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CORNERSTONE BIBLICAL COMMENTARY
By David W. Baker
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.
Copyright © 2008
David W. Baker
All right reserved.
Chapter One INTRODUCTION TO Leviticus
When people open their Bibles to read, or even for serious study, Leviticus is not usually the first place to which they turn. In fact, it is often the last. If any other biblical book is more removed from our experience, more different and even strange to twenty-first-century readers, it is hard to decide which book that might be. Therefore, before beginning to interpret Leviticus, it is necessary to think about why we should even bother in the first place. What actually makes Leviticus worth reading at all? There are three primary reasons to study Leviticus:
1. Theological reasons. Israel was not simply another people; they were the people of the First Testament (from among whom came Jesus and his disciples, who gave us the Second Testament). In order to appreciate and understand the latter, it is necessary to understand the former. Meaning comes from context, and the First Testament, including Leviticus, is the context of the latter. Various concepts and terms familiar to Jesus and his contemporaries were only familiar because they were introduced in Leviticus and have their background there. They were part of the cultural literacy of the period and formed an element of the knowledge reservoir upon which Jesus and the Gospel writers drew in their preaching, teaching, and writing. For example, the identification of Jesus as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29) would be incomprehensible without Leviticus 4:32-35. And the unspeakable condition of a hemorrhaging woman coming into a crowd and touching someone (Mark 5:25-34) is not understood apart from Leviticus 15:25-27.
2. Religious reasons. Worship is an important matter of discussion in today's church, which is divided on this issue as well as many others concerning theology and practice. Questions are raised as to the how, who, where, when, and even the why of worship. There is also the question of whether worship must be a corporate, group exercise or whether it can equally, or even preferably, be individual, something between a person and God alone. Even more fundamentally, there is disagreement over what, in fact, worship is and what it is not.
For our purposes, we will understand worship to be service for God done by his people, since this reflects most accurately both the Hebrew and Greek terms that lie behind our English translations. This understanding as service is undoubtedly broader than what we usually assign to worship, but it is important since it highlights what we are called upon to do-namely to serve and to work-and not just how we should feel about God.
This background should shed some light on understanding the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Most Christians do not spend more time here than they have to, since the book appears distant, foreign to anything in our daily lives. Seeing it as a handbook for worship might make it a bit more understandable. For the ancient Israelite, including the Israelite priest, who instructed the people, Leviticus was the worship manual that answered many of the questions I have mentioned, especially those of who could worship, when, in what manner, and how people made themselves worthy or at least acceptable in God's sight so that they could worship. Rather than being a dead book of dead sacrifices, Leviticus is a living book of instruction about how to worship the living God and how to act as his living people. While we do not follow the same "how" in our worship procedures today, God still expects our worship to be holy and done on his terms. Thus, we can learn that much of Leviticus is applicable or adaptable to our own situation.
3. Historical reasons. Leviticus is a historical artifact, the product of a people who played a significant role in the history and religion of the ancient Near East. As historical evidence of who these people were and what they believed, Leviticus is worth studying. This is a subdiscipline of the study of history per se, namely the field of history of religion. Leviticus is a necessary source for understanding Israel, as the Qur'an is for understanding Iraq and the Gitas for appreciating India. All these are windows into other peoples, their culture, beliefs, and existence.
The Hebrew title and the first verse of the book reflect the Israelite understanding that the primary author of Leviticus was the Lord himself. The first verse also names the recipient of the message: Moses. In the ancient Near Eastern context of the Old Testament, especially in Mesopotamia but also among the neighboring Canaanites, many written documents concluded with a colophon. This included material that we find near the front of our books today. These colophons could include the name of the composition, a summary of contents, the source of the copy, the scribe who copied the text, and the date when the copy was made. There are possibly two or three of these colophons in Leviticus, which will be discussed later (see comments at 7:35-36, 37-38; 27:34). For example, one includes a composition name ("instructions"), contents summary with the various sacrifice types (7:37), source (the Lord), scribe or transmitter (Moses), and date ("when he commanded," 7:38). In these biblical "colophons," we can see that Moses was functioning in the place of the scribe, accurately transmitting for the reader material from God, his source.
