Leviticus (from Greek Λευιτικός, "relating to the Levites"). In Judaism it is third book of the Torah which are the five books of Moses, its transliteration is 'Vayikra'. In the Christian bible it is also the third book of what is referred to as the Old Testament.

The Book of Leviticus is often described as a set of legal rules, and priestly rituals, but it actually forms the central core of a larger narrative - the Torah or Pentateuch. More accurately, therefore, Leviticus is about the outworking of God's covenant with Israel, set out in Genesis and Exodus - what is seen in the Torah as the consequences of entering into a special relationship with God. These consequences are spelt out in terms of community relationships and behaviour.

The first 16 chapters and the last chapter of the book describe the Priestly Code, detailing ritual cleanliness, sin-offerings, and the Day of Atonement, including Chapter 12 which mandates male circumcision. Chapters 17-26 describe the holiness code, including the injunction in chapter 19 to "love one's neighbor as oneself" (the Great Commandment). Among its many prohibitions, the book uses the word "abomination" 16 times, including dietary restrictions prohibiting shellfish, certain fowl, and "Whatsoever goeth upon the belly, and whatsoever goeth upon all four, or whatsoever hath more feet among all creeping things that creep upon the earth, them ye shall not eat; for they are an abomination"(chapter 11); and sexual restrictions, prohibiting adultery, incest, and lying "with mankind, as with womankind" (chapter 18, see also chapter 20); the book similarly prohibits eating pork and rabbits because they are "unclean." The rules in Leviticus are generally addressed to the descendants of Israel, except for example the prohibition in chapter 20 against sacrificing children to rival god Molech, which applies equally to "the strangers that sojourn in Israel", see also proselytes.

According to tradition, Moses authored Leviticus as well as the other four books of the Torah. According to the documentary hypothesis, Leviticus derives almost entirely from the priestly source (P), marked by emphasis on priestly concerns, composed c 550-400 BC, and incorporated into the Torah c 400 BC.

The book's title

The English name is derived from the Latin Liber Leviticus, which is derived in turn from the Greek βιβλίον το Λευιτικόν, (biblion to Levitikon), meaning "book of the Levites". The English title is somewhat misleading, as the book makes a very strong distinction between the priesthood, descended from Aaron, and mere Levites. The custom in the Hebrew bible is to name the books of the Torah by their first word, in this case Vayikra , "and He called - vayikra is also the name of the first weekly Torah reading or parshah in the book.


The book is generally considered to consist of two large sections, both of which contain several mitzvot.

The first part Leviticus 1-16, and Leviticus 27, constitutes the main portion of the Priestly Code, which describes the details of rituals, and of worship, as well as details of ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness. Within this section are:

  • Laws regarding the regulations for different types of sacrifice (Leviticus 1-7):
    • Burnt-offerings, meat-offerings, and thank-offerings (Leviticus 1-3)
    • Sin-offerings, and trespass-offerings (Leviticus 4-5)
    • Priestly duties and rights concerning the offering of sacrifices (Leviticus 6-7)
  • The practical application of the sacrificial laws, within a narrative of the consecration of Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8-10)
    • Aaron's first offering for himself and the people (Leviticus 8)
    • The incident in which "strange fire" is brought to the Tabernacle by Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu, leading to their death directly at the hands of God for doing so (Leviticus 9-10)
  • Laws concerning purity and impurity (Leviticus 11-16)
    • Laws about clean and unclean animals (Leviticus 11)
    • Laws concerning ritual cleanliness after childbirth (Leviticus 12)
    • Laws concerning tzaraath of people, and of clothes and houses, often translated as leprosy, and mildew, respectively (Leviticus 13-14)
    • Laws concerning bodily discharges (such as blood, pus, etc.) and purification (Leviticus 15)
    • Laws regarding a day of national atonement, Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16)
  • Laws concerning the commutation of vows (Leviticus 27)

The second part, Leviticus 17-26, is known as the Holiness Code, and places particular, and noticeable, emphasis on holiness, and the holy; it contains commandments intended not just for the priests but for the whole congregation.. It is notably more of a miscellany of laws. Within this section are:

