Friday, January 8, 2010

The Cost of Priesthood

We are continuing through the book of laws known as Leviticus. It has been a strange journey. Recently we learned about loving your neighbor, abstaining from blended fabrics, and possibly killing couples who have sex when the woman is menstruating. With such important topics out of the way, it is time for God to reveal what He expects from His priests.

The Costs of Priesthood
Being one of the priests of God would have been a great honor and privilege. They were held in high esteem among their fellow Israelites. They ate the best food for free. They even got to wear the fanciest clothing and be surrounded by gilded furnishings. However, there were some costs associated with the priesthood.

According to Leviticus 21:1-4, priests could not mourn for the dead like the common people did, which usually meant making yourself unclean, letting your hair grow wild, tearing your clothing, etc. The only exceptions were for his mother or father, his son or daughter, his brother, or an unmarried sister. Apparently once your sister got married, you were not supposed to care about her as much. Nice.

Per Leviticus 21:5-6, priests cannot shave their heads, cut the edges of their beards, or cut themselves. Why? Because they need to be Holy because, by fire, they offer “the food of their God.” What is funny is that God already prohibited these actions for all people in Leviticus 19:27-28, all except the head shaving part anyway. Maybe God forgot about that, or maybe He just wanted to emphasize this point.

With Leviticus 21:7-8 and 21:13-15, we see that the priests could not marry non-Jews, prostitutes, or divorced women, because that would defile them. It is nice to see that God ranks non-Jews and divorced women right up there with prostitutes. :-P Instead, priests can only marry virgins from their own people.

If a priest's daughter became a prostitute, she had to be burned to death (Leviticus 21:9).

The high priest had some special requirements regarding the dead (Leviticus 21:10-12). In particular, he was not allowed to show outward signs of mourning and he could not go anywhere that there was a dead body. The high priest could not even leave the sanctuary to mourn for his father or mother. Why? Because that would make him unclean, and he had been dedicated to God with anointing oil.

This mourning law appears to be good evidence to suggest this could actually be God-given material. Why would a man writing these laws for himself restrict himself from mourning for the death of his own parents?

There is no blatantly obvious reason which would make these restrictions easily fit into the concept of man-made laws. However, this may speak to the type of religion which was being established. It is a religion where God has absolute dominion. That means that when someone dies, God has killed them. Maybe God motivated an enemy or wild animal to attack. Maybe God smote them with disease, or simply snuffed out their life. Any way it happens, God has taken their life. So it seems somewhat logical for the creator of such a religion to restrict the priesthood from mourning deaths, as they are the very will of God.

This same attitude is further reflected in the laws of Leviticus 21:16-23. As opposed to the come-as-you-are attitude of Christianity, the Old Testament God does not want anyone with a defect near Him. Blind, lame, disfigured, deformed, crippled, hunchbacked, dwarfed, eye defects, festering sores, or damaged testicles? Stay back from the curtain of the Holy of Holies and the Altar, and do not try to make an offering to God. Far from being viewed as someone who only values the inner beauty, God is portrayed as a deity with an eye of disdain for physical imperfections. In those days, such imperfections were viewed as curses from God, so naturally God would not want such a person serving Him.

Ultimately, we see from this study that the priesthood, and the High Priest in particular, was not without restrictions. It is unusual for an elite class to apply restrictions to itself. However, in this case, these restrictions appear to aid in promoting the power of their professed deity. So while there were costs associated with the priesthood, the costs were limited and were beneficial to fostering faith in the religion.

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