Leviticus 21 – Specific Instructions for the Priests
A. Laws for priests in general.
1. (1-4) Priests are forbidden from touching dead bodies.
And the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘None shall defile himself for the dead among his people, except for his relatives who are nearest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also his virgin sister who is near to him, who has had no husband, for her he may defile himself. Otherwise he shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself.
a. Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron: The priests came from a particular family of the tribe of Levi – the family of Aaron, the brother of Moses. The priests had a special responsibility to represent God before the people and the people before God. Therefore, they had a special call to holiness and ritualistic purity.
i. The purpose of these laws was to illustrate the purity and separation from sin that was to characterize the priest. A dead body is a picture of sin’s result in this world, especially in the way the body quickly rots.
ii. “Any contact with a dead body was thought to make a person ritually unclean. See Numbers 19.” (Peter-Contesse)
b. None shall defile himself for the dead among his people: This was not only about touching a dead body but even being in the same room as a dead body or walking over a grave or touching a tomb. To come close to the dead was to defile the priest, making him ceremonially unclean.
i. Therefore, in contrast to most of the pagan religious systems of Israel’s neighbors, the priests did not prepare dead bodies for burial. Holiness gives life; God did not want His holy priests to be too closely associated with death. God did not want His priests and His worship to be dominated by death, but by life. God also did not want His priests anywhere near the death cults of the pagans.
ii. “By touching of the dead body, or abiding in the same house with it, or assisting at his funerals, or eating of the funeral feast.” (Poole)
c. Except for his relatives who are nearest to him: A priest could participate in the burial rites for an immediate family member, but for no one else. Verse 3 makes no mention of the wife, but many think it is implied. The priest Ezekiel mourned the death of his wife, even though he did so in silence (Ezekiel 24:16-17).
2. (5) Priests must not imitate the mourning practices of the pagans.
‘They shall not make any bald place on their heads, nor shall they shave the edges of their beards nor make any cuttings in their flesh.
a. They shall not make any bald place on their heads: The same law was given to Israel in general in Leviticus 19:27-28. There, the command was connected to pagan rites for burial and mourning. The idea is the same here.
i. “This has nothing to do with natural baldness (as in chapter 13) but involves the intentional shaving of a part of the head to make a bald spot. This was done by some to mourn the dead.” (Peter-Contesse)
ii. “This appears to have been a general custom among the heathen. In the book of Baruch, chapter 6:31, the priests of Babylon are represented sitting in their temples, with their clothes rent, and their heads and beards shaven, and having nothing upon their heads.” (Clarke)
b. Nor make any cuttings in their flesh: The prophets of Baal cut themselves to impress their false god (1 Kings 18:28). The priests who served Yahweh, the God of Israel, were prohibited from doing this in mourning rites or any other context.
3. (6-9) The marriage practices of priests.
They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and the bread of their God; therefore they shall be holy. They shall not take a wife who is a harlot or a defiled woman, nor shall they take a woman divorced from her husband; for the priest is holy to his God. Therefore you shall consecrate him, for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you, for I the LORD, who sanctify you, am holy. The daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, she profanes her father. She shall be burned with fire.
a. They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God: This summarizes the reason for the commands to the priests in this chapter. God wanted them to be holy and to display that holiness to the people. To be profane is the opposite of being holy.
i. Profane: “One may also say ‘to dishonor,’ or ‘bring disgrace on,’ or ‘bring shame to.’” (Peter-Contesse)
b. For they offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and the bread of their God: This holiness was important for the priests because they performed the sacrifices burnt on the altar (made by fire). They also daily brought the new bread into the tabernacle, the bread that pictured Israel’s fellowship with God (the bread of their God). Only the priests could do these things, and their special privileges meant they also had special responsibilities.
i. The role of the priest in offering the bread of their God was so important that the phrase is repeated again in verse 8. This emphasized the connection between holiness and fellowship with God (because the bread of their God was a picture of fellowship, as if God and His people shared bread together). The connection between holiness and fellowship is also clearly stated in the New Testament, in passages such as 1 John 1:5-6.
ii. Actually, the term bread of their God included the showbread, but also all the sacrificial food portions that belonged to the priests. “The shew-bread; or rather, all the other offerings besides burnt offerings; which are called bread…because bread is commonly put for all food, as below, Leviticus 21:17, 21.” (Poole)
c. They shall not take a wife who is a harlot or a defiled woman: Priests were only to take virgins for wives. This meant they could not marry a woman who was a harlot, a woman who was defiled in some way, or a woman who was divorced. It is unclear if marriage to a widow was allowed.
i. This was another way to illustrate the commitment and purity that was required of priests. A priest – under the Old or New Covenant – was to only set their affection on that which is pure.
ii. “The mention of a harlot is intended to remind the Israelites that cultic prostitution of the Canaanite variety had no place whatever in the life of the covenant community, since such behaviour would profane God’s holy name.” (Harrison)
iii. It is possible that the word defiled in verse 7 is just a further explanation of the word harlot – someone who is defiled through ritual prostitution connected with pagan idols. Or, the defiled one “may simply be one who has been seduced or violated and therefore lost her virginity.” (Peter-Contesse)
iv. Divorced: The fact that priests were specifically prohibited from marrying divorced women means that it was allowed for the Israelite who was not a priest.
d. The daughter of any priest: The holiness expected of a priest also extended to his household, his immediate family. Therefore, the daughter of a priest had a special responsibility to be pure. It would not be tolerated for her to be a harlot, and this probably especially has the sense of prostitution connected to pagan rituals and gods.
i. This was prohibited under the general laws of Israel, but special mention is made of it here to emphasize the holiness of the priest and his family. “A priest who would allow a prostitute to reside under his roof would not be qualified to render decisions on behalf of the covenant community.” (Rooker)
ii. The idea that a leader among God’s people must lead his household well is repeated in the New Testament (1 Timothy 3:4-5, Titus 1:6).
