Volume 45 - Issue 1

Should the Local Church Resist Texts in Scripture that Clash with Western Culture? The Test Case of Leviticus 21:16–24

By Katherine Smith


Leviticus 21:16–24 instructs the Aaronic priest with a permanent physical blemish to refrain from serving YHWH in his presence. In today’s western culture, such exclusion would be deemed deplorable and so this clash of cultures raises the question of how the local church can appropriate Leviticus 21:16–24 as Christian Scripture in the present cultural climate. In addressing this question, this paper argues that the theological basis of Leviticus 21:16–24 is that only those who exemplify a whole condition are acceptable in YHWH’s presence. Thus, when a person does not exemplify this condition of wholeness, there is restriction and exclusion. Understanding the condition that leads to exclusion requires a holistic view of purity and impurity and, when we understand Leviticus 21:16–20 with this holistic perspective, the passage reflects a theological reality central to the person and work of Christ.

A hermeneutical challenge in our day is overcoming contempt for biblical texts where the meaning and theological basis seem to grate with Western cultural values. An example of such a text is Leviticus 21:16–24 where a man, who would usually qualify to be an Aaronic priest, is excluded from a particular priestly role on the basis that he has a physical disability. In a culture where exclusion on the basis of disability would prompt public criticism or even legal liability, such a text could be construed as an example of Scripture where the meaning needs to be resisted lest it have a negative impact on the wellbeing of those with disability in the church’s midst. This clash between a Western worldview and Leviticus 21:16–24 raises the question about how the local church as an expression of a new covenant community can understand and appropriate this particular text as Christian Scripture. To address this question, this article models reading Leviticus 21:16–24 attentively in its theological contexts.1

1. Attentively Reading Leviticus 21:16–24

Leviticus 21:16–24 is mainly a divine speech that Moses is to mediate to Aaron. The quotative frame in vv. 16–17a identifies Aaron as the addressee of the mediated speech and so suggests that adherence to the following instructions are the responsibility of the high priest. As is common for instruction in Leviticus, the speech then begins in v. 17b with a head theme that topicalizes the whole. In this instance, however, the head theme’s first elements focus upon the identity of those to whom the instructions are applicable, namely those from Aaron’s descendants (מִזַּרְעֲךָ; lit. “from your seed”) and for future generations (לְדֹרֹתָם). Then a relative clause modifies this description further to include those who have a “permanent blemish” (מוּם). In the Hebrew text, the final clause of the head theme in v. 17 is the prohibition that restricts Aaron’s descendants who have a blemish from approaching with the purpose of offering the food gifts of “his God.” In Hebrew word order, natural information flow progresses through the main verb being the initial element in each clause. When this is not the case, and either the explicit subject or object is in the clause-initial position, then the text has chosen to highlight this particular information as prominent. Thus, the focus of the head theme in v. 17 is upon the description of those to whom the prohibition applies, which suggests that these characteristics are significant. Second, the prohibition only concerns the priestly function of offering YHWH’s food gifts. It does not prohibit the blemished priest from undertaking other duties, such as teaching YHWH’s instruction to the Israelites.2 The rest of the passage expands further upon this head theme from v. 17.

Verses 18–20 describe the kind of permanent blemishes that exclude a priest from offering gifts before YHWH. However, this list in v. 18 is preceded by a second prohibition at the beginning of the verse. This prohibition is prefaced by the conjunction כִּי (“for” or “since”), which suggests that this is the reason for the first prohibition in v. 17. Once more, the subject in the Hebrew text is fronted before the verbal idea and so highlights the identity of the one to whom the following prohibition applies, namely, “every man” (כָל־אִישׁ) who has a blemish. Further still, the prohibition itself does not specify the function of offering food gifts for God, but rather finishes the prohibition at the action of approaching (קרב). The reason then as to why a priest with a blemish cannot draw near to offer gifts to YHWH is that no man with a blemish can approach. Thus, this exclusion from the priestly role is due to a much broader prohibition against any Israelite with a blemish from drawing near. This prohibition then forms an introduction to a list of example blemishes in vv. 18–20, which includes a man who is blind, who is lame as a result of a problem with his foot or leg that makes walking difficult, who has a birth deformity (חָרֻם)3 or a deformity since birth (שָׂרוּעַ),4 who has an injured foot or hand, who is hunchbacked, who is a dwarf, whose sight is obscured, who has a festering sore, or who has crushed testicles.5 Each “blemish” alters the physical appearance or outward functionality of a person.

