Leviticus 21–24: How the High Priest deals with death

In the Torah reading אמר Emor (“to say, speak or tell”), we will spend most of our time together discussing how God instructed the High Priest and the priestly line to respond to the reality of death around them. We will also ponder how God teaches us to give and receive charity and the difference between legalism and obedience in keeping Torah and God’s appointed times, aka the festivals of Yisrael.

How big were the corners of the field?

“When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the LORD your God.’”” (Leviticus 23:22 NASB)

We don’t know. If you look at Google Earth, you will see two different types of land management styles: circular or square. The farmer may choose to plant their crops in a square shape, while others will plant their crops in a circle, ignoring the corners. Planting in a circle is a more efficient method of making sure all the plants are irrigated. It also makes harvesting with large tractors easier.

The point of the command is about gleaning. The reason for this commandment is to teach farm owners that they are not to harvest up every little bit of our harvest for themselves and for their market. They are to go through once to gather up what is ripe and ready for harvest and leave the rest the poor who do not own land but who want to work for their daily bread to glean later. It is God who blesses the land with abundance and they are to share it with those who are less fortunate.

The Book of Ruth discusses this at length. Ruth followed Boaz’s hired men who were working his fields at harvest time and picking up what they accidentally (or purposefully) dropped because it was not an efficient use of their time to gather up every little stalk.

The idea is to share the abundance God has given you to share with those who don’t have the ability to receive the same blessing. After all, the farmer didn’t pay for the rain, the sun, etc. Those are freely given by the Lord. He wants you to share your blessings with those who don’t have any.

When can a High Priest bury the dead?

The Scriptures tell us that the High Priest is not to touch a dead body under any circumstances, even if the dead person is his own mother, father, wife, etc. He is not allowed to contaminate himself by touching the dead.

There is only one fundamental exception to this rule under Jewish Law. The exception is if the High Priest is out in the middle of nowhere and there is no one around and he finds a dead body. It doesn’t matter how clean you are, it’s a duty to make sure the dead are properly buried in the ground. Never leave a body unburied. If there is a way to notify someone else to come bury the dead, than the High Priest can do that, but if he is truly out in the middle of nowhere and utterly alone, then and only then can the High Priest perform a burial. It’s better to have the person buried than not buried.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, the man was close to death but he was not dead yet. Yet the priest and the levite didn’t bother to check to see if the man was dead or alive before leaving him to suffer. An ordinary priest can make himself unclean to bury certain kinds of immediate relatives such as father, mother, etc. assuming that no one else can do it.

The priest and levite in Yeshua’s parable used their status as an excuse to assume that since he was almost dead, it was better to not to extend kindness to a battered man just in case he might die on the way. In Yeshua’s day, there were many, many priests so if one priest was unclean, another could easily take his shift.

“Then the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his people,’” (Leviticus 21:1 NASB)

The phrase “among his people” is important to note in this instruction. This means within the cities, towns, villages, etc. If someone dies within the confines of the village, town, city, etc and there are people around, than the priests are to call upon someone else to properly take care of the dead. If a priest is within the confines of a town, there is no excuse for him to willingly contaminate himself to take care of the dead when he can easily call upon someone else to remove the dead.

Back then, just as now, there were people who specialized in taking care of the dead. We call them coroners, or mortuaries. It is their job to properly take care of the dead.

The priest is not to willingly contaminate himself unnecessarily. The priest’s primary job is to take care of the offerings, sacrifices and spiritual needs of the living, not the dead. If a priest neglects his duty for the living by taking care of the dead, he is, in effect, saying that the spiritual needs of the living are not as important as the needs of the dead.

People didn’t die in hospitals or nursing homes back then. God didn’t design things that way. If we remove ourselves from life and death, we don’t appreciate either that much. When you witness someone’s death, you appreciate life much more. It makes an imprint on you that is permanent. If you are notified of someone’s death rather than witnessing it for yourself, it creates a distance. It detaches you from them a bit. Life and death are supposed to be interactive. That is not a bad thing.

We need to have a concept of “you will die” to understand what sin really is and how really bad it is.

The High Priest is supposed to be detached somewhat from death. His job is to enter the Holy of Holies once a year. He carries the name of God with him at all times. God is not where death is, God is where life is. Even if there is death around him, the High Priest is supposed to represent life at all times. That is what Aaron did when he ran towards danger and death into the plague to try to save lives with his incense and censer. Aaron brought life with him, not death. Aaron stood between life and death to bring life. The High Priest is supposed to be focused on serving the living, not serving himself by having to ritually clean himself all the time because he defiling himself by burying dead bodies.

In Jewish Law, a High Priest is forbidden from even attending a funeral.

If a High Priest contaminates himself for a dead body, he contaminates every offering brought to him. That offering could not be accepted by God. But what if that person really, really needed that offering to be accepted by God. You don’t want a High Priest preoccupied with his own uncleanness instead of having your needs addressed. You want a High Priest who can help you with your sacrifices and prayers.

For the High Priest, the offerings, prayers, and praises of the living are more important than the dead.

The High Priest is there to help lift the people towards righteousness and holiness.

“They shall not make any baldness on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts in their flesh.” (Leviticus 21:5 NASB)

Priests are not to make any outward signs of mourning. No one should know from his outward appearance that he is in mourning for a recently deceased loved one, even his own parents, spouse or children. Priests are not to accentuate or draw attention their mourning. They are not to garner sympathy from people for their situation. The job of a priest is to draw people’s attention to God, not to himself.  The priest is to bring the people’s prayers, offerings, etc. to God.

