Leviticus 21

Notes (NET Translation)

1 The LORD said to Moses: “Say to the priests, the sons of Aaron – say to them, ‘For a dead person no priest is to defile himself among his people, 2 except for his close relative who is near to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, 3 and his virgin sister who is near to him, who has no husband; he may defile himself for her.

Coming into contact with a corpse caused ritual impurity. The average Israelite would become impure when burying a corpse and then be restored to purity through the proper rituals (Num. 19:11-22). Ordinary priests were only allowed to come into contact with the corpse of a close relative (cf. Ezek. 44:25-27). If the sister was married it would be her husband’s duty to bury her (the Hebrew habbetula refers to a young and nubile woman, not necessarily a virgin). The omission of any mention of the priest’s wife is noteworthy. This law eliminated a funerary role for the Israelite priesthood and thereby gave no sanction to the idolatrous cult of the dead known throughout the ancient Near East.

4 He must not defile himself as a husband among his people so as to profane himself.

The meaning of this verse is difficult to determine. Hartley takes it to mean a priest is not to become unclean by mourning for one of his wife’s relatives. Levine takes it to mean that a priest, in the role of husband, is not permitted to bury his wife because she is not a blood relative. Rooker and Cole take it to mean a priest could come in contact with the corpse of a close relative by marriage. Wenham suggests the verse anticipates verse 7 in warning the priest not to marry a woman of doubtful character.

5 Priests must not have a bald spot shaved on their head, they must not shave the corner of their beard, and they must not cut slashes in their body.

All Israelites were forbidden from shaving a bald spot in their head or from gashing their bodies (Deut. 14:1). These were mourning rites in ancient Canaanite religion. Such practices also mar the wholeness or completeness of the body.

6 “‘They must be holy to their God, and they must not profane the name of their God, because they are the ones who present the LORD’s gifts, the food of their God. Therefore they must be holy.

Priests must observe a stricter code of purity because they are charged with performing the rites of the cult.

7 They must not take a wife defiled by prostitution, nor are they to take a wife divorced from her husband, for the priest is holy to his God.

An ordinary priest was allowed to marry a widow but not a divorcee.

The law prohibiting priests from marrying divorced women persisted into later Judaism. It was adopted by the Christian church for its clergy, who were consecrated; and was also applied to Christian kings. There is a specific reason for this ban, which explains why the divorcee and the harlot are mentioned together. Hoffmann explains that this priestly ban helps to clarify the view of the House of Shammai as to the grounds for divorce. In the law of Deuteronomy 24:1, it is stipulated that a man may divorce his wife if he discovers in her behavior literally “some matter that was sexually improper” (ʿervat davar), which was taken to mean that only the presumption of marital infidelity constituted legal grounds for initiating divorce. In an effort to broaden the grounds for divorce, the House of Hillel, whose view is reported in Gittin 90a, departed from the original sense of ʿervat davar in maintaining that ʿervah, “nakedness, sexuality,” was not the only “matter” (davar) that could serve as grounds for divorce. So, although this wider interpretation became normative in later Judaism, it was not originally envisioned in the laws of the Torah. In biblical times, it is likely that divorce always involved a charge by the husband of infidelity. If that charge was made when the marriage was first consummated, the husband had to substantiate it in accordance with the law of Deuteronomy 22:13–14. At other times, a husband could subject his wife to an ordeal if he suspected that she was pregnant by another man, as we read in Numbers 5:11–31. If there was adequate testimony to prove adultery on the wife’s part, she was subject to the death penalty under the law of Deuteronomy 22:23–24. In most cases, however, there was insufficient evidence to condemn a woman under this law. There was, however, sufficient motivation for a husband to charge his wife with adultery, thereby accomplishing what he truly sought — divorce.1

8 You must sanctify him because he presents the food of your God. He must be holy to you because I, the LORD who sanctifies you all, am holy.

9 If a daughter of a priest profanes herself by engaging in prostitution, she is profaning her father. She must be burned to death.

10 “‘The high priest – who is greater than his brothers, on whose head the anointing oil is poured, who has been ordained to wear the priestly garments – must neither dishevel the hair of his head nor tear his garments.

The disheveling of hair and tearing of garments were signs of mourning. “His hair had been anointed and his clothes specially designed for him. If he disturbed them, it could serve to nullify his consecration.”2

11 He must not go where there is any dead person; he must not defile himself even for his father and his mother.

The high priest is held to a higher standard than ordinary priests. He is never allowed to come into contact with a corpse.

12 He must not go out from the sanctuary and must not profane the sanctuary of his God, because the dedication of the anointing oil of his God is on him. I am the LORD.

“Verse 12 does not mean that the high priest lived in the sanctuary, only that his duties there took precedence over family ties, even when his parents died.”3

13 He must take a wife who is a virgin. 14 He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or one profaned by prostitution; he may only take a virgin from his people as a wife. 15 He must not profane his children among his people, for I am the LORD who sanctifies him.'”

The high priest must marry a virgin. It is debated whether “from his people” means a priest’s daughter or an Israelite. Ezek. 44:22 says the high priest may marry any Israelite virgin.

16 The LORD spoke to Moses:

17 “Tell Aaron, ‘No man from your descendants throughout their generations who has a physical flaw is to approach to present the food of his God.

The wholeness of the priest corresponds to the holiness of God.

18 Certainly no man who has a physical flaw is to approach: a blind man, or one who is lame, or one with a slit nose, or a limb too long, 19 or a man who has had a broken leg or arm, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or one with a spot in his eye, or a festering eruption, or a feverish rash, or a crushed testicle.

The Hebrew adjective ivver (“blind”) does not necessarily connote total blindness, but could refer to a man with only one good eye. In ancient times a broken bone would often cause permanent deformity because the bones were not set properly. The skin conditions mentioned in v. 20 are not included in ch. 13. This means there were skin conditions that did not isolate a person from the community.

21 No man from the descendants of Aaron the priest who has a physical flaw may step forward to present the LORD’s gifts; he has a physical flaw, so he must not step forward to present the food of his God.

22 He may eat both the most holy and the holy food of his God, 23 but he must not go into the veil-canopy or step forward to the altar because he has a physical flaw. Thus he must not profane my holy places, for I am the LORD who sanctifies them.'”

Priests with a defect are only prohibited from officiating in the cult, not from taking their portion of the sacrifices. They were not reduced to poverty or forced into another profession.

24 So Moses spoke these things to Aaron, his sons, and all the Israelites.


Hartley, John E. Leviticus. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1992.

Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 17-22. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Rooker, Mark, and Dennis R. Cole. Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Holman Reference, 2000.

Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.

  1. Levine 1989, p. 143–144 
  2. Wenham 1979, loc. 3884-3885 
  3. Wenham 1979, loc. 3886-3887 

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