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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 11: The Books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy"


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Leviticus interrupts the narrative of the Exodus. It is almost entirely laws. The Old Testament contains 613 commandments, of which 247 are in Leviticus. If that seems a great number we could think of the output of the U. S. Congress.

The chief things that are not laws are the description of the ordination of Aaron and his sons, and the deaths of sons of Aaron.

Chapter 8 describes the ordination ceremony for Aaron and for his sons. On the octave, the 8th day after the ordination, a special sacrifice was offered.

But in chapter 10 the sons of Aaron offered profane fire, fire that was not holy, to the Lord. Then fire came forth from the presence of the Lord, and slew them. This was to teach the absolute holiness of the Lord: everything must be perfect. Then, remarkably, in chapter 16, God tells Moses that even though Aaron is the High Priest, he must not go freely whenever he wishes into the sanctuary beyond the veil. He must do it only once a year, with the proper ritual, on the day of Atonement.

Again, a powerful lesson in reverence - a contrast with the careless attitude of some towards the Holy Eucharist, immeasurably greater than the mere veil.

The whole book of Leviticus is really concerned with making everything perfect for the Lord. This applies even to the rules of Levitical cleanness, which seem so strange to us, in chapters 11- 15. The rules about unclean animals which were not to be eaten may reflect some ideas of care for health. One item prohibited was pork, and we know that if proper care is not taken, there is danger of trichinosis.

The most remarkable commands in the book are in chapter 4, which, deals with the concept of sheggagah, involuntary sin. Today people are apt to say: If a person acts in good faith, that is all right, do not bother. But Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, takes a different attitude.

Chapter 4 deals with several types of cases in which someone - the priest, the whole community, the prince, a private person - violated a command of God without realizing at the time that he was doing it. When he finds out, reparation must he made by offering a sacrifice of the prescribed type. The NJBC at this point (p. 64) comments well that any sin - whether voluntary or not - is a violation of the covenant relationship. Hence the wrong had to be righted. It was the Holiness of God who loves all that is right in itself that willed this. A text of Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar (from c. 170 A.D., but citing Rabbi Meir, early in the same century, in Tosefta Kiddushin 1:14) says: "He [anyone] has committed a transgression. Woe to him! He has tipped the scale to the side of debt for himself and for the world." The Holiness of God wants this scales rebalanced. A sinner can begin to rebalance by giving back stolen goods, or by giving up a pleasure he could have had, to replace a stolen pleasure. But only a divine Person incarnate could fully rebalance the scale for even one mortal sin. The Father was not obliged to provide this, but He willed to do so. (The concept that sin is a debt is common in the Old Testament, intertestamental literature, in the New Testament - the Our Father - and in Rabbinic and Patristic literature. Pope Paul VI, in his Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina, of Jan 9, 1967, explicitly taught this need of rebalance. Cf. our comments on debt in chapter 5).

For a sin committed be yad ramah, with a high hand, the Old Testament provided no atoning sacrifice: cf. Numbers 15:30. We think too of the Epistle to the Hebrews 10:4: "It is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take sins away."

It is interesting to review a few instances of the concern for sheggagah.

Genesis 12:17 reports that God struck Pharaoh and his household with severe blows because, in good faith, he had Abram's wife Sarai. Tobit's wife had been given a gift of a goat by her employer, but Tobit (2:13) insisted she give it back, since he merely suspected it was stolen. Psalm 19:12-13 says: "Even though your servant is very careful in keeping them [the commandments], yet: Who can detect his unknown transgressions [shegioth]? Purify me from my unknown faults."

In the intertestamental literature, the Testament of Levi (3:5) speaks of the archangels, "who minister and make propitiation... for the ignorant sins of the righteous." The Psalms of Solomon (3:8-9) says the just man constantly searches his house "to completely remove all iniquity he has done in error. He makes atonement for ignorance by fasting and by afflicting his soul."