Mosaic authorship has been traditionally accepted for Leviticus and the entire Pentateuch. Unlike some of the other Pentateuchal books, Moses is never said to have written any of the material in Leviticus (see Exod 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Deut 10:1; 31:9, 24); rather, throughout the book he receives God's oral revelation (1:1; 4:1; 5:14; 6:1, 8, 19, 24). Since the Enlightenment, people have questioned Mosaic involvement. Looking at Israelite history in conjunction with the contents of Leviticus, they have noted the particular relevance of the book to the priests. The most common argument has been that these functionaries came into their strongest period of authority in the Exile, and especially after the return from Babylonia. Since there was then no king to rule Israel, the priests were able to assume secular as well as civil authority. It was then, it has been argued, that the material most specifically relevant to them, called the "Priestly Document" (or "P" for short), was collected. Among numerous other problems with this proposal, it excludes any involvement of Moses in the affairs of the book.
A counter-swell of opinion has pointed out the antiquity of the laws and rituals found in this supposed P document, material which seems to have greatly predated the time of the Restoration and even the Exile. I have argued that the canonical character of the laws and rituals would point logically toward a life-setting back in the period of the wilderness wanderings, the picture of their composition as it is found in the biblical text itself (Baker 1987). Even in what are considered by many to be very early sources in the Pentateuch, the ritual procedure is assumed rather than explained (e.g., Gen 8:20; 22:2, 7-8, 13), presupposing its availability either in writing or as authoritative tradition to the author of these passages. The use of rituals recorded in Leviticus, according to pre-exilic texts, even outside of Israel (Num 23:15; 1 Kgs 18:38; 2 Kgs 3:27; 10:24) argues against the necessity of the P document being from the postexilic period.
DATE AND OCCASION OF WRITING
The biblical narrative places the events recorded in Leviticus at Mount Sinai (7:38) as part of God's revelation to his people through Moses. God not only gave his people the Ten Commandments (Exod 20), but also other laws concerning their civil and religious life. Leviticus continues these instructions. As such, it continues the material started in Exodus, which continues through Numbers 10. Though an exact date for the events is impossible to confirm, and therefore the subject of fierce debate, the middle of the second millennium BC fits the picture chronologically, and the Sinai wilderness, that section of land between the Gulf of Aqaba and what is now the Suez Canal, fits the picture geographically.
The occasion of writing is not mentioned, so suggestions must be tentative. Elsewhere I have contended that the type of prescriptive material found in Leviticus would have been a candidate for early recording in writing (Baker 1987). Since the material consists of foundational religious rituals for Israelite life and practice, it would have become fixed and authoritative upon its reception. While the first recipient generation under Moses and Aaron would hear the instructions, the need of documentation for future generations would soon become apparent.
The text of Leviticus indicates that it was directed toward "the people of Israel" (1:2). It was not exclusively for the common people, the clergy, the laity, or the rulers since all socioeconomic groups were addressed. Nobody is too poor (see 5:7), nobody is too powerful (see 4:22), nobody is too "religious" (see 4:3) to need the instructions found in this book.
Specifically, and most directly, the words were addressed to Moses, who was commissioned to pass the message on to another group (1:1-2; 4:1-2; 5:14; 6:1). In one case Aaron, Moses's brother, was addressed (10:8), and in one section both brothers were addressed together (11:1; 13:1; 14:33; 15:1-2a).
The inclusion of the book within the Pentateuch and the broader Old Testament canon shows that it had relevance and an audience beyond its first hearers. The transition from oral commission to written Scripture shows an awareness of its necessity for future generations of Jews, as well. Whether we like it or not-and the lack of preaching and teaching from Leviticus today seems to indicate that we don't-this book is also in our canon. Leviticus is God's Word to us in some way just as much as the Gospels. We also are an audience who must seek to determine the book's relevance to the church in our own times.
CANONICITY AND TEXTUAL HISTORY
There never seems to have been any discussion over the inclusion of Leviticus within the canon. Even within the scope of Scripture itself, the book was seen to contain authoritative instruction or canonical law. For example, Deuteronomy 24:8 refers explicitly to the laws of Leviticus 13:1-14:57, and the numerous occasions on which sacrifice is made in the former and latter prophets never prescribe detailed procedures, apparently relying on that information contained in Leviticus 1-7. I have also argued that these laws, at least, were available to those who brought their offerings to the Tabernacle in at least one written copy very soon after they were propagated and were not just in oral form (Baker 1987). In the case of such foundational laws for Israelite religious practice, relevant to both the priests and the people, a permanent record would have been necessary within the lifetime of those who received them at Sinai.
