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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 21

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



(1.) Manhood, or more precisely the twentieth year, is reputed in Jewish tradition to be the term before which none might act as priest. But there is no age limit in the law. It is supposed that the priests are included in the law of the Levites, which debars from service until thirty years of age. See Numbers 4:3; Luke 3:23, notes.

(2.) Deformed sons of Aaron, according to Josephus, were found inside the railing which divided the court of the priests from that of the people, wearing the common dress, performing subordinate services, and receiving the portions which were their due in virtue of their descent. Not all Aaronites, even when possessed of the legal qualifications, were really priests in office. Benaiah was a military general See 2 Samuel 8:18; 2 Samuel 20:23; 1Ki 2:25 ; 1 Chronicles 27:5.

Verse 1

1. Be defiled Contract ceremonial impurity and disqualification for the priestly offices by entering the tent or house where there is a dead body.

Numbers 19:14.

For the dead Literally, “for a soul” in the sense of “ person,” the word “dead” being understood. See Numbers 5:2, note.

Verses 1-6


The call to the priesthood and the holy anointing do not make the priests less human, nor eradicate the tender sensibilities which bind man to his fellow. Yet to preserve the dignity of the office, and to impress upon the priest the idea that his chief duties are to God and not to man, he is cut off from all acts of formal mourning except for those who are closely bound to him by the ties of blood. Since bodily deformities are often the results of sin in the parent or in the individual, and are, moreover, suggestive of moral failings, dwarfs and persons maimed and crippled were to be kept from the sacred office.

Verses 1-24

HOLINESS IN THE PRIESTS, Leviticus 21:1 to Leviticus 22:16.

Jehovah, having given general statutes to conserve the purity of Israel, now proceeds to legislate for the priests, whose character and conduct are so intimately connected with his declarative glory. The mass of men must very largely obtain their conception of the moral character of God from the moral character of those who minister at his altars and are supposed to be in his favour. A pure religion cannot be promulgated by an impure priesthood. Hence these words were ever ringing in the ears of the sons of Aaron: “Be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord.” Since a man’s family is in a sense a part of his personality, especially among the Hebrews, (Joshua 7:24, note,) and reflects his character, the requirement of holiness extends to his wife and children, in which particular the offices of deacon and elder or bishop in the New Testament are strikingly similar to the Levitical priesthood. See 1 Timothy 3:0.

Verse 2

2. His kin, that is near The nearness, or “remainder of flesh,” includes all within the first degree of consanguinity, and a portion of the kin within the second. By a glance at the table at the end of chap. xviii it will be seen that of the second degree of consanguinity the grandparent, the grandchild, and the married sister are not to be mourned for, while all the kindred by marriage, whatever the degree, even the wife, are prohibited to the priest for mourning, if we adopt the exclusive interpretation. The case of Ezekiel, the prophet-priest, in Ezekiel 24:16-18, who was expressly forbidden to exhibit the customary tokens of mourning for his deceased wife, would seem to prove that the wife was not excluded in the law of priestly mourning. Keil argues that the wife is included in the near of kin from the fact that she is pronounced to be of “one flesh” with her husband.

Genesis 2:24. Yet we confess that this verse has every appearance of an exhaustive and exclusive catalogue.

Verse 4

4. Being a chief man The exegesis of this verse is much disputed. Some, as Knobel, connect it with the preceding verses, and interpret the “chief man” baal to signify husband, who is expressly forbidden to mourn for his wife. Out of twenty-three times, it is rendered husband six times in the Pentateuch. Others, with Keil, connect this verse with Leviticus 21:7, and understand it as a general prohibition which is specialized in that verse as relating to an immoral wife or daughter. The weight of argument seems to be with Knobel. Nevertheless, Ezekiel 24:16-18, has been rightly adduced against this view, where it is counted strange that Ezekiel, a priest, does not mourn for his wife.

Verse 5

5. Not make baldness This forbids the priests to shave a bald place above the forehead “between the eyes” a practice customary in mourning for the dead, as is seen in Deuteronomy 14:1, where it is forbidden to all Israelites. It was allowed to the Nazarite when his time of separation had expired. Numbers 6:18; Acts 18:18; Acts 21:24.

Beard… cuttings in their flesh See Leviticus 19:27-28, notes. St. Paul, not without indignation, refers to this prohibition ( ου κατατεμνουσιν ) when he stigmatizes the antichristian Jews as την κατατομην , the mutilation.

Philippians 3:2. In Jeremiah 9:26; Jeremiah 25:23 we have a valuable marginal reading, “having the corners of their hair polled,” or “those with whiskers cropped,” as descriptive of the Arabians. It seems to have been the purpose of the lawgiver to keep the Israelites distinct from other nations in their very countenances.

Verse 6

6. Holy unto their God See Leviticus 10:3; Leviticus 11:44; Leviticus 19:2, notes. This denotes entire consecration to God and perfect assimilation to his moral character.

Not profane See Leviticus 18:21, note.

The bread of their God See Leviticus 3:11, note.

Therefore they shall be holy Holiness of service demands holiness of character. It is astonishing how much is said about holiness in this book. See Introduction, (8.)

Verse 7


7. Whore A woman wilfully wanton.

Profane Hebrew, profaned or dishonoured in any way, whether by violence or with consent.

Put away A divorced woman may be perfectly virtuous, but the priest’s wife, like Caesar’s, must be above suspicion. He may marry a widow, unless he be a high priest. See Leviticus 21:14. We call attention to the absence of all limitations as to nationality. The priest might marry a non-Israelite if not an idolater; but not a Canaanite, because of their idolatry, nor an Ammonite nor a Moabite, on account of national antipathy. Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3; Deuteronomy 23:3. From Leviticus 21:14 we infer that he was permitted to marry a widow, as Josephus declares. Others infer from Ezekiel 44:22 that he could marry only the widow of a priest.

Verse 9

9. Daughter of any priest Not only must the priest’s lips keep knowledge, but he must also exemplify in his family the holy religion of which he is the appointed guardian and teacher. The special safeguard of this law may have arisen from the fact that the priest’s home was less guarded than were those of other people, owing to his absence when ministering. Perhaps without this law Gentile ritualistic fornication might have been introduced.

She shall be burnt After being stoned her body shall be burned, in order to impress upon the people the heinousness of sin in the high places of Israel. See Leviticus 20:14, note. The fires of the divine wrath blaze with the hottest flame around the holy altars.

Verse 10

10. High priest… shall not uncover his head Aaron was forbidden to mourn for his own sons. See Leviticus 10:6. This is the first occurrence of “high priest” in the Pentateuch. He is otherwise described as the priest, and is more precisely designated by the expression, “which was anointed with the holy oil.”

Verse 11

11. Neither… go in to any dead body Literally, dead soul. The Hebrew nephesh is here used in the sense of the common expression, “dead person,” without meaning to say that the personality lies in the body. Rhetoricians call this metonymy. Delitzsch, in his Biblical Psychology, suggests that the corpse is called nephesh because it bears the fresh traces of the soul imprinted upon it in parting. Since the destruction of the temple the Jews have ceased, generally, to consider themselves as polluted by being in the presence of a dead body, but the touch is still polluting. “Modern times have afforded instances where persons, in their misguided affection, have pressed the cold lips of the dead, and taken thence disease which has laid them in the grave; and it is well known that the slightest wound inflicted by a dissecting instrument almost inevitably produces death. Against such sad consequences the Mosaic law most carefully guarded the Israelites. Contrary to the usages of the eastern world, where the dead were sometimes embalmed and preserved, or where the living and the dead were consumed together in the flames, the Jews were taught that death was a curse, that its presence was defiling, that the living were to be carefully separated from the dead, and that any person who touched a dead body thereby became unclean, and was not allowed to touch any other person or thing until he had passed a period of separation and had been thoroughly bathed. Modern science cannot fail to recognise the utility of such restrictions; and many precious lives might have been saved by paying attention to the sanitary instructions which are embodied in the Mosaic law.” H.L. Hastings. The high priest must never knowingly contract ceremonial pollution. He would be rendered unclean by entering a house where there was a corpse. See Leviticus 21:1, note. “He who indeed reflects the whole fulness of a holy life must be freed from all polluting fellowship with death, and not even come in contact with the corpses of his parents; his priestly rule in the sanctuary may not be interrupted by any consideration whatever of natural bonds, otherwise regarded as most holy.” Oehler. But Jesus, the “undefiled” High Priest of our race, touched the dead and was not defiled, because he was the Prince of Life. He was like the element of fire, which purifies other things without itself contracting impurity.

