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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Leviticus Chapter 21


lev 21:0

Holiness of the Priests, of the Holy Gifts, and of Sacrifices - Leviticus 21-22

The Sanctification of the Priests. - As the whole nation was to strive after sanctification in all the duties of life, on account of its calling as a nation of God, the priests, whom Jehovah had chosen out of the whole nation to be the custodians of His sanctuary, and had sanctified to that end, were above all to prove themselves the sanctified servants of the Lord in their domestic life and the duties of their calling. (1) They were not to defile themselves by touching the dead or by signs of mourning (Lev 21:1-6 and Lev 21:10-12); (2) they were to contract and maintain a spotless marriage (Lev 21:7-9 and Lev 21:13-15); and (3) those members of the priesthood who had any bodily failings were to keep away from the duties of the priests' office (Lev 21:16-24).

Leviticus 21:1

lev 21:1

The priest was not to defile himself on account of a soul, i.e., a dead person (nephesh, as in Lev 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. Lev 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. Eze 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 (Num 19:11, Num 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 Lev 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 Lev 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 (Gen 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 Lev 21:1-3 stand in a very close relation to Lev 21:5 and Lev 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 Lev 21:4 as standing in a similar relation to Lev 21:7, and to understand it as a general prohibition, which is still more clearly expounded in Lev 21:7 and Lev 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. Lev 21:9 and Lev 21:15). - In Lev 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" (Deu 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 Deu 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 Lev 19:27-28, and the latter is repeated in Deu 14:1. The reason for the prohibition is given in Lev 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 Lev 3:11 and Lev 3:16.

Leviticus 21:7

lev 21:7

Their marriage and their domestic life were also to be in keeping with their holy calling. They were not to marry a whore (i.e., a public prostitute), or a fallen woman, or a woman put away (divorced) from her husband, that is to say, any person of notoriously immoral life, for this would be irreconcilable with the holiness of the priesthood, but (as may be seen from this in comparison with Lev 21:14) only a virgin or widow of irreproachable character. She need not be an Israelite, but might be the daughter of a stranger living among the Israelites; only she must not be an idolater or a Canaanite, for the Israelites were all forbidden to marry such a woman (Exo 34:16; Deu 7:3).

Lev 21:8

"Thou shalt sanctify him therefore," that is to say, not merely "respect his holy dignity" (Knobel), but take care that he did not desecrate his office by a marriage so polluted. The Israelites as a nation are addressed in the persons of their chiefs. The second clause of the verse, "he shall be holy unto thee," contains the same thought. The repetition strengthens the exhortation. The reason assigned for the first clause is the same as in Lev 21:6; and that for the second, the same as in Lev 20:8, Lev 20:26; Exo 31:13, etc.

Lev 21:9

The priests's family was also to lead a blameless life. If a priest's daughter began to play the whore, she profaned her father, and was to be burned, i.e., to be stoned and then burned (see Lev 20:14). כּהן אישׁ, a man who is a priest, a priest-man.

Leviticus 21:10

lev 21:10

The high priest was to maintain a spotless purity in a higher degree still. He, whose head had been anointed with oil, and who had been sanctified to put on the holy clothes (see Lev 8:7-12 and Lev 7:37), was not to go with his hair flying loose when a death had taken place, nor to rend his clothes (see Lev 10:6), nor to go in to any dead body (מת נפשׁת souls of a departed one, i.e., dead persons); he was not to defile himself (cf. Lev 21:2) on account of his father and mother (i.e., when they were dead), nor to go out of the sanctuary funeris nempe causa (Ros.), to give way to his grief or attend the funeral. We are not to understand by this, however, that the sanctuary was to be his constant abode, as Bhr and Baumgarten maintain (cf. Lev 10:7). "Neither shall he profane the sanctuary of his God," sc., by any defilement of his person which he could and ought to avoid; "for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him" (cf. Lev 10:7), and defilement was incompatible with this. נזר does not mean the diadem of the high priest here, as in Exo 29:6; Exo 39:30, but consecration (see at Num 6:7).

Leviticus 21:13

lev 21:13

He was only to marry a woman in her virginity, not a widow, a woman put away, or a fallen woman, a whore (זונה without a copulative is in apposition to חללה a fallen girl, who was to be the same to him as a whore), but "a virgin of his own people," that is to say, only an Israelitish woman.

Leviticus 21:15

lev 21:15

"Neither shall he profane his seed (posterity) among his people," sc., by contracting a marriage that was not in keeping with the holiness of his rank.

Leviticus 21:16

lev 21:16

Directions for the sons (descendants) of Aaron who were afflicted with bodily imperfections. As the spiritual nature of a man is reflected in his bodily form, only a faultless condition of body could correspond to the holiness of the priest; just as the Greeks and Romans required, for the very same reason, that the priests should be ὁλόκληροι, integri corporis (Plato de legg. 6, 759; Seneca excerpt. controv. 4, 2; Plutarch quaest. rom. 73). Consequently none of the descendants of Aaron, "according to their generations," i.e., in all future generations (see Exo 12:14), who had any blemish (mum, μῶμος, bodily fault) were to approach the vail, i.e., enter the holy place, or draw near to the altar (in the court) to offer the food of Jehovah, viz., the sacrifices. No blind man, or lame man, or charum, κολοβόριν (from κολοβός and ῥίν), naso mutilus (lxx), i.e., one who had sustained any mutilation, especially in the face, on the nose, ears, lips, or eyes, not merely one who had a flat or stunted nose; or שׂרוּע, lit., stretched out, i.e., one who had anything beyond what was normal, an ill-formed bodily member therefore; so that a man who had more than ten fingers and ten toes might be so regarded (Sa2 21:20).

Leviticus 21:19

lev 21:19

Whoever had a fracture in his foot or hand.

Leviticus 21:20

lev 21:20

גּבּן a hump-backed man. דּק, lit., crushed to powder, fine: as distinguished from the former, it signified one how had an unnaturally thin or withered body or member, not merely consumptive or wasted away. בּעינו תּבלּל mixed, i.e., spotted in his eye, one who had a white speck in his eye (Onk., Vulg., Saad.), not blear-eyed (lxx). גּרב, which occurs nowhere else except in Lev 22:22 and Deu 28:27, signifies, according to the ancient versions, the itch; and ילּפת, which only occurs here and in Lev 22:22, the ring-worm (lxx, Targ., etc.). אשׁך מרוח, crushed in the stones, one who had crushed or softened stones; for in Isa 38:21, the only other place where מרח occurs, it signifies, not to rub to pieces, but to squeeze out, to lay in a squeezed or liquid form upon the wound: the Sept. rendering is μόνορχις, having only one stone. Others understand the word as signifying ruptured (Vulg., Saad.), or with swollen testicles (Juda ben Karish). All that is certain is, that we are not to think of castration of any kind (cf. Deu 23:2), and that there is not sufficient ground for altering the text into מרוח extension.

Leviticus 21:22

lev 21:22

Persons afflicted in the manner described might eat the bread of their God, however, the sacrificial gifts, the most holy and the holy, i.e., the wave-offerings, the first-fruits, the firstlings, tithes and things laid under a ban (Num 18:11-19 and Num 18:26-29), - that is to say, they might eat them like the rest of the priests; but they were not allowed to perform any priestly duty, that they might not desecrate the sanctuary of the Lord (Lev 21:23, cf. Lev 21:12).

Leviticus 21:24

lev 21:24

Moses communicated these instructions to Aaron and his sons.

Next: Leviticus Chapter 22