16 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
17 “Speak to Aaron, saying,None of your offspring
throughout their generations who has a blemish
may approach to offer the bread of his God.
— Leviticus 21:16–17 —
In Leviticus 21, we come across a passage that is easily misunderstood. From a first reading of Leviticus 21:16–24, it appears that God does not associate with the disabled, the deformed, or the dismembered. And by extension, this seems to imply that God is cruel to those who deserve compassion. Or at least, as Old Testament scholar, Katherine Smith, has observed this passage is difficult for Westerners who would find themselves in trouble with the law if they mistreated those with a physical disability.
So what is going on in Leviticus 21? And how can the Law of God be holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12), if it teaches Israel to withhold blemished priests from the offering sacrifices to God? Can we honestly say these laws are good and should be followed today? Or, do we need to make apology for Leviticus 21 and unhitch the Old Testament from the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Affirming the unity of Scripture and the goodness of everything contained therein (see Rom. 15:4 and 2 Tim. 3:16–17), I will argue that verses not only bear witness to God’s unswerving holiness but in the fullness of time, and with finished work of Christ in view, we have in Leviticus 21 a glorious declaration of what the resurrection of Christ accomplishes—namely, the good news that blemished priests will be brought into the presence of God, but only after they have been raised from the dead. But praise be to God, that is the good news of the resurrection!
Five Observation about Leviticus 21
16 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, 20 or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. 22 He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy things, 23 but he shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” 24 So Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel.
If we are to understand Leviticus 21, we must read it in its original context and its canonical context. That is, we must not read this passage as a timeless statement of God’s holiness, but a revelation of God’s holiness that leads us to Christ. Taking that approach, we can see why there is good news for all people, but especially for those afflicted with disabilities, in Leviticus 21. What follows are five observations to help see this good news.
First, Leviticus 21 falls under the physical constraints of the old covenant.
Such a recognition of the covenantal context of Leviticus is necessary for articulating the differences between Israel according to the flesh and Israel according to the Spirit (i.e., the church of Jesus Christ). Under the old covenant, circumcision was in the flesh and only for males; under the new covenant, circumcision is by the Spirit, located in the heart, and for all those who would participate in the blessings of Christ’s new covenant. Similarly, under the old covenant, physical uncleanness (e.g., leprosy, menstruation, emissions of semen) made the people of Israel unacceptable for worship. In fact, Leviticus 11–15 gives copious notes on what to do when the people of Israel were unclean in the flesh.
In short, the whole arrangement of worship in Israel was based upon physical cleanness and holiness that came through physical means (cf. Heb. 9:13). Priests had to keep themselves ritually clean in order to serve in God’s household. Cleanness in this case was not a matter of hygiene but a matter of honoring the Holy One of Israel and teaching the nation how to approach a holy God. As Leviticus 10:3 says, in the wake of Nadab and Abihu offering unauthorized fire, “Among those who are near me [i.e., the priests] I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.” Such was the way God established worship in Israel. Those who professed faith in God were to keep themselves clean, and this cleanness was physical in nature, not just spiritual or a matter of the heart. That would come later, under the new covenant. But in Leviticus, the whole system was one associated with the flesh.
Second, the Law of Moses divided humanity into classes and prevented almost everyone from approaching God.
Under the old covenant, there was also a divide between priest and people. Unlike today, where the book of Hebrews invites all Christians to come and approach the throne of grace (4:14–16; 10:19–21); in Israel, only the sons of Aaron could do so. There was established in Israel, differing classes of people based upon differing levels of holiness. To put it in order, it might look like this:
God — High Priest — Priests, the sons of Aaron — Levites — the People of Israel
Moreover, there was among the people of Israel a difference between the clean and unclean, as well as divisions between Jews and Gentiles. Graphically, it might look like this:
God . . . Clean Israelites — Unclean Israelites — Unclean Gentiles
Obviously, there was an impassable barrier between God and man, but among mankind, the Law of Moses teaches that not all people have equal access to God. This runs against the equal rights Westerners have come to assume and apply today. Thus, it takes effort to understand the logic and the goodness of God’s Law, when it does not match our Western ideals. Nevertheless, when we read Moses, it is plain: not everyone is a priest and not every priest has an equal opportunity to draw near to God.
