Filling the Hand
September 9, 2020

To ordain is, in Hebrew, to “fill the hand.” Though in some passages the phrase describes priestly or quasi-priestly ministry, it normally refers to the rite of ordination itself. By the rite, Yahweh “fills their hands in order to priest” (Numbers 3:3) or “fills his hand in order to put on priestly garments” (Leviticus 21:10). 

What does it mean? The ordination rite includes a literal act of “filling the hand.”  Portions of the ram of “filling” are placed, with several grain offerings, on the palms of Aaron and his sons, lifted to Yahweh, and then taken from their hands to be turned to smoke on the altar (Leviticus 8:26-28).  During his initial ministry at the altar on the eighth day, Aaron again “filled his palm,” this time with a grain offering (Leviticus 9:17). Priests’ hands were filled not with the portions they received as payment but with the fat, flesh, and entrails of their table service. With “hands filled,” Israel’s priests were enrolled as household servants and personal attendants to Yahweh.  As Potiphar placed the management of his house in Joseph’s hands (Genesis 39:8-9), so Yahweh filled Aaron’s hands to take oversight of His palace.

At the same time, priests are also recipients in the ordination, so “fill the hand” has a double connotation. Priestly standing is itself Yahweh’s gift (cf. Numbers 16:5), and Yahweh provides the materials for His own service as well.  An exchange occurs, but Yahweh remains the primary and, in a sense, the sole Giver.

Moreover, the rite of ordination climaxes in a meal (Leviticus 8:31), and portions of the ram of filling are sanctified as priestly food (Exodus 29:27-28). Aaron’s hands are thus filled both with the bread of Yahweh and with food for his own consumption. To see this as a purely economic arrangement, however, is to read modern conceptions of exchange into the ancient text. This is a gift-exchange to establish a unique relationship between Yahweh and Aaron.

By “filling their hands” with food, Yahweh invites Aaron and his sons to be table companions; priests eat flesh forbidden to strangers (Exodus 29:33; Leviticus 22:10-16). Because of the rite, Aaron and his sons are no longer considered strangers-- but to what are they no longer strangers? Aaron and his sons begin at the “doorway of the tent of meeting,” where they remain throughout the seven-day incubation (Leviticus 8:33). On the first day of a new week, Aaron passes from the doorway to the altar and then into the house itself. Moving from the courtyard through the curtain, the ordinands are installed in a kind of “naturalization” ceremony as residents of Yahweh’s tent, members of His household, sharers in the bread of God. The rite forges a personal bond between Yahweh and His priests. “Priest” verges toward “son,” “ordination” toward “adoption.” Priests are “sons of the house.”

Another dimension of the ordination is evident in Exodus 29:1, where Yahweh tells Moses to “sanctify” Aaron and his sons. In many passages, the language of holiness is used not of Yahweh but of objects, persons, places, and times. In these contexts, holiness is an objective condition, accompanied by the demand that consecrated things, places, and persons be used or act in ways consistent with their status. 

“Consecration” also brings out a further sense in which Aaron’s hands are “filled” by ordination.  Under the Old Covenant, certain things were contagiously holy, so that, for example, anyone who touches most holy food is sanctified (Leviticus 6:27). By touching contagiously holy things during their ordination, Aaron and his sons gain a level of sanctity that matches that of the furnishings of the tabernacle. With hands consecrated by filling, they can safely lift up holy flesh to the altar, carry holy vessels, touch holy furniture.

Consecration is also in view when, toward the end of the sequence of sacrifices, Moses smears blood from the ordination ram on the right ear lobe, the right thumb, and the right big toe of Aaron and his sons (Exodus 29:19-20; Leviticus 8:22-24). A priest’s ear was consecrated to hear the word of Yahweh, his hands sanctified to be filled with the holy instruments and food of ministry, and his feet to walk on holy ground.

Finally, the ordination rite is a sacrifice. Aaron and his sons are brought near (qarab; Exodus 29:4), like the offerings in Leviticus 1-7. In Leviticus 8, the qahal of Israel is also brought near, gathered at the doorway of the tent of meeting. From this mass, Aaron and his sons are separated, like a sacrificial animal separated from the flock of herd. Before an animal goes to the altar, it is washed (Leviticus 1:9), and so are Aaron and his sons (Exodus 29:4). Aaron and his sons are smeared with blood, and are also clothed with the vestments of priestly ministry. The animal sheds blood, which is smeared on the altar, and then “clothed” with fire and smoke to ascend into the presence of Yahweh. By their ordination, Aaron and his sons are made living sacrifices.

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