Leviticus 21:1
And the LORD said unto Moses, Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron, and say unto them, There shall none be defiled for the dead among his people:
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(1) And the Lord said unto Moses.—The laws about the purity and holiness of the Jewish community, and of every individual lay member, enacted in Leviticus 11:1 to Leviticus 20:27, are now followed by statutes respecting the purity and holiness of the priesthood who minister in holy things in behalf of the people, and who, by virtue of their high office, were to be models of both ceremonial and moral purity.

Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron.—Moses is ordered to communicate these statutes to the priests as the sons of Aaron. The peculiar phrase “the priests the sons of Aaron,” which only occurs here—since in all other six passages in the Pentateuch it is the reverse, “the sons of Aaron the priests” (see Leviticus 1:5; Leviticus 1:8; Leviticus 1:11; Leviticus 2:2; Leviticus 3:2; Numbers 10:8; Note on Leviticus 1:5), is designed to inculcate upon them the fact that they are priests by virtue of being the sons of Aaron, and not because of any merit of their own, and that they are to impress the same sentiments upon their issue. This fact, moreover, as the authorities during the second Temple remark, imposes upon the priests the duty of bringing up their children in such a manner as to make them morally and intellectually fit to occupy this hereditary office. They also deduce from the emphatic position of the term “priests,” that it only applies to those of them who are fit to perform their sacerdotal duties, and not to the disqualified priests (see Leviticus 21:15).

There shall none be defiled for the dead.

Better, He shall not defile himself for a dead person; that is, the priest is not to contract defilement by contact with the body of any dead person. What constitutes defilement is not specified, but, as is often the case, was left to the administrators of the Law to define more minutely. Accordingly, they enacted that not only touching a dead body, but coming within four cubits of it, entering the house where the corpse lay, entering a burial place, following to the grave, or the manifestation of mourning for the departed, pollutes the priest, and consequently renders him unfit for performing the services of the sanctuary, and for engaging in the services for the people. This they deduced from Numbers 19:11-16. The Egyptian priests were likewise bound to keep aloof from “burials and graves, from impure men and women.” The Romans ordered a bough of a cypress-tree to be stuck at the door of the house in which a dead body was lying, lest a chief priest should unwittingly enter and defile himself.

Among his people—That is, among the tribes or people of Israel, the Jewish community (see Deuteronomy 32:8; Deuteronomy 33:3, &c.). Hence the authorities during the second Temple concluded that when the corpse is among the people whose duty it is to see to its burial, the priest is forbidden to take part in it; but when a priest, or even the high priest, finds a human body in the road where he cannot call on any one to bury it, he is obliged to perform this last sacred office to the dead himself. When it is borne in mind how much the ancient Hebrews thought of burial, and that nothing exceeded their horror than to think of an unburied corpse of any one belonging to them, this humane legislation will be duly appreciated.

Leviticus 21:1. Speak unto the priests — The next laws concerned the behaviour and personal qualifications of the priests, and were intended to denote the dignity, and preserve the honour of the holy function. There shall none be defiled for the dead — None of the priests shall touch the dead body, or assist at his funeral, or eat at the funeral feast. The reason of this law is evident, because by such pollution they were excluded from converse with men, to whom, by their function, they were to be serviceable upon all occasions, and from the handling of holy things. And God would hereby teach them, and in them all successive ministers, that they ought entirely to give themselves to the service of God. Yea, to renounce all expressions of natural affection, and all worldly employments, so far as they are impediments to the discharge of their holy services.

21:1-24 Laws concerning the priests. - As these priests were types of Christ, so all ministers must be followers of him, that their example may teach others to imitate the Saviour. Without blemish, and separate from sinners, He executed his priestly office on earth. What manner of persons then should his ministers be! But all are, if Christians, spiritual priests; the minister especially is called to set a good example, that the people may follow it. Our bodily infirmities, blessed be God, cannot now shut us out from his service, from these privileges, or from his heavenly glory. Many a healthful, beautiful soul is lodged in a feeble, deformed body. And those who may not be suited for the work of the ministry, may serve God with comfort in other duties in his church.The distinction between clean and unclean for the whole people, and not for any mere section of it, was one great typical mark of "the kingdom of priests, the holy nation." See the Leviticus 11:42 note.

Leviticus 20:25

Any manner of living thing that creepeth - Rather, any creeping thing; that is, any vermin. See Leviticus 11:20-23. The reference in this verse is to dead animals, not to the creatures when alive.


Le 21:1-24. Of the Priests' Mourning.

