One of the most prominent words in the book of Leviticus – based on my word cloud I made and referenced in a previous post – is “Priest.”
Contrary to what the title might suggest, the book of Leviticus is really not primarily aimed at Levites. In fact, the Levites are mentioned only once in a small passage in Leviticus (Cf. 25:32-34). In Hellenistic (Greek) lingo of the days when this book was translated into Greek from its Hebrew original (called the Septuagint) “levites” meant priests.
Aren’t priests and levites synonymous anyway? Not exactly. All priests are Levites, but not all Levites are priests. Levite is the tribe from which a priest can be appointed, but not everyone who is a Levite is a priest. The Levites as a whole do have special privilege because of this though. For example, they are not given an allotment of the promised land, but rather are given certain towns scattered among the tribes (Gen 49:5-7; Lev 25:32-34; Num 35:1-8). They were also given tithes by the rest of the people to live on (Num 18:20-32).
Really, the focus of the book is on priests specifically and not Levites as a whole. But even then only a few laws in the book are reserved for only the priests and no one else (cf. 6:1-7, 21; 10:8-15; 16:2-28). Why, then, is “priest” such a frequent word in Leviticus?
The broader question is what is a priest? We must know the answer to this question before we can answer why it is such a frequent word in Leviticus.
It can be rather confusing to understand what a priest is and what a priest does because of the varied pictures presented in the Pentateuch. For example, Abel (Gen 4:4), Noah (8:20), Abraham (22:13), and Jacob (31:54; 46:1) all offer sacrifices in some manner similar to priests. It is also difficult because of what we may know about priests in our own world from other branches of Christianity (like Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy) or from other world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, et al). Further complicating the picture is the fact that there is clearly a cultural background familiar with priestly things prior to Israel’s development of a formal priesthood in Exodus and Leviticus (Canaanite – Gen 14:18; Egyptian – Gen 41:45; Midianite – Ex 2:16). And out of this broader world of priestly things in the surrounding culture Israel’s priesthood was formulated.
The first direct description of priestly institution is the designation of all of Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Israel is presented as the priests of the rest of the world and thus the priest in Israel is presented as the priest to the priests.
The foremost thing a priest did was create, maintain, and reestablish the divine order symbolized by the distinctions between clean/unclean and holy/common. In a previous post, I said that rituals were a dramatized way of participating in an embodied theology. The priests, then, are the directors of the drama who help teach the script to the actors (e.g. Israelites). They accomplished this by:
- Purifying spaces (Lev 4:1-6:7; 12; 15:13-15; 16:1-19)
- Speaking messages on God’s behalf (Lev 9:22; Num 6:22-27; 27:21; Deut 10:8; 33:8; Ezra 2:59-63)
- Judge certain disputed cases (Num 5:11-31; Deut 17:8-13; 19:16-17; 21:1-5)
- Participate in warfare (Num 3:31-32; 10:1-9, 33-36; 14:41-45; 27:18-21; 31:6, 21-31; Deut 20:2-4; 31:9, 25; Josh 6; Judg 20:26-28; 1 Sam 4; 2 Sam 11:11)
- Guarding the holy objects in the tabernacle (Num 3:10; 18:1-7)
- Collecting and assessing tithes (Ex 30:11-16; Lev 27:1-33; Num 18:8-32; Deut 14:22-29; 18:1-8; 26:1-15)
One of the other primary duties of a priest was to teach (Lev 10:10-11; Deut 33:10; 2 Chron 35:3; Ezek 22:26; Hag 2:11-13) – first the things pertaining to rituals and sacrifices and then the whole of the Torah.
Malachi said there was a “covenant with Levi” where God gave life and peace to the people through the priest’s service (Mal 2:4-5). We must be careful not to paint the priesthood of the Old Testament – as described in Leviticus – as this awful, terrible thing that makes the people miserable. The intention of the priestly service was always to bring life and peace to the people. By the service of our ultimate high priest, Jesus, this is exactly what is on offer for anyone and everyone who believes in him:
Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up. (Hebrews 8:1-2 NRSVue)
Under the leadership of our high Priest we are little “p” priests in service to God, like all of Israel was (Ex 19:6), who administer the life and peace of Jesus to all:
But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted. (1 Peter 2:9-10 MSG)
Lord Jesus our High Priest, make of us your little “p” priests who mediate the reconciliation, love, and relationship that you offer to all of your creatures. Amen.