Old Testament Priesthood . The primary word for "priest" in the Old Testament is the Hebrew masculine noun kohen [ Kings 23:4-20
9 ; 2 Kings 10:11,19
). Related terms are the verb kahan [ Exodus 29:9
; 40:15 ; Deuteronomy 18:5-8
; 18:1,7 ; 1 Samuel 2:36
; Ezra 2:62
; Nehemiah 7:64
; 13:29 , ; referring to the exclusivity, perpetuity, and responsibility of the Aaronic office of "priesthood" cf. Numbers 16:10
; for Korah's rebellion against the Aaronic exclusivity, and Joshua 18:7
; for the "priesthood" of the tribe of Levi as a whole), and the Aramaic masculine noun kahen [ 2 Kings 23:5
; Hosea 10:5
; Zephaniah 1:4
) referring exclusively to priests of foreign gods.
The first occurrence of "priest" in the Old Testament is the reference to the pre-Israelite "Melchizedek king of Salem priest of God Most High" (Leviticus 6:12-13
). Jethro, Moses' father-in-law and the priest of Midian, was also recognized as non-Israelite priest of the true God of Sinai by Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel (Exodus 2:16
; 3:1 ; 18:1,10-12 ).
Priests of foreign gods in foreign lands referred to in the Old Testament are Potiphera, Joseph's father-in-law, who was a "priest of On" in Egypt (Genesis 41:45,50
; 46:20 ), the whole priestly organization in Egypt (Genesis 47:22,26
), the "priests of Dagon" in Philistia (1 Samuel 5:5
; 6:2 ), the "priests of Chemosh" in Moab (Jeremiah 48:7
), and the "priests of Malcam" in Ammon (Jeremiah 49:3
). Unfortunately, there were also priests of foreign gods who practiced their priesthood within the boundaries of Israel, sometimes even under the auspices of certain unfaithful Israelite rulers (see, e.g., 2 Kings 10:11,19
, 23 ; 23:5 ).
Second Leviticus 8:30
0 lists five categories of priests that existed in ancient Israel before Josiah's reformation, and arranges them according to their proximity to the Jerusalem temple: (1) the high priest (v. 4), (2) the second-order priests (v. 4), (3) the idolatrous priests in the cities of Judah and in the area surrounding Jerusalem (v. 5); (4) the priests of the high places in the cities of Judah from Geba to Beersheba (vv. 8-9); and (5) the priests of the high places in Samaria (i.e., the remnants of the priests of the former northern kingdom, v. 20). According to this passage, a significant feature of Josiah's religious reformation was his eradication of all priests (and their cultic accouterments) except those who functioned legitimately within Jerusalem temple. Therefore, only the first two categories of priests in 2 Kings 23 retained their office: the "high priest" (v. 4, here Hilkiah) and "the priests of the second order" (v. 4; i.e., other descendants of Aaron).
A Kingdom of Priests . One of the foundational principles of the Israelite covenant with God at Sinai was that the nation as a whole would become "a kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6
a). There have been many proposed interpretations of this expression. Some say that it refers to Israel as a kingdom ruled by priests or a nation whose kings are also priests. In the immediate context as well as in the theology of the Old Testament overall, however, this expression seems to support two main ideas corresponding to the surrounding statements that covenant Israel would become the Lord's "special treasure" and "holy nation" (Exodus 19:5
b, 6 b).
First, the closest Old Testament parallel is Isaiah 61:6
), which designates the nation of Israel as the priestly mediators for all the nations of the world when they come to worship the Lord on Mount Zion in the eschatological future. This seems to be part of the intended meaning in Exodus 19:5
b-6 a as well, since Israel was to become the Lord's special treasure among all the peoples. "Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests" (in Hebrew the "you" is emphatic, contrasting Israel with the other nations).
Second, the covenant ratification ritual in Exodus 24:3-8
actually inaugurated Israel as a "kingdom of priests, " that is, a nation that had direct access to God through his presence in the tabernacle and to which they would come and worship. The ritual procedure itself involved splashing the blood of the burnt and peace offerings (v. 5) both on the altar (v. 6) and on the people (v. 8). There is a striking similarity between this ritual in Exodus 24 and the consecration of the Aaronic priests by putting some of the blood of the ordination peace offering on the right ear, thumb, and big toe of Aaron and his sons, and afterwards splashing some of it around on the altar ( Exodus 29:20
; Leviticus 8:23-24
That differences between Exodus 24:5-8
and Exodus 29:20
are due primarily to one or both of the following factors: (1) the consecration in Exodus 24 was for the priesthood of the whole nation so that the corporate general splashing of blood was appropriate to the meaning of the ritual; and (2) in the instance of Exodus 24 specific touching of each person's body by Moses was precluded by the large number of people involved. Moreover, the connection between Exodus 24,29 is confirmed by the blood manipulation for the guilt offering used to cleanse the leper in Leviticus 14 (presumably the same for all lepers whether or not they were priests). The procedure there is virtually identical to that performed for the consecration of the priests.
