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The Holiness of Priests


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 relatives, 2except for his nearest kin: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother; 3likewise, for a virgin sister, close to him because she has had no husband, he may defile himself for her. 4But he shall not defile himself as a husband among his people and so profane himself. 5They shall not make bald spots upon their heads, or shave off the edges of their beards, or make any gashes in their flesh. 6They shall be holy to their God, and not profane the name of their God; for they offer the Lord’s offerings by fire, the food of their God; therefore they shall be holy. 7They shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled; neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband. For they are holy to their God, 8and you shall treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord, I who sanctify you, am holy. 9When the daughter of a priest profanes herself through prostitution, she profanes her father; she shall be burned to death.

10 The priest who is exalted above his fellows, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been consecrated to wear the vestments, shall not dishevel his hair, nor tear his vestments. 11He shall not go where there is a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother. 12He shall not go outside the sanctuary and thus profane the sanctuary of his God; for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the Lord. 13He shall marry only a woman who is a virgin. 14A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, a prostitute, these he shall not marry. He shall marry a virgin of his own kin, 15that he may not profane his offspring among his kin; for I am the Lord; I sanctify him.

16 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 17Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. 18For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. 22He may eat the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy. 23But he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the Lord; I sanctify them. 24Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel.

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1. Speak unto the priests. All these things which follow tend to the same end, i.e., that the priests may differ from the rest of the people by notable marks, as if separated from ordinary men; for special purity became those who represented the person of Christ. It seems, indeed, as if God here gave precepts respecting small and unimportant things; but we have elsewhere said that the legal rites were as it were steps by which the Israelites might ascend to the study of true holiness. The declaration of Paul indeed was always true, that “bodily exercise profiteth little,” (1 Timothy 4:8;) but the use of the ancient shadows under the Law must be estimated by their end. Although, therefore, the observation of the things which are now treated of did not of itself greatly please God, yet inasmuch as it had a higher tendency, it was sinful to make light of it. Now though the priests were thus admonished that holiness was to be cultivated by them with peculiar diligence, as the sanctity of their office required; yet the principal design of God was to set forth the image of perfect holiness which was at length beheld in Christ. The first law contains a prohibition of mourning, absolutely and without exception as regarded the high priest, and as regarded the sons of Aaron with certain specified restrictions; for although God elsewhere forbids the people generally to imitate the custom of the Gentiles in excessive mourning, yet here he requires something more of the priests, viz., that they should abstain even from ordinary mourning, such as was permitted to others. This prohibition indeed was again repeated, as we shall see, arising from an actual occurrence; for when Nadab and Abihu, who had offered incense with strange fire, were consumed with fire from heaven, God allowed them to be mourned for by all the people, except the priests; 185185     Addition in Fr.,Qui estoyent neanmoins les plus prochains parens:” who were nevertheless the nearest relations. but on this occasion the general law was again ratified afresh, lest the priests should pollute themselves by mourning for the dead; except that there mourning was forbidden even for a domestic loss, that they might acquiesce in God’s judgment, however sad it might be. For by these means they were impeded in the discharge of their duties; because it was not lawful for mourners to enter the sanctuary. Therefore God threatens them with death, unless they should restrain their grief even for the death of a near relative But this (as is elsewhere said) is a rare virtue, so to repress our feelings when we are deprived of our brothers or friends, as that the bitterness of our grief should not overcome our resignation and composure of mind. In this way, therefore, the exemplary piety of the priests was put to the proof. Besides, abstinence from mourning manifests the hope of the blessed resurrection. Therefore the priests were forbidden to mourn for the dead, in order that the rest of the people might seek for consolation in their sorrow from them. 186186     The Fr. says, “De leur exemple." This was truly and amply fulfilled in Christ, who although He bore not only grief, but the extreme horror of death, yet was free from every stain, and gloriously triumphed over death; so that the very recollection of His cross wipes away our tears, and fills us with joy. Now when it is said, “They shall not profane the name of their God;” and in the case of the high priest, “neither shall he go out of the sanctuary;” this reason confirms what; I have just stated, that mourning was forbidden them, because it prevented them from the discharge of their duties; for their very squalidness would have in some sense defiled God’s sanctuary, in which nothing unseemly was to be seen; and being defiled too, they could not intercede as suppliants for the people. God then commands them to remain pure and clear from all defilement, lest they should be compelled to desert their office, and to leave the sanctuary, of which they were the keepers. Moreover, we learn that the fulfillment of this figure was in Christ, from the reason which is immediately added: viz., because the holy oil is on the head of the high priest; whereby God intimates that it is by no means right that His glory and dignity should be profaned by any pollution.