After vv. 18–20 conveys the rationale of the prohibition in v. 17 and gives examples of blemishes that restrict a priest from offering food gifts to God, vv. 21–23 accentuates both prohibition and permission through its literary structure where permission in v. 22 is framed by prohibition in v. 21 and v. 23. The first prohibition frame in v. 21 repeats the thrust of the head theme from v. 17. Like v. 17, v. 21 begins by describing the person first before stating the prohibition. The now familiar relative clause “who has a blemish on him from a descendant of Aaron” modifies “every man” (כָּל־אִישׁ). There is no ambiguity about who the following prohibition applies—every man descended from Aaron who has a blemished appearance. The prohibition then repeats the thrust of the head theme by restricting the blemished Aaronic priest from approaching with a gift for YHWH. Two pithy disjunctive clauses then make up the remainder of v. 21. The first simply states immediately after the prohibition, “he has a blemish.” The purpose of this clause is to highlight the basis for the prohibition. The second disjunctive clause then repeats the prohibition for the second time that he, that is the blemished Aaronic priest, is not to approach with the purpose of offering a food gift. Noticeably though, the direct object, which is “the food of his God” (אֵת לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו) is placed first in the clause before the negative particle (לֹא; “not”) + main verb (יִגַּש; “he should approach”). Once more, the choice to move elements of the clause before the main verb highlights the information that is fronted, which in this instance is the food gifts that the blemished priest is prohibited from offering. Thus, there is a connection between the priest having a blemish and the offering of the food gifts, since this task is the only restriction that the text has addressed to this point. Further still, the repetition of the prohibition in v. 21 functions to reinforce the restriction so that there is no excuse where there is culpability.

Before reading the second prohibition frame in v. 23, it is worth reading the text in its given shape to follow the text’s logic; thus, the next stage of logic after the first prohibition frame is in v. 22, where YHWH gives permission in the midst of prohibition. Just as the conclusion of v. 21 is disjunctive, so too v. 22 continues with disjunctive clauses that give prominence to what is being said. To accentuate what is permissible, the main verb, “he can eat” (יֹאכֵל), is placed last in the clause of the Hebrew text and then what can be eaten is placed before this main verb, namely the “food of his God from the most holy gifts.” That is, there is absolute freedom for the blemished priest to eat the parts of the food offerings that God has given his servants from his own portion (see Leviticus 7:1–10, 28–36).6 Thus, the restriction only concerns the priest offering the food gifts and so there is still complete permission for the blemished priest to participate in God’s provision for him and his family.7

The second prohibition frame in v. 23 begins with a restrictive particle in the Hebrew (אַךְ), which is usually translated into English as “but” or “yet.” This restrictive particle signals a contrast with what has been stated previously, namely the permission to eat from the priestly part of the food offerings from v. 22. Significantly however, v. 23 follows a similar pattern to the first prohibition frame in v. 21 where two prohibitions enclosed the clause “he has a blemish on him” (מוּם בֹּו). Thus, following the restrictive adverb, the first prohibition once again moves the significant information to the front of each clause before the main verb in both v. 23a and v. 23b. In each instance, the significant information concerns two spaces where the blemished priest is not allowed access within the tabernacle. The first space in v. 23a is near the curtain (אֶל־הַפָּרֹכֶת), which separates the holy place from the most holy place (see Exod 26:31–35). The reason for this particular restriction is that the curtain is what separates the place where God’s presence dwells among his people and so the issue is proximity to YHWH’s presence. The second space in v. 23b is the altar (אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ) where the food offerings are caused to smoke and where the blood of the animal gifts is splattered, both of which actions are priestly functions involved in offering the food gifts. As noted above, v. 23 follows a similar pattern to v. 21 where the first prohibition is followed by the disjunctive clause “he has a blemish” (מוּם בֹּו). The only variation in v. 23c is that the phrase prefaces the repeated clause with the conjunction “for” (כִּי) and so makes it explicit that the declaration about the man having a blemish is the rationale for his exclusion from approaching the spaces in the tabernacle that are critical for the ritual success of food offerings for YHWH.8

