Priests to the Nations

Israel was supposed to be a priest to the nations (Ex. 19:6). Her water would cause their trees to grow. This was signified to all men when Israel came out of Egypt, for “then they came to Elim, where they were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters” (Ex. 15:27). Seventy is the number of the nations of the world (Gen. 10). Israel, at the Feast of Tabernacles, sacrificed seventy bulls for the nations of the world, a substitutionary atonement for them offered by the priestly nation on their behalf (Numbers 28:13-32; Haggai 2:1-9; Zechariah 14:16-21).

When Israel was reconstituted at Mount Sinai, a more elaborate system of priesthood was set up. All male Israelites continued to be priests to the nations. Thus, all were circumcised as a rite of initiation, and all dressed in special priestly garb (Num. 15:37-41). Yet, within Israel there were those who were priests to Israel; these were the Levites. And within the Levites were a closer circle of priests, the house of Aaron. And within the house of Aaron was the High Priest, with whom was the “covenant of peace” (Num. 25:12). Shall we say that because the covenant of peace was peculiarly with the High Priest, therefore there was no peace for anyone else? Not at all. Rather, peace came to them all because of their alliance with the High Priest. Similarly, blessings came to the nations because of their alliances with the priestly nation of Israel.

Each of these concentric circles of priesthood was marked by rites of initiation, special clothing, special dwelling places, and the like. Compared to the Levites, the Israelites were not priests but laymen. Compared to the Aaronic house, the Levites were not priests but laymen. Compared to the High Priest, the Aaronic house were not priests but laymen. We do not draw from this the notion that those outside a given circle were unsaved. Similarly, we may not draw the conclusion that uncircumcised gentiles could not be saved in the Old Covenant.

I want to touch on two aspects of this: the land, and the holy meal. First, concerning the land: When Israel entered the land, it was parceled out completely to the families of Israel (Lev. 25). Even if a family sold its land, it would revert to its original owner in the Year of Jubilee. What this means is that no gentile could ever hold property in the land of Israel. Gentiles were excluded from proximity to the Temple, by Divine law. Thus, the law actually reinforced the Eden/Havilah duality, by requiring converted persons who were not of the seed of Abraham to remain “strangers” in the land, or to live outside the land altogether. We shall return to this in a moment.

Second, concerning the holy meal: Only the house of Aaron might eat of the showbread in the Tabernacle/Temple (Lev. 24:9). Similarly, only they might eat certain of the sacrifices (Lev. 22:10ff.). Did this mean that they and they alone were saved? Not at all. The same kinds of provisions pertained to Israel as a nation of priests. They were not allowed to eat “unclean” beasts or anything that had died of itself (Lev. 11; Dt. 14). Yet, they might give it to strangers to eat (Dt. 14:21). Did this mean that only Israelites were saved? Not at all. The provision had to do with their priestly calling.

Now, concerning Passover: In order for a stranger to eat Passover, he had to circumcise himself and his household (Ex. 12:45-49). If he did so, he became “like a native of the land”(v. 48). We are so accustomed to connecting Passover with the Lord’s Supper that it seems strange to consider that perhaps Passover was only for the priestly people, but such was the case. Converted gentiles were not to eat of it unless they were circumcised, and thereby were incorporated into the seed line of Abraham. Did this exclude them from salvation? No, it only excluded them from priestly duties. Did it make them second class citizens? Only in the eyes of the Pharisees. Biblically speaking, their downstream cultural labors in Havilah were just as important as Israel’s sanctuary task. After all, if everyone had become an Israelite, then who would mine the gold of Havilah? Who would bring it to the sanctuary? Israel had its task, and the converted nations had theirs.

Passover was not a sign of salvation, but of coming salvation. Passover constituted Israel a “peculiar” people, particularly redeemed by God, and given a special priestly task. How were the gentiles related to Passover? By watching it, and putting faith in it. Someday, according to the promise of the covenant, they would be let in the House. For now, they were to stand at the doors and windows and look in. They watched the peculiar people eat the Passover, and they trusted that God would save them as well. They watched the peculiar priestly people circumcise their children, and they trusted that the benefits of that act were theirs as well.

Passover was not only a sacrifice, but a sacrament. The eating of sacrament is a sanctuary privilege. The fact that only the elders of Israel ate with God in Exodus 24:11 does not mean that the rest of Israel was unsaved; rather, all were counted as eating in the persons of their representatives. Similarly, the fact that converted gentiles did not eat Passover did not mean they were unsaved. They were counted as eating it, because their Israelite representatives ate it.

