The Law – an Eternal Story

Reading the book of Leviticus is no easy task. It is a legal document, and legal documents are difficult at the best of times. To make the task harder, this document relates to practices that seem at times far removed from our day to day experience – flaying of animals, sprinkling of blood, ancient rituals for a camp of refugees in a distant and long forgotten wilderness. Yet at its heart, the book of Leviticus contains an eternal story – the story of God and the children of Israel. God invites the children of Israel to Himself. He set forth a way to come to Himself and provides the priests to mediate that way. God spoke to Moses and asked him to tell the children of Israel how they were to approach Him. What is God calling the children of Israel to? And by extension, what is God calling us to? Leviticus has the answer – God is calling His people to holiness (Lev 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; 20:26; 21:8). Most of the book of Leviticus is speaking about the way which God has set for His people to come to His holiness.

The Priests’ Role

The priests were involved right through the book of Leviticus and are inseparable from the law.

The priests sprinkle the blood, flay the offerings, burn the sacrifices and incense, eat the holy bread, inspect the lepers and so much more. Leviticus contains not only instructions regarding the service of the priests, but also specific sections which relate to the priests themselves1.

It is worth recalling why the priests were so especially separated from among the children of Israel. Their separation was to service (Ex 28:1,3,41; 29:1) and specifically to bear the names of the children of Israel before God (Ex 28:12,29,30) and, conversely, to bear God’s name before the people (Ex 28:36). Their whole mission was one of service: service which drew the nation to God and grew within each child of Israel a holiness which re ected Yahweh in all His glory and beauty.

Leviticus 21

So, what laws were specifically given to God’s priests? These laws must surely emphasise the principle of holiness to God. Leviticus 21 speaks about the separateness of the priests and high priests in relation to three things: 1) death, 2) marriage, and 3) physical defects. Broadly speaking, the chapter can be divided as follows:

  1. v1-9: Laws relating to the priests
    a. v1-6: Laws relating to death
    b. v7-9: Laws relating to marriage
  2. v10-15: Laws relating to the high priest
    a. v10-12: Laws relating to death
    b. v13-15: Laws relating to marriage
  3. v16-24: Laws relating to physical defects in the priests and high priest

Death and the Priest

For the priest in Israel, it must have been no surprise to hear that he was to be separate from the uncleanness of death. All the nation of Israel was called to be separate from death, with uncleanness coming to those who touched a dead body (Num 19:11) or were even in the same tent as one (v14). For those who chose not to be made clean after their defilement, Moses instructed that they were to be cut off from the nation (v20). Death brought uncleanness, but God made a way by which the unclean could return to the nation through the sacrifice of the red heifer (v17-19). The children of Israel were also instructed that they were not to permanently mark their bodies for the dead (Lev 19:27-28).

What about the priest? The priest received laws about the same circumstances, but a higher expectation of separateness was required of him. There was no provision to be made clean after contact with death, but simply a requirement that he remain separate altogether (Lev 21:1). The only exception was in the case of his immediate family (v2-4). Just like those of the nation, permanent signs of mourning were not to be found on the priest’s body (v5).

The priest was called to service and separateness from death was a requirement for that service to continue. The uncleanness of death would defile the sacrifices and the bread which the priest was to offer (Num 19:22) and this was unacceptable. How could a priest, who represented the living God, be outwardly marked for the dead?

Marriage of a Priest

Likewise, with the commandments about marriage, one law applied to the nation, and the same law, with greater expectation, was given to the priests. Israel were forbidden from a range of marriage relationships (Lev 18) and those who broke these commandments were cut off from the nation (v29). To some extent, the chaste behaviour of a young woman reflected upon her father’s house (Deut 22:13-21). The priests were also given very specific instructions about who they could marry (Lev 21:7) and regarding the behaviour of their daughters (v9). The children of Israel were permitted to marry a woman who had once been a prostitute (for example Rahab), but this was forbidden for the priest. If an Israelite’s daughter was unchaste, she was to be stoned to death, while a priest’s daughter was to be burned. The same law applied, but with greater expectation placed upon the priest. And the reason? The priest was separated to service, and this service required holiness in every avenue of life, including marriage and the decorum of his house.