1. There shall none be defiled for the dead among his people—The obvious design of the regulations contained in this chapter was to keep inviolate the purity and dignity of the sacred office. Contact with a corpse, or even contiguity to the place where it lay, entailing ceremonial defilement (Nu 19:14), all mourners were debarred from the tabernacle for a week; and as the exclusion of a priest during that period would have been attended with great inconvenience, the whole order were enjoined to abstain from all approaches to the dead, except at the funerals of relatives, to whom affection or necessity might call them to perform the last offices. Those exceptional cases, which are specified, were strictly confined to the members of their own family, within the nearest degrees of kindred.Priests must not defile themselves, in mourning over the dead: cases excepted, Leviticus 21:1-6. Nor marry with a whore, profane, or divorced woman, Leviticus 21:7,8. His daughter, if a whore, to be burnt with fire, Leviticus 21:9. The high priest must in no case defile himself with the dead, Leviticus 21:10-12: must marry a virgin of his people, Leviticus 21:13-15. Persons having bodily defects allowed to eat of the holy things, but not to serve in the tabernacle, or offer to God, Leviticus 21:16-24.

To wit, by touching of the dead body, or abiding in the same house with it, or assisting at his funerals, or eating of the funeral feast. The reason of this law is evident, because by such pollution they were excluded from converse with men, to whom by their function they were to be serviceable upon all occasions, and from the handling of holy things, Numbers 6:6 19:11,14,16 Deu 26:14 Hosea 9:4. And God would hereby teach them, and in them all successive ministers of holy things, that they ought so entirely to give themselves to the service of God, that they ought to renounce all expressions of natural affections, and all worldly employments, so far as they are impediments to the discharge of their holy services. See Leviticus 10:3,7 Deu 33:9 Matthew 8:22. Hereby also God would beget in the people a greater reverence to the priestly function, and oblige the priests to a greater degree of strictness and purity than other men.

And the Lord said unto Moses,.... According to some Jewish writers this was said on the day the tabernacle was set up; no doubt it was delivered at the same time the above laws were given; and as care was taken for the purity and holiness of the Israelites in general, it was necessary that the priests that were concerned in a more especial manner in the service and worship of God should be holy also, and have some instructions given them to take care and keep themselves from all defilements; and particularly the Jewish writers observe, that this paragraph or section concerning the priests follows upon, and is in connection with the law concerning such as have familiar spirits, and wizards, to teach men, that in matters of doubt and difficulty they should not have recourse to such persons, but to the priests of the Lord:

speak unto the priests, the sons of Aaron; the priests, whether elder or younger, whether fit for service, and whether having blemishes, or not; for there are some things which concern them, and these are sons, male children of Aaron, as the Targum of Jonathan, and not daughters, as Jarchi and others observe; for they were not obliged to regard the laws and rules here given:

and say unto them, there shall none be defiled for the dead among his people; by entering into a tent or house where a dead body lay, by touching it, or by hearing it, or attending it to the grave, or by any expressions of mourning for it, see Numbers 19:11; that is, for any person in common that were of his people, that were not nearly related to him, as in the cases after excepted; so it was a custom with the Romans, as we are told (n), that such as were polluted by funerals might not sacrifice, which shows that priests were not allowed to attend funerals, which perhaps might be taken from hence; and so Porphyry says (o), that sacred persons and inspectors of holy things should abstain from funerals or graves, and from every filthy and mournful sight.

(n) Servius in Virgil. Aeneid. l. xi. ver. 3.((o) De Abstinentia, l. 2. c. 50.

And the LORD said unto Moses, Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron, and say unto them, There shall none be {a} defiled for the dead among his people:

(a) By touching the dead, lamenting, or being at their burial.

1. Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron] A quite unusual formula, not occurring elsewhere in the Pentateuch.

defile himself for the dead] The defilement caused by touching a dead body lasted for seven days, and required purification by the water in which the ashes of the red heifer have been mixed, Numbers 19:11-20 (P).

The Romans (Serv ad Aen. vi. 176) used to set up a branch of cypress in front of a house containing a dead body, lest one of the pontifices should inadvertently enter and so contract pollution.

