The Hebrew reads,

לֹא יִטַּמָּא בַּעַל בְּעַמָּיו לְהֵחַלּוֹ

There is disagreement between the translations as to how exactly we should translate this passage. The NET and KJV translations advocate a literal understanding of the Hebrew words,

He must not defile himself as a husband among his people so as to profane himself.


But he shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself.

Indeed the word בעל can mean "husband" or "master", so both translations are acceptable here. This however leaves us wondering to whom exactly the bible is referring when it says "a husband/master among his people." To me the oddness of the phrase "husband among his people" rules out a "spouse" as the priest was surely permitted to defile himself to his wife's body. (Furthermore, it is not likely that a husband was not allowed to defile himself to his wife's body, which was closest and dearest to him, but was allowed to defile himself to his sister's dead body). See Gill's exposition for other possible interpretations.

But what struck me as really odd was the NIV choice (and many others) to translate thus,

He must not make himself unclean for people related to him by marriage, and so defile himself.

I do not understand how בעל בעמיו becomes "people related to him by marriage". From what i know, the Hebrew term שְאֵר denotes "relative" whether a blood relative or a kinsman through marriage, but בעל as far as my knowledge extends never denotes "relative". Indeed in Strong's i found that this is the only place where this term means "relative by marriage". But do we really have a right to say that this is the meaning of ba'al here, especially since we already have existing Hebrew terms that describe this type of relationship?

What is the NIV's justification to deviate from the traditional approach and translate it as it does?

Note: Adding other possible interpretations or explaining the methodology of existing translations, given that good support and evidence is provided, are also acceptable here as answers.

  • 1
    Note the translation: But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself. [with the note: Lit. "as husband among his kin"; meaning uncertain] Jewish Publication Society. (1985). Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Le 21:4). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
    – Perry Webb
    May 9, 2018 at 7:23
  • 1
    Then you have the Vulgate: sed nec in príncipe pópuli sui contaminábitur (DRB: but not even for the prince of his people shall he do any thing that may make him unclean). May 10, 2018 at 14:59
  • @SolaGratia thanks. Actually Gill's exposition suggests this as well. The problem is that the prefix "lamed" (to) is missing here (not pollute himself "to" a prince), without this crucial letter its hard to defend such a reading. I'm not sure if the NIV has this difficulty as well.
    – bach
    May 10, 2018 at 17:55

3 Answers 3


The other answers are good, but I'll add a perspective derived from a close reading of the Hebrew.

First, a note on the syntax. To my mind, any translation that runs "he shall not make himself unclean as a [noun] among his people" is hard to defend based on the Hebrew we have, even if the older commentators' Vulgate or Septuagint translations might support it. Here's an interlinear:

לֹ֥א יִטַּמָּ֖א בַּ֣עַל בְּעַמָּ֑יו לְהֵ֖חַלּֽוֹ׃
not / shall-make-self-unclean / a-ba'al / among-his-people / so-as-to-pollute/profane-himself

The only way to read this Hebrew sentence is with ba'al as the subject:

A ba'al among his people shall not make himself unclean, thereby polluting/profaning himself.

Here are the possible interpretations, still leaving ba'al untranslated:

(1) A ba'al (the priest) shall not make himself unclean through his people.

(2) A ba'al (the priest) shall not make himself unclean among his people.

(3) A ba'al among his people (the priest) shall not make himself unclean.

(4) A ba'al among his (the priest's) people shall not make himself unclean.

I'll translate Lev. 21:1-3 directly from the Hebrew to get some context:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו׃ כִּ֚י אִם־לִשְׁאֵר֔וֹ הַקָּרֹ֖ב אֵלָ֑יו לְאִמּ֣וֹ וּלְאָבִ֔יו וְלִבְנ֥וֹ וּלְבִתּ֖וֹ וּלְאָחִֽיו׃ וְלַאֲחֹת֤וֹ הַבְּתוּלָה֙ הַקְּרוֹבָ֣ה אֵלָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־הָיְתָ֖ה לְאִ֑ישׁ לָ֖הּ יִטַּמָּֽא׃

YHWH said to Moses, "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: 'By a corpse he shall not make himself unclean through/among his people, except by his kin, his close relative — by his mother or his father or his son or his daughter or his brother or his virgin sister, his close relative, being that she has no man; by her he shall make himself unclean.

