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Deeper Commentary


Lev 21:1 Yahweh said to Moses, Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘A priest shall not defile himself for the dead among his people-
Mourning the deceased was not of itself defiling. What is in view is the custom of touching the corpse, which would make them unclean. Touching a corpse made a person unclean seven days (Num. 19:11), and if the priests were on duty then this would have caused a disruption in their service. And they were being asked to put God's service before the desire to touch the corpse of their loved ones. They were not being forbidden to mourn their loss, but rather were being asked not to become defiled by touching the corpse.

Lev 21:2 except for his relatives that are near to him: for his mother, for his father, for his son, for his daughter, for his brother-
We wonder whether Paul's command not to weep for the dead who die in the Lord (1 Thess. 4:13) may have this in mind. The idea may be that this allusion is one of many which encourages the Christian believers to see themselves as the new priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5). 

Lev 21:3 and for his virgin sister who is near to him, who has had no husband; for her he may defile himself-
The list in :2,3 includes only direct blood relatives; his wife is omitted. See on :4. But it could be assumed that his wife was included amongst the "relatives near to him" of :2. Ezekiel was a priest, and when his wife died and he didn't mourn her, the people were surprised as to why he didn't (Ez. 24:16,19). 

Lev 21:4 He shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself-
The Hebrew uses the word 'baal' in the sense of master or husband. So some interpret this as meaning 'He shall not defile himself as an husband (i.e. for his wife) among his people'. But we wonder why, when he was allowed to do so for his other close relatives (:2,3). But LXX has "He shall not defile himself suddenly among his people to profane himself"- as if without self control, sudden expressions of grief could lead a person into uncleanness.

Lev 21:5 They shall not shave their heads, neither shall they shave off the corners of their beards-
This was the style of mourning in the surrounding world. And it had some hints of idolatry. We could take this as meaning 'Don't follow the fashions of the world when they are allusive to idolatry and sinful ways'. And that has abiding relevance. The spiritual way of life seeks to cut off all opportunities for the flesh; all subliminal encouragements to sin are to be rooted out of our lives, rather than seeing how close we can sail to the wind.

Nor make any cuttings in their flesh-
This refers to such marks as showed loyalty to an idol or to the dead who were thought to be still alive. Whereas the Bible teaches that death is unconsciousness. Whilst there is nothing morally wrong with cutting the skin, the idea was that Israel weren’t to even appear associated with pagan rituals for the dead. We likewise should naturally not want to even appear like worshippers of any other god (of whatever kind) when Yahweh is our only God.

Lev 21:6 They shall be holy to their God, and not profane the name of their God-
Whatever carries God's Name is Him; and we bear that Name by baptism into it. We are to be aware of this and not profane it by inappropriate contact with that which is unclean.

For they offer the offerings of Yahweh made by fire, the food of their God; therefore they shall be holy-
God invited Israel to eat with Him at the altar, which became His table with their sacrifices as God's food, eaten by Him. The equivalent for us is eating with God at the Lord’s table, the breaking of bread (1 Cor. 10:21). Eating together was understood in Semitic culture as a sign of religious acceptance and fellowship.

Lev 21:7 They shall not marry a woman who is a prostitute, or profane; neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband; for he is holy to his God-
Reference to the possibility of prostitutes who were not punished with death is another tacit recognition within the Law that it would not be fully kept; for prostitution was outlawed. Thus in the very structure of the Law we see God’s sensitive recognition of the fact it would not be fully kept. His sensitivity to and provision for our failures in advance, both individually and collectively, shouldn’t lead us to think that therefore we needn’t take His principles seriously; His foreknowledge of our weakness shouldn’t be perceived by us as a safety net for our sinfulness. We recall how Solomon when confronted by two prostitutes did not order them to be slain as the law required; and his judgment was that of Divine wisdom, which is of grace.

