Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why Were Old Testament Priests Required to Be Perfect Physical Specimens?

At Living Water Lutheran Church, we're reading the Bible together over the course of 2015 and holding weekly gatherings to discuss the twenty-one chapters we've read that week.

At last night's discussion, a really good question was posed: Why were the priests who offered the sacrifices made daily first in a tent in the wilderness and later at the temple in Jerusalem, required to be unmarred by physical defect?

Levticus 21:17-23 contains this uncomfortable set of qualifications from God:
For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.
One of the points that the editors of The Lutheran Study Bible make about these verses is that why "physical blemishes disqualified a priest from entering God's sanctuary or holy places...[the] disabled or misshapen were not regarded as profane, for the Lord allowed them to perform other tasks and eat holy food."

Still, these qualifications, which come in a list of otherwise defensible ones dealing with things like sin and integrity, are jarring. It seems inconsistent with what we know about how God, as evidenced repeatedly in both the Old and New Testaments, loves all people.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament does provide some explanation for these requirements, though they do little to eliminate our concerns:

Just as animals with physical defects or blemishes [could] not be offered for sacrifice (22:19-22), priests who [had] a physical defect [could] not serve before the altar. Ritual purity [was] required for the sacred precincts of the altar, the sacrifice and the religious practitioner officiating at the altar in every religion in the ancient Near East. Priests [had to be] in perfect health and in full command of their bodies and senses.
So, the concern behind the requirements in Leviticus seem to have been not so much with creating a kind of super race of perfect physical specimens to serve as priests, but to ensure ritual purity in every way surrounding the sacrificial system.

Still this explanation is a guess at best and not very satisfying at that.

On further reflection, I feel that a few other things need to be considered before we leave this question so uncomfortably behind.

The first thing to remember is that some rules in Leviticus no longer apply. We've discussed this a number of times on this blog and in classes. In a nutshell, there are three kinds of Old Testament laws: (1) ritual/sacrificial law; (2) civil law; (3) moral law. 

The first two types have been rendered instructive but irrelevant for us today. 

The sacrificial system, along with priestly sacrifices, came to an end with Jesus' voluntary self-sacrifice on the cross. No further sacrifices are needed; we are saved by God's grace through faith in Christ alone.

The Old Testament priesthood ended at the moment Jesus Christ died on the cross. The New Testament book of Hebrews describes Jesus as our "great high priest." Unlike the Old Testament priests, Jesus is both sacrifice and the One offering up the sacrifice, Himself.

He is a high priest who understands our imperfections and, despite His sinlessness, allowed Himself to bear the burden of our imperfections and sinfulness on the cross. Hebrews 4:15 says of Jesus:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin.
More than that, this is a great high priest who shared in the physical limitations, injuries, and defects to which every human being is subject. You get the idea from reading the Old and New Testaments that Jesus was not an imposing physical specimen. Hundreds of years before His birth, the prophet Isaiah said of Jesus:
He grew up before [God] like a tender shoot,    and like a root out of dry ground.He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind,    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.Like one from whom people hide their faces    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53:2-3)
So, if the Old Testament Levitical priests were physical specimens, the great high priest Jesus, God in human flesh, was not.

And maybe this gives us clues for the reason behind God instituting the physical qualifications for the priesthood we read about in Leviticus 21. Maybe ancient Israel, in the infancy of its historic mission to be God's "light to the nations" when these qualifications were given to His people in the wilderness, wasn't ready for priests who shared their weaknesses. 

Maybe only God Himself possessed the requisite empathy and compassion to be such a high priest. 

And maybe it was only after God Himself died at the hand of human weakness (and sin), then rose from the dead, that He was able to create a whole people--His Church--to share their weakness and God's strength with the world, and to confess their own weakness to God and be strengthened by His strong grace.

Lots of maybes. But, it's clear that no matter how troubling Leviticus 21 may be for us, it's not the final chapter in God's plan for the human race.

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