Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bible in a Year: The Biblical Priesthood

Here is some notes I took for another blog post a few years ago (

One of my div school teachers was the Old Testament scholar Brevard S. Childs. In his book Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986, p. 115), Childs writes about the biblical priesthood, which pertains to these sections of the Bible I've been studying lately. Childs notes that in Ex. 28-29 and Lev. 8-10—where we find much information about the biblical priests—Aaron and his sons are consecrated to an eternal priesthood. Also, the Aaronic priests performed cultic rites while Levites were responsible for maintenance of the tabernacle (e.g. Num. 1:47ff) (p. 145, 150). But, Childs notes, we don’t find that distinction in Deuteronomy, which describe “Levitical priests” who have cultic responsibilities.

But other biblical passages also show interesting variations. Childs cites Wellhausen’s research that we find no Aaronite clergy in Judges and Samuel. For instance, Eli is the chief priest but he is from the Ephraim tribe. When we get to Chronicles, we return to the separation of priest and Levites that we saw in Exodus and Leviticus(pp. 145-146).

Wellhausen explains the discrepancies in terms of the time period of the material. He argued that Ex. 25-40, Leviticus, and Numbers are post-exilic, while Deuteronomy is pre-exilic (i.e., late monarchy, from the time of Josiah) (p. 146). Childs addresses and untangles these issues with a canonical approach. Whatever was the historical development of the Israelite priesthood, it is background history and never entirely clear or recoverable form the biblical materials, and thru resist historical reconstruction (pp. 149-150, 153), “Rather, the post-exilic form of the Israelite priesthood has been made normative” (p. 153), that is, the priesthood described in Exodus and Leviticus, where the priests not only sacrifice but also intercede for the people. Moreover the Levites are set apart because of their “zeal for Yahweh” (Deut. 10:8, 12:19ff, 18:6ff, 33:8ff), in contrast to the Aaron and his sons who worshiped and love Yahweh but also sinned (Ex. 32, Lev. 10:1-3) (p. 150). Meanwhile, the Chronicler depicts the priests and Levites in conformity to Leviticus and Numbers, as we see not only in Chronicles itself but also in Ezra and Nehemiah (Ez. 6:18, 10:5, Neh. 11:10) (p. 151-152).

Childs’ untangling of these layers of biblical tradition made me think of a book I like by John G. Gammie, Holiness in Israel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1989). Gammie provides interesting information about the process of ordination whereby the priest was made holy (Ex. 29). Those steps are worth looking at, as well as the different priestly vestments described in Exodus 28-29). Gammie notes that the priests’ conferred holiness made them particularly susceptible to the uncleanness of the dead, which had to be deal with in prescribed ways (as in Numbers 19, and discussed in Lev. 21); thus the rituals of Lev. 22. (p. 31). He also writes that, in the Torah, Aaron and his sons are so holy that even Moses cannot enter the place of God’s glory; only they and the ordained priests could do so (Ex. 27:21, 28:40-43, 29:29, 40:34-35, Lev. 18) (p. 34-35). But nevertheless, “their holiness is derivative” to God’s holiness, and is certainly not inherent (p. 36).

Gammie notes that “the priestly theology of holiness can be summarized by the twin notions of separation and purity,” wherein distinctions are maintained between clean and unclean animals, as well as by separation of holy persons, holy times, and holy places. Nevertheless, as we know from Leviticus 19, “humanitarian conduct” was a deep part of priestly holiness too, so that the distinctions of cleanness and purity, addressed through ritual, “were deeply rooted in a world view that unflinchingly affirmed that the holiness of God requires a highly ordered and just conduct with one’s fellow human beings, as well as a scrupulous maintenance of personal purity” (p. 44).

Sacrifice was an accepted ancient religious rite that people would have assumed to be necessary. Most ancient cultures had sacrifices. According to scholars, Israel’s sacrifices differed in that God did not need the sacrifices for his own nourishment (some gods required sacrifices in order to stay strong), and Israel strongly connected sacrifice with having a right heart and a right motive. The rituals were connected to true religiousness and morality or else the rituals meant nothing. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Jewish sacrifices came to an end and have never been revived.

Gammie asserts that Leviticus 19, Amos 5, Micah 6, Ezekiel 18, and Job 31 are “high points of Old Testament ethics,” and thus it’s regrettable that Lev. 19 is so rarely discussed in this regard (p. 34). Thus we shouldn’t envision sacrifices only within the scope of cultic rites pertaining to purity (which ended, after all, when the Second Temple was destroyed) but within the overall context of Old Testament concerns for justice, rightness of heart, and service to others (p. 34).

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