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(MT versing)
Regulations Concerning Priests Regulations for Conduct of Priests
Instructions to the Priests
The Holiness of the Priests The Holiness of the Priesthood
a. the priests
21:1a 21:1-4 21:1a 21:1-4 21:1a
21:1b-9 21:1b-9 21:1b-4
21:5-9 21:5-9 21:5-6
b. the High Priest
21:10-15 21:10-15 21:10-15 21:10-15 21:10-12
c. impediments to the priesthood
21:16-24 21:16-24 21:16-24 21:16-23 21:16
21:24 21:24

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")

This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.
  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Etc.


  1. This chapter addresses
    1. priests (Lev. 21:1-9)
    2. Aaron, the High Priest (Lev. 21:10-15)
    3. things that disqualify a person of the tribe of Levi from being a priest (Lev. 21:16-24)

  2. It deals with certain qualifications which deal with "holiness."
    1. how and for whom they grieve
    2. who they marry
    3. their physical appearance (i.e., "no defect")

  3. As the people are to be holy (cf. Lev. 11:44; 19:2; 20:24,26), so too, the priests (cf. Lev. 21:6,7,8; also note "sanctifies," Lev. 21:8,15,23).


1Then the Lord said to Moses, "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them:"

1b"'No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his people, 2except for his relatives who are nearest to him, his mother and his father and his son and his daughter and his brother, 3also for his virgin sister, who is near to him because she has had no husband; for her he may defile himself. 4He shall not defile himself as a relative by marriage among his people, and so profane himself. 5They shall not make any baldness on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts in their flesh. 6They 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 food of their God; so they shall be holy. 7They 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. 8You shall consecrate him, therefore, for he offers the food of your God; he shall be holy to you; for I the Lord, who sanctifies you, am holy. 9Also the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by harlotry, she profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.'"

21:1b "No one shall defile himself" This refers to a priest. Several categories are mentioned.

  1. who they grieve for, Lev. 21:1-6,10-11
  2. who they marry, Lev. 21:7,13-15
  3. their family, specifically their daughters, Lev. 21:9
  4. no physical defect (for animals see Lev. 22:12-25)
    1. blind (even in one eye)
    2. lame
    3. disfigured face (from Hebrew root "to split," BDB 356 II)
    4. deformed limb (JPSOA footnote, "a limb too long")
    5. broken foot or hand
    6. hunchback (or misshaped brow, BDB 148)
    7. dwarf
    8. eye problems (BDB 744, visible to another person, i.e., discoloration, marks, etc.)
    9. eczema (BDB 173, cf. Lev. 21:20; 22:22; Deut. 28:27)
    10. scabs (BDB 410, cf. Lev. 21:20; Deut. 22:22)
    11. crushed testicle (Peshitta, "has one testicle")
  5. what and where he may eat his portion of the sacrifices, Lev. 21:22-23

▣ "defile" This VERB (BDB 379, KB 375, Hithpael IMPERFECT) means "to become unclean." In chapters 21-22 it is translated by NASB as

  1. defile, Lev. 21:1,3,11
  2. profane, Lev. 21:4
  3. unclean, Lev. 22:5,6,8

This defilement can come from several areas of life.

  1. sexual (i.e., Leviticus 18)
  2. idolatry (i.e., Leviticus 19)
  3. food (i.e., Leviticus 11)
  4. here, for grieving rites (see SPECIAL TOPIC: GRIEVING RITES)

21:2 Leviticus 21:2 seems to contradict 21:11, but apparently verse 2 deals with priests but verse 11 deals with the High Priest.

21:3 This makes an exception. YHWH's laws often made exceptions for vulnerable people. He cares for the widow, orphan, alien, and here the unwed sister.

21:4 This verse is uncertain in meaning (i.e., JPSOA footnote). The UBS Handbook, p. 316, calls it "the most difficult verse in the entire book." Some see it as

  1. a restatement of Lev. 21:1b (Jewish Study Bible, p. 259).
  2. the NET Bible, p. 258; NIDOTTE, vol. 2, p. 148; and NIC (OT), Leviticus, p. 290, think it refers to being involved in the burial of a relative by marriage. This is in contrast to "flesh" relatives (i.e., "one flesh," i.e., Gen. 1:23) who are mentioned in Lev. 21:2-3.
  3. R. K. Harrison, Tyndale OT, vol. 32, p. 209, suggests "He shall not defile himself, being a leader among the people, thus profaning himself."
  4. Keil, p. 430, sees it as a foreshadow of the statement in Lev. 21:7.

21:5 These grieving rites are somehow connected to pagan rituals (cf. Lev. 19:27-28; Deut. 14:1-2). Israel must be distinct from her pagan neighbors, even in their funerals!

Later in Ezek. 44:20, there are two related rules.

  1. priests shall not shave their heads
  2. priests must trim their hair (i.e., head and beard)

21:6 "They shall be holy" As the nation of Israel must be "holy" (cf. Lev. 11:44; 19:2; 20:24,26), so too, must her priests (cf. Lev. 21:6,7,8, same concept as "sanctified" in Lev. 21:15,23).

Since they work in YHWH's Tabernacle and deal with His sacrifices, they must be pure!

▣ "God. . .Lord" Notice the two most common names for Deity.

