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 priests, because of their special responsibility to represent God before the people and the people before God, had a special call to holiness and ritualistic purity.
i. The purpose behind 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 it rapidly decays.
b. None shall defile himself for the dead among his people: The prohibition regarding dead bodies wasn’t just 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.
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 none other.
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.
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 not take a wife who is a harlot or a defiled woman: Priests were only to take virgins for wives, again as an illustration of the commitment and purity that was required of priests. A priest – under the Old or New Covenant – was only to set their affections on that which is pure.
b. The daughter of any priest: The daughter of a priest had a special responsibility to be pure as well; though this would be covered under the general laws of Israel, special mention is made of it here to emphasize the point.
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. Shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes: These were extreme signs of mourning for the dead. The high priest was not allowed to mourn in this extreme way for any dead person – even his father or mother.
i. The high priest who tried Jesus sinned against this command at the trial of Jesus (Matthew 26:65), in a dramatic display of horror that Jesus claimed to be God.
b. And he shall take a wife in her virginity: The high priest also had to take special care in selecting his wife; not just any woman would do. A woman would have to have a unique purity and a unique calling to be the wife of a high priest.
i. “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)
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 obviously shows God’s standard for those who would come before Him in service as priests. The prohibition against those with physical defects was meant to point to the even more obvious need to be free from spiritual defect when coming to God.
b. He may eat the bread of his God: This indicates that those in priestly families could be supported by the priesthood. The barring of physically defective persons as priests was no bar to fellowship with God, only a bar against the public service of God in the tabernacle itself.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission