April 25, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Leviticus, the Jews’ first book of laws

John F. Fink(Sixteenth in a series of columns)

The Levites (descendants of Jacob’s son Levi) were the tribe from which Israel’s priests were drawn. Therefore, it’s understandable that the Book of Leviticus, the third of the five books in the Jewish Torah, came from a priestly source.

We all know about the Ten Commandments, but there are really 613 commandments in the Torah, and 247 of them are in Leviticus. (No, I didn’t count them, but someone apparently did.) So this is a book of laws according to tradition handed down by God to Moses, but actually compiled over a considerable amount of time after 538 B.C. Jewish scholars have debated the meaning of the laws ever since.

The basis for all these laws is that God is holy, and there’s a gulf between him and humans. However, there are moments when we enter into the realm of the sacred, especially when it comes to sexuality, birth and death.

Why should Christians be interested in these ancient Jewish laws, especially after St. Paul taught us that Christians are free from the Mosaic Law? One reason would be to gain a better understanding of parts of the New Testament. For example, the Jewish concept of uncleanness came up often when Jesus was healing someone, and Mary had to be purified 40 days after the birth of her son in accordance with one of the laws (Chapter 12).

Similarly, the laws pertaining to sacrifice fill the first quarter of Leviticus. Without understanding the role of sacrifice for the Jews, it would be hard to understand the meaning of Christ’s death (as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches), or the idea of the Eucharist as a sacrifice.

There are two major divisions in Leviticus. The first 16 chapters tell priests how to conduct themselves, including laws of sacrifice and laws of proper foods and states of purity. Chapters 17-27 deal with the wider community and public worship.

Chapters 1-7 give us the laws of sacrifice: the holocaust (the animal that is burned on the Temple’s altar), the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering. Jews today cannot perform these sacrifices because the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Nevertheless, these laws remain important for Jews.

Chapters 8-10 tell us about the installation of Aaron and his sons and their first sacrifices. They must be done with great precision and that point is hammered home when two of Aaron’s sons are struck dead because they handled incense improperly.

Then we get to the laws regarding legal purity in Chapters 11-15: clean and unclean food, the uncleanness of childbirth and the mother’s purification, and two chapters about leprosy. We can see why Jesus told the lepers he cured to show themselves to the priests.

Chapter 15 is about personal uncleanness. Reading verses 25-27, we can understand the plight of the woman who suffered hemorrhages for 12 years whom Jesus healed (Mt 9:20-22; Mk 5:25-34; Lk 8:43-48).

Chapter 16 gives regulations for the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!