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(1) And the Lord said unto Moses.—The laws about the purity and holiness of the Jewish community, and of every individual lay member, enacted in Leviticus 11:1 to Leviticus 20:27, are now followed by statutes respecting the purity and holiness of the priesthood who minister in holy things in behalf of the people, and who, by virtue of their high office, were to be models of both ceremonial and moral purity.
Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron.—Moses is ordered to communicate these statutes to the priests as the sons of Aaron. The peculiar phrase “the priests the sons of Aaron,” which only occurs here—since in all other six passages in the Pentateuch it is the reverse, “the sons of Aaron the priests” (see Leviticus 1:5; Leviticus 1:8; Leviticus 1:11; Leviticus 2:2; Leviticus 3:2; Numbers 10:8; Note on Leviticus 1:5), is designed to inculcate upon them the fact that they are priests by virtue of being the sons of Aaron, and not because of any merit of their own, and that they are to impress the same sentiments upon their issue. This fact, moreover, as the authorities during the second Temple remark, imposes upon the priests the duty of bringing up their children in such a manner as to make them morally and intellectually fit to occupy this hereditary office. They also deduce from the emphatic position of the term “priests,” that it only applies to those of them who are fit to perform their sacerdotal duties, and not to the disqualified priests (see Leviticus 21:15).
There shall none be defiled for the dead.—
Better, He shall not defile himself for a dead person; that is, the priest is not to contract defilement by contact with the body of any dead person. What constitutes defilement is not specified, but, as is often the case, was left to the administrators of the Law to define more minutely. Accordingly, they enacted that not only touching a dead body, but coming within four cubits of it, entering the house where the corpse lay, entering a burial place, following to the grave, or the manifestation of mourning for the departed, pollutes the priest, and consequently renders him unfit for performing the services of the sanctuary, and for engaging in the services for the people. This they deduced from Numbers 19:11-16. The Egyptian priests were likewise bound to keep aloof from “burials and graves, from impure men and women.” The Romans ordered a bough of a cypress-tree to be stuck at the door of the house in which a dead body was lying, lest a chief priest should unwittingly enter and defile himself.
Among his people—That is, among the tribes or people of Israel, the Jewish community (see Deuteronomy 32:8; Deuteronomy 33:3, &c.). Hence the authorities during the second Temple concluded that when the corpse is among the people whose duty it is to see to its burial, the priest is forbidden to take part in it; but when a priest, or even the high priest, finds a human body in the road where he cannot call on any one to bury it, he is obliged to perform this last sacred office to the dead himself. When it is borne in mind how much the ancient Hebrews thought of burial, and that nothing exceeded their horror than to think of an unburied corpse of any one belonging to them, this humane legislation will be duly appreciated.
(2) But for his kin, that is near unto him.—There are, however, seven exceptions to the general rule. According to the administrators of the Law during the second Temple, the phrase, “his kin that is near unto him,” or rather, “his flesh that is near unto him” (comp. Leviticus 18:6 with Genesis 2:24), denotes “wife.” Hence the Chaldee version of Jonathan renders it, “but for a wife who is of kin to his flesh.”
For his mother, and for his father.—This is the second of the three instances in the Bible where the mother is mentioned before the father (see Leviticus 19:3). The Jewish canonists, who call attention to this unusual phrase, account for it by saying that she is placed first because the son’s qualifications for the priesthood depend more upon his having a good mother (see Leviticus 21:7). This will be readily understood when it is borne in mind that the regulations about the woman whom a priest was allowed to marry during the second Temple were of the most stringent nature, and that the slightest infringement of them disqualified the son for performing sacerdotal functions. Thus the daughter of a foreigner or of a released captive was forbidden to the priest, and when a city was besieged and taken by the enemy all the wives of the priests had to be divorced for fear lest they had suffered violence.
(3) And for his sister a virgin, that is nigh unto him—That is, his maiden sister who still remains in sole relationship with him. What this is the next clause explains more minutely.
Which hath had no husband.—When she is married she goes to her husband, and ceases to be near her brother. It then devolves upon her husband to attend to the funeral rites.
For her may he be defiled.—According to the administrators of the Law during the second Temple, the priest was not only allowed to contract defilement by attending to the funeral rites of these seven relations, but was obliged to do it.