The second prohibition in v. 23 focuses upon the danger of a blemished priest not adhering to this instruction, which is the desecration of YHWH’s sanctuary. The blemished priest cannot enter the space of the altar and near the curtain to ensure that the place that YHWH dwells is not defiled. Departing from the pattern of v. 21, v. 23 continues to add a rationale for this final prohibition. This rationale begins with the declarative refrain that recurs throughout Leviticus, which identifies the one speaking with YHWH. This refrain “I am YHWH” is short-hand for the complete declaration from the beginning of the Decalogue, “I am YHWH who brought you out from Egypt, out from the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2).9 The use of the short-hand declaration in this instance is modified by the descriptor of who YHWH is, which is the one who has sanctified the priesthood. That is, the one who is commanding is YHWH who brought Israel out from Egypt, who has set apart the priesthood for their task as servants in his presence, and whose presence sets them apart.10 By virtue of the speaker’s identity, there is an expectation that this instruction will be obeyed by future generations of the Aaronic priesthood.

Before placing this reading into the wider theological context of Leviticus, it is worth considering first what Leviticus 21:16–24 does not mean and what it does claim. At no point in 21:16–24 does the text suggest that the reason for the Aaronic priest’s exclusion from particular tasks and spaces within the tabernacle is that his disability is being “identified with” sin or is synonymous with sin.11 Furthermore, this is not about complete exclusion; there is a place for the disabled priest to be part of the priestly community. In light of this, the meaning of Leviticus 21:16–24 is actually unambiguous and the repetition serves to ensure that what is being instructed is reinforced so that there is no excuse when there is culpability. Thus, Leviticus 21:16–24 does restrict an Aaronic priest with a physical disability, or with a chronic wound, from the task of offering YHWH’s food gifts, and also from approaching the altar and the veil. There is, however, continued provision for the priest as he is able to eat from the priestly portions of YHWH’s food gifts that he has given to them. Furthermore, the final prohibition is clear that the effect of a blemished priest entering the space of the altar and the curtain is that YHWH’s dwelling-place would be defiled. However, while the rationale of exclusion is conveyed, the theological basis is only implied. Through the high incidence of repetition and clauses that deviate from unmarked Hebrew word order, it is clear that there is a relationship between the characteristic of having a “blemish,” being excluded from offering food gifts, and having restricted access to particular holy spaces in the tabernacle. Therefore, an attentive reading of Leviticus 21:16–24 will place the passage within the wider theological context of the whole book, which is the task of the next section, so as to shed light upon why the disabled priest, and in fact any blemished man, is excluded from drawing near before YHWH.

2. Leviticus 21:16–24 within Its Theological Context

The theological context of Leviticus 21:16–24 within the whole book is shaped by an unresolved problem at the conclusion of the book of Exodus: YHWH’s glory has filled the newly-constructed tabernacle, yet Moses is unable to enter (Exod 40:34–35). There is restriction. YHWH’s consuming presence has moved from the top of Mt Sinai (Exod 24:17) to now being in Israel’s midst (Exod 40:34), but the inability to enter suggests that a barrier needs to be overcome if Moses, let alone any other Israelite, is to enter and be able to draw near before YHWH.12 For this reason, Moses’s and Aaron’s access into the tabernacle, and then YHWH’s glory appearing before the whole people, in Leviticus 9:23 is astonishing as these two sequential events demonstrate that this barrier has been overcome.13 This raises the question of what happened between Exodus 40 and Leviticus 9:23 that provided the solution to the problem at the conclusion of Exodus.

