16 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, 20 or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. 22 He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy things, 23 but he shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” 24 So Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel. – Leviticus 21:16-24 ESV
God placed high expectations upon His priests because they served as His emissaries and mediators. Their everyday involvement in His Tabernacle required that they be holy and pure. In a sense, God was demanding of them what He demanded of Abraham.
“…walk before me, and be blameless…” – Genesis 17:1 ESV
This divine decree from God, spoken to Abraham in his 90th year, was not a call to perfection or sinlessness; it was an invitation to live a wholehearted, fully transparent life as a His servant. God demanded that Abraham not live in hiddenness or secrecy. There were to be no areas of his life that were off-limits to God. There was to be no compartmentalization or secular-sacred split when it came to his behavior. God wanted all of Abraham and the same thing was true of Aaron and his sons.
When reading this section of Leviticus, one might reach the conclusion that God is discriminatory and disparaging of the physically disadvantaged. But that would require reading the text in a superficial manner and only from a human perspective. It is important to remember that the entire book of Leviticus highlights the holiness of Yahweh. The giving of the law and the Book of the Covenant, the construction of the Tabernacle, and the institution of the sacrificial system were all intended to highlight the holiness of Israel’s God. All these things were meant to point to His perfection and moral purity and the need for His people to live in a way that reflected His glory.
So, when God issues the command that any defective, disfigured, or deformed priest was banned from ministering in His presence, it was meant to remind the Israelites of His holiness. There were to be no concessions, compromises, or shortcuts. If it was inappropriate and unacceptable for them to offer an injured, disfigured, or diseased animal as a sacrifice, why would it be okay for a “blemished” priest to participate in the very same ceremony?
Those priests with permanent disfigurements were permanently banned from serving in the Tabernacle. If their injuries or illnesses were temporary, they would be prohibited from serving only until they were healed.
“Disqualified priests still participated in other priestly functions and could still eat the portions given them in the sanctuary. They just could not serve as sacrificing priests in the holy place.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus
God provides a comprehensive but not exhaustive list of disqualifying conditions, including blindness, lameness, disfigurement, deformity, broken limbs, defective eyes, skin sores, scabs, and damaged testicles. God also excludes the “hunchbacked or dwarfed” (Leviticus 21;20 NLT). In all of these cases, the “defects” of the individual would have been readily apparent to everyone. The evidence of these conditions would have been difficult to hide from the rest of the community. So, if a priest who suffered from either a temporary or permanent defect was allowed to minister before God in the holy place, it would have sent a very strong and wrong signal to the people of God.
It’s difficult to read this passage and not consider the words that God spoke to the prophet Samuel concerning his search for the next king of Israel. God had sent Samuel to the house of Jesse in order to find a replacement for King Saul. As the first king of Israel, Saul proved to be a disappointment because he had disobeyed God. As a result, God rejected him as king and vowed to replace him with “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14 NLT). So, when Samuel arrived at the house of Jesse, he had his host bring in each of his sons, one by one. When he saw Eliab, the firstborn, Samuel responded, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed!” (1 Samuel 16:6 NLT). To Samuel, this young man had all the outward characteristics of a king. He looked the part. But God warned Samuel that he was focusing on the wrong thing.
“Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 NLT
Eventually, Samuel examined all of Jesse’s sons without receiving divine confirmation regarding any of them. That is until David showed up.
And the Lord said, “This is the one; anoint him.” – 1 Samuel 16:12 NLT
Yes, the text states that David was “dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes” (1 Samuel 16:12 NLT), but that was not the reason God chose him. The Book of Acts records that “God removed Saul and replaced him with David, a man about whom God said, ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart. He will do everything I want him to do’” (Acts 13:22 NLT).
So, this raises the question: Why does God seem to place so much emphasis on outward appearance when it comes to His priests? Is this a case of inconsistency on God’s part? The logical answer is no, because “The LORD is righteous in all his ways” (Psalm 145:17 ESV). Everything He does is right, good, perfect, and without contradiction or inconsistency.
The men who served in God’s Tabernacle were required to be physically without defect. He had already provided the means for taking care of their “heart defects.” There were sacrifices they had to make for personal atonement before they could serve in God’s house and minister on behalf of the people. Any interior “imperfections” would be taken care of through this process. But their physical flaws and defects were another matter. These outward conditions were visible for all to see and would have sent an improper message to the rest of the faith community if these men were allowed to enter the presence of God in their flawed and imperfect state.
This is not to be construed as some kind of statement regarding the diminished spiritual status of those with birth defects, diseases, deformities, or disfigurements. God was not declaring such people as spiritual outcasts or damaged goods. He was simply emphasizing the need for His priests to be both spiritually and physically “unblemished” to serve in His presence.
“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.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Leviticus, 2023 Edition
God makes His intentions perfectly clear. He is not degrading these men for physical character traits over which they have no control or say. He is simply stressing the importance of their role as His representatives and highlighting that any physical flaws they may have could end up diminishing His glory and holiness before the people.
“…because of his physical defect, he may not enter the room behind the inner curtain or approach the altar, for this would defile my holy places. I am the Lord who makes them holy.” – Leviticus 21:23 NLT
God wanted Aaron to understand that there were to be no concessions made when it came to God’s holiness. That included the holiness of God’s house, the sacrificial system, and the men who served God’s priests. Those who came into His presence must be physically and spiritually blameless and unblemished. There was to be no unsightly skin disease covered by the white, flowing robes of the priesthood. No lame, blind, or disfigured priest was allowed to offer sacrifices before Yahweh. These kinds of conditions were visual evidence of the effects of the fall. Sin’s entrance into God’s creation brought death and disease and served as constant reminders of the damaged relationship between God and all that He had made. He alone remained holy and pure, free from contamination, and completely flawless in every way. Yet, He had chosen to dwell with those who were “damaged goods.” He had come to earth and set up residence among a people who were blemished both inside and out. But their sinfulness, as evidenced by their damaged hearts and physically flawed bodies, would be a constant barrier to their relationship with Him. That’s why He gave them His law, His Tabernacle, and the sacrificial system. And it’s why He established the priesthood as a means of providing His people with spiritual leadership, intercession, and instruction. But for these men to do their job, they would have to be “without defect.”
In God’s economy, good is never good enough. He has higher standards. He places demands upon His people but also provides the means by which they can live up to those demands. He expects holiness. And while He knows His people will never be able to measure up to His standards in this life, He never lowers the bar or cuts corners. As He declared to Moses, “I am the Lord who makes them holy” (Leviticus 21:23 NLT).
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.