Chapter 21 contains regulations for the priests of Israel.
This first prohibition regards situations in which a priest is allowed (or not allowed) to have contact with the dead. Contact with a dead body will render him ceremonially unclean for a period of time. "The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: 'A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die, except for a close relative, such as his mother or father, his son or daughter, his brother, or an unmarried sister who is dependent on him since she has no husband---for her he may make himself unclean. He must not make himself unclean for people related to him by marriage, and so defile himself." (Leviticus 21:1-4)
In Numbers 19:11-22 we find the information that anyone who has contact with a dead body, or who has been inside a tomb where a dead body lies, or who has touched or walked across a grave, will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. That passage of Numbers describes the cleansing ceremony that is to take place according to whichever type of contact a person has had with the dead. During that time a priest would not be able to go about his duties.
A priest must be available to serve the Lord and minister to the Lord's people as often as possible; therefore, he is to be ceremonially clean as much as is humanly possible while still maintaining his family life outside of his tabernacle duties. If a close blood relative of a priest dies, he is allowed to assist with the burial and with the preparation of the body that takes place beforehand. He can help those who carry the body into the tomb or help those who dig a grave. He is allowed to observe a period of mourning. But if the relative who passed is not a close blood relative, family members other than the priest are to handle all the undertaking duties and burial arrangements.
"Priests must not shave their heads or shave off the edges of their beards or cut their bodies." (Leviticus 21:5) We learned earlier in Leviticus that these were practices of the heathen tribes. When a close relative died, the pagans would alter their appearance. In some cases they shaved their heads and trimmed part of their beards to show they were in mourning. In other cases it is believed the cut hair was used for the purpose of divination ceremonies in which they believed the dead spoke to them through the pattern the hair made when thrown on the ground or suspended in a container of water. The Lord's people must not take part in occult practices or do anything that might give the appearance that they dabble in the occult.
Some of these pagan tribes would cut themselves in grief, deeply enough to leave scars. They might even rub dye into the wounds to produce tattoos to commemorate the dead. The Lord told the citizens of Israel never to take up these mourning rituals in Leviticus 19:28, and in our passage today He issues the warning a second time to the priests to underline how important it is to follow this prohibition. He does not want His people Israel looking like the idolatrous tribes around them. He also does not want His people Israel mourning for the dead as if there is no eternal soul and no bodily resurrection of the dead.
We quoted the following verse when studying the cutting and tattooing rituals of Leviticus 19 and I think it's a good idea to look at it a second time: "Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope." (1 Thessalonians 4:13) Idolaters went to pretty extreme measures during mourning and this is because they didn't believe in salvation of the eternal soul and a bodily resurrection of the dead. Some of them believed in a shadowy underworld sort of existence of the soul. Some believed the life force of a person rejoined the gods or became a part of the constellations of the skies. But they didn't have the belief you and I have that each person's individual soul survives after death and that it remains an individual soul and that it rejoins the body in the resurrection. You and I believe we will recognize our loved ones and be able to walk and talk with them in eternity. This is why we don't cut ourselves in grief and wail for the dead like people who have no hope. The Lord is cautioning the citizens of Israel, and the priests in particular, not to behave as the heathens do when someone has died.
Tomorrow we will move on into the regulations for the family life of the priests and the Lord will tell them what to look for (and what to avoid) when thinking about getting married and choosing a wife.