Death and the High Priest

For the high priest, separation from death was taken a step further. His appearance could not be altered by death in any way, not even temporarily. His head could not be uncovered and his clothes could not be torn (Lev 21:10). The priest had been called to service and his mitre carried the words “Holiness unto Yahweh” (Ex 28:36) while his garments were “for glory and for beauty” (Ex 28:1-2). His representation of God to the people was not to be compromised. And there were no exceptions under which he could be defiled by contact with death, not even for his closest family relations (Lev 21:11).

It is astonishing to consider the level of dedication that was required of the high priest. The falling asleep of a loved one is a challenging time at best, and to be denied opportunity to mourn is a high calling indeed. In Scripture there is one example of such denial, and that is described in Ezekiel 24. Ezekiel was a priest (Ezek 1:3) and in Ezekiel 24, God gives a special sign in the life of this man for the nation of Israel. God would take the life of his wife, and Ezekiel was forbidden to mourn (Ezek 24:15-17)2. The meaning of this enacted parable helps us to understand the meaning behind the law given to the high priest. God drew a parallel between the wife of Ezekiel and the sanctuary. Ezekiel’s wife meant everything to him. She was the desire of his eyes in every regard (v16). And by parallel, the sanctuary was to Israel “their strength, the joy of their glory, the desire of their eyes, and that whereupon they set their minds” (v25). But just as Ezekiel did not mourn for his wife, God would orchestrate circumstances such that Israel would not mourn for their beloved temple in Jerusalem. The parallel is true for the high priest as well. The sanctuary and his service were to be the object of such love and value, that it could not be overshadowed, even by the death of a close family member.

Perhaps there is another reason as well to explain why such a demanding law was imposed upon the high priest. Contact with death brought uncleanness for a period of seven days, and we are told that the high priest was not to leave the sanctuary (Lev 21:12). There was only one high priest in the nation, and if he was excluded from the sanctuary by uncleanness, all the nation would feel the consequences. The service of the high priest was essential and could not be way-laid, even under trying circumstances.

Marriage of the High Priest

Following this pattern that the laws relating to Israel and the priests, also related to the high priest, but with more exacting demands, we read of marriage (v13-15). Marriage to a high priest was only to be entered into by the chaste who had not been married before. The children from this marriage were also called to holiness (v15). Neither death nor unfaithfulness were to touch the marriage of a high priest, and his children, the product of this marriage were to reflect the same.

Physical Perfection

Where there was physical imperfection, service was not permitted in the case of both priest and high priest. Imperfection did not exclude from sharing the fellowship or benefits of service, in eating the holy bread (v22), but it did restrict participation in the ritual of making the offering (v21). And again, there is a reason why these laws were in place. In the case of disabling conditions (though there are others listed), service by the priest would have been physically impossible, or at least very difficult. An imperfect priest would profane the sanctuary (v23) and this was unacceptable. The priest was to represent God to the people of Israel, and the perfect God, requested a perfect priest to act as representative.

Christ our High Priest

The law in Leviticus can sometimes be heavily laden with details and particularly uncomfortable details. Yet it sets out the way in which God called the children of Israel to approach Him. Sometimes these laws seem very confronting, such as not attending a family member’s funeral, or excluding those with even minor physical ailments from service. The laws expressed in Leviticus paint a picture of high ideals which it is difficult to imagine obtaining. There are very clear lines of inclusion and exclusion, clean and unclean: yet the world in which we live speaks of all-inclusiveness and complete indifference. How relevant are these details since the law is no more? Has Christ superseded them? The answer is “Yes, but the principles remain.” The calling that God made to the priest is the same high calling He makes to the disciples of Christ.

Called to be Priests

Peter, when writing to scattered disciples says, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet 2:9). The disciples are compared both with God’s people, the Jews, and also the priesthood within the Jewish nation. Peter reiterates that the calling to holiness which God extended to the children of Israel and the priests is also applicable to disciples of Christ: “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:15-16, citing Leviticus). As disciples of Christ, our calling follows all the same principles of the priests’ calling. We are to be holy and to represent a holy God to all those around us. We are called to a very active service, which draws other people to God and His holiness.

