In Leviticus 21:9 (NIV), the text states

'If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire.'

Why is this limited only to a Levite woman. Does not a Benjaminite woman or Gadite woman also disgrace her father too? Why is the Levite the only one sentenced to burning?

Also, is this penalty a death sentence, or is this a punishment or intended to be (at least partially) a purification by fire which she would survive?


3 Answers 3


The punishment by fire in Leviticus 21:9 is a death sentence. There is no concept of purification by fire for people in the OT.

This law is stated in the context of a chapter that deals with priestly law, not with general law that applies to all of the tribes. Because Israelite society is stratified and hierarchical, there is no reason to assume that the laws specifically stated for one strata should apply to any other. In general, the hierarchy of the strata by holiness and by civil privilege is:

  1. The high priest
  2. Serving priests (with verified lineage)
  3. Non-serving priests, hallal priests and disfigured priests
  4. Levites who are not priests
  5. Members of the other eleven tribes
  6. Converts and freed Canaanite slaves (without tribal affiliation)
  7. Israelite slaves (eventually freed)
  8. Gibeonites (never to be freed, but provided territory of their own)
  9. Non-Israelites (except as noted below)
  10. Egyptian converts (allowed to marry Israelites at the third generation)
  11. Male Amonites and Moabites (not allowed to marry Israelites even after conversion)
  12. Canaanite slaves (never to be freed)
  13. Non-Israelite members of the seven nations of Canaan (to be exiled on sight)
  14. Amalekites (to be killed on sight)

So this is not an egalitarian model of society. Each strata has separate laws although portions of the law apply to all strata. In addition to these divisions, there are divisions within strata such as by gender and by age.

The translation that you have quoted is not sufficiently accurate to provide correct understanding of the verse.

The MT version of the verse is:

ובת איש כהן כי תחל לזנות את אביה היא מחללת באש תשרף

Which means (my translation):

And a daughter of a man who is a priest, when she begins to have relations out of wedlock, disqualifies her father, in fire she shall be burned.

The translation that you quote has the following inaccuracies:

  1. The word זנות, znoot, refers to relations out of wedlock between Israelites in the OT, not necessarily as a profession, so the OP translation "becoming a prostitute" is misleading. "Promiscuous" would be closer. There is no clear criteria for znoot in the OT, so there is a fundamental unclarity in how to apply this verse in practice.
  2. The word חלל, hallal, refers to a defilement, or when applied to priests, disqualification for the active priesthood. It is used in verses 4, 6 7, 12 14 15 and 23 as well as in verse 9 of this chapter with these two meanings, so the OP translation "disgraces her father" does not convey practical outcome of her actions for her father, disqualification from the active priesthood.
  3. The word תחל, tahel, has the meaning "when she starts". This has important ramifications for the validity of the priestly actions that her father might have performed after the start of her promiscuity but before he was officially disqualified. The OP translation completely misses this point by translating it as "becomes".
  4. The OP translation leaves out "the daughter of a man who is a priest" and collapses the translation to "a priests daughter". The seemingly extraneous inclusion of "a man" in the MT text opens the possibility of an interpretation that the penalty would only apply when her father is a man, that is, alive and can be disqualified, but that if he were deceased the penalty would not apply.

The OT is disdainful of promiscuity and relations out of wedlock, but there is no specific punishment. When done for financial gain (prostitution) there is even some indication of understanding that this is a last resort for marginalized women. The death penalty applies only for relations between a married woman and a man who is not her husband during her husband's lifetime. In this case, the death penalty is applied equally to the man and to the woman (Leviticus 20:10), though the case law is not symmetric in that there is no specified penalty for an unmarried woman who has relations out of wedlock with a married man.

The analysis in this post borrows from Dr. Nahum Avraham's well researched and scholarly reviewed monograph Marginal People in Time of the Bible, "Empty", "Impetuous", "Unclean", Homosexual, Prostitutes and Cult Prostitution published in Hebrew by the Bialik publishing house in their The Biblical Encyclopaedia Library series.