As to the words themselves; first, greater liberty is granted to the rest of the posterity of Aaron, than to the high priest; but only that they should mourn for their father, mother, children, their own brothers, and unmarried sisters. Lest ambition should carry them further, they are expressly forbidden to put on mourning even upon the death of a prince. Nor can we doubt but that the mourning was improper which God permitted to them out of indulgence; but regard was had to their weakness, lest immoderate strictness might drive them to passionate excess; yet God so spared them as still to distinguish them from the multitude. To “defile” one’s-self, (as we have elsewhere seen,) is equivalent to putting on mourning for the dead, celebrating the funeral rites, or going to the burial; because the curse of God proclaims itself in the death of man, so that a corpse infects with contagion those by whom it is touched; and again, because it must needs be that where lamentation is indulged, and as it were excited, the affection itself must burst out into impatience. As to the prohibition to make “baldness,” this was not allowed even to the rest of the people; but God expressly forbids it to the priests, in order to keep them under stricter restraint. With regard to the high priest, something greater seems to be decreed besides the exceptions, that he “shall not uncover his head, nor rend his clothes:” which is still enjoined elsewhere on the sons of Aaron. But here what would be allowable in others is condemned in the high priest; and it was surely reasonable that he should present a peculiar example of moderation and gravity; and therefore the dignity of his office, in which he was superior to others, is called to mind, that he may acknowledge his obligations to be so much the greater. This is indeed the sum, that since the priesthood is the holiness of God, it must not be mixed up with any defilements.

7. They shall not take a wife. The third kind of purity is in marriage itself, that the priests’ home may be chaste and free from all dishonor. At this time also God commands by the mouth of Paul, that pastors should be chosen, who rule well their own houses, whose wives are chaste and modest, and their children well-behaved. (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6.) The same cause for this existed under the Law, lest those appointed for the government of the Church should be despised and looked down upon on account of their domestic vices. But God most especially had regard to the priesthood of Christ, that it should not be exposed to contempt. It was indeed permitted that men should marry with impunity a woman divorced from her husband; though in the sight of God such an union was unlawful. No law forbade private individuals from marrying a deflowered woman; but what was permitted to the multitude God condemned in the priests, in order to withdraw them from every mark of infamy. And this reason is also expressed when he says that He would have the priests holy, because He has chosen them for Himself; for if the people had not reverenced them, all religion would have been contemptible. Therefore that their dignity might be preserved, He commands them to take diligent heed not to expose themselves to ignominy. Finally, still more highly to commend reverence to their holy office, He reminds them that it related to the welfare of the whole people: “I the Lord (He says) do sanctify him,” ver. 15. In these words He intimates that the grace of adoption, whereby they were chosen as His heritage, was based on the priesthood.

9. And the daughter of any priest. The moderation and chastity (required in the priest 191191     Added from Fr. ) is extended also to his daughter; and by synecdoche all that relates to good discipline is comprised under a single head; viz., that his children should be educated in the study of virtue, and in decent and pure morality. A heavy punishment is denounced against a priest’s daughter if she should play the harlot, because sacrilege would be combined with her disgraceful licentiousness. But it is no light crime to violate God’s sanctuary; and, if the priest had tolerated such an iniquity in his daughter, he would have been no severe avenger of the same turpitude in strangers; nay, he would not have been at liberty to punish crimes, unless he made a beginning in his own house.

