The emphasis which modern criticism has very properly laid on the prophetic books and the prophetic element generally in the Old Testament, has had the effect of somewhat diverting popular attention from the priestly contributions to the literature and religion of Israel. From this neglect Leviticus has suffered most. Yet for many reasons it is worthy of close attention; it is the deliberate expression of the priestly mind of Israel at its best, and it thus forms a welcome foil to the unattractive pictures of the priests which confront us on the pages of the prophets during the three centuries between Hosea and Malachi. And if we should be inclined to deplore the excessively minute attention to ritual, and the comparatively subordinate part played by ethical considerations in this priestly manual, it is only fair to remember that the hymn-book used by these scrupulous ministers of worship was the Psalter-enough surely to show that the ethical and spiritual aspects of religion, though not prominent, were very far from being forgotten. In xvii.-xxvi. the ethical element receives a fine and almost surprising prominence: the injunction to abstain from idolatry, e.g., is immediately preceded by the injunction to reverence father and mother, xix.3,4. Indeed, ch. xix. is a good compendium of the ethics of ancient Israel; and, while hardly to be compared with Job xxxi., still, in its care for the resident alien, and in its insistence upon motives of benevolence and humanity, it is an eloquent reminder of the moral elevation of Israel's religion, and is peculiarly welcome in a book so largely devoted to the externals of the cult.

The book of Leviticus illustrates the origin and growth of law. Occasionally legislation is clothed in the form of narrative -- the law of blasphemy, e.g., xxiv.10-23 (cf. x.16-20) -- thus suggesting its origin in a particular historical incident (cf. I Sam. xxx.25); and traces of growth are numerous, notably in the differences between the group xvii.-xxvi. and the rest of the book, and very ancient heathen elements are still visible through the transformations effected by the priests of Israel, as in the case of Azazel xvi.8,22, a demon of the wilderness, akin to the Arabic jinns. Strictly speaking, though Leviticus is pervaded by a single spirit, it is not quite homogeneous: the first group of laws, e.g. (i.-vii.), expressly acknowledges different sources -- certain laws being given in the tent of meeting, i.1, others on Mount Sinai, vii.38. The sections are well defined -- note the subscriptions at the end of vii. and xxvi. -- and marked everywhere by the scrupulous precision of the legal mind.

There is no trace in Leviticus of the prophetic document JE. That the book is essentially a law book rather than a continuation of the narrative of the Exodus is made plain by the fact that that narrative (Ex. xl.) is not even formally resumed till ch. viii.


(a) For worshippers, i.-vi.7. Laws for the burnt offering of the herd, of the flock, and of fowls (i.). Laws for the different kinds of cereal offerings -- the use of salt compulsory, honey and leaven prohibited (ii.). Laws for the peace-offering -- the offerer kills it, the priest sprinkles the blood on the sides of the altar and burns the fat (iii.) For an unconscious transgression of the law, the high priest shall offer a bullock, the community shall offer the same, a ruler shall offer a he-goat, one of the common people shall offer a female animal (iv.). A female animal shall be offered for certain legal and ceremonial transgressions; the poor may offer two turtle doves, or pigeons, or even flour, v.1-13. Sacred dues unintentionally withheld or the property of another man dishonestly retained must be restored together with twenty per cent. extra, v.14-vi.7.

(b) For priests, vi.8-vii.38. Laws regulating the daily burnt offering, the cereal offering, the daily cereal offering of the high priest, and the ordinary sin offering, vi.8-30. Laws regulating the guilt offering, the priests' share of the sacrifices, the period during which the flesh of sacrifice may be eaten, the prohibition of the eating of fat and blood (vii.).


This section is the direct continuation of Exodus xl., which prescribes the inauguration of Aaron and his sons into the priestly office. Laws regulating the consecration of the high priest and the other priests -- washing, investiture, anointing, sin offering, burnt offering, with accompanying rites (viii., cf. Exod. xxix.). The first sacrificial service at which Aaron and his sons officiate -- the benediction being followed by the appearance of Jehovah's glory (ix.). The first violation of the law of worship and its signal punishment, x.1-7. Officiating priests forbidden to use wine, x.8-11. Priests' share of the meal and peace offerings, x.12-15. An error forgiven after an adroit explanation by Aaron (law in narrative form), x.16-20.


This section appropriately follows x.10, where the priests are enjoined to distinguish between the clean and the unclean. Laws concerning the animals which may or may not be eaten -- quadrupeds, fish, birds, flying insects, creeping insects, reptiles -- and pollution through contact with carcasses (xi.). Laws concerning the purification of women after childbirth (xii.). Laws for the detection of leprosy in the human body, xiii.1-46, and in garments, xiii.47-59. Laws for the purification of the leper and his re-adoption into the theocracy, xiv.1-32. Laws concerning houses afflicted with leprosy, xiv.33-57. Laws concerning purification after sexual secretions (xv.). The laws of purification are appropriately concluded by the law for the great day of atonement, with regulations for the ceremonial cleansing of the high priest and his house, the sanctuary, altar, and people (xvi.). Two originally independent sections appear to be blended in this chapter-one (cf. vv. 1-4) prescribing regulations to be observed by the high priest on every occasion on which he should enter the inner sanctuary, the other with specific reference to the great day of atonement.

