LEVITICUS 21: DON'T USE THIS TEXT TO TAKE PEOPLE'S LAND!
We must be very careful with the use of texts like Leviticus when it comes to the possession of land. The idea of “manifest destiny”—that Christian white people were to inhabit the whole land that eventually became the United States, used to be promoted even in public schools as a great American idea. Our ancestors in the United States used texts about God’s people possessing the land and the inhabitants being vomited out in order to pursue evil land grabbing that many Christians believed to be God-ordained.
Again we must remember the goal of Adoniah, the Lord, seems to be the formation of a completely distinct people from the nations around them. Humans to this day have not been able to get our minds off the land, even in debates about the modern nation of Israel. But the point God was making with land was really about God’s sovereignty over all the earth. God brought Israel into the land of Canaan and drove out the former inhabitants who did the kind of evil prohibited in Leviticus.
“Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you.”
Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. But I said to you, “You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations.
All these laws and decrees add up to one goal of God: to set his people apart from the nations in order to be holy to them and find holiness in them so that He may be their God and they might be His people. “You are holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own” (20:26).
In the repeated frame of the Lord speaking to Moses and asking him to relay the message to Aaron and his sons, Leviticus 21 begins with a concession to the priests from the earlier strictures about touching dead bodies. If a close relative in what we in the United States would call our “immediate” family (spouse, child, parent) dies, the priest may tend to the dead body for burial. Attention is specifically drawn to an unmarried woman who relies on the care of her brother—this exception seems to flow out of the nature of God’s concern for the underdog, the one without advocate, and the brother priest is called to be her advocate in life and in death.
With those caveats, the priests are told to stay away from the work of preparing corpses for burial. They are reminded not to shave their beards or heads or cut their bodies, presumably practices of pagan priests. It was important to set themselves apart from cultural practices of Egypt and Canaan. The priests distinguish themselves because they are the ones who “present the offerings made to the Lord by fire, the food of their God (21:6, cf. 21:17, 22), they are to be holy.” This holiness includes marrying women who have not been defiled by either prostitution or divorce. This implies that they did, in fact, marry but were guided only to marry certain women who would not portray to Israel or aliens among them any tendency toward the sexual, relational, or cultic practices of Canaan or Egypt.
While chapters 21-22 are addressed specifically to Moses and in turn Aaron and his sons, rather than all of Israel, it seems in 21:8 that a broader audience is addressed to speak of their perception of priests: “Consider [the priests] holy, because I am holy—I who make you holy” (21:8).
Much is expected of priests, yet Israel is called to strict morality and ritually clean living as well. A priest’s daughter, however, is specifically mentioned as an example of one who would be punished severely if she defiled herself by becoming a prostitute. She would be burned in the fire, and the text does not say if she would be put to death by other means first. Seems the threat of such suffering and ending would have been an effective preventative to a priest’s daughter straying into such practices.
Still, even more is expected of the High Priest. He is not allowed to tend to his own parents for anything that would make him unclean, because the oil of anointing and responsibility of appearing before the Lord is on his head and shoulders. He must not enter any place where corpses lay, nor remain unkempt or tear his clothes in anger or mourning. A further criterion for his wife beyond prostitution or divorce is mentioned: she must be a virgin. Priests could perhaps marry a widow but the High Priest is not to marry any previously married woman or one defiled by prostitution. The reason given is so he will not defile the offspring among his people.
The specific work of presenting food on the altar or going inside the Holy of Holies is not to be done by one who has a bodily defect, and several examples are named, including hunchbacked, crippled hand or foot, wounds, damaged testicles. Here, the hackles of our inclusive society and thinking raise. We wonder why God seems to exclude rather than include those who have not willfully sinned but have birth defects. The looming question for us could be, If God allowed them to be born this way, why does he then exclude them from his service?
But there is a larger question than simply who is included. God does not necessarily share our specific cultural values, nor do we measure Him by our values. We ought not to allow the fact that those excluded from this specific service have birth defects to miss the overarching point of the passage: that it is God who sanctifies and prepares his priesthood for service and those who come into his presence must represent his holiness and his image. This does not necessarily say the ones who are crippled do not in some way represent or cannot represent God’s image but only that they are not called for the specific duty of approaching the altar or curtain of the Tabernacle. In fact, those with defects are included in the sharing and eating of “the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food” (21:22-23).
The theme of treating the sacred with contempt is pervasive in Leviticus, and the priests and Israel must take pause before participating in any activity that presumes on the grace of God or takes his commands lightly. Guidelines for the food of a priest’s table are laid out: no person outside the family is to eat of the holy contributions of food. Yet again the Lord makes provision for slaves and women. A slave bought by a priest can eat from his table. A daughter who marries and is either widowed or divorced and has no children to care for her and returns to her father’s house, may eat from the sacred contributions of food.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ in Tulsa. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.