Self-inflicted blemishes are just as bad as natural ones.

Torah tells the priests they can express sorrow for someone who has died but Torah instructs them not to shave or make cuts into their flesh to attract sympathy to their sorrow. They weren’t allowed to take time off from their work for mourning.

The High Priest is also forbidden from tearing his expensive holy garments as an expression of grief. God is saying that mourning doesn’t mean your own life or job ends. You are not excused from life.

How does a priest treat the holy offerings?

“No layman, however, is to eat the holy gift; a sojourner with the priest or a hired man shall not eat of the holy gift.” (Leviticus 22:10 NAS95)

If a layman accidentally eats some of the holy gift, he is to pay it back at 25%. The Scriptures record an exception to this rule in the life of David.

David and his men ate the showbread from the Tabernacle. The priest only asked David one question: have you been contaminated by having sexual relations with women? David said no, we are not contaminated. The priest made sure David and his men were ritually clean.

When Saul later came along, he accused the High Priest of colluding with his enemies, the priest said he had no idea that David, who was Saul’s son in law, had any falling out with the king. When the priest gave David the bread, he informally, spiritually adopted David and his men as members of his family.

God does the same thing in 1 Sam 10. God took David and made David His son. David and his descendants belong to God. David was the first embodiment of the combination of priest and king. Yeshua our Messiah, David’s descendant, is also both priest and king.

Leviticus 23: Memorials of completion

In Lev. 23, all the holy days are listed except Rosh Chodesh. The number 7 is a prominent theme in Lev. 23, even the menorah has 7 branches on it. The number 7 means completion. The theme of 7 will continue into next week’s Torah study.

Here is everything, it’s all right here. Everyone who follows God, either by biological descent or conversion, this is how you live. There’s a lot of stuff in here. But make note of what is not in here.

This is what obedience looks like.

Christmas, Easter, and Halloween aren’t in here because they are alien and pagan. They are not God’s days. God wants us to worship Him in the way He assigns, not in the way we design. No excuses. God says this many times throughout the Bible and even in the New Testament, we are warned not to innovate worship beyond what God instructs.

Is “keeping the feasts” legalism? 

The problem with legalism is the idea that following the law gives one salvation. The holy days have nothing to do with salvation. Salvation is strictly a gift. A believers lives Torah to the best of his or her ability but salvation is strictly God’s gift. The only requirement for salvation is belief. There is nothing we can do to earn the gift. Moses pointed out that if we want salvation do nothing, but if you want to live, the Torah is the guide to life. Torah is our guide to how to live a righteous life, not a means to earn salvation. We show our belief by what we do.

We can incorporate some traditions as long as they don’t blatantly incorporate pagan worship rituals into them. For example, on Shabbat, some of us have a special shabbat meal on Friday evening, lifting up bread and wine, washing hands, etc. They are not required, but they are not wrong and they don’t break the Torah.

But if I play golf on Shabbat, that is not good. It pushes the envelope into evil territory. Playing golf with my friends does nothing to sanctify the Shabbat. It’s going off and playing a game and entertaining myself. We are to keep the sabbath and to keep it holy. However, there is also no requirement in scripture to go to church or synagogue on Shabbat. It’s a good thing to attend worship services on shabbat but it is not a requirement.

The weightier matters of the law are justice, mercy, humility & righteousness. One can’t really fulfill the Torah, if one doesn’t have justice, mercy, humility and righteousness in their heart. If one goes through the motions of Torah, one is not really observing and living Torah. This is what Amos rails against. If we follow the Torah only on the surface and it doesn’t impress the heart, we aren’t really following Torah at all. That is playacting and hypocrisy.

There are people who know Scripture and know that God exists, but do not know God personally. The Israelites who left Egypt were not keeping any Torah, yet they received salvation through the Red Sea, independent of their actions.

Anyone who observes justice, mercy, humility and righteousness through Yeshua has salvation but if they don’t have Torah, they don’t have an understanding of life.

Human nature and our brain’s wiring doesn’t change. Our thoughts, beliefs and opinions are the same now as it was then. We all have to go through the same lessons.

We are reading here about how God wants to be worshiped, not how we want to worship Him. In Deuteronomy 12 and a few other spots point out that God explicitly warns us not to take any components, tools or traditions of the Canaanites (or any other pagan) worship and bring them into our worship of God.

We are also not to create new holidays from scratch and incorporate false worship traditions into those either. We are also not to move God’s holy days around the calendar and celebrate them when we want to do so. That is the sin that God struck down Jeroboam of Nebat for committing.

God’s holy days are not a deck of cards to shuffle around as we see fit. God put the holy days in a specific order for a reason.

None of the holy days are designed for people to follow, draw attention to and observe us. God is the one people are supposed to follow, pay attention to and observe.

People can “fake it” for a while but the charade can’t go on forever. No one has that much stamina.

All of the holy days are appointed times, and there are 12 altogether.

“On the first day of the weeks, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.” (Acts 20:7 NASB)

In this verse, Paul is meeting with the believers on First Fruits, not on an ordinary Sunday. It was not a “sabbath” as the other holy days were, but it was an instruction nonetheless.

Summary: Tammy. 

Banner photo: The first tombs in the Bible were caves. This burial cave was found in the Bitan Aharon nature reserve. Photo by supplied by David Padfield, copyright Padfield.com and released under a Creative Commons License.


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