Leviticus 9 points to the answer. Before Moses and Aaron entered the meeting place, Aaron had offered gifts before YHWH on behalf of himself and the people, which included a combination of burnt, cereal, fellowship, and sin offerings. The parts of these offerings that are to be wholly offered to YHWH, namely the fat of every animal and the entire animal of the burnt offering, were placed by Aaron on the altar (9:1–21). Significantly, immediately after YHWH’s glory appeared before the people in 9:23, fire came down and consumed YHWH’s food offerings (9:24). This points to the function of YHWH’s food gifts, which is for the life of God’s people to be preserved in the presence of God’s glory. Through these gifts offered to YHWH regularly, exactly as YHWH commanded, the people can now draw near to God’s presence. Thus, the preservation of Israel’s life with God in their midst is dependent upon the success of these gifts. For this reason, it is worth exploring these gift instructions from Leviticus 1–7 further.

2.1. YHWH’s Provision of Gift Instructions in Leviticus 1–7

There are five kinds of gifts described in Leviticus 1–7, which fall naturally into two groups. The first group of gifts in Leviticus 1–3 are those that enable the offerer and the community to draw near to YHWH in good relationship. These gifts are the burnt offering that enables the offerer to enter God’s presence (1:3–17), the cereal gift that motivates a remembrance of the covenant between the offerer and YHWH (2:1–16), and the fellowship sacrifice that expresses the whole relationship between the offerer, his community, and YHWH (3:1–17). The second group of offerings are for situations where relationship needs restoration after offence threatens the whole relationship between YHWH and the culpable. There are two offerings in this second group, namely the sin and guilt offerings (4:1–6:7).14 Through these gifts, and the obedience of both the Israelite community and the priesthood, the relationship between Israel and YHWH is sustained and restored.

The first gift of the burnt offering in Leviticus 1:2b–17 is of particular note for the sake of this article. The situation where an Israelite is to offer the burnt offering is simply when he, or she, wishes to draw near to YHWH (1:2).15 In this instance, the Israelite can offer a bull (vv. 3–9), a ram or a goat (vv. 10–13), or a pair of doves (vv. 14–17). In each case though, the animal or bird offered must be male and, with the bull, lamb, or goat, the essential characteristic that will determine the animal’s acceptance on behalf of the offerer is that the animal exemplifies the condition of being “without blemish” (תָּמִים).16 The term תָּמִים has a positive meaning of having integrity and being whole, and is also the antonym of “blemish” (מוּם) from 21:16–24.17 The idea in this burnt offering instruction is that the livestock gift must have the appearance of physical integrity. Furthermore, the gift that exemplifies this condition of being whole, or without blemish, is accepted before YHWH and on behalf of the offerer (1:3–4).18 When the gift is caused to smoke by the priest on the altar, the gift’s aroma has a soothing effect for YHWH (1:9, 13, 17).19 That is, because the gift has been offered, YHWH allows the offerer to draw near to his presence without consequence. As the offerer draws near, he or she is very much aware that their acceptance in the presence of God is because an unblemished animal has died at their hand and in their stead. This suggests that the reason why the animal has to be unblemished, or needs to have physical integrity, is because the offerer lacks that characteristic and so one who is without blemish needs to die on their behalf if there is to be access to God’s presence.20 Thus, there is awareness from the outset of the book that only those who have integrity and are whole are acceptable in YHWH’s presence.

As one reads through Leviticus 1–7, it is hard to miss that the priests are YHWH’s servants, mediating between YHWH and the Israelites as they carry out their responsibility to ensure that each offering is given to YHWH as he commands. This requires the Aaronic priest having access to the altar in order to arrange the parts of the slain livestock on it and cause them to smoke, as well as being able to splatter blood on the curtain and the altar. This is necessary for each food offering to fulfill its soothing or restorative function.