Separate in Death

A disciple came to Jesus and said, “Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.” The response from Christ was very direct:

“Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead” (Matt 8:22). As with the priest, so the disciple is called to stay separate from death. Death, even of one near and dear is not to be first or before our following of Christ.

This separation within the life of a disciple is extended to an even greater extent than that of the priest. The priest was told to refrain from mourning, with an exception given for close family members. For the high priest, no exceptions were given. The disciple is asked by Christ to hate anyone, including any family member and oneself, for the sake of discipleship (Luke 14:26): “Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Separation from our families may be the cross we bare, and the price we pay for following Christ. Of course, this is not separation for separation’s sake. The disciple is primarily called to service, and families are quite clearly the very best place for service. What we are called to do is put this service first. We are asked to reconsider any relationship where our service is hindered or where it is taking us further from God. This is something that can hurt. It might sometimes feel like someone is banging rough nails through our hands with a heavy hammer. It is something that hurt the high priest. It hurt Ezekiel. It hurt Christ. And Christ tells us we will also feel this pain, but when we do, we are not to give up or give in. We are to look up, because Christ has carried this same cross before us and shows us the way forward. It is a necessary part of our calling.

Separate in Marriage

The disciple is also called to purity in marriage, with the only requirement being “in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39). Christ’s teaching regarding purity in marriage extends the commandments of old to a higher level: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28). The disciple is called to purity of mind where previously only the body of high priest, priest and Israelite were subject to laws of purity.

In close parallel, the metaphor of Christ and his bride encapsulates the same principles: “for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor 11:2). This is contrasted to the corrupt religious system in Revelation which is associated with fornication some 12 times.

Made Perfect in Christ

There is no expectation that disciples will be physically perfect. Perhaps it is true that the physically imperfect are particularly responsive to the call of Christ. Jesus said to the disciples of John the Baptist, “Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached” (Luke 7:22). Everywhere Jesus went, the imperfect came to him in droves. They heard his message, they grew in faith, they felt the touch of Christ’s hand, and they left rejoicing, telling everyone about the great salvation they had received. Christ brings both physical and spiritual perfection where disease and sin once ruled. This healing and cleansing which Christ worked is so beautifully described by Paul: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the ecclesia, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious ecclesia, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25- 27). The priest is called to holiness and perfection, and the disciple is made holy and perfect through the unspeakable gift of Christ.

The law showed that sin and death brought defilement and separation from God. Christ takes away sin and death forever. The priest was called to have a faithful wife and family, tenderly nurtured. The disciple is called to be the faithful wife of Christ and child of God. The priest was excluded by physical imperfection. The disciple is made physically perfect through submission to Christ. The priest was called to service, mediating the way to God, representing the people to God and God to the people. The disciple is called to the same holiness, the same reflection of God and the same labour of love in drawing people to God. Everything in Christ is different, yet it is somehow very similar.

As disciples, we are called to be a nation of priests, but Christ is our high priest. He has been chosen by Almighty God to represent Himself. His role is to draw people to God, and especially to represent us to God. When in our own unique lives we see the hand of God pointing to the need for separation and clarity, each of us feels the pull of our feelings away from the principles God has set out in the laws for the priest. And it is for this very reason that Christ has been especially chosen as our high priest. He felt those very same feelings and in compassion he appeals to us, and draws us to God. There stands Christ – our mediator, eternal – his service never hindered by death, never tainted by unfaithfulness, never brought low by deficiency but perfect in every way, holy, harmless undefiled, separate from sinners and made higher than the heavens. We can each be so thankful for Christ whom we remember week by week: our strength, our joy, our glory, the desire of our eyes and that whereupon we set our minds!


  1. In chapters 8-10, the consecration of the priests is described and then laws regarding the personal lives of the priests are outlined in chapters 21-22.
  2. It is unclear from the text of Leviticus 21:2-4, if the priest was permitted to mourn for his wife. The fact that the priest Ezekiel was forbidden to mourn for his wife as an extraordinary sign implies that the priest’s wife is implicit in the list of exceptions given in Leviticus 21. Ezekiel’s case is akin to the high priest, where no exception is made (v11).