What is a Priest?

The Old Testament priests were given a number of seemingly disparate duties. As everyone knows, the priests led the sacrificial worship of Israel; only the priests could sprinkle blood on the altar or within the tabernacle, and only they could approach the altar to turn sacrificial animals into smoke. But priests, along with the other Levites, were also charged with the duty of guarding the tent of meeting (Nu. 18:3). They were to act as teachers of the law (Dt. 33:10; Mal. 2:7) and as judges (Dt. 17:9). They were to be experts in distinguishing clean and unclean, sacred and profane (Lev. 10:10). They were to offer incense, symbolic of their intercession on behalf of the children of Israel (Joel 2:17). The very garments of the high priest symbolized that he represented the people of God before the Lord. The priests administered and managed the offerings of the people to the Lord (Lev. 27; Nu. 18).

What is the unifying element of these different activities? Is there a unifying element? Several explanations have been offered. Classically, mediation has been considered to be the basic meaning of priesthood; priests speak God’s words to the people, and represent the people before the face of God. Clearly, there is a great deal of truth to this assessment. Yet, it is not clear how, for example, the priest’s guarding task is related to mediation.

Others have concluded that guarding is the basic function of the priesthood. James Jordan has suggested that priestly activity involves establishing and then guarding boundaries (Through New Eyes, pp. 136). Indeed, “guarding is the essence of [man’s] priestly task” (p. 134). As Meredith Kline, Jacob Milgrom, and others have confirmed, the guarding task is close to the heart of the meaning of priesthood. Yet, it is not so obvious that every other priestly task must be subordinated to this one. Jordan’s suggestion that priests “guarded God’s throne by leading people in worship” since “people who truly worship God will not disobey Him” seems forced. Certainly, in a “perspectival sense” we can view worship as a kind of guarding. But it is difficult to shake the sense that they are really two distinct activities. Ezekiel 44:16 implies that they are indeed distinct activities: The sons of Zadok would be permitted to “come near to My table to minister to Me and keep My charge [do My guard duty, Heb. shamru `et-mishmarti].” (It could be argued from this passage, however, that “doing My guard duty” is an explanation of the table ministry of the priests.)

If guarding is the central task of priesthood, moreover, it is difficult to account for the absence of any reference to guarding in some texts that describe the basic functions of the Levitical priest. In Leviticus 21:21-23, for example, the Lord excluded Aaronites with physical defects from coming “near to offer the Lord’s food offerings; since he has a defect, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God” (v. 21). Men with defects were prohibited from going into the veil or coming near the altar (v. 23). This law restricted Aaronites with defects from participating in the full range of priestly activities, but nowhere is guarding mentioned as one of those activities. Deuteronomy 33:8-11 lists the duties of the Levites as: using the Urim and Thummim, teaching the law to Israel, and offering incense and burnt offering (cf. 1 Chron. 6:49). These texts show that the Bible can speak of the privileges and duties of priesthood without mentioning guarding.

(Moreover, though the guarding theme is certainly not absent from the account of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16-18, the main issue at stake between Korah and Aaron was not who would do guard duty, but who could “draw near” [Nu. 16:5].)

We can move toward a more comprehensive definition of the meaning of priesthood, one that includes but is not restricted to guarding, by examining the few secular uses of the word “priest” (Hebrew: kohen) in the Old Testament. In the list of ministers of Solomon in 1 Kings 4, we are told that “Zabud the son of Nathan, a priest, [was] the king’s friend” (v. 5). It is not clear whether Zabud or Nathan is being designated as a priest. What is intriguing is that the preceding verse identifies Zadok and Abiathar as the Aaronic priests (v. 4; cf. 1 Ki. 2:35; 1 Chron. 6:12). There is, moreover, no reference in the genealogies of the tribe of Levi to either a “Zabud” or a “Nathan.” They were evidently not descendants of Aaron, yet were designated as “priests.” The connection between “priest” and “king’s friend” is also noteworthy.

Along similar lines, 2 Samuel 8:18 informs us that David’s sons were “priests.” (It is possible that the “Nathan” in 1 Ki. 4:5 is the son of David; cf. 1 Chron. 3:5.) Again, they were obviously not Levitical priests, since David’s sons were of the tribe of Judah. Moreover, v. 17 identifies Zadok and Ahimelech as the Aaronic priests. 2 Samuel 20:26 says, moreover, that David’s “priest” was Ira the Jairite, perhaps a descendant of the “Jair” who settled in the transJordan (cf. Nu. 32:41; Dt. 3:14), but clearly not a descendant of Aaron. Finally, 1 Chronicles 18:16-17 lists David’s officers, stating that the sons of David were, literally, “first ones at the king’s hand.” The word kohen is not used here, but the parallel with 2 Samuel 8:18 is suggestive.

