Leviticus: Outlines and Commentary
By Derek Leman
© 2017 Derek Leman
Table of Contents
The Lord summons Moses to the Tabernacle (1), introduction to animal offerings (2), burnt/whole offering from the herd (3-9), burnt/whole offering from the flock (10-13).
Back to Top
Vs. 2 uses the verb “bring near” (yaqriv) to describe bringing an offering, a fact difficult to notice in English translations. It should be “a person that brings near from among you an offering to Hashem” (instead of the common English translations “when any one of you brings an offering”). As if this was not enough, the very word for offering (korban) is from the same root, having to do with nearness. It is tempting to try an awkward English translation such as “a person that brings near from among you a nearness-gift.” The sacrifices are first and foremost about drawing near to God, the occasion when Israelites would be closer to the Presence than at any other time. It was literally true that bringing a sacrifice was drawing near, since the offerer came to the “north side of the altar” (vs. 11) near the entrance to the sanctuary. God’s Presence was inside the inner room, not far from the offerer. It was also a drawing near in a spiritual and psychological sense, with the offerer coming in awe to the place of God’s dwelling to present a gift. Why does the text need to reassure the offerer that the offering he or she will find acceptance (or favor) in drawing near to God? Why does the offerer need atonement (vs. 4, “to make atonement [expiation] in his behalf”)? Baruch Levine suggests that it is because he or she has drawn near to the holy Presence, which is life-threatening (JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus). In other words, God invites the Israelites to come near, but has to atone for them since nearness is dangerous. The verb often rendered “atone/make atonement” is kippeir (the Piel form of kafar) and always means “wipe, purge, cleanse” in the Piel form. In sacrificial texts it is always in the Piel form. It does not mean “ransom” or “cover” as some commentators suggest (see Milgrom for further details), but “wipe clean.” The first basic distinction in offerings is between animal and grain, Leviticus 1 and 2 respectively. The basic animal offering is the burnt or whole offering (the olah). Jacob Milgrom says that Leviticus goes out of its way to deny that this is a feeding of God (as in pagan rituals). This is why offerings are burned on the outer altar in the courtyard and not brought into the Tabernacle, as in pagan temples, as a supposed meal for the deity. The leaning has been thought to be either: (1) transfer of sin or (2) identification of ownership. Milgrom argues it is (2) since the one case where we know transfer is involved is at Yom Kippur and the leaning of two hands, not one, on the scapegoat (16:21). Thus, one-handed leaning (1:4) is identification and not transfer. The offerer is attesting, “This is my offering brought in sacrifice and paid for by me to worship my God.” The burnt offering is the standard offering of the patriarchs, as it pre-exists the Tabernacle, and is brought for worship and perhaps for general purging of any unknown guilt before God. Baruch Levine suggests the function of the burnt offering is attraction. It is a costly offering and it is to get God’s attention, which is why it is always first in the order of offerings.
LEVITICUS 1:14 – 2:6
Burnt/whole offering of birds (14-17), the grain offering of flour and frankincense (2:1-3), the baked grain offering (4), the grain offering from the “griddle” (5-6).
The burnt offering was the primary mode of sacrifice prior to the building of the Tabernacle and the establishment of the priesthood and its procedures. Stories of the patriarchs include burnt offerings brought for a wide range of reasons including joyful and troubled motivations (e.g., thanksgiving, fear of divine anger, etc.). It is assumed in certain texts that the burnt offering is a weightier gift, since the offerer derives no meat from it (cf. Judg 13:16 and Midrash Tanhuma Zav 1, Milgrom). Since the burnt offering was so costly, Leviticus begins with the more expensive offering from the herd, to the gradually less expensive offerings from the flock, of birds, and then the grain offering. In other words, the grain offering is the poor man’s burnt offering, as the rabbis affirm (Mishnah Menahot 13:11). The basic word for the grain offering means a gift (minchah), like tribute given to a king. Like burnt offerings of animals, the grain offering can function for atonement in some cases (Lev 5:11). The grain offering may be prepared in a variety of ways, the first three out of four types being described in 2:1-7: flour with frankincense, unleavened cakes baked in an oven, and the toasted “griddle” offering (see comment in next section about the “griddle” vs. pan). Grain offerings sometimes were a sacrifice unto themselves and sometimes accompanied other offerings, especially the burnt. Vss. 3 and 10 emphasize that only a small portion of the grain offering is to be burnt, which Milgrom says is likely to strongly overcome the cultural tendency of surrounding peoples to offer grain offerings on private altars, burnt whole. Leviticus requires them to be offered at the sanctuary as part of its program to eliminate multiple shrines and the tendencies of polytheistic worship. The bread of Israel made up a large part of the income of the priests. Frankincense is a resin from the sap of the Boswellia tree obtained from Arabia and Somalia in ancient times and very costly. Only the uncooked grain offerings required it to be added to the small burnt portion, whereas cooked grain offerings required only some olive oil.
Back to Top
The grain offering of the pan (7), the procedure for the grain offering (8-10), instructions regarding leaven and salt (11-13), the firstfruits offering of toasted grain (14-16).
What is the difference between the “griddle” and pan offerings of grain? The rabbis stated that the pan is deeper than the griddle and that the pan had a lid. The prepositions support this since the grain offering is baked “on” a griddle and “in” a pan (vss. 5, 7). Milgrom says that many “griddles” of clay and some of iron have been found in archaeological excavations. The griddle offering is a hard, toasted bread broken into pieces and softened with oil. The pan offering is cooked in oil (whereas the griddle cake is broken and softened with oil). The pan offering is a sort of fried dough cake. Leaven is forbidden on the altar because it represents decay (fermentation), and the whole purity system separates God from death (as will be shown in upcoming comments on Leviticus 12-15). Honey is likely fig syrup (maybe date) and prohibited also because there has been some fermentation. Salt is a preserver and a symbol of the enduring covenant between God and the people (see Numb 18:19 and 2 Chr 13:5).
Back to Top
The peace/well-being offering from the herd (1-5), the peace/well-being offering from the flock, sheep and goats (6-16), the fat/suet and blood, a perpetual statute (17).
As was the case with the burnt offering, the one who brings the well-being (peace) offering comes to the altar at the entrance to the Tabernacle, very close to the Presence of Hashem (3:2, see also 1:5). The well-being offering is a covenant meal between the offerer and God (see 7:15-21 for the regulations about eating the meat). From a variety of scriptures (including some in Deuteronomy and Psalms, but primarily Lev 7:11-18) we know of three sub-categories of well-being offering: the thanksgiving offering, the vow offering, and the freewill offering. The organ and skin fat (or suet), kidneys, and large lobe of the liver are burned on the altar. Much of the suet is inedible for people and yet there is a tradition in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature that it is the “best” offered to God. Milgrom calls it a mystery why the suet is reserved for God and burned on the altar. The prohibition against eating suet (organ and skin fat) or blood is called a “statute forever.” What distinguishes the well-being offering from all others is the fact that the blood and suet is offered to God while the rest is eaten by the offerer and those with him or her. The meat becomes to a certain degree sacred and the joyous experience of drawing near to God at the altar sanctifies the meal (much like a Passover, and many regard the Passover lambs as a special case of the well-being offering). Baruch Levine argues that the well-being offering served primarily as a tribute to God offered to atone for any rifts in one’s relationship with God (In the Presence of the Lord). The burnt offering and well-being offering are commonly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible throughout Israel’s history. They are the basic and common types of animal offering.
Back to Top
The Lord speaks to Moses again (1), if a person sins inadvertently (2), the high priest’s sin/purification offering (3-12), the whole congregation’s sin/purification offering (13-21), the king’s sin/purification offering (22-26).
This is a new section, so it begins with “and Hashem spoke to Moses.” Chapters 1-3 have all fallen under the narrative introduction of 1:1 in which God called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting. The sin [purification] offering and the guilt [reparation] offerings are not as ancient as the burnt, grain, and well-being offerings. They are innovations in Israel, not mentioned in any patriarchal stories. They function and have purpose only when the sanctuary (Tabernacle/Temple) is operating. Unlike other offerings, they are to be offered for specific reasons and offenses. The occasion which requires the purification (sin) offering is when any Israelite realizes they have violated a prohibitive commandment (they have done something about which God said “you shall not”). Elsewhere we find that the purification offering is also for severe cases of ritual impurity, but here in Leviticus 4 only the purification offering for inadvertent violation of a prohibition is addressed. Translations struggle with the meaning of “sins unintentionally” (“inadvertently” or “unwittingly” are other translations offered). This does not mean, as some fail to understand, that there were not means of purging away the defilement caused by deliberate and brazen sins. The brazen sinner was banned from the Temple and in danger of being cut off (the penalty of karet, Numb 15:30-31). Yet repentance (with confession) reduces the offense of a brazen sin to the level of inadvertent sin, something that can be deduced from the Yom Kippur ritual, from Leviticus 5:20-26 (6:1-7 in Chr Bibles), and Numbers 5:6-8. The rabbis said, “Great is repentance, which converts intentional sins into unintentional ones” (cited by Milgrom, b. Yoma 86b). The purpose of the purification offering is not to make the sinner clean. For example, in cases of impurity, it is the purification rituals such as bathing that return the impure person to a state of cleanness. But the blood of the purification offering is applied to the altar, not the person (Milgrom). This is because the blood cleanses the altar, not the person. Vss. 20 and 26 say “the priest will make atonement for them/him.” It renders a purification (atonement) on their behalf (they are not “purified,” but purification is made “on their behalf”). This is often wrongly read in terms of personal atonement. It is, as Milgrom shows, a purification of the sanctuary from the defilement of sin. The notion of Leviticus (and Ezekiel) is that the sins of the people (as well as their literal and symbolic contact with death) defile the sanctuary, like air pollution which stains the altar and Temple, and make it a place God does not wish to dwell (see Lev 15:31; Num 19:20). The blood of offerings purifies the sanctuary from sin and death. If the altar and sanctuary are not regularly purged with the purification (sin) offerings, God’s Presence will depart. The sinner is forgiven for defiling the altar and sanctuary, but this does not deal with the total problem of his or her sinfulness and separation. The purification offering cleans the altar, not the sinner, and keeps God’s Presence near. The greater solution to the problem of the separation of God’s Presence from sinful people will have to be come some other way, alluded to in Torah by the promise of a day when all the people have “circumcised hearts” and perfect love (Deut 30:6).
Back to Top
LEVITICUS 4:27 – 5:10
The inadvertent sin of a commoner (27), a goat as a sin/purification offering (28-31), a lamb as a sin/purification offering (29-35), the graduated sin/purification offering (5:1-10).
