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Bible Q

Why were people with defects not allowed to offer sacrifices (Lev. 21:16-24)?

One of the things that the Law taught was that God’s people should be holy because their God is holy (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:26). As one commentator writes, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ ‘could be termed the motto of Leviticus’.1 In truth, God wants his people to be morally holy: Peter explains God’s call to holiness like this: ‘…as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct’ (1 Peter 1:15). The Law taught this through very visual methods, one of which was by requiring the people who worked in the Tabernacle (and, later, the Temple) to be physically perfect (Lev. 21:16-24). The physical perfection represented (it was only a “shadow” of [cf. Heb. 10:1]) the moral perfection that should be in service to God.

Of course, God loves all people, regardless of their level of their physical “perfection” (thankfully! John 3:16; Mat. 21:14). But the lesson is still true: we should worship God in perfection.

Thankfully, God forgives people who repent (1 John 1:9). So, if we fail to be morally perfect, we can ask God to forgive us and he will. This is the only way that any human can really be perfect.


1. G. J. Whenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 18

13 Replies to “Why were people with defects not allowed to offer sacrifices (Lev. 21:16-24)?”

  1. Are you telling me that YHWH created people with a severe physical defect in the Old Testament only to serve as a “shadow” of the moral perfection that should be in service to God. Wow. I feel sorry for those poor individuals in the Old Testament. Especially the ones with crushed testicles. I thought God was just intolerant of people with physical defects in the Old Testament but this interpretation makes complete sense. God is good, God is great!

    • God *used* people with severe physical defects (some from birth, some acquired) to teach a lesson. It’s a big step to go from that to say that God *created* these people *solely* for the purpose of foreshadowing moral perfectness, and not a step that I think we can logically make.

      • God used people with severe physical defects to teach a lesson??? What’s the lesson? All I get out of Lev. 21: 16-24 is God was intolerant of people with physical defects. He said that the mentioned people with physical defects would “profane” His sanctuary. Logical lesson learned- God was intolerant of individuals with physical defects in the Old Testament.

        • The lesson is exactly as discussed in the answer: physical perfection foreshadowed moral perfection. Would people then have understood that point, or the many other things foreshadowed by the law? We don’t know. But we do have the New Testament to tell us that the law was pointing forward to Christ. We just have to think about how.

          • Where in the Bible does it say that human moral perfection is foreshadowed by human physical perfection? In addition, why does God create individuals with physical defects now? Is it to foreshadow something in the future?

          • I don’t believe it says anywhere in the Bible that moral perfection is foreshadowed by physical perfection. Nor does it say explicitly what most of the things in the law are foreshadowing: all it says is that they do foreshadow things and were meant to lead us to Christ. The rest we are left to work out for ourselves (and yes, you are welcome to disagree on that interpretation if you want to).

            However, fundamentally your comments seem to be based on the assumption that foreshadowing moral perfection is the *only* role and purpose, and thus once that role has gone there must be some other purpose for God to create them for. However, as I meet and talk with more people and share more experiences the conclusion I come to is that no one is perfect physically: everyone has different problems. We could ask why God created this person with this problem or that problem. But ultimately, God has not promised physical perfection in this lifetime, but in the future. (note: I don’t want to belittle the experiences of people with serious physical disabilities since I’m sure they go through many terrible experiences that I don’t have to).

          • Jonathan, let me get this straight. God made a law that says people with physical defects are not allowed to offer sacrifices because it would “profane” His sanctuary. And you think that God created people with physical defects in the Old Testament and made this law to exclude them from offering sacrifices just so this could be a foreshadow to “lead us to Christ”. QUESTION #1: In your personal opinion, was this a fair law according to your understanding of morality? Honestly, was this a fair commandment for the people in the Old Testament who were created by God with a physical defect. QUESTION #2: Make a biblical case as to why YHWH is a God worthy of worship when He would create people with physical defects only to exclude them from this honored priestly service? In addition, as you rightly pointed out, God gave no explanation as to why He commanded this and we are “left to work this out for ourselves”. Is this fair? I don’t think so. Please prove me wrong. I personally believe He should have made an eleventh commandment that said, “DON’T LOOK DOWN ON PEOPLE WITH PHYSICAL DEFECTS!”

          • Like you, I am a child of this age and am influenced by the general assumptions and practices of our culture. While I wouldn’t go so far as to judge God’s laws as fair or unfair, there are a number of them that looking from this century feel odd, and this is one of them. That is why we try in our imperfect way to understand why God would do this. Scripturally, I would probably tie the creation of people with physical defects to the general principles of “the Fall”. As I alluded to in my previous comment, we all suffer under these effects, though not necessarily in equal measure. Specifically mentioned consequences are the need to work for a living, the presence of thorns and thistles to get in the way (perhaps more relevant to us in the metaphorical sense of troubles – personally, I only encounter physical thorns in my garden the rare times when I garden, not in my daily work), and finally death itself. Not necessarily that those with physical defects have done something specific to deserve those physical defects, but that generally humanity have chosen to rebel against God and each individual continues to choose to a greater or lesser extent to rebel against God’s ways.

            It’s also worth noting in the light of the many societies at the time who could throw out physically disabled people that God made it quite clear that these people were still to have access to the food of God (their livelihood as Levites). Though they were not considered suitable by God for working in his service, they weren’t to be thrown out to starve (if you would like a counter-example, lepers would seem to be a good example – but there it seems that there was a high risk of contagion which threatened the society, and lepers who were not contagious like Gehazi were much more integrated).

