Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Further Elevation of the Priests: Leviticus 21-22

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

God's little detour into social justice territory is complete. He's back to promoting the priesthood in its new role as holy leaders of Israelite society.

The priesthood, God deems, is going to be a "holy" people. Since Israel is already a holy people, presumably what God has in mind a holy people among the holy people - a holy of holies, as the innermost parts of the Temple will eventually be described. In order for them to be pure, God requires them especially to keep the laws as given: no cutting of beards or shaving of heads, no accepting uncleanness (unless it is for the sake of "a close relative" or dependent sister). If they don't keep the commandments, they may lose their sacred privileges to the meat of the sacrifices.

Aaron's descendants are hereditary priests but they stand to lose that if they look unholy - i.e. if they're blind, lame, too short, or have "damaged testicles." In such cases, they can't be priests - but they're still entitled to eat the meat of the sacrifices, so they keep the most important of their rights. Never let it be said that the sacred clique doesn't protect its own!

The food rights seem to be one of the central privileges of the priesthood, and it's understandable - a while ago I calculated the number of pigeons the priests were entitled to on the basis of the menstruation offerings alone. Chapter 22 specifies the importance of these rights: the priests and their food is so holy that they're not allowed to share it with the other Israelites. Not that they would want to share! What's more, if you eat their food by accident, you have to pay them back in full, and add a fine worth one-fifth the value of whatever you ate. And that's just if you do it by accident!

The holiness provisions apparently extend to the priests' families as well. They can't marry a former prostitute or a divorcee; in fact, God specifies, they can't marry anyone who's not virgin. One wonders why he couldn't just come out and say this to begin with; instead, he goes through a pointless list of non-virgins (divorcees, prostitutes, widows, etc.) before explaining what he's really going for.

What really sucks in the Old Testament is to be a priest's daughter. Pastor's kids get a bit of a bad rap these days, but back then it was probably okay if you were a son - you could look forward to inheriting all the rights and privileges of the old man. Even being a slave to the priest is kind of cool - as long as you live in the house, you're entitled to a share of the "holy food."

Daughters have to be careful about their purity, though. If an Israelite woman became a prostitute, she became impure and sinful - but if a priest's daughter does, she has to be burned, not just because of her own sin but because by being sinful, she has "disgraced" her father. If she marries the wrong guy, she loses her right to the priest food. (If her husband dies before she has children, she can move back home with her parents and eat the food again.)