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Wednesday, July 17th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 21

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


All of Israel was expected to be holy unto the Lord, but this and the following chapter (Leviticus 22) are concerned with the special holiness that pertained to the priests of the sanctuary and especially to the high priest. Each of the three paragraphs of this chapter “closes with the formula `I am the Lord your (their) sanctifier.’ The only other place in Leviticus (except for three similar paragraph closings in Leviticus 22) where this clause is used is in Lev. 20:28.”(F1) Here, we shall follow the usual paragraphing found in the ASV.

The reason underlying the absolute requirement of holiness on the part of God’s priests was stated thus by Unger, “They demonstrate the importance of separating from sin on the part of Christians.”(F2) This is indeed a large subject, and the apostle Peter addressed it frequently in his writings. The key words of this whole section in Leviticus, “Ye shall be holy, for I am holy” were applied to Christians” (1 Peter 1:16). “Ye are a holy priesthood… to offer up spiritual sacrifices… Ye are a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9). (See the full comment on this analogy in Volume 10 of this commentary series, en loco.)

In the first half of the 20th century, critics delighted to talk about what they called “the composite nature” of this chapter, relating it to their impossible theories about “many sources” for the Pentateuch. Dummelow, for example, summarized these: (1) interchange of the singular and plural pronouns; (2) interchange of the second and third persons; (3) the use of various headings; and (4) the use of two titles for the priests, namely, “sons of Aaron,” and “seed of Aaron.”(F3) All such variations are characteristic of the Sacred Scriptures, and the critical emphasis on such things has largely disappeared. They certainly do NOT represent anything untrustworthy regarding the Bible.

Verses 1-9

“And Jehovah said unto Moses, speak unto the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say unto them, There shall none defile himself for the dead among his people; except for his kin, that is near to him, for his mother, and for his father, and for his son, and for his daughter, and for his brother, and for his sister a virgin, that is near unto him, that hath had no husband; for her may he defile himself. He shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself. They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh. They shall be holy unto their God, and not profane the name of their God; for the offerings of Jehovah made by fire, the bread of their God, they do offer: therefore they shall be holy. They shall not take a woman that is a harlot, or profane; neither shall they take a woman put away from her husband: for he is holy unto his God: Thou shalt sanctify him therefore; for he offereth the bread of thy God: he shall be holy unto thee; for I Jehovah, who sanctify you, am holy. And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the harlot, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.”

Note that the change to the second person in Leviticus 21:8 is due to the direction of the instruction to the people to honor their priests, for he offered the bread of “thy God,” that is, the God of all Israel. Similar requirements account for other variations here also.

Many have expressed wonder that the priest’s wife was NOT mentioned here as being entitled to mourning by the priest, but, as Allis said: “She is `one flesh’ with her husband (Genesis 2:24), and to mention her would be superfluous.(F4) Of course, therefore, the priest could mourn for his wife. No, she was not of his near kin, but was closer than any kin, even closer than father or mother.

Leviticus 21:4 here is difficult. Some say the text here has been damaged. As it stands, Lofthouse has given the best interpretation of it:

“A married sister would ordinarily be mourned by her husband - this is probably the meaning of the original text of Leviticus 21:4. If his sister were a widow, the priest might act in the place of her husband.”(F5)

According to Clements, only the slightest emendation allows the reading “as a husband” to replace the words “being a chief man.”(F6) The ASV’s margin allows the reading “as a husband”; so also the RSV (or “lord of the house”). Robert O. Coleman says that, “in all probability, this should be allowed.”(F7) In any case, the meaning here must be considered unclear.

“The offerings made by fire… the bread of God” These phrases mean the same thing, indicating that animal sacrifices were called “the bread of God.” “The fat of the peace-offering (Leviticus 3:11) is called the food (bread) of God.”(F8) However, we may not for a moment receive the notion that the Hebrews had any false notion that God actually needed to eat such things. “The author of Leviticus would not have taken this phrase literally at all.”(F9) When Christ said that Christians should eat his flesh and drink his blood, the usage was metaphorical, and not literal at all. So it is here.

Leviticus 21:5 prohibited the priest’s indulgence of such pagan practices as special haircuts, cuttings in the flesh, and other extreme signs of mourning. Of course, all such things were forbidden to all Israel in Leviticus 19:28, but it would have been ESPECIALLY inappropriate and sinful for the priests to do such things. The special haircuts mentioned here were in the form of a circular tonsure, somewhat like that found with certain orders of Catholic priests today. Such devices were known to paganism thousands of years ago.

Leviticus 21:9 refers to the Canaanite practice of cultic prostitution in which a religious purpose (pagan) was thought to be served by such immorality.”(F10) So far was God from allowing anything like that in Israel, that He ordered execution and the burning of any daughter of a priest involved in such a thing. So opposed was Israel to all such things that their language does not even have a word for “priestess.”(F11)

Verses 10-15

“And he that is the high priest among his brethren, 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 go loose, nor rend his clothes; neither shall he go in to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father, or for his mother; 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 Jehovah. And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or one divorced, or a profane woman, a harlot, these shall he not take: but a virgin of his own people shall he take to wife. And he shall not profane his seed among his people: for I am Jehovah who sanctifieth him.”

