While preparing my recent sermon on the Good Samaritan it hit me how much context matters. Multiple contexts, I should say! There’s the conversational context in which the parable occurs, namely, the interaction between the lawyer and Jesus. Then there’s the religious-political-racial context that is necessary to understand why a good Samaritan (gasp!) was such a provocative suggestion in the mouth of a 1st century Jew. But what I didn’t have time to describe was the covenantal context, which helps us better appreciate the relevance of a priest, a Levite, and a half-dead body. Yet understanding this might also cause some problems for us, and in particular why priests were told to act in rather bizarre ways.
We’re talking about the Old Covenant here. Think the Old Testament, and specifically Moses, the 10 Commandments, and Mt. Sinai. This is God’s Covenant with ancient Israel. Some of the laws within this covenant pertained to priests:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people, except for his closest relatives, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother… (Lev. 21:1-2)
What does it mean that a priest should not “make himself unclean for the dead”? Approaching a corpse would make an Israelite unclean. For instance, Numbers 19:14 declares that anyone going inside the tent in which a person has recently died will make that person ritually unclean for seven days. Priests were to avoid this uncleanness, as the Leviticus passage above instructs, except for their closest relatives.
I don’t think this excuses the priest in the parable, and certainly not the Levite (= from the tribe of Levi, but not a priest). The same Old Covenant makes it clear that each should love his neighbor as himself, which even for a priest would imply at the very least a close inspection of whether the man was indeed dead!
But it might make us ask deeper questions about the Old Covenant and why priests were told to do such things. After all, avoiding dead bodies might inhibit compassion, and the comforting of mourners. But this oddity is not alone. In fact, we might say that Old Covenant priests were instructed to be thoroughly “holier than thou.” This is especially clear with regards to the high priest: he is forbidden mourning, even for his immediate family, save possibly his wife (seems austere!); he is forbidden to marry anyone except a virgin (no forgiveness for past indiscretion?); and not only must he wear special holy garments, but on his forehead he is to wear a plate that says “Holy to the Lord” (Lev. 21:10-15, Ex. 28:36-38). This guy—if he does his job—will be holier than thou. I’m not sure if we would like him!
We might say that he’s not like Jesus at all. We like the approachable Jesus of Galilee, wearing no special clothes, lacking ceremonial concerns, etc. But this is exactly where we go wrong. The priests and the high priest are very much like Jesus—not the Jesus in his Galilean stage of ministry, but Jesus who is currently at the right hand of the Father! The author of Hebrews helps us here:
Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. (Heb. 7:25-26)
Do you think of Jesus as “separated from sinners” as this passage says? Probably not. For in his earthly ministry this picture might sound wrong—perhaps—but the author of Hebrews is clearly describing Jesus in his presently heavenly state. And so, yes, he is quite separated from sinners, and exactly this enables him to do his job! For he must be the perfect, holy, and innocent intercessor. Thank God, Jesus is holier than thou.
We forget that this is part of what the Old Testament was all about. Not just predicting the Christ in general, but specifically his suffering and glorious exaltation (Luke 24:26). The Old Covenant priesthood provided a picture of Christ’s current exalted state and work.
And what does this have to do with avoiding dead bodies? Note that author of Hebrews emphasized how “he always lives…” Remember that Jesus now has an indestructible life! (Heb. 7:16) He is unaffected by death! Priests avoiding corpses provides a striking symbol of this, the need for a priest who is unaffected and unshaken by death. (Perhaps, by comparison, we should consider how the sacrifice of spotless lambs—each having no physical defect—point symbolically to Christ’s spiritual and moral spotlessness.)
This is a great example of how the regulations of the Old Covenant might seem unattractive and confusing, but when we read them as Jesus instructed us to, that is, about Him (Luke 24:26,45-47), the picture often changes considerably.