Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Leviticus 21

Leviticus 21: Holiness for the Priests


This chapter outlines some rules for the priests, that they were to follow to remain holy. As it says in verse 6:

They must be holy to their God and must not profane the name of their God. Because they present the offerings made to the LORD by fire, the food of their God, they are to be holy.

I grouped some of the rules together, instead of presenting them in the same order as in the chapter.

  • A priest was not to make himself ceremonially unclean when one of his relatives died. (That is, he was to be very careful about avoiding the body, which would make him unclean.)
  • The priest was allowed to make exceptions, however, for close relatives:
    • his mother or father
    • his son or daughter
    • his brother
    • his sister, if she was unmarried, and dependent on him
  • The priest was not allowed to make exceptions for people he was only related to by marriage. If he did, he would be “defiling” himself (verse 4).
  • The High Priest—“the one among his brothers who has had the anointing oil poured on his head and who has been ordained to wear the priestly garments” (verse 10)—was not allowed to make any exceptions, even for close relatives like his mother or father. He was not to let his hair become “unkempt” (verse 10; the footnote says that this may also mean he was not allowed to “uncover his head”), or tear his clothes.
Keep in mind that being “holy” is different from being “sinless.” Being sinless is the foundation for being holy, but, for the priests, being holy meant other rules, in addition to rules about sin. They had to be sinless, and they had to do other things, as well, to set themselves apart for God. (For more on this see the Thoughts section, below.) So I see these rules as being some of the “extra” things priests had to do, to be holy.

  • Priests were not to shave their heads or the edges of their beards, and they were not to cut their bodies.
Part of the reason for this rule, I think is simply to set the priests apart from the other Israelites; they would look different from other men. I also wonder if there are other reasons, however; I notice that it talks about cutting their bodies; People sometimes cut their bodies as part of the worship of other gods. (See, for example, 1 Kings 18:16–46.)

  • Priests were not allowed to marry women who had been prostitutes, or who had been divorced.
  • The High Priest, in addition to this, was also not allowed to marry a widow. He had to marry a virgin.
I think these rules are given because of the way that marriage—and sexual relations—tie two people together, and make them one. Since the priests were to be set apart for God, even their marriage had to be set apart; it couldn’t be considered “set apart” if the wife was still “joined together” with another man, such as the case for a divorced woman, or if she had been improperly “joined” to many other men, as would be the case with a prostitute. Again, I don’t see this rule so much about sin, as about being set apart.

  • If a priest’s daughter “defiled herself” (verse 9) by becoming a prostitute, she was to be executed by burning.
I don’t remember, from previous chapters, what the normal punishment was—if any—for prostitutes. I think that this punishment is more harsh, but am not sure.

  • No Levite who had a “defect” was allowed to offer sacrifices for the LORD. He was not to approach the curtain, or the altar.
  • The following would qualify as a defect:
    • blindness
    • lameness
    • disfigurement or deformity
    • crippled feet or hands
    • hunchbacks or dwarves
    • eye defects
    • festering or running sores
    • damaged testicles
  • Such a person was allowed to eat the food, which was allotted to the priests and their families. He just wasn’t allowed to offer the sacrifices.
This is probably the best example of rules about being “set apart,” vs. rules about being “sinless.” Someone born blind isn’t sinful; he’s just blind. This rule demonstrates that priests weren’t just to avoid sin, they were also to be different.


Remember that the term “holy” really means “set apart.” The rules that the priests followed, from this chapter, were to set them apart, for service to God. This is important because that’s the intent of the rules in this chapter; it’s not so much about sin, as it is about the priests being different from the rest of the Israelites, because they’re “set apart.”

For example, the rules above say that a priest was only allowed to be made ceremonially unclean for a very close relative; the High Priest wasn’t allowed to be made ceremonially unclean for anyone who died. These rules are more stringent than the rules for the rest of the Israelites, because the priests were to be different from the rest of the people. Was it sinful for an Israelite to be made ceremonially unclean, because his sister died, and he had to be near the body? No—it was a fact of life. But the priests had to be sinless and set apart for God. It’s two separate things they had to do.
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