A prayer for your use before reading by Origen (c. 185 – c. 254) was an early church father from Alexandria.
Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate upon them day and night. We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put its precepts into practice. Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So we ask that the words of Scriptures may also be not just signs on a page, but channels of grace into our hearts. Amen.
I. Leviticus 1:1-7:38 The Laws of Sacrifice
II. Leviticus 8:1-10:20 The Inauguration of Worship at the Tabernacle
III. Leviticus 11:1-15:33 The Regulations on Clean and Unclean:
This is the third major section of the book and deals with issues of cleanliness and uncleanliness. This part of the book is difficult for modern people to understand. One idea to keep in mind is that religion is not limited to “spiritual” matters but rather affects all of life including our bodies. These instructions also are concerned with keeping sacred space sacred and that if impurity enters the tabernacle, God might leave. These instructions on clean and unclean are in four sections, food, childbirth, skin and genital discharges. Some scholars suggest these rules are concerned with aspects of the integrity of boundaries of the body. The idea is that at creation, God created boundaries and separated various “things”, land and water, light and dark, etc. These rules reflect a concern for the maintenance of order and proper boundaries. Animals that deviate from the norm, which blur the boundaries between kinds are forbidden. Thus fish have scales and fins, “fish” that do not, blur the distinctions and are avoided.
It is also important to recognize that while cleanliness and holiness are related they are not the same thing. Without cleanliness there is no holiness. But cleanliness has nothing to do with dirtiness, the text is speaking of ritual and ceremonial cleanliness.
We wonder what the reasons for these rules are, and commentators offer a variety of suggested answers. Some think these laws are to teach self denial and self control. Others think they reflect a mystical connections between body and soul. Some offer allegorical interpretations, i.e. the behaviors of the animals eaten influenced the persons who ate them. So camels were considered to be revengeful and people who are camels might have that trait imparted to them. Some commentators think the rules are arbitrary and are to be obediently followed. Some find hygienic reasons. Others believe these rules are to mark Israel is distinct and separate from the other nations. Israel (and the other nations) are continually reminded that Israel is uniquely involved with God and called to a particular function in the world.
A. 11:1-47 The Clean and the Unclean
B. 12:1-8 The Uncleanness of Childbirth
C. 13:1-14:57 The Uncleanness of Skin and Fungus Diseases:
13:1-59 Much has been written about what diseases the text refers to. There is agreement that leprosy is not the only disease under discussion. “Leprosy” refers to a variety of skin conditions. Notice the text is concerned with one’s ritual status. This is not medical treatment or cures. The skin lesions seem to have been viewed, again, signs or indications of death/decay and impurity. Verses 45-46 describe what those who are unclean must do. The actions of tearing the clothes, messing up hair and covering part of the face are signs of mourning for the dead. This state of being unclean is likened to being dead.
14:1-32 This section now provides the ceremonies for restoration once one has been healed. These ceremonies have two parts, one takes place outside the camp and the other occurs inside the camp on the eighth day after the first ceremony.
Do you think there is a symbolic reason for the sacrifice of one bird and the release of the other? Some commentators believe these two birds are, in a sense similar to the two goats of the Day of Atonement (16:21-22) – death making restoration possible.
In verses 14-20 notice the similarity here with 8:22-24 where the priests are anointed during their ordination. Why do you think these rituals are similar?
Just like in chapter 12, for the woman after childbirth, alternatives are given for persons too poor to afford the standard offering.
Verses 34-53 deal with some sort of mold/rot/fungus that affected buildings. Notice the parallels between this rite and the rite of purification of humans. Why do you think that is so?
D. 15:1-33 The Uncleanness of Genital Discharges: Gorman writes that [these] “instructions reflect a desire to watch over and guard the integrity and boundaries of the body by establishing purity rulings on the primary fluids associated with sexual organs, especially semen and blood.” (Gorman 157). He suggests that semen and blood are associated both with life and loss of life ( i.e. loss of life forces) and so these events are, in a sense, dangerous times.
We need to read these texts carefully. They are not concerned with the legitimacy or appropriateness or potential sinfulness of sex. Other Old Testament texts ( for example Genesis) tell of the importance and necessity of having children. Leviticus, here, is concerned with how one enters into the presence of God.
Notice the structure of the chapter, first men’s uncleanliness- chronic and sporadic, (v2-17) then women’s uncleanliness- sporadic and chronic (v19-30), verse 18 concerns both men and women.
Verses 19-30 “At face value it would seem that every female beyond the age of puberty spent one week a month out of contact with the rest of society. But some have argued that a monthly menstrual cycle is a fairly recent phenomenon, due more to the change in modern Western society than a change in female physiology. In earlier times, three things kept the monthly cycle from happening as frequently as it does today: (a) Most persons married shortly after puberty, (b) children were not weaned until they were two or three years old, and (c) most persons desired large families, so the children tended to come one after another….Perhaps more than any other sign, this [Levitical rules] demonstrates that a husband does not have sovereignty over his wife or her body; that she owes only to God.” (Kaiser:1105).
Kaisar again” These laws are to call Israelites away from uncleanliness so that when they go to the tabernacle, they will not defile it and as a result die in their uncleanness. They are simultaneously called to be separated unto their God. All of these laws on the clean and unclean are directed at securing a proper degree of reverence for the person and presence of God. Since the tabernacle is the place where God chose to be gloriously manifest, nothing is allowed to come into its precincts that will lower its general esteem and significance. A God who is holy demands a corresponding preparatory cleansing for all who draw near.” (Kaisar, 1106)
IV. Leviticus 16:1-34 The Great Day of Atonement
V. Leviticus 17:1-26:46 The Holiness Code
VI. Leviticus 27:1-34 Epilogue: Entire Dedication to the Lord.
Read More About It.
The following are several good general reference works to aid your reading of the Torah.
Anderson, Bernhard W. “Leviticus” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds.(New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Bamberger, Bernard J. “Leviticus” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.
Gorman, Frank H. Jr. “Leviticus” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Hallo, William W. “Leviticus and Ancient Near Eastern Literature” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.
Kaiser, Walter C., Jr, “The Book of Leviticus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1 Keck, Leander E., ed. (Nashville”Abingdon Press) 1994.