J. Barton Payne has disputed several of these references (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1, p. 431). The word for priest is missing in the Septuagint version of 2 Samuel 8:18, and the Hebrew text itself is garbled. On 2 Samuel 20:26 and 1 Kings 4:5, Payne suggests the possibility that Ira and Zabud were personal priests to David and Solomon. Even if that were the case, however, it would leave us with the glaring anomaly of non-Aaronic priests. What functions would these non-Aaronic “priests” have served? They could not draw near to the temple, so why have them? And, if they were “priests” who had no liturgical or sacrificial functions, then the office they filled was not what we usually think of as a “priestly” office.

Far superior, in my judgment, is the conclusion that, in secular contexts, kohen refers to a high administrative office in the royal government. The use of kohen in reference to Zabud and to David’s sons suggests the possibility that the office of kohen is closely related to the office of “king’s friend.” At the very least it carries the connotation of a king’s minister or servant.

These secular usages are of great help in our efforts to define the basic character of the sanctuary priesthood. Like the secular “priest,” the Aaronic priest was a servant in the King’s house, and therefore a close advisor and confidant of the Great King. This is prima facie a plausible definition of the priesthood. Several Psalms, for example, refer to the priests as “servants of the Lord” who “serve by night in the house of the Lord” (Ps. 134:1) and who “stand in his house” Ps. 135:2). The description of Moses as a “servant” in the “house” (Heb. 3:5) might thus have a priestly connotation (cf. Ps. 99:6). The common description of the priest as one who is consecrated to “draw near” also fits nicely with the idea that the priest is essentially a servant of the royal household. Like the household servant, the priest had authority to enter the King’s palace, a privilege not given to everyone. And, like the household servant, the priest was permitted to enter the house so that he could minister to the king (cf. Ezk. 44:16).

Moreover, the various activities of the Aaronic priesthood can, it seems to me, be subsumed without distortion under this general description. As household servants to the king, the priests did indeed guard the doorways of the palace; the priests were charged with establishing and maintaining the boundary lines between the holy and the profane. But that is not the sole duty of the household servant. Servants are also responsible for cleaning the furniture of the house; similarly, only the consecrated priests could sprinkle the blood that cleansed the defiled tabernacle. As household servants, the priests also served at the King’s table, drawing near to prepare His bread, the sacrifices by fire (Lev. 21:21; Ezk. 44:16). In the ancient near east, household servants were more than manual laborers, however. They were trusted men who advised the king; the cup-bearer Nehemiah evidently had some pull in the court of Susa. So also, the priests had the privilege of advising the King, of presenting petitions before Him in the smoke of the incense. As household servants, the priests would logically also have had the duty of managing the people’s tribute payments to the King (Lev. 27; Nu. 18). In short, if an advertisement for a priest were to be placed in the “Want Ads,” it would bear a heading something like this: “Wanted: Administrator of Royal Household.”

The other dimensions of priestly work — teaching, judging, etc. — also fit under this heading. The true dwelling place of God, after all, is God’s people. Priestly service in the tabernacle symbolized priestly service among the people. As servants of the Lord’s people-household, the priests were responsible for establishing and enforcing moral boundaries, that is, they taught the law and judged the people. The blood sprinkled by the priests did not cleanse merely the furniture of the tabernacle, but the living furniture, the living stones that made up the true dwelling of God. Ultimately, the King’s “hunger” is not satisfied by bulls and goats (Ps. 50:7-13), but by an self-offering of thanksgiving (vv. 14-15). The sacrifice of the Lord is a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:14-17); what satisfies God’s hunger and thirst are living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2), since obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22). Thus, the priests’ duty to “feed” the king and “minister at his table” was fulfilled by leading the people of God to offer themselves as food to the Lord. As household servants, finally, the priests offered petitions on behalf of the household of faith.

By expanding our understanding of the Lord’s “house” from tabernacle to people, we begin to see how we as the New Covenant priesthood can fulfill our priestly calling. The priests of the Old Covenant were representatives of the entire holy nation, representatively fulfilling the calling placed upon all Israel. Their duties and privileges pointed forward to what we, in Christ, have received.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons. 

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