(4) But he shall not defile himself, being a chief man . . . —Better, A husband shall not defile himself among his people when he had profaned himself. As the seven exceptions to the general rule began with his wife, whose funeral rites the priestly husband is allowed to attend, the verse before us restricts this permission to his legally prescribed wife. If he contracted a marriage which profaned him, he could not attend to her funeral ceremonies. The last clause, which is here translated, “when he had profaned him,” literally denotes “to profane himself,” “with respect to his profanation”—i.e., with respect to a marriage by which he profaned himself. This is the interpretation which the administrators of the Law attached to the verse, and which is transmitted in the Chaldee version of Jonathan. It is not only in perfect harmony with the context, but does least violence to this manifestly disordered text. The translations exhibited in the Authorised version, both in the text and in the margin, as well as most of those suggested by modern commentators, leave the clause unexplained, since it manifestly means something else than defiling himself by contracting impurity through contact with the dead, as is evident from the fact that it is not added in the other instances where the priest is forbidden to defile himself by attending to the dead. (See Leviticus 21:1-11.)
(5) Make baldness upon their head.—The natural expression of grief, however, which the priests were to manifest for the above-named departed relations, was not to show itself in the practices which disfigure their bodily appearance, and which obtained among other nations of antiquity in connection with funeral ceremonies. Thus, in the graphic description of the idolatrous priests mourning, we are told “the priests sit in their temples, having their clothes rent, and their heads and beards shaven, and nothing upon their heads.” (Bar. 6:31.) The three things here prohibited to the priests are also forbidden to the people at large under other circumstances. (See Leviticus 19:27-28; Deuteronomy 14:1.) The ordinary Israelites, however, indulged in the same practices. (See Jeremiah 16:6; Ezekiel 7:18; Amos 8:10.)
(6) They shall be holy unto their God.—This is the reason why the priests are not to disfigure themselves by maiming their outward appearance. Being sacred to the Lord, they are not to indulge in those outward manifestations of grief which would interfere with the discharge of their sacred duties, and thus cause the name of God to be profaned.
The offerings of the Lord made by fire, and the bread of their God.—Better, the offerings of the Lord made by fire, being the food of God. As the altar was the table, the sacrifice burnt on it was called His food. (See Leviticus 3:11.)
(7) Not take a wife.—From the defilement arising through contact with the dead, the lawgiver passes to’ regulation about the priest’s alliances with the living, which might be fraught with still more serious consequences to his sacred office. In selecting a wife he is to be careful both about her chastity and legitimate descent.
(8) Thou shalt sanctify him therefore.—This is addressed to the Jewish community. They are to take care that the priest does not contract such illegal marriages, and to sanctify him only who acts in obedience to these statutes. The Jewish priest is thus placed under the supervision of the people. His sacred office, and his duly performing the priestly functions. are their concern. If he refused to conform to the law of sanctity, the people, according to the administrators of the Law during the second Temple, were to compel him to do so by the penalty of administering to him the prescribed number of stripes.
He shall be holy unto thee.—On the other hand, when he acts in accordance with his sacred office, the people must reverence his holy person. Hence the administrators of the Law during the second Temple enacted that the priest is to take precedence on public occasions. Thus, when the people assemble, he opens the meeting by invoking God’s blessing. At the reading of the Law of God in the synagogue, he is called up first to the rostrum to read the first portion, and at table he recites the benedictions over the repast. This honour the Jews assign to the priests to this day.
(9) And the daughter of any priest.—This statute, according to the administrators of the Law during the second Temple, applies only to betrothed and married daughters. Hence the ancient Chaldee version renders it, “and if the betrothed daughter”
She shall be burnt with fire.—Whilst the married daughter of a layman who had gone astray was punished with death by strangling (see Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:23-24), the daughter of a priest who had disgraced herself was to be punished with the severer death by burning. Though the doom of the guilty partner in the crime is not mentioned here, his sentence was death by strangulation.
(10) And he that is the high priest among his brethren.—That is, among his priestly brethren, the one who is distinguished among them by this office.
Upon whose head the anointing oil was poured.—This profuse pouring of oil was the distinctive feature in the consecration of the high priest. (See Leviticus 8:12.)
Consecrated to put on the garments.—Better, consecrated by putting on the garments. The robing of the high priest by Moses, as well as the anointing him, constituted part of the consecration ceremony. (See Leviticus 8:7-11.)
Shall not uncover his head.—Better, shall not let his head be dishevelled, which was a sign of mourning. (See Leviticus 10:6.)
