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Leviticus—God’s Pattern for Worship
Another foundational book by Moses, Leviticus gets its name from the Greek word, Leutikom, which means “that which pertains to the priests”—the title given the book in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). Although it touches on various subjects, this book was written primarily to establish the new system of worship YHWH intended for His people. It prescribed the sacrifices acceptable to God, described the initiation of the priests and explained how the people were to rely on them for guidance in worship, judicial matters, hygiene, etc.
Leviticus Chapter 1
Once Moses had erected the tabernacle and God took residence there (Exodus 40:17 & 34), the prophet no longer had to go up to the mountain to meet with YHWH—which was good, considering what a mess the Israelites had made of themselves previously when he was absent from them for so long (Ex. 32). According to Leviticus 1:1, “Now the LORD called to Moses, and spoke to him from the tabernacle of meeting…” and from then on gave Him all His instructions pertaining to Israel at the mobile worship center.
The first seven chapters of Leviticus deal with the various types of sacrifices to be brought to the new tabernacle by the people. The first of these dealt with in Leviticus 1 was the burnt offering. This consisted of a perfect bull, ram or male goat, two doves or two pigeons, which would be killed and completely consumed by fire on the altar.
A worshiper would bring one of the larger animals to the priest and lay his/her hands on the beast to symbolically transfer his/her sin to it. Then the priest would sacrifice the animal, pour out its blood around the altar, skin it, cut it up, rinse the legs and internal organs, and then arrange the pieces on the wood of the altar. The smoke from the animal would rise to YHWH as “a sweet aroma to the LORD” (vv. 2-13).
If the worshiper was not able to afford an animal from the flock or herd, a turtledove or young pigeon was acceptable, as well. One of these victims would have its head wrung off, and its blood would be drained out at the side of the altar. The feathers and crop were discarded; the bird was pulled apart at the wings slightly and then laid on the fire to be burned (14-17).
Leviticus Chapter 2
The next type of offering by fire was the grain offering. This consisted of anything made of fine flour—including bread, crackers, pancakes, roasted grain or raw flour. In any case, the burnt offering could not contain any honey or leavening, and it was always offered with oil, frankincense and salt. The priest would burn a portion of it with all the oil and frankincense, and then he would get to keep the rest for himself. (Leviticus 2:1-15)
Leviticus Chapter 3
Unlike the burnt offering, the peace offering could be either a male or female from a person’s flock or herd. The victim again had to be spotless. It would receive the worshiper’s sin and be sacrificed much in the same way as an animal for a burnt offering would be. Only, in this case, just the fatty portions and internal organs of the cow, sheep or goat would be burned up (Lev. 3:1-16).
God insisted that He was to get the fatty parts of every sacrificial animal, and its blood was to be drained out at the altar. Under no circumstances were Hebrews to consume any fat or blood (v. 17). As we now know from contemporary medical knowledge, this was probably for the Israelites’ own health and well-being.
Leviticus Chapter 4
The next offering was meant to take care of unintentional sins. If the priest or the entire congregation of Israel did something wrong without realizing it, as soon as the sin was revealed to them, they were obligated to bring a spotless young bull as a sacrifice to atone for their sin (Lev. 4:1-3 & 13-14).
As any rancher can tell you, a bull is an expensive sacrifice. Not only was the worshiper giving up the animal itself, but also all of its potential offspring. Why would God ask this? Because he wanted people to see how costly it was for them to sin—the priest or a large group wasn’t just bringing guilt on themselves, but on the entire population of Israel. Such a big offense required a big sacrifice to make it right.
As with the aforementioned sacrifices, the priest or the elders of the community placed his/their hands on the head of the bull to symbolically transfer their guilt to the animal, and then the animal would be slaughtered in front of the tabernacle (vv. 4 & 15). The priest would carry some of the blood into the tabernacle, dip his finger into it, and fling it seven times in front of the veil between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (5-6 & 16-17). The horns of the incense altar would also receive a smearing of blood before the rest was taken outside and dumped around the base of the bronze altar (7 & 18). As with the peace offering, the priest would burn the fat portions of the animal on the altar of sacrifice (8-10 & 19-20). The hide and all the rest would be taken outside the camp and burned (11-12 & 21).
If the unintentional sin was committed by a single leader, his sacrifice would be a spotless young male goat (22-23). Because his sin did not affect the entire nation, the blood of this sacrifice was smeared only on the horns of the bronze altar and poured out at its base, rather than being taken inside the tabernacle (25). In all other respects it was the same procedure used for the priest or a national sin (24 & 26).
A commoner who sinned unintentionally was allowed to sacrifice a female kid or lamb, and the procedure was the same as for a single leader (27-35). Once these steps were taken, the offender was forgiven of his/her accidental sin.
- When someone neglected to do something they should have—such as testifying at a trial when they were witness to a crime (Lev. 5:1)
- They became ceremonially unclean by touching a dead person or thing, a discharge or an unclean animal (vv. 2-3)
- If a person spoke hastily and didn’t follow through on a vow (4).
In either case, as soon as they realized they had messed up, the person was obligated to confess and then bring a kid or a lamb to atone for his sin in the same way described for the unintentional sin (5-6). If he/she was too poor to afford an animal from the flock, two turtledoves or two young pigeons could be substituted, instead. The first would be sacrificed for his/her sin; the second would be given as a burnt offering (7-10). If even this was too much for the penitent, then he/she could bring a measure of fine flour without oil or frankincense (11). The priest would burn a portion on the altar to obtain the sinner’s forgiveness, while the rest the priest was allowed to keep (12-13).
If someone unintentionally messed with something God considered holy, then the person had to offer a ram and make restitution for whatever harm he/she had done by paying the value of what was spoiled, plus one-fifth (14-16). Even if they weren’t aware of some trespass, a person was guilty until the proper sacrifice was made (17-19).
Leviticus Chapter 6
If a person lied to or defrauded a neighbor, then he was first obligated to restore what was owed to the victim, plus one-fifth its value (Lev. 6:1-5). Once that was taken care of, he was obligated to set things right with God by bringing a ram as a trespass offering (vv. 6-7).