If this is the case, there was, of course, a long period of textual transmission between the time of the first writing and the Masoretic Text, which is the received Hebrew textual tradition after the tenth century AD, and also the basis of most modern translations. There are two main earlier witnesses to the text of Leviticus. The first is the Septuagint, a Greek translation done in Egypt. Its Pentateuch translation dates to the third century BC. The Samaritan Pentateuch, though currently available in manuscripts from the late medieval period, could have originated earlier, possibly dating from the second century BC. It was preserved by the community formed by the northern tribes of Israel and those with whom they intermarried after the Assyrian deportation of the northern kingdom in 722 BC.
The Qumran community, from the area of the Dead Sea, preserved texts from before the Christian period, providing Hebrew texts a millennium earlier than those of the Masoretes. They possessed texts related to each of the traditions mentioned, i.e., forebears of what we know as the Samaritan, Septuagint, and Masoretic text traditions. To date, some 16 texts and fragments of Leviticus from the Dead Sea vicinity have appeared in publication.
Unlike some of the biblical books, the textual traditions in Leviticus are very uniform, with few variations. Of these, even fewer make a difference to interpretation, and these will be discussed at the appropriate time. The consistency of the text could well reflect its nature as a canonical legal document which would not have been open to widespread alteration (Baker 1987).
The majority of Leviticus is prescriptive, detailing how different rituals and practices are to be carried out. It is presented in an impersonal manner because it is applicable to anyone who either cares or needs to perform the rituals. In Hebrew, this is done by use of the third person, "if one ..." or "if a person ..." In English, and in the NLT in particular, the impersonal second person is used, "if you ..." This kind of material can be fairly dry, if the "you" referred to does not seem to be the "you" who is reading. We do a theological disservice to this book, and indeed any book of the Bible, if we read it in this way, however. This also is Scripture, and must, according to Paul (2 Tim 3:16), have something of profit for every "you" who is reading it.
The prescriptive texts are couched in a narrative framework. This presents some of the who, when, where, and how of the material. Unlike some contemporary ancient Near Eastern prescriptive documents that present laws and instructions by themselves, Leviticus shows the dynamics of how they were delivered to Moses and passed on to the people. The narrative framework shows that history is theologically significant. God meets his people in and through history, which is an important differentiation between the Judeo-Christian religion and others such as New Age or Eastern mysticism. There, present reality is often seen as something to be left behind or risen above. Leviticus shows how to live in God's world, not how to escape to some other world.
There are, in addition to prescriptive texts with a narrative framework, two short sections of historical narrative (10:1-7; 24:10-16), both showing in graphic terms the result of not following the prescriptions spelled out.
The unifying theme in Leviticus is personal and corporate holiness. The repeated command to "be holy because I am holy" (11:44-45; 19:2; 20:26; cf. 20:7) shows its importance. Words related to "holiness" occur over 150 times in the Hebrew text of the book. It is therefore appropriate to call Leviticus, or at least a portion of it, a "Holiness Code," as some scholars do.
This holiness theme is an organizing element for most of the book's material, but subthemes are also introduced and developed. One subtheme is sacrifice, which is detailed in the first seven chapters and used on numerous occasions throughout the book. Sacrifice maintained or reestablished a relationship with a holy God, which might have been breached through some defilement.
COMMENTARY ON Leviticus
* I. A Handbook for the People and the Priests (1:1-7:38) A. Commission (1:1-2)
The Lord called to Moses from the Tabernacle and said to him, 2 "Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. When you present an animal as an offering to the Lord, you may take it from your herd of cattle or your flock of sheep and goats.
1:1 Hebrew Tent of Meeting; also in 1:3, 5.
1:1 In the MT the verse begins with the conjunction "and" (waw [TH2050.1, ZH2256]), thereby joining the last verse of Exodus (Exod 40:38) with the first verse of Leviticus. As such, one can read a continuing narrative from Exodus 40 to Leviticus 1. The continuity is grammatical as well as literary, since the same characters, themes, and chronology bridge Exodus and Leviticus.
1:2 When you. This is the contemporary American English indication of an unspecified subject of a sentence. The Hebrew uses a third-person form, "one, a person" (indicating any unnamed person), much like the British use the wording "when one." The actual term used here ('adam [TH120, ZH132]) denotes a human being as distinct from both God on the one hand and animals on the other. It was a general term, specifying neither male nor female exclusively. It thus referred to all of the Israelites, whether male or female (see 15:29), who could come to present sacrifices, bringing them near to God.
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