Study Guide

Leviticus

Leviticus Introduction

When Leviticus begins, Moses has just led the Israelites out of Egypt in one of the most exciting adventures of all time. Burning Bush. Amazing plagues. A march through the sea. Meeting God on a mountain.

So after all that, there's only one thing a red-hot writer can do when folks are begging for more. Give the people what they want—twenty-four chapters filled with lists of laws, along with a couple blink-and-they're gone stories where people die because they sinned.

Hmmm.

At first glance, Leviticus would seem to be The Phantom Menace of the Bible, just with purity rules and animal sacrifice instead of the taxation of trade routes. And you know what? Our response to Leviticus isn't just a modern one. Way back in the 2nd century CE, an influential Christian theologian named Origen wrote:

Provide someone with a reading from Leviticus and at once the listener will gag and push it away as if were some bizarre food. He came, after all, to learn how to honor God, to take in the teachings that concern justice and piety. But instead he is now hearing about the ritual of burnt sacrifices! (Source.)

Ouch.

The thing is, unlike Jar Jar Binks, Leviticus was indeed what the people wanted. It was a way for people to make sense of everyday life. Violence, community, money, power—even if the Bible doesn't always match our own sense of what's right, it definitely provided answers for the masses back in the day. Remember, this was a world where sacrificing animals taught the importance of respecting animal life. A ban on tattoos helped curb slavery. Being fair in business meant forcing people to give back what they've bought. And laws on sexual intercourse—well, those might not have actually been about sex at all.

So as you roam around Leviticus, remember to check your preconceptions at the giant curtain that is the Tabernacle's door. These boring laws are biblical Transformers—much more than meets the eye.

What is Leviticus About and Why Should I Care?

Gay rights. Immigrant rights. Atheism. And yes, even vampires and child sacrifice.

Leviticus might have been written for goat herders and farmers more than 2500 years ago, but in recent years, it has moved from the margins to the mainstream in pop culture and political debates.

Yet for all the t-shirts, internet memes, magazine essays, and YouTube videos using quotes from Leviticus to make their point, how all these verses fit together can be as hard to figure out as why God thinks it's an abomination to wear a polyester-cotton blend.

Sure, it's a steep mountain to climb, but it's worth it.

Leviticus is a treasure trove of rich ideas that are all the more valuable because only a clever few dare to find them.

  • Books from Dracula to The Hunger Games have built on images from Leviticus to create compelling (and not-so-compelling) worlds.
  • A co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook used insights from Leviticus to build a billion-dollar empire and promote social change.
  • Long before Xbox and smart phones, Leviticus used virtual space and gaming to map out new strategies for day-to-day life.
  • New generations of readers are discovering that what Leviticus says about ethics, community and scientific progress may not be as archaic as it seems.

So come on. Let's crack open the doors of this sealed chamber and light up the place with a little strange fire. Pretty soon everyone will marvel at your level-12 literary intelligence when you show them that the so-called most boring book of the Bible is actually more than just a bunch of dusty old rules about cows and pigs and sacrifices and why sex is eeeeeeeevil.

Leviticus Resources

Websites

And the Laws Came Tumblring Down
This list of 76 Things Banned in the Bible quickly went viral. As a result, the internet had to take a bath and sacrifice a goat.

Why Can't I Own a Canadian?
Here's the original Leviticus Internet meme, an open letter to radio host Dr. Laura.

Old Shul
The 1906 version of the Jewish Encyclopedia is online—huzzah!—and it has an extensive article on Leviticus. For those who want to read a more updated version, take heart: the current edition will be available as soon as it hits the public domain a hundred or so years from now.

New Shul
The Union for Reform Judaism offers a comprehensive series of lessons on Leviticus from its 10 Minutes of Torah series.

Leviticus Tattoo
Who owns Leviticus.com? A tattoo shop, of course.

The Jubilee Debt Campaign
An international network of scholars, celebrities, and advocacy groups uses Leviticus 25 to argue that there should be no interest for the poor. International banks respond with no interest.

How Does Islam Interpret Leviticus?
Here's one Islamic scholar's answer.

Does God Have a National Covenant with America?
Many conservative Christians think so, and the American Covenant Institute is happy to sell them books.

