Leviticus 21 is, like most of Leviticus, a rather obscure passage for many people. Few subjects stir the heart of readers more than the divine regulations on the conduct of priests, which is surprisingly onerous. In our day and age, we are used to thinking of positions of religious leadership within Christian institutions as being the sort of position that makes it frequently possible to obtain lucrative book deals and acquire a fondness for golf and hunting and other such pursuits, but the priestly regulations of Leviticus 21  are far more far-reaching in their regulation of priestly conduct. To be a priest of Aaron was to have one’s behavior held to a high standard. While there is some question as to the relevance of these standards for us, it is striking to note that among the priestly regulations included a limitation on who it was permissible for priests to marry.
We find this restriction in Leviticus 21:13-15, which reads: “And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow or a divorced woman or a defiled woman or a harlot—these he shall not marry; but he shall take a virgin of his own people as wife. Nor shall he profane his posterity among his people, for I the Lord sanctify him.” In contemporary society, we might wonder that if this requirement was laid upon Christians today that it would be extremely difficult if not nearly impossible for a man to find a woman in Christ that would qualify under these biblical standards for a priestly wife. Of interest to us is the way that God connects the legacy of a family’s posterity with the choice of honorable wives for the priest to marry. We can be sure that not all priests took this standard seriously–witness, after all, the behavior of the sons of Eli in 1 Samuel 2:22-34, where their immorality with women at tabernacle led to God’s judgment upon them and upon their entire lineage, which would eventually have the honor of the high priesthood removed from them altogether. In light of that prophecy and this law, we ought to take this law and what it means very seriously.
In looking at the application of this law as it relates to our subject of marriage alliances, we may see that the priestly class was relatively free in some ways to choose a wife and very strictly restricted in other ways. She did not have to be from a particular tribe or family, but could be anyone counted as an Israelite, including a native-born Israelite or a proselyte. This process, it should be noted, was easier for a woman than it was for a man, but still required a public declaration of faith. On the grounds of purity, though, the restrictions of priestly marriage were strict–the woman could not be “defiled,”and had to be a virgin. What exactly it meant to be defiled is not made plain here, although it is quite possible that being the victim of rape or sexual abuse would count besides such societal sins like ritual prostitution and other immorality. It is not that the woman was herself blamed–widows were also forbidden from marrying priests even though there would be no moral blame attached to that condition. God really wanted priests to be a sign of the holiness of God.
This had some implications as far as the role of women in making diplomatic alliances with the priesthood. It is unsurprising that elite and royal Israelite families would want to have their daughters intermarry with the priesthood and thus secure alliances. The principle of the separation of church and state has always been honored more in the breach than it has as a principle. What is important, though, is that in order to be acceptable alliance partners, they had to have honorable (and presumably youngish) in order to have the sanction of God, and this would presumably encourage those families that wanted the political benefits of marriage alliances with the priesthood to focus enough on godly morality to be able to do so. It seems somewhat odd for God to use the lure of political connection and increased legitimacy as a way of encouraging moral virtue, but it demonstrates God’s awareness of human psychology and motivation, at any rate, and is certainly a good deal more shrewd than we figure the law to be.
As much as we may speculate on the role of priestly standards of morality in their brides in the marriage alliances of biblical history, it is dangerous if we forget that this standard still remains in force for Christians. Revelation 14:4 says of believers spared from the influence of the false political and religious system of the end times that: “These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb.” Here again religious and sexual immorality are viewed as defilement, precisely the same condition that would prevent marriage to a priest. Nor is the concern with a moral household simply a matter of old fashioned old covenant law, for Titus 1:5-6 reminds us that this same standard holds for leaders of God’s church today: “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you— if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.” Here we see the moral behavior of children connected to the faithfulness of a man to one wife, as opposed to what is in our own times at best serial monogamy as being the standard for leadership in the Church of God today no less than it was during the days of the priesthood of Aaron discussed in Leviticus 21 earlier.
We therefore see that God has not changed His opinion about the moral behavior He expects of believers. Surely it is and has always been a great lure to seek to lower our standards in the face of rampant immorality in society. Yet God’s standards have not changed. If we desire to have alliances that are blessed by God, and surely everyone entering into marriage should be aware of the sort of family alliance that results from such connections, as it is readily apparent even to those of us who are not yet married, then we should pay attention to the standards that God sets for such connections, and to ask for His help that we may be forgiven for our past transgressions and that we may live up to the standard set before us by scripture. It is a challenge to live godly lives in wicked times, but such a challenge has always been placed before those whom God wished to serve as models for His people and to the world at large. It is a responsibility we dare not shirk from today.
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