Search Bible Outlines and commentaries




Mark Rooker: These two chapters differ from the other chapters of this section in that the regulations given are primarily directed toward the priests. This section thus supplements Leviticus 8–10. The primary issues addressed are the qualifications of the priesthood and the proper eating by the priests of the donations given by the Israelites. . The major structural divider, however, is the introductory formula “The LORD said to Moses,” which indicates the beginning of each section.

Kenneth Mathews: Most are familiar with the expression raising the bar. The expression is derived from athletics, specifically the high jump or pole vault. The athlete must clear the bar with his jump in order to continue in the next round of attempts. At each new round the bar is raised, making the level of difficulty greater and greater. Raising the bar means raising the standard of conduct or achievement to a more demanding expectation. Leviticus 21, 22 effectively does this for Christian ministry. The standard for a Christian leader is higher than for others. The reasons for this are evident since the leader sets a pattern that influences others. Also, a leader can only qualify as a successful leader if he shows he is worthy of the position. . .

What does God say to the religious leaders of the community? In essence in both chapters he commands the priestly leadership to maintain ritual and moral purity. Since they represent the Lord as the intermediaries between God and the people, they must avoid any compromise in their conduct in religious and social matters as well as in personal moral purity. Although in these two chapters a number of the instructions sound strange to us, they have a logical explanation when we remember that the main issue is the adequacy of the priests to function in their assigned roles. What was at stake was nothing less than the spiritual survival of the people they served. If the priests failed to obey the Lord and to represent God to the people or failed to represent the people to God in the proper manner, the ongoing spiritual vitality of the relationship between the Lord and his redeemed people was threatened. A holy God cannot be misrepresented to his people, and the people cannot depend on a priesthood that is ritually unclean and morally compromised.

Allen Ross: By delineating the physical and spiritual qualifications and conduct of the priestly leaders, God claimed the totality of their lives. The point was that the priesthood was not an occupation but a life. By giving these rulings for ancient Israel the LORD was also saying something about the holy nature of the ministry that warranted such standards.

The two main subjects addressed in the chapter concerning the priests’ conduct—funerals and marriages—provide the opportunity for further theological reflection. Reading the rulings about funerals provides a better understanding of dealing with the problem of death in the eternal program of God. Likewise, the standard that the priests exemplified in their marriages also reveals a good deal more of what God intended for that institution.

Those whom God set apart for spiritual service could not defile themselves by mourning the dead or by entering unholy marriages, were disqualified from service if they had serious physical defects, and if unclean or unqualified were barred from offering and eating sacrificial food.


A. (:1-9) Prohibitions for All Priests

(:1a) Address to Moses

“Then the LORD said to Moses,

‘Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them,’”

Kenneth Mathews: The various regulations for the priests in Leviticus 21:1–9 were designed to restrain the people of God from diluting their sole allegiance to God. The temptation was to accommodate the religious life of their Canaanite neighbors whose religion was polytheistic and immoral. Since the priests were leaders of the people, their practices were especially scrutinized. They were called to instruct the people in the way of the Lord and to model the proper way to approach God in worship.

Among the instructions for the priests was a prohibition concerning their association with the dead. Contact with the dead, whether layperson or priest, resulted in ceremonial uncleanness (Numbers 19:11–22). The priests were restricted from attending funeral services except for their closest relatives, what we would call the nuclear family (vv. 1b–3). Why? The people of the ancient Near East regularly promoted family shrines where religious cults of the dead flourished. The cults of the dead involved celebratory meals following the formal funeral in which the family maintained their connection with the dead by keeping them alive, so to speak, by providing them food, drink, and sex. Orthodox Biblical religion condemned the cults of the dead because they denied the gulf between the living and the dead. There is no co-equal power or deity with the Lord God in the realm of the dead. And God is God of the living. Some mourning rites were permissible for the people and the priests, such as weeping, tearing of garments, wearing sackcloth, and loosening the hair. But any trimming of the hair’s edges on the head or mutilating the body was strictly outlawed, probably due to their association with pagan cult practices (Leviticus 19:27, 28; 21:5). The high priest was prohibited from any association with the dead, including his parents (v. 11). The reason for this extreme measure was because of the ritual status of the high priest who had been especially consecrated to God’s service in the eyes of the people.