Some observations. One, the referent of "he" is only implicitly one of "the priests"; no clear subject is given. This is the case throughout the chapter. However, a strong sign that it means "priest" is in verse 8: "he offers the food of your God". Because of that, I'm comfortable ruling out (4). That is, ba'al refers to the priest. The only alternative is that the subject switches from "he (the priest)" to "some other ba'al" for verse 4 and then back.

Two, in verse 1 we have "he shall not make himself unclean among his people". This use of the phrase "among his people" shows that it's attached to the verb, not to ba'al. That rules out (3). This is about a ba'al pure and simple, not a relative epithet like "a chief man among the people".

Our next decision is whether he makes himself unclean among his people or through them. I'm inclined to say through because it's one of their corpses by which he would make himself unclean. We might also suppose that the extensive list of family members is meant to be those who are exempted from "his people"; they're his kin, not his congregation, making verse 4 a reaffirmation.

Besides, what would it mean to be "unclean among one's people" that differentiates it from simply being "unclean"? Note that we can't stretch "among" to "in their eyes", for which there's a different expression. We're already stretching it from a literal "in/by" to "among".

That leaves us with syntax (1): "A ba'al shall not make himself unclean through his people."

The final decision is, of course, how do we translate בַּ֫עַל ba'al?

The three main branches would be:

  • chief, lord, master: This priest is the (spiritual) leader of the people. (Incidentally, ba'al is used in the names of many local deities, which might add that spiritual nuance - "regard him as holy" - but that isn't key to this reading.) This seems like the most natural reading to me.

  • steward: That is, the priest is charged with taking care of the people. Compare 1 Kings 18:3 where Obadiah is עַל־הַבָּיִת "in charge of the palace". This may require a stronger connection to ba'al's etymological roots than is warranted, but it does mean "owner" in other places, with the associated responsibilities.

  • husband: I see two possibilities here:

    • A) The priest is figuratively a husband of the people (cp. the Church as the bride of Christ, who is, after all, "a priest" according to Hebrews). Although this seems interesting and also calls up analogies of God as husband in numerous prophetic passages, I think it would be anachronistic to call that the primary meaning — what the author had in mind.
    • B) This injunction applies to the priest insofar as he is also a husband.

Clearly, the NIV chooses this final reading. The logic apparently runs that the author refers to the priest as a husband for one verse, and by implication refers to those of his kin who are related to him through marriage. I'm far from convinced. Or else they have misread the syntax as: "He (the priest) shall not make himself unclean, [as a] a husband among his people." As I said at the beginning, this is unidiomatic in Biblical Hebrew, perhaps even ungrammatical.

Therefore, whichever nuance of ba'al between leader, steward, or spiritual spouse we choose to focus on, I propose reading the verse as a summary or reaffirmation of the end of verse 1:

A leader shall not make himself unclean through his people.

Now why talk about leaders here instead of just "he" as with the other verbs in this chapter? I'm not sure we can know, but I'd guess that this particular statement is meant to be true of priests because they're a subset of leaders: "The priest won't make himself unclean through his people — leaders shouldn't do that."

P.S. If I were a commentator I'd wonder if the whole paragraph didn't basically mean: "Your priest has to stay ritually pure too. He's not going to be responsible for everyone's dead, just his own family!"

  • great answer Luke. +1. However, it would be helpful to add an explanation as to why the priest here (and only here) is referred to as 'baal' (odd term) instead of 'kohen' which is the standard term for priest and is regularly used throughout Leviticus.
    – bach
    May 16, 2018 at 23:31
  • @Bach Incorporated the above into the answer. May 17, 2018 at 5:26
  • Are you saying that בעל is כהן? This is very "extraordinary" translation for this special word that i never see... Since בעל with אשתר were the cnaanians gods that israel should eliminate when they occupied cnaan, and even the letters בעל changed to בשת in order to point how בעל lawer than יהוה - i can't find any reason that the the writer will use that noun in order to say priest...
    – A. Meshu
    May 19, 2018 at 6:20
  • @A.Meshu So does Moses take a verse to say that Cana'anite gods should not defile themselves? On the contrary, though the prophets often use it for gods, ba'al can also be used for the human roles of leader, ruler, possessor, etc., which categories do overlap with priest. I'm suggesting that a priest is a kind of leader. Actually, ba'al can even be used just to name a quality. In Gen. 37:19 Joseph is a ba'al of dreams, Proverbs 24:8 says a schemer is called a ba'al of mischief, Ecclesiastes 7:12 refers to a ba'al of wisdom, and Elijah is called a ba'al of hair in 2 Kings 1:8. May 19, 2018 at 15:31