Each morning, after the previous day’s burnt offering was completely consumed, the priest was required to remove the ashes from the altar, wearing his linen garments [apparently minus the splendid ephod and breastplate] (8-10). Then he was to put on civilian clothing and dump the ashes in some clean place outside the camp (11). At no time were the priests to allow the fire on the altar to go out (12-13). It would be interesting to see how this was accomplished with a perpetual flame burning!
Next, the Lord addressed the priest’s portion of the grain offerings brought to the tabernacle. Once the memorial portion for YHWH was removed, the rest of the flour was the priest’s to enjoy. Aaron and his sons could eat it as unleavened bread in the court of the tabernacle of meeting. Any male descendant of Aaron could enjoy it, as well—provided they were holy (14-18). When each generation of priests was consecrated, however, the grain offering made during their week of dedication was to be completely consumed by fire (19-23).
The priest who made a sacrifice for a person’s sin was obligated to eat part of the flesh of the animal that was offered (24-26). Anyone who touched the meat was required to be holy, and any garment stained with blood had to be washed in a holy place. (27). A clay pot used for cooking the sin offering had to be destroyed afterward, while a metal pot had to be scoured and rinsed clean (28). Any male of the priestly line was allowed to eat the meat of a sin offering—unless the blood had been sprinkled inside the tabernacle. In that case, it all had to be burned up (29-30).
Leviticus Chapter 7
Likewise, once the blood and fat of a trespass offering were removed, the men of the priestly line were allowed to cook and eat the meat (Lev. 7:1-7). The priest who prepared a person’s burnt offering was allowed to have the animal’s hide (8). And the priest who made a grain offering for someone—whether cooked or baked—was entitled to enjoy what was left after the Lord’s portion was burned (9). But flour was to be shared among all the priests (10).
If a person brought a peace offering in thanksgiving to God, it was to be offered with some form of unleavened bread as well as leavened bread (11-13). The priest who made the offering would receive a portion of each of these (14). The worshiper was then able to eat the meat and the rest of the bread not offered to God that day; none was to be consumed the day after (15).
If the peace offering was to fulfill a vow or was a voluntary offering, it could be eaten for two days and then burned up by the third (16-17). Anyone eating the meat on day three had pretty much wasted his/her sacrifice, because they violated God’s law and incurred guilt on themselves (18). This was probably a health and safety precaution encoded into the Levitical law. Similarly, if a piece of meat touched something unclean, it couldn’t be eaten, but had to be burned (19). Anyone eating the meat of a sacrifice while he/she was unclean would be “cut off from his people” (20-21).
Again, God told Moses no one was allowed to eat fat from any animal (22-23). [Sorry, Grandma, those lard pies are a big no-no!] An animal attacked in the field or dying of old age could have its fat used as a lubricant or something of that nature, but it could not be eaten (24). Anyone eating fat or blood would be cut off (25-27).
The priests who sacrificed peace offerings got the best cuts of meat from the animals—the breast (rib) and the right thigh (loin) (28-36). The Lord took good care of these guys who went to all the trouble to perform the bloody, smoky job of performing the rituals required to keep everyone right with God!
Leviticus Chapter 8
Following the Lord’s instructions from Exodus 29, Moses called the entire congregation of Israel together to witness the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests (Leviticus 8:1-5). Then Moses bathed the five men and clothed Aaron with the priestly regalia (vv. 6-9). He applied the fragrant anointing oil first to the tent and all its contents and accessories, and then he poured some on Aaron’s head to consecrate him (10-12).
Once Aaron’s sons were clothed, then Moses had the five men lay their hands on the bull for the sin offering to transfer their guilt to it (13-14). Then he killed the animal and spread some of its blood on the horns of the altar and around its base to atone for it (15). He burned the fat parts on the altar and disposed of the rest outside the camp, as God had instructed (16-17).
Moses took the ram for the burnt offering, sprinkled its blood on the altar and then burned it thereon (18-21). From the second ram he killed, Moses applied some of the blood to the right earlobes, thumbs and big toes of Aaron and his sons, then sprinkled the rest on the altar (22-24). J. Vernon McGee’s Through the Bible commentary suggests this ritual was performed to consecrate their ears to hear God, their hands to serve Him and their feet to walk with Him. Why the Lord only had Moses anoint the right side of their bodies, however, I don’t know.
The fat from the ordination ram and a sampling of each kind of bread was waved by Aaron and then placed on the fire to be burned with the ram’s right thigh (25-28). Then Moses took the breast, which God had designated as his part, and waved it, but did not burn it up—it was for him to cook and eat (29). Moses mixed some more anointing oil with some of the blood from the altar, and sprinkled the garments of Aaron and his sons to dedicate them (30). Hopefully, they were able to get the stains out later; otherwise the beautiful linen costumes would have been ruined!
The men were then instructed to eat the remaining flesh of the ram of ordination near the door of the tabernacle, along with the rest of the bread (31). Whatever they couldn’t finish was to be burned up (32). For seven days, this process was repeated, and the men were not allowed to leave the courtyard of the tabernacle, until the period of their consecration was ended (33-36).
Leviticus Chapter 9
On the eighth day, Aaron and his sons were allowed to make their first offerings in behalf of the children of Israel. Aaron was instructed to take “a young bull as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering” (Lev. 9:1-2). The elders were to bring in behalf of the Israelites a kid as a sin offering, a yearling calf and lamb as burnt offerings, a bull and a ram as peace offerings, plus a grain offering mixed with oil (vv. 3-4).
Once everything was present, Aaron first offered his animals, applying their blood to the altar and burning their flesh as prescribed (5-14). Then he sacrificed the animals for the people (15-21). Aaron blessed the people after making their offerings, and then he and Moses went into the tabernacle (22-23). When they came out, they blessed the people again.
Then God made a glorious appearance, sending forth fire to consume everything that was on the altar (23-24). Everyone present shouted in surprise and awe, and then they fell on their faces in worship!
