PART 1 • Torah CHAPTER 4 • Leviticus and Numbers 148


Leviticus and Numbers: In the Wilderness

1 Introduction

2 Leviticus

3 Numbers

Study Guide


Aaron, Atonement, Balaam, Balak, Caleb, Clean/unclean, Cult/cultic, Day of Atonement, Holiness Code, Holy/holiness, Jubilee, Kashrut, Kosher, Levites, Manna, Nadab and Abihu, Offering, Phinehas, Priestly Code, Profane, Sacrifice, Sanctify

Shaking hands

Shaking hands

Every society develops customary ways of scripting social occasions so each party knows what is expected. Meeting and greeting is a good example. In some societies bowing is polite, and in others shaking hands. Ritual and social convention provide standard protocols for human interaction. This is one way to think of Israel’s rituals as defined in its priestly codes except that they are designed to facilitate Israel meeting its all-powerful deity Yhwh.

Source: Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra.


Israel had rituals and procedures for meeting God, and these are spelled out in Leviticus and Numbers. Analogous to our handshakes, how-do-you-do’s, and hostess gifts, these rituals formalized meeting and greeting God. They laid out the elaborate and deliberate steps that any Israelite was to follow to get the attention of Yhwh and then stand in the divine presence. Observing these protocols and maintaining certain lifestyle standards was a prerequisite for maintaining a sound and respectful long-term relationship with God.

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Sinai Range

FIGURE 4.1 Sinai Mountain Range

The traditional identification of Mount Sinai is Jebel Musa in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. The Israelites spent a year at Mount Sinai receiving laws and ritual legislation and building the tabernacle. This picture, taken from the summit of Jebel Musa, displays the rugged nature of the terrain.

Photo by Barry Bandstra, May 1996.

This chapter combines the books of Leviticus and Numbers because they are similar in several ways. Both contain a good deal of religious legislation, which God revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai (Figure 4.1). Both are predominantly concerned with matters of ritual, sacrifice, and priesthood. Both also are set in the Sinai wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. The complete Mount Sinai revelation actually begins at Exodus 19:1, runs through the entire book of Leviticus, and continues until Numbers 10:10. This collection of moral and ritual laws is referred to in general as the Priestly Code. It actually is made up of a number of subcollections from a variety of times and sources, including the Book of the Covenant and the Holiness Code. This Priestly Code constitutes the bulk of the Pentateuch.

The Priestly Code defines Israel’s cult. Students of religion (not just Israelite religion) use the terms cult and cultic to refer generally to a culture’s system of religious worship and ritual, including the procedures, personnel, and apparatus used to express religious devotion. In a modern colloquial context, the term cult typically has a derogatory connotation and is often applied to bizarre fringe groups, but that is not how the term is used in the academic study of religion.

The style of Leviticus and Numbers differs from that of Genesis and Exodus. There is no drama to relate because nothing really “happens” to the Hebrews in Leviticus and the first part of Numbers. For the most part, the material is a record of religious laws. The story about their journey to the Promised Land resumes only in the latter half of Numbers.

1.1 In the Wilderness—A Summary

Leviticus is presented almost entirely as the speeches of Yhwh to Moses at the meeting tent, a shrine used solely as the meeting place of God with Moses. There are a few chapters containing narrative of events, but it has no continuous story line. After divine descriptions of the types of sacrifices (Leviticus Chapters 1–7) that Moses ordained and consecrated, Aaron and his sons to serve as priests (8). At the conclusion of the eight-day ceremony, Aaron blessed the people, and the

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Timeline Exodus to Monarchy

FIGURE 4.2 Time Line: The Exodus to the Monarchy

fire of Yhwh consumed their offerings (9). When Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu burned incense with illicit fire (it is not clear what that was), they were destroyed by the fire of Yhwh (10). Then follows the laws concerning what is clean and unclean (11–15), the Day of Atonement (16), and the Holiness Code (17–26). Within the latter is found the only remaining narrative, a description of a situation when someone blasphemed the name of Yhwh. At Yhwh’s instructions, he was taken outside the camp and stoned (24). The book concludes with a discourse on religious vows (27).

The early chapters of Numbers detail the organization of the Israelite camp. A census of the tribes was taken (Numbers Chapter 1), the tribes were arrayed around the tent of meeting (2), and then the Levites were counted (3–4). A test for female marital faithfulness was established (5) and regulations for Nazirite vows given (6). The tabernacle was dedicated (7), the Levites were purified for tabernacle duty (8), and the Passover was celebrated (9).

The Israelites packed up and left Mount Sinai to resume their travels (10). When they complained about their diet, God sent quail (11). When Miriam complained about Moses, she was infected with leprosy (12). Twelve spies investigated the fortifications of Canaan, but the Israelites refused to attack (13–14). After more laws of sacrifice (15), Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rebelled and were executed (16). Aaron’s budding staff proved to the people that he was God’s choice (17). More technical instructions were given (18–19), and then Moses got water from a rock by striking it, thereby incurring God’s wrath (20).

Israel resumed its journey by avoiding Edom but destroyed many other opponents (21). Moab feared Israel and tried to curse them through the prophet Balaam, but this failed miserably (22–24). Then some Israelites slept with cult prostitutes (25), and this was not a good thing. More technicalities, lists, and laws follow (26–36).

