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Vayikra/Leviticus 21:23 and he shall not approach the altar, for there is a blemish in him: he shall not profane My holy places
This phrase, places an important restriction upon the service of a priest who has some form of blemish or disablement. Verses 17-19 list a set of some specific conditions that class as blemishes, some of which are clearly congenital - that is, from birth - while others may develop over time, and still others may happen as a result of accidents or warfare. This list culminates in the blanket restriction: "No man among the offspring of Aharon the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the L-RD's offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his G-d" (Vayikra 21:21, JPS). It is not that the priest is denied his part in the priests' food, for the next verse goes on, "He may eat of the food of his G-d, of the most holy as well as of the holy" (v. 22, JPS), but he may not take any active part as a priest in bringing or making the offerings. Such priests continued to receive support from the tithes and priestly portions of the offerings, but could not officiate.
The Sages of the Talmud discuss the various types and kinds of blemish or deformity (b. Bechorot 43a onwards) but make a distinction between someone who has a blemish and someone who has a deformity. Those with a deformity, although priests because they are male descendants of Aharon, are not considered to be "like the seed of Aharon" (b. Bechorot 43b) because they are not a true reflection of the physical form of Aharon. In their case, there would be no desecration of the Temple service, since they would simply not be allowed to perform it or, if they did, although invalid, it would not profane the service since what they did would not be Temple service. Those with a blemish, on the other hand, would be considered to profane the service since their actions would be valid viewed from a distance - from where the blemish could not be seen - so would be deceptive. Those with the lightest blemishes were viewed with the most concern, since they offered the most risk of mistake.
Baruch Levine points out that the word - a plural, "My holy places" - is unusual, but can be compared to in "the sacred areas of the house of the L-rd" (Jeremiah 51:51) and in "from your holy places" (Psalm 68:36). He says, "this rendering underscores the spatial factor, the question of where the defective priests would have been stationed were they officiating in the cult." Levine confirms that the issue is concerned about a disqualified priest performing ritual apparently correctly, but in so doing, deceiving others who are depending on the sacrifice having its proper efficacy. Even if they stand in the sanctuary while others are bringing the sacrifices, they might be seen and thought to be involved, thus bringing the reputation of the sanctuary, its service and the priesthood into disrepute. Although in one sense the priest may have done nothing wrong and be innocent of any intent to deceive, this would profane the holiness of the cult.
Hirsch sees the performance of the Temple service by a priest, in his holy garments, by "Man in the proximity of G-d" as the true worship and service of the sanctuary, that inner space in the centre of the tabernacle where the presence of G-d dwells in the midst of the people. He explains that this is, "Man in the fullness of all the freshness of life, not crippled or hampered, who is able to represent Man blossoming out in the proximity of G-d." Noting that in the next verse the text reports that "Thus Moshe spoke to Aharon and his sons and to all the Israelites" (Vayikra 16:24 JPS), Hirsch takes a massive step from the physical to the spiritual and concludes that "keeping the Jewish Sanctuary free from the idea of being a moral infirmary for crippled broken lives is here made the concern of the whole nation." It is not enough, he seems to be saying, that people with physical defects are not seen as part of the officiating priesthood, but that people with moral issues, unhappy marriages or messy divorces, substance addictions or a criminal record should also not be able to participate in the cult or be seen as part of that being closest to God, representing Him or the people. As Moshe explained to Aharon concerning the death of his two sons, "This is what the L-RD has said, 'Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified'" (Vayikra 10:3, ESV).
Where then do we stand against this backdrop today? Our modern society rightly prohibits discrimination from proper participation on the grounds of gender, age or disability in all areas of life and work. The Body of Messiah is open to all of whatever physical or mental condition who have a genuine faith relationship with Yeshua, our Messiah; in fact, that is what defines membership and participation in the Body, rather than simply membership of a church or congregation. There is no function that can be performed by the equivalent able-bodied person that cannot be performed by someone who is disabled or who has a blemish, subject only to their own limitations.
Instead, the focus of defect or blemish has moved from the physical to the spiritual; the issues are not what a person looks or sounds like, but whether they are living according to the rules of the kingdom of G-d. Our service is still limited by our defects - if we have character or lifestyle defects then we cannot take the equivalent role of service as the priests in the Temple. An adulterer or sex offender cannot be an elder, worship leader or pastor within the Body; this profanes the Body in the eyes of all who see and are aware, bringing the whole Body into disrepute and accusations of double standards or even complicity in or approval of sin. More, it is deeply offensive to G-d. Those engaging in certain lifestyles that are not illegal - according to the statute of the civil authorities in each land - are clearly debarred from holding office or leading the Body; Rav Sha'ul gives several lists of behaviour which marks as person as unfit for the kingdom, such as "Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of G-d" (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, ESV). Yeshua spoke about sacrifices being invalid on the grounds of unforgiveness or unresolved issues between believers: "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24, ESV). Co-participation in any pagan or pseudo-religious activities or organisations is also an issue: "What agreement has the temple of G-d with idols? For we are the temple of the living G-d" (2 Corinthians 6:16, ESV). The Bible sums it up this way: "Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the L-rd, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the L-rd Almighty" (vv. 17-18, ESV).
This makes a very important point. Whereas a Levitical priest, a cohen, is unable to serve because of physical defects or blemishes that are permanent or irreversible, from birth or accidents during life, many of the issues1 that block our service, whether in prayer, worship, teaching or leadership, are reversible and can be changed. As believers in Messiah, we can confess our sins and be forgiven, empowered by the Spirit we can make radical lifestyle changes; following the example of Yeshua Himself, we can humbly follow Him, committed to a life of service. We can be free of speech habit sins - lies, sarcasm, exaggeration, half-truths, complaining, gossip - and so enabled to serve G-d in spirit and truth, by confessing and renouncing them. Without doing so, we profane the service of G-d in our lives and the lives of others and our congregation. If we are to truly serve G-d and for our service to be acceptable to Him, we must bring our defects and blemishes to Him and seek His forgiveness, cleansing and healing. In Messiah, this is available to us all.
1. - Some sins, even though confessed and forgiven, still have consequences. Many teach that although a person can be restored to faith and membership within the Body after such sins, following true repentance and - where possible and appropriate - restitution, they should never be permitted to serve in a leadership role again.
Further Study: Colossians 3:5-10; Matthew 12:32-36
Application: Do you have a blemish in your life that is blocking your service of G-d? Don't delay a moment longer, but bring it to Him immediately so that your relationship with Him can be restored. Yeshua is the key, "for all the promises of G-d find their Yes in Him" (2 Corinthians 1:20, ESV).
© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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