Leviticus Chapter 10
We are not given any kind of timetable, but sometime thereafter, Aaron’s two oldest sons were serving at the tabernacle. Ignoring God’s edict from Exodus 30:9 regarding the authorized use of the incense altar, the young men decided to experiment: “Then Nadab and Abihu…each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD…” (Lev. 10:1). In keeping with His warning against this sort of thing, “…fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died…” on the spot (v. 2)!
Before Aaron could object, Moses quoted YHWH as saying:
“By those who come near Me
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified” (3).
With only three men, now, to service millions, they could not afford for Aaron and his surviving sons to defile themselves by handling the bodies of Nadab and Abihu, so Moses called two of Aaron’s cousins to carry them away (4-5). The father and brothers of the dead were not allowed to uncover their heads, tear their garments or perform any of the usual rites of mourning; instead, Moses said the rest of Israel would do it for them (6-7).
Verses eight through eleven give some indication that there may have been alcohol involved in the incident, since Moses immediately tells the remaining priests they are not to consume any when they are on duty. Because they were responsible to distinguish between what was acceptable and unacceptable to God and to teach the other Hebrews, they could not afford to have their judgment impaired in any way.
Moses wanted Aaron and his sons to eat their portions of what had been sacrificed that day, since that was part of their job (12-15). When he found out the goat of the sin offering had not been eaten to take away the guilt of the congregation, but had been burned up on the altar, Moses was angry (16-18). After Aaron explained that he did not feel like eating under the circumstances and didn’t think God would be happy, either, Moses calmed down (19-20).
Leviticus Chapter 11
The next several chapters of this book are concerned with health and hygiene regulations. God had previously promised the people that, if they kept His commandments, He would put none of the diseases they had seen in Egypt upon them (Exodus 15:26). These rules would help make that promise possible.
In this chapter, we read about what kinds of animals were safe for the Hebrews to eat. Of land animals, the Lord said only those with cloven hooves that chew their cud were considered “clean” and acceptable for their consumption (Lev. 11:1-3). This would include cattle, sheep, goats, deer and antelope, which all thoroughly ruminate their food through multiple levels of digestion.
Those land animals not permissible to the Hebrews were camels, hyraxes, and hares, which chew their cud, but don’t have split hooves (vv. 4-6). Also every kind of swine was forbidden, since they have split hooves, but don’t chew their cud (7). No Israelite was to eat their flesh or touch their carcasses, lest they become unclean (8). Especially in the case of the pig, God was wise to prescribe these dietary restrictions. Pork is one of the most disease-ridden kinds of meat you can eat, since these animals consume just about anything—including carrion and rotted food.
Of marine animals—whether living in fresh or salt water—only those fish with fins and scales were considered fit for the Hebrews to eat (9). This would include a wide variety of fish, including salmon, perch, orange roughy, Pollock, and several other varieties commonly consumed in this country.
They were not to consume such marine animals as shark, dolphin, tuna, catfish and others, which have fins but not scales. These creatures are the bottom-feeders and garbage disposals of the rivers and seas, and are not healthy at all for human consumption. This would also exclude crustaceans (lobster, crab, shrimp), shellfish (oysters, clams, scallops) and other sea creatures that lacked fins or scales, which I once heard referred to as “sea cockroaches” because of their unclean feeding habits! The Israelites were not to eat or touch these kinds of creatures, for fear of making themselves unclean with these “abominations” (10-12).
Among the flying creatures and birds, every bird of prey or carrion and bat was a no-no—including hawks, eagles, vultures, ravens, owls, ostriches, storks and gulls (13-19). This would leave the plant and insect-eating varieties of birds, which would be safe to eat.
Of the ‘creepy-crawlies,’ they were not to mess with any flying insect (20 & 23). However, they were allowed to eat the hopping insects—including locusts, crickets and grasshoppers (21-22). That may have been a desirable form of protein to someone living out in the wilderness; however, it by no means would appeal to me!
In addition to the land animals already mentioned, God added four-legged creatures with paws—including dogs, cats, and a host of other animals as forbidden foods. Anyone who so much as touched their dead bodies was to “wash his clothes and be unclean until evening” (24-28). Moles, mice and every variety of lizard were also unclean, as were snakes, millipedes, spiders and other multi-legged creatures (29-31).
If any of these critters fell dead onto any article of wood, fabric, leather or canvas, it had to be washed and remain unused until the following evening (32). An article of pottery had to be destroyed (33). Food or standing water into which an unclean animal (or any part thereof) fell was considered contaminated and was therefore no longer fit to eat (34). Even an oven or cooking pot could be rendered unusable if touched by an unclean animal’s carcass (35)! However, if it fell into moving water or a large body of water, it was okay (36). Also, dry seed was still usable, but not seed that was covered with water (37-38 & 41-44).
If anyone touched or carried off the carcass of a clean animal, they, too were contaminated and had to bathe and remain ceremonially unclean until evening. The same was true if they ate a clean animal that died on its own (39-40).
Why did God make a big deal about what went into or onto the bodies of His people? Because He wanted them to be holy, as He is holy (45-47). And the Lord wanted them to enjoy good health.
Leviticus Chapter 12
The next chapter deals with the health and hygiene of a woman following childbirth. If she had a boy, she was to wait seven days, and then have the child circumcised on the eighth day (Lev. 12:1-3). After that, she was to continue to seclude herself for another thirty-three days (or a total of forty days), during which time she was considered unclean and could not go near the tabernacle or any holy thing (v. 4). If the child was female, her period of uncleanness would increase to 14 + 66 days—or a total of eighty days of impurity (5).
Why was the time of her seclusion twice as long for a girl as for a boy? I once heard someone suggest it was because families typically valued male children more than females; therefore a woman would need more time to bond with an infant girl. Perhaps it was a biochemical thing—it took more time for a woman’s body to adjust after birthing a female. Most commentators admit they don’t know.
A woman who had completed the time of her impurity after childbirth was required to bring a sacrifice to the tabernacle to return to normal society (7). If she was well off, the sacrifice consisted of a lamb as a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering (6). If she was too poor to bring a lamb, she could bring two birds instead (8). It is interesting to note that this second offering was brought by Mary when she and Joseph dedicated Jesus at the temple in Luke 2:21, indicating they were a poor couple.