  • Laws concerning idolatry, the slaughter of animals, dead animals, and the consumption of blood (Leviticus 17)
  • Laws concerning sexual conduct - incest, bestiality, and most notably homosexuality among men, laws concerning sorcery, and moloch (Leviticus 18, and also Leviticus 20, in which penalties are given)
  • Laws concerning molten gods, peace-offerings, scraps of the harvest, fraud, the deaf, blind, elderly, and poor, poisoning the well, hate, sex with slaves, self harm, shaving, prostitution, sabbaths, sorcery, familiars, strangers, and just weights and measure (Leviticus 19)
  • Laws concerning priestly conduct, and prohibitions against the disabled, ill, and superfluously blemished, from becoming priests, or becoming sacrifices, for descendants of Aaron, and animals, respectively (Leviticus 21-22)
  • Laws concerning the observation of the annual feasts, and the sabbath, (Leviticus 23)
  • Laws concerning the altar of incense (Leviticus 24:1-9)
  • The case law lesson of a blasphemer being stoned to death, and other applications of the death penalty (Leviticus 24:10-23), including anyone having "a familiar ghost or spirit", a child insulting its parents (Leviticus 20), and a special case for prostitution (burning them alive) (Leviticus 21)
  • Laws concerning the Sabbath, Jubilee years and slavery., (Leviticus 25).
  • A hortatory conclusion to the section, giving promises regarding obedience to these commandments, and warnings and threats for those that might disobey them, including sending wild animals to devour their children. (Leviticus 26:22)

These ordinances, in the book, are said to have been delivered in the space of a month, specifically the first month of the second year after the exodus. A major Chiastic structure runs through practically all of this book. For more detailed information see the article on Chiastic structure.


According to traditional belief, Leviticus is the word of Yahweh, dictated to Moses from the Tent of Meeting before Mount Sinai. Since Julius Wellhausen formulated the documentary hypothesis in the late 19th century, biblical scholars have regarded Leviticus as being almost entirely a product of the priestly source, originating amongst the Aaronid priesthood c 550-400 BC. Leviticus consists of several layers of laws. The base of this accretion is the Holiness Code, regarded as an early independent document with a faint relationship with the Covenant Code presented earlier in the bible.

Wellhausen regarded the Priestly source as a later, rival, version of the stories contained within JE, the Holiness Code thus being the law code that the priestly source presented as being dictated to Moses at Sinai, in the place of the Covenant Code. Different writers inserted laws, some from earlier independent collections. These additional laws, in critical scholarship, are those which subsequently formed the Priestly Code, and thus the other portion of Leviticus.

Leviticus in subsequent tradition

Jewish tradition

Leviticus constitutes a major source of Jewish law. In Talmudic literature, there is evidence that this is the first book of the Tanakh which was taught, in the Rabbinic system of education in Talmudic times. A possible reason may be that, of all the books of the Torah, Leviticus is the closest to being purely devoted to mitzvot and its study thus is able to go hand-in-hand with their performance.

There are two main Midrashim on Leviticus - the halakhic one (Sifra) and a more aggadic one (Vayikra Rabbah).

Christian tradition

Some Christians believe that Leviticus is the word of God, but generally do not consider themselves to be bound by all the laws prescribed by the text, due to the implied antinomianism in some passages of the New Testament, notably the letters of Paul. Most Christians consider 1 Corinthians 10:23-26, in which Paul directs followers to "eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience", to exempt them from following the dietary laws set forth in Leviticus.

However, there is a growing movement of those who claim that Paul's words have been taken out of context by Christians. Their claim is that Paul is talking about Kosher meatmarkets and that his concern is establishing halaka for Gentile Godfearers who were dwelling in the midst of Jewish communities and, who were effected by various sensitivities and errors from various Jewish groups, including those who were believers and unbelievers in Yeshua as the Messiah. So, when Paul later says in 2 Corinthians 7:1 "...let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God...", he is directing growing conformity to the Levitical codes.

On the other hand, to the favor of the belief that Christians are not bound by the dietary rules of Leviticus, we read Matthew 15:11, in which Jesus - answering Jerusalem scribes and Pharisees - teaches that "not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man: but what cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.", "but the things which proceed out of the mouth, come forth from the heart, and those things defile a man."

Some Christian denominations believe that all the restrictions set forth by Leviticus still apply today. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, not only obey the dietary restrictions but also understand Leviticus 17:10 as banning blood transfusions from person to person. (See Jehovah's Witnesses and blood transfusions).

See also


External links

Online translations of Leviticus:

Related article:

Free Online Bibliography on Leviticus:

  • BiBIL
  • Lego reenactments of key passages of Leviticus


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