Moses and the Levitical Law Code

With anywhere from 1 to 3 million people and their livestock, it was necessary for the Hebrews to live in tents as they moved between pasturelands and oases. In fact, the Book of Numbers (33:16–49) records that the Hebrews moved more than thirty times from Sinai until their arrival at the border of Canaan. As they wandered, Moses began to record a history of ancient monotheism, the Hebrew people, and the laws he was receiving from his God.

First, in about 1445 B.C., Moses is believed to have been inspired to write the Book of Genesis (Bereishith in Hebrew), followed by the Book of Exodus (Shemoth) and, about five years later, the Book of Leviticus (Vayiqra). Named after the Levite priests who were to enforce its laws, the Book of Leviticus influenced Judaism more than any of the Mosaic writings. In the Jews’ monotheistic community, God's laws were indisputable and the priests were his administrators.

The first seven chapters of Leviticus established the role of animal sacrifice in ancient Judaism. Unlike previous references to sacrifice, the text goes into great detail, prescribing specific animals and procedures for certain sins and situations. The Book of Leviticus also established the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur in Hebrew), as a day in which nearly everyone and everything in the community was cleansed with blood. According to the Hebrew law code, blood was necessary to cleanse the worshiper of his disobedience.

The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot in Hebrew) commemorates the forty years of wandering that occurred between the receiving of the Ten Commandments and the conquest of Canaan. From mega-cities to jungle villages, many Jews remember their forefathers’ wilderness time by living for one week in an outdoor structure, known as a sukkot.

While explaining God's requirements for spiritual cleansing, the Book of Leviticus also clarified God's position on day-to-day actions and attitudes. For example, Abraham was said to have given 10 percent of his wealth to God, but the tithe (meaning “10 percent”) was not established until the Book of Leviticus commanded it. As the Israelites’ primary law code, it formed the community's judicial system and holy days, but the code also set standards for personal morality, hygiene, sexuality, diet, and so on. The Book of Leviticus endorsed capital punishment, but the overriding purpose of its laws was to limit retaliation by establishing a punishment equal to the crime. The text explicitly guided the new nation with divine prohibitions, commands, and promises, bringing order to the lives of more than 1 million Hebrew people.

Moses and the Hebrew nation lived as desert nomads for another thirty years before they saw the Promised Land. Looking down on the city of Jericho, Moses completed a forty-year history of the wilderness wanderings by recording the number of men from each of the twelve tribes. Today, this ancient chronicle is known as the Book of Numbers (Bamidar in Hebrew). Finally, with the Israelites poised to enter Canaan, Moses was inspired to draft a second edition of the divine law code. Known as the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim), this scripture restated and clarified God's promises and laws, ordered the nation to take Canaan by force, and established a man named Joshua as Moses’ successor. With the death of Moses, Joshua assumed power and prepared to conquer Canaan.

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