The legislation and events recorded in Leviticus and Numbers have their setting in Israel’s Sinai experience, though they were written down at a much later time (Figure 4.2).

1.2 Reading Guide

It might be too much to expect anyone to read Leviticus entirely with all its technical detail. Yet a little bit of it will enable us to appreciate its level of specificity and the basic concerns of the Levitical laws.

• Leviticus 1:1–6:7 distinguishes the different types of sacrifices, which in turn defines the gifts that people would bring to God when they met him.

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• Leviticus 11 defines the difference between clean and unclean animals. This is basic to kosher food laws.

• Leviticus 16 describes procedures for the Day of Atonement.

• Leviticus 25 pertains to the sabbatical year and the year of Jubilee.

Numbers resumes the narrative of events. Numbers at 10:11 is where the narrative of the journey through the wilderness begins and continues through Chapter 25. This section of Numbers continues those interesting and somewhat depressing stories of Israel’s surly behavior and complaining. Here you will also find one of the most unbelievable stories in the Bible, the tale of Balaam and his talking donkey.

There are two general concerns in these episodes. The first is resolving the structures of leadership, especially which tribe has charge of sacred matters, which clan and family of that tribe has the most sacred responsibilities, and which person would lead them on their journey. The second is the issue of survival in the wilderness. How do the people manage under difficult conditions, what would they learn from their experience, and what does it tell them about their God? As you read the story, note which episodes fall into which of these general categories.


Leviticus immediately follows Exodus in the Hebrew Bible and continues the record of the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness. Most of Leviticus is devoted to ritual legislation and cultic rules. Its rabbinic name is torat kohanim, meaning “priests’ teaching.” Since priests came from the tribe of Levi, the Levites, the book came to be called Leviticus.

Most readers think it is boring; after all, it deals with rules for sacrifices, worship, priests, and purity. Most of these rules are not followed today by any religious community, Jewish or Christian, so what could be less interesting or relevant? Well, maybe the text and its subject matter are not all that gripping, but they do convey the vision of Israel’s ideal relationship with God. Leviticus deals with a fundamental human question: How can instinctively rebellious humans (remember the first couple’s disobedience in Eden) meet God and live in the divine presence? Put another way, how can an infinitely superior being come to be near seriously flawed people?

The answer: only when those people make themselves perfectly presentable and show great deference in the presence of absolute greatness. Because this is such a serious undertaking—do it wrongly and you die—there is great attention to specifics. But given the highly detailed and, to our minds, monotonous nature of the priestly legislation, it is easy to get lost in minutiae. An overall framework would be useful for comprehending the meaning of the purity and holiness laws.

2.1 Priestly Worldview

There are three general approaches to this corpus of legislation:

• The hygiene theory claims that the laws were intended to keep Israelites from things that had a high likelihood of doing bodily harm, such as bad pork causing disease.

• The cultic theory argues that objects and actions that were associated with forbidden pagan cults were forbidden to Israelites and so were declared unclean.

• The structural theory views the total collection of laws as a coherent structure or system that has its own internal logic (see Jenson, 1992).

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Since the structural approach appears to be a fruitful line of investigation that appears to reveal the deep structure of the laws, we will explore this approach in some detail. In this view, Leviticus, along with the rest of the Priestly Code, employs a distinctive way of looking at the world in relation to God. The structural view analyzes rituals as components of worldview and argues that Israel’s ritual system is predicated on an ordered world in which everything exists either as normal or abnormal. Deviations from normalcy were classified as unclean. Rituals provided the means to move from abnormality to normality. Everything in the world is graded in holiness in relation to Yhwh. The result is that everything has a set place in the divine order, and everything derives its meaning from its relationship to God.

The dilemma facing the Israelites was how a perfectly holy and righteous deity could be in direct contact with sinful people. In essence, the solution is that the Israelites must become a holy people, sometimes also called a holy nation. “You must be holy, for I am holy” is the frequent refrain of Leviticus.

The terms that are critical to this worldview and that need explanation are holy and clean, and their opposites, profane and unclean. According to Leviticus 10:10, the Aaronic priesthood was “to distinguish between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” This gives us two sets of opposed pairs, and the terms of each pair mutually define each other. Holy and holiness are notions that apply first of all to deity because deity is inherently and naturally different from humanity; in other words, deity is totally other. Because deity is so different from humanity, especially in regard to power and wholeness, humans need to respect divine otherness and live in awe of God.

Although the analogy is woefully inadequate, the awesomeness of God is like the awe ordinary citizens might feel in the presence of a president or prime minister, or more likely, a sports superstar, renowned actor, or famed musician. On the other hand, profane (related to the word profanity) applies to a behavior that treats holy things in a disrespectful or shameful manner. To profane something is to treat it as if it is not special; to profane something is to debase it, to bring it down, to degrade it—the opposite of holding it up, honoring it, and exalting it. Profane is a verb, and its opposite is sanctify (in Hebrew, sanctify, holy, and holiness all come from the same root word).

The priestly rituals of Leviticus were intended to distance humans from their imperfect world so that they could assume a measure of God’s holiness. For the Israelites, to become holy they needed to refrain from sin and stay away from uncleanness. In the priestly worldview, sin was closely associated with uncleanness. Leviticus categorizes the world into clean and unclean things and describes procedures that can move one from the state of uncleanness to cleanness. Some of the most important rituals involve animal sacrifices to reconcile penitent Israelites to God if sin and uncleanness have separated them.

