Why did God alienate disabled persons in the Old Testament? It’s a really good question today from a listener named Gina. “Hello, Pastor John. I’m reading through Leviticus in my Bible reading plan. One thing that has confused me is why God would not allow people with physical defects to approach the altar (specifically in Leviticus 21:16–21).
“The tone changes drastically in the Gospels. There Jesus welcomes the blind, the lame, and the diseased right into his very presence. So why would God in the Old Testament not allow them near the altar? It seems sad to me. Those people would have certainly have felt even worse for it. And likely experienced heightened social alienation, too. I’m thankful for the New Testament, because there are so many of us with physical defects. But why the discontinuity? To what purpose?”
Good question. Leviticus 21:16–24 deals with whether priests — it’s about priests, but her question is still really valid — who have physical disabilities or deformities can enter the holy place to do the work of a priest.
“In the presence of God in the age to come, there will be no defects morally. There will be no defects physically.”
I think Gina is probably right that when priests with facial defects or crushed genitals or injured feet or a hunched back or scabby skin were forbidden from parts of the priestly service — not all of them, but some of them — they would have felt sad and discouraged at times. They maybe would have even been resentful.
That would be a normal human response — at least, in our culture we sure we feel that. My guess is that’s pretty basic to human nature. So Gina asks, “Why does God in the Old Testament apply such external restrictions for the priesthood? And in the New Testament, we don’t have that same kind of restriction. Why don’t we assume the same kind of excluding effect?”
Let me try to give an answer that I think honors the intention of both the Old Testament and the New Testament because I think both are the inspired word of God. What God did when he did it was right to do when he did it. He had reasons for doing it. It may not be right for us to do it today because such profound things have changed. But let’s look at the key passage. There’s a ground clause that helps us really crystallize the issues.
Here’s part of Leviticus 21:16–24, with just a few verses left out. I’ll collapse it down so you can see the clause:
No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. . . . He shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them. (Leviticus 21:21–23)
In other words, God says, “I am the one who sets priests apart for my service. I sanctify them. I have ordained — I have decreed or instituted or decided — that a blemished priest will not blemish or profane my sanctuary.” In other words, God wants to make the perfection of the sanctuary so symbolically and visibly clear that he establishes a correlation between the deforming of the physical body and the deforming of the sanctuary.
To say it another way, he insists that there be a correlation between the perfections of those who approach the sanctuary and the perfection of the sanctuary itself, which is a reflection of his own perfection. It’s entirely possible that the most godly and the most humble deformed priests would not be offended by this divine order of things, but would gladly acknowledge that it is fitting for those who approach a perfect God to be free from outward and inward imperfections.
I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with God’s Old Testament ordinances in this regard. The question is, What’s the ultimate meaning of it, especially in relation to New Testament changes?
Holy and Gracious
My answer goes like this. In the Bible as a whole, there are two dimensions to God’s nature that shape the way he deals with mankind. One is unapproachable holiness. That’s one massive truth throughout the Bible. God is holy. Sinners can’t approach him. Nothing imperfect can approach him. Nothing evil can approach God without being destroyed. So it’s fitting that in the presence of God there can only be perfection — moral, spiritual, and physical perfection — which, of course, means no one qualifies. It’s not like some of these priests were perfect. The other dimension of his nature is his overflowing mercy and grace.
“God is holy. Sinners can’t approach him. Nothing imperfect can approach him.”
Those are the two: unapproachable holiness and overflowing mercy and grace. This overflowing mercy and grace reaches out to the physically, morally, and spiritually imperfect and finds a way in Jesus Christ to declare them to be perfect. But the resolution of these two dimensions of God’s nature is not that the first one is replaced by the second one. It’s not that holiness is kind of blunted and decreased in importance because mercy is going to be the main thing now. That’s not what happens.
It is not as if the doctrine of justification by faith alone would be sufficient to create the new heaven and the new earth, where God is present among justified sinners without his holiness being compromised. That’s not going to happen. No. By sanctification, and then by the recreation of everything that’s broken — physical dimensions of the world and moral dimensions of the world — God is also going to make everything in his presence perfect forever.
Not just justified sinners are going to be in God’s presence, but no sin is going to be in God’s presence. There won’t be any people who sin in God’s presence. There will be no defects morally, and there will be no defects physically in the presence of God in the age to come.
I think God highlighted the demands for perfection in the Old Testament in an outward way so as to make really clear that no form of imperfection would ever stand in God’s presence permanently. That’s how holy he is. He would one day not only justify the ungodly and be willing to touch lepers — God himself touching lepers in the flesh — but he would also utterly transform the ungodly into sinless, godly people and take away every leprosy, every disease, every disability, and every deformity.
Hope in Christ
The Old Testament and the New Testament make both of these dimensions of God’s character plain, it seems to me, but they put the emphasis in different places. The Old Testament is, as it were, standing on tiptoes, looking over the horizon of the future, waiting and wondering how God could ever create a people who could come boldly into his presence.
“No sin is going to be in God’s presence. There won’t be any people who sin in God’s presence.”
And God had put such amazing limits in the Old Testament. The Old Testament rightly makes this seem extremely difficult. I think that was the point. He wanted it to look like this can never happen. You can never have anybody with an imperfection walking in here. It was just not going to happen. God had put such amazing restrictions on it.
Then in the New Testament, the glorious reality dawns. The reality is that God has provided a way by Jesus Christ, the very perfection that we must have to approach him now. He has provided by his Spirit the sanctification and resurrection and perfection of bodily and spiritual newness in the age to come so that we can be in his presence forever.
My bottom-line conclusion is that we need the Old Testament to sober us about how holy God is, and we need the New Testament lest we despair of any hope that we could survive in the presence of such a holy God — let alone enjoy him forever.