Our Lord Himself in Luke 12:47-48 says: "The slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready to fulfill it will get a severe beating. But the one who did not know it but did things [objectively] deserving blows will get off with fewer blows." In the picture of the last judgment in Matthew 15:44, those on the left plead ignorance - their plea is rejected. In 1 Cor 15:9 St. Paul calls himself the least of the apostles for persecuting the Church - which he did in ignorance, thinking he was zealous for God. In 1 Cor 4:4 Paul says: "I have nothing on my conscience, but that does not mean that I am innocent." He means he may have committed sins without realizing it.

Patristic literature has many instances. Pope St. Clement I, in his Epistle to Corinth 2:3 "You stretched out your hands to the almighty God, begging Him to be propitious, in case you had sinned at all unwillingly." Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 6:6) says if one repents, God will forgive sins of ignorance. The Eastern Rite Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has a prayer before the Epistle: "Forgive us every offense, both voluntary and involuntary."


Numbers takes up again the narrative of Exodus, with some additional laws interspersed, usually in some relation to the matter of the narrative. At the end of the book, the Israelites are opposite Jericho.

Miriam and Aaron oppose the authority of Moses in chapter 12. They said it was not only through Moses that God spoke: He also spoke through them too (What a modern picture!). God rebuked them at the meeting tent. When He left, Miriam was a leper. Moses prayed for forgiveness; God ordered her to be confined outside the camp for seven days, and then she was cured.

In the next chapter, 13, spies are sent out to look over the land. After 40 days they returned, and said the land indeed flowed with milk and honey, but the people were giants, and the cities strongly fortified. The people believed the report, and wanted to return to Egypt. Moses and Aaron fell prostrate in prayer. Joshua and Caleb, who had been among the scouts, told the truth about the land. God gave the others a punishment: Only Joshua and Caleb would be allowed to enter the land. The rest must turn back to the desert, and remain 40 years until all would have died off, except Joshua and Caleb.

Another revolt, in chapter 16, was led by Korah, joined by Dathan and Abiron. Moses challenged them to a test: they were to take their censers to offer incense; Aaron would do the same. Then he called on God to make known His will. The earth opened and swallowed up Korah and the men who belonged to him. Then fire came forth and killed 250 who were part of the revolt.

With incredible hardness, the next morning the people murmured that Moses had killed the people of the Lord!. So God sent a plague that consumed 14,700 people. Aaron offered incense, and the plague stopped.

When they came to Kadesh (chapter 20), Miriam died. the people murmured again, for lack of water. Moses and Aaron at God's order assembled them before a rock. Moses struck the rock twice, and water came out. God told them because they were not faithful - perhaps a lack of faith in striking the rock twice, when once was enough - neither Moses nor Aaron would enter the promised land.

Moses sent a request to the King of Edom to allow them to pass through - Edom was descended from Esau, brother of Jacob. Edom refused, so the Israelites detoured. When they came to Mount Hor, Moses took away the priestly robes of Aaron and put them on his son Eleazar. Then Aaron died. Soon the people murmured again. God sent saraph serpents which bit them, so that they died. Moses prayed for help. God told him to make a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole. Anyone bitten who would look at the serpent would live.

This of course was a prefiguration of the cross, which brings salvation to all. Some have worried that the first commandment forbade making images - and here Moses made one, by order of God. But we must notice that the command was not against all images, but only forbade making images to worship. After some victories by the Israelites, Balak, King of Moab, sent for a pagan seer, Balaam, and offered him pay to curse the Israelites. God warned Balaam not to do so, and he refused the king's offer. The princes of Moab came a second time. God told Balaam he might go with them, but had to do what God ordered. Balaam's ass balked at going, and Balaam beat the ass. Then God opened the mouth of the ass, and the ass protested at the beating. Balaam said he would have killed the ass if he had had a sword. Then an angel appeared to Balaam, told him to go ahead, but speak only what God willed. So, Balaam blessed the Israelites. The King of Moab protested. Balaam then blessed Israel again. Balak again protested. But Balaam gave an oracle saying: "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter out of Israel. It will crush the brow of Moab and the skulls of the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be conquered, and Seir conquered... but Israel shall grow strong."