The normal or natural state of objects and persons is to be clean, and a clean thing could be elevated to the status of holiness through the process of sanctification (literally, making holy). Clean things could become unclean through contact with other unclean things, such as dead bodies. For an unclean person or thing to get back to the state of cleanness, it had to be purified. Once clean, it could then be sanctified through an additional procedure. Once made holy, it was set apart from the rest of the world and was devoted exclusively to divine service. Holy persons and things could be rendered profane, or unholy, through ritual procedures of

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decommissioning or by contact with something unclean. A profaned thing could be clean or unclean, but in either case, it could not be in direct contact with Yhwh.

The notions of clean and unclean are related to the way that the priestly group understood the created world and expressed a comprehensive worldview in which everything had its proper place. The process of putting things in their place began with creation, as told in the Elohim, or Priestly, version in Genesis 1. On the second and third days of creation, the three elements of sky, earth, and sea were delimited through a process of separation. Then, God fashioned living creatures for each environment, and each environment’s creatures received standard habits and means of locomotion that defined them. In particular, the sky was populated by noncarnivorous winged creatures. The earth was inhabited by four-legged creatures that chewed the cud and had cloven hooves. The sea was inhabited by creatures with scales and fins.

Creatures that did not fit the standard profile were considered unclean, for example, crabs and lobsters. Although they live in the sea, they have legs rather than fins. Thus, cleanness was related to a notion of “normalness,” and cleanness was protected by keeping things separate and in their proper environment. Food sources that did not meet the priestly definitions of normalcy were unclean and therefore not fit for human consumption. The definitions of what was clean and unclean are also called kashrut, the rules of kosher.

Definitions of normalcy and laws for maintaining separations applied to many things besides food. For example, they dictated which kinds of thread could be woven together to make fabric and which kinds of people could marry. Priestly legislation defined a total lifestyle that regulated diet, hygiene, social activity, and the calendar. The Holiness Code, found in Leviticus 17–26, is the most distinctive subcollection of the Priestly Code and the most comprehensive collection of material dealing with matters holy, profane, clean, and unclean. While the issue of dating for the Priestly writings as a whole is debated, it is quite likely that the Holiness Code comes from the period of the late Israelite monarchy. It appears to have been composed in Jerusalem not long before the Babylonian exile.

The holiness continuum (Table 4.1) is a synthesis of the priestly worldview. It relates the basic domains of life (space and time, people and things) to the notions of holiness and cleanness. The following discussion is a survey of the particular areas of existence and reality (derived from the left-hand column) as they are defined by the range of holiness (the column heads).

TABLE 4.1 Holiness Continuum

Jenson (1992) develops the notion of “a holiness spectrum” on which this table is based. He devotes a separate chapter to each dimension: spatial, personal, ritual, and temporal.

Very Holy Holy Clean Unclean Very Unclean
Place Holy of holies Holy place Court Camp Outside the camp
People High priest Priest Levites, clean Israelites People with minor impurities People with major impurities, the dead
Rituals Sacrifice (not eaten by people) Sacrifice (eaten by priests) Sacrifice (eaten by nonpriests) Purification (one day) Purification (seven days)
Times Day of Atonement Festivals, Sabbath Common days

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2.1.1 Holy Places

A fundamental concern of the Priestly Code was the creation of a place where the presence of the deity would reside so that Israel could live in proximity to the deity. Throughout the Bible, the key to Israel’s welfare is living close to God. The place where Yhwh lived was the holiest place imaginable. The tabernacle complex, whose structure, service, and construction are described in Exodus 25–31 and 35–40, was the portable shrine of the Israelites (see RTOT Chapter 3). Leviticus and Numbers contain many references to the structure and implements of the tabernacle.

The tabernacle complex, as with the other symbols of Israel’s ritual system, had zones of holiness. The direction of holiness moved from outside the camp (least holy place) to the holy of holies (most holy place). For each zone the Priestly Code defined who was allowed to be there, ending up with only the high priest in the holy of holies, and him on only one day each year. Gradations of holiness are evident also in the construction materials of the tabernacle complex, with fabrics and metals increasing in value moving up each level of holiness (see Haran, 1978).

The symbolism of the tabernacle expresses two important themes of priestly theology: the continuity of life and the presence of God. The floral designs on the walls of the tabernacle and the menorah portray the “tree of life” image. The untarnishable gold of the implements and holiest room suggest the unchangeableness of God. The daily lamp-lighting ceremony symbolizes the light of God that never ceases.

The portability of the tent of dwelling indicates that God was not sedentary but was with Israel wherever its people went. This notion may have been especially important to the priests of the exilic period who shaped these texts; it gives expression to their conviction, similar to the prophet Ezekiel’s, that God was present with them even outside the Promised Land.

Holy People

The Priestly Code defined the social and ritual roles of all people within Israel, and an examination of these roles likewise reveals a hierarchy of holiness. Membership in social groups was based on family lineage, and roles were assigned accordingly. The tribe of Levi provided the officials who were authorized to perform religious functions. Both Moses and his brother Aaron were from this tribe.

Only direct descendants of Aaron could function as priests or become the high priest. Priests were the only ones allowed to offer sacrifices and enter the sanctuary. The high priest could consult with God directly in the cloud and by means of divination dice called the Urim and Thummim. Other members of the tribe of Levi, those not of the clan of Aaron, had duties outside the sanctuary itself and in general assisted the Aaronic priests. This included guarding the sanctuary and dismantling and erecting it when it was moved. Israelites belonging to the other eleven tribes could not perform religious rituals but had them done by priests.

A number of ritual descriptions and camp narratives define the status and role of the tribe of Levi and of groups within it (Figure 4.3). Leviticus 8–9 describes the process of the ordination of Aaron and his sons. That the ordination rituals lasted seven days aligns the priesthood with the created order of seven days (Genesis 1:1–2:3). Leviticus 10 recounts the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, two sons of Aaron, who illegally performed certain rituals and died for it. Numbers 8 describes the process of the ordination of the Levites. Numbers 16–17 narrates the rebellion of Korah and his followers, Levites but not from the family of Aaron, who presumed to perform

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Levite Ritual Roles

FIGURE 4.3 Levite Ritual Roles

priestly rituals and were executed by God for it. This narrative also contains the story of the blossoming of Aaron’s rod, which demonstrated the God-given authority of the tribe of Levi over the other eleven tribes. Numbers 18 defines the responsibilities of Aaronic priests and other Levites.

Go to the companion website and see the table “The Tribe of Levi and Ritual Roles in Numbers.” The book of Numbers adds evidence that further defines the role of the Levites within the Israelite cult.

2.1.3 Offerings

The primary religious rituals of Israelite religion involved offerings, which could be agricultural or animal products. Most, but not all offerings, were burned on an altar, with the savory smoke rising as a gift to God. If an offering was an animal, the animal was first slaughtered, or sacrificed. Then it was burned.

The priestly ritual system was complex, and the meaning of procedures was rarely explained. In most respects, it is quite foreign to our way of thinking. Consequently,

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TABLE 4.2 Offerings

Offering Hebrew NRSV Item Purpose Leviticus
Whole burnt ‘olah Burnt offering Whole animal Gift to God 1:3–17
Grain minchah Grain offering Flour and oil Gift to God 2:1–16
Peace shelamim Sacrifice of well-being Unblemished animal Fellowship 3:1–17
Purification chatta’t Sin offering Bull, goat, lamb, doves, pigeons Purification after involuntary impurity 4:1–5:13
Reparation asham Guilt offering Ram Restitution for deliberate acts 5:14–6:7

the precise theological significance of sacrifice is still open to debate. The rules of the priestly offering system are laid out in Leviticus 1–7. There are five main types of offering: whole burnt, grain, peace, purification, and reparation. Any given priestly ritual usually incorporated several different types of offering (Table 4.2).

The whole burnt offering was the preeminent sacrifice. Its name refers to the fact that the entire animal was consumed by the fire on the altar. Every day this type of sacrifice was offered to Yhwh. The purpose of the sacrifice was to give something pleasing to God, not to atone for sin, though Levine (1989: 6–7) argues an alternate view, that it was intended to offer protection from God’s wrath.

Not all offerings were bloody sacrifices of animals, and not all offerings were to atone for sin. Offerings of grain and other agricultural produce were given as gifts to God, and a portion of such sacrifices was used to support the priests. With the peace offering, a portion of the meat of the sacrificed animal was retained and eaten by the person making the offering. This offering, sometimes also called the fellowship sacrifice, drew the parties together, including God, in a festive meal. Meat was not often eaten in biblical times, so when it was, it was a time of celebration and was done in the presence of God.

The purification offering, sometimes called the sin offering, was to purify a person after he or she had incurred an impurity of some kind, such as through childbirth, a skin disease, or contact with something dead. This offering was also used to secure forgiveness after a deliberate sin. The reparation offering involved an offering of restitution; that is, if an action involved economic loss to someone else, reparation must be made to cover the loss, with an additional portion as punitive damages.

The overall significance of sacrificial rituals could be explained along these lines. Various types of impurities and deliberate sins disturbed God’s ordered universe. Sacrificial rituals were the mechanism by which disruptions within God’s world were acknowledged and made right. The various rituals of purification brought one closer to the state of holiness so that one could live in proximity to God. This has been called the purification model of sacrifice and is advocated by Milgrom (1983) and Jenson (1992). Within this system, sacrifice seems to play a significant role in the process of atonement. Atonement, reconciliation, or “making at one,” brings a person back into fellowship with God after a disruption in the relationship. In the priestly system, this could only be achieved through a blood sacrifice. Leviticus 17:11 is often taken as a key to priestly atonement theology:

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For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement. (17:11 NRSV)

Blood was held in particular reverence because it was considered the substance of life. The blood of the sacrificed animal substituted for the life of the offending person and functioned to return that person to fellowship with God.

2.1.4 Holy Times

Just as space was sacred or profane, so was time. The year defined the basic cycle of larger events and organized the cultic calendar. The year was defined by the solar calendar, but because months were defined by the cycle of the moon, there was a need to adjust the shorter twelve-month lunar year (354 days) to the solar year (365 days) by occasionally adding a thirteenth month.

There were longer periods of time, including the sabbatical year cycle (every seventh year was sacred), and the year of Jubilee (the year after seven sabbatical year cycles—that is, the fiftieth year). But the most important units of repeated time were the day, the week, and the month (which was defined by the moon). Months were labeled by number, with the year beginning in the spring. The Sabbath, the seventh day of the week called shabbat, was a day set apart from the others. Special rules governed activity on that day, mainly restricting what could be done. Keeping the Sabbath holy emerged during the Babylonian exile as a distinctive practice of the Jewish community that set them apart from their neighbors and gave evidence of their adherence to the covenant (see Hallo, 1977).

Special yearly sacred days were also defined. There were five primary sacred times, all of which are still observed within Jewish communities (Table 4.3), and some of these correspond to moments in the calendar of the Western world. For example, the spring equinox, Passover, and Easter all converge—not by accident—and seasonal change becomes invested with religious significance and located within the historical experience of the nation. [[T4.3]]

Later, the Israelites were required to observe these festivals in Jerusalem. They were worship occasions and in the rabbinic period were marked by the reading of

TABLE 4.3 Holy Times

Holy Time Hebrew Name Agricultural Season Historical Association Leviticus 23 Festival Scroll
Passover (Feast of Unleavened Bread) pesach Spring barley harvest Exodus 5–8 Song of Songs
First Fruits

Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) shavuot Summer wheat harvest
15–21 Ruth
Trumpets teruah
Sinai revelation (?) 23–25
Day of Atonement yom kippur

Feast of Booths (Feast of Ingathering) sukkot Autumn harvest Wilderness sojourn 33–36 Ecclesiastes

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certain books from the Five Scrolls of the Hebrew Bible. For example, the Song of Songs was read on Passover and the book of Ruth during the Feast of Weeks.

In addition to these festivals, other feasts and fasts were instituted later during the postexilic period. Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jews during the Persian period, as told in the book of Esther (see RTOT Chapter 15). The story of the rededication of the temple during the Greek period is told in the book of 1 Maccabees and is celebrated as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which comes at the winter solstice. Fasts were decreed to memorialize tragic historical events. The fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 587 BCE. is marked as Tisha b’Av, and the book of Lamentations is read (see RTOT Chapter 16).

Features of holy place, holy people, holy time, and sacred ritual all come together in Leviticus 16 where the Day of Atonement ritual, in Hebrew called yom kippur, is described. Of all the sacred times, the Day of Atonement was considered the holiest. It was only on this day that anyone ever entered the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle and, later, the temple.

Aaron will offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and make atonement for himself and his household. Then he will take the two goats, and stand them before Yhwh at the door of the tent of meeting. Aaron will cast lots for the two goats, marking one for Yhwh and marking the other for Azazel. Aaron will present the goat on which the lot fell for Yhwh and offer it as a sin offering. The goat on which the lot fell for Azazel will be presented alive before Yhwh to make atonement with it. It will be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. (16:6–10)

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest—here, Aaron—offers a bull as a purification offering. Then he takes two goats. He slaughters one of them, collects its blood, and sprinkles it on the mercy seat, a term designating the lid of the ark of the covenant. After exiting the tabernacle, he places his hands on the head of the other goat, thereby transferring the sins of the people to this animal. Called the goat for Azazel in Hebrew (where azazel may designate the underworld), this goat has come to be called the “scapegoat.” It was sent way into the wilderness to disappear, symbolically taking with it the sins of the people

2.2 Leviticus as a Book

Leviticus in its entirety belongs to the Priestly tradition of the Pentateuch. In practice, the book may have functioned as a manual of priestly procedure. The last verse of the book (27:34) gives Leviticus a historical and geographical setting at Sinai during Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness. Thus, as it stands, the book is a continuation of the story of God’s revelation to Moses. Even though Leviticus is a virtual catalog of rules and regulations, it is framed as part of a Sinai narrative. The phrase “Yhwh said to Moses” (thirty-four times) contextualizes the laws as narrative events rather than as list items.

The book of Leviticus consists of various collections of religious laws, all of them torat kohanim, “instruction of priests”—the of can be understood in two ways (linguistically speaking, the objective or the subjective genitive). Levine (1989) observes that Chapters 1–16 are instructions for the priests in the performance of their duties and Chapters 17–26 are instructions by the priests addressed to the people to remain holy. This effectively creates two main units in Leviticus. Internal structural clues signal that these sections were identifiable units before they came together in

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TABLE 4.4 The Structure of Leviticus

1–16 Instructions for Priests 17–27 Instructions by Priests to the People
1–7 Laws of sacrifices 17–26 Holiness Code
8–10 Ordination rites of the priests 27 Appendix on religious vows
11–15 Laws of purity

16 Day of Atonement

Leviticus. The Laws of Sacrifice section has a clear introduction (1:1) and a formulaic conclusion (“this is the teaching (torah) on . . .”; 7:37–38), which is also used in the Laws of Purity (11:46–47, 12:7b, 13:59, 14:32, 14:54–57, 15:32–33). This suggests that the ordination materials of 8–10 are an insertion. The Day of Atonement is the positional and theological center piece of Leviticus. It describes the premiere procedure for removing sin and impurity. The Holiness Code is marked by the use of summary formulas that conclude each subsection (18:24–30, 20:22–26, 22:31–33, 25:18–24, 26:3–45). The structural sections of Leviticus are displayed in Table 4.4.

A close examination of the language, style, and presumed sociological setting of the laws suggests that in their present form they have come from the exilic period or later. Other books of the Hebrew Bible—Ezekiel, Ezra, and Chronicles—have a close affinity with the Priestly Code, and they are all postexilic, but the traditions behind many of the Levitical laws may go back as early as the premonarchic period. Some of the laws even have analogies to early Mesopotamian legal materials (see ANET, 325–326, 331–353). Although some of the individual laws and collections were preexilic, they were given their final shape by a priestly group in the exilic period.


The book of Numbers, which follows Leviticus, also contains some ritual law, but overall it is more diverse in style and content than Leviticus. After about ten chapters that contain priestly laws, the narrative of Israel’s journey continues.

3.1 From Mount Sinai to Moab

The book of Numbers contains another block of the Priestly Code. The book begins with Israel still located near Mount Sinai. Later in the book, the Israelites’ journey continues with a series of perilous encounters until they reach the Jordan River valley, which marks the border of the Promised Land (Figure 4.4).

3.1.1 Priestly Code Continued (1:1–10:10)

This is the final section of the legal corpus revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai, the beginning of which extends all the way back to Exodus 19. Among other things, the Priestly Code defined a social hierarchy within Israel, not surprisingly putting the priests of Aaron’s family at the top of the heap. This is reflected in Numbers 1–4, which describes the organization of the Levites and the arrangement of the camp (Figure 4.4). At the center of the camp stood the tabernacle. The clans of the Levites

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Israelite Camp

FIGURE 4.4 The Israelite Camp

formed an inner ring around the tabernacle, with the family of Aaron closest to the entrance of the compound. The other tribes formed the next ring, with the tribe of Judah in the position of preeminence to the east near Aaron and the entrance. Further outside were resident aliens—that is, people not belonging to any tribe but living among the Hebrews. Furthest out were the foreign nations, by implication also furthest from God. This layout is a component of the holiness continuum, indicating that priests and Levites were the holiest class of people.

Additional laws of cleanness are given in subsequent chapters as well as regulations concerning the firstborn and the Nazirite vow. The common thread uniting this material is a concern with the holiness of the people. They must be holy for Yhwh to remain in their midst. And if Yhwh remains with the people, they would find blessing. This is articulated in the priestly blessing spoken over the people.

May Yhwh bless you and keep you. May Yhwh shine his face toward you and grace you. May Yhwh lift his face toward you and give to you shalom. (6:24–26)

The significance of this blessing is perhaps indicated by the fact that the earliest Hebrew inscription ever found consists of this text. It is found on a silver amulet from Ketef Hinnom near Jerusalem and dates to the seventh century BCE (see Coogan, 1995).

3.1.2 The Journey Continues (10:11–22:1)

Beginning with Numbers 10:11 we are back to material deriving from all three Pentateuchal sources, the Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly. This block of material is mostly historical narrative and describes the journey from Sinai to Kadesh, the long stay at Kadesh, and the journey to Moab.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Stages of the Wilderness Journey.”

. . . the cloud arose from on the tabernacle of the testimony (presumably, the ark of the covenant), and the sons of Israel traveled on their travels from the wilderness of Sinai, and the cloud tabernacled in the wilderness of Paran. (10:11b-12)

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Sinai to Moab

FIGURE 4.5 The Journey from Kadesh to Moab

About a year after they had arrived in the Sinai wilderness, the cloud of God’s presence lifted and signaled that Israel must continue on to the Promised Land. The Israelites had a number of experiences in the wilderness, many at Kadesh, before they reached Canaan.

The people found the daily manna meals to be monotonous, so they demanded meat. The strain of fielding such complaints began to take its toll on Moses. In response, Yhwh instructed Moses to appoint seventy elders to assist him. Similar to Exodus 18, Moses commissioned officers of tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands at Jethro’s advice. He arranged the seventy men around the meeting tent to

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receive their commission (11:25). Then Yhwh came down in the cloud and spoke to him and took some of the spirit that was on him and placed it on the seventy elders. The spirit took possession of them and they prophesied, as proof of the possession.

Eldad and Medad, two men who had been designated for leadership, were not present at the tent for this event. Nonetheless, they too received the spirit and prophesied in the middle of the camp. This vexed Joshua, but Moses said, “Why are you upset? It would be good if all Yhwh’s people prophesied.” Whether physically present or not, Yhwh had put his spirit on all of them. Here, the Elohist expresses his ideal of prophecy, that all the people would be inspired by God as were Moses and the other leaders. Moses is portrayed as the good and enlightened leader who is not trying to exalt himself. Rather, he wishes that all the people would be close to God.

The special status of Moses is nonetheless reinforced in Numbers 12. Aaron and Miriam (Moses’ brother and sister) challenged Moses after he married a foreigner. They claimed that Yhwh could also speak through the two of them. All three then went to the meeting tent where Yhwh appeared in the pillar of cloud and spoke to Aaron and Miriam:

“Hear my words: If you have a prophet among you, I, Yhwh, reveal myself to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. With my servant Moses it is different. He is entrusted with my entire estate. I talk with him mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles. He beholds the shape of Yhwh. Why are you not afraid to challenge my servant Moses?” (12:6–9)

As punishment for her presumption, Miriam was afflicted with a skin disease for seven days and remained outside of camp. Aaron was spared, but probably only because he was the high priest. This story indicates many things. It reflects once again the disdain that the Elohist had for Aaron because he had the audacity to challenge Moses. The Elohist had a special contempt for the Aaronic priesthood in Jerusalem. The story also demonstrates the high regard that the Elohist had for Moses. Throughout the Elohist source, Moses is pictured as central to the purposes of God. Here we learn why. Moses was closest to God. He was not an ordinary leader but a prophet, and even more than just a prophet, God had put him in charge of the entire enterprise.

A notable feature of the story told in Numbers is that many of these episodes, all of which take place after the covenant at Sinai was given, are virtual duplicates of experiences that the Israelites had on the first leg of the wilderness journey from Egypt to Sinai (Table 4.5). Presumably, the doublets were retained because the

TABLE 4.5 Wilderness Doublets

Exodus: Egypt to Sinai Source Numbers: Sinai to Canaan Source
Moses meets his father-in-law 18:1–27 E 10:29–32 J
Murmuring Israelites 16:1–12 P 11:1–6 E
Quail and manna 16:13–35 P 11:4–35 E
Water from rock at Meribah 17:1–7 J and E 20:2–13 E

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independent sources each had memories of the events. Perhaps their retention by the editor and the resulting duplications signals that the character of the people had not changed from before Sinai to after. The Numbers account of those wilderness experiences highlights the dissatisfaction of the people. They complained about the food, so God at the same time fed them and punished them (11). Aaron and Miriam complained about Moses’ leadership, and God vindicated him (12).

Moses sent twelve spies into Canaan from Kadesh to survey its fortifications. Ten spies counseled the people not to invade Canaan; only Joshua and Caleb supported the attack that Yhwh commanded. Because the people refused to follow God’s leading, he punished them by decreeing that they would die in the wilderness, and only their offspring, the second generation, would gain possession of Canaan (13–14).

Following this reversal, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram complained about the leadership of Moses and Aaron, and God destroyed them; then all the tribes took exception to the special privileges of the Levites and God vindicated the Levites (16–17). When Moses reacted arrogantly to the murmuring of the people, God punished him (20). When finally the people left Kadesh to go to their invasion staging area, the entire first generation had passed away. There was certainly a lesson here for that exilic generation looking to return home after Babylonian captivity.

As the Israelites traveled toward Transjordan, they were attacked by poisonous snakes. Moses made a bronze snake replica and put it on a pole. Anyone who looked at it recovered (21:4–9). A bronze serpent, called Nehushtan, was later installed in the temple and removed by Hezekiah (2 Kings 18: 4). The serpent may have been adopted from the Midianites who worked the copper mines north of the Gulf of Aqabah. They are known to have used a gilded copper snake image within their cult.

Chapters containing priestly regulations are interspersed among these narrative accounts of Israel’s wilderness experiences. Chapter 15 prescribes offerings that atone for inadvertent sins. Chapter 18 prescribes the portions of the offerings that can rightfully be claimed by priests. The red heifer ceremony of Chapter 19 provides for cleansing and the restoration of holiness.

Intertwining this cultic material with the narrative has a certain logic. The narratives all have to do with complaints and privileges: Various groups complained that other groups or individuals received preferential treatment. The priestly cultic legislation settles matters of priestly privilege and provides the means to restore holiness after the kinds of sins that got the Israelites in trouble in the wilderness. These same sins would plague the Israelites throughout their history. Thus, the historical material also illustrates the characteristic attitude of the Israelites, one of alternating complaint and faithfulness. It also provides the means to overcome alienation from God and restore holiness.

3.1.3 Events in Transjordan (22:2–36:13)

This section contains a variety of materials all set in Transjordan. Arriving in Transjordan, the Israelites faced two significant threats. First, a Mesopotamian prophet named Balaam was hired by Balak, the king of the Moabites, to curse the Hebrews and thereby achieve victory for the Moabites (22–24). This is one of the most remarkable stories in the Hebrew Bible. In it, Balaam’s donkey talked to him and warned him about an angry angel that was ready to stop him from completing his mission.

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When Balaam finally arrived in Moab to curse the Hebrews, he ended up blessing them each time he opened his mouth. Consequently, the Hebrews prevailed. The story reinforces the destiny of these people. Nothing could stop them, neither the mighty warriors of the Transjordan, nor supernatural divination. Directed and defended by Yhwh, they would surely enter the Promised Land. This remarkable story was found also to be recorded at Tell Deir ‘Alla in Jordan where a collection of text fragments mentioning Balaam son of Beor were discovered in 1967. They were written in Aramaic and date to the 700s BCE. Balaam is called “a seer of the gods,” and some of the lines are similar to the wording of Numbers 22-24 (see Hackett, 1984).

The second threat in Transjordan was the attraction of its local religion (25). A Baal shrine located at Peor near the Hebrew camp drew in a number of Israelite worshippers. Specifically, Hebrew males were found availing themselves of the services of cult prostitutes there. But Aaron’s grandson Phinehas stood up for Yhwh and put an end to this offensive form of false worship by piercing an Israelite and his prostitute partner with one thrust of his sword. As a reward for his zeal, Yhwh granted him a covenant of perpetual priesthood that designated him and his descendants as the sole legitimate holders of the priestly office (25:10–13; see also Psalm 106:30–31). This marks the second time that the tribe of Levi distinguished itself by violently defending the honor of Yhwh (see Exodus 32:25–29 during the golden calf incident).

