Leviticus as Literature


One of the keys to getting a grip on the Bible is visualising movement, particularly the “There and Back Again” of chiasms. Ralph Smith posted a link to this fascinating article on the structure of Leviticus:

Mary Douglas argues in Leviticus as Literature that “Bible students have to choose between accepting the muddle made by imposing a Western linear reading upon an archaic text, or trying to read the book through its own literary conventions.” She gives many examples of how to read a text “through its own literary conventions,” as well as a broad overview in the form of an analogical reading. In this paper, I substantiate Douglas’ approach by systematically defining the twenty-two literary units that compose Leviticus, as well as the larger structure that connects them. Each of the twenty-two units has a similar non-linear structure that can be viewed as a table.

The inclusive structure of Leviticus is composed of three concentric arrays of units, with Lev 19 at the focus. Each array has a common organizing element. The outermost array is place-oriented; the middle array is time-oriented; the inner array is person-oriented. The focus, chapter 19, is holiness. The image created by this arrangement is a holy core that emanates outwards through successive arrays of person, time and place. This structure can be interpreted as an analogical representation of the Tabernacle with chapter 19 parallel to the Ark of the Covenant, the inner array the Holy of Holies, the middle array the Holy Place, and the outer array the courtyard.

The experience of reading Leviticus, according to this analogy, places the reader in a position analogous to the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Like the High Priest, the reader follows the inner path to holiness at the center of the book, passing through the courtyard and the Holy Place to the Holy of Holies. This path is reversed in the second half as the reader-High Priest returns to society when exiting the Tabernacle.

No one was allowed to see what the High Priest saw, but what went on in the Most Holy was no secret. If this premise above is true, one could say that the Word of God carried the people of God with Him — into the grave and out again — as He atoned for sin.

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6 Responses to “Leviticus as Literature”

  • jared Says:

    Just curious, do you have a favorite English translation of the Bible? And what order do you think the books of the Bible should be placed in if their current arrangement makes it more difficult to read as covenant narrative?

  • Mike Bull Says:

    ESV or NKJV is my preference. ESV is easier to read, but NKJV tends to keep the clunky and ambiguous words as they are, which is very helpful when looking at literary structure. (Of course Hebrew and Greek would be far superior, but I’ve only dabbled in those. Wish I had the time!)

    Canon order is not my field at all, although I reckon the last line of Malachi is the perfect end for the Old Testament. I don’t think a perfect chronological order for the pre- and post-exilic stuff is really possible.

    James Jordan has a few articles on canon order on the BH site, like this one:

  • Victor Says:

    The proposed structure for Leviticus is extremely fascinating. It rings a lot of bells and seems to make sense.

    Of course saying that it is accurate would require re-studying the entire book to verify whether the suggested division into sections (and the chiastic correspondences) holds water.

  • jared Says:

    Jay Green, Sr. has a very good interlinear that might be helpful for studying structure. You can take a look at it here.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Always good to get a recommendation. And any help in furthering accuracy is appreciated.