Even Targum Onkelos, which is sparing in seeing Messianic prophecies, along with the other Targums, sees that the star was a prediction of the Messiah.

Soon many Israelites worshipped Baal of Peor in Moab, and had illicit relations with the women there as part of the worship. God ordered them executed for this. Twenty-four thousand died.


Deuteronomy is in a way an in-between book, it is the conclusion to the Pentateuch, but it also looks forward to Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings. It does this by its insistence on rewards and punishment for keeping or violating the Law, and for its almost fervent pleas to keep the Law.

Deuteronomy uses the literary form of a series of speeches by Moses, when the Israelites are on the point of entering the promised land. It ends with the death of Moses. Some have foolishly said that therefore Moses could not have written it. But it is evident that if he did write Deuteronomy - we are not sure - another hand could have added that last bit, much like the case of the last chapter of the Gospel of John.

The name Deuteronomy comes from the Greek title, which means "second law". It is essentially a resume of the previous story of the Exodus and the desert years.

Second Kings 22-23 reports that in about 622 B.C. during the reign of Josiah King of Judah, a law book was discovered in the temple. When Josiah heard it, he said the Lord must be angry, for they were not fulfilling it. So he had it read in the temple before all, and renewed the covenant, and carried out a religious reform. Many think the book found was Deuteronomy, perhaps only the second address of Moses, which is 4:44 to 26:19. The same account is given also in 2 Chronicles 34-35. That version seems to say the reform began even before the finding of the book. But when we consider the genre of these works, such a difference is not significant. The great purpose of the books is to teach that fidelity to God brings reward, infidelity brings punishment. Many examples are given to bring out and underscore this theme.

Some think that when the northern kingdom fell with the fall of Samaria in 721, Levites fled south carrying deuteronomic traditions. Such a circle would have been present during the time of the good king Hezekiah (715- 687). Hezekiah made a reform anticipating that of Josiah. But then the evil king Manasseh went back to pagan practices and even persecuted those loyal to God: cf. 2 Kings 21. So the loyal went underground, and put their traditions into a book, the one found under Josiah. We should notice that when the Israelites were under Assyria, they would be required by Assyria to put the worship of Assyrian gods into Jerusalem.

In chapter 4, Moses strongly urges the people to keep the Law, for then the other nations will say: This is really a wise and intelligent people for having such a law. Psalm 119 is nothing but an extended praise of the law. Later Judaism highly praised wisdom, and even personified it, e.g., in Wisdom 9:9-18: "With thee is wisdom, who knows thy works, and who was present when thou didst make the world... Send her forth from the holy heavens... For she knows and understands all things... For the reasoning of mortals is worthless... for a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind."

The idea that the law contains wisdom is wonderfully true. For God does not give His commands just to exercise authority: our obedience does Him no good. Yet He wants us to obey for two reasons: 1)His Holiness loves all that is right and good, and it is right and good that creatures obey their Creator; 2)He, being Generosity, loves to give us abundant good things. But His giving is all in vain if we are not open to receive. His commandments explain what is needed to be open to receive. They also steer us away from the evils we would encounter in the very nature of things if we did not obey. For example, after a drunk comes a headache; after much premarital sex, there is great danger of a loveless marriage. For to love is not a feeling - even though feelings tend to go along with it - rather it is to will good to another for the other's sake. To use another's body for sensory pleasure, thereby putting him/her into a state such that if death came, they would be miserable forever - this is not willing good, it is closer to the opposite. Hence St. Augustine wrote well, in Confessions 1. 2: "Every disordered soul is its own punishment."

The Shema is found in Dt. 6:4-5: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength." Every Israelite would recite this daily. As we learned from the Hittite treaties, to love God meant to obey Him.