B. Requirements regarding the high priest and the selection of priests.
1. (10-15) The responsibility of the high priest.
‘He who is the high priest among his brethren, on whose head the anointing oil was poured and who is consecrated to wear the garments, shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes; nor shall he go near any dead body, nor defile himself for his father or his mother; nor shall he go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God; for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the LORD. And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow or a divorced woman or a defiled woman or a harlot—these he shall not marry; but he shall take a virgin of his own people as wife. Nor shall he profane his posterity among his people, for I the LORD sanctify him.’”
a. He who is the high priest among his brethren: The high priest had a special responsibility to honor and illustrate the holiness of God. He had a special anointing with oil and had special garments to wear (Exodus 28:1-30). The laws that applied to other priests applied to him, but are stated here for greater emphasis.
i. When we read of the high priest and his special anointing and garments, we consider Jesus. Jesus was a high priest, but not after the order of Aaron. Jesus was a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:1-11).
ii. “This is the first place [in the Bible] where this title is introduced; the title is very emphatic, haccohen haggadol, that priest, the great one.” (Clarke)
b. Shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes: The common priests were commanded to not defile themselves for the dead, not coming near a dead body (verse 1). An exception was made for certain close relatives (verses 2-4). However, the high priest was prohibited from mourning or coming into contact with any dead body, even his father or his mother.
i. Israel as a nation was called to holiness (Leviticus 19:2). Yet, the priests were called to greater holiness (21:1-9). In turn, the high priest was called to greater holiness than even the common priests.
ii. “The threefold degree of holiness among the Israelites – the people, the priests, and the high priest – corresponds to the graduation of holiness in the tabernacle – the outer court, the Holy Place, the Most Holy Place.” (Rooker)
iii. To uncover the head or to tear the clothes were dramatic signs of horror or mourning for the dead. The high priest who sat at the trial of Jesus tore his clothes (Matthew 26:65), in a dramatic display of horror that Jesus claimed to be God.
iv. “It is, of course, implied that if this is not done for the high priest’s own parents, it must certainly not be done for any of the other relatives mentioned in verses 2 and 3.” (Peter-Contesse)
c. And he shall take a wife in her virginity: The common priests were also commanded (verse 7) to not take a wife of a divorced woman or a harlot or a defiled woman. For the high priest, the standard was even higher. He could not marry a widow; his wife had to be a virgin of his own people.
d. Nor shall he profane his posterity: The high priest also had to raise his children before the LORD, and not profane them by any dedication or service to the pagan gods of the surrounding nations.
2. (16-24) Ministering priests must be free from physical defects.
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, saying: ‘No man of your descendants in succeeding generations, who has any defect, may approach to offer the bread of his God. For any man who has a defect shall not approach: a man blind or lame, who has a marred face or any limb too long, a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or is a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man who has a defect in his eye, or eczema or scab, or is a eunuch. No man of the descendants of Aaron the priest, who has a defect, shall come near to offer the offerings made by fire to the LORD. He has a defect; he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. He may eat the bread of his God, both the most holy and the holy; only he shall not go near the veil or approach the altar, because he has a defect, lest he profane My sanctuaries; for I the LORD sanctify them.’” And Moses told it to Aaron and his sons, and to all the children of Israel.
a. No man of your descendants in succeeding generations, who has any defect, may approach to offer the bread of his God: This shows God’s standard for those who would come before Him in service as priests. The command against the priestly service of those with physical defects was meant to point to the even more obvious need to be free from spiritual defects when coming to God.
i. Every animal brought for sacrifice to the LORD had to be without blemish (Leviticus 1:3, 3:1). Here we see that the priest who offered the sacrifice also had to be without blemish (defect). Yet, the “perfection” in both the sacrifice and the priest was not true perfection; it was only in comparison to others. The combination of the perfect offering (1 Peter 1:19) and the perfect offerer (Hebrews 7:26) was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
ii. “The twelve physical abnormalities listed may be representative, although this passage comprises the most comprehensive discussion on the subject of defects in the Bible.” (Rooker)
iii. A dwarf: “It may be understood here either as an abnormally short person (dwarf) or as a person who is abnormally thin and sickly.” (Peter-Contesse)
iv. Only he shall not go near the veil: “The expression come near the veil, then, means to go into the first part of the sanctuary to put bread on the table, to light the lamps, and to burn the incense to God.” (Peter-Contesse)
v. “In inter-testamental days Antigonus had the ears of the high priest Hyracanus II (ca. 40 B.C.) cut off so that (because of this law) he would forever be disqualified from being high priest again.” (Rooker)
b. He may eat the bread of his God: This indicates that those in priestly families could be supported by the priesthood. One with a physical defect could not serve as a priest, but they could eat the bread of his God, enjoying his relationship with Israel’s covenant God.
i. It says of the one with the defect, “his God.” This means that Yahweh was still the God of that one, and did not exclude them from relationship, only from specific priestly service. “Our involuntary weaknesses shall not debar us from benefit by Christ.” (Trapp)