Essay: Background to Leviticus

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Before looking at this section of Leviticus 10 in particular a brief overview of this third book of the Pentateuch will be useful to provide a textual grounding for the reading of the particular story that we are focusing on.

The title of the book was given to it be some of the original Greek translators of the Bible and refers to the fact that it is concerned primarily with the ritual laws (including rites of sacrifice) that were prescribed for the priests of the Hebrew tribe of Levi. Jews traditionally have a different name for the book; it is designated(as is true of all of the books of the Pentateuch) by the first meaningful word (or letter) of the text in Hebrew – in this case, “Vayikra” or “And He Called”.

The Levites are, according to traditional and Biblical texts, the members of family (or tribe) of Levi, who was the son of Jacob. The Levites fulfilled all of the priestly functions in Judah and until the collapse of that ancient kingdom (in 586 BCE) the term “Levite” was a synonym for the term priest. The Levites were, after the fall of Judah, lose their hereditary claim to priesthood, a claim that would in turn be taken up by the the terms priest and Levite were interchangeable. The Levites later assumed a secondary ceremonial role as the priesthood became the prerogative of the descendants of Aaron, who was of course himself a descendant of Levi.

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