Lev 21:8 You shall sanctify him therefore; for he offers the bread of your God: he shall be holy to you; for I Yahweh, who sanctify you, am holy-
Paul saw the sacrifices of Israel as having some relevance to the Christian communion meal. He comments: "Are those who eat the victims not in communion with the altar?" (1 Cor. 10:18); and the altar is clearly the Lord Jesus (Heb. 13:10). Eating of the communion meal was and is, therefore, fundamentally a statement of our fellowship with the altar, the Lord Jesus, rather than with others who are eating of Him. The bread and wine which we consume thus become antitypical of the Old Testament sacrifices; and they were repeatedly described as "Yahweh's food", laid upon the altar as "the table of Yahweh" (Lev. 21:6,8; 22:25; Num. 28:2; Ez. 44:7,16; Mal. 1:7,12). And it has been commented: "Current translations are inaccurate; lehem panim is the 'personal bread' of Yahweh, just as sulhan panim (Num. 4:7) is the 'personal table' of Yahweh". This deeply personal relationship between Yahweh and the offerer is continued in the breaking of bread; and again, the focus is upon the worshipper's relationship with Yahweh rather than a warning against fellowshipping the errors of fellow worshippers through this action. What is criticized in later Israel is the tendency to worship Yahweh through these offerings at the same time as offering sacrifice to other gods.

Lev 21:9 The daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the prostitute, she profanes her father: she shall be burned with fire-
The prostitution in view was likely not for economic reasons, but was rather being a cult prostitute at an idol shrine. This mixture of Yahweh worship and idolatry was especially obnoxious to God. The woman would have profaned not only her earthly father but also her Heavenly Father. This is why this kind of prostitute was to be punished whereas as noted on :7 there were others who were apparently tolerated.

Lev 21:10 He who is the high priest among his brothers, upon whose head the anointing oil is poured, and that is consecrated to put on the garments, shall not let the hair of his head hang loose, nor tear his clothes;-
LXX "he having been consecrated to put on the garments, shall not take the mitre off his head, and shall not rend his garments". If he was on duty, especially at the day of atonement, then this was to be of paramount importance, reflecting the Lord's absolute focus upon His work on the cross.
There seems to have been something unusual about the Lord’s outer garment. The same Greek word chiton used in Jn. 19:23,24 is that used in the LXX of Gen. 37:3 to describe Joseph’s coat of many pieces. Josephus (Antiquities 3.7.4,161) uses the word for the tunic of the High Priest, which was likewise not to be rent (Lev. 21:10). The Lord in His time of dying is thus set up as High Priest, gaining forgiveness for His people, to ‘come out’ of the grave as on the day of Atonement, pronouncing the forgiveness gained, and bidding His people spread that good news world-wide.

This is not to say that long hair is wrong in itself for a male. The pagan priests of Egypt, from where Israel had just been brought out, were noted for their long hair, which stood out from the rest of the male population in Egypt who generally had shaved heads at that time. The principle is that we shouldn’t perceive our religion as merely just one of many other religions; there is something utterly unique about our way to God through Christ, who is our only mediator, the only way, “the truth”. Whilst on one hand God doesn’t judge the outward appearance but the heart, we should also be careful not to have externalities which make us appear to be ‘pagan’ and not the unique people of God.

Lev 21:11 neither shall he go in to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father, or for his mother-
He would have been unclean for seven days if he did (Num. 19:11), and this would have meant that his ministrations for the people, especially at the day of atonement, would have been interrupted. He like the Lord Jesus was to focus upon the work of saving the people more than anything else.