The inadvertent sins of the people defiled God’s dwelling place (Lef 15:31; Numb 19:20). The blood of the purification (sin) offering purged (wiped away) that defilement from the outer altar (and in some cases from the inner altar and Holy Place). The purification sacrifice of the priest was a bull (4:1-12), of the whole congregation was also a bull (4:13-21), of a leader of the people was a male goat (4:22-26), and now the offering of a commoner should be a female goat (4:27-31) or a female lamb (4:32-35). Whereas the blood for the priest and the whole congregation was brought inside the sanctuary (dashed in front of the veil and daubed on the horns of the incense altar) the blood for a leader or commoner is only applied to the outer altar (daubed on the horns and then poured out at the base). The sin of a priest or of the whole congregation encroached more deeply into the sanctuary, defiling even the Holy Place. Milgrom declares that the depth of defilement depends on the degree of the sinner and sin. The inadvertent or repented-of sins of the people defile only the outer altar. Sins of the whole community or the priest defile the inner altar and Holy Place. Unrepented and brazen sins defile the Holy of Holies and are purged at Yom Kippur (Lev 16:11-19). In the case of the leader’s offering and for both types of offering of the commoner we read “he shall be forgiven.” The forgiveness required in this case is for having defiled the altar of Hashem. By purifying the altar of this contamination they have caused, they are forgiven of the act of defiling. Yet this does not indicate a complete forgiveness and a remedy to the greater problem of separation from God’s Presence. The sinner has merely secured the right to continue being accepted from afar, allowed to come as close as the outer altar. The Torah and prophets suggest, however, that a greater forgiveness and reconciliation with God will be possible in the latter days. The atonement theology of Leviticus leaves the sinner outside the sanctuary, separated from God. The New Testament theology of Yeshua’s sacrifice perfectly complements the lack in Leviticus. Something quite different is covered in 5:1-13. These are deliberate violations of positive commands: one fails to testify in court, another fails to purify from animal impurity, another fails to purify from human impurity, and the fourth case fails to fulfill an oath. Chapter 4 concerned inadvertent violations of commanded prohibitions while 5:1-13 concerns deliberate violations of positive commands. How can there be atonement for deliberate failure to do what is required? The guilt of the offerer (repentance, confession, vs. 6 “he shall offer as guilt”) converts their omission into an inadvertent sin. They will have to complete what they omitted (making amends for failure to testify, purifying from the impurities, fulfilling the oath). In 5:22-23 (6:3-4 in Chr Bibles) we see that atoning for guilt requires restitution or amends. The offering to be made in this case allows leniency in its cost, so that Milgrom calls it a “graduated purification offering.” That is, if he cannot afford a lamb, two turtledoves will do, and if not even turtledoves, then flour is acceptable (5:11). The regular sin/purification offerings of ch. 4 removed defilement from the altar and/or sanctuary for inadvertent sins of commission while the graduated purification offerings removed guilt for deliberate omissions through amends and repentance.
Back to Top
LEVITICUS 5:11-26 (5:11 – 6:7 in Christian Bibles)
Continuation of the graduated sin/purification offering (11-13), the guilt/reparation offering (14-26 (5:14 – 6:7 in Chr Bibles)).
The last section of the graduated purification offering is of flour. No poor person in Israel would be unable to bring an offering to God. The reparation offering (guilt offering, asam) is for situations involving sacrilege (vs. 15 is variously translated “breach of faith,” “commits a trespass,” etc.). Milgrom looks to the wider Near Eastern context to define the word ma’al used in vs. 15 and refers to sacrilege against sacred objects. This sacrifice is specifically for cases where actual reparation (remuneration) is required. For example, the word asam is used only twice in the narratives of Israel’s history and both cases involved a payment of money. In 1 Samuel 6:13-17, the Philistines paid gold as a reparation offering for angering Israel’s God. In 2 Kings 12:17, people brought reparation offerings of silver to the Temple as part of its repair under Joash. The reparation offering requires a payment of what was neglected with one-fifth added (vs. 16). Vss. 17-19 concern the fear of unknown sin against sacred things. Many ancients worried about the wrath of God (or the gods) for unknown sins. The reparation offering enabled peace that all was right with God and that no unknown sin stood between the offerer and God. Vss. 20-26 (6:1-7 in Chr Bibles) concerns a series of sins related to oaths and property. It should be noted that these sins are deliberate. How can a sacrifice for inadvertent sin cover deliberate fraud, theft, or oath-breaking? The assumption of the sacrificial system is that repentance converts deliberate sin into inadvertent sin in God’s mercy. The reparation offering is fitting for these crimes because they require monetary reparation. Repentance is vital to the reparation offering as indicated by vss. 5-6: “when he realizes his guilt and confesses his sin, he shall bring as his reparation” an offering to God (5:5-6).
Back to Top
LEVITICUS 6:1-11 (8-18 in Christian Bibles)
Priestly instructions for the offerings in their daily administrative order (1-2a(8-9a)), the Burnt Offering (2b-6(9b-13), the Grain Offering (7-11(14-18)).
The decision in Christian Bibles to break the chapter in the middle of the Reparation Offering instructions is unfortunate. The break in Jewish Bibles fits the change in implied audience perfectly. Chapters 1-5 of Leviticus (1:1 – 6:7 in Christian Bibles) are primarily to the laity with some instructions addressed to priests. By contrast, chapters 6-7 (6:8 – 7:38 in Christian Bibles) are primarily addressed to the priests with some instructions addressed to the laity. Furthermore, this section contains the first five of ten “Torahs” (Hebrew torot) in Leviticus, five torot of sacrifice and five of impurity. That is, ten times Leviticus says “this is the law/ritual [torah] of …” 6:2(9) is the torah of the burnt offering and 6:7(14) is the torah of grain offering, the first two of ten in Leviticus. Milgrom calls them the ten commandments of ritual life. The torah of the burnt offering is from the perspective of the priestly duties. It is the first offering in the morning and the last in the evening. The priestly dress, the perpetual altar fire, and the handling of ashes is emphasized here. The handling of the ashes at the altar is sacred and requires the holy vestments (white linen robe and undergarments) while taking them outside the camp is common (sometimes called profane) and should not be undertaken in holy garments. Thus the process occurs in two stages, with the ashes set beside the altar in sacred garments and then removed from the courts in common garments. Ideally, the altar fire in Israel would include the fire of God himself (Lev 9:24) and would never go out, so that divine fire was always maintained. The second torah of the grain offering instructs in the procedure for the memorial portion burnt on the altar to God and the donated portion to the priests (their prebends, as Milgrom calls them) of the majority of the unleavened cakes. The priests ate these holy donations in between the altar and the sanctuary, a holy place for holy food. The burnt, grain, purification, and reparation offerings are “most holy” while the well-being offerings are “holy.” The “most holy” things are not to be touched by laypersons. Their holiness is contagious and must be handled properly or holiness will be desecrated and this will be a sin against God.
Back to Top
LEVITICUS 6:12 – 7:10 (6:19 – 7:10 in Christian Bibles)
The high priest’s daily Grain Offering (12-16 (19-23)), the Purification Offering (17-23 (24-30)), the Reparation Offering (7:1-6), the priestly portions from the offerings (7-10).
The procedures for the offerings continue. Chapters 6 and 7 are addressed primarily to the priests except where instructions are given for the offerer (whereas chapters 1-5 are primarily for the offerer). Whereas vss. 7-11 (14-18) concerned grain offerings in general (the raw flour type being most common), vss. 12-16 (19-23) concern a twice daily grain offering required of the high priest. It’s manner of preparation is impossible to be certain about. Milgrom does not even translate one word in vs. 14 (tufinei). It is flour toasted on a griddle with oil as a hard, unleavened cake, which is softened with more oil and burned entirely on the altar. It is offered morning and evening with the daily burnt offering (the tamid). The high priest has a personal share in the daily maintenance of the altar’s sanctity and in the process of giving to God to sanctify the people. Vs. 17 (24 in Chr Bibles) begins the third of the ten Torahs of Leviticus (see comments on 6:1-11) with the “Torah of the purification offering.” This offering is food for the priest who brings it and his fellow priests as long as its blood is not offered inside the Tent (as is the case for some of the offerings, such as the bull for the sin of the high priest). The purification offering absorbs impurities from the altar and, is thus, most holy. Any contact with the flesh or the blood of it renders objects (not persons, Milgrom argues) holy. Holy in this case means “reserved for God’s purposes in the Temple.” Therefore, these objects must be de-sanctified afterwards so they will not be liable to defilement. This means the priest’s garment must be laundered, the identical procedure (ironically) for purifying something that is impure. Purification offerings which have been used inside the sanctuary (and not just on the altar) must be burned and handled properly. The start of chapter 7 begins yet another Torah of Leviticus, concerning the handling of the reparation offering. The reparation offering is just as the purification offering in procedure. Vss. 8-10 summarize the portions donated to the priests from the offerings: the skin of burnt offerings, all of the grain offerings besides the memorial portions, and the portions of the purification and reparation offerings which have just been discussed. The ceremony of daily maintaining the holiness of the altar is the duty of the priests and in so doing they serve all the people of Israel, mediating between the people and the infinitely holy God. Without this work of the priests, the connection between Israel and God is broken.
Back to Top
The Well-Being Offering (11-18), purity issues and sacred meat (19-21), suet and blood (22-27), the priestly portions of the Well-Being Offerings (28-36), section conclusion (37-38).
The fifth of the ten Torahs of ritual life in Leviticus (see comments on 6:1-11) concerns the well-being (a.k.a., peace) offerings. The well-being offering category is further divided into three subcategories: thanksgiving offerings, votive offerings (vowed offerings), and freewill offerings. Vss. 12-15 describe the procedure for thanksgiving offerings. They are brought with unleavened grain offerings (part burned on the altar) and also leavened grain offerings (donated to the priests). Vss. 16-18 combines the procedure for votive and freewill offerings. These require no grain offering. What distinguishes the well-being offerings is that the meat is eaten by the offerer. A thanksgiving offering is brought in response to escape from danger (this idea is based on Psalm 107, especially vss. 20-22, “he delivered them from their destruction…let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving”). The rabbis say that it is the one kind of offering that will never cease, even in the world to come, since it is not based on sin (Leviticus Rabbah 9:1, 7). A votive offering is for the case of a vow such as, “If Hashem delivers us I will bring him a yearling lamb at Shavuot,” or similar. The freewill offering is for any general motive of celebration before Hashem. The priests receive the breast and right thigh of all well-being offerings. Suet cannot be eaten, though suet of non-sacrificial animals can be used in other ways. Drinking or eating blood is absolutely forbidden upon penalty of being cut off. Vss. 37-38 bring a conclusion to the summary of offerings, which include the first five Torahs of ritual life in Leviticus.
Back to Top
Section introduction (1-5), washing Aaron and sons (6), clothing Aaron with the vestments (7-9), anointing the Tabernacle (10-11), anointing Aaron (12), clothing Aaron’s sons with the vestments (13).
In Exodus 29, Moses was commanded to anoint and clothe Aaron with the vestments. In Exodus 40, he was commanded to set up the Tabernacle and anoint it. What was commanded then is being fulfilled now in this section (chs. 8-10) in which the Tabernacle and priesthood are installed. In between the command and fulfillment, the instructions have been given for all the offerings (Lev, chs. 1-7). Milgrom asks, “Why is the realization of the command so far from the initial decree?” He answers: “Moses must learn the sacrificial procedures before he can proceed with the priestly consecration.” As to the ongoing relevance of this ancient ceremony that was held to consecrate the priesthood of Israel, Milgrom says its inclusion in the Bible reminds us in all ages that key events in our relationship with God should be marked with ceremony and not forgotten. Anointing (vs. 12) meant pouring perfumed oil on the head of someone or applying it to an object. The oil for anointing in the Torah is made by a special formula according to Exodus 30 and whoever uses it for any purpose other than the service of the sanctuary is to be cut off (Exod 30:33). Anointing raises the status of a person or object. The altar is holy, anointed seven times. It is the place where Israelites will meet with God in the most intense manner possible. The priests are holy when serving in their capacity to mediate between the people and God.
Back to Top
Purification of the priests (14-17), Burnt offering of the priests (18-21).
