1 And the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people, 2 except for his closest relatives, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, 3 or his virgin sister (who is near to him because she has had no husband; for her he may make himself unclean). 4 He shall not make himself unclean as a husband among his people and so profane himself. 5 They shall not make bald patches on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts on their body. 6 They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God. For they offer the Lord‘s food offerings, the bread of their God; therefore they shall be holy. 7 They shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled, neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband, for the priest is holy to his God. 8 You shall sanctify him, for he offers the bread of your God. He shall be holy to you, for I, the Lord, who sanctify you, am holy. 9 And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.
10 “The priest who is chief among his brothers, on whose head the anointing oil is poured and who has been consecrated to wear the garments, shall not let the hair of his head hang loose nor tear his clothes. 11 He shall not go in to any dead bodies nor make himself unclean, even for his father or for his mother. 12 He shall not go out of the sanctuary, lest he profane the sanctuary of his God, for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is on him: I am the Lord. 13 And he shall take a wife in her virginity. 14 A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people, 15 that he may not profane his offspring among his people, for I am the Lord who sanctifies him.” – Leviticus 21:1-15 ESV
A life of holiness was a non-negotiable requirement for all of God’s people but it was especially important for those men who served as priests and intermediaries between Yahweh and His chosen people. So beginning in chapter 21 and running all the way through Leviticus 22:16, God turns His attention to the priesthood. Aaron and his sons had been given the responsibility of ministering within God’s house, the Tabernacle, where He had promised that His holy presence would reside. Their vital role within the sacrificial system established by God required them to live up to a more stringent set of standards. God had given them the responsibility of serving as spiritual instructors for His people.
“You must distinguish between what is sacred and what is common, between what is ceremonially unclean and what is clean. And you must teach the Israelites all the decrees that the Lord has given them through Moses.” – Leviticus 10:10-11 NLT
And they were to teach by example as well as by word. And it’s interesting to note that when Jesus was describing the religious teachers of His day, He basically recommended that His disciples do as they say, but not as they do.
“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach.” – Matthew 23:2-3 NLT
There was no room for hypocrisy and duplicity in the life of God’s priestly leaders. Their lives belonged to God and they served on His behalf and at His behest. Their role as priests was not a job, but a calling. Yawheh had set apart Aaron, his sons, and the rest of the men of the tribe of Levi, and given them the mission of serving as His ministers and as emissaries to the rest of the nation of Israel.
God wanted His priests to understand and embrace the importance of their calling, so He provided them with a diverse range of regulations and rulings that concerned matters that might disqualify them for service. Anything that could result in their ceremonial defilement was to be avoided at all costs. These men were to take special precautions to maintain their purity and preserve their holiness. Their intimate connection with the Tabernacle required that they pay special attention to every area of their daily lives. Most of these commands have to do with their “off-duty” hours when they were not serving in their official capacity as priests. But even when they weren’t “on the clock,” they were to remain vigilant about their spiritual purity.
Death was a daily reality among the Israelites. The elderly passed away from natural causes. Others died from injuries or accidents. Disease and illness took their toll on some. But in all of this, the priests were never to allow themselves to become defiled by coming into contact with a dead body. Should this happen, they would become ceremonially unclean and unfit for service. But God gave a special exemption in terms of family members.
“The only exceptions are his closest relatives—his mother or father, son or daughter, brother, or his virgin sister who depends on him because she has no husband.” – Leviticus 21:2-3 NLT
In all other cases, the priests were to avoid any and all contact with the dead. And not only that, the priests were prohibited from imitating the mourning rituals of the pagan religions of the Canaanites. God strictly forbade His priests from shaving their heads, trimming their beards, or cutting their bodies. God had already addressed these issues back in chapter 19.
“Do not trim off the hair on your temples or trim your beards. Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:27-28 NLT
None of the Israelites were to practice the occult-like rituals of the Canaanites. But these kinds of practices were especially off-limits for the priests of Yahweh, and rightfully so.
“Not only did such rituals show the priest mourning the dad, but they involved mutilation of the body and possibly suggested pagan veneration of the dead.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus
God demanded that Moses and the people of Israel treat the priests as holy “because they offer up food to your God. You must consider them holy because I, the Lord, am holy, and I make you holy” (Leviticus 21:8 NLT). In a sense, it behooved the people of Israel to help protect the purity of the priesthood because of their vital role in the sacrificial system. Unholy priests would be of no help when it came to seeking atonement from God. So, it was incumbent upon all the people to assist the priests in their pursuit of holiness.
That’s why God addressed the subject of priests and marriage. They were strictly prohibited from marrying women who were prostitutes or divorced. To do so would result in their defilement and disqualification for priestly service. And God considered prostitution so dangerous to priestly purity that He actually addressed what to do if a daughter of a priest was found to be a prostitute.
“…the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.” – Leviticus 21:9 ESV
This was serious business to God. The daughter’s willful actions negatively impacted her father’s holiness thereby invalidating him from priestly service to the Lord, and the only way to remedy the problem was to remove the impurity – permanently. Most likely, the woman was to be executed, then her body was to be burned. This would serve to purify the father from defilement and restore his ability to perform his role as a priest.
Verses 10-15 address the high priest in particular. As the highest-ranking member of the priesthood, Aaron was placed under even stricter requirements. When it came to mourning the death of a loved one, he was not allowed to “leave his hair uncombed or tear his clothing” (Leviticus 21:10 NLT). As the spiritual leader of God’s people, he was not permitted the luxury of mourning like everyone else. He represented God at all times. So, God denied him the right to mourn like everyone else. He was not allowed to go anywhere near a dead body, even if it belonged to his own father or mother. And God gave the reason for this harsh-sounding restriction.
“He must not defile the sanctuary of his God by leaving it to attend to a dead person, for he has been made holy by the anointing oil of his God. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 21:12 NLT
Even the death of a parent was not to distract the high priest from his calling as the mediator between God and His people. God had set Him apart for His service alone. Others would have to mourn the dead because the high priest had been set apart to worship the living God. And this principle is echoed by the words of Jesus found in the gospel of Matthew. One day, Jesus was approached by a young man who expressed the desire to be His disciple but he gave the excuse, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (Matthew 8:21 NLT). But Jesus gave what sounded like a harsh and compassionless response.
And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” – Matthew 8:22 NLT
Some commentators believe the issue was that the young man was postponing his commitment and using the future death of his father as an excuse. They speculate that the death of the young man’s father was not imminent but only inevitable. There was no funeral about to take place. The young man was simply hoping to delay his commitment to a later date. But it makes more sense to see this passage through the lens of Leviticus 21. Jesus was calling on this man to make serving God his highest priority, placing greater value on following the Lord of life than in mourning the dead.
Even when it came to marriage, the high priest had to answer to his higher calling. God prohibited Aaron and his successors from marrying a woman who was a widow, divorced, or a known prostitute. And whoever the high priest ended up marrying was required to be “a virgin from his own clan” (Leviticus 21:14 NLT). The wife of the high priest was expected to help maintain his holiness and provide him with future offspring who might serve in his place upon his death. Purity was essential. Holiness was critical. Because the high priest and his associates represented God at all times. Of all people within the camp of Israel, they were expected to pursue and maintain personal holiness at all costs and at all times.
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.