The Lord’s comment: “Let the dead bury their dead” (Mt. 8:22) reveals how He had a way of so radically challenging the positions held by normal people of the world, to a depth quite unheard of- and He did it in so few words. Lev. 21:11 forbad the High Priest to be polluted by touching the corpse of his parents, which would’ve precluded him from the usual Jewish manner of burying the dead in the first century. By asking His followers to act as if under the same regulation, the Lord was inviting His followers to see themselves, each one, as the High Priest. We may merely raise our eyebrows at this point, as a matter of mere expositional interest. But to those guys back then, this was major and radical, a man would have to sum up every ounce of spiritual ambition in order to rise up to this invitation. And psychologically, we could say that those first century illiterate Jews were subject to a very powerful systemic spiritual abuse. By this I mean that they were so emotionally hammered into the ground by the oppressive synagogue system that they felt themselves unworthy, no good, not up to much, awful sinners, woefully ignorant of God’s law, betrayers of Moses and their nation… and the Lord addresses these people and realistically asks them to feel and act like the High Priest! No wonder people just ‘didn’t get’ His real message, and those who did were so slow to rise up to the heights of its real implications. And we today likewise toil under a more insidious systemic abuse than we likely appreciate, with the same sense of not being ultimately worth much… until the Lord’s love and high calling bursts in upon our lives, releasing us from the mire of middle class [or aspired-to middle class] mediocrity into a brave new life.

Lev 21:12 neither shall he go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God; for the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him. I am Yahweh-
The calling to priesthood was not to be taken lightly. There was the death penalty for not remaining on duty during the seven days of their inauguration (Lev. 8:35), and it could be that Lev. 21:12 implies the same as a general principle. We cannot just resign our responsibilities; for we are called to the priesthood, our baptism and clothing in the righteousness of Christ was our calling and inauguration (see on Lev. 8:6,7). It is not for us to walk away from our calling. We are in this for life, serving until death, and then eternally in God's Kingdom.

Lev 21:13 He shall take a wife in her virginity-
LXX "He shall take for a wife a virgin of his own tribe". Perhaps this is therefore one of the passages alluded to by Paul in 1 Cor. 7:39 when he taught that marriage was to be "only in the Lord". See on :15. He was also alluding back to the command to Zelophehad's daughters to marry "whom they think best", but only "in" their tribe, otherwise they would lose the inheritance (Num. 36:6,7). The implication is that those who do not marry "in the Lord" will likewise lose their promised inheritance. And this rather strange allusion indicates one more thing: the extent of the seriousness of marriage out of the Faith is only evident to those who search Scripture deeply.

Lev 21:14 A widow, or one divorced-
Divorce was clearly possible under the Mosaic system. If a man's wife committed adultery he could have her killed; or he could put her through the trial of jealousy of Num. 5, with the result that she would become barren; or he could divorce her (Dt. 22:19; 24:1 RV; Lev. 21:14; 22:13). Within a Law that was holy, just and good (Rom. 7:12), unsurpassed in it's righteousness (Dt. 4:8; and let us not overlook these estimations), there were these different levels of response possible. But there was a higher level: he could simply forgive her. This was what God did with His fickle Israel, time and again (Hos. 3:1-3). And so the Israelite faced with an unfaithful wife could respond on at least four levels. This view would explain how divorce seems outlawed in passages like Dt. 22:19,29, and yet there are other parts of the OT which seem to imply that it was permitted. It should be noted that there were some concessions to weakness under the Law which the Lord was not so willing to make to His followers (e.g., outside the marriage context, Dt. 20:5-8 cp. Lk. 9:59-62; 14:18,19). He ever held before us the Biblical ideal of marriage.

Or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry; but a virgin of his own people shall he take as a wife-
Prostitutes were envisaged as not always being put to death. See on :7. By not doing so, Solomon showed his wisdom. "His own people" may refer to 'from his own tribe', as in :13 LXX.

Lev 21:15 He shall not profane his seed among his people; for I am Yahweh who sanctifies him’-
GNB "Otherwise, his children, who ought to be holy, will be ritually unclean. I am the LORD and I have set him apart as the High Priest". The idea of children being clean or unclean is alluded to by Paul when he says that "The unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the brother. Else were your children unclean; but now are they holy" (1 Cor. 7:14). We noted on Lev. 21:13 another allusion to this section in 1 Cor. 7. Principles relevant to the High Priest are now applied to every believer; willful marriage to the unclean would not produce holy / clean children. Just as the tearing down of the veil into the most holy was a signal that all in Christ, and not just the High Priest, should now go in there just as the High Priest had done- and do his work, in essence. This was a high calling for those used to the Judaist system doing everything for them. In Christ they were called not just to priesthood, but to participate with and in Him who does the work of the High Priest.

Lev 21:16 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying-
The demands we will now read for unblemished Levites to serve Yahweh recall the requirements for unblemished sacrifices. But the thoughtful Israelite would have reflected that no man nor animal is without blemish. These commandments were to elicit a desire for perfection which was not possible. And this desire was only realizable in the change of human nature which was to be possible only through the appearance of an unblemished priest and sacrifice, the Lord Jesus. We too are brought up against our blemishes, in order to make us long for this final change which has to be brought about by God's action rather than our own efforts at perfection.

Lev 21:17 Say to Aaron, ‘None of your seed throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God-
"Of your seed" is LXX "of thy tribe". See on :16. God invited Israel to eat with Him at the altar, which became His table with their sacrifices as God's food, eaten by Him. The equivalent for us is eating with God at the Lord’s table, the breaking of bread (1 Cor. 10:21). Eating together was understood in Semitic culture as a sign of religious acceptance and fellowship. As we sit to eat at the Lord's table, quite naturally the very experience elicits self examination. And we realize that we are blemished; but by grace we are urged to eat at the Lord's table.

Lev 21:18 For whatever man he is that has a blemish, he shall not draw near: a blind man, or a lame, or he who has a flat nose, or any deformity-
A person who feels they are somehow a nice guy and worthy of invitation will be the one who tends to consider others as unworthy of invitation to the Kingdom. He or she who perceives their own desperation will eagerly invite even those they consider to be in the very pits of human society. The lame, blind etc. were not allowed to serve God under the law (Lev. 21:18), nor be offered as sacrifices (Dt. 15:21), nor come within the holy city (2 Sam. 5:6-8). The Lord purposefully healed multitudes of lame and blind (Mt. 15:30), and allowed them to come to Him in the temple (Mt. 21:14). His acted out message was clearly that those who were despised as unfit for God’s service were now being welcomed by Him into that service. The lame and blind were despised because they couldn’t work. They had to rely on the grace of others. Here again is a crucial teaching: those called are those who can’t do the works, but depend upon grace.

Yahweh describes His servant Israel, both natural and spiritual, as a blind servant: "Who is blind but my servant?... who is blind as he that is perfect, and blind as the Lord's servant?" (Is. 42:19). There is a real paradox here: a blind servant, or slave. What master would keep a blind servant? Only a master who truly loved him, and kept him on as his servant by pure grace. Yet this useless blind servant was God's servant and messenger- even though the blind were not acceptable as servants or sacrifices of God under the Law (Lev. 21:18,22)! God uses His spiritually blind servant people to proclaim His message to the world. The disciples, still blind to the call of the Gentiles, were sent out to preach to the whole world! And we too, blind as we are in many ways, are turning men from blindness to light.

Lev 21:19 or a man who has an injured foot, or an injured hand-
LXX gives "broken" for "injured". Perhaps this was to make a connection with how not a bone of the Passover lamb was to be broken. And this was fulfilled in the Lord Jesus, of whom not a bone was broken (Jn. 19:36). The priests were to be as living sacrifices.

Lev 21:20 or hunchbacked, or a dwarf, or one who has a defect in his eye, or an itching disease, or scabs, or who has damaged testicles-
LXX "or hump-backed, or blear-eyed, or that has lost his eye-lashes, or a man who has a malignant ulcer, or tetter, or one that has lost a testicle". The reference to the "itching disease" may refer to those who had received a specific Divine stroke of judgment, as discussed on Lev. 13,14. Eye lashes are particularly affected by leprosy, so this and the itch and scabs would sound like the stroke of Divine judgment which was similar to what we know as leprosy, although I suggested on Lev. 13:1 that it was not leprosy as we now know it.

