This book, breaking the historical narrative which is taken up again in Numbers, focuses mainly on one of the tribes of Israel, Levi, and particularly on its priests and their duties in regard to divine worship. The Hebrews called this book, like the others in the Pentateuch, after its opening word, wayyiqra (= and he called). The Church recognizes it as an inspired book, part of the Old Testament canon.
Although Catholic exegetes admit the Mosaic authorship of the book of Leviticus, they usually say—and in this also follow the magisterium of the Church—that some details in the book may have been later modified or indeed may be additions, without this in any way affecting the book’s substantial Mosaic authenticity or its inspiration.
For example, A. Vaccari asserts that “Moses found the use of sacrifices to be something firmly rooted in the customs of all peoples. In the tablets discovered in Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) there is reference to the same kinds of sacrifices as in the Pentateuch, even with the same names, given the affinity of the languages. In making his laws,” Vaccari says, “Moses simply regulated and consecrated to the worship of the true God rites already in use.”
It should be remembered that because of its geographical position Israel was open to all sorts of Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian influences and that additionally the Israelites retained very ancient cultural practices inherited from their ancestors. This entire tradition was raised, purified, and enriched over the centuries by the revelation of Sinai.
The Leviticus account begins with the second year of the Exodus, when the Hebrews are already in the middle of the wilderness. In the previous book the Tent already figured with its altars and regulations about the worship to be given to Yahweh. Now Moses develops these forms of worship in much more detail. Leviticus is really a manual for that liturgy.
To understand the book properly one must bear in mind two basic reference points: the first being that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is infinitely holy, inaccessible to man (Ex. 19:21), and therefore completely transcendent; the second, that despite this he dwells in the midst of his people (Lev. 23:32, 26:12). Therefore he asks of them, not only reverence, love, and adoration, but a holiness of life which enables them to live as his true children forever in his presence (Lev. 11:44, 19:2). Worship and holiness of life are the two main concerns of Leviticus.
Israel gave great importance to external public worship of Yahweh, the only God and Lord of the universe, and in this worship sacrifices of different kinds were very much in evidence. Another.aspect of these sacrifices, also very relevant, was their role in atoning for personal sins, in order to restore friendship with God, which sin shattered. Despite their imperfections all the Israelite sacrifices had a clear objective—to engrave on the people’s minds the notion of God’s sublime holiness and man’s unworthiness to enter his presence. To him alone were sacrifices to be offered, by the ministry of priests. The sacrificial victims had to be perfect, unblemished, and those who shared in sacrificial meals had to be free from legal uncleanness, that is, they had to be as holy as possible.
In its first chapters Leviticus tells us about the five forms of sacrifice under the Old Covenant—constituting a code of sacrifice.
1. The holocaust. This is a word of Greek origin meaning “offering.” It is the main sacrifice, where the victim is wholly burnt. The victim is considered as going up in the flames of the altar, reaching up to God (the corresponding Hebrew word comes from the verb alah = to go up).
This kind of sacrifice certainly goes back to the time of Noah (Gen. 8:20); it symbolizes man’s recognition of God’s universal sovereignty; it was performed only by priests, who had a special role in Levitical liturgy. In addition to the daily morning and evening holocausts (Ex. 29:38-42), others were offered on festive days and other specified occasions.
2. The peace offering. This was a type of sacrificial meal. The Hebrew word selamin (Lev. 3:1-17) refers to the sacrifice offered to God for favors bestowed, although it may be connected with shalom (= peace), hence peaceful, friendly relations with God. This latter sense fits in better with all forms of peace offering, the distinguishing feature of which is the sacrificial meal in which the offerer had the right to partake.
Part of the victim was given to and consumed by offerers and priests as a sign of peace, and the blood and the fat, being the more vital part, was reserved to God. Peace offerings were prescribed on the fulfillment of a Nazarite vow (Num. 6:14) and on the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:19). All peace offerings had to do either with asking or thanking God for favors.
3. Sin offering and trespass offering. The difference between these is unclear. They both had to do with restoring relations with God, which had been broken by sin. A “sin” was an ordinary offense committed through human frailty or passion. A “trespass” denoted fundamentally a state of culpability, imputability, and indebtedness. Sin also involved culpability, but in not so obvious a way when committed through ignorance or inadvertence (4:23; 13:22ff). These unintentional sins constituted a real, though involuntary, transgression and therefore had to be expiated when the offender became conscious of his offense.
Trespass was a formal sin involving material damage to one’s neighbor. Sin offerings therefore expiated ritual faults against Yahweh, whereas trespass offerings also looked to actions involving injustice to one’s neighbor.