  • It would be very helpful if there were at least some texts or other references cited that could be provided to support any of these "claims". Commented Jul 1, 2017 at 23:24
  • @elikakohen Which claims?
    – user17080
    Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 2:09
  • @elika kohen I second this. Lots of people putting out their weird interpretations and you can tell by how they're often unsourced. Commented Feb 10, 2021 at 12:30
  • @AngelusVastator Thanks for the prod. I added the primary source material for my post, Dr. Nahum Avraham's recent publication. Dr. Avraham is a senior (now retired) academic scholar of Biblical text, near-east history and Semitic languages. Most of the material from all of my posts comes either from the Bialik Institute monographs, or from publications of the Hebrew Language Academy. In this case I forgot to cite the source.
    – user17080
    Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 7:39

This is actually limited to only a priest's daughter, and would not apply to the daughter of a Levite who was not a priest. A priest's daughter would have eaten of the holy offerings while in her father's house:

10 ‘No outsider shall eat the holy offering; one who dwells with the priest, or a hired servant, shall not eat the holy thing. 11 But if the priest buys a person with his money, he may eat it; and one who is born in his house may eat his food. 12 If the priest’s daughter is married to an outsider, she may not eat of the holy offerings. 13 But if the priest’s daughter is a widow or divorced, and has no child, and has returned to her father’s house as in her youth, she may eat her father’s food; but no outsider shall eat it.’ -Leviticus 22:10-13 (NKJV)

As a priest's daughter, she would bear greater responsibility for her actions due to her position and due to partaking of the holy offerings.

The penalty is a death sentence, but she was not burned alive. She would have been executed first, probably by stoning, and then her body burned.

In Joshua 6, Joshua tells the Israelites not to take any of the “accursed things” (NKJV) of Jericho when they destroy it. But in Joshua 7, Achan takes some of the things. God then says:

14 In the morning therefore you shall be brought according to your tribes. And it shall be that the tribe which the Lord takes shall come according to families; and the family which the Lord takes shall come by households; and the household which the Lord takes shall come man by man. 15 Then it shall be that he who is taken with the accursed thing shall be burned with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the Lord.... -Joshua 7:14-15 (NKJV)

After Achan is found out, verse 25 says:

And Joshua said, “Why have you troubled us? The Lord will trouble you this day.” So all Israel stoned him with stones; and they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones. -Joshua 7:25 (NKJV)

The command to burn with fire was to burn the remains after the actual execution, thus depriving Achan of a burial. Similarly, the priest's daughter would also be deprived of a burial, with her remains being burned instead.

  • 1
    Upon reflection, this edict is more understandable in the context of Paul's concerns about eating food sacrificed to idols in 1 Cor 8. Clearly sacred, consecrated food was a much bigger deal than we understand today. Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 22:46
  • +1 about eating the sacrificial offerings.
    – Robert
    Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 7:58

The focus of Leviticus 21 is the Lord's commandment that the priests, the sons of Aaron, be holy.

Verse 6 is key to understanding this chapter, with the word "they" referring to the sons of Aaron.

They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they present the offerings by fire to the LORD, the food of their God; so they shall be holy. [NASB]

In Leviticus 22:2, the Lord warns Aaron and his sons to be careful with the holy gifts.

Tell Aaron and his sons to be careful with the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, which they dedicate to Me, so as not to profane My holy name; I am the LORD. [NASB]

Verses 3-16 address the provision of the holy gifts to the priests and their households for food. Since these gifts were dedicated to the Lord, they were not to be profaned by the priest or his family. This is clearly laid out in verses 15 and 16:

They shall not profane the holy gifts of the sons of Israel which they offer to the LORD, and so cause them to bear punishment for guilt by eating their holy gifts; for I am the LORD who sanctifies them.

Verses 4 - 7 show that a man who is a descendant of Aaron may not eat of the holy gifts unless he is clean. Verses 10 - 11 clarify who is a member of a priest's household and therefore allowed to eat his food. Verses 12 and 13 clarify that a priest's daughter who is a member of his household may eat the holy gifts.

If a priest's daughter is married to a layman, she shall not eat of the offering of the gifts. But if a priest's daughter becomes a widow or divorced, and has no child and returns to her father's house as in her youth, she shall eat of her father's food; but no layman shall eat of it.

I believe the answer to your question lies in this issue. A priest's daughter ate his food, i.e. the holy gifts dedicated to the Lord by the children of Israel. If she were to profane herself, she would then profane any holy gifts she partakes of. This was a serious offense before the Lord, as seen in chapter 22:9:

They shall therefore keep My charge, so that they will not bear sin because of it and die thereby because they profane it; I am the LORD who sanctifies them.

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