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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible


- Leviticus

by John Dummelow


1. Title and Contents. The title Leviticus is prefixed to this section of the Pentateuch in the Greek Version of the OT., but it is not particularly appropriate, as the Levites are hardly mentioned in the book. Jewish writers call it Vayikra (Heb. ’and He called’), from its opening word, or the ’Law, or Book, of Priests,’ or the ’Book of Offerings.’ It may be described as a manual of religious ceremonies composed for the guidance of priests and worshippers. Its specific character is evident at a glance. It differs from the other books of the Pentateuch in being almost entirely a book of laws. There is very little narrative, and historical indications are scanty. Reference is made to Mt. Sinai as the scene where some at least of the laws were promulgated (Leviticus 25:1; Leviticus 26:46; Leviticus 27:34); in some passages it is implied that Israel is still leading a camp-life in the wilderness (Leviticus 4:12; Leviticus 14:3; Leviticus 16:10); the consecration of Aaron and his sons is described in detail (8-10); and two incidents are narrated illustrating the punishment following a breach of the regulations (Nadab and Abihu, Leviticus 10:1-7, the blasphemer, Leviticus 24:10-16). With these few exceptions, which are more apparent than real, the incidents being introduced simply as illustrations (see on Leviticus 24:16), the contents of Leviticus consist entirely of laws, and these mainly of a ceremonial character (see intro. to Leviticus 17).

The twenty-seven chapters forming the book fall into four well-marked divisions as follows. Part 1. The Law of Sacrifice, Leviticus 1-7. This again consists of two sections: (a) Directions addressed to the Worshippers regarding the five main types of sacrifice, viz. the Burnt Offering (Leviticus 1), the Meal Offering (Leviticus 2), the Peace Offering (Leviticus 3), the Sin Offering (Leviticus 4:1 to Leviticus 5:13), and the Guilt Offering (Leviticus 5:14 to Leviticus 6:7), and (b) Directions addressed to the Priests in connexion with these sacrifices, which are dealt with in the same order, except that the Peace Offering comes last. Part 2. The Consecration of the Priesthood, Leviticus 8-10. This comprises the consecration of Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8), their installation into office (Leviticus 9), and the death of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10). Part 3. The Law of Clean and Unclean, leading up to the ritual of the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 11-16. This division treats of the uncleanness of certain meats (Leviticus 11), of childbirth (Leviticus 12), of leprosy (Leviticus 13, 14), of sexual discharges (Leviticus 15), and the ceremonial of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). Part 4. The Law of Holiness, Leviticus 17-26. This is a miscellaneous collection of laws, many of them of a moral and religious character. It treats of sacrifice and eating of blood (Leviticus 17), unlawful marriage and unchastity (Leviticus 18), various moral and social duties, such as justice, kindness, purity, etc. (Leviticus 19, 20), duties of priests and matters of ritual (Leviticus 21, 22), the sacred seasons (Leviticus 23), the shewbread and law of blasphemy (Leviticus 24), the Sabbatical Year and Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25), and concludes with exhortations to keep the law (Leviticus 26). The book closes with a chapter on Vows and Tithes with the manner of their commutation, in the form of an appendix (Leviticus 27).

2. Origin and Composition. The general question of the authorship of the Pentateuch is treated in a separate article, to which referenee should be made. It will suffice to say here that, while much of the legislation contained in the book of Leviticus is of Mosaic origin, the book in its present form bears evidence of having been put together out of separate collections of laws. It is observed e.g. that the literary style is not uniform throughout, Leviticus 17-26 occupying in this respect a position quite by themselves (see the introductory note to this section in the commentary); that laws relating to the same subject are not always placed together; that sometimes the same laws are repeated in different parts of the book; and that the contents appear in the form of groups, many of which are provided with separate headings and conclusions (see e.g. Leviticus 7:37-38; Leviticus 11:46-47; Leviticus 13:59; Leviticus 14:54-57; Leviticus 15:32-33; Leviticus 26:46, and the introductory notes to Leviticus 21, 25). Such features make it tolerably certain that in its present form Leviticus is ’a collection of smaller collections, or a collection added to from time to time.’ It need not be thought surprising that this is so. In itself, ritual is subject to the law of change and development, and many regulations, originally framed for a people leading a nomadic life in the wilderness, would require modification when that people dwelt in cities, built their temple, and led a settled agricultural life. We may believe, therefore, that some details in these laws are of later date than others, and that what we have in the book of Leviticus is the final form of a process of collection, editing, and adaptation carried on subsequently to the time of the great Law-giver. The book is, in fact, a codification of laws originating in the Mosaic legislation. At what time it was cast into its present form we may never be able to determine with certainty. It may be that it was done under the influences which led to the restoration of the Temple in the sixth century b.c., and that the book was used as a kind of liturgy of the Second Temple. But we are not obliged to believe that the laws themselves originated at this later date. Some of them, as was said above, imply that they were given to a people leading a camp-life in the wilderness. At whatever time they were finally collected and incorporated in the Pentateuch, in substance the laws in Leviticus are derived from Moses. In other words, the contents are much older than the vessel in which they are contained.

3. Religious Value. To the ordinary reader of the Bible the book of Leviticus may seem dry and uninteresting. It treats of matters which for Christians have lost direct interest, and of a system of religious observances which they have never known. Its laws, being mainly of a ceremonial nature, have little or no practical bearing on the life of the present day. For this reason readers of the Bible may be inclined to pass it by. Yet Leviticus is anything but an uninteresting book. To the student of comparative religion it is of the greatest possible value. Its religious rites and social customs have numberless points of contact with those of other early nations, and it is interesting and instructive to observe how primitive customs were adopted and transformed, purged in many cases of immorality, cruelty, injustice, and idolatry, transfused with a new spirit, and made to subserve a moral and spiritual purpose. The ceremonial legislation of Leviticus is certainly not the final stage in the progress of revelation, but it marks a great step forward, and prepares the way for better things. Its moral teaching, its insistence on the duty of justice and mercy, of kindness to the poor and strangers, to the weak and slaves, and even to the lower animals, of chastity and truthfulness, is not without its application to the present day, while beneath its forms and ceremonies, its laws of clean and unclean, its ritual purifications, its sacrifices and sacred festivals, its tithes and offerings, it is not difficult to read similar lessons of religion and morals in type and figure. The entire system is penetrated with the thought that Israel is called to be a holy people consecrated to the service of a holy God. Its spirit is expressed in the words, ’Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’ That its minute and multifarious regulations served to impress upon the hearts of the devout in Israel a sense of the holiness and grace of God, of the hatefulness of sin, of the need of cleansing and restoration, cannot be doubted. It may be that the Israelites did not altogether escape the danger, incidental to the observance of all ceremonial laws, of formalism, hypocrisy, and contentment with an external standard of religion; it may be that at times they fell far short of their ideal; still no people had ever a loftier conception of the nature of God and of their relationship to Him and consequent obligation to lead a life of righteousness. A holy God, dwelling amid a holy people in a holy land—it would be unfair to say that there were not many in Israel who saw this truth beneath the surface of ceremonial, and were by its means prepared for the coming of Him who ’is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth’ (Romans 10:4).