Part 6 of the Leviticus overview with commentary. Chapters 21-22 focus on Priest Consecration and rules.
Leviticus Chapter 21:
God instructed Moses on how priests should conduct themselves to operate in God’s presence continually. A priest must not come in contact with the dead by any means, with a few exceptions. Those exceptions are his closest relatives like parents, children, brother, and sister (if a virgin/unmarried dependent). He will defile himself if he is around a deceased person that is only related by marriage. He may not make himself unclean, because he is a leader among his people; doing so would profane him.
The priests are not allowed to shave their heads, trim their beards, or cut their bodies. These must stay holy and keep their appearance natural. The priest is not allowed to marry prostitutes or divorcees, but rather a virgin woman (or a widow according to Ez 44:22). If a priest’s daughter prostitutes herself she defiles her father and will be put to death by fire. Israel’s leaders are to operate at a high level of integrity and lead by example.
The high priest is not allowed to mourn by being ungroomed or wearing tattered clothing. Nor can he go into a place where there is a dead body present (not even his own parents). He must stay extra consecrated by never leaving the sanctuary of the Tabernacle (not even to see a dead relative). This is because he operates in the closest proximity to God’s presence, especially on the Day of Atonement. The High Priest is not allowed to marry a non-virgin woman at all, and he can only marry a woman from his own clan.
Descendants of Aaron that have health problems like blindness, lameness, mutilated faces, broken or extra-long limbs, broken foot or a broken arm, a hunched back, stunted growth, eye cataracts, festering sores, or damaged testicles, cannot present the offerings to be burned on the altar nor can they go into the Tabernacle. However, they are allowed to eat from the food of offerings like the other priests.
Comment: People with health defects (disabilities and injuries) are simply prohibited from presenting offerings for the altar. This prohibition existed for all Israelites except for the priest anyway, so it doesn’t exclude these people from the community at large as disease-causing uncleanness does. Priestly relatives with these kinds of health issues were simply equalized with non-priest Levites in the sense that they can’t serve, yet as blood-born priests, they still have a right to all of the food from offerings.
Furthermore, there are two potential reasons for this exclusion. The first is obvious it would be dangerous for them to burn animals on the altar if they are blind, and they can’t even perform most priestly duties if they are lame (immobile). As for the capable able-bodied people with birth defects, it may have been about public perception of those working in God’s presence. In many ancient cultures, the priests were held to very high standards, so what Israel does is not so unique. They must keep up appearances even when mourning the dead (Lev 10:16-20) because they represent God. The public perception aspect is essential because of how hard-hearted the Israelites were. God needed to make sure to present his priest as the “best of men” health-wise, in order to keep the Israelite’s attention away from idols since pagan nations had the same standards, and their priests would have “looked better” to the Israelites because the gentile pagan priests don’t have “handicap people”.
An example of this concept can be seen in the splendor of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant itself. Most things that were closest to God’s presence including the Ark itself were made of wood and overlaid in gold or made of gold, and other components were made of or overlaid in silver or bronze. The priest’s garments have gold filigree and precious gemstones in the chest pieces. The Israelites broke the first two commands about not worshipping idols only 40 days after the commands were given, by worshipping a golden calf (Ex ch. 32). The underlying principle here is that the Israelites were drawn in by visual splendor just like humans of other cultures and prioritized the physical beauty of precious metals and healthy people. God even uses lustful, sexually explicit language when describing how the Israelites fawn over the Assyrians and Babylonians in Ez 23:18-24. This issue can also be seen in 1 Samuel chapter 8, which shows how the Israelites fawned over the idea of having a king because their neighboring nations had kings, even though God said they didn’t need one. In the end, God allowed them to have a monarchy but warned them that it would cause them problems and it did.
One reason why priests have marital restrictions for just Levite widows (outside of virgins) is to prevent them from accidentally inheriting a land allotment through marriage. Widows can hold land rights for their diseased husbands so when they remarry that land gets transferred to the husband and the first child they have will inherit the land. This is the purpose of the Levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10). We can see the concept applying to the daughters of a man named Zelophehad who had no male heirs. His daughters were given the right to inherit their father’s land (Num 27:1-11), but it was determined that if they marry they could only marry men in their tribe because if they marry men from another tribe then the land allotment will get transferred from one tribe to another, and the tribal allotments were supposed to be permanent for each tribe (Num 36:1-13). So if Levites, who had no land allotment because they were set apart to help the priest in their service representing God to the people, married widows from other tribes they would get land allotments they weren’t supposed to have.
One last note: I heard it said from a messianic Jewish woman that women weren’t allowed to be priests because God wanted Israelite women to be viewed differently than their pagan counterparts. In ancient pagan cultures, women involved in the clergy were often shrine prostitutes. So Israelite women were removed from that framework in order to dignify their identity. This may be the reason why priests had to marry women who were virgins or widows only. Remember, the rules given to Israel were in contrast to the cultures around them like Egypt and Canaan. This was an interesting idea that I thought was worth sharing.
Leviticus Chapter 22:
The priests are not allowed to be in an unclean state when handling sacred gifts brought to them by the Israelites. In addition, if a priest is unclean from disease or disorder he is not allowed to eat from the sacred food offerings until he is healed. If he is unclean from seminal emission or touching an unclean person, an unclean animal, or a dead body he is unclean until evening, and afterward, he must bathe, and then he will be clean again. Until he is clean he cannot approach the Tabernacle or eat the sacred food offerings. Of course, the priests are not allowed to eat anything that had died naturally or has been mauled by a predator because that would make them unclean. The priests are held to a higher standard since they operate in God’s presence and therefore must keep themselves as pure as possible. They will die if they violate God’s instructions
As for non-priests, they are not allowed to eat the sacred food reserved for the priest. It doesn’t matter if they are guests or hire workers, however, slaves of the priest are allowed to partake in it. Only those related to the priests, and their slaves are allowed to eat the sacred food. An exception would be a daughter of a priest who has married a non-priest, because her husband is not qualified she then becomes unqualified for those privileges. However, if she gets a divorce or is widowed and returns to live with her father because she has no adult children to support her, then she can eat her father’s sacred food because she is dependent on him. If a non-priest accidentally eats holy food by mistake he is to pay it back with 20% interest.
Anyone (Israelite or foreigner) who brings burnt offerings or peace offerings either voluntarily or for a vow, must bring a male animal (bull, sheep, or goat) with no defects. If it is blind, injured, mutilated, has abnormal growths, festering or running sores, or damaged genitals (castrated), it is unacceptable. If a bull or lamb has a limb that is too long or short it will be acceptable voluntarily but not as a vow offering. The people must not give their worst animals nor accept animals like this from foreigners and offer them to God because they are not the best.
Baby bulls, sheep, and goats are to stay with their mothers for a week after being born, however, on the eighth day they can be sacrificed. No mother animal (cow or ewe) is to be sacrificed on the same day as its baby. Thanksgiving offerings are to be eaten the same day they are offered, and anything left over must be burned before the next morning.
God is holy and the priest must present him in holiness and must keep his commands as they are given.