          • Once again, you are adding things to the Bible that are not in the Bible. First you said that moral perfection is foreshadowed by physical perfection. THIS CONCLUSION CANNOT BE FOUND ANYWHERE IN THE BIBLE! Now you say, “Scripturally, I would probably tie the creation of people with physical defects to the general principles of ‘the Fall’. THIS CONCLUSION CANNOT BE FOUND ANYWHERE IN THE BIBLE! Where is the “scripture” that says the creation of people with physical defects is related to “the Fall”? My Bible says that Jesus has “All Authority”! Matt. 28:18 says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth”. This involves the creation of people with physical defects. Col. 1:15 says “…all things have been created through Him and for Him”. All means all right Jonathan? This would include individuals with physical defects.

            You seem to be a Christian apologist but I haven’t seen any scripture in your last four posts. Please start posting scripture if you are going to start a sentence with the word “Scripturally”.

          • I alluded to scripture, but you are correct, I didn’t quote it. When I talked about “specifically mentioned consequences” I was looking at the list given to Adam in Genesis 3:17 – 19 (and yes, you can see that the list of consequences was drawn directly from that passage). The other passage I was referring to was Romans 8:18 – 23, which talks about creation being “subject to futility” and “in bondage to decay”, but that there is a hope of future glory. We look forward to the time when God will dwell with men, and death, tears and pain are gone (Rev 21:3 – 4). But we recognise that that time is not right now.

          • Hey Jonathan, thanks for finally quoting scripture for me. The “thorns and thistles” mentioned in Gen. 3:18 is talking about the “ground being cursed” (v. 17). It is a real stretch to interpret “thorns and thistles” to mean that people now have physical defects because of “the Fall”. I don’t know why you just can’t accept the fact that YHWH/Jesus creates people with physical defects. John 1:3 says, “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being”. Just accept what the Bible says about your God and His creation.

            Romans 8:18-23 was interesting to me. However, the creation being “subject to futility” cannot be related to physical defects unless the evidence would show that everyone would have a physical defect. If the whole creation was “subject to futility” then it would be evident that everyone would have at least one of the physical defects mentioned in Lev. 21:18-20. Romans 8:18-23 CANNOT be talking about individuals born with a physical defect unless everyone would have a birth defect. I think the context of Romans 8 is talking about sin and living according to the flesh (v. 12). Comparing scripture with scripture this understanding makes much more sense since Paul believes that everyone is born with sin for “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God”. By the way Jonathan, I am a little confused over this passage (Rom. 8:20). QUESTION #1: Was it God’s will to subject the creation to futility?

            QUESTION #2: Did you make up the fact that other societies of the time “throw out physically disabled people” or do you have access to ancient documentation sourcing your claim?

          • It seems to me that the problem is I am giving general principles and you are misinterpreting them as specific statements. When talking of “the Fall” we are talking about a general change from when everything created was “very good” (Gen 1:31) to when sin and mortality entered the world (Gen 3). A list of specific consequences are given: mortality, having to work, thorns and thistles getting in the way of that work. These are literal consequences, and none of those literal consequences have anything particular to do with people having physical disabilities. Things are not in the perfect state that they were in. Romans 8 as quoted backs up the feeling that things are not in a perfect state but there is hope of one, and Rev 21 confirms the news of this hope. General principles.

            However, when it comes to specifically applying it to physical disability, my reasoning would be as follows:

            1. Physical disabilities are one way in which mankind is not perfect.
            2. I believe scripture tells us imperfection came in as part of “the Fall”.

            Therefore it seems reasonable (to me) to say that physical disabilities are one of the many consequences of the Fall. Yes, it is a step of inference – I am not pulling out a verse that says “People who are lame from birth are that way because of the Fall”.

            You argue that these verses can’t be talking about birth defects because not everyone has them. I think the only reason you can argue that is because you are making the class of birth defects too narrow. To me, it is an observable fact that *no one* I know was born in perfect health. For some it may be an issue with short-sightedness or long-sightedness. For some it might be a mental disease. For some it might be periodic headaches. For some it might be a pre-disposition to a certain kind of cancer. For some it might be being blind, deaf or unable to walk from birth or early life. But I don’t see anyone who is in perfect health in every respect (those whom I used to think were I now discover have pre-dispositions to this, that or the other that only turn up when 40 or 50 – and even if they didn’t, they are still mortal). Certainly some of these things are more serious and life-affecting than others, but they are all departures from perfection. It would be like saying dying at 50 is not a consequence of these verses because not everyone dies at 50.

            In answer to the “was it God’s will” question, I think you have to distinguish “end goal” from “right now”. In the garden of Eden, God gave people a choice, and there were consequences attached (Gen 2:16 – 17). In particular, the consequence of disobedience was mortality. Did God want them to disobey? No. Did they disobey? Yes. Were there consequences? Yes. However, does God want that to be the end of the story? No. That is why he put in place a plan which is currently in progress. The end goal of that plan is perfection restored.

            I am not denying that God is involved in the creative process. However, to me the important question is not “who”, but “why”. And going back to the original point, the why is principally because man is in a fallen state, not because God needs specific teaching tools.

            As far as sin goes, yes, Paul is talking about sin. He is also talking about the consequences of that sin – mortality and death. To me, the imperfections of our current state are all tied up in that.

            As far as the throwing out of the disabled goes, that would be going by memory and association with other practices, and so might not be completely correct. Certainly in Greek and Roman times killing babies if they weren’t what you wanted was perfectly permitted (and that included a lot of birth defects). Consider for example

          • Disabled people can be more “perfect” than most other human beings are capable of! Thanks Andy for some great comments.