Following these narratives, the last chapters of Numbers deal with inheritance laws, practices concerning the spoils of conquest, land boundaries, and tribal allotments. In dealing with such matters, the writer has turned attention to issues that the Israelites soon would face as they entered the Promised Land. This third section of Numbers thus prepares Israel to take possession of their divinely ordained territory.

The last incident in Numbers has to do with Zelophehad’s daughters. Zelophehad of Manasseh died without a son. His daughters demanded they be given tribal property so that their father’s name would not die out. Previously, property had only been granted to males and was passed down to males. But Yhwh declared through Moses that these women should be granted Zelophahad’s estate as their inheritance (27:1–11), provided that they married within their own tribe. In this way, the property would remain under local control (36).

3.2 Numbers as a Book

The book of Numbers sorts itself out into three sections on the basis of content and geographical setting (Table 4.6). The first section is a continuation from the book of Leviticus of the Priestly Code. The second and third sections resume the narrative of

TABLE 4.6 Structure of Numbers

Text Content Location
1:1–10:10 Priestly Code continued Mount Sinai
10:11–22:1 The journey continues Sinai to Moab
22:2–36:13 Events in Transjordan Transjordan

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Israel’s experience in the wilderness of Sinai begun in the book of Exodus, organizing the journey in stages.

The book of Numbers is entitled bamidbar in the Hebrew Bible, meaning “in the wilderness.” As it turned out, the wilderness experience, as revealed in Exodus through Numbers, cut two ways in terms of its significance. It was a time when Israel was closer to God than at any other time in their history and closer in so many different ways. They heard the voice of God from Mount Sinai; they received the covenant directly from the hand of God; they saw the theophany of divine presence; they knew Yhwh was resident among them in the tabernacle; they ate and drank daily from his hand. Yet the wilderness was also a time of great trial and testing, a time of rebellion and murmuring, and a period when their existence was defined by not being in the land long ago promised. The wilderness would later be remembered as a time of hope and despair, a time they were close to God, but not yet there.

Deuteronomy, the book that follows, is dominated by this theme of not yet there. It is both geographically and temporally continuous with the book of Numbers. While Deuteronomy is a completely different kind of material from Genesis through Numbers (speeches rather than narrative), it smoothly picks up the story line. Numbers ends with Israel in Moab, poised to enter Palestine. In Deuteronomy, Moses will exhort the Israelites (now the second generation) to remain faithful to Yhwh so that they can continue the work of conquest, enter the Promised Land, and retain possession of it. But, as we will see, even by the end of Deuteronomy the people will not yet be home.



1. Leadership. The stories of Israel’s leaders during the wilderness period serve to characterize them and the nature of their leadership and reveal the various challenges of leadership on a very difficult journey. What were key episodes that established leadership roles and responsibilities in Israel?

2. Priestly Code. The Priestly Code consists of various subcollections of ritual and ceremonial laws. Taken as a whole, the code reveals Israel’s basic worldview and some of its core concepts such as sacrifice, holiness, priesthood, and purity. What is Israel’s set of basic values and its worldview as revealed by the Priestly Code?

3. Sacrifices. The main types of sacrifices and offerings functioned to maintain relationships on many different levels. What were the purposes of the different types of sacrifice, and what relationships were in view?

4. Time and space. The layout of the Israelite camp and its main structure, the tabernacle, defined holy space. The calendar of festivals and other temporal structures defined time in relation to holiness. What are the main elements of holy place and holy time in Israel?

5. Experience. The stories that relate the Israelites’ experience in the wilderness, in distinction from the Priestly Code, serve to portray their character as a people. What is the cumulative effect of these tales? What is the soul of these people as revealed through their experience of hardship and deprivation? How might it have served as a lesson to further generations?


1. Leadership. Reflect on offices of leadership in Israel as defined in the laws and reinforced in various stories. How did one qualify to be a religious leader in those days? How does that compare to the ways that leaders are chosen today?

2. Religion. Israel’s laws and rituals prescribed and prohibited behaviors in all areas of life. What does this imply about their view of religion? How do you think they would have responded

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to the distinction that we make today between the sacred and the secular, or church and state?

3. Generations. Ponder the stories that reflect negatively on the Israelites. Why were these stories told? What do they imply about the character and faith of the first generation of Israelites that left Egypt? How might these stories about the faithless first generation relate to the apparent preference (remember the firstborn son stories in Genesis) for the younger son over the older? How do you characterize past generations of your family, community, or nation? Are you prone to assign praise or blame to your predecessors? How does our culture tend to characterize past generations in relation to the present?


Although there are many commentaries, there is not much secondary literature on Leviticus and Numbers that would be nontechnical and engaging for an intermediate-level student of the text. However, two books by the structuralist anthropologist M. Douglas, while not easy reading, are worth the effort because they draw out the deep principles of the Priestly Code by analyzing its conceptual systems: Leviticus as Literature (1999) and In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers (2001). Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus: From Sacrifice to Scripture (2007), by James W. Watts, is an insightful treatment of the way that Leviticus has shaped the language and meaning of ritual in the Bible and in biblical interpretation.