This is the carrying out of the instructions from Exodus 29, concerning the installment of priests. One purification offering was made, but all the priests leaned their right hands on its head to claim ownership (Milgrom). This was strictly to decontaminate the altar and the blood was not brought into the tent. The blood of purification offerings absorbs ritual impurities and thus decontaminates (a conclusion derived from Leviticus 4). At their installment, the priests decontaminated the altar in case it had been polluted by minor impurities which would defile the Presence (Milgrom). The meaning of impurity and defilement will become clearer in Leviticus 11-15 and especially in Leviticus 15:31 and Numbers 19:20. After the sin/purification offering, they brought a burnt/whole offering to seek God’s favor over the entire Tabernacle and priesthood. The burnt offering is a more powerful means of seeking divine favor, a costly gift offered exclusively for the purpose of seeking God. The procedure for the burnt offering follows Leviticus 1:6-9 which itself adds more specific details to Exodus 29:17-18. Milgrom sees them as two different sources, but Leviticus is simply more detailed and there is no actual discrepancy. The service of the Israel’s priesthood was initiated with great care, to be a pure and holy institution serving God and the people.
Back to Top
Moses presents the Ordination Offering and puts blood on Aaron and sons (22-24), Moses places the sacrificial parts on the hands of Aaron and sons and burns them (25-28), Moses takes the breast portion (29).
Aaron and sons are sequestered for seven days in the Tabernacle, according to Milgrom (see vs. 33). Their state of holiness is maintained for this entire period and they pass from being common to being holy. The offering made during this event is a unique type, similar in some ways to the well-being offering made for thanksgiving (a.k.a. the thanksgiving offering). Yet blood from it is applied to the thumb, ear, and toe of the priests, a feature not usually seen with sacrificial offerings. Further, the parts if the animal set aside to burn for God (from the grain, the fat, the tail, the liver lobe, the kidneys) and one of the parts that would normally be the portion of the priests (the right thigh) are placed in the hands of Aaron and sons, waved, and then burned to God. Meanwhile the breast, which usually belongs to the priests, is given instead to Moses. As Milgrom says, this unusual ordination offering is a cross between a burnt offering and a well-being offering. The word “ordination” means literally “filling” as in the idiom “filling the hands.” The ordination offering fills the hands of Aaron and sons (with the sacrificial parts that are waved) and fills their hands with the power to officiate as priests (“filling the hands” is an idiom for equipping or installing a person with power).
Back to Top
Oil and blood from altar sprinkled on Aaron and sons (30), seven days sequestered and repeating the rituals of consecration (31-36).
The oil and blood, having touched the altar, are now sanctified. Thus, sprinkling Aaron and sons with blood and oil from the altar sanctifies them with the holiness of the altar. Yeshua referred to the principle that the altar sanctifies everything that touches it in Matthew 23:19, “which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” Aaron and sons remain sequestered for seven days as part of their consecration, which in Torah is the longest period of time for sanctification of holy things. The longest impurity is corpse defilement, which lasts seven days. Thus, if the priests are consecrated (elevated from common to holy) for the same length of time the worst impurity is purified (elevated from impure to common), we see how holy the function of the priests is. Furthermore, this seven day rite of passage for the priests can be compared to other rites of passage: seven days of mourning (Gen 50:10), of marriage (Gen 29:27), and the seven day period prior to a baby’s circumcision (Gen 17:12, Milgrom).
Back to Top
The command to inaugurate the Tabernacle on the eighth day and the notice that the Lord will appear (1-4), the people draw near and are told that the Lord will appear (5-7), the offerings of inauguration (8-16).
The priests and altar have been consecrated for seven days and now the Tabernacle is ready for its first service, its hanukkah (initiation, see 1 Kgs 8:62-63). Note that the holiday is so named for an initiation of the altar during the days of the Maccabees. Here in Leviticus 9, the people have not yet worshipped at the Tabernacle. At this first public service the people will have a spectacular visit: “Hashem will will appear to you.” Note that this bald statement is clarified in vss. 6 and 23: the people saw the Glory and not Hashem directly. The priests offer a bull and a ram for their own purification and favor. The people bring a male goat, a calf, and a lamb for their purification and favor as a congregation. They also bring an ox and ram for a peace offering — which would feed only a fraction of the congregation, though details about who ate from the offering are not given. Vss. 8-16 emphasize the rituals related to the altar, even to detail such as the burning of the suet (organ fat), while omitting what is not related to the altar (such as the hand-leaning, so Milgrom). The altar is the place of holiness which most immediately pertains to Israel, of more practical relevance even than the Tent. God’s pattern for the people, to be lived out when they approached him with gifts brought to the altar, was a lesson in the mystery and wonder of being near to God’s Presence. The priests made it possible for the people to experience this drawing near. They maintained a daily process of purifying the sanctuary to keep it fit for the Presence to dwell in the midst of Israel. And the central place where these purifications occurred was the altar outside of the Tent (and later, outside of the Temple). So, at the inauguration of the Tent, it is fitting that the Lord promises to appear to the people, a way of emphasizing what the sanctuary was all about. This appearing of God to the people would not be like the use of images at non-Israelite shrines, but would reflect the mysterious nature of Israel’s God. Hashem appears only as fire or Glory. In this unique event, Hashem by his own Glory will re-light the altar fire which had already been kindled by the priests. God’s favor will be evident at this inauguration as he will manifest his Presence to the congregation and consume their offering.
Back to Top
Completion of the offerings of inauguration (17-21), Aaron blesses the people with lifted hands (22), Moses and Aaron bless the people and the Glory of the Lord appears (23).
For seven days Aaron and sons were sequestered during their ordination ceremonies. Now Israel is inaugurating the Tabernacle and especially the altar at which they will meet with God through the worshipful act of sacrifice. To come to the altar is a ceremony of purification and of approach toward the Presence, which is in the Tent (later the Temple). Moses had indicated already in vs. 4 that on this auspicious occasion Hashem will appear — an event which will lead to a sad drama. Meanwhile in vs. 22, Aaron lifted up his hands and blessed the people. The form of the blessing has not yet been given in Torah, but will in Numbers 6:24-26. The Torah is not in chronological order, so we should probably understand that Aaron already knew the blessing. Aaron’s raised hands have become part of the Jewish custom to this day, to which has been added the symbol of hands formed in the shape of Hebrew letter shin, standing for Shaddai. After Aaron blesses the people, he and Moses enter the Tent. We are not told why. Perhaps they entered the Tent to pray for the theophany — the one Moses said would happen. When they emerge, they bless the people again. Many have wondered if the blessing of Aaron from the altar was different in content or the same as the second blessing by Moses and Aaron. Many details are left out of the story and have long been the subject of speculation. Milgrom, for example, quotes Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, where the blessing of Moses and Aaron is, “May the Memra [Word] of the Lord receive your sacrifices favorably and remit and forgive your sins.” When the theophany does happen, it is something unique and also dangerous. The Presence is revealed in veiled form to the people, but closer to the congregation than any theophany has been so far. The people are not sure how to handle such an open and dangerous appearance of the Mighty One.
Back to Top
LEVITICUS 9:24 – 10:11
Fire from the Lord consumes the offering (9:24), Nadab and Abihu bring unauthorized coals (10:1), Nadab and Abihu are consumed by divine fire (2), Moses gives a word from God (3), the removal of the bodies (4-5), Aaron and sons forbidden to show mourning (6-7), drunkenness forbidden in God’s service (8-9), discerning the clean and unclean and teaching Israel (10-11).
Abravanel, the medieval exegete, said it well, “Those who serve God more endanger themselves more; just as those who are closest to the battlefront are more likely to die, so those closest in the service of the sanctuary are more prone to err” (cited in Milgrom). What happened in this incident of Nadab and Abihu? There are many theories and issues, but the following reconstruction is well-founded. First, the offering on the altar, which was already burning, was suddenly consumed by divine fire. Milgrom says this was to affirm the newly installed priesthood of Aaron and sons and the service of the Tabernacle. All the people saw the manifestation of God’s fire and prostrated themselves in fearful reverence (likely the Glory fire appeared as in vs. 23 and from the Glory a fire came to consume the contents of the altar). Nadab and Abihu, most likely responding to the danger of the Glory appearing in the open to the people (which could cause people to die), sought desperately to offer an incense cloud as protection from the fatal Glory. They could not get coals from the altar, as prescribed in the incense legislation of Exodus 30, so they used other coals available in a nearby oven and put holy incense on the coals. This “unauthorized fire” (variously translated as unholy fire and similar) was a violation of priestly laws of holiness and so a different fire proceeded from the Holy of Holies (or perhaps from the Glory that was still appearing) and consumed them. Their motivation was good, but their action was a transgression. Moses refers to a word from God, which Milgrom explains is a new word and not an allusion to something already said before: God will be sanctified by those who are privileged to serve near him. Nadab and Abihu erred and in their great privilege faced great consequences. Some have wondered why the instructions against drinking are mentioned here. It is not necessary to assume that Nadab and Abihu were drinking. Rather, this law about drunkenness in the sanctuary service might be another example of the type of irreverence that could result in death. Aaron is forbidden to mourn because his role as priest takes precedence over even his personal feelings and death is not desirable near the Presence of God. The bodies are quickly removed. Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining sons that their task in the future, so painfully modeled in the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, will be to know and teach the laws of clean and unclean. The priestly details are not minor, but reflect the reverence required for nearness to God’s Glory.
Back to Top
Eating the most holy Grain Offering (12-13), eating the less holy Peace/Well-Being Offering (14-15).
Though something unthinkable has happened, the procedures in the sanctuary are so holy, they must go on. In spite of Nadab and Abihu’s death the normal rules for eating the priestly portions from the grain offering (most holy) and peace/well-being offering (less holy) must be observed. Eleazar, Ithamar, and Aaron need to complete the process of the inauguration offerings by eating the holy portions. Moses speaks because the requirement has already been stated by God (2:3; 6:9(16); 7:10). Aaron and his surviving sons must eat the priestly portions without grieving since their work in the sanctuary is about holiness (life) overcoming the forces of death (impurity). This puts a terrible emotional burden on them, to perform the holy at a time of personal loss. Moses had said earlier that the rest of Israel would mourn Nadab and Abihu in their place while Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar could not mourn (vs. 6). The grain offering portions are most holy (since they accompany the burnt/whole offering) and must be eaten by the officiating priests in the sacred precinct (beside the altar, Milgrom says this means anywhere in the inner court) while the priestly portions from the peace/well-being offering can be eaten by any in the family of the priests in any place that is clean.
Back to Top
Moses questions Aaron about abstaining from eating the offering (16-18), Aaron’s answer (19), Moses’ acquiescence (20).
This strange narrative needs much explanation. What is Moses angry about? Why is it assumed to be vital that Aaron and sons eat the meat of the purification offering? Why won’t Aaron eat it? Who is right in the end? Jacob Milgrom’s reconstruction answers all of these and more. The incident is about Aaron, the founding high priest, teaching Moses a lesson in priestly legislation. Details that modern readers find mysterious or tend to skip over were the crux of meaning for the ancient Israelites. What did the ceremonies at the sanctuary mean? The act of the priest eating the meat of the purification offering was a statement that in normal cases impurity was not dangerous, it was not a demonic power responsible for the bad fortunes of humans. The defilement and impurity treated by sacrifice was the result of human nature and totally atonable by the God-given means. Moses thinks Aaron in his grief is violating this principle, refusing to eat the offering because he is superstitious about the power of impurity. Milgrom explains that while the sanctuary and altar are vulnerable to impurity, the priests on duty are impervious. The eating of the purification offering is a theological affirmation: holiness swallows up death and life can defeat death. But Aaron had a priestly case to make: the death of Nadab and Abihu has created an exception to the normal rule because death has directly occurred in the sanctuary precincts. A total purging would be required, the drastic type of purification offering as on Yom Kippur. Milgrom calls it a borderline case. Aaron’s logic is that this is not a normal case of a purification offering, but an emergency situation in which the sanctuary has become impure during the process of an offering. The presence of human death offends the Divine Presence (see Num 19). Therefore, following priestly logic, Leviticus will take this opportunity to expound on the causes of impurity in the succeeding chapters (11-15, Num 19). And the emergency purging ritual, also the ritual for Yom Kippur, will follow in Leviticus 16. The notion that Aaron “won” the debate is confirmed by Leviticus 16.
