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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 21

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-6

The priest was not to defile himself ceremonially by touching a corpse, except in the case of his nearest relatives. Shaving the head, probably above the forehead (Deuteronomy 14:1), shaving the edges of the beard, and self-mutilation were practices of pagan priests who demonstrated mourning in these ways (cf. 1 Kings 18:28). [Note: See M. Bayliss, "The Cult of Dead Kin in Assyria and Babylon," Iraq 35 (1973):115-25.]

"As in other parts of the ancient Near East [besides Sumeria] priests’ heads were normally shaved and no beard was worn." [Note: G. Herbert Livingston, The Pentateuch in Its Cultural Environment, p. 107.]

Defacing the human body was unacceptable because physical perfection symbolized holiness. The priests of Israel were neither to appear nor to behave as pagan priests.

Verses 1-15

1. The first list of regulations for priests 21:1-15

"The list has a brief introduction (Leviticus 21:1) and ends with the introduction to the next list (Leviticus 21:16). There are fourteen (7 x 2) laws in the list." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 354.]

Verses 1-24

B. Holiness of the priests, gifts, and sacrifices chs. 21-22

All the people were to maintain holiness before God, but the priests had higher standards because of their privileges in relationship to God. Moses explained these higher regulations in this section of two chapters.

"The thrust of this section [Leviticus 21:1 to Leviticus 22:16] is twofold: the office of a priest is holy, and the office is above the man. A priest must be holy in body, upright in conduct, and ceremonially clean; for he is the representative of God." [Note: Harris, p. 616.]

This section also contains the requirements for sacrificial animals because the sacrificial animals were the "priests" of the animal world. Many of the deformities that kept a priest from offering sacrifice (Leviticus 21:18-20) are the same as those that kept an animal from qualifying as a sacrifice (Leviticus 22:20-24). Sacrificial animals corresponded to the priests, clean animals to the Israelites, and unclean animals to the Gentiles. [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 290.]

A formula statement, "For I am the Lord who sanctifies them," or a similar affirmation, closes each of the six subsections (Leviticus 21:8; Leviticus 21:15; Leviticus 21:23; Leviticus 22:9; Leviticus 22:16; Leviticus 22:32).

Verses 7-9

The priests’ marriages and home life were to be in keeping with their holy vocation.

"Very awful is your responsibility if you diminish your zeal, love, spirituality, by marrying one who has more of earth and a present world in her person and spirit, than of heaven and a coming eternity." [Note: Bonar, p. 375.]

Priests could not marry prostitutes or divorced women but only virgins or widows of spotless character. One scholar argued that the prohibition against priests marrying non-virgins had to do with contracting ceremonial impurity, not morality. [Note: Joe M. Sprinkle, "Old Testament Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40:4 (December 1997):540-41.] But marrying a non-virgin did not necessarily render a man ceremonially unclean.

"However innocent the divorced woman was in fact, her reputation was likely to have been affected by the divorce." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 291.]

The bride of a priest could not be a Canaanite or an idolater, but she could be a foreigner. The priests’ children were to lead upright lives too.

"The conduct of the family is noticed by the world, and they lay the blame of their [the children’s] misdeeds at the door of their parents. . . . They [the children] hinder the usefulness of their father, who loses influence in the eyes of the world if his counsels and walk have not succeeded in drawing his own family to God [cf. 1 Timothy 3:11; Titus 1:6]." [Note: Bonar, p. 376.]

Verses 10-15

It was inappropriate for the high priest to uncover his head in mourning since the holy oil had anointed it. He was not to tear his clothes either (cf. Matthew 26:65). He could not marry a widow or a foreigner, as the other priests could. He was not to abandon his duties to conduct other business temporarily. He was not to "profane his offspring" (Leviticus 21:15) by marrying someone unsuitable to his position before God.

Verses 16-24

2. The second list of regulations for priests 21:16-24

"This list is introduced by the expression ’And the LORD spoke to Moses saying, Speak to Aaron’ (Leviticus 21:16), and is concluded by the expression ’And Moses spoke to Aaron’ (Leviticus 21:24). There are fourteen (7 x 2) laws in the list." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 355.]

Certain restrictions applied to priests who were physically defective. They could not enter the holy place or offer sacrifices at the altar of burnt offerings. Physically inferior priests were not necessarily inferior spiritually, but the priest’s duties and office required completeness since the priest stood between God and people.

". . . the priests can be most effective in God’s service only when they are in ordinary health and free from physical imperfections." [Note: Harrison, p. 211.]

The priests’ physical condition also had to display the perfection of God’s creation, just like the animal sacrifices. Physical wholeness symbolized spiritual holiness.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 21". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/leviticus-21.html. 2012.
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