(1) And the Lord said unto Moses.—The laws about the purity and holiness of the Jewish community, and of every individual lay member, enacted in Leviticus 11:1 to Leviticus 20:27, are now followed by statutes respecting the purity and holiness of the priesthood who minister in holy things in behalf of the people, and who, by virtue of their high office, were to be models of both ceremonial and moral purity.
Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron.—Moses is ordered to communicate these statutes to the priests as the sons of Aaron. The peculiar phrase “the priests the sons of Aaron,” which only occurs here—since in all other six passages in the Pentateuch it is the reverse, “the sons of Aaron the priests” (see Leviticus 1:5; Leviticus 1:8; Leviticus 1:11; Leviticus 2:2; Leviticus 3:2; Numbers 10:8; Note on Leviticus 1:5), is designed to inculcate upon them the fact that they are priests by virtue of being the sons of Aaron, and not because of any merit of their own, and that they are to impress the same sentiments upon their issue. This fact, moreover, as the authorities during the second Temple remark, imposes upon the priests the duty of bringing up their children in such a manner as to make them morally and intellectually fit to occupy this hereditary office. They also deduce from the emphatic position of the term “priests,” that it only applies to those of them who are fit to perform their sacerdotal duties, and not to the disqualified priests (see Leviticus 21:15).
There shall none be defiled for the dead.—
Better, He shall not defile himself for a dead person; that is, the priest is not to contract defilement by contact with the body of any dead person. What constitutes defilement is not specified, but, as is often the case, was left to the administrators of the Law to define more minutely. Accordingly, they enacted that not only touching a dead body, but coming within four cubits of it, entering the house where the corpse lay, entering a burial place, following to the grave, or the manifestation of mourning for the departed, pollutes the priest, and consequently renders him unfit for performing the services of the sanctuary, and for engaging in the services for the people. This they deduced from Numbers 19:11-16. The Egyptian priests were likewise bound to keep aloof from “burials and graves, from impure men and women.” The Romans ordered a bough of a cypress-tree to be stuck at the door of the house in which a dead body was lying, lest a chief priest should unwittingly enter and defile himself.
Among his people—That is, among the tribes or people of Israel, the Jewish community (see Deuteronomy 32:8; Deuteronomy 33:3, &c.). Hence the authorities during the second Temple concluded that when the corpse is among the people whose duty it is to see to its burial, the priest is forbidden to take part in it; but when a priest, or even the high priest, finds a human body in the road where he cannot call on any one to bury it, he is obliged to perform this last sacred office to the dead himself. When it is borne in mind how much the ancient Hebrews thought of burial, and that nothing exceeded their horror than to think of an unburied corpse of any one belonging to them, this humane legislation will be duly appreciated.
For his mother, and for his father.—This is the second of the three instances in the Bible where the mother is mentioned before the father (see Leviticus 19:3). The Jewish canonists, who call attention to this unusual phrase, account for it by saying that she is placed first because the son’s qualifications for the priesthood depend more upon his having a good mother (see Leviticus 21:7). This will be readily understood when it is borne in mind that the regulations about the woman whom a priest was allowed to marry during the second Temple were of the most stringent nature, and that the slightest infringement of them disqualified the son for performing sacerdotal functions. Thus the daughter of a foreigner or of a released captive was forbidden to the priest, and when a city was besieged and taken by the enemy all the wives of the priests had to be divorced for fear lest they had suffered violence.
Which hath had no husband.—When she is married she goes to her husband, and ceases to be near her brother. It then devolves upon her husband to attend to the funeral rites.
For her may he be defiled.—According to the administrators of the Law during the second Temple, the priest was not only allowed to contract defilement by attending to the funeral rites of these seven relations, but was obliged to do it.
The offerings of the Lord made by fire, and the bread of their God.—Better, the offerings of the Lord made by fire, being the food of God. As the altar was the table, the sacrifice burnt on it was called His food. (See Leviticus 3:11.)
He shall be holy unto thee.—On the other hand, when he acts in accordance with his sacred office, the people must reverence his holy person. Hence the administrators of the Law during the second Temple enacted that the priest is to take precedence on public occasions. Thus, when the people assemble, he opens the meeting by invoking God’s blessing. At the reading of the Law of God in the synagogue, he is called up first to the rostrum to read the first portion, and at table he recites the benedictions over the repast. This honour the Jews assign to the priests to this day.
She shall be burnt with fire.—Whilst the married daughter of a layman who had gone astray was punished with death by strangling (see Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:23-24), the daughter of a priest who had disgraced herself was to be punished with the severer death by burning. Though the doom of the guilty partner in the crime is not mentioned here, his sentence was death by strangulation.
Upon whose head the anointing oil was poured.—This profuse pouring of oil was the distinctive feature in the consecration of the high priest. (See Leviticus 8:12.)
Consecrated to put on the garments.—Better, consecrated by putting on the garments. The robing of the high priest by Moses, as well as the anointing him, constituted part of the consecration ceremony. (See Leviticus 8:7-11.)
Shall not uncover his head.—Better, shall not let his head be dishevelled, which was a sign of mourning. (See Leviticus 10:6.)
Nor rend his clothes.—That is, “in the time of distress,” as the ancient Chaldee version of Jonathan rightly adds after it. Sustaining this high position, and being the intercessor between God and man, such outward expressions of sorrow might lead those in whose behalf he ministers in the sanctuary to believe that he thereby impugns the justice of the Divine judgment.
Nor defile himself for his father . . . —Better, not for his father . . . shall he defile himself or, not even for his father, &c. As the rigorous enactment in the preceding clause constitutes already the difference between the high priest and the ordinary priest, this clause simply adduces an instance to illustrate it. Whilst the ordinary priest was not only permitted, but even obliged, to attend the funeral ceremonies of no less than seven of his relations (see Leviticus 21:2-3), the high priest was not even allowed to join in the obsequies of his parents. The only exception made in his case was when he found a human body in an isolated place. Under such circumstances he was not only permitted, but it was a meritorious act on his part, to bury it. (See Leviticus 21:1.)
Or a divorced woman.—The classes of women which follow are also forbidden to the ordinary priests. (See Leviticus 21:7.)
To offer the bread of his God.—That is, shall not officiate at the sacrifices. (See Leviticus 21:6 -Leviticus 3:2.)
A blind man.—During the second Temple, this was not only interpreted to be partial blindness on both eyes, or on one eye, but was taken to include any blemish in the eye or in the eyelid, of which the administrators of the Law enumerate twenty-six cases, nineteen in the eye and seven in the eyelid.
Or a lame.—This was understood during the second Temple to refer to any imperfection in the gait of the priest, which might show itself in twenty different ways.
Or he that hath a flat nose.—Of the nasal deformity no less than nine different illustrations are given.
Or any thing superfluous.—That is, one member of the body more stretched out or longer than the others, or out of proportion, as an eye, shoulder, thigh, leg, &c.
Or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye.—Better, or hath a cataract or a fusion of the white and black in his eye, as the administrators of the Law during the second Temple interpret the two defects here spoken of.
Or be scurvy, or scabbed.—According to the authorities in the time of Christ, both these are kinds of ulcers or scurvy; the former is a scab which is dry both within and without, whilst the second is a scab which is moist within and dry without, and which clings to a man till he dies.
Or hath his stones broken.—That is, one whose testicles are injured. This included several kinds of defectiveness, which are exhibited in the different renderings of the ancient versions, but all refer to the same seat of the blemish.