2.2. The Distinction between the Impure and Pure

The reason for the theological basis that only the whole or unblemished are acceptable in YHWH’s presence relates to the distinctions between impurity and purity, and the holy and the common. This distinction is stated explicitly in 10:10 after Aaron’s sons fail in their priestly responsibilities with the consequence that they died (10:1–3). This failure motivates YHWH to define the role of the priesthood in 10:9–11, and a critical part of this role is to ensure that the Israelites maintain these two binary distinctions between the impure and pure, and between the holy and the common (10:10). Averbeck helpfully observes that purity and impurity are conditions, while the holy and the common are states of being.21 For this reason, both conditions of purity and impurity can affect the two states; that is, the common state can be pure or impure, just as the holy could exemplify the condition of purity or even impurity.22 Having said this though, impurity cannot, under any circumstance, come into contact with the holy.23 The consequence if this occurs is either death (15:31) or being thrown out of the land (20:22–26). For this reason, impurity is always separated from the holy and those in an impure condition are excluded from the holy. So, it is not a coincidence that the successive passages after Leviticus 10 teach the Israelites how to make the distinction between impurity and purity since a holy God dwells in their midst (Lev 11–16).

Again, of the instructions concerning the separation of impurity and purity, the food laws in Leviticus 11 are relevant for understanding the theological basis of Leviticus 21:16–24. Leviticus 11 sets the distinctions between impurity and purity within the domain of food. The way in which the Israelite is to distinguish between which foods exemplify a condition of purity and so can be eaten, and those that are considered impure and so cannot be eaten, depend upon certain criteria. In 11:2–8, an animal that is considered pure has a divided hoof and chews the cud (v. 3), while an animal that is to be considered impure only exemplifies one or none of these two characteristics (vv. 4–7). While these two particular characteristics might seem nonsensical to us, the idea is that the animal must be complete with both characteristics; an animal with only one, or indeed none, is incomplete and so exemplifies the condition of impurity.24 This same logic applies to the instructions in 11:9–11 about what sea creatures the Israelites can eat and those they cannot. Again, those considered to be pure are those that have two characteristics—fins and scales—and so are complete (v. 9). What the Israelites are to regard as impure are sea creatures with one or none of these characteristics, and so are incomplete (vv. 10–12). Thus, by separating animals and fish into the binary distinction between the pure and the impure, the Israelites learn the distinction between the two conditions; purity is what is whole and complete, while impurity is what is not whole and incomplete. As the instructions in Leviticus 11 continue, further associations with impurity are developed such as with decay and death (11:13–19, 39–40) and with rebellion (11:41–42). Furthermore, by being in contact with what is declared “impure,” the consequence is that they too are considered impure, and so impurity is considered contagion. For as long as an Israelite remains in an impure condition, he or she is unable to approach YHWH in the tabernacle and so experiences exclusion.25

Thus, based on the above, there is a need to have a holistic understanding of purity and impurity. There are both physical (i.e., appearance) and ethical (internal disposition) dimensions. Furthermore, purity is associated with wholeness, integrity, completeness, order, and life, whereas impurity is associated with unwholeness, incompletion, brokenness, disorder, decay, and death. The pure can draw near to YHWH’s holy presence because they represent relational order in their condition of wholeness, order, and life, whereas those that represent impurity because of unwholeness, incompleteness, and brokenness are restricted from drawing near to the holy because of what the impure represents in the presence of God. Israel’s responsibility to their covenant God is to ensure the nation is set apart in purity belonging to YHWH.

2.3. Summary

A brief exploration of Leviticus’s theological context and basis accentuates the unique status that the Aaronic priests share within the life of the Israelite covenant community. They are set apart to mediate the people to YHWH and YHWH to the people, and a critical task that preserves relational order between Israel and YHWH is the offering of YHWH’s food gifts. To fulfil this role, the priesthood must represent a condition of purity, that is, they must exemplify the characteristics of wholeness and completeness both in their physical appearance and also in their ethics.26 Leviticus 21:16–24 singles out priests for this instruction because of their responsibility as servants of YHWH. However, the same principle applies to every Israelite; no one who exemplifies a condition of impurity because of unwholeness, whether it be physical or ethical, is able to draw near to the presence of God.

