Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Leviticus, meaning "of the Levites." O.T. book, chiefly a manual for priests. Written probably during the sixt to the fifth century B.C. it seems to describe worship after the time of the exile.


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Leviticus, the third book in the Pentateuch of the ot. It gets its name from the title of the work, Liber Leviticus, in the Vulgate, which in turn is a translation of the name given to it in the Septuagint. So the name is descriptive, ‘the levitical book,’ that is, concerned with the Temple personnel, all of whom were supposed to be descended from Levi.



I. Sacrifices from the people (1:1-7:38)

II. Consecration of Aaron (8:1-10:20)

III. Laws of purity (11:1-16:34)

IV. Laws of holiness (17:1-27:34)

Leviticus was not originally a self-contained unity but formed part of a continuous whole comprising what are now the first four books of the ot. Its kernel is chaps. 8-10, which continue the narrative from Exod. 29:35. These chapters are mainly concerned with the consecration of the priests, so chaps. 1-7 were inserted to provide the ritual directions for the sacrifices offered on this occasion. The distinctive mark of the worshiping community thus constituted was its ‘holiness,’ that is, its being set apart from all other peoples to belong solely to God. Hence there follows in chaps. 11-15 a set of laws to maintain the purity of the nation, culminating in the description in chap. 16 of the Day of Atonement, which removed every trace of uncleanness. Finally, the remaining chapters consist largely of the so-called Holiness Code, because of the repeated refrain ‘you shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Lev. 19:2), in which what being the holy nation involves is spelled out for ordinary life.

Present Form: In its present form, the work represents a priestly compilation made in Jerusalem from about 500 b.c. onward, reflecting the ritual practice of the Second Temple, built in 515, but it contains much earlier material. Not only are the sacrificial regulations of chaps. 1-7 and the Holiness Code older, independent entities that the final editors took over, but the whole book is made up of previously existing legal collections, which probably represent the traditions of various Israelite sanctuaries during the monarchical period (ca. 1050-586 b.c.). But much of the material in these collections is very old, sometimes going back to Israel’s earliest days and preserving concepts and practices different from the dominant postexilic priestly outlook.

Its Nature and Purpose: Its relation to the historical situation in which it was produced is the key for understanding the nature and purpose of Leviticus. According to many scholars, it is a response to the destructions of the kingdoms of Israel (721 b.c.) and Judah (586 b.c.) and the subsequent Exile. Its priestly authors wanted to provide a program for the reconstruction of the restored community and they did this in several ways.

First, they collected and preserved the fundamental laws that were the basis of the people’s life but were in danger of being lost because of the disruption caused by foreign invasions. All law was now represented as the direct commandment of God himself given for all time at Mount Sinai at the very beginning of Israel’s existence as a nation (Lev. 27:34).

Second, they explained to the people the reasons for the tragedy that had befallen them. Here they adopted and developed the teaching of the great pre-exilic prophets, which had largely gone unheeded. The disaster had been sent by God himself, as a just punishment for Israel’s constant disobedience to the terms of the Sinai covenant they had once accepted (Lev. 26:44-45). The distinctive way in which the priestly school presented this message was by setting out the covenant laws, to bring home the number of ways the Israelites had failed to observe them.

Third, the priestly school aimed to ensure that the laws were faithfully kept for the future, as the only guarantee of national and religious survival (Lev. 26:3-13). So reiterated teaching and exhortation, aimed to bring this about, is a marked feature of the priestly source; the Holiness Code in particular has the form of an extended sermon on this theme. Further, ancient regulations were given a new interpretation as the basis of a community under priestly direction. Great importance was now attached to the Sabbath (Lev. 23:3), the Sabbath and Jubilee years (Lev. 25:1-22), and the purity laws (Lev. 11-15) as distinctive marks of the nation. Above all, a new interpretation was given to the whole sacrificial system and the one sanctuary where it is carried out. The purpose of all sacrifices was now to make atonement, to nullify the disastrous effects of sin on both individual and community, and so there is a much greater emphasis than before on the sacrifices that primarily achieve this, the sin offering and the guilt offering (Lev. 4:1-6:7).

The levitical code regulated national life until the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of actual sacrifices (a.d. 70). But the view in Leviticus of sin, guilt, and sacrifice lived on as the mould in which the nt writers, especially the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, understood the death of Christ as the one all sufficient, atoning sacrifice. In later Judaism, attention focused primarily on the laws of cleanliness and uncleanliness, which were much developed in rabbinic literature, as the key to the life of purity.


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