13. And he shall take a wife in her virginity. More is required in the high priest, viz., that he should not marry a widow, nor a woman of any other tribe than his own. A question may indeed arise as to the latter clause, whether the plural word ought to be restricted to one tribe, 189189     Ainsworth’s literal translation is “a virgin of his peoples.” Fr., “Ailleurs il se prend pour tout le corps de la lignee d’Abraham:” elsewhere it is taken for the whole body of the race of Abraham. whereas it is elsewhere applied to all. But, if we examine it more closely, it is plain that “his peoples” is equivalent to “of his people,” (populares.) But nothing peculiar will be here required of the priest, if his wife is to be taken only from the children of Abraham. I admit that the chief priests married wives of Other tribes, as Elizabeth, sprung of the tribe of Judah, married Zacharias; but, since the high priest is here distinguished from all others, I do not see how it would follow that a law or privilege referring to him should be observed by the whole posterity of Aaron. On this point, however, I will not contend, if any one thing is otherwise. But assuredly, since he presented the brightest type of Christ, it was right that superior and more perfect holiness should be beheld in him. 190190     It is surely strange that C., who here seems to draw out the Christology of the ordinances of the Law with unusual fullness and precision, should have omitted to mention “the mystical union which is between Christ and His Church,” as most luminously set forth in this type. Vide Song, passim. Psalm 95; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:27; Revelation 19:8, etc. For this was the tendency of the restriction, that his wife, not having known another man, should manifest the modesty worthy of her station and quality of sacred honor. If any should object that the marriage of, an old priest with a young girl was ridiculous and somewhat indecorous, as well as liable to many inconveniences; I answer, that special regulations should be so expounded as not to interfere with general principles. If a decrepit old man falls in love with a young girl, it is a base and shameful lust; besides he will defraud her if he marries her. Hence, too, will jealousy and wretched anxiety arise; or, by foolishly and dotingly seeking to preserve his wife’s love, he will cast away all regard for gravity. When God forbade the high priest to marry any but a virgin, he did not wish to violate this rule, which is dictated by nature and reason; but, regard being had to age, He desired that modesty and propriety should be maintained in the marriage, so that, if the priest were of advanced years, he should marry a virgin not too far from his own age: but, if he were failing and now but little fitted for marriage on account of his old age, the law that he should marry a virgin was rather an exhortation to celibacy, than that he should expose himself to many troubles and to general ridicule.

17. Speak unto Aaron, saying. Priests in whom there was any notable bodily defect are here forbidden from approaching the altar. I will not curiously inquire into the defects which Moses enumerates, since the same rule is here laid down, which is afterwards applied to the sacrifices, whereof none but perfect ones were to be offered. For God rejected whatever was defective or mutilated, in order that the Israelites might know that no victim would suffice for the expiation of sin, except such as possessed complete perfection; and this is justly required in a priest, who cannot be a mediator between God and men unless he is free from every spot. But the analogy must be kept in view between the external figures and the spiritual perfection which existed only in Christ. God could bear no defect in the priests; it follows, then, that a man of angelic purity was to be expected, who should reconcile God to the world. The bodily imperfections, then, which were here enumerated, must be transferred to the soul. The offering of bread comprehends by synecdoche the other offerings, and the whole legal service, which the priests were wont to perform in their course; and this the words of Moses immediately afterwards confirm, wherein he mentions all “the offerings made by fire,” besides the bread. We have seen elsewhere that any of the people wounded in the testicles were prohibited from entering the sanctuary; that they were, not even to set foot in the court; but there was a special reason for this as regarded the priests, lest they should pollute the sanctuary by their defects. Hence it appears how needful for us is the intercession of Christ; for, if his perfect cleanness did not wash away our impurity, no oblation could proceed from us except what would be foul and unsavory. Moreover, it is worthy of observation that the sanctuary of God is polluted by any defect or imperfection; and, consequently, that whatever of their own men obtrude upon God, is condemned as profane, so far are they from conciliating God’s favor by any merit.

22. He shall eat the bread of his God. He permits them indeed to eat of the sacrifices, because no uncleanness on account of their natural defects could prevent them from partaking of the sacred meals; 192192     “La nouristure assignee aux enfans d’Aaron.” — Fr. they are only forbidden to appear in God’s presence as mediators to propitiate Him. And here the imperfection of the legal service betrays itself; for nothing could be found among men which could fully represent the truth. Since then the defects of men rendered it necessary to separate the two connected things, viz., the honor and the burden, hence the Israelites were admonished that another priest was promised them, in whom nothing would be wanting for the consummation of all virtues and perfection. Finally, Moses relates that he delivered God’s commands not only to Aaron and his sons, but to all the people likewise; so that the humblest of them might be the censor of the priests 193193     “Peust contreroler, par maniere de dire, les Sacrificateurs:” might, so to say, control the priests. — Fr. if in anything they fell short.