Leviticus Chapter 13
In addition to offering sacrifices, the priest was required to serve as diagnostician and public health inspector. Of the more serious diseases at the time were various skin infections called leprosy. We now know that this disease is caused by bacteria, most likely spread by water droplets from the nose and mouth during close contact with a victim. Therefore, in the absence of effective medical treatment with modern antibiotics, God’s method of preventing or confining the transmission of the disease was to quarantine those suspected of having it.
If someone found a suspicious sore, a bright patch, a swelling, a wound that wouldn’t heal on his/her skin, or a scaly spot in his/her scalp, that person was to present him/herself to the priest. If he found the hairs in the spot had turned white or yellow, or the lesion appeared more than skin deep, it was a good indicator the person was leprous. If not, they might be quarantined for a week to see whether the condition spread. (Lev. 13:1-44)
If a person was okay, they would need only wash, and they would be considered clean (v. 6). If found leprous, victims had to tear their clothes, uncover their heads and cover their mouths. They were required to warn others that they were unclean and live in seclusion outside the camp (46).
Another health problem was spreading mold, mildew or other fungus in people’s garments. Anyone finding a reddish or greenish growth in their linen, woolen or leather garment was to bring it to the priest (47-49). He would isolate the item for a week, and then check it again (50-51). If the spot had enlarged, it was declared unclean, and the article had to be burned to kill whatever contagion had infected it (51-52). If not, the garment was washed and inspected again another week later (53-54). If there was no change in its appearance, the item was unclean and had to be destroyed (55). If it faded, the affected area was torn out and examined once more to see if it spread; if so, it was destroyed (56-57). If the spot disappeared after washing, the garment was okay, and needed only to be washed a second time to be usable (58).
Leviticus Chapter 14
If a person was healed of leprosy, he was supposed to call the priest to inspect his skin (Lev. 14:1-3). Once the priest confirmed the individual was free from infection, he would take two clean birds, cedar wood, scarlet thread and hyssop for the ceremonial cleansing (v. 4). The first bird would be killed over a clay bowl above running water (5). The live bird, cedar, thread and hyssop would be dipped into the blood contained in the bowl, and then the priest would splash the blood onto the person being cleansed seven times (6-7). The poor bloody bird would be released in the open field (7).
The former leper would bathe and wash his clothes and shave all his hair (8). Although he was allowed back into the camp after that, he was not allowed to go back into his tent until seven days passed. Once he shaved and bathed again, the person was clean (9).
On the eighth day, the person was required to bring an offering to the tabernacle of two unblemished male lambs, a yearling ewe lamb, flour mixed with oil and a vessel of oil (10-11). If he was poor, the person could bring one male lamb and a smaller amount of flour and oil, along with two pigeons or doves (21-23). The first male lamb was offered as a trespass offering, and then its blood was applied to the man’s right earlobe, thumb and big toe (13-14 & 24-25). The oil was poured into the priest’s palm, so he could dip his finger into it and sprinkle it seven times before the Lord (15-16 & 26-27). Then the priest applied some of the oil in the same places he had put the blood, and poured the rest onto the head of the man being cleansed (17-18 & 28-29). The other two sheep or the birds were then slaughtered as sin and burnt offerings, along with the grain offering, to atone for the man and make him ceremonially clean (19-20 & 30-32).
Another kind of “leprosy” affected people’s houses. If, after they moved into their homes in the Promised Land, a person happened to find something like mold, mildew, dry rot, etc., growing in the walls of their house, they were to call the priest in to inspect it (33-35). The priest would have all the person’s possessions brought out of the house and then would check the spot (36). Anything greenish or reddish that appeared to extend below the surface of the wall was suspect and would be quarantined for a week (37-39). If the spot had spread, the infected stones would be removed, along with all the plaster inside the house, and disposed of in a garbage dump outside the city (39-41). New stones, mortar and plaster would be installed (42).
Anyone entering the premises during the time of a home’s quarantine would be rendered ceremonially unclean until evening and would have to clean his/her clothes to be clean (46-47). If the bad stuff returned, the owner of the home was required to tear the structure down and throw all of its building materials into the dump, so the fungus would not spread to anything else (43-45). If not, the priest would perform the same ritual for the cleansing of the house as he originally did for a cleansed leper (48-53).
Leviticus Chapter 15
A more common issue of concern was that of some bodily discharge from a man or woman. As long as a man had some infected material flowing from or stopped up in his body, he and whatever he happened to touch were unclean (Lev. 15:1-4 & 9). Anyone touching the man or something he had come in contact with was also made unclean until evening and had to wash before they could be clean (vv. 5-7 & 10-11). If the infected person spit on someone else, the other would be unclean (8). Anything made of clay had to be destroyed after being touched by the unclean person, while a wooden vessel had to be washed (12).
Cleansing from a discharge required a bath after seven days (13). On the eighth day this was followed by a sacrifice of two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one for a sin offering and one as a burnt offering (14-15).
Seminal emissions were less serious. A man and his partner needed only bathe after intercourse, and then they’d be clean that evening (16 & 18). Any garment soiled by the emission would be washed, as well (17).
As with any discharge from a man, a woman and anything with which she came in contact during her menstruation were unclean (19-23). Any man having sex with her during her period would be unclean not one day, but all seven days of her menstruation (24)! If she bled for longer than a week, she was considered unclean all the days of her blood flow (25-27).
Once her discharge ended, she counted off seven days, and then took her two doves or pigeons in to be cleansed by the priest (28-30). Imagine doing that once a month, ladies. What a pain! But all of these regulations were intended to keep the worship area clean and holy (31-33).
Leviticus Chapter 16
Next, God described the rituals required for the annual Day of Atonement. After the debacle with Nadab and Abihu, the Lord told Aaron and his two remaining sons they were not to enter the Holy Place of the tabernacle whenever they felt like it, lest they die (Lev. 16:1-2). Once a year, Aaron was to bathe and come in his full regalia with a bull and a ram, while the elders supplied two goats and a ram for the Israelites (vv. 3-5).