3. Leviticus 21:16–24 within Biblical Theology

Having grounded our understanding of Leviticus 21:16–24 in its theological context, the next step is to explore how the theme of this passage is developed within biblical theology. The purpose of this task is to discern how, as a new covenant community, we can appropriate Leviticus 21:16–24 as Christian Scripture helpfully. Significantly, the theme of a priest with a blemish being restricted in his task and the space that he is able to access in the tabernacle, or later temple, does not recur or develop within the rest of the Old Testament. There was no reversal; the absence instead suggests that this instruction remained unchanged and so consistent, just as the imperative remained for the offering of unblemished animals to YHWH (see Deut 15:21, 17:1; Mal 1:8, 13) and the need for Israel to remain whole in their integrity, that is, to remain blameless serving YHWH (Deut 18:13, 26:14; Josh 24:14). The next step then is to move forward into the New Testament where the theological basis here too remains consistent, although with a vital development—the mystery revealed, the Lord Jesus.

It is easy without Leviticus in mind to glance over Peter’s comment in 1 Peter 1:19 that Jesus is a lamb unblemished, without defect. Peter is purposefully reactivating the theological framework of Leviticus to accentuate that those who are redeemed have been purified through the blood of this unblemished offering. For Jesus’s sacrifice to be sufficient, once-for-all, and accepted by God, he needed to fulfil the characteristic of being unblemished in the entire meaning of the term, which includes the physical dimension of wholeness too, both as an offering and as the officiating priest (Hebrews 7:26–27). Jesus was whole physically, even his legs were not broken on the cross so that, up to death, he remained whole and complete (John 19:31–36). He was presented in an unblemished condition, both ethically and in physical appearance, so that God’s people can be presented unblemished because of the purifying blood of Christ (Eph 1:4; Col 1:22; Heb 9:14). While this purificatory effect for believers focuses upon the ethical dimension, participation in Jesus’s purifying work through his death and resurrection gives the believer assurance of an imperishable hope of a resurrection body where, in the new creation, there will no longer be physical incompleteness or blemish, and the entire new covenant community will be in the presence of the crucified and risen lamb (Rev 21–22). However, in the “already and the not yet,” as believers await the return of Christ, the imperative remains for every believer to embody who they are in Christ, so as to reflect their status of belonging to him by actively pursuing wholeness and integrity (Matt 5:48; Jas 1:2–5).27

4. Leviticus 21:16–24 and Disability

Very rarely is it wise to claim that an issue is “clear” in academic work, but in this instance the meaning of Leviticus 21:16–24 is unambiguous and so is its context within the theological framework of Leviticus. Indeed, Leviticus 21:16–24 restricts Aaronic priests who have a physical blemish from offering YHWH’s food gifts and from accessing the holy space of the altar and the veil separating the holy place from the most holy place. So too Leviticus 21:16–24 also states that no person with a blemish may draw near to YHWH. The theological basis for these prohibitions is that only the whole and complete are able to stand in the presence of YHWH. It is equally clear though that the Aaronic priest with a physical blemish is still part of the priesthood, with its food provisions. So too the Israelite with a blemish is part of the covenant community. Furthermore, a physical blemish in the instance of Leviticus is a physical issue that altars the appearance and functionality of the person away from the creation ideal. That is, having a blemish is about physical incompleteness, which is an expression of brokenness and creation disorder, rather than of wholeness and creation order.

The term “disability” is a modern construct used to describe, in a delicate way, those in society who have a medical issue that affects the person’s function and so needs societal accommodation. Using this term, Leviticus 21:16–24 touches directly on physical disability, which by nature is often public and is, by many, unable to be hidden. In our western context, helping individuals with a disability accept and adapt to a different normal is fundamental to rehabilitation programs. The goal is for people with a disability to function and flourish in society. But if we are to be honest, the problem with Leviticus 21:16–24 is not that it seems to exclude, or that it defies our perceived human right of inclusion, but that it confronts a frustrating reality for the person with a physical disability, which is that our bodies are not whole and do not reflect created order. To be confronted with this reality, we might say, could do harm to how the person with a disability views themselves and how they are viewed by their church community. Yet the physically disabled are aware that we are different by virtue of doing life in public, and this difference is often compounded by a staring public and the impertinent remarks by strangers. Some people with a physical disability struggle with shame knowing that our bodies are not normal and that, in some contexts, a display of such disability is not acceptable. These though are common issues of living with a physical disability in public. We get on with life on the outside, but we struggle inwardly with the fact that our bodies are not “normal” and fail us on a daily basis. So for those who are part of the new covenant community and who have a disability, this passage can sting as we have mirrored in Scripture the theological reality that, if it were not for the work of Christ on our behalf, we would not be accepted in the presence of God because of our physical condition of unwholeness and incompleteness. Thus, this has the potential to cause pain as we sit under a passage of Scripture that suggests that our physical disabilities mean that we would be restricted from drawing near to God.