Verses 1-6. - The first paragraph refers to ceremonial uncleanness derived to the priest from his family relations. The priest may not take part in any funeral rites, the effect of which was legal defilement, except in the case of the death of his father, mother, son, daughter, brother, and unmarried sister. These are all that appear to be mentioned. But what, then, are we to understand regarding his wife? Was the priest allowed to lake part in mourning ceremonies for her or not? It is thought by some that her case is met by verse 4, But he shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself. The literal translation of this verse is. He shall not be defiled, a lord (haul) among his people. The word baal, or lord, is commonly used in the sense of husband. The clause, therefore, may be understood to forbid the priest to mourn for his wife, being rendered, He shall not defile himself as an husband (i.e., for his wife) among his people. This, however, is something of a forced rendering. The words arc better understood to mean, He shall not defile himself as a master of a house among his people; that is, he may not lake part in the funeral rites of slaves or other members of the household, which ordinarily brought defilement on the master of a house. Then is the priest forbidden to mourn for his wife? This we can hardly believe, when he might mourn for father and mother, son and daughter, brother and sister. Nor is it necessary to take this view. For the case of the wife is covered by the words. For his kin, that is near unto him.... he may be defiled. The wife, being so closely attached to the husband, is not specifically named, because that was not necessary, but is included under the expression, his kin, that is near unto him, just as daughter, grandmother, niece, and wife's sister, are covered by the phrase, "near of kin," without being specifically named in chapter Leviticus 18 (see note on chapter Leviticus 16:18). Even when mourning is permitted, the priest is to use no excessive forms of it, still less any that have been used by idolaters. They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard (see Leviticus 19:27), nor make any cuttings in their flesh (see Leviticus 19:28). And the reason why they are to avoid ceremonial uncleanness in some cases, and to act with sobriety and gravity in all, is that they are dedicated to God, to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire, the bread of their God; that is, the sacrifices which are consumed by the fire of the altar symbolizing the action of God (see note on Leviticus 3:11). Leviticus 21:1The priest was not to defile himself on account of a soul, i.e., a dead person (nephesh, as in Leviticus 19:28), among his countrymen, unless it were of his kindred, who stood near to him (i.e., in the closest relation to him), formed part of the same family with him (cf. Leviticus 21:3), such as his mother, father, son, daughter, brother, or a sister who was still living with him as a virgin and was not betrothed to a husband (cf. Ezekiel 44:25). As every corpse not only defiled the persons who touched it, but also the tent or dwelling in which the person had died (Numbers 19:11, Numbers 19:14); in the case of death among members of the family or household, defilement was not to be avoided on the part of the priest as the head of the family. It was therefore allowable for him to defile himself on account of such persons as these, and even to take part in their burial. The words of Leviticus 21:4 are obscure: "He shall not defile himself בּעמּיו בּעל, i.e., as lord (pater-familias) among his countrymen, to desecrate himself;" and the early translators have wandered in uncertainty among different renderings. In all probability בּעל denotes the master of the house or husband. But, for all that, the explanation given by Knobel and others, "as a husband he shall not defile himself on the death of his wife, his mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, by taking part in their burial," is decidedly to be rejected. For, apart from the unwarrantable introduction of the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, there is sufficient to prevent our thinking of defilement on the death of a wife, in the fact that the wife is included in the "kin that is near unto him" in Leviticus 21:2, though not in the way that many Rabbins suppose, who maintain that שׁאר signifies wife, but implicite, the wife not being expressly mentioned, because man and wife form one flesh (Genesis 2:24), and the wife stands nearer to the husband than father and mother, son and daughter, or brother and sister. Nothing is proved by appealing to the statement made by Plutarch, that the priests of the Romans were not allowed to defile themselves by touching the corpses of their wives; inasmuch as there is no trace of this custom to be found among the Israelites, and the Rabbins, for this very reason, suppose the death of an illegitimate wife to be intended. The correct interpretation of the words can only be arrived at by considering the relation of the fourth verse to what precedes and follows. As Leviticus 21:1-3 stand in a very close relation to Leviticus 21:5 and Leviticus 21:6, - the defilement on account of a dead person being more particularly explained in the latter, or rather, strictly speaking, greater force being given to the prohibition, - it is natural to regard Leviticus 21:4 as standing in a similar relation to Leviticus 21:7, and to understand it as a general prohibition, which is still more clearly expounded in Leviticus 21:7 and Leviticus 21:9. The priest was not to defile himself as a husband and the head of a household, either by marrying a wife of immoral or ambiguous reputation, or by training his children carelessly, so as to desecrate himself, i.e., profane the holiness of his rank and office by either one or the other (cf. Leviticus 21:9 and Leviticus 21:15). - In Leviticus 21:5 desecration is forbidden in the event of a death occurring. He was not to shave a bald place upon his head. According to the Chethib יקרחה is to be pointed with ה- attached, and the Keri יקרחוּ is a grammatical alteration to suit the plural suffix in בּראשׁם, which is obviously to be rejected on account of the parallel יגלּחוּ לא זקנם וּפאת. In both of the clauses there is a constructio ad sensum, the prohibition which is addressed to individuals being applicable to the whole: upon their head shall no one shave a bald place, namely, in front above the forehead, "between the eyes" (Deuteronomy 14:1). We may infer from the context that reference is made to a customary mode of mourning for the dead; and this is placed beyond all doubt by Deuteronomy 14:1, where it is forbidden to all the Israelites "for the dead." According to Herodotus, 2, 36, the priests in Egypt were shaven, whereas in other places they wore their hair long. In other nations it was customary for those who were more immediately concerned to shave their heads as a sign of mourning; but the Egyptians let their hair grow both upon their head and chin when any of their relations were dead, whereas they shaved at other times. The two other outward signs of mourning mentioned, namely, cutting off the edge of the beard and making incisions in the body, have already been forbidden in Leviticus 19:27-28, and the latter is repeated in Deuteronomy 14:1. The reason for the prohibition is given in Leviticus 21:6 - "they shall be holy unto their God," and therefore not disfigure their head and body by signs of passionate grief, and so profane the name of their God when they offer the firings of Jehovah; that is to say, when they serve and approach the God who has manifested Himself to His people as the Holy One. On the epithet applied to the sacrifices, "the food of God," see at Leviticus 3:11 and Leviticus 3:16.
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