Law, Ritual, and Holiness Exodus 20.22–23.33 and 25–40 and Leviticus

Throughout the remainder of the book of Exodus and the entirety of the book of Leviticus, a host of other divine laws are presented to Moses. In fact, there is so much legal material in these passages that the original framework of any narrative is barely visible. The scholarly conclusion is that the final editor of P reworked an existing narrative by inserting legal and ritual traditions of different origins and dates. Ostensibly the goal was to make these diverse traditions more authoritative by associating them with Moses and the events at Sinai. These traditions include the aforementioned Ritual Decalogue as well as other sets of laws found within the books of Exodus and Leviticus. The goal of Chapter 8 is to discuss these texts and to place them within the context of ancient laws and rituals known from the Near East.

As we have already seen, many of the themes and genres found in the biblical narratives have Near Eastern antecedents. Many of the law codes that appear in the following chapters and books of the Bible also have such parallels. In addition to several fairly complete legal codes from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, there are thousands of legal documents, including all kinds of contracts (for example, marriage contracts, oaths, and bills of sale) and records of lawsuits originating from all over the ancient world.

The Code of Hammurapi and Israelite Law Codes

Although there are many extant law codes from the ancient Near East, the Code of Hammurapi will serve as the primary parallel to the biblical material in this chapter since it is among both the oldest and the most complete legal codes. The Code of Hammurapi contains nearly three hundred laws describing specific cases and circumstances and covering a wide range of topics. The presentation of laws in the form of specific examples and cases (called casuistic law) was very common in ancient Near Eastern law codes and in the Bible as well.

            Beyond the Ten Commandments, the Pentateuch preserves several other passages discussing legal matters. Specifically in this chapter we are concerned with the Covenant Code in Exodus 20.22–23.33 and with other blocks of legal material that appear in the latter half of Exodus. Looking at the Covenant Code in particular, it shares many affinities with its Near Eastern antecedents, including that it deals with a range of criminal and civil matters. The major difference is that the Covenant Code also discusses regulations concerning worship. The directives contained in the Covenant Code are not comprehensive; rather, they cover a few specific topics offering precedents for treatment of slaves, personal injury, and damage to property of all kinds.

            Above all, the Covenant Code reflects the society that produced it. At the center is the deity who presented these laws and whose worship is the focus of much of the legislation. The concern for livestock reflects an agrarian society, and the treatment of women as property demonstrates that this was a patriarchal culture. Last, it shows special concern for those of lesser classes, such as slaves and resident aliens. The Israelites are reminded that they were once a captive nation in Egypt and that they should treat the less fortunate in the same positive manner that God had treated them.

The Ark, Tabernacle, and Priestly Matters

A large percentage of Exodus preserves descriptions of the objects and ritual practices that are associated with Yahweh’s worship. The Priestly source relates this material in elaborate detail both in Exodus 25–31, when Yahweh originally presents these rules, and in 35–40, when the commands are actually carried out. These accounts apparently describe the ritual objects and practices of the Temple in Jerusalem many centuries later; however, there may be some earlier traditions that are preserved. Specifically, the descriptions of the tabernacle may recount traditions going back as far as the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE.

            The biblical text provides a detailed description of the ark itself, including two golden cherubim on the top that functioned as the throne of the deity. The primary function of the ark was to act as a depository for the text of the covenant; however, it also functioned as a “war emblem” that led Israel into battle.

            The tabernacle was the portable dwelling for the ark, and its design was supposed to mimic the actual divine home in the heavens. Thus, like the Canaanite high god El, Yahweh presumably lived in a tent. The historical accuracy of the tabernacle’s design is difficult to authenticate, as much of the overall plan and ornamentation must have been derived from the Temple at Jerusalem. What is most important is that the ark and the tabernacle stood as the main sacred objects for worship. It was here that God was thought to dwell and where he would “meet with the Israelites.”