The bull would be slaughtered to atone for the sins of Aaron and his family (6 & 11). Aaron would take a censor and use it to burn incense on the altar in front of the veil to shroud the mercy seat with smoke (12-13). Part of the blood of the bull he would sprinkle on and in front of the mercy seat (14). One of the goats would be killed as a sin offering for the rest of the congregation, and then Aaron would do the same thing with its blood inside the tabernacle (7-9 & 15). This would cleanse the inside of the tabernacle of the people’s sins for another year (16). Then he would apply the blood of the bull and goat and sprinkle it in front of the altar of sacrifice outside the holy tent (18-19).
The second goat, chosen by lot between the two, was called the scapegoat. Aaron would lay hands on it and confess all of Israel’s sins over the animal (20-21). Having transferred all their guilt to the live goat, Aaron then entrusted it to a man designated to lead it out into the wilderness to symbolically carry Israel’s sin far away (22).
Having done all of this, Aaron would change clothes, wash and then come offer the burnt offerings for himself and the people (23-25). The man who led the scapegoat would bathe and wash his clothes, as well (26). Someone else would burn the remaining hides and waste from the sacrificial animals outside the camp, and then clean up when it was done (27-28).
While all this was being done on the tenth day of the seventh month each year, the Israelites and anyone living within their borders were required to fast and abstain from work of any kind (29-31). On this one day each year, the priest would remove from himself, his countrymen and their worship center, all the guilt incurred by the Israelites against God (32-34).
Leviticus Chapter 17
In order to prevent the children of Israel from consuming blood or fat from the animals they killed or using it for false worship, the Lord commanded that of domesticated clean animals to be brought to the tabernacle to be offered to Him (Lev. 17:1-7). Failure to do so would mean a person would be “cut off from among his people” (vv. 4, 8 & 9). Anyone eating an animal’s blood would likewise be killed (10). God explained, “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar…” (Lev 17:11, NIV).
Whatever wild game they killed in the field had to be drained of its blood, which was to be covered over with dirt (v. 13). Anyone eating from the carcass of an animal that died naturally or was killed by wild beasts had to bathe and be unclean until evening; otherwise, he’d be considered guilty (15-16).
Leviticus Chapter 18
Being holy for God involves not only what we feed our bodies and care for them, but also how we use them sexually. This chapter deals primarily with the kinds of sexual relationships that were forbidden to God’s holy people.
YHWH told Moses to inform the people:
“You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you…Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them” (Lev. 18:1-5, NIV).
God then made it clear that none of the Israelite men were to engage in sexual relations with any close relative or the spouse thereof (6). This included:
- A parent or step-parent (7-8)
- A sibling, half-sibling or step-sibling (9 & 11)
- A grandchild (10)
- An aunt [or uncle] (12-14)
- A daughter-in-law [or son-in-law] (15)
- A sister-in-law [or brother-in-law] (16)
Since polygamy was considered normal in those days, the Lord didn’t forbid a man from having more than one wife; however, He did prescribe guidelines to make a polygamous home a little more harmonious:
- A man was not to marry both a woman and her daughter or her grandchild (17).
- Neither was he to marry two sisters (18). [We saw how contentious that kind of arrangement could be in the lives of Jacob, Leah and Rachel!]
It was forbidden for a man to have sex with a woman during her period (19). And a person could not have sex with someone else’s spouse (20). Sacrificing one’s children to an idol was forbidden (21).
Homosexuality—that is, for a man to “lie with a man as one lies with a woman”—was called “an abomination” (Lev. 18:22, NIV). According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, that very strong Aramaic term, to’ebah, can also be translated “loathsome,” “detestable,” or “repulsive.” In other words, God does NOT consider same-sex relationships as an ‘alternative lifestyle’ equal with heterosexual marriage; it is completely unacceptable to Him. And to tell any person otherwise is to keep them at odds with their Creator, who made us “male and female” (Genesis 1:27) and desires for us to reserve ourselves for something better than this!
Likewise, bestiality—having sex with an animal—was strictly forbidden (Lev. 18:23). God referred to this practice as “perversion,” or “confusion.”
The Lord explained that the people currently living in Canaan engaged in these practices and had defiled their land to such an extent that it was now going to “vomit out its inhabitants” (vv. 24-25). God didn’t want Israel to follow in their footsteps so that they, too, would be cast out of their homeland (26-28). Therefore, any person doing these things would be “cut off from among their people” (29). We’ll find out in Chapter 20 what that meant!
- “Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father” (Lev. 19:3). It’s highly significant that the word translated, “revere,” mean literally “to be afraid of/terrified by someone/thing; stand in awe/reverence.” This Hebrew word, yare, is frequently used in the Old Testament in reference to God. In other words, we are to pay our parents the very same kind of respect we owe the Lord!
- They were not to make any substitute gods for themselves (4).
- Their peace offerings were only to be eaten the day of their sacrifice and the day after and then burned up. Eating any of the meat on the third day was disrespectful and would bring permanent guilt and exclusion on the person who failed to follow God’s law (5-8).
- Farmers were not permitted to harvest all their grain or fruit; they had to leave some of the crop for the poor and aliens to gather (9-10).
- No one was allowed to steal, defraud, lie to, cheat or steal from another person (11 & 13).
- No one could swear falsely by God’s name, thus misusing it (12).
- Hired help was to be paid promptly (13).
- It was not allowed to curse those who couldn’t hear, or trip those who couldn’t see (14). To ridicule or abuse a handicapped person was to disrespect the One who made him that way.
- The Hebrews were to be fair and impartial in court (15).
- Gossip was not permitted (16).
- Grudges were not allowed. People were commanded to confront anyone who offended them, so they wouldn’t sin in their hearts. They were not to exact their own revenge, but “love your neighbor as yourself” (17-18). Jesus later stated that this was the second most important rule in God’s law (See Matthew 5:43, Mark 12:31 & Luke 10:27).
- Cross-breeding of different kinds of animals was not permitted; neither was wearing clothing made of animal and plant fibers mixed together (Lev. 19:19). Much of our modern-day genetic engineering would seem in violation of this edict, as do many of our blended fabrics. God wanted purity in our animal husbandry and our clothing.