1. (:1b-6) Regarding Dealing with Death

a. (:1b-4) Regarding Defilement from Contact with the Dead

“No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his people, 2 except for his relatives who are nearest to him, his mother and his father and his son and his daughter and his brother, 3 also for his virgin sister, who is near to him because she has had no husband; for her he may defile himself. 4 He shall not defile himself as a relative by marriage among his people, and so profane himself.”

R. K. Harrison: His young unmarried sister was included in this select category, since she would not have a husband to attend to the funeral rites, and perhaps not even parents. There is no mention of the priest’s own wife, but defilement for her sake would be expected since they were one in marriage.

b. (:5-6) Regarding Mourning Rituals

1) (:5) Prohibition of Pagan Practices

“They shall not make any baldness on their heads,

nor shave off the edges of their beards,

nor make any cuts in their flesh.”

2) (:6) Pursuit of Holiness

“They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they present the offerings by fire to the LORD, the bread of their God; so they shall be holy.”

2. (:7-9) Regarding Marriage and Family

a. (:7) Marriage Restrictions

“They shall not take a woman who is profaned by harlotry,

nor shall they take a woman divorced from her husband;

for he is holy to his God.”

b. (:8) Consecration – Pursuit of Holiness

“You shall consecrate him, therefore, for he offers the bread of your God; he shall be holy to you;

for I the LORD, who sanctifies you, am holy.”

c. (:9) Sexual Purity of Daughters – Prohibition of Pagan Practices

“Also the daughter of any priest,

if she profanes herself by harlotry,

she profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.”

R. K. Harrison: The mention of a harlot is intended to remind the Israelites that cultic prostitution of the Canaanite variety had no place whatever in the life of the covenant community, since such behaviour would profane God’s holy name. Because the priests present the holy offerings on behalf of the congregation, they are to be given the respect appropriate to such an exalted position. The holiness of the priests extends to the members of their families also, so that if a daughter indulges in immorality she profanes her father as well as herself. The punishment for so grave an offence was death by burning.

Roy Gane: A priest’s family members participate in his holiness. This is true both because they are related to him and because he shares with them the holy (but not most holy) portions of sacrificial food (cf. Lev. 22:12–13). For a priest’s daughter the good news is that she enjoys an elevated status of holiness. But this privilege carries moral responsibility. The bad news is that if she profanes/desecrates herself by promiscuity (so-called “harlotry,” but not limited to prostitution), she not only shames her father (cf. Deut. 22:20–21); she also profanes his priestly holiness. Since this is a particularly grave evil, which affects all Israelites by morally sullying the priesthood, the penalty is harsh even if she is not betrothed or married: She is to be burned (Lev. 21:9; cf. Gen. 38:24; Lev. 20:14).

John Schultz: In our eyes, it seems that the burning of a priest’s daughter who lived an immoral life was a cruel and unusual punishment. It does not say, however, that she was to be burned alive. The execution was usually carried out by stoning. I suppose that the burning was in place of a burial. The implication is that holiness is not a private affair but that it pertains to the whole family.

B. (:10-15) Prohibitions for the High Priest

1. (:10-12) Regarding Dealing with Death

a. (:10) Regarding Mourning Rituals

“And the priest who is the highest among his brothers,

on whose head the anointing oil has been poured,

and who has been consecrated to wear the garments,

shall not uncover his head, nor tear his clothes;”

Richard Hess: This is the first occurrence of the term “high priest” (hakkōhēn haggādôl, GK 3913, 1524) in the Bible and its only occurrence in Leviticus. Thus the regulations that follow pertain only to the high priest. The implication of a specific priest to serve as high priest has already been suggested, especially in Leviticus 16, where this figure performs the ceremonies on behalf of the nation. When Aaron and his sons were anointed (Lev 8–9), theirs was a unique experience. Afterwards, priests would not need to be anointed to their office (as suggested by Ex. 29:9 and especially 40:15; Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, 555). But each new high priest would go through the anointing ceremony of Leviticus 8–9 (cf. 6:22); therefore, the high priest as “the one among his brothers who has had the anointing oil poured on his head” describes a unique individual among the priests, the only one in each succeeding generation after the first who has gone through the ceremony of anointing. In addition, the distinctive clothing of the high priest (for Aaron, cf. 8:6–9 and comments) sets him off from the remainder of the priestly group.

Kenneth Mathews: Especially important to the religious life of Israel was the role of the high priest. He was special as the chief mediator between God and his people, Israel. The standards for the high priest even excelled those of the priests. Before the Lord continued addressing the priests in general, the Lord focused in verses 10–15 on the requirements demanded of the high priest. The high priest had to be discriminating in making choices pertaining to the crucial times of life—the death of loved ones and marriage to a loved one, his wife. We said above that the high priest under no circumstances could be associated with the dead, lest he become unfit to carry out his duties in the worship of God. The explanation for this uncompromising prohibition is implied by the text’s acknowledgment that he bore “the anointing oil of his God” (v. 12). This refers to the rite of Aaron’s investiture as high priest and of his sons in which they received the oil of consecration (Leviticus 8:30). These servants of the Lord stood out from the people because of the special anointing that they received. This was the gracious act of God that chose Aaron and his descendants to lead the congregation in the worship of God. In the event of a death in his family or of anyone else for that matter, Aaron was not to venture from the sanctuary to attend the funeral or its mourning rituals. For him to be in the presence of death while specially bearing the oil of holiness would profane the house of God. This shows that the behavior of the priestly leadership had an impact on the life of the community at large. Disobedience by the priests brought impurity upon the whole people.

Allen Ross: In the exposition, both of these first sections make the point that God put very high standards on those who represented him to the people. The people had to be reminded of the holiness and the hope of their covenant even in times of bereavement. After all, God was the God of the living; he created life, he preserved life, and he would restore it. The priests—of all people—could not weep and mourn as the world mourns. For them to do so made the covenant profane.

b. (:11) Regarding Defilement from Contact with the Dead

“nor shall he approach any dead person,

nor defile himself even for his father or his mother;”

c. (:12) Regarding Maintaining Sanctuary Service

“nor shall he go out of the sanctuary,

nor profane the sanctuary of his God;

for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is on him:

I am the LORD.”

Mark Rooker: The high priest was held to an even higher standard than an ordinary priest. The high priest, who is described as one having the anointing and special garments (8:30), was not to allow his hair to become unkempt or to tear his clothes (21:10; see 10:6). He was not even able to come into contact with the corpse of his father or his mother but had to be committed to maintaining the service of the tabernacle (21:11–12).

2. (:13-15) Regarding Marriage and Family

a. (:13) Marriage Requirement

“And he shall take a wife in her virginity.”

Kenneth Mathews: We can reason that the restrictions again are related to the symbolic role that the high priest played in the life of the congregation. The idea of a virgin woman was a symbol of purity in the ancient world. This tradition was carried over in our own times by the symbolic gesture of the new bride whose gown is flowing white. The mention of prostitution shows that the issue was not marriage so much as the sexual purity of the woman. It would be possible for a prostitute to have not been married before and thus could technically be available to the high priest. But the practice of prostitution, whether it was street or temple prostitution, defaced the picture that the high priest was to portray to the people. The conduct of the high priest and the character of his family life conveyed by symbolic portraits the holy character of God. If he were to have a child by a non-virgin it would have implications for his descendants who were to follow him in the priestly vocation.

John Schultz: In this case, God considered all forms of sexual relations, within the bond of marriage and outside, as impure. The virginity of the church is proof of her pure dedication to the Lord, both in the spiritual and in the moral sense. It is difficult to explain the physical proof of virginity. It is a strange phenomenon. If one adheres to the theory of evolution, the virginal membrane must be a complete mystery that, actually, refutes the theory. If it does not have a moral connotation, it is senseless, and human life is not senseless. Sometimes young Christians struggle with the question as to why pre-marital sex is morally wrong. We see only the right perspective if we understand the reality of which marriage is the image. Just as the marriage of a High Priest had to be the expression of the spiritual reality, so should the marriage of every child of God be. Marriage is holy matrimony because God is holy and the relationship between God and man is holy. Our relationship with God sanctifies us and our marriage and our children.

b. (:14) Marriage Restrictions

“A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is profaned by harlotry, these he may not take;

but rather he is to marry a virgin of his own people;”

c. (:15) Protection of Sanctification of His Offspring

“that he may not profane his offspring among his people:

for I am the LORD who sanctifies him.'”


