Leviticus 21:1 Commentary - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)
(1) And the Lord said unto Moses.—The laws about the purity and holiness of the Jewish community, and of every individual lay member, enacted in Lev. 11:1 to Lev. 20:27, are now followed by statutes respecting the purity and holiness of the priesthood who minister in holy things in behalf of the people, and who, by virtue of their high office, were to be models of both ceremonial and moral purity.
Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron.—Moses is ordered to communicate these statutes to the priests as the sons of Aaron. The peculiar phrase “the priests the sons of Aaron,” which only occurs here—since in all other six passages in the Pentateuch it is the reverse, “the sons of Aaron the priests” (see Lev. 1:5; Lev. 1:8; Lev. 1:11; Lev. 2:2; Lev. 3:2; Num. 10:8; Note on Lev. 1:5), is designed to inculcate upon them the fact that they are priests by virtue of being the sons of Aaron, and not because of any merit of their own, and that they are to impress the same sentiments upon their issue. This fact, moreover, as the authorities during the second Temple remark, imposes upon the priests the duty of bringing up their children in such a manner as to make them morally and intellectually fit to occupy this hereditary office. They also deduce from the emphatic position of the term “priests,” that it only applies to those of them who are fit to perform their sacerdotal duties, and not to the disqualified priests (see Lev. 21:15).
There shall none be defiled for the dead.—
Better, He shall not defile himself for a dead person; that is, the priest is not to contract defilement by contact with the body of any dead person. What constitutes defilement is not specified, but, as is often the case, was left to the administrators of the Law to define more minutely. Accordingly, they enacted that not only touching a dead body, but coming within four cubits of it, entering the house where the corpse lay, entering a burial place, following to the grave, or the manifestation of mourning for the departed, pollutes the priest, and consequently renders him unfit for performing the services of the sanctuary, and for engaging in the services for the people. This they deduced from Num. 19:11-16. The Egyptian priests were likewise bound to keep aloof from “burials and graves, from impure men and women.” The Romans ordered a bough of a cypress-tree to be stuck at the door of the house in which a dead body was lying, lest a chief priest should unwittingly enter and defile himself.
Among his people—That is, among the tribes or people of Israel, the Jewish community (see Deu. 32:8; Deu. 33:3, &c.). Hence the authorities during the second Temple concluded that when the corpse is among the people whose duty it is to see to its burial, the priest is forbidden to take part in it; but when a priest, or even the high priest, finds a human body in the road where he cannot call on any one to bury it, he is obliged to perform this last sacred office to the dead himself. When it is borne in mind how much the ancient Hebrews thought of burial, and that nothing exceeded their horror than to think of an unburied corpse of any one belonging to them, this humane legislation will be duly appreciated.
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Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)
Charles John Ellicott (1819 - 1905) was a distinguished English Christian theologian, academic and churchman. He briefly served as Dean of Exeter, then Bishop of the united see of Gloucester and Bristol.
His works include:
- An Old Testament Commentary for English Readers, 1897. (Editor)
- A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, 1878.