“Upon whose head the anointing oil is poured” (Leviticus 21:10). Clements remarked that, “This implies that only the high priest was anointed, while the others were not. This was most certainly the older practice in Israel.”(F12) This comment is typical of the device critical scholars use in their efforts to late-date and fragment portions of the Bible. The device is this: (1) an inaccurate interpretation is affirmed; and (2) then a deduction is based on that incorrect interpretation! It is NOT true that this passage “implies that only the high priest was anointed.” The passage implies nothing of the kind! It DOES imply that only the High Priest had “the crown of the anointing oil poured upon him!” and none of the lesser priests had the oil poured on their heads. This is the way it was from the beginning of the sacred institution of the priesthood as attested in the earlier chapters of Leviticus (Leviticus 8). The lesser priests had the oil sprinkled upon their garments; only the High Priest had it poured on his head, and there is not the slightest evidence whatever in this passage that implies that the same procedure outlined in Leviticus 8 was not also in use when this portion of Leviticus was written. The Bible itself always refutes and frustrates its critics.

“Not let his hair go loose, nor rend his clothes” (Leviticus 21:10). The pairing of these requirements indicates that these were customary expressions of grief, horror, or mourning. It will be recalled that Caiaphas “rent his garments” (Matthew 26:15) in mock horror at what Caiaphas alleged was the “blasphemy” of Jesus who had just testified under oath that he was the Son of God. In the prohibitions here, one sees the stricter rules that pertained to the High Priest, even more strict than those governing the lesser priests.

“Nor defile himself for his father, or his mother” (Leviticus 21:11). This forbade the High Priest to go near the dead bodies of his nearest kin. Any touch of a dead body, or mourning for a loved one, was denied to the high priest. This was also a stricter rule than the rules for the priests.

“Neither shall he go out of the sanctuary” (Leviticus 21:12). The High Priest did not live in the sanctuary, so what is meant is that he could not interrupt his sacred duties even in the event of the death of his father or mother.

“And he shall take a wife in her virginity… a virgin of his own people” (Leviticus 21:13; Leviticus 21:15). Marriage with widows, divorced women, or harlots was forbidden, and not even any virgin would qualify. She had to be “of his own people.” Since all Israelites were required to marry within the chosen race, the meaning of “his own people” actually applied to his kinship, the Levitical tribe of Israel. Orlinsky noted that, the Hebrew means “of his own kin; people is meaningless here.”(F13)

Why all the strict rules for the High Priest? Because he was a type of our blessed Saviour. And one invested with such an office was supposed to be as nearly perfect as is possible for fallen mankind.

“Not profane his seed” (Leviticus 21:15). If the High Priest had married outside the Levitical family, his seed would have been disqualified (profaned) and unable to follow in the office which descended through hereditary holders of it throughout its history.

Verses 16-24

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Aaron saying, Whosoever he be of thy seed throughout their generations that hath a blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or anything superfluous, or a man that is broken-footed, or broken-handed, or crook-backed, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or is scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken; no man of the seed of Aaron the priest, that hath a blemish, shall come nigh to offer the offerings of Jehovah made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God. He shall eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy, and of the holy: only he shall not go in unto the veil, nor come nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish; that he profane not my sanctuaries: for I am Jehovah who sanctifieth them. So Moses spake unto Aaron, and to his sons, and unto all the children of Israel.”

“Whosoever hath a blemish” (Leviticus 21:17). This was the blanket rule; the specifics follow. Some of the specifics are of uncertain meaning.

“He that hath a flat nose” (Leviticus 21:18) The RSV renders this, “a split or mutilated face.”

“Anything superfluous” (Leviticus 21:18) Allis noted that, “Six fingers instead of five”(F14) would have been such a blemish.

“Crook-backed and dwarf” (Leviticus 21:20). “These may be incorrect translations. The term may relate to the eyebrows or to the eyes.”(F15) (See the New English Bible.)

“He shall eat the bread of his God” (Leviticus 21:22). Despite the inability of such blemished persons to serve at the highest level of service in God’s worship, they nevertheless were not denied any of the privileges of the priesthood as regards their living. There were also doubtless many things they could do which did not involve going near the veil or the altar. For example, they might have been used to inspect lepers or perform other tasks. Clements called this provision “a divinely sponsored insurance policy in operation!”(F16)

Lofthouse pointed out that certain pagan religious cults allowed all kinds of cuttings and mutilations (even castrations) to be practiced by their priests, especially in the worship of Cybele.(F17) The true religion of God contrasted dramatically with pagan custom, no less in this matter than in every other. Lofthouse also noted that, “Aesthetic repulsion”(F18) may have figured in God’s requirements for unblemished priests to provide the ritual service in his holy religion. No matter how right intrinsically anything may be, there are some things which simply do not appear to be appropriate, and surely some of the prohibitions here fall into that category.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Leviticus 21". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/leviticus-21.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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