Priesting Aaron and His Sons
September 16, 2020

Exodus 29 gives instructions about how Aaron and his sons are to be consecrated (qadash) in order to “priest” (kahan) before Yahweh (29:1). Like the tabernacle and its furnishings, Aaron and his sons will be consecrated. They will become part of the holy house, so they can “priest” within the sacred tent and approach the sacred vessels.

“Priest” is used as a verb in verse 1, usually translated as “minister as priest.” A priest is a palace servant of a great king, responsible for guarding the palace and person of the king, for preparing and serving meals, for maintaining the house and grounds, for being personal attendants to the king. David’s sons “priested” in David’s house (2 Samuel 8:18). Aaron and his sons are chosen to “priest” in King Yahweh’s house.

How do you consecrate someone to priest? What kinds of tools and materials does it take? The opening verses of Exodus 29 lay out the required materials in a small chasm:

A. Two sons of the herd and two rams, v. 1

            B. Unleavened bread, cakes with oil, wafers with oil, v 2a

                        C. Made with fine flour, v. 2b

            B’. Placed in basket, presented in basked, v 3a

A’. With the bull and rams, v 3b

We know from Leviticus that these materials are the components of ascension (Leviticus 1), tribute (Leviticus 2), peace (Leviticus 3) and purification offerings (Leviticus 4). These are the normal offerings of Israel’s worship, and their use here in a special rite of priest-making suggests a priest-making dimension to sacrifice in general. More, the offerings are brought near (29:3; verb is qarab), just as Aaron and his sons are “brought near” (29:4; verb is qarab). Sacrifice is priest-making because sacrificial animals play a priestly role in approaching Yahweh. Through identification with the animals, Aaron and his sons will be made priests; through identification with sacrificial animals, all Israelites are united to Aaron’s priesthood.

The instructions emphasize the use of a single basket, which holds all the varieties of bread (29:3). Prior to Exodus 29, “basket” (sal) is used only in Genesis 40, where the baker dreams of three baskets of bread on his head, being devoured by birds (Genesis 40:16-18). The baskets are days, the bread is the baker’s flesh; Joseph prophesied that “within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head from you and hang you on a tree, and the birds will eat your flesh off you” (Genesis 40:19). Perhaps we can draw this analogy with Exodus 29: The tribute offerings of bread represent the priests, “anointed” with oil (Exodus 29:2, mashach). As anointed loaves, the priests will be placed in the basket of the tabernacle, to offer Yahweh’s bread, and to offer themselves as Yahweh’s bread.

Once the materials of sacrifice are assembled, Aaron and his sons are brought near for the first stage of the ritual. Again, the text is chiastic:

A. Bring Aaron and sons near and wash then, v 4

            B. Clothe Aaron, vv. 5-6

                        C. Anoint Aaron, v 7

            B’. Clothe Aaron’s sons, vv 8-9a

A’. Thus fill the hand of Aaron and his sons, v 9b

Aaron and his sons pass through the water together (v. 4), but they are distinguished in the remainder of the rite. It is as if the washing splits them, turning Aaron-and-sons into first Aaron, then sons. The washing is clearly a cleansing, but it is also a boundary-crossing, an exodus, an ascent through the watery firmament into the heavenly house of Yahweh. It’s not accidental that the washing takes place “at the doorway,” for the washing is itself a doorway (29:4).

Seven specific items of Aaron’s garments are listed: tunic, robe of the ephod, the ephod, the breast piece, the band of the ephod, the turban, and the crown (29:5-6). The ephod is the key item, mentioned three times in verse 5; everything in Aaron’s uniform is described in reference to the ephod. The numerology points to a creation theme. Aaron is a new creation; Aaron is clothed with creation, wearing animal (wool), vegetable (linen), and mineral (gold, precious stones). A priest is a man clothed in the cosmos, clothed in world.

The syntax of verses 5-6 suggests another dimension of meaning. Five verbs are used: Moses “takes” the garments, “places” four items on Aaron, “girds” him with the band, “sets” the turban on his head, and finally “gives” the holy crown on the turban. (Five verbs perhaps hints at a military theme; Moses is arming Aaron for liturgical war.) The seven items of clothing thus break down in groups: four pieces on his torso, a band, a turban on his head, and a crown on the turban. Obviously, the investiture moves from inside out, from the innermost tunic and robe to the ephod, breastpiece and band. At the same time, the investiture moves upwards, from the middle of Aaron’s body to the top. Aaron is a human tabernacle, his garments like the curtains of the tabernacle and his headgear like the gold furnishings of the Most Holy Place.

Once Aaron is clothed, he is enlivened by the anointing oil poured on his head. Leviticus 8:10 indicates that the tabernacle was anointed at the same time. Both received the oil of glory, the oil of light, the oil that represents the life-giving Spirit. Like Adam, Aaron is first formed (by his garments - the clothes make the man), then receives life in the sanctuary by the breathing of the anointing Spirit.

The garments of Aaron’s sons are much simpler. Three items are mentioned - tunics, sashes, and caps. A separate verb is used for each: Moses “puts” the tunics, “girds” the sons with sashes, and “binds” caps on their heads. As with Aaron, the investiture moves inside-out and upwards.

By the end of this portion of the rite, the text says “they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute. Thus you shall fill the hands of Aaron and his sons” (29:9). The rite isn’t over, but the washing, anointing, and investiture prepares them to undergo the rite of filling. Only those who have been washed, anointed, and clothed with garments of glory and beauty can complete the rite of priesting.

These preliminary rites have obvious connections to baptism, which is simultaneously a washing, an anointing with the Spirit, and an investiture with Christ. Baptism is the ritual entry into Christian priesthood, the sacramental ground for the priesthood of the church.

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