Who's Right? Who's Wrong?
The gay rights issue has sparked serious reflection in the Jewish community as to the meaning of Leviticus in light of contemporary values. MyJewishLearning.com offers a useful survey.

Who's Right? Who's Wrong? (Christian edition)
Two, count 'em, two sides of the Christian debate on Leviticus and sex.

Mel White on Leviticus
Mel White used to be one of the leading writers in fundamentalist Christianity—until he came out as gay. Wheaton College—the evangelical Christian one in Illinois—came out with its own position paper against Mel White.

Movies and TV

Trembling before G-d
This documentary follows the gay subculture within Orthodox Judaism. How does it jibe with Leviticus?

High on Leviticus
God says it's wrong to bring strong drink into the Tabernacle, but what about drugs in a synagogue? In the based-on-a-true-story film High Rollers, Jesse Eisenberg plays a young Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who becomes a drug-runner instead of a rabbi. When he goes to Saturday worship, the reading is, of course, Nadab and Abihu offering strange fire.

Zombie Moses Shuffles off the Mortal Coil
In the epic 1950s adaptation of The Ten Commandments, the last words of Moses come straight from Leviticus 25:10. But if Moses died outside the Tabernacle near Mount Sinai, who's the guy roaming around in Numbers and Deuteronomy?

Leviticus Be a Lady Tonight
Leviticus uses dice and lots at the Tabernacle to symbolize how the Israelites don't control their own fate. The classic music Guys and Dolls updates the scenery to a skid row Salvation Army and a game of craps. Will God use a pair of dice to save a ragtag group of sinners, or will they go out into the urban wilderness?

The Movie Booth
Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, provides the setting for Ushpizin, a lighthearted ultra-Orthodox Jewish romp widely praised by critics for not starring Adam Sandler.

Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Menstruation
This 1950s movie is Disney's first cartoon on the circle of life. Unlike The Lion King, however, The Story of Menstruation has not generated enough box office to justify making a Broadway musical.

Fragments
The Leviticus 26 parchment here is from around the 2nd century BCE. In this historic fragment, God forbids his people from making wisecracks about how it's all Greek to them.

Historical Documents

Leviticus Lives in the Dead Sea Scrolls
What does Leviticus look like in ancient Hebrew from around 2,000 years ago? Check out this close-up view. Scholars deciphering this ancient script have made a number of earthshaking discoveries—for example, the paleo-Hebrew version of Leviticus 26:2 reads, "Ye shall drink more Ovaltine."

Video

What if Leviticus Rhymed?
Apparently, this.

Why Were Ancient Sacrifices Important?
Another animated look at Leviticus from a Jewish perspective, this time without a guitar.

Bono Still Hasn't Found What He's Looking for
This time, Bono's looking for global debt relief based on principles from the Jubilee in Leviticus.

Pastor Rob Bell on Leviticus
This video explains why Bell started his evangelical mega-church with an 18-month verse-by-verse study of Leviticus. Bell recently moved to Hollywood to create a new network TV series, but don't expect him to use the same strategy to get Nielsen ratings.

Audio

Audio Classes
From the people who bring us the popular Mitzvah Tank—which, despite what it sounds like, is not the Jewish version of Dunk the Clown.

A Christian Theologian Lectures on Leviticus
In his iTunes series on the Pentateuch, Professor Richard Pratt offers a survey of the Christian take on Leviticus. To see how this series relates to those linked above, listen to this Sesame Street song.

Leviticus Out Loud
Looking to brush up on your Hebrew? Here you'll find MP3s of the entire book read in Hebrew, free from University of Washington Professor Gary Martin's Academy of Ancient Languages.

Images

God on the Horn With Moses
As is typical of the times, this woodcut of Moses saying "Don't call me, I'll call you" to God at the end of Leviticus shows him with horns on his head. Besides its significance as a masterpiece of 15th century German art, the image creepily foreshadows Lady Gaga's Alejandro video.

Letters of the Law
This fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls has a dozen or so letters from Leviticus 23. Based on their position on the scroll, scholars believe that this passage originally read "A man shall not lie with the lying of a bunk bed after college."

Saintly Surrealism
The Nadab and Abihu woodcut from the Nuremberg Bible looks more like a German village than a wilderness tent Tabernacle. All is forgiven, however, because it's freaky.

Lego Nadab and Abihu
Sure they sinned, but they're so cuuuuuuute.