The Narrative Structure of Leviticus

The Narrative Structure of Leviticus March 4, 2014

Leviticus contains only two narratives (chs. 10, 24), and its structure is dictated by speeches from Yahweh to Moses, who delivers them to Israel.

Yet, in a rough and broad way, it’s possible to see a narrative shape to the book, particularly if we view it as a continuation of the book of Exodus, and particularly of the building of the tabernacle in the last third of Exodus.

The story-line moves in two large cycles. First there is the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 25-40), instructions for service in the tabernacle (Leviticus 1-7), and the ordination of priests to serve there (Leviticus 8-10). Nadab and Abihu fail as priests, offering strange fire before Yahweh (ch. 10), and this is followed by other pollutions that focus on the sanctuary (Leviticus 11-15). The first cycle climaxes with the purification of the sanctuary on the day of atonement, by the rite of removal by a scapegoat (Leviticus 16). 

We can sum up the narrative as: Yahweh builds a house, priests and Israel pollute it, but God’s priest purifies His house by the scapegoat.

Chapter 17 begins a new phase of the story, focused not on the sanctuary but on the land. Chapters 17-20 deal with the pollution of the holy land, with the continuous threat that Israel risk being expelled if they repeat the abominations of the Canaanites. Chapters 21-22 return to the issue of priesthood, providing a portrait of a worthy priest. Leviticus 26, the great covenant-curse passage in Leviticus, ends with a warning of exile and a promise of return.

We can sum up the second cycle as: Yahweh places Israel in the land, priests and Israel pollute the land with idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual infidelity, and Yahweh expels them, as He did the scapegoat. But in the end He promises to restore those whose “uncircumcised hearts become humbled” (26:40).

This sketch doesn’t include the whole book, but it is perhaps intriguing enough to merit further elaboration. One of the interesting results would be a parallel between the expelled scapegoat and exiled Israel. And for Christian readers that can only point to the expelled Israel-in-person, who bears away all the sins and uncleannesses of Israel.

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