Nor rend his clothes.—That is, “in the time of distress,” as the ancient Chaldee version of Jonathan rightly adds after it. Sustaining this high position, and being the intercessor between God and man, such outward expressions of sorrow might lead those in whose behalf he ministers in the sanctuary to believe that he thereby impugns the justice of the Divine judgment.
(11) Neither shall he go in to any dead body.—Not only is he to abstain from the manifestation of sorrow for the troubles which befell the community, or those whom he loves, but in the case of death he is not to enter into a tent, house, or place where a human corpse was lying (Numbers 19:14), lest he should contract defilement. According to the administrators of the Law during the second Temple, the expression any dead body extends to any portion of it, so that when the pontiff entered a place where a certain quantity of the blood of the dead body was to be found, he became defiled. Accordingly, “any dead soul,” which is literally the meaning of the phrase here translated by “dead body,” denotes the blood which constitutes the soul or life. (See Leviticus 17:10-14.)
Nor defile himself for his father . . . —Better, not for his father . . . shall he defile himself or, not even for his father, &c. As the rigorous enactment in the preceding clause constitutes already the difference between the high priest and the ordinary priest, this clause simply adduces an instance to illustrate it. Whilst the ordinary priest was not only permitted, but even obliged, to attend the funeral ceremonies of no less than seven of his relations (see Leviticus 21:2-3), the high priest was not even allowed to join in the obsequies of his parents. The only exception made in his case was when he found a human body in an isolated place. Under such circumstances he was not only permitted, but it was a meritorious act on his part, to bury it. (See Leviticus 21:1.)
(12) Neither shall he go out of the sanctuary.—Better, and he shall not go out of the sanctuary as in Leviticus 10:7. When the tidings of the death of a parent is brought to him during the service, he must not desist from the service and quit the sanctuary, lest it should appear that he has a greater regard for the dead than for the service of the living God. The difference between the ordinary priest and the high priest in this respect was, that when the former heard, during the service, of the death of any one of the seven relations for whom he had to mourn, he was obliged to discontinue the service, though he too could not leave the precincts of the sanctuary; whilst the former, under these circumstances, was bound to continue the service. The former, by becoming a mourner, profaned the service if he continued it; the latter never became a mourner, and hence profaned the service if he discontinued it.
(13) A wife in her virginity.—From this verse the administrators of the Law during the second Temple concluded that (1) the high priest must be the husband of one wife, though the ordinary priests might have several; (2) that she must be a virgin, under the age of thirteen; (3) that she must not even have been betrothed to another person; and that (4) she must be the daughter of Jewish parents by race, as it is stated in the next verse, though the ordinary priest was allowed to marry the daughter of proselytes. The first of these enactments is also enjoined by St. Paul on Christian bishops (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:16); whilst the fourth is actually expressed in the Greek version (LXX.), which has at the end of the verse, “of his own race.”
(14) A widow.—By this the high priest was not only forbidden to marry the widow of an ordinary Israelite, or even the widow of a priest, but, according to the Jewish canons, a virgin who had been betrothed to another man, and whom she lost by death before they were married. If he, however, became engaged to a widow before he was elected to the pontificate, he could marry her after his consecration. He was, however, exempt from the obligation to marry the widow of his brother who died without issue. (See Leviticus 18:16.)
Or a divorced woman.—The classes of women which follow are also forbidden to the ordinary priests. (See Leviticus 21:7.)
(15) Neither shall he profane his seed.—Better, And he shall not profane; that is, he is not to contract any of these forbidden marriages, lest he should thereby degrade his offspring, since the children of such an issue, as well as their mother, were debarred the privileges of the priesthood, and were not permitted to partake of those portions of the sacrifices which formed the perquisites of the officiating priests.
(16) And the Lord spake unto Moses.—In the preceding part of this chapter the priests were forbidden voluntarily to disfigure themselves, or to disqualify themselves and their descendants for their sacred office by illegal alliances. The legislator, therefore, now passes on to other blemishes, which, though not voluntarily contracted, likewise disqualify the priests for performing sacerdotal duties in the sanctuary.
(17) Whosoever he be of thy seed.—Better, any man of thy seed throughout their generations; that is, any of the descendants, to all future times, who have not been disqualified for service in the sanctuary by their parents contracting illegal alliances, are yet to be subject to the following regulations.
To offer the bread of his God.—That is, shall not officiate at the sacrifices. (See Leviticus 21:6 -Leviticus 3:2.)
