God’s Holiness—as Magnified in Leviticus
“YOU should prove yourselves holy, because I Jehovah your God am holy.” That command of the Creator, repeatedly given to his people Israel in the wilderness, clearly sets forth the theme for the Bible book of Leviticus. (Lev. 19:2) In fact, the term “holy” appears upward of a hundred times in this book, more often than in any other Bible book.
The name “Leviticus” is quite fitting, for the book largely deals with the formal worship of Jehovah God as cared for by the priests of the tribe of Levi and their role in keeping Israel a holy nation.
Who wrote Leviticus? In some languages, such as German, the book is simply termed “3rd book of Moses.” That name fits the facts, for time and again in the Christian Greek Scriptures, references from Leviticus are attributed to Moses.* Moreover, it is a part of the Pentateuch, meaning “five rolls” or “fivefold volume.” Thus all the references in the Christian Greek Scriptures that credit other parts of the Pentateuch to Moses serve to support his being the writer also of Leviticus. The very fact that Leviticus begins with the word “And” ties it closely to the previous book of Exodus.
When was Leviticus written? In view of the foregoing, the logical conclusion is that Moses wrote Leviticus while in the wilderness during the very time of the events that are therein recorded. This is supported by the fact that certain of its commands have application only to wilderness conditions. And, really, the book breathes the very atmosphere of wilderness camp life.
What time period does the book cover? Exodus, the previous book, tells of events taking place on the first day of the first month of the second year. (Ex. 40:17) And the opening verse of the succeeding book, Numbers, tells of events taking place on the first day of the second month of the same year. It therefore follows that the time period covered by Leviticus could not have been more than one lunar month. And it could not have been less than eight days, for that is the time taken for the installation of the priesthood described therein.—Lev. 9:1.
Why was Leviticus written? Of what value was it to the Israelites in ancient times? For one thing, the book provides set regulations covering features that had already been a part of true worship. As an example of this, it regulated animal sacrifices, which had been offered to Jehovah before then by Abel, Noah, Abraham and Jacob. (Gen. 4:4; 8:20, 21; 22:13; 31:54) Leviticus also tells of the installing of Aaron and his sons (and their male descendants) as a special priesthood to oversee the formal worship and everyday lives of the Israelites. Before this the heads of families had served as priests in offering sacrifices.—Gen. 46:1; Job 1:5.
By means of the commands found in the book of Leviticus, Jehovah God impressed upon the minds of the Israelites the need for them to be a holy people and also how they might be such religiously and morally. Through its contents God also advised the Israelites of his will regarding their annual festivals, their weekly and yearly sabbaths, proper and improper sex relationships, diet and other matters. Among its most prominent prohibitions was that forbidding them to eat blood. And God summed up how they should treat one another by the command: “You must love your fellow as yourself.” (Lev. 17:10-14; 19:18) Truly, Leviticus spelled out for the Israelites how they might be a holy people to Jehovah God.
As for Christians today, the value of what Leviticus contains is made clear particularly in the book of Hebrews. From it we learn that the Levitical priesthood and its sacrifices pictured things far grander—the priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as well as other good things that result therefrom. It is faith strengthening for Christians to note the divine wisdom displayed in the laws bearing on physical health, which laws reveal a knowledge of facts not appreciated by worldly men of medicine until thousands of years later. It is also faith strengthening to note the fulfillment of certain prophecies found in Leviticus, such as those dealing with Israel’s apostasy and their return to God’s favor.—Lev. 26:29, 41-44; Lam. 4:10; Neh. 9:31.
SACRIFICES—VOLUNTARY AND OBLIGATORY
Chapters one through seven, and sixteen, of Leviticus deal with various kinds of sacrifices that the Israelites could offer, or were required to offer, in the interests of holiness. The burnt offering and the communion offering were voluntary sacrifices. As a burnt offering, the entire animal or bird, save its hide or feathers, was consumed on the altar. In the communion sacrifice a certain part was offered on the altar, it representing God’s sharing in the sacrifice; a part was eaten by the priest and a part by the offerer himself.—Lev. 1:1-17; 3:1-17; 5:8; 7:11-36.
The sin offering and the guilt offering were compulsory sacrifices. The former was to atone for sins committed unintentionally or by mistake. Here the kind of animal offered depended upon whose sin was to be atoned for, whether that of a high priest or a chieftain, the people as a whole or an individual among the common people.—Lev. 4:1-35; 6:24-30.
The sins requiring a guilt offering were more serious. These were to cover personal guilt due to unfaithfulness, deception or robbery, indicating a measure of willfulness. Three things were required of a thief: an animal sacrifice, restoration of the thing stolen and, in certain cases, a fine of 20 percent. The regulations governing these sacrifices reveal Jehovah God’s fine sense of justice. One’s position, one’s means and the degree of one’s guilt were all given consideration. (Lev. 5:1–6:7; 7:1-7) In connection with such sacrifices, the Israelites were twice reminded not to eat the blood.—Lev. 3:17; 7:26, 27.
Chapter 16 records the most important set of sacrifices of the Law, those offered on the day of atonement. On that day sacrifices for the sins of the people and burnt offerings were made. Included was the pronouncing of the sins of the people over a live goat, which was then sent away into the wilderness. The importance of this day was highlighted by the fact that the Israelites were not to do any work on this day and were to ‘afflict their souls,’ evidently meaning that they fasted.—Ps. 35:13.
In addition to animal sacrifices there were also certain bloodless offerings that could be offered. These consisted of either whole roasted grain or course-ground grain or fine flour, which was baked on a griddle or fried in deep fat.—Lev. 2:1-16.