Back to Top
Only these living things may be eaten from land animals (1-8), water animals (9-12), birds (13-19), winged insects (20-23), purity regulations for animal carcasses (24-28), swarming things (29-32).
It is common for modern interpreters to seek some inner logic concerning the purpose of the dietary laws. These must have been for reasons of hygiene, many would argue, so that God is protecting Israel by making their diet cleaner or healthier. If not hygiene, then surely these laws have something to do with health. Such theories have no basis at all in the text of Leviticus. Nor do they fit the evidence of science. Health arguments often focus on the supposed danger of pork, ignoring the equivalent health problems associated with cholesterols in beef and other meats. Some forbidden meats are known to be healthier than beef (ostrich, rabbit). The true rationale for these laws is not immediately obvious, but rather requires immersion into the inner logic of the purity laws of Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19. The short answer to the question “why the dietary law of Torah” is that killing is inhumane, therefore these laws ameliorate the injustice of animal slaughter. The proper context for understanding the dietary laws may be obscure to the reader because they come at the beginning of a section about purity and impurity. To interpret them we must press on and consider the other causes of impurity in Torah: childbirth, skin disease, mildew, genital emissions, menstruation, and corpse contact (see Lev 12-15; Numb 19). Jacob Milgrom’s explanation of the dietary laws breaks new ground in bringing together a close study of Torah’s teaching on impurity (it always symbolizes death and/or loss of life). What does eating meat have to do with death? The Torah’s view of animals is that they are not inanimate and amoral beings, but are responsible to to Torah (as in Exod 21:28). They keep the Sabbath (Exod 20:10; Deut 5:14). Firstborn animals are God’s property. There are promises for them in the messianic age (Hos 2:20(18); Isa 11:3). Furthermore, Israel is called to higher holiness standards than the nations (and the priests even higher). Milgrom charts it out this way — Nations: Israel : Priesthood :: All animals: Clean Animals : Sacrifices. The dietary laws do not eliminate killing, but they do moderate its dangerous effects of impurity in three ways (says Milgrom): (1) the kinds of animals that can be killed are very limited, (2) only those permitted may slaughter, and (3) the blood, which is life, must be properly drained into the earth (see Lev 17:3-5). Killing for food is a reality now, but is not the ideal and God’s laws regarding purity point to the world to come where death will be no more.
Back to Top
When impure carcasses contact vessels and objects (33-38), carcasses of clean animals found dead (39-40), detestable creatures (41-43), consecrate yourselves for I am holy (44-45), summary about purity distinctions and animals (46-47).
There is a distinction (little known outside of those who study Jewish law) between land animals and water/flying animals with regard to purity laws. Land animals and reptiles (created on day 6 in Genesis) when dead are tamei (impure to the touch) whereas marine animals and birds when dead are sheqetz (detestable, but not impure to the touch). Milgrom spells out the differences in his commentary (note that Lev 11:24-28 specifies that land animals and some creeping-reptilian animals impart impurity by touch when dead). Water is life-giving and to some degree it cleanses impurity. Thus, a spring does not become impure if it has a carcass in it (vs. 36). Not all swarming things transmit impurity to vessels (in which people would store food). Part of this is practical, since one could not prevent contact with insects and especially flying insects and vessels. Food must be stored to prevent contact with rodents and reptiles and to keep it dry. Animals found dead are impure even if they are clean animals (vs. 39). In vss. 41-45, these swarming things are forbidden to eat, but contact with most of them will not make one impure (vss. 29-30 specify which swarming things are not only detestable, but transmit impurity when dead). The laws of impurity with regard to creatures and vessels are complex and much space in rabbinic literature is devoted to the details.
Back to Top
LEVITICUS 12:1 – 13:5
Impurity and childbirth (12:1-8), start of scale disease (“leprosy”) diagnosis regulations (13:1-5).
All of the impurity laws are related to the symbolism of life and death. In childbirth, there is not only bleeding (loss of blood/life) but also a new life issues out from the woman (loss of life). Strangely, the glory of birth is veiled in the signs of death. All forms of death and loss of human life are to be kept far away from God’s sanctuary, since he is the God of life and not death. In the life-death symbolism of the Torah, giving birth involves a woman losing life-blood and also issuing life from her body. She also comes close to death in the birth process. Therefore, the symbolic system requires this loss of life and near death experience to be purified. The woman completes a ritual including a sacrifice in order to purge all death from her life and continue in a state of life purified from death. This symbolic meaning is never stated. It is determined from the overall system of Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19. Regarding childbirth, the issues are essentially: (1) an initial period of impurity which is contagious for seven or fourteen days depending whether the child is a boy or girl, (2) a note that circumcision happens for boys the day after this initial period of impurity, (3) a lesser period of impurity which is not contagious for thirty-three or sixty-six days depending again on the sex of the child, (4) offerings for restoration of purity at the end of the forty or eighty-day period, (5) and a provision of a less expensive offering for the poor. Why is the period of impurity longer for the birth of girls? It is likely because a female will grow to have monthly impurity (during menstruation) and have children, so a baby girl renders double the length of impurity. Other Near Eastern cultures had longer impurity for girls as well (Milgrom). In chapter 13, a very long section on scale disease begins. Biblical scale disease is often translated leprosy though it is not the same condition which is known as leprosy today. The main signs of scale disease are shiny marks, discolorations, scabs, and the hair turning white in the affected areas (Milgrom). Scale disease makes a person look like a corpse or variously its spots look like fungus and rot, hence its impurity in the life-death symbolic system.
Back to Top
Two more seven-day periods of examination for scale disease (6-8), the case of already formed scale disease (9-11), the sign of healing whiteness all over the body (12-13), when apparent healing reverses (14-15), when healing returns (16-17).
This section is very confusing, to say the least. Vss. 2-8 concern a person brought to a priest when the scale disease infection is not yet fully formed. Three separate periods of seven-day quarantine are needed for a final diagnosis of purity. Those who are cleared after one period require less purification than those who need two or three periods to be declared clean. Vss. 9-11 concern a person who comes with the scale disease already fully formed. In vss. 12-13, the whiteness all over the body is a sign of healing (Milgrom) through the shedding of dry skin. Yet, in vss. 14-15, it is noted that some start to heal and then the infection returns. In yet another reversal we see in vss. 16-17, the sign of healing can return after a new onset. The procedure is very thorough about diagnosing exactly when a person is pure and when a person is impure and the cycle of healing, reinfection, and continued recovery. All this elaborate medical detail is given for a disease which is unknown to modern medicine.
Back to Top
Diagnosing an area of a boil for scale disease.
The boil of vs. 18 is, like scale disease, thought to be a disease God sends at times in judgment (e.g., Deut 28:27).
Back to Top
Diagnosing an area of a burn for scale disease.
In the place where someone has been burned by hot coals or fire, it is important for the priest to determine if the lesions in the skin are the result of the burn or of scale disease. The two criteria are the depth of the lesion and whether or not the hair has turned white in the region under examination. If the lesion is deeper than the skin and the hair is white, the usual quarantine procedure is in effect. If not, the patient is quarantined for one week to be sure the lesions do not spread.
Back to Top
A scall of the hair or beard (29-37), a rash or white spots (38-39).
A scall is an infection that happens in the hair and beard areas of the skin. The criteria for scale disease in the hair and beard area is different, requiring a yellowing rather than a whitening of hair for a positive diagnosis. A rash of white spots (some translate as “tetter”) is not scale disease unless it exhibits the spots are shiny, deeper than the surrounding skin, and there is the presence of whitened hair.
Back to Top
Baldness and scale disease (13:40-44), duties of one inflicted with scale disease (13:45-46), mold disease in fabrics and objects (13:47-54).
Ordinary baldness is not related to scale disease, but the appearance of reddish-white infectious areas is the sign of scale disease on the head and forehead. The rite which is required of an infected person with scale disease includes torn clothing, disheveled hair, veiled mouth, isolation from others, and crying out “unclean” to those who approach. Note that in Lamentations 4:15 we read similar rites for those mourning the destruction of Jerusalem. This extreme rite of mourning marks the scale diseased person as the walking dead. All of the causes of impurity have a symbolic connection to death or the loss of life. The entire purity system is about God dwelling among the people, with the marks of evil and death constantly being purified, a picture of the world to come where God will dwell with humanity free from evil and suffering.
Back to Top
Mold disease in fabrics and objects.
There is a tradition of reading scale disease on persons as a malady which does not exist in the medical world, but which is a specific divine punishment. A strong tradition of the sages is that scale disease is punishment for lashon hara (the evil tongue, gossiping and slandering). Likewise, some have thought of mold disease in objects as a warning sent by God before scale disease sets into the person. Yet a point not in favor of this theory is that mold disease on objects requires no offering at the sanctuary (Milgrom).
Back to Top
Purification ritual for one healed from scale disease (1-7), shaving all hair, bathing, and waiting seven days (8-9), sacrificial items needed (10-11), Guilt/Reparation Offering (12).
The ceremony does not heal, but comes after healing, so it is not associated with magic. Cedar and scarlet represent blood, life, atonement. The tzarua (person with scale disease) was like a walking corpse. One bird dies and another is released to fly away, representing life from death, resurrection, the healing of the tzarua and return to the world of the living. It is not clear why the tzarua must bring a Guilt/Reparation Offering (Milgrom does not address it).
Back to Top
The Guilt/Reparation Offering procedure for a scaled diseased person (13-18), the Sin/Purification and Burnt/Whole Offering (19-20).
The guilt offering for the tzarua (scaled diseased person) is unique: the whole animal is a wave offering instead of just the parts usually prescribed and the blood along with oil is daubed on the tzarua in a similar manner to a priest being ordained. The tzarua is returning to life (symbolically) and life as an Israelite (a priestly people). The ritual is like the ordination of a priest for that reason. Both the priest and the scale-diseased person have an eight day period of sanctification. In the case of a priest, the eight day period raises them from the status of common to holy, from being an Israelite to being designated for God’s use in the priestly order. In the case of the scale-diseased person who has become clean, he or she is elevated from the status of death to life, or perhaps is re-elevated to the holiness of being an Israelite.
Back to Top
More on the ceremony for a healed tzarua (one who had scale disease).
A poor tzarua could substitute turtle doves for the sin/purification offering and burnt/whole offering. But there is no substitute for the guilt/reparation offering. Milgrom says this indicates that the guilt/reparation offering is central to the ritual of the healed tzarua. As we saw in the previous section, the rationale for the offerings of a healed tzarua concern the fact that he/she is symbolically returning to life. The tzarua was a walking corpse and several of the healed tzarua’s offerings are similar to those of priestly ordination. Israelites are a priestly people and the healed tzarua is becoming an Israelite in symbolic terms. But why the guilt/reparation offering and why is it so central? Milgrom says there is an assumption that the leper/tzarua had transgressed holy things and that the scale disease was a divine punishment. The case of Uzziah (2 Chron 26) shows that transgressing holy things was one possible reason for scale disease. Even if it was not known that such a transgression was the cause of a person’s scale disease, the offerings seem to be covering every possibility including unknown sin. As blood and anointing oil was daubed on the right ear, thumb, and large toe of the priests at ordination, so it is on the tzarua who has become this day consecrated to God, a returnee to life and full status in Israel.
Back to Top
LEVITICUS 14:33 – 15:15
Fungus houses (33-53), closing summary on tzara’at (“leprosy” and fungous, 54-57), opening introduction to genital discharges (15:1-2a), abnormal male discharges (gonorrhea, 2b-15).
