This chapter really bothered me. Given a cursory reading, I think it makes God look pretty bad (according to our oh-so-enlightened 21st-century heads). Check this out:
"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 hunchbacked or dwarfed, 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 offerings made to the Lord by fire. 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." (vs 17-23)
Wow. It doesn’t sound like God is much of an Equal Opportunity Employer. Where was the ICLU (Israeli Civil Liberties Union)?! Why weren’t they trying to pass an Israelites With Disabilities Act?! At first blush, it doesn’t sound like God is very sensitive to the needs of disabled people.
That was the first thing. Here’s the second:
"A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die, except for a close relative, such as his mother or father, his son or daughter, his brother, or an unmarried sister who is dependent on him since she has no husband — for her he may make himself unclean. He must not make himself unclean for people related to him by marriage, and so defile himself." (vs 1-4)
I guess that means that if you were a priest, you didn’t get much (if any) bereavement time. What’s wrong with grief? And this is just for the regular priests. If you were the high priest, you couldn’t even go to the funeral of one of your parents. When my dad passed away in 2009, I would have been devastated if I couldn't attend his funeral, so I found this command highly insensitive. But perhaps that’s part of the problem. In our feminized and gender-blurred culture, we have let sensitivity begin to trump just about everything else.
Is there anything going on here under the surface? What do these odd things tell us about God?
Let’s take the disabled thing first. Once again, I find God fascinating. In something that looks so harsh and insensitive to our eyes, I believe God was actually providing for and protecting the disabled Levites of future generations. Here’s how.
1. The priesthood was restricted to the Levites only. And it was highly likely that, in generations to come, there would be some male Levites born with disabilities. The majority of the handicaps God listed were things that the individual would likely have no control over and would probably have been born with. They were handicaps that would make regular sanctuary service difficult, at best. Let’s face it: do you want a blind priest firing up the grill for the burnt offerings? Probably not the best idea. By restricting the priest’s duties to people in full health, God was protecting those with disabilities from having to do jobs that might have been impossible for them.
2. However, the Levites weren’t allowed to own land or flocks. Their entire inheritance was in service to God at the sanctuary. So, you tell me. You know the sinful human heart. If a Levite male was actually unable to perform temple duties, yet restricted from making a living any other way, what would happen to them? God wanted to make sure they weren’t tossed out in the street! Thus, He said that they were still welcome in the sanctuary and free to eat the priest’s food — even the most holy food. So, obviously, God isn’t out to get rid of disabled people. On the contrary, He’s out to see that they are truly cared for.
3. By restricting the work of the disabled as priests, God was also protecting the spiritual aspect of the sanctuary service. Think that’s far-fetched? What’s the first thing you do when you see a person with a disability? You notice it. You immediately focus on it. Now, we do try to be somewhat sensitive and civilized in our culture, so your parents probably taught you not to stare. But it’s in our nature to notice what makes others different from us — even when it’s not a physical handicap we’re dealing with. The point of the sanctuary wasn’t to give the Levites a job so they could make a living. The point was to help the Israelites internalize God’s forgiveness. It was in their best interests to not have anything that would distract their focus from the spiritual reason they were there.
This sort of brings us naturally to the second thing I had such a problem with in this chapter. Why were the priests so restricted when it came to funerals? Were they not allowed to grieve?
As I thought about this, I thought about how the priests represented Christ (who was perfect, without soul blemish or defect). And they also represented Him in His mission — to minister to us. When the priests engaged in anything that made them unclean, this effectively stopped their ministry for a period of time. If they were grieving, they were unable to attend to their ministry. In representing God to the people, they were to be available to meet with them. God wanted the people to know that He was always there for them, available to them. And, as His
representatives, the priests were supposed to portray that.
In a way, the Levites were to the rest of the Israelites what God wanted Israel to be to the rest of the world. Their job was to be the sacred among the profane, the holy in the midst of the unholy, the set apart but not isolated. That is exactly what God is like. Jesus was the sacred who came among the profane, the holy in the midst of the unholy, the set apart but not isolated. He was the clean who came to the unclean, and He is still coming to us.
These two examples from Leviticus 21 serve to show us that — far from being insensitive — God is truly sensitive. He will do what it takes to be sensitive to our needs, even if the prescribed method sounds insensitive. That’s one thing I love about God: He doesn’t care how it sounds; He cares about the outcome. He is always caring for us, protecting us, and ministering to us!