Lev 21:21 no man of the seed of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the offerings of Yahweh made by fire. Since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God-
The idea of eating the bread of God, the sacrifice which represents His son, and thereby having fellowship with Him, should send our minds forward to John 6. "The bread of God is He which comes down from heaven", i.e. our Lord Jesus (Jn. 6:33). Not for nothing do some Rabbis speak of 'eating Messiah' as an expression of the fellowship they hope to have with Him at His coming. The sacrificial animals are spoken of as "the bread of your God" (Lev. 21:6,8,21; 22:25; Ez. 44:7 etc.), pointing forward to Christ. In addition to alluding to the manna, Christ must have been consciously making this connection when He spoke about himself as the bread of God. The only time "the bread of God" could be eaten by the Israelite was at the peace offering. When in this context Christ invites us to eat the bread of God, to eat His flesh and drink His blood (Jn. 6:51,52), He is looking back to the peace offering. But this is also an evident prophecy of the breaking of bread service. Many of the Jews just could not cope with what Christ was offering them when He said this. They turned back, physically and intellectually. They just could not grapple with the idea that Christ was that peace offering sacrifice, and He was inviting them to sit down with God, as it were, and in fellowship with the Almighty, partake of the sacrificed body of His Son. But this is just what Christ is inviting each of us to do in the memorial meeting, to sit down in fellowship with Him, and eat of His bread. God really is here with us at the memorial meeting. He is intensely watching us. He is intensely with us, He really is going to save us, if only we can have the faith to believe how much He loves us, how much He wants us to share His fellowship and know His presence. We are the new priesthood, and can only eat this bread of God if we are unblemished. But we are full of blemishes. We can only be unblemished through believing that we are "in Christ", the unblemished One.

Lev 21:22 He shall eat the food of his God, both of the most holy, and of the holy-
LXX "The gifts of God are most holy, and he shall eat of the holy things".
Whatever blemish the man had, he could still personally fellowship with God, but he was not to publically offer the offerings of others. The priests at that moment were to be consciously representative of the sacrifices, which are the only other things which have the language of ‘blemish’ and ‘unblemished’ applied to them (e.g. Lev. 22:20). The message may be that whatever a man's disqualification from public ministry, he should never be denied eating "the food of his God", fellowship at the Lord's table.

Lev 21:23 He shall not come near to the veil, nor come near to the altar, because he has a blemish; that he may not profane My sanctuaries, for I am Yahweh who sanctifies them’-
As discussed on :16, there was no man nor animal which was totally without blemish or (Heb.) 'spot'. The thoughtful Israelite would have therefore looked ahead to an unblemished priest and sacrifice which was not to be of the Mosaic order. This idea is alluded to when Paul and Peter write to Hebrews that the Lord Jesus offered "without spot"  (Heb. 9:14; 1 Pet. 1:19); and through being "in" Him, we too are counted as without spot, by imputed righteousness (Eph. 5:27; 2 Pet. 3:14). This idea is hinted at here in this verse; the unblemished were not to come near to the veil, because it is Yahweh who would sanctify them / make them holy. This appears at first blush to be a juxtaposition of ideas; but the sense is that the all were in fact blemished, and it was only Yahweh who would sanctify them or make them holy.

Lev 21:24 So Moses spoke to Aaron, and to his sons, and to all the children of Israel-
Leviticus is addressed to the Levites, indeed it could be that the entire book is a transcription of the things said at the inauguration of the Levites after the tabernacle was completed. But "all the children of Israel" were to be aware of them; the priesthood and regulations were to be no secret. All the people were to be made aware of them, so they might perceive the principles being taught.
This contrasts with how the pagan religions tended to keep their priestly regulations a close kept secret.