The Rules of Leviticus
Posted by foryourfaith on February 23, 2011
What is the source of the inscription on the Liberty Bell? Where can one find the commandment that Jesus described as the second of the two great commandments? The answer to both questions is the same: the collection of rules and regulations in the Book of Leviticus. The Liberty Bell inscription reads, “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof” (25:10). “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18) is Jesus’ second great commandment (Mark 12:31).
The book’s contents are summarized by its last verse: “These are the commandments which the Lord commanded Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34). Set in the period of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai after the exodus from Egypt, these regulations were intended to govern the conduct of the Israelites. A large number of these regulations involved matters of religious ritual. Thus, the early Greek translation of the Bible called this book “the Levitical Book,” after the priestly tribe of the Levites.
The book falls into six parts: laws governing sacrifices; those regarding the ordination of priests; laws distinguishing the clean and the unclean; a chapter with instructions for the annual Day of Atonement; laws governing the holy life of the chosen people; and finally, an appendix on religious vows. The book has traditionally been attributed to Moses; however, most scholars believe that Leviticus was compiled from earlier collections of laws and regulations.
One such earlier collection was called the Holiness Code (17-26). This code offered legislation for both priests and the laity. Its regulations covered sexual ethics, general morality, and ritual behavior, among others. But the general nature of the code helped to form a conception of holiness for the Israelites. Its central thrust was obedience to god’s commandments. “But if you will not hearken to me, and will not do all these commandments . . . . I will appoint over you sudden terror, consumption, and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away.” To truly adhere to the code one had to be pure of heart as well as ritually pure. Thus, Leviticus 19:17 states, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.”
Chapters 11-15 contain a series of laws that distinguish is “clean” from what is “unclean.” This distinction was not made merely on the basis of sanitation or hygiene. Rather, unclean meant that something was ritually impure, and thus unholy. To remain holy, one had to avoid impurity, which in the case of some foods meant total avoidance. “An the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Say to the people of Israel, These are the living things which you may eat among all the beasts that are on the earth. Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat . . . . And the swine, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you.’” (11:1-3; 7). To this day, many observant Jews adhere to the dietary laws as prescribed in Leviticus, and elsewhere in the Bible.
Rules for the purification were prescribed when defilement could not be avoided, as in the case of childbirth or handling the dead. “The Lord said to Moses, . . . If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days . . . [she shall not] come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed” (12:1).
There were certain guidelines for determining whether or not something was unclean, as in the case of certain diseases. “When a man or woman has a disease on the head or the beard, the priest shall examine the disease.” The ancient Israelites seemed to have possessed a knowledge of contagion. Their practice of washing after the handling of corpses or the sick, and the quarantine of lepers, had practical value.
The first seven chapters of Leviticus described sacrifices ordained by the Lord. The offering of sacrifices was a central part of worship, and they were a means of maintaining and repairing one’s relationship with God. Through sacrifice one could remove the pollution of uncleanness and sin.
Leviticus’ rules and regulations had as their goal the maintenance of a special people, living in the right relationship with their God and with each other. The sacrificial rituals, the laws of cleanliness, the Day of Atonement, the Holiness Code, and the rest of the book can all be understood as addressing what God meant by the commandment, “you shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.”
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