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Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1 ... 'For a [dead] person he shall not become impure among his people.'
From dealing with forbidden relationships for the people as a whole,HaShem now has Moshe turn to the priests, the sons of Aharon. This extended block of text - through to 22:16 - details ways in which the priesthood is to be separate - holy or distinctive - even among the people of Israel who are all called to be holy because HaShem is holy. The first section deals with mourning and marriage, first for the priests and then for - the High Priest. It is clear from the echo of the word in verse 11, - any dead body - where it is coupled with the word that here implies someone who has died.
This first regulation is universally translated as referring to the dead: "No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people" (ESV) and goes on to list the few close relatives - mother, father, son, daughter, brother or unmarried sister - for whom a priest may become ritually impure. Otherwise, the priest must remain apart, not take part in the burial or touch any of the deceased's possessions that are unclean. "They shall be holy to their G-d and not profane the name of their G-d; for they offer the L-RD's offerings by fire, the food of their G-d, and so must be holy" (v. 6, JPS). The High Priest is forbidden even these close relations; he must not leave the sanctuary, not show any signs of mourning; "for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his G-d" (v. 12, JPS). Although the sages were later to elevate the obligation to bury an otherwise attended corpse above this requirement for purity (e.g. b. Nazir 43b), the Torah is clear that the priesthood is to remain holy, even at considerable emotional cost.
The second regulation concerns the question of marriage: who a priest or the High Priest may marry. A priest is not permitted to marry a harlot, one profaned or a divorcee, but may marry a virgin or a widow; the High Priest may only marry a virgin from a priestly family. Sexual purity and fidelity are clearly issues that the Torah considers important.Rashi comments that the priests must be treated as holy, "whether they wish to be so treated or not"; it is not a matter of choice, but of who they are - they are the priests and priests are required by HaShem to be holy in these areas. Rashi adds: "If one of them refused to divorce a forbidden wife, you must whip him for marrying her and then harass him until he divorces her." The priests are held to a higher standard of purity than the people who are only forbidden co-sanguineous, same-sex and bestial relations.
Hirsch writes that the priest should "always be conscious of the fact that their priesthood is not due to any special qualities of their own, but it is only thanks to their birth. Jewish priesthood is a mission that is imposed at birth; for its accomplishment one had to be born and brought up so that this mission fills the whole life of the future man." The obligations apply not only to those who are actually serving - that is whole, without blemish between the ages of 30 and 50 - but also to those who are or become disqualified for service by means of age, blemish of disability, for they are still of priestly descent and may father future generations of priests. That is the meaning of "that he may not profane his offspring among his kin" (v. 15, JPS). Baruch Levine points out that "priestly impurity, which resulted from contact with the dead and from impure marriages, could, in turn, render the sanctuary itself impure."
These requirements are imposed upon the priesthood in the Torah, but are confirmed by the prophet Ezekiel as applying to the Levitical priests, the sons of Zadok, after the return from the Babylonian exile until the days of the third temple. The funerary regulations appear in 44:25 and the marriage rules in 44:22. This is so that they will be qualified to "teach My people the difference between the holy and the profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean" (Ezekiel 44:23, NASB), for that is their role: to teach the people. Having taught, then by virtue of their example and practice, they must also enforce: "in a dispute they shall take their stand to judge; they shall judge it according to My ordinances. They shall also keep My laws and My statutes in all My appointed feasts, and sanctify My sabbaths" (v. 24, NASB). Keeping sexually pure is as important as keeping the feasts and observing Shabbat, because together they make the priest holy and give him the authority to teach and judge, to be a witness of G-d's holiness.
In the summary of the divorce regulations, "When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house ..." (D'varim 24:1, ESV), the only clear grounds for divorce was serious sexual misconduct. This is confirmed by Yeshua when He taught, "I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery!" (Matthew 19:9, CJB). Levine comments, "Sexual immorality was a religious sin, an offence against G-d, in addition to its interpersonal offensiveness."
How do we apply this our lives as believers? What is the teaching for us today, in a world that is awash with sexual openness and naked bodies? Almost everything, from toothpaste to sports cars and most things in between, is sold with sexual images or a sexual message. Yeshua makes it clear that the action of adultery is not just the physical act, but that "a man who even looks at a woman with the purpose of lusting after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28, CJB). Rav Sha'ul draws a clear line in the sand: "For of this you can be sure: every sexually immoral, impure or greedy person - that is, every idol-worshipper - has no share in the Kingdom of the Messiah and of God" (Ephesians 5:5, CJB). With everything that is around us, this is a tough call, but one that is mandated by our relationship with G-d. Time and again Rav Sha'ul urges, "Run from sexual immorality!" (1 Corinthians 6:18, CJB), "Among you there should not even be mentioned sexual immorality, or any kind of impurity, or greed; these are utterly inappropriate for God's holy people" (Ephesians 5:3, CJB). Our holiness, our relationship with G-d, our ability to be a witness for the kingdom, depend upon us being pure and free from sexual sin or marital transgression.
In the same way as for the priests, this is not a matter of choice; it is a function or requirement of who we are as believers in Messiah. We too are called to be holy, because G-d is holy. We too are held to higher standards than the rest of the world, because we know G-d. Just as impure priests might defile the sanctuary, our misconduct defames G-d in the eyes of the world: "If they can do that, then they're no better than the rest of us; they can't be serious about G-d". G-d's call on our lives is for us to bring credit to His name, not shame. We must clean up our act as a body of believers and ensure that no impurity is to be found within us. It is not a question of seeking G-d's grace to excuse our sin, but putting things right.
Further Study: Colossians 3:5-8; Psalm 16:2-3
Application: Are you in or considering a relationship that you know to be wrong? Study and pray to be sure that you know what is right - seeking counsel from godly men if necessary - and then make sure that you change your circumstances to align with G-d's clearly stated words.
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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