So that Aaron could serve as High Priest and his four sons as underpriests, God commanded Moses to conduct an installation ceremony. This involved the offering of certain animals, parts of which were “waved” before Jehovah by Aaron and his sons. The entire ceremony lasted eight days. Giving proof of the fact that all of this was done at God’s command and had his approval, “Jehovah’s glory appeared to all the people, and fire came out from before Jehovah and began consuming the burnt offering. . . . When all the people got to see it, they broke out into shouting and went falling upon their faces.”—Leviticus, chapters 8 and 9.
Jehovah God considered the role that the priests played a most serious matter. Time and again he warned that failure to comply with all the requirements would incur the death penalty. When two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, took undue liberties with tabernacle worship “fire came out from before Jehovah and consumed them.” It could well be that these two acted under the influence of alcohol, for right afterward Jehovah God forbade priests to drink wine or liquor while serving at the tabernacle. They simply could not do justice to their duties while under the influence of liquor any more than responsible servants of God could today.—Lev. 10:1-10.
For one of the male descendants of Aaron to serve as a priest he had to be holy in the sense of being free from physical defects. He could not be lame, blind, hunchbacked or have a skin disease. A priest also was restricted in his mourning for the dead and as to whom he could marry. For the high priest the restrictions were even more exacting. There were also restrictions regarding who of a priest’s family might eat of the holy things offered at the tabernacle.—Leviticus, chapters 21 and 22.
LAWS GOVERNING WHAT IS CLEAN AND UNCLEAN
So that the Israelites might be a holy people, Jehovah God gave them laws regarding what he considered to be clean and unclean. Forbidden on pain of death were such morally unclean practices as incest, adultery and bestiality. It was because of such degraded practices that Jehovah decreed the extermination of the inhabitants of Canaan. Meriting similar punishment were apostasy, any practice of false religion, anything connected with spiritism, any blasphemy of the holy name of Jehovah God.—Chapters 18 and 20.
According to Leviticus, the Israelites could not eat the flesh of certain animals, both domestic and wild. These prohibitions served two purposes. On the one hand, they forbade various kinds of flesh, among which were those most likely to be infected by harmful organisms. And on the other hand, these prohibitions helped to strengthen the barrier between the Israelites and the surrounding nations. By thus being separated as a people holy to Jehovah God, they would be less likely to associate with other peoples and learn their bad ways. (Compare 1 Corinthians 15:33.) Then again, touching a dead body, whether of man or of beast, made humans and even a cooking vessel unclean. The wisdom of these restrictions was appreciated in the medical world only millenniums later, when men learned about germs. The laws governing uncleanness due to leprosy, involving quarantining, were quite detailed. There were also laws governing such matters as uncleanness due to genital discharges and childbirth.—Chapters 11-15.
In connection with these laws not only were the Israelites commanded to ‘love their neighbor as themselves,’ but they were told also what was included in that command. They were obligated to reprove the sinner and to show consideration to the blind, the lame, the deaf and also the poor, whom they were not allowed to charge interest. They were not to slander, nor to cheat in weighing and measuring. Anyone willfully harming his fellow was to receive just retribution.—Lev. 19:9-18, 26, 32-37.
SABBATHS AND FESTIVALS
Basically, the Israelites were enjoined to observe three kinds of sabbaths. First, there was the weekly sabbath, not on Sunday, the first day of the week, but on the seventh day. Secondly, the first day of each month was to be observed. Thirdly, there was a sabbath year when nothing was planted or harvested for a whole year and the land was allowed to rest. To enable the Israelites to observe the year-long sabbath, Jehovah promised that their crops in the sixth year would be sufficient to last them until the eighth year, when they would start to enjoy the harvest of that year’s planting. The great Jubilee, the fiftieth year, came after seven sabbath years. In this year every man would have restored to him whatever property he lost during the previous forty-nine years due to sickness, circumstances or even poor management. Hence, there would never be any families who would indefinitely get richer and richer, while others got poorer and poorer.—Chapters 23 and 25.
Leviticus also gives Jehovah’s requirements for the celebration of three annual festivals. These served as occasions of ‘rejoicing before Jehovah,’ and helped to strengthen the Israelites’ relationship with God as they unitedly worshiped Him. (Lev. 23:40) First, in early spring came the Passover, with its week-long festival of unleavened bread. This was followed in late spring by the festival of weeks, or Pentecost, lasting but one day. The third festival came in the fall after the completion of the harvest. It was called the festival of ingathering, or of booths, for during it the Israelites were required to dwell the full week in booths, reminding them of the time that they dwelt in booths while in the wilderness.
The book of Leviticus might be said to reach its climax in chapter 26, which tells of the rewards of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. Jehovah informed the Israelites, “If you continue walking in my statutes,” then what? They would have prosperity, abundant crops and peace, would defeat their enemies and become very numerous. However, ‘if they would reject God’s statutes,’ they would have famine, pestilence, defeat in battle and would even be carried away to a foreign land. But the chapter ends hopefully with a promise of restoration, which indeed did come to pass when the Israelites returned from Babylon in 537 B.C.E. Finally, chapter 27 deals with the making of certain vows and presents the conclusion.
The book of Leviticus is truly of great value to God’s servants today, even as it was to his servants in ancient times. Among other things, it stresses the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the need for an atoning sacrifice, the sanctity of blood and the importance of justice and love. But above all, it brings home to us a realization of the importance of Jehovah’s sovereignty as the great Lawgiver, with emphasis on his name and his holiness.