The conditions considered impure in Israel all involve some connection with death and loss of life. The presence of severe fungi (mold, mildew) with green and red streaks that are deeply embedded in the stone and mud cement or wood of the house is a condition of rot. In Mesopotamia it was assumed that demons caused fungus to appear in houses (Milgrom). Leviticus attributes the cause to God (vs. 34) and yet there is no mention of this being a punishment for sin. There are some leniencies in its treatment: the person can remove belongings before the priest inspects the house and they will not be considered impure (vs. 36). Milgrom notes that the presence of impure places in Israel (i.e., the town dump, vss. 40, 45) suggest that land itself was not inherently holy, but what the people in the land did is what made the nation holy (or profane). The Israelite manner of handling fungus houses eliminates superstition and fear of demonic powers in the process, setting Israel apart from her neighboring peoples. Genital discharges (a subject begun in ch. 12 where the issue was childbirth) are impure because they involve substances of life (blood, semen) issuing from the members of life (the genitals). The first subject is abnormal male discharges which occur as a result of gonorrhea. In the book of Numbers, the tsav (person with gonorrhea) must be quarantined outside the camp. But Leviticus gives the law for general conditions (not merely during the wilderness encampment with its heightened sense of sanctity in the camp). The tsav is not exiled from the town, but quarantined in the house. The concern for transmission of impurity is over anything the tsav sits or lies on top of. They are impure and anyone who touches them is impure. Vs. 11 shows that if the tsav washes his hands, objects he touches with his hands (cup, vessel, etc.) do not become impure. Gonorrhea is impure, not because of its connection with sexual transgression (the sins of sexual impropriety are a separate matter), but because the life-causing member is diseased.
Back to Top
Male nocturnal emissions (16-17), emission of semen due to intercourse (18), menstruation (19-24), prolonged or abnormal feminine bleeding (25-28).
Semen is life and emissions are a symbolic loss of life. Menstruation is loss of blood and the monthly death of unfertilized eggs. Feminine bleeding is a result of this present age and its broken condition which will be redeemed. The function of the purity laws, a symbolic system, is to purify the people and land from the presence of death and loss of life, which God does not desire to have near his presence at the sanctuary. The world to come will be free from death and in some ways the tabernacle (later the temple) looks forward to that ideal. It is not possible for a symbol in this world to be perfect and the death of animals at the tabernacle is a violation of the ideal. Nonetheless, by designating a zone on earth where his presence dwells with humanity and keeping that zone free from human death, God points forward to something ultimate. Yet the meaning is not all future, for in the present time God provides a way to purify from all of these things. Israel can live in a symbolic world attesting God’s ideal here and now.
Back to Top
Offering of purification for abnormal feminine bleeding (29-30), section summary and vs. 31 is a crux for purification theology (31-33).
Leviticus 15:31 is a crux for understanding the meaning of Torah’s theology of purification and keeping impurity separate from the holy places near Hashem. Impurity can travel like air pollution and stain the actual Tabernacle itself. This defiling of the Tabernacle is to be prevented and also the people are to be kept separate from impurity. How can these two requirements be accomplished? The answer is by following the laws of purification that have been specified. Numbers 19:13, 20 will further fill out the picture of purification and its theology and application. It is a sin to fail to purify, though of course, it is not a sin to become impure. The modern application of the laws of niddah (separation during menstrual impurity) and t’villah (immersion, baptism) in Judaism follow from this.
Back to Top
Following the death of Nadab and Abihu (1), materials for purging the sanctuary (2-5), preliminary procedures for purging (6-10), procedure #1: purging the sanctuary (11-17).
It is common to read Leviticus 16 as being about Yom Kippur (because of vss. 29-34). Yet there is a larger subject for this chapter: purging the sanctuary (Tabernacle/Temple). There are some other occasions besides the annual Yom Kippur when this was necessary. Thus the chapter begins right after the death of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10). Two things about the Nadab and Abihu incident polluted the sanctuary: they offered strange fire and their corpses in the courtyard brought impurity into the sanctuary. Corpse impurity is the most severe (see Numb 19) and to have death in the Tabernacle courts is an extreme case. Thus, Leviticus 16 is first and foremost a procedure for emergency cleansing of the sanctuary in the case of dangerous pollution which threatens to cause God to depart. Yet it is also the annual procedure for purging the sanctuary at Yom Kippur. This is why the Yom Kippur information is not given until vs. 29. Following Jacob Milgrom’s outline, there are two basic procedures: purging the sanctuary (vss.11-19) and purging the people (vss. 20-22).
Back to Top
Completing procedure #1: purging the sanctuary (18-19), procedure #2: purging the people (20-22), service at the altar (23-24).
The sanctuary is purged in three stages: the Holy of Holies (12-16a), the Holy Place (16b-17), and the altar of burnt offering (18-19). The blood of the bull and the goat are applied to all three for purging the pollution. As for the people, the ritual of the scapegoat is what purges them. Whereas sacrifices in general cleanse the Tabernacle/Temple, the scapegoat ritual is for the cleansing of the people. It is a unique event in the life of the people each year at Yom Kippur. This ritual comes closest to the type of cleansing from sins that Messiah made for us on the cross.
Back to Top
Completing the service at the altar (25), purifying those who have handled defiling elements (25-28), day of atonement (29-34).
Leviticus 16 is about the need to cleanse the sanctuary (Tabernacle, later the Temple) when it is especially defiled. This can be defilement from a disaster like the deaths of Nadab and Abihu in the courts, which involved human death right in God’s courts. But ritual purging (making atonement for) the sanctuary was also necessary each year whether there had been any disastrous incidents or not. Yom Kippur is not mentioned until the end of the chapter (vss. 29-34). This is because Leviticus 16 is first placed in the context of an emergency purgation required by the Nadab and Abihu tragedy. Yom Kippur is about two acts of atonement, both related but not the same. Vs. 30 says that Yom Kippur cleanses the people of their sins, which is what happens in the scapegoat ritual (vss. 20-22). Yet vs. 33 says that Yom Kippur is also about purging (atoning) the sanctuary itself. Why would the sanctuary need to be purged annually? It is assumed that the sanctuary becomes polluted through un-repented sins and through Israelites failing to purify their impurities. The purpose of the sacrificial system, therefore, was not to completely atone people, transforming them for eternal life. It was, rather, to cleanse the Temple from defilement caused by human death and sin so that God would dwell in an area symbolically free from death and sin. The people also must be cleansed so that they will be able to come near to God at the altar, having had the pollution of death symbolically removed. The sanctuary of Israel was a microcosm of heaven, a place God’s Presence literally dwelt as it is in heaven and a place which was ritually purified from the residue of death and transgression. If the earthly house had to be purified continually and people required cleansing to come near, it follows that when the perfect comes will we need something more extensive than ritual purging. Temple atonement implies the need for something greater, which is described by the priestly prophet Ezekiel as a divine sprinkling with clean water, receiving a new heart and spirit, and becoming endued with the Spirit of God (Ezek 36:25-27). Our preparation for permanently dwelling with God would need to be greater than the symbol, which was the Temple.
Back to Top
Slaughter only at the sanctuary.
Chapters 17-27 are regarded by many scholars as coming from a different source than chs. 1-16. There is a greater emphasis in Leviticus 17-27 on moral vs. ritual purity, on the sanctity of the whole land vs. merely the sanctuary, and the sanctity of the people vs. merely the priesthood (Milgrom). Regardless of theories about sources, the shift in emphasis is a valid observation. The slaughter rules of ch. 17 limit all slaughter (even just for food) to the sanctuary, but the rule is different in Deuteronomy 12 (see vss.15, 24). Some harmonize them by saying Leviticus 17:1-7 is the rule in the desert while Deuteronomy 12 is the new rule after the people enter the land. The reality is, the Bible shows us that multiple sanctuaries (tent shrines, temples) existed for Adonai throughout the land of Israel until the days of Hezekiah. Therefore, another opinion is that the single sanctuary law (all offerings brought to one place, all slaughter at once place even if it is only for food) is from Hezekiah’s time and is read back into the days of Moses. Leviticus 17 is realistic in this sense because it would reflect a time when there were sanctuaries all over the land and everyone could journey to one nearby to obey the law. But the wording in Deuteronomy reflects a time when there was only one sanctuary, the temple in Jerusalem. Milgrom points out that it is impossible to say Leviticus 17 is the rule in the desert. For one thing, it makes no sense for the wilderness wandering to imagine an Israelite preferring to hike outside the camp to slaughter meat. Rather “camp” in vs. 3 is a figure for the towns in the land of Israel. Furthermore, the other four laws of slaughter in ch. 17 are saying something new, so it makes sense vss. 1-7 are as well. They forbid non-sacrificial slaughter. Thus all consumption of meat according to this chapter is from offerings. Milgrom argues that the priests allowed non-sacrificial slaughter as seen in 1 Samuel 14 (Saul made a stone altar because draining the blood in the earth would be considered chthonic worship). Since people did not follow Samuel’s restrictions, a later group of priests (often called H, or the Holiness source of the Torah) tightened the law. Later, in Hezekiah’s time, it was loosened it for people who lived too far, since Deuteronomy (also thought to be a unique source in the Torah) insists on one and only one legitimate altar.
Back to Top
LEVITICUS 17:8 – 18:5
No private offerings (8-9), the sanctity of blood (10-14), meat found dead (15-16), overarching principle of holiness and divine statutes (18:1-5).
No offerings are allowed outside the sanctuary (private offerings encourage idolatry). Blood is sacred as God has given it as a symbol of life. 17:11 is the basis of the entire system of blood atonement (purgation, cleansing). Blood as a symbol of life acts to erase defilement from transgression and impurity. If the vicinity of God’s courts are continually purified from all signs of human death, there is an implied message about death being swallowed up. Yet the Torah never makes this explicit and only in the later prophets do we read about a future promise regarding the end of death. Regarding the eating of carcasses (meat found dead), understanding the requirement of Torah is not simple. There are four laws and they can be read as contradicting each other or they can be harmonized. Exodus 22:30 (31 in Christian Bibles) says all Israelites shall reject meat found dead as dog meat. Leviticus 17:15-16 permits eating meat found dead as long as purification procedures follow. Leviticus 22:8 forbids a priest to eat meat found dead. Deuteronomy 14:21 forbids an Israelite eating meat found dead but allows it to be given to a resident alien or sold to a foreigner. In all these laws, only Leviticus 17:15-16 leaves unanswered whether it is permissible for Israelites to eat meat found dead. Can it contradict the other laws by permitting what is forbidden? Most commentators today regard these commandments about meat found dead as coming from different sources (Lev 17 from the holiness source, Exod 22 the priestly, and Deut 14 from the Deuteronomist). But would the final editor(s) of Torah let an important matter of practice remain unresolved? Perhaps it is better to see Leviticus 17 as an accommodation. In this reading, Leviticus 17 recognizes that people will do what is forbidden (eat meat found dead) and prescribes purification rules so that an even greater offense does not happen (bringing death into the sanctuary).
Back to Top
Protections for single women subject to male domination (6-18), prohibition of menstrual and adulterous intercourse (19-20), prohibition of child sacrifice and Molech worship (21).
