Leviticus

Sometimes seen as inaccessible, Leviticus nevertheless contains important material about holiness.

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The Holiness Code

Leviticus 17 to 26 coheres as a literary unit, referred to as "the Holiness Code," because of the frequent use of the term kadosh, "holy." This section begins by ordaining the place and form of proper worship of the God of Israel. It then defines the Israelite family and details improper sexual behavior, including incest (Lev. 18).

Perhaps the best-known part of Leviticus is chapter 19, which resonates with the Decalogue, combining ritual and ethical teachings. It is here that we read, "Love your fellow as yourself." Chapters 20 to 22 contain more on the Israelite family and ordain specifically priestly duties and prerogatives. In chapter 23, the festivals and other holy days of the year are scheduled in a calendar of sacred time.

The rest of the Holiness Code (chapters 24‑26) and its appendix (chapter 27) add instructions to the priests about administration of the sanctuary and laws governing ownership of land and indebtedness. Here the source for the inscription on the Liberty Bell proclaims the inalienable right of the Israelite people to its land: "You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants" (25:10). In an epilogue (26:3‑26), the Israelites are admonished to obey God and are forewarned of the consequences of disobedience, the most dire being exile from the land.

The Primary Message

Two concepts embody the primary message of Leviticus. First, the Israelites are one community (edah), united by a common destiny and by a holy way of life as commanded by the Lord Himself. They are forbidden to worship any other deity or follow the impure ways of other nations (19:4, 20:1‑3,6), Second, the Israelites were granted the Promised Land as an eternal estate (ahuzzah) on condition that they follow the laws of God and remain faithful to His covenant. In Leviticus, the priests of Israel are instructed in the ways of holiness, and the Israelites are told what the Lord requires of them

Leviticus and the Modern World:  The Importance of Ritual

Leviticus is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation. Its main subject matter--animal offerings and ritual impurity--seems remote from contemporary concerns. Yet almost half of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah are found in this book, the text with which young children traditionally began their Jewish education.

Our concern in reading Leviticus should be more than historical ("this is what our ancestors used to believe and practice"). It should be an effort to understand the religious needs that were met by these practices in ancient times, needs that we still confront today, and the religious ideas that were taught in the process.

The modern temper tends to discount prescribed ritual in favor of spontaneous religious expression. Yet something in the human soul responds to ritual, whether it be the formality of a traditional wedding or the rituals of a sporting event or a public meeting. There is something comforting about the familiar, the recognizable, the predictable. There is something deeply moving about performing a rite that is older than we are, one that goes back beyond the time of our parents and grandparents.

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Baruch A. Levine

Baruch A. Levine is Skirball Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.? He is the author of many books on biblical topics, including The Anchor Bible Commentary: Numbers 1-20.