Leviticus 21:12 (HCSB)
12 He must not leave the sanctuary or he will desecrate the sanctuary of his God, for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is on him; I am Yahweh.
God has called His people, Israel, to be holy and righteous. There have been rules, commands, laws, that they are to follow in order to remain clean and holy. So it only seems logical that God would also have expectations for the priests, those set apart to act as the go-betweens for the Israelites and God. This pericope is the beginning of those commands to keep the priests just that.
Some of the commands given in this passage are consistent with those given to all Israelites, but even for those there seems to be a difference due to the role of the priests.
Priests are to avoid corpses altogether, with the exception of their immediate family. This seems counter to what we are used to today, and in a modern context seems wrong. After all, quite frequently we would expect a pastor to officiate a funeral ceremony. But we must remember the time and culture God issued this command in. The avoidance of corpses was not to suggest a lack of compassion for the survivors, or to stop the celebration of the life of someone who has passed, or even to stem the mourning of someone. Instead, the command is to allow the priest to remain clean, which is critical as a representative of God, and to carry out the duties he needs to. In the case of corpses, the unclean state is not just a spiritual state, it has a physical, medical, sense as well.
We then read how the priests are to avoid certain grooming practices, and bodily effects. These are consistent with what has been prescribed for all Israelites, and possibly suggest an avoidance of pagan practices that might lead people away from God by these ritual practices.
The woman a priest marries must meet a certain expectation of purity. Again, it would seem that this is because being a representative of God requires a specific set of criteria, that of a purity that would not possibly suggest a promiscuous life is acceptable, or even rewarded. This even carries on to the daughters of a priest, only enhancing the importance of presenting a pure lifestyle for the family.
Finally, we get some additionally strict rules for the high priest. As the head of God’s priesthood, he is restricted even more, such as not even having the leeway afforded to the normal priesthood concerning a death of a close relative.
All these restrictions may seem excessive, or even unreasonable, by our standards today. But, when we remember the culture and context, we should understand the importance of remaining, and representing, the purity, and righteousness, of God by the priesthood for the people of Israel.
Lord, thank You for providing examples, righteous examples, for us to look at and model our walk after. We know a righteous life does not save us, only Christ can do that, but it shows You to the world when we walk in righteousness. I pray for the clarity to follow You, and the strength not to compromise. Amen.