While the previous verses from Leviticus had everything to do with the problem with participating in the religious rituals of other faiths, the rules specified in Leviticus 21 specifically target the Levites – the Temple priests and staff.
The Focus Verses
Some would say that verse 20 would preclude trans women who have had a surgical procedure or are taking hormones from being included in the holy people of God.
The Ancient Story
The rules in Chapter 21 sound really harsh and insensitive to us.
No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his relatives, 2 except for his nearest kin: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother; 3 likewise, for a virgin sister, close to him because she has had no husband, he may defile himself for her. 4 But he shall not defile himself as a husband among his people and so profane himself. 5 They shall not make bald spots upon their heads, or shave off the edges of their beards, or make any gashes in their flesh. 6 They shall be holy to their God, and not profane the name of their God; for they offer the Lord’s offerings by fire, the food of their God; therefore, they shall be holy. 7 They shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled; neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband. For they are holy to their God, 8 and you shall treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord, I who sanctify you, am holy. 9 When the daughter of a priest profanes herself through prostitution, she profanes her father; she shall be burned to death.
10 The priest who is exalted above his fellows, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been consecrated to wear the vestments, shall not dishevel his hair, nor tear his vestments. 11 He shall not go where there is a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother. 12 He shall not go outside the sanctuary and thus profane the sanctuary of his God; for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the Lord. 13 He shall marry only a woman who is a virgin. 14 A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, a prostitute, these he shall not marry. He shall marry a virgin of his own kin, 15 that he may not profane his offspring among his kin; for I am the Lord; I sanctify him.16 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 17 Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy. 23 But he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the Lord; I sanctify them. 24 Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel.
Setting the Stage for the Ancient Story
Just because someone was a member of the Tribe of Levi didn’t mean that the Hebrew community wanted to trust them with the treasures of the Temple or the privileges that came from serving there. There were folks who nobody liked, and while they were permitted to eat dinner with the rest of the Levi family, there were many things they just couldn’t do.
I promise you that for every one of these rules that sound so exclusionary to our contemporary ears, there was at least one person who the rule specifically describes. There had to be a diplomatic-sounding reason to keep them out of the Temple, so these rules were established. There is no easier way to deflect responsibility for arbitrary rules than to say, “God told me this!” And it’s just too bad if another likeable person comes along who gets excluded, because God’s Law is God’s Law.
Over time, more people needed to be excluded “for just cause,” and so more and more specific characteristics of those undesirables were added.
How the Story Got Twisted
In preparing for this study, I spoke with several of my Jewish friends about their religious leaders – their rabbis – who are the descendants of Aaron and serve as present-day Levites. When I read them this chapter, most of them stopped me before I finished.
“You mean to say that God forbade the Levites from all of that? Why, I don’t know many rabbis who don’t wear glasses! And so what if they are in a wheelchair?! Their teaching is still good. And there’s a height requirement? Please! If we followed those rules for ordination to be clergy and staff in our faith community, we wouldn’t have anyone capable of leading us at all!”
And that’s the point.
To our Western civilization ears, the rules of Leviticus 21 sound arbitrary, harsh, and unjust. It’s no one’s fault if he or she needs glasses, wears a cast on their broken foot, has arthritis, spina bifida, or scoliosis, or even needs to walk with a cane. And we think it is wrong to discriminate against people because of those conditions. In fact, we have laws that prohibit such discrimination.
So how in the world can we get away with discriminating against a trans woman because she has had or wants corrective surgery?
We simply can’t.
To target anyone who lives today using rules that were designed for an ancient tribe – and not even followed by that same tribe today – is pure folly.
Setting the Stage for Our Story
Yet, there is something to be said about establishing appropriate guidelines for people we trust. We need to come to a deeper understanding of what it takes to be worthy of leading us – what the Levites called “holiness” and “purity.”
Is it appropriate for someone convicted of embezzlement to become our church’s treasurer? Probably not. Even if two signatures are required on checks.
Is it appropriate for a person who has been convicted of child abuse to be put in charge of a youth or children’s program? Certainly not!
Is it appropriate for a habitual speed demon to be hired as a bus or taxi driver? Of course not!
Should a habitual felon be allowed to serve as a police officer? How about an arsonist in the fire department? Or what about a 14-year-old untrained kid doing surgery in a hospital?
So, what should our standards be? How do we go about establishing them?
For all of those prospective jobs, there are clear hurdles that must be crossed before we will trust a person to do them. The thing is, though, that anyone who wants to become a surgeon knows what she or he will need to do (and avoid doing) in order to become one.
It isn’t arbitrary, and it isn’t unfair. For most people, those goals are attainable.
Think of someone you respect. What “standards” do expect them to have met? How hard is it to meet those standards? Are they arbitrary?
Think of someone you have a hard time respecting. What expectations are lacking? Are they arbitrary expectations? Is there a potential path the person can follow to meet your expectations?
As you feel comfortable, please share your thoughts with the group.
While the expectations that the Levites had for membership in their inner circle were unusually harsh and intolerant, our expectations for other people today can show much more mercy and grace.
Christ fulfilled the requirements of the Ancient Law
Our Christian Testament tells us clearly that we are no longer bound by Leviticus 21 or anything else in that book. See Acts 15, Galatians 3, and Hebrews 8-10. A growing number of denominations also have transgender individuals among their ranks of ordained clergy, including the United Church of Christ, Metropolitan Community Churches, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the American Baptist Convention. 1
Jesus taught us that it isn’t something we eat, drink, or do that defiles us.
8 ‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”
Jesus also teaches that we should be less judgmental with people. See John 9.
Let’s quit trying to exclude people because of our irrational fears. Let’s find ways to include them instead.
1 Matthew Maule, “Who are America’s Transgender Clergy,” July 28, 2015, The Christian Post, www.christianpost.com/news/who-are-americas-transgender-clergy-141997.