The phrase “uncover nakedness” is used for all cases of forbidden intercourse with women except for adultery (vs. 20). The prohibitions of Leviticus 18:6-18, then, concern women who are in a man’s household and are unmarried and sexually inactive. This is evident, says Milgrom, for two reasons: #1 otherwise, why specify adultery (if these women were married, all the cases could be covered by the word “adultery”), #2 the phrase about uncovering nakedness assumes the woman is currently celibate and is not used when discussing adultery. In other words, the issue in vss. 6-18 is protecting vulnerable women in the household from male sexual dominance. An additional concern is the rivalry between women in a household over the man’s affections. Leviticus prohibits this dangerous domestic situation of male dominance and female competition. Menstrual intercourse is not merely a matter of impurity, but is a transgression because it fails to respect the symbolism of blood as life. Molech worship involves child sacrifice (probably literally) and the Bible depicts both Manasseh and Ahaz as having practiced this atrocity. In the book of Jeremiah and Ezekiel this practice is the epitome of Judah’s corruption.
Back to Top
Prohibition of male same-sex relations and bestiality (22-23), conclusion that these pagan customs defile the holy land (24-30).
There is no comparing the evil of Molech worship (child sacrifice) with the far lesser sins of same-sex relations and bestiality. The three issues are likely grouped as examples of Canaanite practices which Israel must avoid. Leviticus 18:22 is quite important in the modern discussion of homosexuality. It could be translated, “You shall not lay a male the layings of a woman; it is an offensive thing” (based on an article by Richard Elliott Freedman). No mention is made of female same-sex relations. Milgrom says this is because only in male relations is seed released, and the issuing of life creates impurity. Issuing life in a manner which cannot cause life may have been thought of as violating a sacred gift. It is important to observe that male same-sex relations are no worse in description than eating unclean animals (Deut 14:1), which are also called offensive things (to’evah). Pastoral herdsman like Jacob and sons were regarded as offensive to the Egyptians (Gen 43:32; 46:34). And the penalty in Israel for men found having same-sex relations (execution, Lev 20:13) is the same as for adultery (20:10). In summary, male relations were part of a list of practices deemed sexually offensive, resembling some Canaanite customs, and defiling the sanctity of the life-giving seed of a man. It is equally important to note that the patriarchs had not kept the (then non-existent) laws of Leviticus 18, having married half-sisters (Abraham) or had relations with their son’s wife (Judah). Using Leviticus as a prooftext in the modern discussion of homosexuality is not as straightforward as it seems. Meanwhile, vss. 24-30 are important for understanding the exile of Israel. The land itself is holy and Israel accepts covenantal responsibility for the privilege of living in it. God is sanctifying the land by causing the holy people, Israel, to fill it. Now that God has declared the land holy, it is spewing out Canaanites. Yet Israel must remember and observe, for if they live like Canaanites, they too will be vomited out. The issue from beginning to end of the chapter is Israel’s holiness, a nation set apart and peculiar in avoiding common customs of idolatry and sexuality for a better way.
Back to Top
Introduction: Imitatio Dei (2), revere parents (3), no idols (4), how to treat sacred meat (5-8), leavings for the needy (9-10), honesty (11-12), justice for the helpless (13-14).
Leviticus 19:1-37, according to Jacob Milgrom, is a summary or epitome of holiness comparable to the decalogue (ten commandments). They are subsumed under the heading of holiness in imitation of God. A traditional interpretation is that the call to holiness is above and beyond mere commandment keeping, to add love, justice, and compassion to the keeping of commandments (in other words, the spirit and not only the letter).
Back to Top
Impartial justice and protecting your neighbor’s reputation (15-16), love and forsaking vengeance (17-18), mixtures reserved for the sacred (19), relations with a slave (20-22).
Jacob Milgrom notes that vs. 15 is of central importance in the teaching of the rabbis about the reasons God punishes Israel with the covenant curses of Leviticus 26:14-38. In the ancient rabbinic commentary on Leviticus (Sifra), it is said that the justice being discussed in vs. 15 is that of the courts of Israel, but Milgrom thinks it is about the justice in personal dealings between all people. Milgrom’s reason for seeing this as broader than the courtroom is the last phrase “your neighbor.” In the Sifra (at Kedoshim 4:1) the ancient rabbis said injustice, including partiality, does five things: it pollutes the land, desecrates the Sabbath, causes the Shekhinah to depart, causes Israel to fall by the sword, and sends Israel into exile. The law against injustice not only prohibits partiality to the rich, but even to the poor. Justice must be blind. Vs. 18 is central to both Jewish and Christian ethics. Both Yeshua and Hillel used this verse as a summation of the ethical life. Both Yeshua and Hillel derived from it that deeds toward our neighbor are the heart of morality. In Yeshua’s case it is deeds done for the neighbor (“do for others”) and in Hillel’s refraining from hurtful deeds (“do not to to others what is hateful”). Yeshua and the rabbis both extended the meaning of “neighbor” to include all people (one could argue the original command did not, since in vs. 34 the same command is made about the sojourner; so Milgrom).
Back to Top
Fruit of the land (23-25), separation from death (26-28), protection of children from concubinage (29), honor Sabbath and sanctuary (30), forbidding of spiritism/incantation (31), honoring the elderly (32).
Fruit of the first three years is “uncircumcised,” which is to say unusable and to be destroyed. In the fourth year it is holy (offered as firstfruits) and becomes for its owner starting in the fifth year. The idea is that with immature trees the fruit is to be “circumcised” (the buds pinched off before they mature; see Lev 25:5, 11 about grape vines being “Nazirites” in Sabbath years, Milgrom). Vss. 26-28 contain seven prohibitions which Milgrom shows all relate to rituals of death magic. Vs. 29 has often been thought to be about cultic or religious prostitution, but the evidence suggests this did not exist. Thus, the verse concerns ordinary prostitution and suggests that some fathers sold their daughters in such ways to pay debts. Vs. 30 is a sort of shorthand description of Israel’s holy life, sanctifying time (Sabbath) and space (sanctuary/Temple). Vs. 31 forbids necromancy (consulting the dead), which Milgrom suggests violates trust in God on several levels: ancestor worship is a sort of idolatry and seeking readings of the future implies that God is not in charge of it. Vs. 32 makes respect for age enforceable by divine displeasure (those who disrespect the aged incur God’s anger).
Back to Top
Protecting aliens and helpless (33-34), honesty in scales and business (35-36), conclusion: Keep all God’s statutes (37).
The whole chapter has been about the epitome of holiness, a passage similar in some respects to the Ten Commandments (Milgrom). Issues have included faithfulness to the Lord, justice, kindness to the needy, love for neighbors, forsaking vengeance, protections for vulnerable slave women, treatment of fruit in the land, separation from all death cults, justice for aliens, and justice in economic transactions. The guiding principle is holiness as God is holy. This guiding principle suggests an ever higher ethic, moving beyond mere requirements. If God would go beyond the merely required, so must his loyal followers. The law, conceived this way, is not merely about legal requirements. It is about an ever-improving world, guided by love, justice, and kindness. The land of Israel should be filled with such love. The vision for holiness suggests a vision for Israel as an alternative to the lands of evil, an ideal land of love and justice. It is not difficult to move from this vision into the ideal of the messianic age.
Back to Top
Molech worship (1-5), necromancy (6), consecration (7).
Chapter 20 brings back to the fore some issues raised in chapter 18, including Molech worship. Whereas chapter 18 is about the statutes themselves, chapter 20 is about the penalties for violation. Milgrom points to Psalm 106:38 as a description of Molech worship, “They shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; so the land was polluted with bloodguilt.” The crime of murder requires stoning and the crime of idolatry is punished by God with karet (cutting off, excision). The meaning of karet is debated. Leviticus 20 provides evidence for Milgrom’s view that being “cut off” is not about premature death or mere excommunication from the community. The Molech worshipper is both stoned to death and cut off. The penalty of being cut off/karet is in addition to being stoned to death. The penalty of karet, as Milgrom shows carefully (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor Bible, 457-460) involves two possible punishments which may be cumulative: bringing his line of children to an end (extirpation, see Psa 109:13) and preventing his rejoining with ancestors in the afterlife (denial of afterlife, see Num 20:24; 27:13; 31:2; Gen 15:15; 47:30; Judg 2:10 for the notions of being “gathered to his kin”). Necromancy (consulting mediums to speak with the dead) is punishable by karet and not stoning to death (vs. 6). Vs. 7 gives the principle for this chapter: that the land should be holy and free from these abominations.
Back to Top
Keep the statutes (8), cursing parents (9), adultery (10), incest (11-12), same-sex relations and other sexual issues (13-21), keep the statutes to keep from being spewed out (22).
The penalties for various violations of statutes continues. Acts forbidden already in Leviticus in chapter 18 are given their penalty here in chapter 20. Most involve the death penalty with some notable exceptions. Vs. 17 concerns a half-sister and the punishment is being cut off (karet, see notes on 20:1-7). It is unclear how being cut off (their line of descendants will be divinely brought to an end and they may be denied afterlife) can be seen by the community. Perhaps the court declares this divine penalty publicly. In vs. 18, the violation concerns a sacred substance (blood) and thus the penalty is karet. Vs. 20 reinforces the notion that some penalties are divine acts and not enacted by human courts (the couple will die childless). The holiness perspective (which some, including Milgrom, take to be a separate school of thought reflected in chapters 17-27) is not just of the holiness of the Temple, but the whole land. Thus, the people are to keep the statutes and also to be holy as God is holy in the land. Otherwise, the land will spew them out (which obviously happened in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles). The land is holy and can only be occupied by a people desiring a better world as defined by God.
Back to Top
Separation from pagan customs (23), a separated land given to a separated people (24), the separations of ritual purity (25), the holy people separated from the nations and to God (26), mediums and spiritists (27).
Vs. 26 is an inclusio, a repetition of 19:2 which serves as a sort of bookend. The text from 19:1 to 20:26 is between literary bookends, a unit about holiness. Holiness is imitating God in his separation and doing so according to God’s teaching (and not making up our own ideas of separation). As God is separate from death and the transitory things of this present world, so Israel as the ideal people is to create a people and a land separated symbolically from death and actually from evil. This separated people and land is an expression of God’s will for the whole world, all of his creation. It involves both ritual and ethical separation. No one can say why vs. 27 appears to be out of order. It seems to be an appendix. It would have fit very well into the chapter earlier, especially with vs. 6. It may have been added later.
Back to Top
Priestly holiness regulations: do not defile by corpse contact with exceptions (1-4), deliberate baldness (5), they shall be holy (6), do not marry divorcee or prostitute (7), he shall be holy (8), daughter not promiscuous (9). High priestly holiness regulations: no mourning rituals or corpse contact and no exceptions (10-12), marry only a virgin (13-14), he shall not profane his offspring (15).
The ideal of a holy land and people includes a super-holy priesthood who are constrained from even more things than ordinary Israelites. The laws for corpse contact are not given (oddly) until Numbers 19. But here it is noted that a priest may not have contact with a corpse except for the closest relations and a high priest may not have contact with any corpse at all. The priests will keep death out of God’s sanctuary completely. The baldness referenced is an act of mourning for the dead, which has no place in God’s sanctuary where death is defeated and life is the goal. The daughters of priestly families are to be trained in careful preservation of their sexuality so as not to bring dishonor to the priesthood and to keep the priestly lines holy (no children born outside of marriage). For the high priest, the regulations are even stricter. A priest can marry a widow, but a high priest only a virgin. The purpose is to keep the priestly lineage holy and avoid mixing of lines. These regulations may seem extreme, but priesthood is a high responsibility.
Back to Top
LEVITICUS 21:16 – 22:16
Physical blemishes that disqualify a priest (21:16-24), holy food and purity laws (22:1-9), non-priests and holy food (22:10-16).
