Observe my precepts and be careful to keep my regulations,
For then you will dwell securely in the land.
Leviticus, the third book in the Old Testament and the Pentateuch, is not exciting reading. Unlike Genesis, Exodus, and most other books in the Bible, it contains almost no stories. Rather, it is a book of laws— lots of laws— which pertain to just about every facet of life. God is giving the Israelites a detailed plan on how to live well in relationship with God and with other people.
The first seven chapters describe the types of sacrifices Israel is to offer on various occasions, and explain the role and ordination of priests. Chapters 11 through 15 list taboos on food, illness, and the body, defining what is clean and unclean. For instance, bodily functions such as childbirth, menstruation, and ejaculation are considered “pollution.” Anyone who experiences or encounters such “events” must purify himself or herself by performing certain rituals, such as washing clothes and remaining isolated from the community for seven days.
Following chapter 15 is a description of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur in Hebrew). The remaining chapters, 17 through 27, deal with sex, marriage, moral commandments, touching blood and dead bodies, and upholding justice. This section is called the “Holiness Code,” since it emphasizes God’s holiness and the need for Israel to follow suit. Some laws are for priests only; others apply to everyone.
While this exhaustive list of laws may seem oppressive, it reflects the Israelites’ belief that every moment of life is sacred— an opportunity to cultivate holiness and deepen one’s relationship with God. It also reminds Israel that its God is transcendent and completely beyond ordinary human experience.
Leviticus probably dates not from the desert, but from when the Temple at Jerusalem was firmly established. It was likely edited into its final form sometime between 593 and 572 B.C. The name Leviticus comes from the Greek, meaning “the book of the Levites.”