1 The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock.” – Leviticus 1:1-2 ESV
As part of a five-book set known as the Pentateuch, the book of Leviticus picks up where the book of Exodus left off. The first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures were originally one book that was referred to as the Book of the Law or Torah. The Greek word Pentateuch was eventually used to refer to this five-volume set. It comes from a combination of the Greek word penta, meaning “five” and teuchos, which can be translated as “scroll.” These five individual scrolls were written by Moses sometime between the time when the Israelites left Egypt and when they entered the land of Canaan. When Moses originally penned the words recorded in the Pentateuch, he had one audience in mind: The Israelites whom he had helped deliver from captivity in Egypt.
Like much of what is contained in the book of Exodus, Leviticus is a record of God’s direct revelation to His chosen people. It contains detailed instructions regarding the priesthood and the sacrificial system that would become integral to their worship of Him. The final chapter of Exodus records the completion of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that God had designed and ordered Moses to construct.
“There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.” – Exodus 29:43-46 ESV
But in order for God’s glory to dwell within the Tabernacle, the Israelites and the “house” they had constructed would have to remain pure. But God knew this would be impossible because the Israelites had already proven their propensity for sin and their inability to remain faithful to their covenant commitment to Him. Not long after receiving the Ten Commandments and verbally acknowledging their commitment to obey them, the Israelites blatantly violated the first two on the list. God had clearly warned them, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 ESV). Then He followed that prohibition with the additional warning, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” (Exodus 20:4-5 ESV).
Yet, Exodus records that the people of Israel willingly broke both of these commandments. While Moses had been up on Mount Sinai receiving God’s plans for the Tabernacle, the people of Israel became worried about his welfare. Fearing that he would never return, they demanded that Aaron take his brother’s place, and then ordered him to provide them with a new god to guide and protect them. Sadly, Aaron obliged their request and crafted an idol out of the gold they donated. Then he ordered an official feast day, complete with sacrifices and marked by a raucous celebration.
But the party was interrupted by Moses’ return and the deaths of the 3,000 Israelite leaders who had instigated the whole affair. And despite this egregious display of open rebellion against Him, Yawheh remained faithful to His people. While a plague took the lives of all those who had participated in the insurrection, God spared the rest of the Israelites and allowed them to complete the construction of the Tabernacle. He would keep His promise to dwell among them. But His presence would come at a cost. The Tabernacle was beautiful in appearance and designed to reflect the glory of God, it would be a place marked by sacrifice and associated with death and blood. In order for the Israelites to remain ceremonially and ethically pure, they would be required to have their sins atoned for by offering repeated sacrifices within the courtyard of the Tabernacle, and the priests would oversee this ongoing purification process.
Exodus ends with the inaugural assembly of the Tabernacle, and as it stood before the people for the very first time, God sanctioned it by filling the Holy of Holies with His presence.
…the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. – Exodus 40:34-35 ESV
The book of Leviticus picks up at this point. In fact, the very first word in the Hebrew version of Leviticus is the conjunctive: wayyiqra’, which is translated “And He [the Lord] called” (Leviticus 1:1 ESV). This is meant to reflect the ongoing nature of the narrative. The Tabernacle is finished but God is not. He has much more to say. In fact, Leviticus contains more direct quotes from God than any other book of the Bible.
“There is no book in the whole compass of that inspired Volume which the Holy Spirit has given us, that contains more of the very words of God than Leviticus. It is God that is the direct speaker in almost every page; His gracious words are recorded in the form wherein they were uttered.” – Andrew A. Bonar, A Commentary on Leviticus
God had far more to say to His people and the book of Leviticus reveals His thoughts concerning a wide range of topics, all related to the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system that would accompany and regulate their worship of Him.
“Though the covenant arrangement up to this point clearly specified the need for Israel, the vassal, to appear before her Lord on stated occasions and singled out first Moses and then the priesthood as mediators in this encounter, there yet remained the need to describe the nature of the tribute to be presented, the precise meaning and function of the priesthood, the definition of holiness and unholiness, and a more strict clarification of the places and times of pilgrimage to the dwelling place of the great King. This is the purpose of the book of Leviticus.” – Eugene H. Merrill, “A Theology of the Pentateuch,” in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament
The erection of the Tabernacle was to be viewed as a transitional phase of the Israelite’s history and not a point of completion. They would not be staying in Sinai. Their destination was Canaan, and the Tabernacle had been designed for portability because they had many miles to cover before their journey was complete and God’s covenant promise had been fulfilled. He would be traveling with them and, thanks to the completed Tabernacle, dwelling among them as they moved from Sinai to Canaan. But now, He wanted them to understand all the regulatory requirements associated with His new “house” and the Levitical priests who would oversee and maintain it.
And from the inner recesses of the newly built Tabernacle, God called out to Moses with His latest instructions for the people of Israel.
“Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When someone among you presents an offering to the Lord, you must present your offering from the domesticated animals, either from the herd or from the flock.” – Leviticus 1:2 NLT
The Tabernacle was to be a place of sacrifice. The key to enjoying God’s ongoing presence would be the maintenance of their own holiness. Because they were prone to sin, they would need constant atonement for those sins if they wanted to enjoy and benefit from Yahweh’s glory and goodness. Obedience was a non-optional requirement for blessing. But because they lacked the power or resolve to obey, they would inevitably violate God’s commands and require purification so that they might receive forgiveness. And Leviticus records the detailed system of sacrifice that God had designed so that His presence might continue to dwell among His chosen people. And this intricate and sometimes mind-numbing collection of sacrificial laws and regulations has great value because it emphasizes God’s holiness while stressing humanity’s sinfulness. God had chosen the Israelites to be His treasured possession. He had delivered them from captivity. He had providentially led them to Mount Sinai, where He gave them His law, established the priesthood, and provided the plans for His earthly dwelling place. But Leviticus will detail God’s expectations of them. That is why the book opens with God’s direct communication to His chosen people.
“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them…” – Leviticus 1:2 ESV
God was speaking and it was essential that they listen carefully and obey completely.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.