4. Bloodless sacrifices. These usually took the form of offerings of cereals. They consisted of finest flour, which could be presented as uncooked flour, unleavened bread (leaven and honey could not be burned in honor of Yahweh because they fermented and fermentation was associated with corruption, 2:11), or parched grain. Leavened bread and honey could be presented to God only as offerings of first fruits, but were never burnt on the altars.
Prior to Israel’s establishment as a people, the priesthood was not reserved to any particular social group; any prominent person could represent the community as its priest—a father his family, a chief his tribe or clan. After the Covenant, a special corps of priests had to be established, one totally dedicated to the service of Yahweh.
All this is covered in Leviticus 8-10. The priests had to come from the tribe of Levi, the tribe which would be given no share in the later division of Canaan. They were required to be detached from material possessions in order to spend more time in God’s service; this called for more holiness on their part, and they had already been put to the test successfully at Massah and Meribah (Deut. 33:811). Leviticus 21:6 expressly states that “they shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they offer the offerings by fire to the Lord, the bread of their God; therefore they shall be holy.”
All the ceremonial to do with their consecration was a vivid reminder of the importance given to their function. They had to be holy because God, whom they served, was holy (11:14, 19:2, 20:26). In the New Testament this principle will be applied to everyone. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
Because Israel was God’s chosen people, it had an obligation to follow a more spiritual way of life than that of other nations—hence the rules laid down by God and specified by Moses to protect the people from being contaminated by pagan influences. A whole series of rules about uncleanness and purification rites is contained in Leviticus 11-16, ending with a description of the ritual of the Day of Atonement (the day when Israel was cleansed from its sins in an as yet merely external way, for this did not approach the kind of interior justification to which Christ’s redemption would give all mankind access).
Leviticus 17-26 spells out the way in which members of the people of God should relate to each other. If they keep the rules contained therein, they are promised peace even in this life (26:3-13), which will take various forms—God’s sending rain at the right time; abundant harvests, peace and security, punishment of one’s enemies, having many children, being on good terms with God. It also specifies a number of scourges (26:14-39) to be visited on transgressors of the Law—disease, famine, sterility, wars, deportation.
To understand Leviticus properly the reader must be familiar with the notion of sacrifice, which lies at the core of genuine religion. If man had not sinned, the only sacrifice he would have needed to offer God would have been that of doing his work well and looking after his family. But by sinning man became unworthy and led all his descendants into a state of alienation from God. He could not offer himself as a pure victim; he was not acceptable.
This meant that he needed someone to purify him and reconcile him with his Creator, someone whose merit at least balanced out the blame he had earned through sinning. Out of compassion for man God designated his Son to be the victim who would effect this reconciliation. And so Christ became man and out of love for us offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins.
Until that moment arrived, until the expected Messiah (Gen. 3:15) came, God wanted man to offer him worship as his infinite majesty demanded; by doing so, man would be publicly recognizing his dependence on his Creator. God therefore accepted the symbol of the blood of the animals sacrificed to him and the other bloodless sacrifices. Although these sacrifices had their significance, they were incapable of justifying or redeeming man—that is, they could not restore lost happiness to him. They were of use as a way of honoring God and of keeping Israel away from idolatry, as practiced by its neighbors, and of showing those neighboring peoples the Israelites’ faith in the one true God.
Clearly the sacrifices offered by the patriarchs up to the time of the Law of Sinai, and from then up to the Messiah, were only symbols of Jesus Christ’s own sacrifice as a spotless victim acceptable to God. Because he was both God and Man, only Christ could offer himself to God and restore man to righteousness and to friendship with God. What is said in Leviticus is a figure of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, because as Paul says, “Christ is the end [purpose] of the law” (Rom. 10:4).
Christian sacrifice will have all the elements of Levitical sacrifice, with this essential difference: Christ himself is at the center of it. Augustine goes as far as to say that “in the victims of those animals which the Jews offered to God lies the prophecy of that victim still to come, which Christ offered to the Father in the great sacrifice of the cross.”
Christians should always be thankful to God for the one, true sacrifice, the one offered by Jesus Christ on Calvary in expiation for our sins (Heb. 7:27). This very sacrifice is renewed in a bloodless way in the sacrifice of the Christian altar—the same victim, the same priest—when the bread and wine are changed through transubstantiation into the body and blood of our Lord, who has chosen in this way to give himself to us as spiritual nourishment and to build us into his mystical body.