If this sounds unjust, you need to see where this going. In God’s wise plan, there is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). He alone is God and man, and he alone can lead sinners into God’s holiness. Moreover, because he alone obeyed the Law and won the right to sit down at the right of God, Jesus alone proved to a true and faithful high priest. All other priests who came before him failed. However, if there was no priestly system in Israel, a priestly system that excluded people from God’s presence, there could be no Christ who makes it possible to approach God in his name. That’s where the Levitical caste system is going, and when we read the Law lawfully, we do not need to update God’s holy standards. Rather, we can affirm them fully, even as we keep moving forward towards Christ.
Third, the house of God is meant to reflect Eden and the world to come.
As it has been observed by Meredith Kline, G. K. Beale, Michael Morales, and many others, the tabernacle where the priests served was designed to be a microcosm of the universe and a place reflective of the Garden of Eden. In this way, Aaron who was clothed with beauty and glory (Exod. 28:1) stood in the house of God like a New Adam. And like the first Adam, he was to be blameless in soul and unblemished in body.
Of course, this was typological and not actual; Aaron was not sinless, nor was he immune from death. The history of Israel confirms the weakness of his priesthood. And this is why Hebrews says that a new priesthood priesthood was needed (see Hebrews 7). Still, the Law of Moses presents priests as holy ones who would stand unblemished in the presence of God.
In this way, the priesthood took their cues from heaven, not from fallen humanity. As Hebrews 4:14–16 says, the high priest was called to have sympathy upon the sinful and the suffering, yet to borrow a page from a current controversy, they were to have sympathy, not empathy. Priests were to offer care and compassion, but they could not enter into the sin or the uncleanness of fallen humanity. This would be the sin of empathy.
By contrast, a priest’s first commitment was to God’s holiness, just like Adam’s was. Both failed in this, but this was their calling. Moreover, with acknowledged weakness, priests, as new Adams, depicted in their holy calling a future where priests would serve in the house of God with moral and bodily perfection. And this is why, blemished priests could not serve in God’s house. It did not rightly depict Eden or the new creation that would be ushered in by Christ, the true Adam and true high priest.
Fourth, Leviticus 21–22 is for priests, not the general populous.
Already, we have seen that God established a divide—actually, multiple divisions—among the people of Israel (and the nations). These divisions taught Israel about God’s holiness and protected God’s people from what Jacob Milgrom calls the fusion of the holy and profane. Milgrom likens the approach of unclean sinners to the holy throne of God as a nuclear reaction. And many times in Israel’s history this happened in various ways (e.g., Korah seeking to be a priest, Uzzah putting his hand on the ark, etc.), and the result was always death.
In fact, death was the thing that made people and priests most unclean. Whereas the holy of holies was the place of life and outside the camp represented the place of death, everything in between cycled between or simply combined life and death. Indeed, in the sick person or the man with one arm or a crushed testicle, you have a fusion of life and death. And because death, in a cosmic sense, is due to Adam’s sin, every blemished human body, is a body that reflects the fall and the sinful condition of mankind. To be clear, the Law did not teach a mechanical connection between a person’s sin and person’s suffering (i.e., physical afflictions), but it did affirm that blemished bodies were ritually unclean and not able to enter into the house of God.
For most of the population this would not even matter. Only the sons of Aaron could serve at God’s altar. But in Leviticus 21–22, which focuses on the priests, God is teaching Israel that being a son of Aaron is insufficient to serve in God’s house. The sons who serve must be unblemished in body and blameless in action. In the surrounding context, Moses records that priests could not approach dead bodies or marry divorced women. Under the old covenant, this would defile them and disqualify them from service. Similarly, a body that was blemished would prevent them from service.