Yet, for those of us who choose to elevate the biblical texts as Scripture and so allow the whole of Scripture to transform our view of the world, including of ourselves, the pastoral response is not to critique and resist Leviticus 21:16–24, nor to excise it from the counsel of Christian Scripture. The pastoral task is to help everyone in the new covenant community, including those who, like myself, live with a physical disability, to understand that no one without the work of Christ would be accepted in the presence of God because of our spiritual unwholeness and incompleteness caused by our rebellion against God, irrespective of whether we live with a disability or not. And this is the very role of Scripture in the life of the believing community; by the reading of Scripture, and through the work of the Spirit, we have reflected in Scripture our incompleteness and brokenness in all that we are, so that we can see the need to be wise for salvation through the Lord Jesus. This is a painful process for all whose sin is brought to light by the Scriptures. There is no distinction between people with a disability and those with a “normal” physical appearance when it comes to the nature and penalty of our sinfulness. Thus, the pastoral task with Leviticus 21:16–24 is to point to the theological reality that, without Christ, unwholeness and incompleteness hinders us from drawing near to God, and so motivating the body of Christ to focus on the Lord Jesus whose unblemished sacrifice enables the believing community to be presented whole and without accusation. The task for pastors serving those with a physical disability in the church’s midst is to encourage us daily to fix our eyes on Jesus in whom we find wholeness by participating in his death and resurrection, as we live with our physical disabilities in the “already and the not yet.” So rather than resisting Leviticus 21:16–24, the courageous response of those with a physical disability in the church is to let our grief and frustration with our physical incompleteness be transformed into a yearning for the crucified and risen Lamb, for the imperishable hope that can be found in him, and with thankfulness that Jesus’s death and resurrection has restored us to the presence of God, both in the present and in the future.

5. Conclusion

Attentively reading and understanding Leviticus 21:16–24 demonstrates that the passage does prohibit an Aaronic priest who has a physical disability or festering sores from drawing near with Israel’s food offerings for YHWH. Furthermore, he is restricted from approaching the altar and the veil that separates sacred spaces within the tabernacle. The theological basis of this restriction though is that nothing unwhole or incomplete is able to be in the presence of God. The reason for this is that physical unwholeness is within the domain of impurity, and impurity irrespective of its cause cannot be in contact with the holy. While this theological basis clashes with Western cultural values, the challenge of adopting the Bible as Scripture is to let every text, through the work of the Spirit, transform how we view the world and ourselves. In relation to Leviticus 21:16–24, this requires us to have the willingness to see the consequence of our unwholeness and incompleteness reflected in Scripture and, in turn, let this motivate us to find wholeness and completeness through our participation in Christ.

[1] The phrases “reading Scripture attentively” and an “attentive reading” are appropriated purposefully from Mark Thompson, “Attentively Reading Scripture,” in Marriage, Same-Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia: Essays from the Doctrine Commission (Mulgrave: Broughton Publishing, 2019), 78–79.

[2] See also Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17–22, AB 3A (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 1825. Contrary to John E. Hartley, Leviticus, WBC 4 (Dallas: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 349; Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, NAC 3A (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 275. For example, Hartley states that a disability would make the person “unfit to function as [a] priest.”

[3] The Hebrew term used for this description is חָרֻם and the precise meaning is uncertain. The general consensus is that it has a connection with an Akkadian form that refers to a kind of physical deformity from birth. For this reason, the above renders the noun as “birth deformity.” See V. Hamilton, “חרם,” NIDOTTE 2:277.

[4] The passive participle in this instance is שָׂרוּעַ. The verbal root שׂרע means “to be deformed,” which in context I understand to be differentiated from the previous descriptor as the man’s body having been impacted by an event or illness causing a deformity.

