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Leviticus (Greek: Λευιτικός, "relating to the Levites") or Vayikra (Hebrew: ויקרא‎, literally "and He called") is the third book of the Hebrew Bible, and the third of five books of the Torah/Pentateuch.

Leviticus contains laws and priestly rituals, but in a wider sense is about the working out of God's covenant with Israel set out in Genesis and Exodus – what is seen in the Torah as the consequences of entering into a special relationship with God (specifically, Yahweh). These consequences are set out in terms of community relationships and behaviour.

The first 16 chapters and the last chapter make up the Priestly Code, with rules for ritual cleanliness, sin-offerings, and the Day of Atonement, including Chapter 12 which mandates male circumcision. Chapters 17-26 contain the Holiness Code, including the injunction in chapter 19 to "love one's neighbor as oneself" (the Great Commandment). The book is largely concerned with "abominations", largely dietary and sexual restrictions. The rules are generally addressed to the Israelites, except for the prohibition in chapter 20 against sacrificing children to Moloch, which applies equally to "the strangers that sojourn in Israel."

According to tradition, Moses authored Leviticus[1] as well as the other four books of the Torah [2]. However, modern biblical scholars believe Leviticus to be almost entirely from the priestly source (P), marked by emphasis on priestly concerns, composed c 550-400 BC, and incorporated into the Torah c 400 BC.[3]


In Hebrew the book is called Vayikra (Hebrew: ויקרא) literally "and He called"[4], from the first word of the Hebrew text, in line with the other four books of the Torah. When the Bible was translated into Greek in the 3rd century BCE to produce the Septuagint, the name given was biblion to Levitikon (Greek: βιβλίον το Λευιτικόν), meaning "book of the Levites". This was in line with the Septuagint use of subject themes as book names. The Latin name became Liber Leviticus, from which the English name is derived. These names are somewhat misleading, as the book makes a very strong distinction between the priesthood, descended from Aaron, and mere Levites.


Old Testament and Tanakh
Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox
Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox
Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox
Russian and Oriental Orthodox
Oriental Orthodox

The book is generally considered to consist of two large sections, both of which contain several mitzvot.

The first part Leviticus 1-16, and Leviticus 27, constitutes the main portion of the Priestly Code, which describes the details of rituals, and of worship, as well as details of ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness. Within this section are:

  • Laws regarding the regulations for different types of sacrifice (Leviticus 1-7):
    • Burnt-offerings, meal-offerings, and thank-offerings (Leviticus 1-3)
    • Sin-offerings (for unintentional sins), and trespass-offerings (Leviticus 4-5)
    • Priestly duties and rights concerning the offering of sacrifices (Leviticus 6-7)
  • The practical application of the sacrificial laws, within a narrative of the consecration of Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8-10)
    • Aaron's first offering for himself and the people (Leviticus 8)
    • The incident in which "strange fire" is brought to the Tabernacle by Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu, leading to their death directly at the hands of God for doing so (Leviticus 9-10)
  • Laws concerning purity and impurity (Leviticus 11-16)
    • Laws about clean and unclean animals (Leviticus 11)
    • Laws concerning ritual cleanliness after childbirth (Leviticus 12)
    • Laws concerning tzaraath of people, and of clothes and houses, often translated as leprosy, and mildew, respectively (Leviticus 13-14)
    • Laws concerning bodily discharges (such as blood, pus, semen, etc.) and purification (Leviticus 15)
    • Laws regarding a day of national atonement, Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16)
  • Laws concerning the commutation of vows (Leviticus 27)

The second part, Leviticus 17-26, is known as the Holiness Code, and places particular, and noticeable, emphasis on holiness, and the holy; it contains commandments intended not just for the priests but for the whole congregation.[5] It is notably more than a miscellany of laws. Within this section are:

  • Laws concerning idolatry, the slaughter of animals, dead animals, and the consumption of blood (Leviticus 17)
  • Laws concerning sexual conduct - incest, bestiality, same-sex relationships among men, laws concerning sorcery, and Moloch (Leviticus 18, and also Leviticus 20, in which penalties are given)
  • Laws concerning molten gods, peace-offerings, scraps of the harvest, fraud, the deaf, blind, elderly, and poor, poisoning the well, hate, sex with slaves, self harm, shaving, tattoos, prostitution, sabbaths, sorcery, familiars, strangers, and just weights and measure (Leviticus 19)
  • Laws concerning priests/the Sons of Aaron and their conduct, and possible prohibiting factors of being a priest such as prohibitions against the disabled, the permanently ill (anyone who: suffers from dwarfism, has poor eyesight, is hunchbacked, has damaged testicles, etc.), and the superfluously blemished. Similar requirements are issued for animals that are to be sacrificed. (Leviticus 21-22)
  • Laws concerning the observation of the annual feasts, and the sabbath, (Leviticus 23)
  • Laws concerning the altar of incense (Leviticus 24:1-9)
  • The case law lesson of a blasphemer being stoned to death, and other applications of the death penalty (Leviticus 24:10-23), including anyone having "a familiar ghost or spirit", a child insulting its parents (Leviticus 20), and a special case penalty for prostitution (Leviticus 21)
  • Laws concerning the Sabbath, Jubilee years and slavery. (Leviticus 25).
  • A hortatory conclusion to the section, giving promises regarding obedience to these commandments, and warnings and threats for those that might disobey them, including sending wild animals to devour their children. (Leviticus 26:22)

These ordinances, in the book, are said to have been delivered in the space of a month, specifically the first month of the second year after the exodus. A major Chiastic structure runs through practically all of this book.

