We’re chest deep in another lists sections. I’m sorry, folks, but I made a vow to read the entire Bible, so we’re just going to have to grit our teeth and bear it. Hopefully, we’ll be back to reading stories soon.

In the last couple chapters, we’ve been covering the ordinances – or laws – by which the people of Israel must live. Now we get the special rules just for the priests.

On mourning

A priest is not allowed to “defile himself for the dead” (Lev. 21:1), meaning that he is not allowed to participates in customs of mourning.

Leviticus 21-22There are, thankfully, a few exceptions to this rule. A priest is allowed to mourn for his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, or his sister  – but only if she’s still a virgin, “because she has no husband” (Lev. 21:3). Notice any conspicuous absences from this list?

“He shall not defile himself as a husband” (Lev. 21:4). Or, if it makes it any clearer, the NIV has it as: “He must not make himself unclean for people related to him by marriage, and so defile himself.”

To be fair, this passage seems to be rather a difficult one to translate. The King James, for example, has it: “But he shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself.” So it’s possible that this is an explanation of why priests aren’t allowed to participate in mourning rituals, rather than a specific prohibition against mourning for their wives. Though the absence of wives in the listed relations for whom a priest is allowed to mourn renders the debate rather irrelevant.

Next up, we get a list of the specific mourning customs that priests aren’t allowed to participate in: Cutting their hair, cutting their beards, letting their hair hang loose, rending their clothing, or cutting into their flesh (which, as we saw in Lev. 19:28, is prohibited for everyone anyway).

If I’m reading it correctly, the next bit says that he can’t help to prepare a dead body (though I did get a giggle out of the phrasing: “he shall not go in to any dead body”), even for a close relation, such as his parents.

On marriage

Priests also get special rules about who they are allowed to marry. Translations differ (thanks to the lack of commas in Ancient Hebrew, I guess), but the following two options are offered by various translations:

  1. A priest can’t marry a woman who is a prostitute, has been defiled (I’m assuming this means that she isn’t a virgin), or who is divorced.
  2. A priest can’t marry a woman who is a prostitute or who is divorced.

In the latter option, translations explain that priests can’t marry a woman who has been “defiled by” prostitute or divorce, whereas the former option takes the defilement as it’s own category of unmarriageables.

In another passage, the prohibition is given against marrying any non-virgins, which – for anyone who might be confused – is clarified with the same list as above, though with the addition of widows.

But not any virgin will do. Only a virgin chosen from “his own people” (Lev. 21:14) is suitable. I’m glad this was included because I was just thinking that this chapter didn’t have enough xenophobia.

The last note on the composition of priestly families has it that the daughter of a priest who engages in prostitution “profanes her father” (Lev. 21:9) and therefore must be burned with fire. I already used the “well that escalated quickly” meme recently, so I’ll spare you. But I feel it’s worth noting that this is where the idea of collective guilt takes you.


A priest with a blemish is not allowed to make a sacrificial offering.

What’s meant by “blemish”? Well, this chapter helpfully provides clarification:

  • Blindness
  • Lameness (as in an inability to walk in the “normal” way. Not, like, ‘doesn’t get invited to parties’)
  • Having a mutilated face
  • Having a disproportional limb
  • Having an injured hand or foot
  • Having a hunchback
  • Having dwarfism
  • Having a defect in your vision
  • Having an itching disease
  • Having scabs
  • Having crushed testicles (ouch!)
  • Having leprosy
  • Having “a discharge”
  • Touching anything unclean (the examples being a dead body or a man who has had an emission of semen – like, how would the priest know if he’s touched a man who has had an emission of semen? For goodness’ sake, clean up after yourselves, people!)
  • Touching “a creeping thing” (Lev.22:5)
  • Having eaten anything that died on its own or was torn by beasts

But at least you can still be a priest and still eat food that’s been offered as a sacrifice – you just can’t make the sacrifice yourself. Unless it’s the ‘touching unclean/creeping thing’ things, in which case the priest must take a bath and wait until the sun goes down before he can eat any sacrificial food.

Approaching the altar while having one of these blemishes would “profane” the sanctuary (Lev. 21:25). Disobeying these rules will cause the priest to be struck down by God.

So even though God admitted to creating blemishes in the first place (Exodus 4:11), he doesn’t want them anywhere near him. Nice.

As David Plotz points out:

That God who spoke up so powerfully for the blind and the deaf in Chapter 19? He’s gone. Out with Martin Luther King God, in with Martha Stewart God – a finicky Lord who’s peeved by human frailty and offended by illness.

Eating holy things

We’ve covered a few times that priests get to eat certain portions of foods offered to God in sacrifice. Now we learn that it’s not just for the priests.

Lay persons who are not in a priest’s immediate household are not allowed to eat consecrated food. Neither can travellers or hired servants. But “those that are born in his house” and his slaves can.

Of course, daughters are always a special case. If she married an “outsider” (a lay person who isn’t in the priest’s immediate household), she can’t. If, however, she is a widow or divorced, provided that she doesn’t have any children, and has “returned to her father’s house, as in her youth” (Lev. 22:13).

If a man eats a holy thing “unwittingly,” he has to add a fifth to its value and give it all over to the priests (presumably “it” here refers to a replacement and not to something gross).

Acceptable offerings

When someone makes an offering, it must have no blemishes. Again, we get a list of specified blemishes:

  • Blind animals
  • Disabled animals
  • Mutilated animals
  • Animals having a discharge
  • Animals having an itch (I assume this refers more to a mange-link condition than, say, just needing to have a little scratch)
  • Animals with scabs
  • Animals with bruised, crushed, torn, or cut testicles (ouch!)
  • Animals that have been gotten from a foreigner (because ew, foreigners – although one commentary interprets this to mean that a foreigner who has converted may wish to offer a blemished animal to God thinking it would be okay since he’s used to offering crappy animals to his own gods, and that the priest might think “hey, at least the guy’s making an effort” and accept it anyway, because what do foreigners know, you know?)
  • Animals that are younger than eight days old
  • Animals offered on the same day as their child/mother

But the good news is that if you have an animal that has “a part too long or too short” (Lev. 22:23), you can still give it as a freewill offering. Just not for any other kind.

When a thanksgiving sacrifice is made, it has to be eaten that same day. God hates leftovers.

Finally, in the most tiresome guilt trip of the Bible, you have to obey all these rules because God “brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Lev.22:33). Have you ever had that friend? I mean, yes, thank you, but do you have to keep going on about it?

What’s with all the blemish stuff?

According to Collins:

It is characteristic of the Priestly authors that they like clear and distinct dividing lines. By categorizing things in this manner, they impose a sense of order on experience, and this in turn gives people a sense of security, which is especially attractive in times of crisis and uncertainty. Such a system can have unfortunate consequences for people who are themselves deemed to deviate from what is considered normal in their society. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 78).

In other words, the sacred is only sacred by its distinction from the profane.