Leviticus 21

The Word Made Fresh

1The LORD said to Moses, “Tell the sons of Aaron that priests must not come into contact with the body of someone who dies 2unless it is his closest relative: mother, father, son, daughter, brother, 3or unmarried sister. Since she has no husband, he may touch her dead body and render himself unavailable for priestly duties. 4But he must not render himself unavailable for his duties for anyone related to him by marriage.

5“A priest must not shave his head, trim the edges of his beard or cut himself. 6He must keep himself available to his God and not dishonor God because he offers food sacrifices to the LORD by fire and must keep himself uncontaminated.

7“Priests may not marry a prostitute, or any woman who is not a virgin; they must not marry a divorcee. Priests are to remain set apart for God, 8and they must be treated as such. Since they offer the sacrifices to God they are holy to you because I, the LORD, who has set them apart, am holy. 9If the daughter of a priest dishonors herself through prostitution, she dishonors her father as well, and must be put to death by fire.

10“The priest who is separated from his brothers, and anointed as high priest, and set apart to wear the priestly garments must not let his hair be disheveled or his clothing be torn. 11He must not approach a dead body. He must not defile himself, even for his own parents. 12He must not leave the sanctuary and dishonor his God because he has been set apart by the anointing oil that was poured upon him. I am the LORD. 13He must marry only a virgin. 14He must not marry a widow, or a divorcee, or a woman who is not a virgin, or a prostitute. He must marry a virgin from among his own people, 15so that his own children will not be degraded among his people; for I am the LORD, and I have set him apart.”

16The LORD said to Moses, 17“Tell Aaron that none of his descendants who has a defect may offer sacrifices to his God. 18No one who has any defect may approach me, including anyone who is blind or lame or is scarred or has disproportionate limbs, 19or a broken foot or hand, 20or whose back is hunched, or is of small stature, or has something wrong with his eyes, or has a disease that itches him, or has visible scabs or damaged testicles. 21None of Aaron’s descendants who have such a blemish may come near to offer sacrifices to his God.  22He may eat the food of the sacrifices, whether it be sacred or most holy, 23but he must not come near the curtain or the altar.”

24Moses gave these instructions to Aaron and his sons before all the people.


1-9: This chapter consists of rules for the priests who are set apart to “offer the food of your God.” This phrase should not be taken to mean that they are feeding God, but simply that the food they offer belongs to God. Priests are the ones who stand between the people and the Most High and therefore must observe a stricter code of holiness. They must not touch a corpse, unless it is to care for the body of a deceased parent, child, brother, or unmarried sister. Priests also must observe a stricter code when it comes to marriage; a list is given of women they cannot marry. The stricter code accrues also to the priests’ daughters — the sons will become priests and other restrictions will apply to them. If the daughter of a priest engages in prostitution she is to be burned — only the second place in scripture where burning is the prescribed form of execution (see Leviticus 20:14), and in both cases sexual sin across generational lines is involved.

10-15: High priests (“the priest who is exalted above his fellows”), who are the only ones authorized to ever enter the Most Holy place, must observe even stricter rules. They are not allowed to handle any corpses at all, even of parent or child. They may only marry a virgin. The reason given for these greater restrictions is that the priest serves in an office that brings them into closer proximity to the throne of God. In our time, those who are set apart for ministry are expected to have a more exalted code of behavior than the average person in the pew.

16-24: Priests who have a “blemish” are not allowed into the Most Holy place nor may place offerings upon the great altar, although they are entitled to eat the portions reserved for priests. This restriction seems cruel to us who live in a culture that is increasingly emphasizing the notion of inclusiveness. But in their time, it is an appropriate restriction; it acknowledges that the office of the priests who minister in the tabernacle is neither a right nor a privilege of the descendants of Aaron, but rather a duty assigned by God. It does not mean that God rejects persons who have a “blemish,” but simply reflects the conviction that the closer one gets to the throne of God (the “mercy seat” on the ark of the covenant), the narrower the qualifications should be.


The priesthood was to stand as a sort of buffer between the people and God as well as the connection between the people and God. They were therefore held to a stricter code of behavior than the average Israelite. This may seem odd to us, but even in our own culture those who are set apart for religious service are expected to observe the code of behavior God wants all of us to follow.