The third Book of the Old Testament is really a continuation of the book of Exodus and the story of the Israelites and those who traveled with them as they journey through the wilderness. When we left off in Exodus, the work of the Tent Tabernacle is finally finished in Genesis 38-40. Aaron and his sons were bathed and Aaron was vested in priestly garments, anointed and consecrated as Priest. The sons of Aaron were also vested and anointed and consecrated as Priests. Then the tabernacle was filled with the glory of God as a cloud. Whenever the cloud ascended, the Israelites prepared to continue their journey through the wilderness. The cloud stayed over the tabernacle by day and fire was over it by night (NKJV).
Leviticus describes the way to worship the Lord and refers to the Levitical Priesthood (the sons of the tribe of Levi through Moses’ brother, Aaron and his sons) and their duties in tending to the worship of the Lord. This is perhaps the most difficult Book to understand as our modern sensibilities are so different from the ancient mindset – for that reason it is a difficult book to read. The later half of the book of Leviticus addresses issues of sexuality, so Leviticus has become popular by many who have questions in this area.
It should be noted that at that time, there is no mortal king governing the Israelites – God, Himself, is the King of the Israelites and the giver of the law in all matters (spiritual and secular) through Moses. Within the Orthodox Christian perspective, the one of the Holy Trinity that speaks and lives among the people is the second person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, in the Tent of the Tabernacle.
The book appears to be separated into 6 parts:
- Chapters 1 through 7: sacrifices – offering for the Lord.
- Sacrifices involving animals are not new in the Old Testament. Both Abel and Abraham offered animal sacrifices to the Lord (Genesis 4, 22). What is different about the sacrifices in Leviticus is the types of animals and the way the sacrifices were to be made. The animals had to be domestic animals which were dependent on man for their life. Animals that the people raised and tended – and, they had to be the best of the domestic animals. Unblemished domestic animals, a type of Christ – “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29)
- Historians believe that by the time the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD animal sacrifices were discontinued for the Israelites. For the Christians, animal sacrifices were discontinued with crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- The overarching theme is that God loves His people and does not want them to be separated from Him through sin. The fall of mankind in Genesis made mankind weak, vulnerable and subject to death; therefore, God provides the means for atoning of sin and provides forgiveness so His people can be restored to holiness and reconciled to Him. This is realized more completely in the New Testament with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, His life, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension.
- The sacrificial nature of atoning for sin leads to the Incarnation (Jesus Christ being fully human and fully Divine) in the New Testament. Where mankind’s fallen humanity is joined to the Lord’s Divinity and ultimately raised to the heights of God at the Resurrection and Ascension.
- Salt is an interesting additive to grain offerings in the Old Testament. Salt has been used since antiquity not only to season foods, but also to preserve foods, to use as a disinfectant and to replenish essential electrolytes in the body. Salt is necessary for life, and in very hot regions or when work is very hard, the electrolytes of the body may become depleted and salt is necessary to replenish those electrolytes.
- In the Orthodox Church when the Prosphoro (offering bread) is made only 4 ingredients are used: flour, water, salt and yeast. In the Old Testament, yeast was omitted and unleavened bread was used. In fact, many christian churches today use unleavened bread. In the Orthodox Church, however, yeast is used. Some theologians say that is because the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, so leavened bread is used for the offering bread. Orthodox Theologians have also said, that because the Lord was Resurrected, the rising of the bread symbolizes the Resurrection. This is further explained by OCA, “Christ “leavens” our lives, so to speak, and the purpose of the Eucharistic celebration is not to “recreate” or “reproduce” a past event but, rather, to participate in an event that is beyond time and space and which, in fact, continues to happen each time the Eucharist is celebrated in fulfillment of Our Lord’s command”(OCA.)
- Chapters 8 through10: details the consecration of the Levitical Priests: Aaron and his sons. Click this link to learn more from a previous posting.
- Chapters 11 through 15: Are laws defining clean and unclean for the people.
- From a practical standpoint, this is actually an important consideration for a multitude of people living together in temporary living situations in the wilderness. Whenever someone showed a sign of a sore or illness, the priests were called upon to assess the illness and discern whether or not the illness was potentially fatally contagious to others with leprosy being the primary concern.
- Anointment of Oil for cleaning and consecration is still used today in the Sacraments of Orthodox Church: Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Unction.
- Chapter 16: The annual day of Atonement for the Israelites
- This chapter describes Yom Kippur
- Chapters 17 through 26: These chapters describe laws for the people of God defining them as a Holy People.
- Did you ever wonder where the term Scapegoat comes from? Well, it comes from Leviticus, Chapter 16!
- Chapter 25 deals with the Jubilee year which is a culmination of seven seven-year sabbaticals — or the 50th year (Reference 3 below, 3.12.3 p.115). St. Basil the Great said that in ancient times, the earth kept the sabbath, debts were canceled, slaves were set free and new life was established again.(Reference 2 below, III,p198). The number 50 also refers to Pentecost, when after the Lord’s Ascension, the Holy Spirit came to the apostles and all those present to illumine and enlighten them so that they could go forward and teach about Christianity and the salvation of mankind – the beginning of the Christian Church. The Holy Fathers also assign the 50th(51) Psalm, when recited with a pure heart, looses sins, cancels debts and frees us through the Lord’s kindness (Reference 2 below, III, p198)
- Chapter 27: This chapter defines the nature of voluntary religious vows and the tithes associated with the vows made according to age and sex. Tithing is not new with Leviticus. We first see it in Genesis Chapter 14. But it is different in Leviticus as compared to Genesis. In Genesis Chapter 14:20, Abram (later called Abraham) gives a thank offering to the Lord of 10% through the Priest Melchizedek. It was a thank offering for delivering Abram and his servants in time of battle while saving Abram’s brother Lot from captivity. In This chapter of Leviticus, the tithe is attached to a vow and charged a fixed amount according to age and sex – it is not a thank offering to the Lord like it was in Genesis 14 when Abram was grateful that he and his servants were able to save his brother Lot and overcome the hostiles in the process.
- The Old Testament: an Introduction, Historical Traditions, Paul Tarazi – St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press – 2003
- Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament I,II,III. General Editor: Thomas C Oden, Intervarsity Press -2001
- Josephus, The Complete Works, Translated by William Whiston, A.M., Thomas Nelson Publishers – 1998
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha Expanded Edition, RSV, Ecumenical Study Bible, Oxford University Press 1977
- The Ministry of the Church, Image of Pastoral Care, Joseph J. Allen, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1986
- The Orthodox Study Bible, St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Thomas Nelson Publishers 2008