[5] This list is similar to the list of blemishes for an animal found in Leviticus 22:22, which further strengthens that the two cases share the same theological basis. See also Hartley, Leviticus, 350; Leigh M. Trevaskis, Holiness, Ethics, and Ritual in Leviticus, HBM 29 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011), 210–11.

[6] See also Rooker, Leviticus, 276; Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 292.

[7] See also Hartley, Leviticus, 350, 351.

[8] See also Milgrom, Leviticus 17–22, 1825; Jay Sklar, Leviticus, TOTC 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 269. Contrary to Rooker, Leviticus, 275–76, who states that the blemished priest is unable to approach the tabernacle. The text only states two particular spaces.

[9] Reinhard Müller, “The Sanctifying Divine Voice: Observations on the אני יהוה-Formula in the Holiness Code,” in Text, Time, and Temple: Literary, Historical and Ritual Studies in Leviticus, ed. F. Landy, L. M. Trevaskis, and B. D. Bibb, HBM 64 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2015), 72.

[10] See also Müller, “The Sanctifying Divine Voice,” 79, who states, “The אני יהוה-formula is at the core of this [paraenetic] strategy since it makes the audience constantly aware that they are directly addressed by Yhwh himself.”

[11] Contrary to Matthew Anstey, “The Case for Same-Sex Marriage,” in Marriage, Same-Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia: Essays from the Doctrine Commission (Mulgrave: Broughton Publishing, 2019), 273. See Trevaskis, Holiness, Ethics, and Ritual, 215–17, for an explanation for the text restricting itself to physical blemishes and why the text does not refer to moral blemishes.

[12] Christophe Nihan, From Priestly Torah to Pentateuch: A Study in the Composition of the Book of Leviticus, FAT 2/25 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), 90, 158.

[13] See also Nihan, From Priestly Torah to Pentateuch, 91–92.

[14] Please note that the English versification for the instruction about the sin and guilt offerings differs from that of the Hebrew text. The Hebrew text versification is 4:1–5:26.

[15] The subject in the protasis is אדם, which can be gender neutral. See also Hartley, Leviticus, 9.

[16] See also Trevaskis, Holiness, Ethics, and Ritual, 202–5.

[17] See also Trevaskis, Holiness, Ethics, and Ritual, 202–6.

[18] Trevaskis, Holiness, Ethics, and Ritual, 181–82.

[19] G. B. Gray, Sacrifice in the Old Testament: Theory and Practice (Oxford: Clarendon, 1925), 77–80, 82–83; Watts, Leviticus 1–10, 207, 210; Wenham, Leviticus, 49, 56.

[20] Trevaskis, Holiness, Ethics, and Ritual, 205–6.

[21] Richard E. Averbeck, “Clean and Unclean,” NIDOTTE 4:481. See also L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, NSBT 37 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 155; Trevaskis, Holiness, Ethics, and Ritual, 68–70.

[22] See Wenham, Leviticus, 19.

[23] See Jan Joosten, People and Land in the Holiness Code: An Exegetical Study of the Ideational Framework of the Law in Leviticus 17–26, VTS 67 (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 124.

[24] See also M. Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London; Routledge & Paul, 1966), 64–65.

[25] See also Trevaskis, Holiness, Ethics, and Ritual, 88–89.

[26] This is a different argument to Wenham, Leviticus, 292, who states, “The idea emerges clearly that holiness finds physical expression in wholeness and normality.” More precisely, purity “finds expression in physical wholeness and normality” as the means by which the Israelites and priesthood are to be set apart, that is holy, to YHWH. Contrary to Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 169; Douglas, Purity and Danger, 51–52; Hartley, Leviticus, 349; Nihan, From Priestly Torah, 487; Rebecca Raphael, Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Biblical Literature, LHBOTS 445 (London: T&T Clark, 2008), 33–34, 39.

[27] The phrase “the already and the not yet” used in this paper is an adaptation of the well-trodden phrase in New Testament theology of “the now and the not yet.” I have borrowed this adaptation from D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 123.

Katherine Smith

Katherine Smith is principal and lecturer in Old Testament at Mary Andrews College in Sydney, Australia.

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