Leviticus: The Life of Holiness

West Side Moravian Church
April 25, 2010

What Can We Say About Leviticus?

You are not alone if you approach Leviticus with a certain ambivalence.

The book of Leviticus has often been described as long list of dry, boring rules. That at least is how Leviticus is described by people who never read it. People who do read the book may describe it as a law book for ritual purity, or holiness. Robert Alter writes in his introduction to Leviticus, Poised between the completion of the Tabernacle in Exodus and the Wilderness wanderings in Numbers, [Leviticus] seems like a long moment of stasis dwelling chiefly on matters of ritual [page 539].

My friend Myron Talcott says of Leviticus, I nominate it for the book having both the BEST verses in the Bible and the WORST ones also. … My award cites Leviticus 19:18 and 20:13. I tend to shy away from classifying anything in the Bible as bad, but I agree with Myron that much of the best and worst in words and actions have been inspired by the two verses he cites.

Let me reassure you that there is more to Leviticus than just the boring rules. There are pearls buried in this plowed and muddy field. To find them, start by listening to God's words. Here are the first 2 verses of chapter 19, using Alter's translation:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to all the community of Israelites, and you shall say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Here is the epitome of Leviticus. God speaks to Moses. Moses speaks to the community. The people are enjoined to conduct themselves as people who are living in the presence of the holy God.

A Life of Holiness

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to all the community of Israelites, and you shall say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

God speaks to Moses and through Moses to the people of Israel. They are living in the presence of the holy God. They are not to forget or ignore that truth. God is holy, God is with the people, and therefore they too must be holy. There is no escaping the fact that Leviticus is about holiness: holiness of worship, holiness of living.

The essence of holiness is being set apart. We, in contrast, tend to emphasize unity and equality: We are all children of God, we repeat; Jesus came to save everyone; everyone who believes is welcome at the sacrament. In the civil realm, as well, we say that every person has certain inalienable rights and equal opportunity is the law of the land. Even when we talk about differences, we tend to emphasize the common experience: Everyone, we say, is unique.

This was not the experience of the Israelites for whom Leviticus was first composed. They had been set apart at the first Passover. Terror had visited the Egyptians and they were spared. At the Sea of Reeds, they had been set on the far shore, separated from the Egyptian army by the rush of the returning waters. At Mount Sinai, the people were separated from the world of the ordinary by the cloud of God's presence and by the thunder of God's voice, while on the other hand they were set apart from God by the sacred limits set at the foot of the mountain, by the height of the mountain itself, and by their own fear of God's power.

Many generations later, the descendents of the people who had met God at the mountain encountered God in drought, war, defeat, and exile. This book was most likely compiled at a time when many had been forcibly resettled in Babylonia. There was no smoking mountain in the exile, but the voice of God did thunder in the voices of the great prophets. There was not another parting of the waters, but the people were still set apart as God's people.

The essence of holiness is being set apart, and being set apart was a core experience for the hundreds of thousands of Israelites who left Egypt and followed Moses to the holy mountain. Leviticus is the outline of how to live in response to this experience of being set apart.

God said, Be holy, be set apart, because I, the Lord your God, am holy. God's presence with the Israelites sets them apart. They are a people living in the presence of God. Because of this, they are required to live as people who are set apart. Because of the God they live with – because of the God who lives with them – the Israelites must differ from ordinary people.

The personal and social history of the Israelites shapes the way this requirement was laid out for them. We have a different history, and that may make Leviticus harder to understand. But we, too, live in the presence of God. We, too, are called to be set apart from the ordinary, to be a holy people, to be "kings and priests to God". In this common calling, Leviticus speaks to us.

A Discipline of Holiness

The question to which Leviticus is an answer is this: How can we live a holy life? That is to say, how can we live in a way that respects the fact that we are set apart by God and respects the God who sets us apart?


The first response to God's call to holiness is to be faithful even in the little things. The first few chapters of Leviticus are all filled with what seem like the minutiae of offerings. Other chapters are focused on mildew and skin infection. As Robert Alter says, The preoccupation with dermatological conditions, genital discharges, mildew, the recipes for fritters and bread used in the cult, and the dissection of animals and the distinctions among their various inner organs does not correspond to modern assumptions about the content of great sacred literature [page 544].