Physically blemished priests may not officiate but nonetheless they may eat holy food (a large part of the priestly support consisted of donated portions of bread and animal offerings, which were holy). Impure priests may not eat holy food until purity is returned. A priest’s slaves and those in his household may eat holy food. Priests are forbidden to eat meat found dead (neveilah) or torn by beasts (tereifah, from which we get the word treif). Leviticus does not say laity were forbidden to eat tereifah, but only that they must undergo purification afterwards (Lev 17:15-16). However, in Deuteronomy 14:21 the people are told not to eat tereifah. How can these two be reconciled? Eating tereifah is prohibited, though this is unmentioned in Leviticus, where the concern is with something greater: pollution of the sanctuary if tereifah is (unlawfully) eaten. Nonetheless, as we read in 22:8, the priests at all times are especially forbidden to eat or touch tereifah or neveilah. All impurity is to be kept away from the sanctuary because it represents death. The system of restricting physical blemishes from the sanctuary service is perhaps because in the ideal world (and the world to come) such blemishes will not exist. The sanctuary is to be a place of life and of the ideal.
Back to Top
Unblemished animals for God’s offerings (17-25), newborn animals (26-28), hallowing God and increasing sanctification (31-33).
The list of animal blemishes is identical to the list of priestly blemishes in 21:18-20. It would be a temptation to offer God the animals that are blemished and less valuable. In addition to the ethical matter of offering God what is less valuable, the matter of blemishes also has a holiness component: God desires the sanctuary to be free from not only sin but all signs of death. Blemishes are part of the death sentence on this world and do not belong in the holy space of the sanctuary. The law that a newborn animal is safe from being offered for the first seven days of life may stem from a sense of kindness to the mother or the newborn, but Milgrom rightly points out that this seems a very limited kindness (on the eighth day of life a suckling animal can be killed). Compare vs. 28 with the law of a bird and its young in Deuteronomy 22:6. Vss. 29-30 on the Thanksgiving Offering (one of the kinds of Peace/Well-being Offering) seem out of place here. Milgrom explains it as an inclusio technique (literary bookends) with 19:5-6 on the other kinds of Peace/Well-Being Offering. The result of 19:5-6 and 22:29-30 being placed as they are is to mark Leviticus 19-22 as a separate section within the larger book. Vss. 31-33 are a conclusion to the section and bring back the themes of 19:1-4: Israel represents God as holy by doing the commandments and in turn Israel is made holy in doing them.
Back to Top
Sabbath (1-3), Passover and Unleavened Bread (4-8), Firstfruits of Barley (9-14), Shavuot and Firstfruits of Wheat (15-22).
These instructions are more for the people than the priests. Numbers 28-29 give priestly instructions. In vs. 4 the festivals are all called mo’adim from the root ya’ad meaning to designate either a time or place (Milgrom). They are fixed times on the calendar. They are also called mikra’ei kodesh, which is usually rendered “holy convocations” or “sacred assemblies.” These translations are misleading. The root of mikra’ei is kara, to proclaim or speak out loud. This term could be better rendered “sacred proclamations,” referring perhaps to the practice in the Temple of announcing the onset of Sabbath and festivals with trumpets and ceremony. Not all festivals required assembling (Sabbath did not, for example). Vs. 4 might better be translated, “These are the fixed times of Hashem, the sacred proclamations which you shall proclaim at their fixed times.” The meaning of “twilight” (lit. “between the two evenings”) in vs. 5 is much debated. In practice, the offerings were made in the early afternoon on the day of preparation, the afternoon before the Seder (the eating of matzah and bitter herbs with the lamb). Unleavened Bread, originally thought of as separate as we find here, is joined with Passover so that eight days of observance come in a row (the offering on the 14th and the matzah festival from the 15th through the 21st). In Deuteronomy 16:1-6 the whole period is thought of as united as one festival. The sacred proclamation (not “sacred assembly” or “holy convocation”) on days one and seven is about ceasing work, but not all work. Milgrom notes that the weekly Sabbath and Yom Kippur are stricter, as they are called Shabbat Shabbatons (Sabbaths of complete rest). This is, in part, the basis of the rabbinical ruling that cooking is permitted on other festival Sabbaths (Yom Tovs, such as the first and last day of Passover). Vs. 11 has led to a long debate about what “day after the sabbath” means. Is it always Sunday (after the weekly Sabbath) or always the day after the festival Sabbath (i.e., second day of Passover)? The community today follows the second opinion, so that firstfruits during Passover and Shavuot always occur on the same calendar date (but differing days of the week). The timing of Passover firstfruits (barley) and Shavuot firstfruits (wheat) is true to the agricultural cycle.
Back to Top
Day of shofar sounding (23-25), Yom Kippur (26-32).
The seventh month, like the seventh day and seventh year, is holy. The alarm blasts on Rosh HaShanah alert the people that repentance and coming judgment from God must mark the end of the agricultural year. The fact that the seventh month holidays came to focus on rain in tradition is likely part of the original intention: when the season is over and the rainy season comes, the amount of rain will make the year either one of abundance or famine. Thus, the annual purging of the Temple and the great gathering for Sukkot (Tabernacles) which followed came at the time of highest sense of need for God’s favor.
Back to Top
Sukkot part 1 (33-36), summary of festivals (37-38), Sukkot part 2 (39-43), conclusion (44).
The total of seventy offerings during the seven days of Sukkot equals the number of nations (as per Genesis 10). This may indicate a desire for universal participation, that it was expected that non-Israelites would participate in the festival focusing on harvest and prayer for rain (cf. Zechariah 14:16). In Numbers Rabbah 21:24 we find an early tradition that the seventy offerings are “an atonement for the seventy nations” but the one offering on the eighth day (Shemini Atzeret) is for Israel (Milgrom). The eighth day is not only a mikra kodesh (holy proclamation, often mistranslated as holy assembly or convocation), but also an atzeret, a less common word which Milgrom shows is an urgent assembly. What could the urgency be about? The rabbinic tradition fits well with the evidence from the agricultural cycle and the history of temple traditions in the Ancient Near East: the urgency is about rain in the upcoming rainy season. Israel has only two main seasons for rain and at the end of the agricultural cycle, when Sukkot occurs, is a fitting time to pray for the greatest physical need of the people. Vss. 37-38 look like an original ending to the section to which vss. 39-43 were added later (Milgrom). Milgrom and others suggest that vss. 39-43 were added during the Babylonian exile when it was not possible to gather at the Temple.
Back to Top
The people must provide the lamp oil (1-4), the people must provide the weekly bread (5-9), a case of blasphemy: Shelomith’s son (10-16), laws of punishment in kind (17-22), the penalty carried out (23).
Vss. 1-9 come on the heels of the laws of the public festivals (23:1-44) because these verses concern the requirement of the people to continually supply oil and grain for the service of the sanctuary. Together, 23:1 – 24:9 forms a section about the requirements for the congregation of Israel regarding holy days and the holy place. Oil and bread were not expensive and the people could provide them. Anointing oil, however, was expensive due to the need for imported spices and was provided by the princes (Milgrom). The ongoing duty of keeping up the sanctuary lights and bread are reminders that God’s blessings are ongoing and unceasing. Non-Israelites cultures all around Israel (Egyptian, Hittite, Canaanite, Babylonian) also kept bread before their deities at all times. The difference, explains Milgrom, is that Israel’s holy bread was placed once a week only, as a display before God and not as food for him! The story of Shelomith’s son (vss. 10-16) is similar to Nadab and Abihu in that it concerns a violation of the sanctuary and to several other stories which involve the need to inquire of God by oracle: the second Passover (Num 9:1-14), the wood-gatherer (Num 15:32-36), and the inheritance for women narrative (Num 27:1-11; Milgrom). The narrative provides a case law explanation for similar cases. Why did Moses hesitate and require a divine oracle for this case? It may be that Shelomith’s son was of an Egyptian father and perhaps his ambiguous status as a half-Israelite led to the question. The execution of Shelomith’s son for blasphemy leads to further cases and their penalty (vss. 17-22).
Back to Top
Sabbath years (shemittah, 1-7), Jubilee years (yovel, 8-12), return to clan estates (13).
The key to understanding the Jubilee year is that land remains with the same clans in Israel forever (in God’s ideal system which was not followed in historic Israel). Every Jubilee, all land reverts to the original clans for all time. The basic laws of shemittah (Sabbath years) and yovel (Jubilee years) are followed by a section on the downward cycle of poverty and God’s economic system of land redemption (coming in 25:25-28 35-38, 39-43). Every Israelite clan was assigned a part of the Holy Land in Numbers 26. When land is lost through transactions, debt, deaths without heirs, and so on, the ideal is that it will in some way be kept in the name of the clan and restored when the clan has heirs to claim it. This is called redemption (and is the issue in the book of Ruth with Naomi having her land redeemed and kept in the clan through Boaz). The ideal process of land redemption is a picture of dwelling in the land in messianic days, which is why in Ezekiel 47-48 the tribes all have a messianic land inheritance.
Back to Top
Return of estates to clans and families.
Texts about the laws of Sabbatical years (shemittah) and Jubilee (yovel) are fraught with problems. There are three kinds of release involved: slaves, debts, and land. Are slaves released in the Sabbatical years (Exod 21:2) or Jubilees (Lev 25:40-41)? Some attempt to harmonize these regulations by suggesting they refer to two different categories of slaves. Are debts canceled in the Sabbatical years (Deut 15:1-2) or Jubilees? And are the debts canceled or are payments on them simply postponed? What is the purpose of a Jubilee when there is already a Sabbatical year? The basic idea of the Jubilee year is that all land remains within clans. This is an economic system of family-based agriculture which prevents a growing class of elite landowners. Israel’s early economy was based on small landholdings and in time the monarchy created a system of land owned by the nobility. See, for example, David seizing Meribaal’s land (2 Sam 16:4; 19:30) and Ahab seizing Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kgs 21). Samuel the prophet warned that monarchy would lead to a change in the economy (1 Sam 8:10-17). The Jubilee system, if followed, would result in an economy of equally distributed opportunity and provision. Although we have no evidence the Jubilee laws were observed and although there are contradictions and problems which cannot be sorted out, the intent of the laws is clear: the Holy One envisions a world of agricultural abundance and provision for all. Israel was commanded to practically work out a system that made the economic ideal a reality.
Back to Top
Blessing over observance of resting the land (19-22), the main principle of Jubilee and land-redemption (23-24).
The covenant with Israel is agriculturally based and blessing on the crops in the land is the result of faith and obedience. If the people follow laws such as the Sabbatical and Jubilee provisions, God will bless the fruit of the land and protect from enemies. Vss. 21-22 explain that the harvest of the sixth year will provide food for three years. Vss. 23-24 explain that land sales in the Jubilee system are only selling the usufruct (the right to harvest and use the crops) and that the right of reclaim is required. A family can buy back the usufruct of their land at any time and at Jubilee it reverts back to the original family regardless.
Back to Top
Stage 1 of destitution — land sold.
The redemption/Jubilee laws of Leviticus 25:25-55 cover a downward cycle of agricultural poverty and God’s ideal system for managing the downturns so that each landowner has hope to regain land and abundance (Milgrom). Vss. 25-28 concern the first phase of a landowner’s downturn: he must sell part of his land (perhaps to buy seed). His kinsman can pay to redeem the property from whomever it was sold to. Also, the landowner, if he recovers his prosperity, can purchase the land rights back on a sliding scale based on the number of years until Jubilee. At Jubilee the land rights revert to the landowner regardless. The laws of Leviticus are designed so that neither wealthy clan leaders nor some higher class of landowners would emerge to turn farming into an elitist economic system. The Jubilee provisions ensure that neither a wealthy kinsman nor a powerful noble could permanently increase land holdings.
Back to Top
A house in a city (29-30), a house on farmable land (31), Levitical houses and land (32-34), stage 2 – lost land (35-38).
