Israel’s priesthood was commonly known as the Levitical priesthood (Heb 7:11), and the book that deals more than any other with that priesthood is known as the Levitical book, or Leviticus. The priests, however, were only one family in the tribe of Levi. Matters relating to the non-priestly Levites are dealt with in the next book, Numbers. There is no break between these books, because what we call the five books of Moses (or the Pentateuch) were originally one book (see PENTATEUCH).
God had brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and set them on their way to Canaan, all according to the covenant promises he had given to Abraham. After three months they arrived at Mt Sinai, and there God established his covenant with them. He declared Israel to be his people, and they responded by promising to do whatever he required of them (Gen 12:2; 15:18-21; 17:6-8; Exod 2:24; 6:6-8; 19:4-6; 24:7-8). The regulations that God laid down under the covenant begin in Exodus and carry on through Leviticus into Numbers. First of all God announced the covenant’s basic principles and some of its practical requirements (Exod 20-23).
He then gave his plans for a central (but portable) place of worship, the tabernacle, and for a priesthood to oversee religious affairs (Exod 25-40). He gave the people a sacrificial system by which they could express their relationship with him (Lev 1-10); he set out laws to regulate cleanliness and holiness (Lev 11-22); he gave details concerning festivals and other special occasions (Lev 23-27); and he outlined certain duties, particularly in relation to the Levites (Num 1-10). A central theme of Leviticus is that priests and common people alike were to be pure in their relations with God and with one another. Because God was holy, they were to be holy (Lev 11:44-45; 20:26).
This holiness extended to every part of the people’s lives, including personal cleanliness and public health. The laws of cleanliness, besides having practical usefulness, were an object lesson in a more basic problem, the problem of sin. In his grace God helped his people deal with sin by giving them the sacrificial system. It taught them the seriousness of sin and gave them a way of approach to him to seek his forgiveness. People did not have to try to squeeze forgiveness from an unwilling God; God himself took the initiative by giving them the blood of animals to make atonement for their sin (Lev 17:11; see BLOOD; SACRIFICE). Whether repentant sinners knew it or not, their sacrifices could not in themselves take away sin. The basis on which God accepted the blood sacrifices of the ancient Israelites was the perfect blood sacrifice yet to be offered, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Heb 9:22; 10:1-4,11-14).
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With the tabernacle now completed, God gave the Israelite people his regulations for the sacrifices. There were five basic sacrifices – the burnt offering, the cereal offering, the fellowship offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering (1:1-6:7). God gave additional details of these offerings for the priests who officiated (6:8-7:38). Moses ordained Aaron and his four sons as priests, after which they began their duties (8:1-9:24). Two of the sons were struck dead when they tried to act independently of God (10:1- 20).
God then set out his requirements in relation to cleanliness. He laid down laws concerning food, disease and bodily health (11:1-15:33), and followed with regulations concerning the Day of Atonement and the sacredness of blood (16:1-17:16). Further instructions on practical holiness concerned sexual relationships and a range of miscellaneous matters (18:1-20:27). There were additional rules specifically concerned with priests (21:1-22:33). Israel was to have a regulated timetable of festivals to acknowledge the overruling care of God throughout the year (23:1-24:23). Sabbatical and jubilee years were designed to prevent the rich from gaining control over the poor (25:1-55). God promised blessing for obedience, but warned of judgment for disobedience (26:1-46). Honesty was essential at all times, and people had to treat their vows seriously (27:1-34).