- If someone slept with a slave woman engaged to another, they’d be beaten, but not killed, since she was not a free woman. The man was required to bring a trespass offering for his sin in order to be forgiven (20-22).
- Whenever a Hebrew planted a fruit tree, they were not to eat any of the fruit for the first three years. The fourth year, they were to bring the fruit to the tabernacle as a praise offering, and then the fifth year the fruit could be eaten (23-25).
- No one was to practice divination [which included the interpretation of omens, fortune-telling, interpreting signs in the heavens, etc.] or sorcery/witchcraft (26).
- Hebrew men were expected to wear full beards and natural hairstyles (27).
- They were not to cut or tattoo themselves for the dead (28).
- Pimping and prostitution were strictly forbidden (29).
- People were to keep the Sabbath and respect God’s sanctuary (3b & 30).
- No one was to consult a medium or spirits (31).
- They were to show respect for the elderly out of reverence for God (32).
- No one was to mistreat a stranger, but they were to treat them as fellow countrymen, since the Hebrews had previously been strangers in Egypt (33-34).
- All of their units of measure were to be accurate and honest (35-36).
- Those who made human sacrifices would be stoned. If the Israelites didn’t carry out the death sentence, the Lord said He’d cut off the perpetrator Himself for murdering his children, worshiping a false god and profaning the holy name of YHWH. (Lev. 20:1-5)
- God would also come after anyone who consulted mediums and familiar spirits (v. 6). Those who practiced those occult arts would be stoned (27).
- Anyone who cursed his/her parents deserved the death penalty (9). Boy, am I glad we are no longer under this law—I think we’d have lost a lot of people in this country during their teen years over the last 75 years!
- Both the man and woman involved in an adulterous affair were to be executed (10).
- Any instance of incest bore the death penalty (11-12, 17 & 19-21).
- Homosexuals were put to death (13).
- A man marrying both a woman and her mother would be burned to death with his wives (14).
- Anyone committing bestiality would bring destruction on both him/herself and the animal (15-16).
- A man having sex with a woman during her period would bring either death or banishment upon them [depending on how the term, karat—which can mean “exterminate,” “destroy” or “drive away”—was interpreted] (18).
God again said He was casting out of Canaan those who practiced these sorts of abominable things; He most certainly didn’t want the same fate to befall the Israelites (22-23). He had promised they would inherit this “land flowing with milk and honey,” but they had to behave differently than those they were displacing. YHWH said, “I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (24). That’s why they needed to learn to distinguish what was acceptable and not acceptable for them, so they would be “clean” and holy for Him (25-26).
With the exception of his immediate family—a parent, unmarried sister, a brother or one of his own children—a priest was not allowed to defile himself by touching the corpse of any person (Lev. 21:1-4). They were not to shave their heads, trim their beards or make any kinds of cuttings in their skin, since they had to be holy to God (v. 5-6). They could not marry any prostitute, a woman defiled by rape or fornication, nor a divorce (7). Furthermore, if any of his daughters should get involved in any kind of illicit sexual relationship, they would have to be burned to death (9).
The high priest, on the other hand, came under even more stringent regulations. He could not tear his garments or uncover his head in grief (10). He could not go near any dead body—not even that of a parent (11)! He pretty much had to stick around the sanctuary at all times (12). The only woman who would qualify as the bride of a high priest would be a virgin Israelite (13-14). That way, both he and the priest’s descendants would be holy (15).
A descendant of Aaron who had a birth defect, disease or injury could not serve at the tabernacle—including any man who was blind, crippled, scarred, had a broken limb, was hunchbacked or dwarfed, had a skin condition or was unable to reproduce (16-21). They were welcome to eat of the holy things, but they could not make any offerings themselves (22-23).
Leviticus Chapter 22
Regarding the things offered to the Lord, YHWH instructed, “Tell Aaron and his sons to treat with respect the sacred offerings the Israelites consecrate to me, so they will not profane my holy name…” (Lev. 22:1-2, NIV). Any of the priests who went near an offering while he was unclean would be disqualified from ministry (v. 3). Whether he was sick, had had an emission, had touched a body or some other uncleanness or whatever, the contaminated person had to bathe and then wait until later that evening before he was allowed to touch any of the dedicated food given to the priests at the tabernacle (4-7). Under no circumstances was a priest allowed to eat something that had died naturally or had been attacked by wild animals [probably in order to avoid contracting any disease from contaminated meat] (8). Any priest failing to comply with these guidelines could die for treating God’s ordinances with contempt (9).
No guest or hired hand could consume the holy offerings with the priest—only the members of his household and his slaves could eat from God’s table (10-11). Even a priest’s daughter, if she married anyone but a priest, could not partake—unless she became widowed without children and returned to her father’s home (12-13).
Anyone accidentally consuming the consecrated food had to restore to the priest the value of what was eaten, plus 20% (14). The priests were responsible for making sure God’s offerings were respected and no one incurred guilt for doing what was improper (15-16).
For their freewill burnt offerings or peace offerings, the Israelites and other worshipers were only to bring sheep, goats or cattle that were free of defects of any kind (17-21 & 25). If the animals were blind, had broken bones, were injured or diseased, they could not be offered on the altar (22). An animal with a limb that was too long or too short could be butchered as a freewill offering, but not to fulfill a vow (23). Neither would God accept what was bruised, crushed, torn or cut (24).
Once a calf, lamb or kid had been with its mother for seven days following its birth, it was okay to sacrifice it from the eighth day on (26-27). A mother and her baby were never to be butchered on the same day, however (28). Offerings of thanksgiving had to be eaten on the day the sacrifice was made; none could remain until the following day (29-30).
All God’s regulations had to be followed exactly (31). With the statement, “I am the LORD,” as verbal book-ends around the final remarks of the chapter, YHWH said, “You shall not profane My holy name, but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel. I am the LORD who sanctifies you, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God” (31-33).
First and most frequent was the Sabbath. Of the seven days of each week, this one was to be a day in which the Hebrews did none of their regular work, but rested and worshiped God together in a central location in every community (v. 3).
At twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month, the Israelites were to kill the lamb or kid and observe the Passover (5). From the fifteenth until the twenty-first day of that month, their houses were to be devoid of any kind of leaven, and they were to eat only unleavened bread (6). The first day of this festival was a special work-free day like the Sabbath, as was the final day of the Feast of Unleavened bread (7-8). All seven days there was also a special offering at the tabernacle.
The day after this special Sabbath, the people were to bring in a sample of the first of their grain harvest as an offering to the Lord (9). The priest would wave the sheaf, and the worshiper would give with it a perfect yearling lamb as a burnt offering, along with grain, oil, and wine (11-13). Until he had made this first-fruits offering, no Israelite was allowed to eat from his spring crop (14).
Seven Sabbaths, or fifty days later, the Israelites were to observe yet another festival, called the Feast of Weeks [later known as Pentecost—Greek for “fiftieth day”] (15-16). They were each to bring two loaves of leavened bread made from their recent grain harvest (17). With that, the priest would offer seven lambs, a young bull and two rams with their grain and drink offerings as burnt offerings (18). As a sin offering, they were to slay a kid and two male lambs, which would be waved with the bread and then given to the priest (19-20). This was another special Sabbath for the people to assemble together and worship (21). God also reminded them not to harvest all the land, but to leave grain at the corners for the poor and aliens to reap (22).
The first day of the seventh month was another holy day. The Israelites were not to work, but blow trumpets and make another special offering to the Lord (23-25).
On the tenth day of that month, they were to observe the Day of Atonement. Everyone abstained from work and food, fasting and praying while the priest made his special offerings for sin at the tabernacle. From sundown on the ninth day of the month, until the following sunset, the people were to observe this special Sabbath. Anyone failing to do so would be destroyed by God. (26-32)
The final feast of the annual cycle was the Feast of Tabernacles, called Sukkoth. From the fifteenth to the twenty-first day of this seventh month, the Israelites were to celebrate the harvest and remember how God lived with them in the wilderness by constructing temporary shelters of leafy branches and living in them, while they made daily sacrifices to the Lord (34-43). On the first and last day of this feast, there were to be special Sabbaths of rest and reflection. The purpose of this feast was “that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (43).
Leviticus Chapter 24
The Lord told Moses to make sure the Israelites supplied the priests with plenty of olive oil to keep the golden lamp stand lit at all times (Lev. 24:1-4). Of course, this was not feasible when the tabernacle was not set up, but as long as it was, this not only provided light for the priests, but the lamp signified the constant presence and revelation of God. Some liturgical churches today observe the same tradition.
God also gave a recipe for the bread to be kept in the tabernacle on the golden table (v. 5). There were to be twelve loaves or cakes stacked in two neat rows on the table, daily (6). Frankincense was to be placed along or on top of each of the rows “that it may be on the bread for a memorial, an offering made by fire to the LORD” (7). The language here is rather confusing. Some commentators say the frankincense was to be burned in place of the bread when fresh loaves were set out each Sabbath (8); while others indicate it was to represent burnt offerings, but the loaves were not actually burned on the flames. Verse nine says Aaron and his sons were supposed to eat the bread in a holy place, as their portion of “the offerings of the LORD made by fire.” This makes me wonder if they might have actually eaten the frankincense with the bread—possibly as a health precaution, since it has some medicinal qualities that might have protected them from communicable diseases. Maybe they burned some, but not all, of the loaves at the end of each week.
The first test of God’s Law came when a man who was half Hebrew and half Egyptian got into a fight. He was overheard misusing God’s name in a curse—a clear violation of the third commandment—so the people arrested him and took him to Moses (10-12). God required the Israelites to take the man outside the camp. The witnesses were to lay their hands on him, and then everyone was to throw stones at him until he died (13-14). From then on, stoning was to be the penalty for misusing YHWH’s name or saying something untrue about God (15-16). So the guilty man was taken out an executed (23).
Likewise, God said whoever killed another person had to be put to death, while they death of an animal only had to be compensated by giving the owner an animal like the one destroyed (17-18 & 21). Whoever disfigured another man would have the same injury inflicted upon him (19-20). The same laws would apply to a foreigner as to an Israelite (22).
Leviticus Chapter 25
This chapter asserts God’s ownership over both the Promised Land and God’s people. It was also a test of the people’s faith, to see whether they would trust God to provide for them or not.
Just as they were to observe a Sabbath every seven days to give themselves a rest, so God demanded that the people give the land a rest every seven years (Lev. 25:1-2). For six years they were allowed to plow and plant seed in their fields and prune their fruit-bearing vines and trees (v. 3). However, the seventh year, they were to let the fields and vines alone and leave what came up on its own for others (4-7).
They were not to worry, however. Just as God provided extra manna for the people to eat on the Sabbath when they were not allowed to gather it in the wilderness, so He promised to provide a bumper crop for the Israelites the year before each Sabbath of their land (18-20). That way they’d have enough for three years, until the harvest came in on the eighth year of the cycle (21-22).
Every seven Sabbath years, on the fiftieth year, they were to observe an additional Sabbath year, called the Year of Jubilee. Starting with a trumpet blast on the Day of Atonement, this Jubilee year was not only a time for the people to hold off working their fields and vineyards; but they were also to let everyone return to his own family and his ancestral property (8-12).
Their real estate business was always to be conducted with this in mind. If a person sold a piece of property, its value would be calculated based on the number of harvests that could be counted on before the fields reverted back to their original owner (13-15 & 17). If the next Jubilee was a long way off, the buyer had to pay for more for several years of crops; if Jubilee was near, then only a few years of harvests could be counted on, so the price would be less (16).
Why was this? Because God wanted the people to treat each other fairly. He said, “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (23). Our Native American neighbors have traditionally had the right idea: Not one acre of this planet really belongs to us; it’s God’s. He’s just allowing us to live here, and He wanted to make sure each of His people got their fair share to tend and keep.
If someone fell into hard times and had to sell his ancestral homeland, God said he or one of his close relatives should always have the right to buy it back—allowing for a price adjustment based on the amount of time before the Jubilee (24-27). If he or his family was unable to buy it back, it would automatically revert back to the original owner when the fifty-year cycle began anew (28).
