The Sacred and the Mundane: The Message of Leviticus

by Peter J. Haas

Peter J. Haas is an ordained rabbi and associate professor of Jewish thought and literature in the department of religious studies at Vanderbilt University.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 8, 1997, pp. 877-882. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The world of Leviticus, with its temple and priesthood, is strange to us, but it is central to the story of Israel. The regulations in Leviticus are important not because they serve a pragmatic purpose but because they are divinely ordained. What does it mean to be holy not in religious intention or feeling but in the details of everyday life?

For Jewish homileticians, early spring is not a good time. According to the rabbinic cycle of Torah readings, this is when we come down from the great heights of Genesis and Exodus, with their breathtaking perspectives and sweeping visions, and enter the flat and seemingly arid plain of Leviticus. As my Protestant friends sympathetically remind me, Leviticus simply "does not preach."

And yet Leviticus is central, literally and figuratively, to what the Pentateuch is all about. The Pentateuch is the story of how the people of Israel came into being and came to receive their gift of the Promised Land. Genesis and Exodus introduce us to the story and bring us to its crucial turning point, the arrival at Sinai and the reception of the Revelation. Numbers and Deuteronomy complete the narrative, describing the experiences and lessons of the people as they leave Sinai and finally arrive at the edge of the Promised Land. In the middle stands Leviticus. Leviticus lets us pause and consider the content of the Revelation. It offers instruction in the technology of the holy—instruction that will shape the divine service in the temple and the rhythm and content of Israel’s holy life after it enters the land.

It is easy for us to skip over Leviticus because it appears so utterly foreign. The very institutions that Leviticus presupposes—the temple and its levitical priesthood—are completely alien to us, whether we are Jewish or Christian. To be sure, all Western religious traditions draw heavily on the vocabulary and symbolism of Leviticus: priesthood (whether clergy or "of the people"), sacrifice, offerings, uncleanness, purification, ablution/baptism, the redeeming power of blood, and on and on. But these are all bits and pieces of the levitical system taken out of their original context and transformed into the very different framework of church and synagogue. It is only in Leviticus that these elements come together naturally to form a comprehensive and coherent system.

Our challenge is to tease out what the book’s familiar-sounding terms and themes meant to people of another time and place. How did the priests, Levites and commoners of that time understand what they were doing, and what does their understanding mean for us today? Adducing and communicating this understanding is the job of modern critical commentaries like Erhard S. Gerstenberger’s. They take on the difficult if not impossible task of preserving the foreignness of Leviticus while still making it relevant.

There seems to be a scholarly consensus that the Book of Leviticus, more or less as we have it, is from exilic times. The generally agreed-upon context is the permission given by Cyrus of Persia (in approximately 538 B.C.E.) to the exiled Judeans to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. We know from archaeological evidence that Cyrus allowed a number of conquered peoples to rebuild their homelands and local temples. In each of these cases he required the newly re-established priesthood to publish its traditional law. Leviticus, in this scholarly view, is the result of the Judean priesthood’s effort to do so. This is why Leviticus (and the "P" document generally) reads like a priestly handbook. It was composed to inform Cyrus and his officials about what the Jerusalem priesthood intended to do with its newly granted authority.

This historical context does not mean, however, that scholars think Leviticus was made up out of whole cloth by exiled priests in the sixth century B.C.E. No doubt the priestly writers brought to their task memories or traditions of what once had been and so should be again. It is also clear that the book was not written at one sitting by a single author. Leviticus has every sign of being a composite work.

It is best, then, to think of Leviticus as a complex document written over an extended period of time (the rebuilding of the temple took nearly 25 years) by a variety of authors. It should not be treated as an historically reliable description of how the temple actually operated. Whether or not the Second Temple ever followed this blueprint exactly is an interesting question, but one that goes beyond the purview of this essay. But it is evident that in its details, Leviticus offers remarkable insight into the priestly imagination of exilic and postexilic Judah. It tells us what the priesthood, or at least an influential part of it, thought temple ritual ought to be.

Leviticus can be divided into two major parts. The first (chapters 1-16) is concerned with the operation of the priesthood and proper disposition of the sacrifices and offerings brought to the altar. The second (chapters 17-26) has to do with the maintenance of a certain purity or holiness by the Judean community as a whole. This holiness is deemed necessary if the temple and its sacred altar are to abide in the land.

Historically there have been three ways of approaching the rather technical material in the portion of Leviticus that deals with sacrifice. The first is best exemplified in rabbinic writings, especially the Mishnab and Talmud. This approach tries to work out the legal intricacies of the rules for sacrifice, to fill in the gaps and reconcile the inconsistencies embedded in the text: for example, determining the status of an animal designated for one type of sacrifice but erroneously slaughtered for another; or determining what to do if an animal that has been properly slaughtered and its blood correctly sprinkled on the altar is then found to have a blemish that should have disqualified it.

The second method for understanding sacrifice rules is what we might call the "history of religions" approach. The focus here is on how such religious rituals work on a deeper structural level. In this view, Leviticus is one example among many. In all religions priestly rituals are designed to overcome basic contradictions. In biblical Israel the contradiction consists of the fact that the most virulent sources of impurity are diseased and dead bodies and things pertaining thereto: bones, blood and the like. But to do their holy jobs, the priests must slaughter animals, sprinkle their blood on the altar, and burn and eat various portions of the carcasses. In classic religious fashion, that which is most dangerous and polluting is transformed by the proper ministrations of members of a holy caste ("priests" in this case) into a potent source of sanctity and holiness. The object of scholarship is to uncover the logic according to which this transvaluation occurs. According to the history-of-religions school, Leviticus tells us how this mythic transformation was understood in biblical Israel.

The third approach is to treat Leviticus as a symbolic or allegorical system that has little or nothing to do with sacrifices per se, but everything to do with teaching important lessons. Early use of this allegorical approach may be found in the work of Philo in the first century of the Common Era. An exemplary expression of this method is the work of Samson Raphael Hirsch, a mid-l9th-century Orthodox rabbi. In his interpretation, the offering ("korban," in Hebrew) is a means of getting close ("karob") to God; the whole-offering is the offering that one gives wholeheartedly—that is, with complete devotion. It must be without blemish to stress that our efforts to approach God come from strength and certainty, not weakness or compromise. An advantage of this approach is that it allows the book to "preach." One can find in the minutiae of the ancient priests’ daily routine some guidance and inspiration for our lives today. This approach’s disadvantage is that it strips the text of any historical meaning.

Although Gerstenberger’s commentary combines elements of all three approaches, he emphasizes the third. While he does attempt to indicate how the sacrifice laws of Leviticus operate, his real interest is in drawing larger religious conclusions from them. He does so by abstracting principles out of the specific laws of Leviticus and then associating those abstractions with other biblical passages. This approach has the advantage of rendering Leviticus immediately useful to the modern preacher, but it papers over the book’s special character and the uniqueness of its message. By privileging the Bible’s prophetic voice, Gerstenberger muffles the voice of the priests.

A good example of how Gerstenberger’s commentary proceeds can be found in his discussion of the sin- and guilt-offerings mentioned in Leviticus 4-5. After a brief discussion of how the sacrifices were carried out, Gerstenberger turns to his main concern, the larger religious meaning. He asserts that the point is "atonement"—that is, the need to "redress" a "disrupted relationship with God." This is an important theme, but it omits the context of Leviticus.

Gerstenberger virtually acknowledges as much when he notes that it "is difficult to explain rationally such ritualistic efforts at atonement. From biblical accounts of atonement situations, however, we are able to uncover the connection between rite and disrupted reality." Several paragraphs follow that ignore Leviticus but bring into the discussion citations from Genesis 4:10, Deuteronomy 2 1:1-9, II Samuel 21, Jonah 3:5-10 and so on.

This treatment illustrates some of the problems with Gerstenberger’s strategy. First is the generality of the terms he uses. Gerstenberger’s description of the situation calling for a sin- or guilt-offering as a "disrupted relationship with God" does not employ the phraseology of Leviticus. In fact, Leviticus seems to set forth the exact opposite meaning. It assumes that the proper offering will be efficacious just because the relationship with God is still functioning. Basically, a misuse of something has occurred and the illegitimate beneficiary has to make an appropriate gift to the altar. Within the covenant, a certain condition calls for a particular response.

A second and in some ways more problematic example is Gerstenberger’s use of the word "atonement." The Hebrew word "kapparah," although usually translated as "atonement," does not occupy exactly the same linguistic field as the English noun "atonement"—a word that has its own long theological history. Gerstenberger has subtly shifted the focus away from what the priests of Leviticus were talking about—namely effecting "kapparah"—and toward what is useful for Christian theological speculations, namely "atonement."

The problem goes deeper than simply substituting a word from one theological tradition for a word in another. Gerstenberger wants to explain what he has called Leviticus’s technology of "atonement" by associating it with other "atonement situations" in the Bible. There is no reason to suppose, however, that all biblical Israelites in all places and in all times held to the exact meaning of the verb "kipper." It is probable, for example, that the word has a different connotation in Jonah than it does in a technical priestly handbook such as Leviticus. Yet Gerstenberger writes as if all "biblical accounts of atonement situations" are the same and can be blended together to produce a single meaning, and that this meaning is fully captured in the word "atonement."

In his closing comment, significantly under the rubric of "theological content," Gerstenberger says, "In the ancient Orient and the Old Testament, atonement means the removal of detrimental elements, a re-establishment of disrupted order, a reconciliation with the deity, the elimination of anxiety among those who had incurred guilt, and the opening of new life possibilities." This is a huge claim. I grant that the word "atonement" in some modern Christian contexts might carry some, if not all, of these connotations. But I do not concede that "kapparah" and its equivalents meant all of this at all times in all the cultures of the "ancient Orient," and I am certain that Leviticus does not have these various meanings in mind. In short, Gerstenberger has gained preachability but lost precision. We learn a good deal about Gerstenberger and his theology, but less about the priesthood of biblical Israel.

The other part of Leviticus—the laws addressing the purity of the community as a whole—is called the Holiness Code. Among other themes, it describes the festival calendars, lists sexual taboos, deals with personal cultic purity and presents the Sabbatical and Jubilee cycles. It talks about the larger context within which the priests and the temple find themselves.

Gerstenberger adduces from these laws what he calls in some places the "theology of holiness." Again, as this label suggests, his interpretation addresses interests that are of more significance to Christianity than to Leviticus. Consider his summary remarks, for example: "Holiness, as we have said, is a sphere of power and purity unique to God. Yahweh’s person and his immediate surroundings, accordingly also the ‘house’ in which he dwells, are energy-laden to the highest degree. Every human infringement, every unauthorized encroachment into the holy sphere of necessity results in the death of the transgressor." These remarks do describe the effects of holiness, but I am far from convinced that they tell us what holiness means for the priestly writers of Leviticus.

The Hebrew word for holiness, "kedushah," carries with it a connotation of separateness or distinctiveness. The whole priestly enterprise of the Pentateuch is a matter of determining the natural divisions of creation and of ensuring that these are not violated. In terms of the altar, then, it follows that certain things belong in the realm of the community and certain things belong to the divine economy. The rules of sacrifice can certainly be read to indicate how we move things (such as sheep) from the one realm to the other. And it would follow that once an animal has left the human and entered the divine realm, it must be handled in special ways, in a special place by special people—i.e., in purity by priests within the temple compound. Holiness, then, is about treating in distinct ways that which is God’s. One who violates these boundaries earns punishment, but that punishment is a consequence of overstepping divinely ordained bounds, not of encountering an overwhelming energy field.

In this light, the Holiness Code functions to establish Israel itself as a holy entity, as a community different in certain ways from other peoples. This holiness is attained by the creation and maintenance of certain structures of time (the festival and sabbatical calendars), space (the temple and its component courtyards) and personal status (the sexual taboos). That these regulations have social benefits is beyond question; but for Leviticus they are important because they are divinely ordained, not because they serve utilitarian purposes. Thus Gerstenberger’s characterization of the holy times is, I think, beside the point. He notes, for example, that the "festival or sacred period often serves quite consciously to generate distance from the oppressive monotony of the workaday world, and through special presentations and rites to create the energy to experience a ‘different’ world, and possibly even to effect a thorough transformation of the burdensome circumstances of life." Though following the calendar might at times have resulted in such thoughts or emotions, there is nothing in the language of Leviticus to suggest that this was the reason these sacred times were commanded.

Leviticus presents us with a unique and detailed view into the mental world of a particular segment of biblical society. It speaks out of an institutional setting that is quite foreign to us, even if we have taken over much of its vocabulary. But the larger themes that Leviticus is working out through its minute "how to" instructions are universal religious themes. Leviticus tells us how to be holy not in emotion, intention or religious feeling, but in the details of everyday life. There are lessons here for us moderns, who often treat religion as an activity to be squeezed into a couple of hours on Friday nights or Sunday mornings. Leviticus suggests that everything we do can have a sacred quality if we pay attention to the details and perform each act properly. Although we do not have to do things exactly according to Leviticus, the book is not irrelevant.

It is this special meaning of Leviticus and its priestly authors that fails to come through in Gerstenberger’s commentary. But it is not a bad commentary. Much of Gerstenberger’s analysis is informed and sensitive, though he does not always ask the questions that are at the center of Leviticus’s concern. His commentary reminds us that not all of the Bible is prophetic. The Hebrew scriptures also express the Israelite priests’ deep concern for the sacralizing possibilities inherent in the mundane activity of everyday life.

This volume in the Old Testament Library series brings that other voice from our biblical heritage into our current religious discussion. The priests deserve a chance to have their own say on their own terms, rather than to be blended into some homogenous "biblical" view. Though Gerstenberger may not always have the right answers, he performs an important service in bringing the book and its voice to our attention.