(:16-17a) Address to Moses

“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 17 ‘Speak to Aaron, saying,’”

Kenneth Mathews: The animal and grain offerings were offered by the worshippers as “food offerings” to the Lord at his house, that is, the Tent of Meeting. Since God is complete and perfect in all his attributes and actions, it would be unfitting to approach God through anyone or with anything that would manifestly appear imperfect or incomplete. Therefore, the priests who served the Lord were to be whole in appearance, not having any obvious physical disorder. The word “blemish” repeatedly occurs in the passage, describing the disqualification of the priest.

A. (:17b-21) Physical Defects Disqualify Priests from Offering Bread in the Sanctuary

1. (:17b) Command Stated

“No man of your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect shall approach to offer the bread of his God.”

2. (:18-20) Command Detailed with Examples

“For no one who has a defect shall approach: a blind man, or a lame man, or he who has a disfigured face, or any deformed limb, 19 or a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, 20 or a hunchback or a dwarf, or one who has a defect in his eye or eczema or scabs or crushed testicles.”

3. (:21) Command Repeated

“No man among the descendants of Aaron the priest, who has a defect, is to come near to offer the LORD’s offerings by fire; since he has a defect, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God.”

R. K. Harrison: The person who approaches the sanctuary as God’s priest must be as free from physical imperfections as the sacrificial animal that he offers. A priest who is blemished physically is prohibited from presenting sacrificial offerings, but can still partake of sacrificial meat (cf. Lev. 2:3, 10; 6:17–18, 29). The imperfections listed included blindness, facial mutilations, limbs of uneven length such as could result from poliomyelitis, hunchback, whether a congenital deformity or the product of some ailment such as spinal tuberculosis, achondroplasia or dwarfism, and itching diseases of various kinds. A castrate, or a man suffering from orchiotrophy (20), was also blemished and therefore unfit for sanctuary duties. Genetic mutations such as polydactyly would also exclude a person from the priesthood, and although such conditions were rare they undoubtedly existed in Old Testament times (cf. 2 Sam. 21:20). Physical normality and ceremonial holiness are closely associated here, the inference being that the priests can be most effective in God’s service only when they are in ordinary health and free from physical imperfections. These prerequisites are very important, if only because of the emotional and sometimes physical strain that the conscientious servant of God experiences in ministering the things of eternal life. In all things God must be glorified, and his holiness is profaned by anything that is obviously less than perfect, whether it be sacrificial animal or a sacrificing priest.

Wiersbe: Another reason for this requirement, may have been that the priests typified the coming Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, in whom was “no defect.”

B. (:22-23) Physical Defects Do Not Disqualify the Priests from Eating the Bread

1. (:22) Permission to Eat the Bread

“He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy,”

Peter Pett: They were not excluded from the privileges of priesthood, only from the carrying out of its ministry in the sanctuary. Thus they could partake of the priestly offerings, even those which were most holy of which only the priests could partake. But they were excluded from the Holy Place, from approaching the veil, and from approaching the altar to minister on it. They could, however, presumably carry out the teaching and judicial functions which were incumbent on the priests. . .

Thankfully for us it is not blemishes like this which will in our case prevent our full approach to God. Rather are we restricted by the blemishes in our hearts. Spiritual crookedness, blindness, deafness, dumbness, smallness, distortedness, are all things which prevent us from being heard by God and from serving Him.

2. (:23a) Prohibition from Profaning the Holy Things

“only he shall not go in to the veil or come near the altar

because he has a defect,

that he may not profane My sanctuaries.”

Allen Ross: 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. These laws concerned the requirements for those entering the actual presence of God with the sacrificial blood. How could a priest require purification from defilement and disease if he himself was defiled? The restrictions were meant to teach that physical defects, illness, and disease were incompatible with the holiness of God.

Wiersbe: We have no reason to believe any disqualified priest was treated like a second-class citizen in the camp of Israel. While priests with physical defects couldn’t serve at the altar or in the holy place, they were still considered priests and were allowed to share with their families in the sacrificial means (Lev. 2:3, 10; 6:14-18) and the other material benefits that the tribe of Levi enjoyed.

3. (:23b) Principle Involved

“For I am the LORD who sanctifies them.”


“So Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the sons of Israel.”