Here in elaborate form is the principle of exclusion. There are degrees of exclusion, and of inclusion, but the message of this entire system of inclusions and exclusions is this: Man rebelled, and is not fit to sit enthroned as sabbath lord, priest and king. The fact that gentiles did not eat Passover did not exclude them from eternal salvation, any more than the fact that Israel did not receive manna on the sabbath day excluded them from eternal salvation. Rather, the exclusions were pedagogical in intention.

Thus, we find no notice of circumcision’s being performed on any gentile converts. Jethro was not circumcised. Naaman the Syrian was not circumcised. Jonah did not circumcise the Ninevites. In the New Testament era, the God-fearing gentiles were not circumcised (Acts 10:1,2 with 11:3). Note the two categories in Acts 13:16,26: men of Israel and sons of the family of Abraham on the one hand, and those who fear God (gentile converts) on the other.

Now we can look back at the land, and raise a question: If the stranger might circumcise his household and eat of the Passover, and be counted as one born in the land, where could he dwell? All the land had been parceled out. The answer is: in the towns (Ex. 20:10; Dt. 5:14; 14:21; etc). Just as the Levitical cities formed places of refuge for the fleeing Israelite (Num. 35), so the general towns in Israel formed places of refuge for the stranger (Dt. 23:15f.). When the High Priest died, the land was cleansed, and Israelites might leave the Levitical cities and live in the land again. Similarly, by extension, the death of Jesus Christ for the world made it possible for the stranger to return to his own land, a refugee no longer. Alternatively, a stranger might find an Israelite to adopt him into his clan. In that case, the stranger became an Israelite, and clearly belonged at Passover. The stranger who remained in the towns, however, might not be circumcised at all. He was still under the law, and had to observe the Sabbath as well as being supported by the tithe and invited to the Feast of Tabernacles, as the verses cited in the preceding paragraph demonstrate. The word for “town” is literally “gate,” and such persons came to be known as “proselytes of the gate,” converted but uncircumcised.

The complex of special land, special clothing, special food, special task, is found with the Levites over against the laymen in Israel. The same complex is found with Israel over against converted laymen among the nations. There is, thus, no reason to suppose that converted gentiles had any business practicing either circumcision or Passover. All this was to change radically with the coming of the New Covenant.

What emerges from all this is rather complicated. We can lay it out as a series of propositions as follows:

  1. The High Priest acted as priest to the house of Aaron, the Levites, Israel, and the nations.
  2. The house of Aaron, including preeminently the High Priest, acted as priests to the Levites, Israel, and the nations.
  3. The Levites, including the house of Aaron and the High Priest, acted as priests to Israel and the nations.
  4. Israel, including the Levites, the house of Aaron, and the High Priest, acted as priests to the other nations.

From all this we can see that the law was designed to make plain that people were always excluded from the sanctuary before the coming of Christ. For their own good, Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden. Just as the Lord’s Supper causes the faithless to become sick and die, so the Tree of Life would have caused Adam to die had he eaten of it. Thus, for his own good Adam was prevented from eating the sacrament.

The various laws of boundary in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers simultaneously show the privileges of various classes, and also the exclusion of others from these privileges. The gentile convert was excluded from living near the central sanctuary, and he was excluded from Passover, etc. The ordinary Israelite was excluded from the Temple areas. The Aaronic priests were excluded from the holy of holies. The High Priest was also excluded from the holy of holies, except for once a year.

All were excluded from the sabbath. This sounds strange, because they were commanded so strictly to keep the sabbath. The Israelite layman was not, however, permitted to draw into God’s sanctuary presence, as we have just seen. The Aaronic priests, who could come close to God’s presence, were forbidden to drink wine (Lev. 10:9), whereas in the New Covenant the wine of celebration is commanded for sabbath observance. As I have written elsewhere, “One of the most important tasks of the priesthood was to exclude Israel from God, to guard His holy places from defilement. The priests were like cherubim, guarding the door of Eden; and indeed, cherubim were embroidered on all the doors of the Tabernacle. The prohibition against alcohol was a sign to Israel that they had not come to sabbath in the final ‘sense, and the inclusion of alcohol in the Lord’s Supper is a sign that in the New Covenant the Church has come to that sabbath in Christ, for He has completed man’s task.”

Thus, Israel was never really and fully able to serve as priests to the nations. Nor was the High Priest able really and fully to serve as priest to Israel and to the world. This whole system was inadequate due to sin, and served as an elaborate prophetic witness to the coming of the Second Adam.

James Jordan is Scholar-in-Residence at Theopolis

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