בַּעַל - owner, possessor ; possessed of, having; So בעל בעמו here can be translated as important/rich/honored man comparing the others. If that true - this sentence can be read something like: "Whom who god blessed him and he got money, should act not like the regular man. Cause if he act like that he will get sick (= won't be blessed anynore)"

Other words and there translation:

טֻמָּא פ' פועל to be defiled, to be contaminated, to be rendered impure ; to be declared impure

חִלָּה פ' פיעל (biblical) to make ill, to sicken


Clearly, this Bible passage is arrived us into an ellyptical condition, like many other passages, unfortunately. In these cases we are obliged to use here the context as the main hermeneutical method. Granted, the pivot word בַּעַל may be translated either 'husband' or 'master, lord', but it seems to me that the reading 'master, lord' - in this instance - is better.

In fact, Adam Clarke wrote (the bold is mine): "A chief man among his people - The word בעל 'baal' signifies a master, chief, husband, etc., and is as variously translated here. 1. He being a chief among the people, it would be improper to see him in such a state of humiliation as mourning for the dead necessarily implies. 2. Though a husband he shall not defile himself even for the death of a wife, because the anointing of his God is upon him. But the first sense appears to be the best."

A sample of Bible translations (in addition to KJV) that read 'being a chief', or in other similar ways, is the following: ASV, BBE, Bishops, Darby, JPS (1917), Nuova Riveduta, Reina-Valera, Reina -Valera-Gomez, Riveduta Luzzi, TS2009, Webster.

As regards the Vulgate, John Gill glossed about the Latin expression used by Jerome: "בעל בעמיו ‘in principe populi sui’, V. L. so Pesicta & Ben Melech in loc. & Kimchi Sepher Shorash. rad. בעל.)."

I've found also interesting what Keil&Delitzsch asserted about this passage (bold is mine):

"The words of Lev 21:4 are obscure: 'He shall not defile himself בְּעַמָּיו בַּעַל, i.e., as lord (pater-familias) among his countrymen, to desecrate himself', and the early translators have wandered in uncertainty among different renderings. In all probability בַּעַל denotes the master of the house or husband. But, for all that, the explanation given by Knobel and others, 'as a husband he shall not defile himself on the death of his wife, his mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, by taking part in their burial,' is decidedly to be rejected. For, apart from the unwarrantable introduction of the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, there is sufficient to prevent our thinking of defilement on the death of a wife, in the fact that the wife is included in the ‘kin that is near unto him’ in Lev 21:2, though not in the way that many Rabbins suppose, who maintain that שְׁאֵר signifies wife, but implicite, the wife not being expressly mentioned, because man and wife form one flesh (Gen 2:24), and the wife stands nearer to the husband than father and mother, son and daughter, or brother and sister. […] The correct interpretation of the words can only be arrived at by considering the relation of the fourth verse to what precedes and follows. As Lev 21:1-3 stand in a very close relation to Lev 21:5 and Lev 21:6, - the defilement on account of a dead person being more particularly explained in the latter, or rather, strictly speaking, greater force being given to the prohibition, - it is natural to regard Lev 21:4 as standing in a similar relation to Lev 21:7, and to understand it as a general prohibition, which is still more clearly expounded in Lev 21:7 and Lev 21:9. The priest was not to defile himself as a husband and the head of a household, either by marrying a wife of immoral or ambiguous reputation, or by training his children carelessly, so as to desecrate himself, i.e., profane the holiness of his rank and office by either one or the other (cf. Lev 21:9 and Lev 21:15). - In Lev 21:5 desecration is forbidden in the event of a death occurring."

  • I think the bible wouldn't become that important trough the days if people won't interpet it diffrently trough the years. When you write something like: "...unfortunately. In these cases we are obliged..." - you clearly miss what hermeneutic is all about (-:
    – A. Meshu
    May 13, 2018 at 17:52

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