The Jubilee laws are about land, not possessions per se. What about a house in a walled city, which is a matter of possessing a dwelling rather than farmable land? Torah does cover the possession of a house, surprisingly, making it redeemable for up to a year if poverty leads to its sale. Milgrom notes that city dwelling was not part of the original condition of Israelites, but a phenomenon that developed later. He takes vss. 29-30 as evidence that the Jubilee laws are real and early parts of the Torah, not sections added after the exile to idealize the past. Thus, the Jubilee laws fit well the situation of pre-exilic Israel, being concerned mostly with farm land and not city dwellings. In Levitical towns, the arrangement of houses and farmable lands is different. The houses are in a walled town but the lands are outside the town (see Num 35; Jos 21). Thus, the houses of Levites in walled towns are like houses of Israelites on farmable lands. In vss. 35-38, we see stage 2 in the downward cycle of impoverishment. After the landowner has been unable to redeem his land, he is now forced to go begging. He has come under the authority of the creditor and his means have faltered (whereas previously he had sold only the use of part of his land, now he must sell it all). He becomes like a sojourner in the land, a landless agricultural worker. The creditor who gets use of the land must provide work and sustenance, even interest-free loans, to the defaulter, and his land will revert at the Jubilee. The result of this system is that no class of elite landowners can gain large holdings of land permanently and poor Israelite families can regain their lands eventually.
Back to Top
Stage 3 of destitution – an Israelite must sell himself to his fellow and be enslaved (39-46).
Vs. 40 seems to contradict the laws of Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 about slaves going free in the Sabbatical year. A number of harmonizations have been proposed. The rabbis say these are two different categories of slaves: Exodus 21 is about those sold by the court for theft and Leviticus 25 is about debt slaves. Others suggest the “Hebrew” in Exodus 21 is not an Israelite, but a word describing a landless person. Still others suggest “Hebrew” means a landless Israelite and Leviticus 25 is about a landowner who is an Israelite (see the discussion in Milgrom 2251-7). Milgrom thinks the Jubilee laws were added later than Exodus 21 and improve on the earlier slave laws. In his interpretation, the Jubilee laws do not permit Israelites to be treated as slaves at all, but as hirelings, and to be free of obligation in the Jubilee year when their debt is paid. Leviticus 25 does permit foreign slaves and it is difficult to understand how the Torah could allow something so unethical. Many have suggested that God allowed a common practice to continue due to hardness of heart but that in the humanitarian laws the Israelites would see for themselves that slavery should be abolished.
Back to Top
LEVITICUS 25:47 – 26:2
Stage 4 – he must sell himself to a Gentile (47-55), restatement of essential Torah teachings for national blessing (26:1-2).
This text calls the Israelites God’s slaves. Many translations reflect a reluctance to accept the metaphor, translating the Hebrew avadim as servants. The people are also called God’s children, his firstborn, and his priests. These metaphors are not contradictory but reveal different facets of the covenant relationship. A slave has been purchased and must serve his or her owner. Furthermore, since the Israelites are God’s slaves they cannot belong permanently to another Israelite. God set them free from Egypt and they can never become anyone else’s permanent possession. Thus, if in the downward cycle of poverty and Israelite finds himself or herself purchased by a foreigner, according to God’s law he or she can be redeemed for money. Following this ultimate conclusion of the Jubilee laws, the Torah moves into something new in chapter 26: blessings and curses associated with God’s covenant. Vss. 1-2 are a restatement of the essence of Israel’s Torah obligation, which is contained in three things: worship of God alone, without images, keeping the Sabbaths, and revering the sanctuary. The Masoretes (early medieval Jewish scribes) included vss. 1-2 with the previous parasha because they lack with the customary division (“and the Lord spoke to Moses”). In spite of the Majorettes decision, 26:1-2 really does belong to the next chapter more so than to chapter 25.
Back to Top
The condition and blessing of abundance.
Many ancient law-codes ended with blessings and curses (or promises and comminations, as Milgrom calls them). Examples of non-Israelite blessings and curses texts occur in the Code of Hammurabi and treaties with the Assyrian king Essarhaddon (cited in Milgrom). The curses are generally longer than the blessings and are designed to incite fear of breaking the covenant. God’s condition is for Israel’s blessing is simple: to do the statutes. The blessing is not a promise to individuals of prosperity (a common way they are misinterpreted) but a national promise of abundant rain and harvest. This is not about wealth, but being well-provisioned and not going hungry. Perhaps if we in our lazy, materialistic age regarded hard work and abundant provision as blessing we would not waste our lives obsessed with wealth.
Back to Top
Continued national blessings for covenant obedience: peace in the land (6), success against enemies without (7-8), fruitfulness and confirmation of covenant (9).
These promises are simple to understand and the people would dearly love to have had such blessings when, in the course of Israelite history, the very opposite happened. Failing to abide by the covenant, Israel encountered violence within and defeat without. The promises of national blessing mean a great deal to a people when suffering and insufficiency are the order of the day. Vs. 9 interestingly describes the promises as confirming the covenant: showing signs that would help people believe the words of the invisible God are true.
Back to Top
God’s dwelling and walking with Israel (10-13), curses stage 1: war, disease, famine (14-17), stage 2: seven judgments (18-22), stage 3: increased hostility from God (23-26), stage 4: wrathful hostility (27-39), repentance and restoration for Israel (40-45), these are the statutes (46).
Vs. 10 continues the “fruitfulness” promise. Vss. 11-12 are a promise of the Divine Presence. Interestingly, the text says “I will establish my Mishkan in your midst,” but it does not mean Tabernacle here. The word Mishkan is being used for the moveable presence of God, like the later word (not found in the Bible, Shekhinah). In vs. 12, the promise of God walking amidst Israel is in the Hithpa’el verb form: “I will walk myself” or “I will walk to and fro.” The idea is not walking to get to a destination, but walking repeatedly within Israel. The judgments of covenant disobedience fill vss. 14-45. These curses are awful and they did come to pass more than once historically. Yet there are sublime truths in this passage: (1) God walks amongst the people of Israel, a real presence which needs to be part of our theology (26:12) and (2) Even in exile, God does not reject his people, but is with Israel and will restore (26:44). The pattern of repentance and restoration in vss. 40-45 is telling: confession, repentance marked by changed action, the covenant promise with Abraham remembered by God, restorative judgments, acceptance even in exile. Vss. 44-45 are vital, revealing that God is present with the Jewish people in exile and that the attitudes and actions of Jewish people now in the diaspora matters in heaven.
Back to Top
Redemption price of people dedicated in a vow to God (1-7), provision for the poor (8), for offerable and unofferable animals (9-13), for a house (14-15).
By assigning redemption values for people dedicated to God in vows, the Torah prevents such things as human sacrifice (e.g., Jephthah’s daughter) and mandatory temple slavery (e.g., Samuel). The values are based on someone’s worth as a laborer (hence women are valued at a lower amount). Philo says, “. . . the law laid down a scale of valuation in which no regard is paid to beauty or stature or anything of the kind, but all are assessed equally . . . in the sight of men inequality, in the sight of God equality, is held in honor” (cited in Milgrom). Some see chapter 27 as an appendix since chapter 26 seems to really conclude Leviticus. Yet others suggest that chapter 27 fits into a literary outline: the book begins with sanctuary regulations (offerings) and ends with them as well (vowed things, votaries). Milgrom cites the conclusion of Mary Douglas: Chapter 25 “only tells the Israelites to free their brothers from servitude” while chapter 27 “extends the liberation theme . . . God will also allow persons, land and animals dedicated to his service to be redeemed.” Leviticus 27 assumes that along with sacrificial animals, people will seek the favor of God by making gifts, even ill-conceived vows, but the Torah allows all to be redeemed.
Back to Top
Valuation and redemption of land consecrated.
Vs. 16 concerns a person who wishes to lease and/or donate crops to the sanctuary. The value of their gift depends on how much seed will be planted. The price of fifty shekels is most likely for the fifty year period between Jubilees (a shekel per year per homer of seed required to plant the field). It is not clear if the intent is to lease the field (and the owner would then be paid the money) or donate it (in which case the gift would be valued at a shekel per year per homer). The crop would then be for the use of the Levites and the sanctuary (and also shared with the needy). In vss. 17-18, the value depends on the number of years left until Jubilee (at one shekel per year per homer of seed required to plant). The field can be redeemed for the valuation plus one fifth (that is, the owner can take it back, vs. 19). Vs. 20 involves some translation difficulties. Milgrom’s interpretation is that one who sells the use of a field to another (until the Jubilee) and then consecrates it anyway (by saying, “at the Jubilee I will not take it back, but donate it to the sanctuary”), gives up the land permanently to the sanctuary. We have here a perfect example of the time-bound nature of the Torah, that its parts were written in a specific time with an apparent intention to be amended when the situation changed. The value of a shekel per homer of seed would have to change with time, though the Torah does not make reference to this. The value mandated here was based on the economy when this Torah law was written. To be able to lease a field now, in the twenty-first century, for a shekel per homer of seed would be far less than its worth. Meanwhile, why would people dedicate a field to the sanctuary and how would such a gift benefit anyone? The answer is that the Levites, priests, and the needy who would eat from from the gifted parcel of land.
Back to Top
Lands leased and consecrated by the lessee (22-24), the gerah as the shekel standard (25), firstborn animals consecrated (26-27), things put under the ban (28).
If someone does not own a piece of land, but has purchased its usufruct (the right to its crops) until the Jubilee from its owner, he may vow it to the sanctuary. But in so doing he is required to not only give its crops but to pay the valuation of one shekel per homer of required seed per year until the Jubilee. Milgrom says he must pay this to the sanctuary so that if the owner redeems it, no money is owed to the sanctuary. When it comes to firstborn animals, an offerable animal may not be redeemed, but must be offered on the altar. An offerable firstborn animal is devoted to God and takes on a sanctity as soon as it is born. As for unofferable animals such as donkeys, these can be redeemed or donated (e.g., the Levites could use the donkey if it is donated or sell it and put the funds in the sanctuary treasury). Vss. 28-29 concern things put under the ban (herem, proscribed to God which is a stronger category than devoted to God). Vs 28 seems to describe two kinds of things put under the ban: those proscribed willingly and those proscribed though the courts. We do not have any examples or know why anyone would willingly put something under the ban. Usually the ban is pronounced for a great crime, for example, vowing something to the Lord and not paying. The vowed thing may then be put under the ban by the court.
Back to Top
People under the ban (29), the tithe is the Lord’s (30), agricultural tithes can be redeemed for money of a fifth is added (31), every tenth animal is the Lord’s with no substitutions (32-33), summary of book (34).
Vs. 28 and vs. 29 concern different aspects of the broad term “the ban” (herem). The things in vs. 28 are those owned by someone proscribed or devoted to God under the strictest terms. The “man” in vs. 28 is a slave devoted by his owner to God and thus he becomes a temple slave (this could only be a foreigner as Israelites were not enslave each other). But in vs. 29 the ban on a person refers to one sentenced to death by the court or by the army according to such laws as Exodus 22:19 and Deuteronomy 13:13-19 and 20:16-17. There is no redemption for a person devoted to destruction (although enslavement or expulsion may have been accepted). The most common example of things dedicated to God, which is the subject of this whole chapter, is the tithe. Saved for last, the tithe law affected nearly every Israelite and was a daily aspect of the lives of an agricultural people. One tenth of the crop literally belonged to the Lord even while it was still in the field. To substitute money for the crop dedicated to God required an extra fifth to be added to its value. As Leviticus opens with the laws of one kind of offering (sacrifices), so it ends with other kinds of offerings: things dedicated to God through vows, the law of the firstborn, the ban, and tithes.
Back to Top