Leviticus is the third book of the Bible, and it flows directly out of the events in the previous book of Exodus. Israel has been freed from slavery in Egypt, and they’ve gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai to enter into a covenant relationship with God. However, as soon as they agreed to the relationship, they rebelled and violated the foundational terms of the covenant. God had wanted his glorious presence to dwell in the midst of Israel within the tabernacle, but their sin damaged the relationship so that even Moses, Israel’s representative, was unable to enter the tent.
Many Jewish and Christian traditions hold that Moses is the author of Leviticus. However, authorship is not explicitly stated within the book.
The events described in Leviticus take place on the Sinai Peninsula, primarily when Israel is camped at Mount Sinai.
The book of Leviticus is written as narrative and contains occasional poetic and discourse sections.
God’s care for the poor, vulnerable, and mistreated
Faithfulness to the covenant
Remembrance of who God was and is
God’s requirements for the Israelites to be holy so that he might dwell in their midst
The structure of Leviticus is divided into three parts. Chapters 1-7 explain five types of ritual sacrifices, 8-15 detail priestly qualifications and ritual purity, and 16-27 outline annual feasts, moral goodness, and Israel’s covenant faithfulness.
Leviticus Overview: A Holy God and a Rebellious People
The book of Leviticus opens by immediately reminding us of this problem: “The Lord called to Moses from the tent” (Lev. 1:1). Moses’ inability to enter the tent is an image of the relational rift between God and Israel. How can God’s people, who have proven selfish and rebellious, be reconciled to the holy God? That’s what the book of Leviticus is all about—how God graciously provides a way for sinful, corrupt people to live in his holy presence.
Now, let’s pause for a moment to explore this core idea that God is “holy” because it’s foundational for understanding this biblical book. The word means simply “to be set apart, unique.” And in the Bible, God is set apart from all things because of his unique role as Creator and the author of life itself. God is holy, and when he shows up in person, the space around him also becomes holy and set apart because it’s permeated with God’s life, power, and purity. If Israel wants to live in God’s holy presence, they also need to become holy by dealing with their sin. That’s what the book of Leviticus is all about.
Leviticus has an amazing symmetrical literary design, exploring three main ways that God enables Israel to live in his presence. The outer sections (Lev. 1-7 and 23-25) describe the rituals Israel is to practice in the presence of God’s holiness. The inner sections (Lev. 8-10 and 21-22) focus on the role of Israel’s priests as mediators between God and Israel. Inside those are two matching sections (Lev. 11-15 and 18-20) that focus on Israel’s purity. At the center of the book (Lev. 16-17) is a key ritual, the Day of Atonement, that brings all the themes of the book together. Finally, the book concludes with a section (Lev. 26-27) where Moses calls Israel to be faithful to the covenant.
The first section (Lev. 1-7) explores the five types of ritual sacrifices Israel was to perform. Two of them were ways an Israelite could thank God by offering back to God symbolic tokens of what he first gave them. The other three were different ways of apologizing to God. As an Israelite offered up the life-blood of an animal, they would acknowledge that their sin had created more evil and death in God’s good world. And to make it clear that God would rather forgive a person than destroy them, this animal would symbolically die in their place and “atone” for or, more literally, “cover” their sin. Through these rituals, the Israelites were constantly reminded of God’s grace but also of his justice and the seriousness of evil and its consequences.
The second set of rituals (Lev. 23-25) lays out the seven annual feasts of Israel: the feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles. Each of these feasts retold a different part of the story of how God redeemed Israel and led them through the wilderness on the way to the promised land. By celebrating these feasts, Israel would remember who they were and who God was to them.
In chapters 8-10, Aaron and his sons are first ordained as priests to enter God’s presence on Israel’s behalf, while the matching section (Lev. 21-22) outlines the qualifications for being a priest. Priests were called to the highest level of moral integrity and ritual holiness, as they represent the people before God and then represent God to the people.
As the book of Leviticus progresses, we find out why the holiness of the priests matters so much. After Aaron’s family is ordained (Lev. 8-9), two of the sons waltz right into God’s presence and flagrantly violate the rules. They are consumed by God’s holiness on the spot. This story is a haunting reminder of the paradox of God’s holy presence—its pure goodness can become dangerous to those who rebel and insult God’s holiness. This is why it’s important that Israel’s priests become holy, as well as all of the people of Israel. This is what the next inner sections are all about. Chapters 11-15 are about the ritual purity required of the Israelites, while chapters 18-20 are about their moral purity.
Here is what’s underneath all this purity and impurity language. Because God is holy and set apart, the Israelites need to be in a state of holiness themselves in order to enter his presence, which was called being “clean” or “pure.” God’s presence was off-limits to anyone who wasn’t in a holy state, which was called being “unclean” or “impure.” An Israelite could become impure in a few ways: contact with reproductive body fluids (Lev. 12, 15), having a skin disease (Lev.13a, 14a), touching mold or fungus (Lev. 13b, 14b), or touching a dead body (Num. 19). For the Israelites, these were associated with mortality and the loss of life, which gets us to the core symbolic idea here. You become impure when you're contaminated by touching death, which is the opposite of God’s holiness whose essence is life. Now, simply being impure was not sinful or wrong. Touching those things is a normal part of life. Impurity was a temporary state that lasted a week or two and then was over. What was wrong was to enter into God’s presence with symbols of death and impurity on you.
The last way of becoming impure was eating certain animals.The kosher food laws are found in this section as well (Lev. 11). There have been many theories about why certain animals were considered impure and off-limits, like to promote hygiene (no bats or slugs) or to avoid cultural taboos (pigs or octopus), but the text isn’t explicit about any of these reasons. The only thing that’s clear is the basic point—these animals were a set of cultural symbols to remind them that God’s holiness was to affect all areas of their life.
The corresponding section is about Israel’s moral purity (Lev. 18-20). They were called to live differently than the Canaanites. They were to care for the poor instead of overlooking them. They were to have a high level of sexual integrity, and they were to promote justice throughout their land.
At the center of the book (Lev. 16-17) we find a long description of one of Israel’s annual feasts, the Day of Atonement. Not every Israelites’ sin and rebellion would be accounted for through individual sacrifices, so once a year, the high priest would use two goats to represent all the unacknowledged sins of the entire nation. One goat would be sacrificed as a purification offering to atone for the sins of Israel. The other animal was called the scapegoat. The priest would confess the sins of Israel and symbolically place them on this goat and cast it out into the wilderness. Again, it’s a powerful symbol that illustrates God’s desire to remove sin and its consequences from Israel so that they can live together in peace.
The book concludes (Lev. 26-27) with Moses calling on Israel to be faithful to all the terms of the covenant. He describes all the blessings of peace and abundance that will result if Israel obeys the laws. He also warns them that if they are unfaithful and dishonor God’s holiness, it will result in disaster and ultimately exile from the promised land.
To see how Leviticus fits into the story of the Torah, it’s helpful to look at the first sentence of the next biblical book, Numbers: “The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent” (Num. 1:1). He made it inside! In other words, now that the symbolic rituals of Leviticus are being practiced, Moses can enter God’s presence on behalf of Israel. Despite their failures, God has provided a way for their sin to be covered, and they can now live with God in peace. From this perspective, the book of Leviticus is a powerful expression of God’s holy and gracious mercy.
Leviticus outlines the invitation from God to Moses to enter the presence of God in the tent of meeting. The symbolic rituals of Leviticus create a path for Israel and God to live together in peace—a powerful expression of God’s holy and gracious mercy.