Leviticus is in the middle of the five books making up “the Law,” the heart of the Old Testament. It gets its name from the fact that it focuses especially in the ministry of the Levite priests, and the core of the book is the law of holiness. This tells us what God demands of the people who are privileged to belong to him, both in terms of their worship and of their daily lives.
This is enough for us to situate the book. We will better understand these laws and liturgical regulations, which are characteristic of ancient times, if we are willing to remember that holiness – in the biblical sense, is just as real for us now. Holiness is one of the keys to knowing God and it helps us to understand our special vocation as a holy people. We can never overstate the fact that God embraces all of creation in his love, that God is present in it and in the lives of peoples, that God is very close to us “in secret” (Mt 6:6). Neither should we forget that God is “holy,” that is to say, totally distinct from creation and that his mysterious personality is incredibly beyond anything we can imagine. If God has called us to believe in his Only Son, our mission cannot be confused with any of the paths of wisdom that humankind has ever known: God has chosen us for his own “amazing and mysterious” work. Today though we are no longer bound by the countless liturgical or sociological precepts of the Law, these pages tell us again that we have been set apart in order to serve as leaven.
The spirit of the Law never changed after the revelation made to Moses, and became its foundation. However, many developments and adaptations did take place. The “Mosaic books,” as they are called, reach us in the state in which they were fixed by the Jewish priests of the fifth century before Jesus, at the time of the return from the Exile.
Previously, the influence of the prophets made itself felt. They were asking for a more dynamic faith, an awareness of the demands of justice inscribed in the Covenant and a struggle against alienating foreign influences. They were also speaking about preparing the future. But after the Babylonian captivity, Israel’s need to affirm its identity in order to face up to the trials of the nation, brought about a conservative trend that would become increasingly stronger in the course of time. Thus, many Jews went back to a religious conservatism made of rituals and traditions that Jesus would severely condemn (Mt 23).
These laws form part of the Scriptures and therefore they are the word of God. But they are words of God addressed to a people who had not yet received Christ. If we receive these words, it does not mean we should put them into practice just as they are since we have passed the first stage of human and religious formation of the Old Testament. In his letters, Paul attacks those who did not want to go beyond the customs and feasts of the Jews (Col 2:16), as well as those who primarily saw God’s word as laws to be observed (Gal 3:1-7). On the other hand, Jesus invites us not to lose anything of the spirit that inspired these laws (Mt 5:17-19).