It was not an automatic matter that a descendent of Aaron would become a priest of God fit to serve at the tabernacle or temple of God. In fact, Leviticus 20, part of the regulations for priestly conduct (which are very strict), includes some very tough physical qualifications stated for those sons of Aaron who were to serve as priests. I wish to discuss those restrictions, explore multiple reasons for these restrictions, and then discuss their contemporary relevance for Christians today.
Leviticus 21:17-23 gives a series of conditions that disqualifies someone to be a priest: “Speak to Aaron, saying: ‘No man of your descendants in succeeding generations, who has any defect, may approach to offer the bread of his God. For any man who has a defect shall not approach: a man blind or lame, who has a marred face or any limb too long, a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or is a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man who has a defect in his eye, or eczema or scab, or is a eunuch. No man of the descendants of Aaron the priest, who has a defect, shall come near to offer the offerings made by fire to the Lord. He has a defect; he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. He may eat the bread of his God, both the most holy and the holy; only he shall not go near the veil or approach the altar, because he has a defect, lest he profane My sanctuaries; for I the Lord sanctify them.’ ”
Let us examine what this restriction means. First, let us look at what conditions that kept a priest from serving at the veil or the altar. A priest could not have any defects–and the Bible gives some of these. He could not be blind, or have any defect in his eyes (this seems to a broad prohibition on those whose vision was impaired through nearsightedness, farsightedness, cataracts, or astigmatisms). No man who is lame could approach God–and this meant not only not being able to walk, but also one who had broken feet or hands, or even limbs that were disproportionately long. Perhaps, given the context, it would also include those who had arthritic conditions like gout or rheumatism. Even someone who had a marred face was unable to approach God, who had eczema or scabs. Those who were eunuchs and those who were dwarfs or hunchbacks (what the world, then or now, would see as physically freakish) were permitted to approach God either.
This is a lengthy list of prohibitions, several of which would seem to include me, if one is taking a very broad definition of the prohibitions. What did this prohibit the son of Aaron from doing? It did not exile him from the priesthood, or make him a leper. It did not make him unable to teach the law or perform any of the investigative duties of being a priest and Levite. He was not prohibited from eating the priestly food (like the showbread). The restrictions are very limited (thankfully) and very specific: he was not permitted to approach the veil (he could not be high priest) and he could not offer incense at the altar.
Why is this the case? Why does God demand something approaching physical perfection from those who offer sacrifices and incense to Him on behalf of the (very imperfect) people of God? There are at least two legitimate reasons (and there may very well be more). First, God wanted the Israelites to understand the demands of moral and ethnical perfection required to approach him, demands that only the Lamb of God could fulfill to offer as our High Priest, but demands we will all fulfill as priests and kings, justified by Christ, redeemed by His blood, and living with His spirit in us in obedience to His laws.
The people of Israel and Judah did not seem to understand this point very well. We read in Malachi 1:6-8 that the people of Judah, even after the Babylonian captivity, did not honor God with their sacrifices. The complaint of God is to the point: “”A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am the Father, where is My honor? And if I am a Master, where is My reference? Says the Lord of hosts to you priests who despise My name. Yet you say, ‘In what way have we despised your name?’ You offer defiled food on My altar, but say ‘In what way have we defiled You?’ By saying, ‘The table of the Lord is contemptible.’ And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably?” Says the Lord of hosts.”
This is very much to the specific point that Leviticus 20 is dealing with. Neither the offerings nor the ones giving the offering were to have notable physical defects. This is not because physical defect is necessarily a sin, but because it is a symbol of (more serious) moral defects. God understood (and understands) that people learn spiritual lessons from physical symbols and observances. The unmarred physical priests and physical offerings without defects were supposed to be a symbol to the people (and leaders) of ancient Israel that God had strict ethical demands of His believers. Laxity in offering the lame, or having priests with deformities led to a mindset among believers that godly behavior and obedience was unimportant. This was unacceptable to God in Leviticus and Malachi, and in God there is no variation or shadow of turning, and therefore finds such a mindset equally unacceptable now.
The second reason is not entirely unrelated to the first. In reading Alan Knight’s masterpiece exposure of the Spirit of Antichrist, and the nature of the Babylonian priesthood in all of its forms, I realized that many of the Levitical prohibitions are direct condemnations of the symbolism of the Babylonian glorification what was freaky and abnormal, because of their immoral consequence and implications . Specifically, many Babylonian worship systems glorified transvestism, had eunuch priesthoods (like the priesthood of Attis), or had “limping” and marred priests who cut themselves (see 1 Kings 18:26, 28). For to the Babylonians and those who copy their vile and satanic culture, abnormality is glorified because it is a break from what is conventional, something to be celebrated and praised because it is symbolic of the unconventional morality desired by such heathen throughout the course of human history. God wanted no inroads of that mentality within His religious system.
And so we see that not much has changed in thirty-five hundred years since the time of Leviticus. God demands ethical purity, and uses physical ceremonies like baptism and the Passover even now as symbols of the deeper moral and ethnical purity we are to attain with the help of God’s Holy Spirit abiding within us, guiding us along His path. God’s demand to be without blemish has not changed, even as He has given us the help we need to approach that standard and come to His throne in prayer without craven fear, but with reverence and respect. And those who mock His laws and His standards still have no clue.