Verse 12

12. Neither shall he go out of the sanctuary During the time spent in the service in the tabernacle, he shall not interrupt, abridge, or postpone his service for the purpose of visiting the sick, dying, or dead. No possible event could occur in the camp which could justify the neglect of Jehovah’s honour. In this respect Jesus Christ was exercising the prerogative of the high priest when he said, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

Crown of the anointing A metaphorical expression denoting the excellency of the oil, and the dignity its use conferred. It symbolized the Holy Spirit, the crowning gift of the Father to the Son at his baptism: through Christ’s mediation it is bestowed upon all perfect believers, as the greatest gift that man can wish or Heaven can send. 1Jn 2:20 ; 1 John 2:27. Dr. A. Clarke suggests that the regal dignity of our Lord is prefigured by this crown, his sacrificial character by his office, and his prophetic influence by his anointing. The Samaritan MS. has “crown of the excellency.”

Verses 13-14

1 3, 14 .

A wife in her virginity The high priest’s range of choice is made narrower than the priest’s by the elimination of the widows and non-Israelites. His marriage with a virgin beautifully sets forth the character of the Church of Christ espoused unto her Lord as a “chaste virgin.” See 2 Corinthians 11:2. Hindoo priests can marry only virgins. This law was probably borrowed from Judaism. If the Hebrew high priest married outside of the prescribed limits, he profaned his seed, or disqualified his sons for the priesthood. This penalty was sufficient to deter the high priest, or the candidates for this office, from violation of this precept.

Verses 17-24


The arduous labours demanded of the priests required that they should be able-bodied men. Moreover, it was necessary that there should be a correspondence between the perfect physique of the priests and the unblemished victims offered to the perfect God. The incongruity of a blind man, a dwarf, or a cripple, figuring in the solemn and majestic ritual of the altar, would have exposed the service to ridicule. Since the service of the altar was minutely prescribed, neither genius nor high intellectual qualities were requisite, but an unblemished form with mind enough to follow the directions of the law. Thus it is found that ceremonial religions always repress genius, while those forms of religion which depend more upon the inculcation and intellectual and spiritual apprehension of the truth give scope to the development of mental power in the office of the prophet, the teacher, and the preacher.

Verse 18

18. Blemish The blemishes may be classified as 1.) essential physical defects, rendering the adequate performance of the service impossible, and 2.) aesthetical defects, where the powers may be unimpaired but the appearance is repulsive. Of the former are the blind, the lame, and various kinds of maimed.

A flat nose Furst, following the Seventy, renders it snub-nosed. The Vulgate has three nasal blemishes, si parvo, vel grandi, vel torto naso, “if he has a small, or a huge, or a twisted nose.”

Superfluous The original occurs elsewhere only in Leviticus 22:23, and Isaiah 28:20, and seems to signify limbs disproportioned in length. The Vulgate limits it to the nose. The Seventy translates it “with the ears cropped or slit.” The Targum of Palestine says, “mutilated in the thigh.”

Keil inclines to our English rendering any thing superfluous, as more than ten fingers or toes, or any thing beyond what is normal, such as an ill-formed bodily member.

Verse 20

20. A dwarf This signifies one who is lean or consumptive, or having a withered limb. Onkelos and several versions render it sore-eyed.

Blemish in his eye Either a suppuration, dropping of the eye, or having white spots or stripes.

Scurvy, or scabbed These words in Hebrew are found only here and in Leviticus 22:22, and the former in Deuteronomy 28:27; they may denote almost any skin disease, from leprosy to the common itch.

Stones broken A sort of castration, by bruising the cords of the testicles, hence “ruptured testicles.” (Targ. Onk.)

Verse 22

22. He shall eat The blemishes exclude only from the activities of the priest’s office, not from its emoluments. Hence no injustice was suffered.

Of the most holy See Leviticus 2:3, note.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Leviticus 21". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/leviticus-21.html. 1874-1909.
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