In Israel, the language of blemished or unblemished often related to sacrifices (see Lev. 1:3, 10; 3:1; etc.). And just as a blemished lamb could not be offered, so too a blemished son of Aaron could not present the offering. This is the logic of God’s holiness and the springboard for massive good news.
Fifth, Leviticus 21 is just the beginning of the story.
If Leviticus 21 was the last word on the subject of blemished bodies, it would be a tragedy and a hopeless condemnation against those who are disabled. However, because the Law was given to lead us to the gospel (see 1 Tim. 1:8–11), the arc of the Bible is that of a comedy. In other words, there is good news to be found in God’s restriction on blemished priests. And that good news comes in three steps.
First, every priest in Aaron’s family—not just the blemished priests—would eventually be excluded from God’s presence. As the rest of the Bible shows, the sons of Aaron defile themselves with disobedience. Ultimately, they put Jesus to death, which results in the end of their priestly ministry.
Indeed, those who were given, by elective grace, the greatest access to God squandered their fortune by rejecting their Lord. As a result, the priests of Israel became like the rest of Adam’s fallen race—entirely cut off from God. When the temple veil was torn, as Jesus hung on the cross, this was the final testimony that God had abandoned the temple and that shortly he would tear the whole thing down. The razing of the temple happened in AD 70, and with it God razed the priests of Aaron too.
Second, in the void of Aaron’s priestly office, came a true priest—Jesus Christ. And in Hebrews, we discover that he is the perfect priest because in his resurrection from the dead, he has indestructible life. This means, in his sinlessness, he does not have to make atonement for his own sins or worry about death and defilement. His life grants holiness, and in his perfection (which came by his resurrection), Jesus now lives to intercede for his people. In Hebrews, Jesus’s perfect priesthood is what offers his people access to the throne of God, which is now a site of mercy and grace, not death and judgment. And this comes because Christ’s resurrection not only makes a way for sinners to come to God, but it grants resurrection life to those who were previously destined for death.
Third, for those who have been made alive in Christ, Ephesians 2:5–7 says we have been seated with Christ in heavenly places. In this statement, Paul is not offering some weird out of body experience; he is indicating that those who are made alive in Christ are also priests, called to serve in God’s house. As the New Testament teaches, Jesus is the true and better high priest, and all those who are in him are living sacrifices and holy priests. First Peter 2:5, 9 applies the language of priesthood to the church, and even in Hebrews the identity of Christ as a royal, priestly, son of God is bestowed upon all those who have been made alive in him (see Heb. 12:1–13:21).
Landing the Good News of Leviticus 21
Putting all of this together, we can say that everyone who is in Christ has both experienced his resurrection life and is promised a bodily resurrection. And this bodily resurrection is not a half-resurrection or a resurrection with reservations. No, the promise of resurrection is given to all who die in Christ. Whether you are fully able in life or partially or fully disabled, all those who have trusted in Christ will be raised unblemished and perfectly whole. Accordingly, as children of God raised to life in Christ and granted his righteousness, your physical well-being will match your Lord. And even more, it will qualify you to stand in the household of God.
Think about this, to the person who has never been able to stand or see or speak, those in Christ will receive resurrection power in their flesh to do all that priests do. Peter Leithart has defined priests as those who stand as household attendants. And this, under the old covenant, is something that the disabled could not do. But now, because of Christ’s perfect obedience and the perfection (read: resurrection) that he grants to his people—they can both approach the throne of grace today in prayer and one day, when all things are made new, they can walk before the Lord, bow their knees in thanksgiving, and then stand and hear and see all that God desires for them.
In this way, Leviticus 21 preserves the holy standards of God and it promises a future resurrection for the priests who will stand in God’s kingdom. Yes, Leviticus 21 by itself may sound harsh in all that in requires, but by retaining the requirements for bodily “perfection” in the priests of Israel, it presses us to look for a day when we will find a priest who is not a slave to death and who by his own perfection can raise the dead to life.
This is how to read Leviticus 21 and this is why that difficult chapter is filled with so much potential for good news.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds