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Leviticus continues the story of the exodus by taking a deeper dive into the divine-human relationship. Leviticus answers the question of how Yhwh—a holy God—can share an earthly residence with Israel—a sinful people living in a sinful world. In short, Leviticus explains how God is able to sanctify people and places. The priesthood and the sacrificial system—which Leviticus expounds in painstaking detail—is the answer. As such, Leviticus, can be divided into at least two main parts: chapters 1–10 (the way to the Holy One), and chapters 11–27 (the way to holiness).[1] With holiness as the theme of Leviticus, it is no surprise that the word “holy” appears ninety-two times and accounts for nearly half of all the occurrences of the “holy” in the Torah.

In a way, the priesthood and sacrificial system can be viewed as an elaborate object lesson on holiness and sin.[2] This object lesson makes a number of things clear: (1) God is perfectly pure; in him there is no deficiency, defect, dishonesty, corruption, or death; he is morally perfect and purely life; (2) people are utterly sinful; sin is pervasive in that it touches every human and every aspect of human life; (4) sin is organic and contagious; it never remains localized; it always spreads to infect the whole; (5) sin always leads to death; it does not stop until it has taken the life of its host; (6) God’s presence does not tolerate sin; God’s purity and holiness obliterates sin when it comes in contact with it; it is dangerous for sinful people to be in God’s holy presence; (7) even though sin is serious and powerful, God is able to sanctify the impure; finally (8) God expects his people to be holy as he is holy. 

The holiness code that is laid out in Leviticus, then, details the antidote for the powerful disease of sin; it explains the mechanics of temple rituals and regulations as the means for alleviating the sin problem so as to enable sinful people to share in God’s holy life and thereby restore God’s original purposes for the creation (i.e., divine-human cohabitation). In light of these characteristics of sin, Israel’s call to holiness in Leviticus encompasses every aspect of their, social, religious, and familial lives, and leaves no room for tolerance for the deadly disease that sin is. 

Leviticus not only explains the mechanics for temple rituals, it also explains the rationale behind Israel’s call to holiness. The rationale is wrapped up on the recurring phrase “be holy for I am holy.” This phrase, which repeatedly serves as the preamble to the details of the holiness code (11:44, 45; 19:2, 24; 20:7, 26; 21:6, 8; 23:20), has two interpretations. The first interpretation is “be holy just as I am holy,” meaning “imitate God.” What was implicit in the story leading up to this point becomes dramatically explicit in Leviticus: Israel is called to testify to the One True God viaimitation of God’s character of ḥeseḏIn short, Leviticus is the reminder that Israel is to relentlessly embody God’s character. They are to be different from their neighbors as Yhwh is different from the deities of the ancient Near Eastern pantheon. They are to embody the image of God as was always intended for humanity. 

The second interpretation of this phrase is “be holy because I am holy”; meaning, God’s holiness demands purity. In his holiness, it would be contradictory to his character to tolerate corruption of any sort. As is evident through the sacrificial system, a part of his holiness is his mercy and grace which makes provision for sanctification in lieu of annihilation.

 Often paired with the command to be holy is the phrase, “I am the Lord your God.” This phrase—which also introduced the ten commandments (Ex 20:2 and Deut 5:6)—evokes the memory of Israel’s miraculous redemption from Egyptian slavery in tandem with the call to holiness. This means that Israel is not called to mindlessly imitate Yhwh, but to imitate their covenant God out of a sense of gratitude, love and devotion to their deliverer; they are to reciprocate his ḥeseḏ. It is as Wenham states, “Under the covenant the people of God were expected to keep the law, not merely as a formal duty but as a loving response to God’s grace in redemption.”[3]

The Holiness of God and the Need for Atonement. According to Leviticus there are degrees of holiness (and cleanliness) and likewise varying degrees of consequence for a lack of holiness. More specifically, there are three zones of proximity to God’s presence, each being further from the previous: (1) holy (2) clean, and (3) unclean. The rationale for this is that because God is morally perfect, his presence in the midst of a fallen world has conditions and consequences. Leviticus 10 recounts the story of God’s holiness killing two of Aaron’s sons because they offered unauthorized fire in the temple.[4] This story illustrates this very point. That God’s holiness is dangerous and not to be violated is further underlined in the stipulations for the high priest to be adorned with bells and pomegranates when entering the holy of holies “so that he may not die” (Ex 28:31–35). 

This aspect of God’s holiness was described by theologian Rudolph Otto as the “mysterium tremendum”. This Latin phrase refers to the otherness of God as being a mystery that is at once terrifying and fascinating. The notion is that God’s moral perfection is so pure that divine power emanates from it. When fallen human beings with imperfections and moral deficiencies come in contact with an infinitely moral and pure being, there is an overwhelming sense of terror.[5] Beyond teaching on the seriousness of sin, this feature of the holiness of God is why atonement via the sacrificial system is needed. It is also why the priests, who are most regularly in close proximity the immediate presence of God must take special care in carrying out their service in the temple. 

The Sacrificial System: Now but Not Yet. At this point in the story there is a “now, but not yet” aspect to God’s cohabitation with Israel. While the tabernacle and Israel represent the restoration of Eden, this representative head of the new creation is still located within the time and space of the fallen cosmos. Israel, as the new humanity, is called to live a life that is holy, pure, set apart from the world that is pervaded by sin. Israel’s holiness, however, is exposed to the contagious profane of the fallen world. It is inevitable that they will come in contact with the unclean. One of the purposes of the sacrificial system and atonement is to make provision for this. Atonement is the means by which Israel maintains eligibility to be in God’s holy presence. The sacrificial system and atonement are undergirded by the expectation that God’s people be perfect as he is perfect. 

The sacrificial system also provides a means for resolving the ongoing sin-guilt problem of Israel. Inherited from Adam is the proclivity to turn inward, to not trust God, to worship the creation rather than the Creator. Israel’s ongoing sin problem needing to be resolved was not limited to behaviors, thoughts, attitudes and desires, but extended to their very nature. Through the sacrificial system, God, out of grace, provides a means for co-habitation for those who have committed to love and worship him with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. This is precisely why it is crucial to note here the particular order of things. Oswalt writes:

Notice very carefully that the sacrifices are not for those who unintentionally sin and later think better of it. Neither are they for those who want to enter into a relationship with God. No, the sacrificial system is for those who are already in a relationship with God, those who are committed to living a life like his, and who are enjoying a sense of his presence with him.[6]

This means that the sacrificial system is instrumental. It serves the greater aim of divine-human fellowship, which puts God’s intentions for the creation back on track. Through the sacrificial system God can manifest his heavenly reign on earth once again and Eden can be restored. 

Holiness, Judgment and Atonement. But how does the sacrificial system mend the relationship between humanity and God? What is the rationale behind vicarious suffering and penal substitution that is at the heart of the sacrificial system? Inseparable from God’s “otherness” is his justice. As already noted, God created the cosmos in a way that it is governed by moral principles. It follows that when the principles are broken there are consequences. This is required for order to be maintained. Thomas Oden writes,

The just God does not casually say at one moment to humanity: “when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17), only at the next moment to set aside the penalty after the transgression. The holiness of God required a penalty for sin, just as promised, otherwise there would be no way to count on the moral reliability of God’s word. Lacking penalty for sin, the moral order is jeopardized.[7]

In order for the relationship to be restored between God and humanity there must be a punishment. Without the punishment, order breaks down. God does not forgive people because they ask forgiveness, he forgives because a sacrifice has been made on their behalf. To forgive without penalty would be a violation of his character. In sum, “God demonstrates his holiness in judging sin.”[8] As is detailed in Leviticus, the blood of the sacrifice functions to purify as the sacrificial animal takes the place of the worshipper in paying the consequence or punishment for sin that is demanded by the holiness of God (i.e., substitutionary atonement). As the sacrifice is put forth in the place of the worshipper, the worshipper is cleansed of his sin-guilt (i.e., expiation). As the worshipper is cleansed by the substitution, the wrath of God is appeased (i.e., propitiation), and šālôm between God and people is restored. Expiation and propitiation together are what constitute “atonement” (Heb. kipper).[9]

Lastly, the sacrificial system along with the purity laws communicate the severity of sin. For starters, sin always leads to death. This is why death is required to regain access to the presence of God. Sin, intentional or not, is fatal and to be avoided at all costs. Sin is also contagious and pervasive. We see this is the requirements for cleansing and purity laws. For example, lepers are required to be quarantined and their homes destroyed. Sin has no place among God’s people. As an extension of the pervasive nature of sin, Israel’s devotion is required to be wholehearted. If God requires an absence of sin, then he in turn requires an undivided heart.


[1] Norman Geisler, A Popular Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 66.

[2] Cf. Galatians 3:24.

[3] Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), 251.

[4] Cf. 2 Samuel 6:6–11.

[5] Cf. Isaiah 6:1–7. 

[6] John Oswalt, Called to Be Holy: A Biblical Perspective (Anderson: Warner Press, 1999), 29. 

[7] Thomas C. Oden, The Word of Life: Systematic Theology, Vol. II (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 350.

[8] Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 22.

[9] Is. 52:13–53:12; Rom. 3:23–26; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:10, 13; Col. 2:13–15; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18


Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary

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