Question: Why does the Bible say in Leviticus 21:17-23 that people with physical handicaps are not allowed to enter the sanctuary to give their offerings?
Here is the passage in question (NIV 2011):
Lev. 21:17 “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 19 no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, 20 or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the LORD. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; 23 yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the LORD, who makes them holy.
From our contemporary perspective, where concern for the needs of the handicapped in society has rightly come to the forefront, this does seem both unfair and stigmatizing. However, this passage says nothing degrading or disrespectful about people with handicaps. Neither does Leviticus teach that the physically challenged are not allowed to worship God. Rather, the purpose of the instructions in this passage is aimed at highlighting God’s absolute perfection, which separates Him from all mankind, and how God Himself makes people holy (including the handicapped): “I am the LORD, who makes them holy” (Lev. 21:23).
First, this passage concerns only the descendants of Aaron (v. 17), of the tribe of Levi (Ex. 4:14), whose exclusive role was to serve the nation of Israel as priests:
Deut. 18:1 The Levitical priests—indeed, the whole tribe of Levi—are to have no allotment or inheritance with Israel. They shall live on the food offerings presented to the LORD, for that is their inheritance.
Moses placed Aaron as the tribe’s first priest:
Num. 17:3 On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe.
Second, everything associated with the worship of God in the tabernacle (and later, the Temple) was required to be as free of imperfection of any kind as possible so as to reflect God’s perfect holiness. This applied to the furniture, the equipment, the sacrifices of grain or meat, and to the priests themselves.
Lev. 22:9 The priests are to perform my service in such a way that they do not become guilty and die for treating it with contempt. I am the LORD, who makes them holy.
Any tool, bowl or item of any kind dedicated to the Lord for use in the Temple worship that became damaged, or used for something other than what it was dedicated for, had to be destroyed. Likewise, only those of the tribe of Levi who represented the healthiest of mankind could serve as priests who entered the sanctuary. The reason for this is explained in the book of Hebrews:
Heb. 8:5 They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”
Just as an architect’s blueprints must accurately foreshadow in two dimensions the completed three-dimensional building it represents, so too the Temple and all that pertained to it formed a blueprint in three dimensions of life in the Kingdom of Heaven. In that future kingdom there will be no more sin, no more physically, mentally or emotionally challenged, no more imperfection of any kind. And that is good news, because it is God’s greatest delight to do for mankind what we cannot do for ourselves:
Col. 2:17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.