The Golden Calf

The golden calf episode (Exodus 32–34) interrupts the flow of the description of the ark and the other ritual objects and their actual construction in Exodus 35–40. This passage again shows how several sources and traditions were tied together and preserved in the overall narrative. A hypothetical sketch of the narrative’s history and development demonstrates the complexity of this passage and the intricacies of the editorial process.

            Although this episode seems to be an account of the Israelites worshipping an idol instead of Yahweh, a complicated series of polemics underlies this story. Ancient Near Eastern art often depicts deities in human form standing on an animal as an alternative to being seated on a throne.  Thus, the golden calf may be understood to function like the cherubim and ark, on which Yahweh was invisibly enthroned. Although the cherubim functioned as the symbol of Yahweh’s presence in the Aaronide-controlled national shrine in Jerusalem, the iconography of northern temples, including the national shrines in Dan and Bethel, featured the calf, rather than the cherubim, as the symbol of Yahweh’s presence.  The account of the golden calf thus functions as a polemic against those in the northern kingdom of Israel, denouncing them as depraved polytheists. In the final version, however, the priestly redactors rehabilitated Aaron’s character and minimized his role. He is portrayed as a victim who was unwittingly drawn into these events. In the end it was the people’s fault, and they are punished while Aaron is not.

The Ritual Decalogue

Moses became so angry at the Israelites over the golden calf that he broke the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. As a result, he had to journey back up the mountain to get another set. However, this set of commandments is different from that already presented in chapter 20 of Exodus. While there is some overlap between the commandments in Exodus 20 and those in Exodus 34, the latter consists entirely of rules for worship. Thus, this seems to be a variant tradition of the Decalogue preserved by the editors, and it is called the Ritual Decalogue. Overall the Ritual Decalogue focuses on two major themes. First, it is concerned with the preservation of the worship of Yahweh. Specifically, the Ritual Decalogue is trying to prevent corruption by Canaanite worship practices, and therefore it forbids intermarriage. Second, it establishes the observance of three major holidays: the “festival of unleavened bread,” the festival of weeks, and the festival of booths. Like many of the other laws incorporated into Exodus, these holidays probably had Canaanite origins but were modified over time to reflect a more Israelite character.


The book of Leviticus continues the narrative at Sinai. It was shaped mainly by the P source, and therefore Leviticus, like the latter half of Exodus, is mainly concerned with ritual and legal materials. Very little narrative is preserved in Leviticus, and much of the text is dedicated to description and legislation concerning various rituals and the concept of holiness. The course of the book unfolds as follows: a description of sacrifice, consecration of the sacred objects and priests, directions on impurity and purity, institution of the Day of Atonement, the Holiness Code, and instructions on vows and offerings.


Chapters 1–7 of Leviticus focus on the ritual of sacrifice, or the offering of something of value to the deity. Sacrifice was of primary importance to the ritual practices of the ancient Israelites as to all ancient Mediterranean peoples. Sacrifice could take on many forms and had two primary functions. Sacrifice was a gift to God that could function to appease, petition, or give thanks; it also was a form of “communion” between the deity and humans in which they shared a meal consisting of the sacrificial offerings. In another, perhaps more practical way, sacrifice functioned as a collection and distribution of all types of produce. In essence it was a form of taxation that was collected at the temples. Thus, it is no coincidence that the three major pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel were keyed to the three major harvest times. At each festival the produce would be collected and stored in the temple treasuries for later distribution.

            The book of Leviticus describes four types of sacrifice, each with its own purpose and significance. These include the burnt offering, the grain offering, the sacrifice of well-being, and the sin or guilt offering. Some of these overlap, and the precise function and meaning of these sacrifices is not always clear. Furthermore, the list is also not comprehensive, as other parts of the Bible and Exodus itself preserve references to additional forms of sacrifice.

Purity and Impurity

Chapters 11–15 of Leviticus focus on issues of purity and impurity, which are of primary concern in Israelite legislation. The standard terms for these categories are “clean” and “unclean,” which are often confusing and unclear. Essentially “clean” means pure or fit for human and sometimes ritual use. “Unclean” or “impure” means that an object or individual is unsuitable for either purpose. The most well-known examples of the clean/unclean dichotomy relate to foodstuffs that can or cannot be consumed based on the directives of the Pentateuch.

            In an effort to explain how these categories developed, several theories have been put forward. One possibility is that the restrictions are based on health concerns. People recognized that some foods often made people ill and therefore were banned. In addition, some ailments may have been understood as contagious, and therefore certain individuals should be quarantined for the benefit of the overall population. A second possibility is cultural differentiation. The Israelites were competing with the Philistines for the land of Canaan, and such laws helped to preserve Israelite traditions while denouncing those of others. A third possibility is the preservation of order. The Israelites tended to avoid the mixing of categories, including the wearing of clothes made of two different materials. This may have been linked to a sort of ideal order of things that the Israelites did not want to violate. Finally, most cultures have taboos that relate to sex and death. Contact with a corpse, the consumption of certain animals connected to death, and the loss of bodily fluids that were considered essential to life all were taboos for both Israel and many other cultures. Although these theories may help to explain some of the purity laws, none of these theories can explain them all, nor do they shed light on the origins of many of these taboos.

The Day of Atonement

Leviticus 16 is devoted to the Day of Atonement, which is the most solemn holiday in the Jewish calendar. This day features purifying rituals for the sanctuary, the priests, and the people. Leviticus specifies the rituals and sacrifices required for the purification of the community, including the transfer of sins onto the scapegoat, which is then released into the wilderness, taking the people’s sins with it.

The Holiness Code

Leviticus 17–26 is a block of text known as the Holiness Code. Originally scholars thought that this passage owed its origins to the P source or, more specifically, to a variant form of P. Whatever the case may be, the Holiness Code certainly comes from a distinct source that modern scholars refer to as the H source. Textually there is no specific arrangement to the Holiness Code, and it is made up of both apodictic and casuistic laws covering a variety of topics, many of which are discussed elsewhere in Leviticus. What is different is that the Holiness Code ends with a series of blessings and curses, giving it a resemblance to Near Eastern treaties, which often end in the same fashion.

            The primary theme in the Holiness Code is the concept of holiness itself. The Hebrew word that is translated as “holiness,” qodesh, literally means “separation.” Things that are considered holy are separate or distinct from those things that are impure or ordinary. Therefore, Israel is holy because it was set apart from other nations by Yahweh. In addition, the holiness of people, time, and the land was also ranked according to their proximity to the deity.

Prohibited Sexual Relationships

Chapters 18 and 20 are dedicated to prohibited sexual relationships among the Israelites. Chapter 18 introduces this material by stating that these rules are a means of differentiating Israel from its neighbors (Egyptians and Canaanites), who, we are told, accepted these practices. However, there is no evidence to support this assertion, suggesting that what lies behind such a statement is cultural prejudice. The prohibitions listed are mostly concerned with male relationships, and the list is not comprehensive, as there are important omissions. Furthermore, many of the relationships prohibited by Leviticus exist elsewhere in the Bible, indicating that these rules were not always in force in ancient Israel.

Implications for Our Study

Although many readers of the Bible feel that the narrative gets bogged down or disappears altogether because of the immense weight placed on the legal material in the second half of Exodus and the book of Leviticus, this portion of the text plays a very important role in the Pentateuch and the Bible as a whole. Since the Priestly writers were both the final editors of the Pentateuch and highly concerned with the preservation and proper observance of ritual, this part of the narrative most clearly demonstrates their work and influence. Ultimately, it was of critical importance to the Priestly writers that these law codes have an authoritative appearance. By placing them within the context of the Sinai revelations, the Priestly writers were able not only to provide diverse traditions with authority but also to give them the weight of divine origin. Furthermore, within the book of Leviticus there is a powerful ethical core that is concerned with the less fortunate. Provisions are made for the well-being of the poor, slaves, and resident aliens among the Israelites. In sum, Leviticus stresses the love of neighbor (19.18), encouraging all Israelites to support one another.