The most dominant feature of Deuteronomic theology appears strongly in 4:24-27. Moses tells them that if after they have entered the land they make and worship an idol: "I call to witness against you heaven and earth, that you will quickly perish utterly from the land... The Lord will scatter you among the peoples and you will be left few in number." Dt. 29:21-27 repeats the threat in even more dramatic form: The Lord will make the land sulphur and salt. "And the nations will ask: Why did the Lord do this to this land?... And the answer will be: Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt." Later, in 1 Kings 9, when Solomon had completed the great temple, God appeared to him and said He would put his eyes and heart there for all time. But He added that if Solomon or his children would turn and not keep the commandments, then: "I will cut off Israel from the land I gave them and will cast out of my sight the temple which I have consecrated to my name. Israel will become a proverb among all peoples... They will say: Why did the Lord do in this way to this land and to this house? Then they will say: Because they forsook the Lord their God who brought their fathers up out of the land of Egypt."

The same sad and frightening threat appears again in almost the same words in Jeremiah 22:4-9. Finally Our Lord Himself wept over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41- 44): "And approaching it, and seeing the city, He wept over it saying: "If you yourself had known in this day the things that are for your well-being. But now, they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you and your enemies will surround you with a palisade and will straiten you on every side and will cast you down to the ground, you and your children in you, and will not leave a stone upon a stone, because you did not know the time of your visitation."

Some foolish commentators, convinced there can be nothing supernatural, no such a thing as a real prophecy, say this prophecy of our Lord is so clear, it must have been made up after the event. They forget that in any ancient siege this is the normal thing: an army surrounds the city until it no longer can hold out. Compare also the sad implications of the images of the two olive trees in the Epistle to the Romans, 11: 17-18.

In Dt. 5:2-3 Moses told them that God made the covenant not just with their fathers, but was making it with them that day. Since the covenant is a two- sided pact, this is clear: God wanted them to ratify the same covenant He had once made with their ancestors (cf. Ex. 19:5).

In Dt. 5:9-10 we meet the mysterious promise of God to punish the iniquity of the fathers down to the third or fourth generation, but to bless the good for a thousand generations. How does this fit with the later words of God to Jeremiah, in 31:29-30, saying that they must reject the proverb: the Fathers ate sour grapes, and the teeth of the children are set on edge. Rather, each one will suffer only for his own iniquity?

There is no problem with the favorable side, blessings for a thousand generations. But as to the punishment for three or four generations, even though God does not positively inflict it upon children for the sins of their parents, according to His words to Jeremiah, yet the effect is apt to happen in other ways. First, children brought up by wicked parents are apt to learn the bad ways of the parents. Also because a predisposition to sin, even to crime, can be transmitted by biochemical inheritance. We see this from a remarkable report in Science News (August 20-1983, pp. 122- 25) telling how a chemist from Argonne Laboratories went to Stateville Prison, in Illinois, took hair samples from violent criminals, found a remarkable correlation between highs and lows of some trace elements and violent behavior. (Cf. a similar report in Science News of Nov. 10, 1990, p. 293, on data from Archives of General Psychiatry of November, 1990).

Some are shocked at the severity of the ban (Hebrew herem), a theme found in many places, e.g. in Dt. 7:1-5, where God ordered them to destroy the nations in the land of Canaan, without mercy. Two things are to be noticed. First, God wants them to be free of the temptation - which later experience showed was fatal - of joining in the idolatrous worship of those nations. Second, God is the supreme Lord of life. If He wills to end the lives of any persons, that is His right. And we recall that in Genesis 15:16 God promised to give them the land, but not until after the fourth time-span (Hebrew dor, which can mean either generation or period of time). He said He would wait, because the sins of the Amorites had not yet reached their fullness. For even one mortal sin, a person merits death. If his sins reach their fullness, go the limit, this is all the more fully true. As to the deaths of children: life is a moment to moment gift from God. If He just stops giving, or uses a human instrument to end it, there is nothing wrong.

Finally, there is the dramatic account in chapter 34 of the death of Moses at the age of 120. He went up Mt. Nebo and saw the promised land, but God had told him because of an infidelity (Numbers 20:11-12) he would not be permitted to enter it. So by command of God Moses died there.

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