Structure and composition

According to traditional belief, Leviticus is the word of Yahweh, dictated to Moses from the Tent of Meeting before Mount Sinai. Since the 19th century, scholars have regarded Leviticus as being almost entirely a product of the priestly source, (more recent scholarship prefers to refer to a "priestly school" of editors rather than a single priestly source), originating amongst the Aaronid priesthood c 550-400 BC.

Leviticus consists of several layers of laws. The base of this accretion is the Holiness Code (chapters 17-26), regarded as an early independent document related the Covenant Code presented earlier in the Bible. Wellhausen regarded the Priestly source as a later, rival, version of the stories contained within JE (a hypothetical intermediate source text of the Torah), the Holiness Code thus being the law code that the priestly source presented as being dictated to Moses at Sinai, in the place of the Covenant Code. Different writers inserted laws, some from earlier independent collections. These additional laws, in the views of those who follow Wellhausen's theories, are those which subsequently formed the Priestly Code, and thus the other portion of Leviticus. It also concerns the laws of the land, and of the seas.


Leviticus defines the most important rituals of ancient Israel, from sacrifice to cleanliness, the holy days to the calendar, birth and death. Gordon Wenham, quoting the early 20th century anthropologist Monica Wilson, points out that ritual is the key to understanding a society's central values; it makes up the markers by which a group of people recognise themselves as a group, and distinguish themselves from their neighbours.[6]

Leviticus in subsequent tradition


Leviticus constitutes a major source of Jewish law. In Talmudic literature, there is evidence that this is the first book of the Tanakh which was taught, in the Rabbinic system of education in Talmudic times. A possible reason may be that, of all the books of the Torah, Leviticus is the closest to being purely devoted to mitzvot and its study thus is able to go hand-in-hand with their performance.

There are two main Midrashim on Leviticus - the halakhic one (Sifra) and a more aggadic one (Vayikra Rabbah).


Various Christian denominations have differing views of the relevance of the Levitical code to Christian conduct (see Law and Gospel). Most Christians do not consider themselves to be bound by the Levitical purity code itself. Many Christians, however, feel that certain moral aspects of the law still apply, such as the sexual morals of Chapter 18. Other groups such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church still attempt to follow some aspects of the dietary code of chapter 11. Theological arguments for Christianity's freedom from the law are largely based on passages such as Paul's 1 Corinthians 10:23-26, which permits believers to "eat anything sold in the meat market, without raising questions of conscience". The Letter to the Hebrews gives a theological justification for this view: it views Jesus as the perfect High Priest, "entering heaven not with the blood of bulls and goats (i.e., the sacrificial rules set out in Leviticus), but with his own blood"; and whereas the Jewish High Priest offered sacrifices continually and was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies only once a year, "Jesus offered just one sacrifice and is seated at God's right hand continually making intercession for his people." Similarly, the Gospel of Matthew 27:51 and Gospel of Mark 15:38 speak of the veil separating the holy of holies from the outer courtyard being torn in two when Jesus dies. This has been interpreted as symbolizing that God is now directly accessible. Most radically of all, the Jewish food laws, which symbolize the unique status of the Jews as the only people of God, are explicitly abrogated in Matthew 15:1-20 and in Acts 10:1-29.[7]

See also

Books of the Torah
1. Genesis
2. Exodus
3. Leviticus
4. Book of Numbers
5. Deuteronomy


  1. Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (1995): 8. "The Traditional View ... is the view that Leviticus was compiled by Moses himself, or at least that the material in the book, if not its final shape, goes back to Moses."
  2. Maas, Anthony. "Pentateuch." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911., "The voice of tradition, both Jewish and Christian, is so unanimous and constant in proclaiming the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch that down to the seventeenth century it did not allow the rise of any serious doubt."
  3. Baruch A. Levine, ""Leviticus: Its Literary History and Location in Biblical Literature, in The Book of Leviticus: Composition and Reception, ed. Rolf Rendtorff and Robert A. Kugler (Brill, 2006), pp.11-23
  4. Wenham (1995): 3. "The first word of the book serves as its Hebrew title, wayyiqrā, "and he called."
  5. Wenham (1995): 3. "It would be wrong, however, to describe Leviticus simply as a manual for priests. It is equally, if not more, concerned with the part the laity should play in worship."
  6. Gordon Wenham, "Exploring the Old Testament: The Pentateuch" (SPCK, 2003), pp.83-84
  7. Gordon Wenham, "Exploring the Old Testament: The Pentateuch" (SPCK, 2003), pp.99-100

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikisource. The original article was at Book of Leviticus. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with the Religion wiki, the text of Wikisource is available under the CC-BY-SA.

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