  1. Elohim (three times), which denotes God as creator, sustainer of all life on this planet (see SPECIAL TOPIC: NAMES FOR DEITY, C.
  2. YHWH (once), which denotes God as Savior, Redeemer, Covenant-making God (see SPECIAL TOPIC: NAMES FOR DEITY, D, cf. Lev. 21:8,23; Gen. 2:4).

▣ "the food of their God" This phrase is repeated several times in this chapter (cf. Lev. 21:6,8,17,21,22). See full note at Lev. 3:11; also see SPECIAL TOPIC: A SOOTHING AROMA.

R. K. Harrison, Tyndale OT, vol. 3, p. 210, suggests that "bread" (BDB 536) is an ancient sacrificial term for "flesh" (i.e., Lev. 3:11,16; 21:21).

21:7 The family life of the priests is also important to God. A priest may be defiled by it.

  1. he should not marry
    1. a prostitute, Lev. 21:7,18 (i.e., lost her virginity)
    2. a sacred prostitute (Lev. 17:7; 19:29)
    3. a divorced woman
    4. a widow involved in prostitution, Lev. 21:14
  2. he should marry a virgin, Lev. 21:13-14
  3. of his own tribe, Lev. 21:14 (but LXX); Targums have "from his people" meaning another Israelite)
  4. because his seed (either sperm or offspring) is holy

▣ "profaned" This ADJECTIVE (BDB 321 II) normally refers to someone slain or morbidly wounded in battle. Only here and in Lev. 21:14 does it refer to the metaphorical sense of "wounded" by improper sexual activity.

▣ "divorced" See full note at Deut. 24:1-4.

21:9 This verse seems to refer to "cultic" prostitution (i.e., fertility worship; see SPECIAL TOPIC: FERTILITY WORSHIP OF THE ANE). This same injunction was given to all Israelites in Lev. 19:29.

Notice the verse mentions capital punishment by fire (cf. Gen. 38:24; Lev. 20:14; rabbis say the incest rules of Leviticus 18; see SPECIAL TOPIC: FIRE). The other method was stoning by the whole community (cf. Lev. 20:2,27).

10"'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; 11nor shall he approach any dead person, nor defile himself even for his father or his mother; 12nor 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. 13He shall take a wife in her virginity. 14A 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, 15so that he will not profane his offspring among his people; for I am the Lord who sanctifies him.'"

NASB  "the priest who is the highest"
NKJV, TEV, REB, Peshitta  "the High Priest"
NRSV, JPSOA  "the priest who is exalted"
NJB  "the priest who is pre-eminent"
LXX  "the priest who is great"

This refers to Aaron who is directly addressed in Lev. 21:17. The consecration of Aaron and his sons is described in Leviticus 8-10.

▣ "on whose head the anointing oil has been poured" See Exod. 29:7; 30:25,30; Lev. 8:12; Ps. 133:2. See SPECIAL TOPIC: "ANOINTING" IN THE BIBLE.

▣ "shall not uncover his head, nor tear his clothes" This is specifically mentioned in connection to YHWH killing Aaron's two sons in lev. 10:6,7. Here, it seems to refer to grieving rites over dead relatives and friends in a general sense (cf. Lev. 21:11). See SPECIAL TOPIC: GRIEVING RITES.

21:11 "dead person" The word nephesh (see note at Lev. 4:2b), here refers to a body without life. Nephesh refers to air-breathing animals on this planet. A human corpse does not breathe and is in the process of decay. This is why touching it makes one unclean.

21:12 This prohibition is directed at two different things.

  1. Do not leave the Tabernacle while on official duties (cf. Lev. 10:7).
  2. Do not enter the Tabernacle in a ceremonially unclean state.

21:13-15 See notes at Lev. 21:7.

16Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17"Speak to Aaron, saying, 'No man of your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect shall approach to offer the food of his God. 18For 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, 19or a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, 20or a hunchback or a dwarf, or one who has a defect in his eye or eczema or scabs or crushed testicles. 21No 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 food of his God. 22He may eat the food of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy, 23only he shall not go in to the veil or come near the altar because he has a defect, so that he will not profane My sanctuaries. For I am the Lord who sanctifies them.'" 24So Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the sons of Israel.

21:16-21 "who has a defect" The defects (see full note at Lev. 21:1, #4) seem cruel to moderns but it was just another way to publically, physically show the purity of God's worship and leadership.

It is possible that these defects were somehow a part of pagan worship.

21:17 "the food of his God" See note at Lev. 21:6.

21:20 "hunchback" This NOUN (BDB 148) is found only here. It may refer to

  1. the spine (JPSOA)
  2. the brow (some ancient rabbis; Peshitta, NEB, REB)

▣ "his sight" This is the simple NOUN for "eye" (BDB 744). It appears to refer, not to a priest's sight (that is covered in Lev. 21:18), but to the eye's appearance to others.

  1. discolored
  2. two different colored eyes
  3. flakes in eye color
  4. marks in the white area

The LXX translates the second and third terms in Lev. 21:20 as referring to sight.

21:22-23 These verses affirm what the priest may do.

  1. eat of the "most holy" (i.e., sacrifices where the blood was taken into the shrine)
  2. eat of the "holy" (i.e., sacrifices where the blood was put only on/at the altar of sacrifice)


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

  1. Why was a dead person considered unclean?
  2. What does Lev. 21:5 refer to?
  3. Was capital punishment by burning (Lev. 21:9) a common practice?
  4. Why were people with physical deformities banned from being a priest?
  5. What is the difference between "holy" and "most holy"?

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