Why, then, are these regulations even in the Bible? Because nothing you do is a little thing, when it is done for God. Jesus said, You can be sure that whoever gives even a drink of cold water to one of … my followers because he is my follower, will certainly receive a reward [Matthew 10:42]. Nothing is a little thing when done for God. A cup of water, a handshake, a smile, 2 pennies in the offering. These are big and important because they are done out of our love for God.

If 2 pennies in the offering is something important, it follows that those pennies should be given carefully and respectfully, wide awake and paying full attention. Do we make our offerings wide awake and respectfully? The detailed regulations in Leviticus provide a context for attentive respectfulness when making an offering to God.

Let's look at what Leviticus says about making an offering of grain. 1:1The Lord called Moses from the Tent of the Lord's presence and gave him the following rules 1:2for the Israelites to observe when they offer their sacrifices. You can read these verses as dry, boring rules about the details of how to make a grain offering. But they could also be the answer to the question, "If I'm a grain farmer, how can I make an offering that honors the God who has done so much for us?"

Some of the rules about grain offerings are printed in your bulletin. Let's read them responsively.

2:1When anyone presents an offering of grain to the Lord, he must first grind it into flour.
He must put olive oil and incense on it 2:2and bring it to the Aaronite priests.
The officiating priest shall take a handful of the flour and oil and all of the incense and burn it on the altar as a token that it has all been offered to the Lord.
The odor of this food offering is pleasing to the Lord.
2:3The rest of the grain offering belongs to the priests;
it is very holy, since it is taken from the food offered to the Lord.
2:4If the offering is bread baked in an oven, it must be made without yeast.
It may be thick loaves made of flour mixed with olive oil or thin cakes brushed with olive oil.
2:5If the offering is bread cooked on a griddle, it is to be made of flour mixed with olive oil but without yeast.
2:6Crumble it up and pour the oil on it when you present it as an offering.
2:7If the offering is bread cooked in a pan, it is to be made of flour and olive oil.
2:8Bring it as an offering to the Lord and present it to the priest, who will take it to the altar.
2:9The priest will take part of it as a token that it has all been offered to the Lord, and he will burn it on the altar.
The odor of this food offering is pleasing to the Lord.
2:10The rest of the offering belongs to the priests;
it is very holy, since it is taken from the food offered to the Lord.

This becomes a model for how to make an offering to God. First, you make an offering from what you have been given. If you are a grain farmer, you will offer grain. Second, making an offering respectfully is not a spur of the moment activity. You don't just toss some leftover barley stalks on the altar. Instead, you grind the grain into flour and make bread. The bread can be oven-baked bread or pancakes; the exact form is not as critical as the fact that you spend time and attention preparing it. The offering is presented to God with a certain amount of formality, which is a way of expressing its importance. Finally, even though the priests actually eat the food it remains holy because it is God to whom the grain was given.


A second response to God's call to holiness is awareness. We tend to take life somnambulantly. It is no wonder that Jesus told his followers to keep awake [Mark 13:37]. The multitude of rules in Leviticus, much like the penalties of civil laws, can be forceful reminders to pay attention. One example is the sin offering required from anyone who fails to tell the whole truth in court. This is the beginning verse of chapter 5:

5:1Sin offerings are required in the following cases. If someone is officially summoned to give evidence in court and does not give information about something he has seen or heard, he must bear the consequences.

Failing to give testimony in court seems likely to be a deliberate act. The formalities of judicial proceedings – we use a high judge's bench, black robes, a fence across the middle of the room – all serve to put participants in awe of the seriousness of the inquiry.

The choices of everyday life should also be made with a sense of awe because of the presence of God. We are only human, it is true; we forget ourselves and we do and say many foolish things. For some foolish choices, the only penalty is our personal embarassment. Other times, however, our unthinking action can be hurtful. Do you walk into an airport and unthinkingly begin talking about bombs and hijackings? No, that would frighten people and disrupt the working of our transportation system – and there are hefty penalties imposed if you don't keep yourself aware of where you are and the implications of your actions.