If the property in question was a house inside a walled city, however, the original owner had only a year to redeem his property before it became the buyer’s permanent home (29-30). Homes in rural communities lacking fortifications would revert to their original owners (31).
The only exceptions were the homes of the Levites. Regardless of their location, they were always allowed the option of buying back their homes in their ancestral cities (32-33). They were not able to sell their parts of the land surrounding Levite cities (34).
Every Hebrew was obligated to do what he could to help a fellow Israelite in need. An Israelite could not charge a poor countryman interest to borrow money, nor could he sell him food at a profit (35-37). They could never make it too hard for a family to stay in their native land.
The Year of Jubilee applied to people as well as land. If a poor man sold himself to a fellow Israelite, he was to be treated as a hired hand, not as a slave (39-40). In the Year of Jubilee, the servant and his family were to be released to return to their ancestral home (40-41). “For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves” (42). Just as the land was God’s so were the people; He alone was entitled to determine their treatment. As King David later wrote: “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalms 24:1, NIV). Out of fear of their ultimate Owner, the man who hired a long-term servant had to treat the man well (Lev. 25:43).
Slaves that could be treated as property were to come from foreign countries or the resident aliens living in Israel (vv. 44-45). They could be left by a man for his heirs, just like his land and livestock (46).
If an Israelite sold himself to a countryman or a resident alien, any close relative could buy him back, based upon how many more years of service the purchaser could have gotten out of him before his release in the Year of Jubilee (47-52). Furthermore, no resident alien could mistreat a Hebrew servant (53). If he was not redeemed before the Year of Jubilee, the man was to be released along with his family (54).
Basically, God reset each person’s fortunes every half-century, so that each generation got a chance to make something good of himself!
Leviticus Chapter 26
This is an extremely important chapter—one we ought to pay heed to today, as well. In it, God explains the benefits of keeping His covenant, versus the consequences of ignoring His Law.
He started by reminding the Israelites to make no idols, sacred stones or carved images of any kind to worship (Lev. 26:1). They were also to faithfully observe His Sabbaths [both weekly and yearly, I imagine], and to respect His sanctuary (v. 2).
As long as they walked in His ways and lived according to His commandments (3), they could count on the following blessings:
- Seasonal rains and good harvests (4)
- Plenty to eat and drink (5)
- Peace and safety from both man and beast (6)
- Victory over their enemies—even when grossly outnumbered (7-8)
- Prolific families (9)
- A right relationship with God (11-12)
- Freedom from slavery (13).
If, however, they refused or failed to obey and respect God or His commands (14-15), they were doomed to a series of progressively dire consequences—with each level of punishment seven times worse than the previous plague:
- First was anxiety, disease, poverty, military defeat and subjugation by their enemies (16-17)
- Then drought and unproductive land (18-20).
- Wild beasts to rob them of their children and livestock, leaving the highways desolate (21-22)
- Armies besieging their walled cities, until famine and disease left them too weak to resist (23-26).
- More of the same, with the famine so severe, they’d eat their own children before the enemy destroyed their cities and places of idol worship, leaving the land utterly desolate until the land had a chance to recover from the Sabbaths the Israelites didn’t observe (27-35).
The handful of people who survived all of this would be so few and anxious, they’d run for cover when no one was pursuing them and would languish in the lands of their enemies (36-39).
Once the people humbled themselves and admitted the wrong they and their ancestors had done and realized it was their own fault God had turned them over to their enemies, then the Lord would remember His covenant with their forefathers and the land He had promised to give the sons of Israel (40-43). The land would still enjoy its missed Sabbaths, but God would help them in the meantime and bring them back home eventually (43-45).
If a person consecrated another human being (as in the case of Hannah vowing to give her firstborn to God in the book of Samuel), they could buy that person back at the following rates:
- 50 shekels of silver for a man 20-60 years old (Lev. 27:1-3)
- 30 shekels for a woman of the same age (v. 4)
- 20 shekels for a boy aged 5-20; 10 for a girl of the same age (5)
- 5 shekels for a boy one month to five years of age; 3 for a girl (6)
- 15 shekels for a man of 60+ years; 10 for a woman (7).
Anyone too poor to manage these rates could renegotiate something affordable with the priest (8). I am guessing the difference in valuation between males and females had to do more with the amount of work they could do than with whether men are better than women.
Any sacrificial animal could neither be redeemed nor substituted for, lest both animals become the property of God (9-10). If the animal was something unclean (such as a donkey), the priest would assign a value to the beast (11-12). Should the individual wish to have it back, he had to pay the price, plus 20% (13).
In the case of a house that was dedicated, the person had to pay the price set by the priest, plus 20% to get it back (14-15). A piece of land was evaluated based on how much seed it took to plant it and how long until the Year of Jubilee (16-18). If he wanted to redeem it, the original owner had to add 20% to the going rate for the number of years until Jubilee (19). If he sold it again, or didn’t redeem it by Jubilee, then the property was not returnable—it remained the possession of the priest (20-21). If the property dedicated was not the ancestral possession of the individual dedicating it, then the man would get credit for donating that much to the Lord, but the property would revert to the original owner in the Year of Jubilee (22-24).
No one could dedicate a firstborn animal, since it was already God’s (26). They could redeem an unclean animal that was a firstborn, but it had to be purchased at the going rate, plus 20%; otherwise, the animal would be sold (27). Nothing devoted for destruction could be bought back; it remained holy to YHWH (28). Likewise, no one could redeem or ransom a person doomed to death (29).
The tithes of a person’s produce he could redeem at the going price, plus 20% (30-31). But he could not redeem or substitute another animal for the tithe from his flocks or herds (32-33).
While some people find the many rules and regulations in this book tedious, they do give you a glimpse into the mind of God: He wanted the people to realize that they and the land belonged not to themselves, but to their Creator/Redeemer. In everything they did, ate, wore, etc., they were accountable to their God. He had their good at heart, and gave many good rules to keep them, their livestock and their property safe and healthy. He spelled out His standards for worship and how both priests and laypersons were to conduct themselves to be acceptable to Him. He also made it clear what the consequences were for keeping or failing to keep His laws.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
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