The rationale seems to have been that since the leper had been expelled (i.e., desecrated) from the "holy"' community (Leviticus 13:46
), therefore, it was necessary to resanctify him (i.e., make him holy once again) and thereby readmit him to the national community that had originally been established as a consecrated community by the ritual in Exodus 24 . The manipulation of oil in the case of the leper (Leviticus 14:15-18
) also corresponds to priestly consecration procedures (cf. Exodus 29:21
; and 1618450642_5 ) and further substantiates this suggestion that, from the start (i.e., from Exodus 24 forward), the whole nation was a "kingdom of priests"—they were "a holy people" ( Exodus 19:6
, immediately following "a kingdom of priests" ).
Finally, the cult granted the entire nation the privilege of eating at the Lord's table on regular occasions in accordance with the peace offering regulations in Leviticus 3,7:11-34 . Therefore, Israel was to be a "kingdom of priests" in terms of its corporate participation in the service of worship to the Lord in the sanctuary (Exodus 24:3-8
) as well as in its position and ministry toward the nations roundabout them (Isaiah 61:6
The Aaronic Priesthood . Moses functioned as the original priest of Israel by initially consecrating (1) the whole kingdom of priests (Exodus 24:3-8
), (2) the perpetual priesthood of Aaron and his descendants, who would in turn mediate for that kingdom of priests (Exodus 29 ; Leviticus 8 ), and (3) the tabernacle (Numbers 7:1
). However, there are several passages that seem to indicate that Aaron and his sons functioned as priests in Israel even before the official consecration of the Aaronic priesthood (Exodus 19:24
; 24:1 ; 32:3-6 ). Of course, as brothers and sons of Amram and Jochebed (Exodus 6:20
) Moses and Aaron were both from the tribe of Levi through Kohath. Therefore, it was natural that the Lord should then choose the whole tribe of Levi to assist the clan of Aaron with all their priestly duties in place of the firstborn of all Israel (Numbers 8:14-19
So, although the entire nation constituted "a kingdom of priests, " the Lord established Aaron's descendants as the perpetual priestly clan in Israel. Together they were responsible for maintaining the proper relationship of the people to Lord in regard to the two major foci of the Mosaic covenant: (1) the administration and ministry of the sanctuary and (2) the custody and administration of the law of Moses.
The Administration and Ministry of the Sanctuary . The ministry of priesthood focused especially on administering and ministering at the place of the Lord's "Presence" (see esp. Exodus 33:14-15
; Leviticus 10:2
) according to the basic principles of holy versus profane (Leviticus 6:8-7
a), clean versus unclean (v. 10b), and atonement (v. 17). Following these rules and procedures was a matter of survival for the nation in general (Leviticus 15:31
b, "so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them" cf. Exodus 32:35
; 33:2-3,14-15 ) as well as for the priests in particular (see the death of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 ).
It was not just the sons of Aaron but the whole tribe of Levi who were responsible for maintaining proper levels of sanctity and purity in regard to the sanctuary presence of the Lord as a whole (Numbers 18:1
, your sons and your father's family
are to bear the responsibility for offenses against the sanctuary" note the clarification regarding the Levites in Numbers 18:2-6
; and cf. Numbers 3:10
Initially, the duties of the Levites in assisting the priests focused on such tasks as the transportation of the tabernacle (see, e.g., Numbers 3-4 ; Numbers 28:9-10
4 ) and guarding the doorway to the tabernacle (see, e.g., 1 Chronicles 9:19,22
-27 ). David assigned them other tasks in assisting the priests within the sanctuary (e.g., purification procedures, preparing the showbread and other grain offerings, leading in the praising of the Lord through song, special responsibilities for festival burnt offerings, etc., 1 Chronicles 23:27-32
; 1 Chronicles 25:1-8
). The importance of the Levites in the priestly functions of the sanctuary are well illustrated by their involvement in the reforms of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29-31 ) and Josiah (2 Chronicles 34:9
; 35:10-15 ).