Leviticus has no rules about air travel. It does have rules about disrupting the relationships between God and God's people. For example, what if you "swear to God" and afterward realize that what you said is impossible? You can't just ignore what you've said without diminishing your relationship with God. What do you do? There is a rule for that.

5:4If someone makes a careless vow, no matter what it is about, he is guilty as soon as he realizes what he has done. 5:5When a person is guilty, he must confess the sin, 5:6and as the penalty for his sin he must bring to the Lord a female sheep or goat …

These rules and regulations serve as a repeated reminder that the Israelites – like us – were living with the presence of God. They – and we – are different, set apart from the ordinary to be with God. God says it this way in chapter 18:

18:30And the Lord said, Obey the commands I give and do not follow the practices of the people who lived in the land before you, and do not make yourselves unclean by doing any of these things. I am the Lord your God.

Why is being set apart so important? Why are the people told to keep this always in mind? Do you throw a party for someone and fall asleep in the middle of it? We've been invited to a life-long party in honor of God, who is living with us.

22:31The Lord said, Obey my commands; I am the Lord. 22:32Do not bring disgrace on my holy name; all the people of Israel must acknowledge me to be holy. I am the Lord and I make you holy …


The third response to God's call to holiness is to live out this holiness in your whole life. And there is a rule for that. In fact, there are whole chapters of them. These are rules for righteous living; that is, rules about how to fill life with God (who alone is righteous).

When your life is full of God, your actions are full of God's justice and grace. When your life is full of God, your words are full of God's justice and grace. When your life is full of God, your thoughts are full of God's justice and grace. That is easier to say and harder to do, because you need to know God's thoughts in order to put them into action. Leviticus has rules to help us see which thoughts and actions are "God-full".

As citizens of modern societies, as descendants of peoples other than Israel, and as Christian believers, these rules for holiness often seem more congenial to us.

Let's read some of them together.

19:32Show respect for old people and honor them.
Reverently obey me; I am the Lord.
19:33Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land.
19:34Treat them as you would a fellow Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves.
Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
I am the Lord your God.
19:35Do not cheat anyone by using false measures of length, weight, or quantity.
19:36Use honest scales, honest weights, and honest measures.
I am the Lord your God, and I brought you out of Egypt.
19:37Obey all my laws and commands. I am the Lord.
23:22When you harvest your fields, do not cut the grain at the edges of the fields, and do not go back to cut the heads of grain that were left;
leave them for the poor people and foreigners. The Lord is your God.
25:23Your land must not be sold on a permanent basis, because you do not own it;
it belongs to God, and you are like foreigners who are allowed to make use of it.
25:35If a fellow Israelite living near you becomes poor and cannot support himself,
you must provide for him as you would for a hired man, so that he can continue to live near you.
25:36Do not charge him any interest,
but obey God and let your fellow Israelite live near you.
25:37Do not make him pay interest on the money you lend him,
and do not make a profit on the food you sell him.
25:38This is the command of the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt in order to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. 25:39If a fellow Israelite living near you becomes so poor that he sells himself to you as a slave,
you shall not make him do the work of a slave.
25:40He shall stay with you as a hired man
and serve you until the next Year of Restoration.
25:41At that time he and his children shall leave you and return to his family and to the property of his ancestors. 25:42The people of Israel are the Lord's slaves, and he brought them out of Egypt; they must not be sold into slavery. …
25:55An Israelite cannot be a permanent slave, because the people of Israel are the Lord's slaves. He brought them out of Egypt; he is the Lord their God.

This is part of what it means to live a holy life, a life reflecting the nearness of God: to respect others and deal honestly with them, to let others benefit from your own labor, to conduct your business as servants of God and not as if we were gods ourselves.


Yes, it is true: Leviticus is full of rules. They are not rules simply for the sake of rules, but for the sake of living a holy life. Everyone who lives in the presence of God – everyone who is touched by the holiness of God – is required to live God's holiness in life and worship. We, like the Israelites, are called to a holy people. We are called to be faithful and fully awake, to life lives filled with the righteousness of God. This is what Leviticus is about. It is what we should be about.

American Bible Society. The Good News Bible: The Bible in Today's English Version. ©1976.

Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. ©2004. (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.)

Myron Talcott. Personal communication. 2010.