(18) For whatsoever man . . . —This part of the verse is simply an emphatic repetition of the same declaration at the end of the last verse to introduce the examples of the bodily blemishes which disqualified the priests for the service at the altar. A similar law obtained among the Greeks and Romans, that a priest should be perfect in all his parts; and according to the Hindoo law, Brahmins born with a bodily defect, or who received one before their sixteenth year, are excluded from the rites of consecration.
A blind man.—During the second Temple, this was not only interpreted to be partial blindness on both eyes, or on one eye, but was taken to include any blemish in the eye or in the eyelid, of which the administrators of the Law enumerate twenty-six cases, nineteen in the eye and seven in the eyelid.
Or a lame.—This was understood during the second Temple to refer to any imperfection in the gait of the priest, which might show itself in twenty different ways.
Or he that hath a flat nose.—Of the nasal deformity no less than nine different illustrations are given.
Or any thing superfluous.—That is, one member of the body more stretched out or longer than the others, or out of proportion, as an eye, shoulder, thigh, leg, &c.
(19) Brokenfooted, or brokenhanded.—That is, one with a badly cured fractured foot or hand, since in ancient days such accidents were scarcely ever properly cured. Owing to the imperfect knowledge of surgery, and to a want of skill in setting fractures, the evil effects of such accidents had to be endured by a considerable number of the members of the community.
(20) Or crookbackt.—Rather, or whose eyebrows cover his eyes. This is the sense given to this clause during the second Temple. Hence the ancient Chaldee version of Jonathan translates it, “whose eyebrows lying cover his eyes.” That is, the hair, of the eyebrows are so thick, heavy, and long, that they join together and cover his eyes, thus interfering with his eyesight, and rendering him unsightly in appearance.
Or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye.—Better, or hath a cataract or a fusion of the white and black in his eye, as the administrators of the Law during the second Temple interpret the two defects here spoken of.
Or be scurvy, or scabbed.—According to the authorities in the time of Christ, both these are kinds of ulcers or scurvy; the former is a scab which is dry both within and without, whilst the second is a scab which is moist within and dry without, and which clings to a man till he dies.
Or hath his stones broken.—That is, one whose testicles are injured. This included several kinds of defectiveness, which are exhibited in the different renderings of the ancient versions, but all refer to the same seat of the blemish.
(21) No man that hath a blemish.—The addition of this general remark to the twelve instances adduced in the preceding verses, shows that the cases in question were simply typical, and that it was left to the administrators of the Law, not only to decide the minute details and various stages of these cases, but also to determine whether other bodily infirmities are included or not in this summary statement. Hence, during the second Temple, the authorities registered no less than one hundred and forty-two defects which disqualify the priest for serving at the altar. There was a chamber in the court of the Temple in which the Sanhedrim examined all the priests prior to their being received into the staff of those who officiated in the sanctuary. At the conclusion of this periodical examination, all the priests were divided into two classes. Those who were pronounced physically disqualified “put on black garments, wrapped themselves up in black cloaks, and went away in silence”; whilst those who were declared qualified put on white garments and white cloaks, and forthwith joined their brethren to assist in the sacred office. They celebrated the day by giving a feast to all their friends, which they opened with the following benediction: “Blessed be the Lord! Blessed be He because no blemish hath been found in the seed of Aaron, the priest; and blessed be He because He hath chosen Aaron and his sons to stand and to serve before the Lord in His most holy sanctuary.” Those priests who were declared physically unfit, were employed in the chamber for wood at the north-east of the court of the women, to select the proper wood for the altar, since any piece which was worm-eaten could not be burnt on it. (See Leviticus 1:7.)
(22) He shall eat the bread of his God.—But though unfit for serving at the altar, and reduced to do the menial work connected with the sanctuary, he was not only allowed to partake of the less holy sacrificial gifts, such as the peace shoulder, the tithes, and the first-fruits, but also to eat what remained of the meat-offerings, the sin-offerings, and the trespass-offerings, which were most holy. (See Leviticus 2:3.)
(23) Only he shall not go in unto the vail.—That is, into the holy place which was before the vail.
(24) And unto all the children of Israel.—These regulations about the conduct and qualifications of the priesthood, which God imparted to Moses, the latter not only communicated to the high priest and his sons the priests, but to the representatives of the people, who, as the community, had the supervision of the priests. The sacerdotal laws were administered and enforced by the elders or Sanhedrim, who were the representatives of the people. (See Leviticus 21:21.)
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Leviticus 21". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28