On the other hand, although the Levites assisted the priests, it was the priests alone, Aaron and his descendants (no other Levites), who were responsible for dealing directly with the burnt offering altar or anything inside the Holy Place or Holy of Holies (Numbers 18:1
First, they had the oversight of the various offerings and sacrifices in the tabernacle, certain specific responsibilities regarding the actual handling of the blood, fat, flesh, and special portions, and the benefit of certain parts of the offerings as their payment for performing the requisite rituals. The priestly responsibilities and prerogatives for each of the major ritual procedures is prescribed in detail in Leviticus 10:10
There were also daily, weekly, monthly, and periodic festival offerings that the priests were responsible to offer as part of the regular pattern of tabernacle worship (Numbers 28-29 ). Regular daily responsibilities included keeping the lamps burning continually in the tent of meeting by attending to them each evening and morning (Leviticus 24:3-4
; cf. Exodus 27:20-21
), and keeping the fire continually burning on the burnt offering altar as part of the regular morning and evening burnt offering rituals (Deuteronomy 21:1-9
; cf. Numbers 28:3-8
). Weekly responsibilities included replacing the twelve cakes of the "bread of presence" on the table in the tent of meeting each sabbath (Leviticus 24:5-9
; cf. Exodus 25:30
), and the regular additional Sabbath burnt offerings (1618450642_40 ).
At the special festival times the priests had specific responsibilities in handling the offerings brought by the people (Leviticus 23:9-21,25,36
-38 ). In addition to the normal regulations for offering sacrifices and offerings the priests were in charge of the valuation for the redemption of vows and things consecrated to the Lord (Leviticus 27 ), the oversight of the sin offering for jealousy (Numbers 5:11-31
), and the regulations for the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:1-21
). They also blew the trumpets in Israel for summoning and directing the congregation and its leaders in their travels (Numbers 10:2-6
), convening the congregation (Numbers 10:7-8
), blowing the alarm in battle (10:9), or on worship and festival occasions (10:10).
Second, the Aaronic priests were responsible to maintain the sanctity and purity of the sanctuary (Leviticus 10:10
). Since the Lord was physically present within the physical tabernacle structure in their midst, therefore, the physical purity of Israel was essential to the habitation of the Lord among them (note the contrast between cleansing the "flesh" by the Old Testament sacrifices as opposed to the cleansing of the "conscience" by the sacrifice of Christ in Hebrews 9:8-10,13
-14 ). They were to accomplish this by teaching the people the laws of purity (Leviticus 11:46
; 12:7 ; 13:59 ; 14:57 ; 15:32 ) and by functioning as the regulators of certain aspects of the society based on those rules.
Sometimes this involved presiding over certain specified sacrificial cleansing procedures on irregular occasions: for example, the burnt and sin offering rituals for the woman after childbirth (Leviticus 12:6-8
), the combination of two bird, guilt, sin, and burnt offering rituals for the cleansing of the leper (Leviticus 14:4-20
), the sin and burnt offering rituals for the man or woman with an irregular discharge (Leviticus 15:13-15,25
-30 ), and the preparation of the ashes of the red heifer for purification for touching a dead corpse (Numbers 19:1-10
). In addition, they diagnosed and regulated the expulsion and readmission of people with infectious skin diseases (Leviticus 13 ; cf. the cleansing procedures in Leviticus 14 referred to above), and were responsible to preside over the removal of bloodguiltiness for an unsolved homicide in the land ( Deuteronomy 21:1-9
, esp. v. 5 ).
The Custody and Administration of the Mosaic Law . Leviticus 10:10
relates primarily to issues of "the holy and the common" and "the unclean and the clean." The next verse introduces the matter of administration of the Mosaic law: "you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses" (10:11). Deuteronomy 21:5
is particularly instructive regarding these responsibilities of the priests: "The priests, the sons of Levi" were charged to "pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord and to decide all cases of dispute and assault." The standard priestly blessing formula found in Numbers 6:24-26
was given as a means of invoking the name of the Lord upon the nation so that he might bless them in their various endeavors ( Genesis 14:18
). This may have been particularly important in situations where there was a need to clear the nation of guilt, in this case bloodguiltiness for an unsolved homicide (Numbers 6:27