Why did God prohibit Israelites with physical deformities from approaching the altar? The first thing to say is that apart from one family in Israel, all Israelites were forbidden from approaching the altar. Only the male descendants of Aaron belonged to the priestly order that had the special ministry of approaching the altar to make a sacrifice.
One of the Old Testament regulations was that you did not offer a sacrifice to God that had any deformities. Why? The undergirding principle was that God is holy, so you wouldn’t offer damaged goods; you would offer the best and most complete goods you have. It followed that the person who came into the presence of God to make the offering should, in a sense, be one with the sacrifice that he was making. Since you wouldn’t offer an animal that had deformities, it wasn’t appropriate for someone from Aaron’s family who was deformed to offer the sacrifice either.
One of the privileges of being a priest was that you had the opportunity to offer sacrifices, and then you actually shared in the food. You were allowed to take the food and eat it. In the same section where this regulation is promulgated, God makes it clear that those members of the priestly family who had deformities and were banned from offering the sacrifice would still get to eat the food. From that point of view, we can see a couple of things.
The law preventing people with deformities from approaching the altar did govern all of Israel. The majority of Israel was barred from approaching the altar anyway. This was a regulation focused on the priestly ministry. God made sure that those who didn’t participate in the sacrificial action could nevertheless enjoy the sacrificial benefits.
When you consider the old covenant regulations as pointing forward, you can see how this law is fulfilled in Jesus Christ: He, ultimately, is the One who offers an unblemished sacrifice, and that sacrifice is Himself, unblemished and without moral or spiritual deformity. So, this regulation is pointing forward to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
When we think about Christ as the fulfillment of this regulation, we see two things happen. First, the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile is broken down (Eph. 2:11–22). The old covenant sacrificial system is ended in Jesus Christ. Second, those who have deformities, whether they belong to the family of Aaron or any family, may have access to the presence of God.
When Jesus ministers as High Priest, He heals the sick, makes the lame able to walk, gives sight to the blind, and gives hearing to the deaf. In the ultimate Priest, those with deformities are not barred from the presence of God, but rather they are brought into the presence of God and restored. In Luke 14, Jesus tells a parable about a feast. When people don’t turn up at the feast, the command is given to go out into the highways and byways and to bring in those who have deformities. For people who had lived with that regulation in Jesus’ day, it must have been wonderful beyond words that the ultimate High Priest was doing this.
I don’t know what lies behind this question, but I can envisage a very sensitive Christian reading this regulation in the Old Testament who themselves might have some kind of deformity, wondering, “Does this mean I don’t get the privileges other Christians get?” The answer is: “The bread is for all.” Those of Aaron’s family who were disqualified shared the blessings as though they had participated in the ministry. This has significant ramifications.
Many of us long to be able to serve the Lord the way other people serve the Lord, but we know our disabilities. For example, someone might love to be a preacher but have an unconquerable stammer. I knew a man whom I greatly admired who would’ve given a king’s ransom for God to call him into the ministry, but he knew that he didn’t have that gift. However, he certainly shared in the bread and found ways in which he could live completely in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, I think there are lovely lessons to learn from what, at first sight, may seem to be a rather strange law.
This podcast is from an Ask Ligonier Podcast session with Sinclair Ferguson and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email firstname.lastname@example.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.