IV. LAW OF HOLINESS (xvii.-xxvi.)

This section, though still moving largely among ritual interests, differs markedly from the rest of the book, partly by reason of its hortatory setting (cf. xxvi.), but especially by its emphasis on the ethical elements in religion. It has been designated the Law of Holiness because of the frequently recurring phrase, "Ye shall be holy, for I, Jehovah, am holy," xix.2, xx.26 -- a phrase which, though not peculiar to this section (cf. xi.44), is highly characteristic of it. Animals are to be slaughtered for food or sacrifice only at the sanctuary xvii.1-9; the blood and flesh of animals dying naturally or torn by beasts is not to be eaten, xvii.10-16. Laws regulating marriage and chastity with threats of dire punishment for violation of the same (xviii.). Penalties for Moloch worship, soothsaying, cursing of parents and unchastity (xx.), with a hortatory conclusion, xx.22-24, similar to xviii.24-30.

Ch. xix. is the most prophetic chapter in Leviticus, and bears a close analogy to the decalogue, vv.3-8 corresponding to the first table, and vv.11-18 to the second. The holiness which Jehovah demands has to express itself not only in reverence for Himself and His Sabbaths, but in reverence towards parents and the aged; in avoiding not only idolatry and heathen superstition, but dishonesty and unkindness to the weak. The ideal is a throroughly moral one. A modern reader is surprised to find in so ethical a chapter a prohibition of garments made of two kinds of stuff mingled together v.19; no doubt such a prohibition is aimed at some heathen superstition -- perhaps the practice of magic.

Laws concerning priests and sacrifices (xxi., xxii.). The holiness of the priests is to be maintained by avoiding, as a rule (without exception in the case of the high priest), pollution through corpses and participation in certain mourning rites, and by conforming to certain conditions in their choice of a wife. The physically deformed are to be ineligible for the priesthood (xxi.). Regulations to safeguard the ceremonial purity of the sacred food: imperfect or deformed animals ineligible for sacrifice (xxii.). In ch. xxiii., which is a calendar of sacred festivals, the festivals are enumerated in the order in which they occur in the year, beginning with spring -- the passover, regarded as preliminary to the feast of unleavened bread; the feast of weeks (Pentecost) seven weeks afterwards; the new year's festival, on the first day of the seventh month; the day of atonement; and the festival of booths. There are signs that the section dealing with new year's day and the day of atonement, vv.23-32, is later than the original form of the rest of the chapter dealing with the three great ancient festivals that rested on agriculture and the vintage. Of kindred theme to this chapter is ch. xxv. -- the sacred years -- (a) the sabbatical year: the land, like the man, must enjoy a Sabbath rest, vv.1-7; (b) the jubilee year, an intensification of the Sabbatical idea: every fiftieth year is to be a period of rest for the land, liberation of Hebrew slaves, and restoration of property to its original owners or legal heirs, vv.8-55. In xxiv.1-9, are regulations concerning the lampstand and the shewbread; the law, in the form of a narrative, prohibiting blasphemy, vv.10-23, is interrupted by a few laws concerning injury to the person, vv.17-22.

The laws of holiness conclude (xxvi.) with a powerful exposition of the blessing which will follow obedience and the curse which is the penalty of disobedience. The curse reaches a dramatic climax in the threat of exile, from which, however, deliverance is promised on condition of repentance.

Ch. xxvii. constitutes no part of the Law of Holiness -- note the subscription in xxvi.46. It contains regulations for the commutation of vows (whether persons, cattle or things) and tithes-commutation being inadmissible in the case of firstlings of animals fit for sacrifice and of things and persons that had come under the ban.

Special importance attaches to the Law of Holiness, known to criticism as H (xvii.-xxvi.). In its interest in worship, it marks a very long advance on the Book of the Covenant (Exod. xxi.-xxiii.), and it would seem to stand somewhere between Deuteronomy and the priestly codex. It is profoundly interested, like the former, in the ethical side of religion, and yet it is almost as deeply concerned about ritual as the latter. But though it may be regarded as a preliminary step to the priestly code, it is clearly distinguished from it, both by its tone and its vocabulary: the word for idols, e.g. (things of nought), xix.4, xxvi.1, does not occur elsewhere in the Pentateuch. It specially emphasizes the holiness of Jehovah; as has been said, in H He is the person to whom the cult is performed, while the question of how is more elaborately dealt with in P. There are stray allusions which almost seem to point to pre-exilic days; e.g. to idols, xxvi.30, Moloch being explicitly mentioned, xviii.21, xx.2; and the various sanctuaries presupposed by xxvi.31 would almost seem to carry us back to a point before the promulgation of Deuteronomy in 621 B.C.; but on the other hand the exile appears to be presupposed in xviii.24-30, xxvi.34. This code, like all the others in the Old Testament, was no doubt the result of gradual growth -- note the alternation of 2nd pers. sing. and pl. in ch. xix. -- but the main body of it may be placed somewhere between 600 and 550 B.C. The section bears so strong a resemblance to Ezekiel that he has been supposed by some to be the author, but this is improbable.

It is easy to see how the minuteness of the ritual religion of Leviticus could degenerate into casuistry. Its emphasis on externals is everywhere visible, and its lack of kindly human feeling is only too conspicuous in its treatment of the leper, xiii.45, 46. But over against this, to say nothing of the profound symbolism of the ritual, must be set the moral virility of the law of holiness -- its earnest inculcation of commercial honour, reverence for the aged, xix.32, and even unselfish love. For it is to this source that we owe the great word adopted by our Saviour, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," xix.18, though the first part of the verse shows that this noble utterance still moves within the limitations of the Old Testament.

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