Mourning for the Dead

The Levitical priesthood had a higher standard of holiness than that for the common Israelite.  According to Leviticus 21, the Levitical priests were not to defile themselves for the dead among their people.  The only exception was for his closest relatives:

  • parents
  • children
  • brothers
  • virgin sisters

 If his sister was married she belonged to her husband’s family and they would be responsible for her dead body.  This seems like a harsh command for many of us today because we don’t see our sister as being the responsibility of her husband’s family; however, this is what the word of God commands. 

The priests were not permitted to make any bald place on their heads, shave the edges of their beards, or cut their flesh as a sign of mourning for the dead.  To do so would profane God’s name.  It was not acceptable for them to do that because they were the ones who offered the offerings of the Lord and they had to be holy to do so.

When we first read some of these prohibitions in Scripture, various things come to mind.  For example, when we read the command not to make bald places on someone’s head, we might think of the practice of tonsure which is practiced by certain Christian churches.  This is considered to be a sacred rite of being received into the clerical order of certain denominations and is not associated with mourning for the dead.  It is certainly not something that is of Hebraic origin either so it’s probably not appropriate at all as a sacred rite.

People-groups throughout the world practice various mourning rituals for the dead.  Normally, the Jews cried and tore their clothes as a sign of mourning for the dead among other things.  Shaving the edges of beards or cutting flesh were signs of mourning for the dead which practiced by the Canaanites and these are the only ones that the Lord specifically said were forbidden.  In fact, Deuteronomy 14:1 commands all of His people not to do these things and not just the priests.

Note that the key here is that these commands were forms of mourning for the dead.  Shaving the head was an acceptable and required part of the procedure for the Nazirite vow.  The separation to God is on the head of a Nazirite and the hair is a holy peace offering to the Lord.  Shaving the hair is acceptable in this instance because it is not part of a mourning ritual.  If a Nazirite came in contact with a dead body during his or her vow, their consecrated head became defiled and the hair had to be cut off as part of the cleansing process.      

I suspect one reason why the cutting of flesh was prohibited is because it is also somehow tied to demon worship and demon possession.  For example, this was a method the priests of Baal used to coerce Baal to send fire down onto the bull they had cut up on Mount Carmel.  According to Mark 5, the man in the country of the Gadarenes who was possessed with a legion of demons often cut himself. 

The High Priest was on a different level from the ordinary Israelite and was not permitted to mourn the dead by uncovering his head or tearing his clothes.  The High Priest was not even permitted to defile himself by going near his parents if they died.  He had to keep his head covered and not tear his garments because he was anointed and consecrated for the service of the High Priest.  He was not to go out of the sanctuary nor profane it because the consecration of the anointing oil of his God was upon him.

Leviticus 21 continues by commanding priests not to marry a harlot, a defiled woman, or divorced woman because they must be holy to God.  Instead, High Priests were held to a higher standard than the rest of the people because priests had to marry virgins.  To have children from these women would profane the posterity of priests.  Male children from such unions could not be permitted to serve as priests. 

One way that a priest could be profaned that is out of his control is what his daughter might do.  If she became a prostitute, she profaned not only herself but her father too. The penalty for doing this was being burned with fire.  This is a picture of the bride of Christ which must be presented to the Lord holy and pure as a virgin.  Those who do not choose to become the bride of Christ are harlots who will be burned in the lake of fire.

Priests who approached God in order to make offerings for the people had to be without any defects so that God’s sanctuary would not become defiled.  Defects included:

  • blind
  • lame
  • a marred face
  • any limb too long
  • a man who has a broken foot or broken hand
  • a hunchback
  • a dwarf
  • a man who has a defect in his eye
  • eczema or scab
  • a eunuch

This does not mean people with defects can’t come to know Jesus as Savior and Lord.  Jesus demonstrated that He is compassionate and desires to heal people with defects and wants to have a relationship with them.  It’s just that those who served closest to the Lord such as priests had to be free of defects. 

God is perfect and His priests had to be without defects so they would not profane the sanctuaries of the Lord.  Male descendants of priests who had defects could still eat the holy and most holy things as long as they were clean.

Even though the Temple is no longer standing, we must still have leaders who are blameless.  We must follow the guidelines of Titus 1:7-9:  “For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, 8 but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.”

Certainly the High Priest and other priests mourned the death of friends and loved ones; however, they were not permitted to mourn in the same manner as the Canaanites.  Today when people die, their friends and families mourn differently. 

  • If the deceased was a non-believer, non-believing family and friends mourn deeply in a variety of ways.
  • If the deceased was lost without Christ, mourning is a bit different because not only do we grieve their loss from this world, we grieve their eternal destiny. 
  • If the deceased was a believer, believing friends and family grieve their loss but rejoice and take comfort in knowing their loved one is with the Lord in heaven.
  • If a loved one dies and we don’t know if they truly had a relationship with the Lord, we still grieve the loss but wonder if we will ever see them again when we are with the Lord.

Where will you spend eternity?  Are you sure?

How will people mourn your death?  These are serious things to think about.

As you consider this, ask yourself how you serve the Lord.  Are you or your offerings defective?  Do you or your offerings represent death or life? 

Be blameless and serve the Lord in love and holy fear!

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