Notes on Leviticus

Contemporary Biblical scholarship holds that the Torah was assembled by priestly writers sometime during the sixth century after the fall of Judea in 586 BC. Perhaps in Leviticus, the third and shortest book of the Torah, we see an obsessive almost Egyptian need to catalogue and document appropriate rituals. The key verb in the book is hivdil, a Hebrew word for “dividing.” In contrast to Exodus and its relatable narrative that climaxes with the culmination of the ten “words,” or commandments, Leviticus reads like a long list of the Lord restating the phrases to Moses: “Speak to the Israelites” or “Speak to the sons of Aaron”.

The book begins with the Lord speaking to Moses from the “Tent of Meeting.” Later in the book he speaks from Mount Sinai. He details specific propitiations that must be made with regard to sacrifices, so long as they are fragrant to the Lord. Guilt sacrifices, communion sacrifices, grain offerings, burnt offerings, and other offerings are detailed by the Lord to Moses. Then Moses performs a ritual before the Israelites, and the Lord consumes the offering in a fire. Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offer an unpleasant sacrifice to the Lord and thus are immediately and curiously consumed by fire in Leviticus 10. Their death is a warning. More legal requirements follow for appropriate foods, such as forbidding animal skins, female menstrual cycle impurity, skin rashes, garments, sexuality, and sacred convocations.

Here are several verses for reference (of course using Robert Alter’s excellent translation):

“And should a person touch anything unclean through human uncleanness or an unclean beast or any unclean abominable creature and eat of the flesh of the communion sacrifice which is the Lord’s, that person shall be cut off from his kin” (7:21).

“And all in the seas and in the brooks that have no fins and scales, of all the swarming creatures of the water and of all the living things that are in the water, they are an abomination for you” (11:10).

“And you shall not put your member into your fellow man’s wife to spill seed, to be defiled through her. And you shall not dedicate any of your seed to pass over to Molech, and you shall not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. And with a male you shall not lie as one lies with a woman.

– the key with this prohibition is that the Hebrew verbiage implies strictly prohibitions on homosexual intercourse, though it leaves open the possibility for other forms of homosexual activity. Curiously, lesbianism is not addressed. The rationale for this prohibition is the paranoia of wasting seed. Women and men are also prohibited from engaging in sex with beasts. Also in this section the Lord prohibits men from giving over their seed to Molech, likely a rival deity that implies a prohibition on child sacrifice, as is evidenced in the recovered graves of many children sacrificed through the region at the time.

The Hebrew title for the book is Vayikra coming from the opening words of the book: “And He [God] called…” The title of Leviticus comes from the Greek reference to the priestly tribe of Israelites, or “Levi.”

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