If you’ve ever started reading Leviticus, you know how challenging it can be to interpret. The tedious repetition, strange laws, and ancient format often leave modern readers scratching their heads in confusion or zoning out in boredom. To heighten our focus and engagement, it helps to understand the purpose of this biblical literature. So what is Leviticus all about?
First, let’s get some context and see the significance of Levititcus’ placement in the Torah (i.e. first five books of the Bible). At the end of the Exodus scroll, Moses is unable to enter the tabernacle, the holy tent where humans can be in God’s presence. But the Numbers scroll begins with “God spoke to Moses in the tent.” What is happening here? How did Moses, the representative of Israel, get from outside the tent to inside? The scroll of Leviticus answers this question!
Placed right in between Exodus and Numbers, Leviticus acts as a bridge, highlighting the need for restoration of the relationship between God and humans. This scroll is not just a long list of laws and rituals—Leviticus is a story about God’s desire to repair his relationship with Israel, so they can live with him in a restored holy space and rest with him as reformed people who represent his character to all the nations.
Movement 1: Repairing the Relationship (Leviticus 1-7)
Remember the garden of Eden—the sacred place where God and humans met and flourished together? When humans decided to ignore God’s instructions and live by their own understanding, they became tainted with death and could no longer occupy the sacred space. But God wants to be close to humans, so he gives Moses instructions to build the tabernacle—an Eden-like space full of cherubim, gold, and paradise-like decor—to invite people back into a holy space with him.
But when the people rebelled and ignored Yahweh’s instructions, Moses, their representative, was unable to enter the holy tent of meeting. So what now? How will the people access God’s presence?
In the opening chapters of Leviticus, Yahweh offers forgiveness, setting up a way for humans to atone, or cover for, the corruption that keeps them outside God’s presence. God calls out to Moses from inside the tent (Lev. 1:1) and gives the law—a specific way of living, thinking, and trusting—to repair the rift in the relationship. Yahweh also outlines a system of sacrifice and atonement so that humans can once again enter into God’s presence.
In Leviticus, we see Yahweh making a way for his people to return to him, despite their tendency to choose corruption and human wisdom over the ways of Yahweh. This first movement also develops a pattern that we will see throughout the biblical story—the pattern of sacrifice and atonement. Let’s take a closer look.
Sacrifice and Atonement
We get it—the sacrificial system outlined in Leviticus can seem strange to us in our modern context. Animal sacrifice? Really? But there’s a lot to learn in this first movement.
When the people listen to God and complete the sacrifices as he instructs, God allows the death of those animals to cover over, or atone for, the death that would otherwise be experienced by humans. And the nature of these sacrifices allows people to see, taste, and smell the devastating consequences of the harm we cause one another—Yahweh wants people to understand what damaged relationships cost. But he also wants the people to experience the relief of forgiveness.
When the people offer sacrifices, God makes a clean space free from death and corruption—a space where God and humans can be together. This healing of relationships is what the first movement of Leviticus is all about. And the story points forward to Jesus, a first-century Jew who would be called the sacrificial lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
We invite you to download the BibleProject app, so you can read the first movement of the Leviticus scroll with us. Together we’ll trace the pattern of sacrifice and atonement, zooming into key phrases like “make atonement,” “soothing aroma,” “sacrifice,” and “offering.”
Movement 2: Restoring the Holy Space (Leviticus 8-16)
Humans now have a way to atone for their sin so that they may enter into God’s presence once again, but the physical space of this meeting must also be prepared. The second movement of Leviticus focuses on restoring the place where humans and God meet together.
The language in this movement highlights repeated words that connect to the theme of holiness throughout the Bible. Understanding these key words and their context within the biblical narrative will help you understand what it means to be holy.
What does it mean to be holy? Is it just about being morally good, or is it more than that? When God made creation, he said it was good—a place where he could live and multiply goodness with humanity. But when humans neglected God’s good instructions, they corrupted creation and themselves with the impurity of death. This decision drove God-space and human-space apart. God is holy, but he does not want to be separated from his creation. So to reunite people and creation to himself, Yahweh teaches people to follow his instructions for what is clean, pure, and holy. God’s rituals for purity in Leviticus allow for the tabernacle, and the humans who will enter it, to become temporarily clean and unblemished, creating a space where he can meet with humanity again.
When you read through the second movement of the Leviticus scroll in the BibleProject app, you’ll get to trace the pattern of holiness, paying attention to words such as “consecrate,” “clean,” “unclean,” “pure,” “impure,” “holy,” “common,” etc.
Movement 3: Reforming the People (Leviticus 17-27)
God wants to expand the goodness of his tabernacle—he wants all of creation to thrive and be free of corruption and death. So to spread holy space to everyone, God offers a new way to live, instructions for trusting in his wisdom that we call the law.
The final Leviticus movement outlines these instructions. These laws are designed to improve human relationships and help Israel represent Yahweh to other nations. The law also includes instructions for observing regular feasts and celebrations. God puts such a high priority on the people’s healthy formation that neighborly love and memorable anniversary parties are not suggested, they are required! Each festival brings the community together to remember and reenact God’s protection and love.
You may be thinking—what do these ancient Jewish celebrations have to do with me? As we look closely at this movement, we can begin to notice how each celebration revolves around or emphasizes God’s gift of the Sabbath, a major theme throughout the biblical narrative.
In this movement of Leviticus, Yahweh invites Israel to join his Sabbath rest and trust that their provision does not rely on their own work. As the people learn to trust Yahweh, he forms them to enter his rest and be close to him.
This is what the entire scroll of Leviticus has been pointing to! God needed to illustrate the power of his presence so that people recognize their need for forgiveness and cleansing. Then they can start to live differently, and when they do, they can enter into the perfect rest God created humans to enjoy. Leviticus is about the people learning to live in a peaceful, restful community with one another and with Yahweh.
Continue reading the third movement of Leviticus in the BibleProject app to trace the theme of the Sabbath.
Begin a New Journey with the Leviticus Scroll
Leviticus shows us God’s desire to restore all people to live and thrive with him in peace. And ultimately, every detail brings us to the healing work of Jesus, who opened up the way back to Yahweh permanently. He made the final sacrifice, covering for the sins of humanity so that we might be made holy and rest in the goodness of Yahweh forever.
Dive into the whole story! Begin your Torah journey by downloading the BibleProject app for iPhone or Android today.