible that provides essential scholarship and guidance for Bible readers.

Leviticus - Introduction

The third book of the Torah or Pentateuch is chiefly concerned with the details of the worship of God at his sanctuary. Its English name, Leviticus, which characterizes the book as having to do with matters associated with priests, who are of the tribe of Levi, comes from the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures.

Leviticus is part of the Priestly writings of the Pentateuch. These writings are not from a single hand or tradition. The two main components of the Priestly source in Leviticus are the “Priestly Torah” and the materials from the “Holiness School,” which are largely found inchs 17–26 , the “Holiness Code,” or “Holiness Collection.” Material from the Holiness School is found interspersed occasionally inchs 1–16 and to a lesser or greater extent in chapters attributed to the Priestly source in the other books of the Torah. While many scholars have viewed the Holiness School materials as earlier than the Priestly Torah, recent work suggests that Holiness School material often supplements the Priestly Torah material, and therefore postdates it. Though the specific dates of these works are disputed, it is reasonable to assume that the Holiness Code was produced toward the end of the exile (538 BCE) or soon thereafter. The Priestly Torah must have existed before this, and may have been edited in the form taken up by the Holiness School in the early exile (after 586 BCE). These dates refer to the editing of these works; in part, they both incorporate earlier, preexilic traditions.

Inasmuch as Holiness School supplements Priestly Torah, it depends upon it and accepts its basic perspectives. But it is also innovative, especially in presenting rationalizations for matters such as sacrifice, holiness, the relationship of God to the people, and the relationship of God and the people to the land. It thus elaborates many issues that were present, but not explained in the Priestly Torah. The Holiness School updates the Priestly Torah, systematizes it further, and endows it with theological dynamism. (See further the Introduction to the book of Numbers.)

Leviticus has four main sections and displays a logical development.

  • (1) Sacrifice (chs 1–7 ). This is subdivided into (a) basic prescriptions ( 1.1–6.7 ) and (b) a recapitulation with elements pertinent to priests ( 6.8–7.38 ). This entire section interrupts the narrative flow between the end of the book of Exodus andLeviticus 8–9 in order to outline the customs that the priests and people are about to undertake at the sanctuary.

  • (2) The priestly consecration ceremony and its aftermath (chs 8–16 ). It has four subdivisions: (a) the seven‐day consecration and eighth‐day concluding ceremony (chs 8–9 ), which resumes the narrative at the end of the book of Exodus; (b) the sin of Aaron's sons and rules for priests (ch 10 ); (c) impurity laws (chs 11–15 ), which interrupt the narrative flow betweenchs 10 and 16 to provide background on impurity, the central concern of the ceremony inch 16 ; and (d) the Day of Atonement sanctuary purification ceremony (ch 16 ).

  • (3) The Holiness Code or Holiness Collection (chs 17–26 ). This has five subdivisions: (a) sacrificial law (ch 17 ), which follows from the subject ofch 16 ; (b) moral and ethical laws (chs 18–20 ); (c) priestly and sacrificial rules (chs 21–22 ); (d) holy occasions (chs 23–25; ch 24 interrupts this, giving miscellaneous ritual laws and resuming the narrative left off inchs 10 and 16 ); and (e) blessings and curses (ch 26 ; these conclude the Holiness Code).Chapters 17–26 roughly follow the outline ofchs 1–16 : sacrifice (chs 1–7; 17 ), priestly duties (chs 8–9; 21–22 ), and holy occasions (chs 16; 23; 25 ).

  • (4) An appendix dealing with vows and dedications (ch 27 ).

Leviticus is difficult to understand and appreciate since it is technical and presumes knowledge of its ritual system almost at every turn. As the outline above indicates, although there is a narrative that runs through it, this is meager. Most of the book consists of blocks of laws. A first reading might include exemplary chapters:chs 16–17 on sacrifice,ch 8 on the priesthood,chs 11–12 on impurity,ch 23 on festivals,ch 25 on economic laws, andch 19 on ethical concerns. From here, a reader can go on to focus on a particular topic or group of laws, as indicated in the outline. A careful and concentrated exploration of a chapter or group of related chapters, which tries to discover the system inherent in it, can provide the reader with knowledge and a sense of how to read the material that will then elucidate almost any other chapter of Leviticus, as well as similar chapters in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

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