The origins of Israel’s royal priesthood are anything but glamorous. From Moses rejecting God five times to Aaron creating an idol while God is instructing Moses about priests, the Levitical priesthood seems doomed from the start. In this episode, discover just how important the failed priesthood is to the story of the Bible.
This critical portrait is going to continue. Aaron’s failure with the golden calf, the failure of his sons––the moment they set up the tent in Leviticus, they blow it. And then we’re going to meet a descendant of Aaron down the line, a guy named Eli, who allows his two corrupt priestly sons to steal people’s offerings and have sex with women in the courtyards of the tabernacle. This is the depiction of the Israelite priesthood in the Hebrew Bible. Somebody’s got an agenda here to tell us that the ideal that the priesthood is supposed to represent is good, but the institution of Israel’s priesthood, from its origin moment, never fully attained to that.
In part one (0:00-15:00), Tim and Jon lay the groundwork for the eventual call of Aaron as high priest of Israel, starting with Adam and Eve being called to fulfill a priestly role within the garden of Eden.
All humans are created by God to fulfill a priestly role, but after the fall of humanity in the garden of Eden only some humans live as priests. To be a priest is to be a “heavenly official,” standing at the bridge between heaven and earth, ushering humans into the presence of God. This is part of what it means for humanity to bear the image of God—it’s far more than just representing him. To bear God’s image is, on some level, to flow out from and physically embody God’s presence in the world.
In Genesis 2, humans are pictured as hybrid creatures of heaven and earth. With the fall of humanity in Genesis 3, the humans are exiled from the garden, and the rest of the story of the Bible is humanity’s quest to experience the blessings of Eden again.
God promises to make a nation of priests from the family of Abraham who will mediate Eden’s blessings to the world. Anyone who blesses Abraham’s family will be blessed, and anyone who curses them will be cursed.
In Genesis 14, we meet the very first priest-king in the Bible, Melchizedek, who blesses Abraham. And later in the story of Abraham’s family, the temple is pictured as a micro-Eden full of priests.
The biblical authors very quickly set up a dire situation in the storyline: Abraham’s family is flawed. In order for them to be the vehicles of God’s blessing to the world, their sins will need to be covered.
In part two (15:00-24:00), the team picks up the biblical storyline in the book of Exodus. Abraham’s family has spent several hundred years in Egypt enslaved to Pharaoh, a man intent upon cursing God’s chosen people.
Pharaoh’s final attempt to destroy the Israelites is by killing all their baby boys, but this plot becomes his downfall. One of those baby boys is spared—Moses, who will eventually lead God’s people out of Egypt.
In Exodus 2, Moses flees from Egypt to the wilderness of Sinai where he meets his future wife, Zipporah, whose father, Jethro, is the priest of Midian.
While shepherding Jethro’s sheep, Moses meets Yahweh at the s’neh tree (the “burning bush”) on Mount Sinai and is commissioned both to Israel and to Pharaoh. Moses objects five times and God answers four times by telling Moses his name, “I Will Be” or “I Am.” (At the third and central objection, God responds by giving Moses four signs to prove to Israel that he is sent by God.)
Moses’ last rejection is climactic, both in his utter refusal to go to Egypt and in Yahweh’s extreme response—the first time God gets angry.
But he said, “Please, Lord, now send the message by whomever You will.”
Then the anger of Yahweh burned against Moses, and He said,
“Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite?
I know that he speaks fluently.
And moreover, look, he is coming out to meet you;
and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.
You are to speak to him and put the words in his mouth;
and I, even I, will be with your mouth and with his mouth,
and I will teach you what you are to do.
And he shall speak for you to the people;
and he will be as a mouth for you
and you will be as God to him.
And this staff you will take in your hand, with which you shall perform the signs.”
This narrative is key, as it introduces Aaron’s role (and therefore the later priesthood he represents) as a divine concession to Moses’ unbelief and stubbornness.
By calling Aaron a “Levite,” the narrator is letting us know this is the origin of the Levitical priesthood. It is not a glamorous beginning, coming out of Moses’ failures. The biblical authors will continue to be critical of the line of Israel’s priests as the story goes on.
In part three (24:00-35:00), the team discusses Moses’ choice to abdicate the honor—leading God’s people from Egypt—that would have been solely his had he not resisted God. Now he will share that honor with Aaron.
“Aaron’s first introduction into the narrative of the Pentateuch comes in conjunction with Yahweh’s burning anger and as a concession for Moses’ apparently faithless resistance to Yahweh’s instructions… Moses was punished for his unwillingness to accept Yahweh’s commission and was likewise denied the honor that would have come with it… ‘The glory of fulfilling the task did not belong to Moses alone, but was shared in part by his brother Aaron.’ The author seems to be portraying the scenario as gradually deviating from what Yahweh initially envisaged or what the ideal scenario might have been had Moses not responded with such resistance.” – Joshua G. Mathews, Melchizedek’s Alternative Priestly Order, p. 83-84
This is a replay of Adam and Eve’s failure in the garden. Once again, God’s chosen representative has failed to fulfill his calling, even in front of a magnificent tree brimming with God’s own life and presence. Moses fails his first test, which is to trust God.
Moses’ actions continually deviate from Yahweh’s directions in Exodus 3-7.
From the start, Aaron fails to fulfill his calling as a priest in the way God had dictated, which results in more suffering for the Israelites.
When the Israelites finally leave Egypt, they meet with God at the same place God first met with Moses, Mount Sinai, and the Lord tells them he will make them a kingdom of royal priests (Exodus 19:5-6). God invites the entire nation of Israel into a new Eden opportunity, to live and work as priests in his presence.
Then Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of Yahweh settled on the mountain of Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. And to the eyes of the sons of Israel, the appearance of the glory of Yahweh was like a consuming fire on the mountain top. Then Moses entered the midst of the cloud as he went up to the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
This is a climactic point within the Exodus narrative. Moses becomes a picture of the human image of God resting with God, calling back to the story of creation in Genesis 1 as he ascends into the heights of the mountain on the seventh day. No wonder he starts glowing with God’s glory!
For forty days and forty nights, God speaks to Moses in seven distinct sections regarding instructions for the tabernacle. At the center of these instructions is a long speech detailing the clothing of the priests. These clothes are only to be worn when priests are fulfilling their “Adam and Eve” roles inside the micro-Eden, the tabernacle.
In part four (35:00-end), Tim and Jon take a closer look at God’s instructions for the priests’ garments.
The priests’ garments are made of white material accented by gold and jewels, many of which only appear in the Eden narrative and in John’s description of the new heavens and new earth in the book of Revelation. The clothes are a trigger to think back to the Eden narrative. Priests represent the new adam, shimmering royal-priestly humans who enter into the Eden space through prayer and sacrifices.
While God gives Moses instructions for the priests up on the mountain, Aaron, Israel’s first priest, is failing God and Israel down below. During those forty days, Aaron creates an idol of Yahweh’s likeness.
The author of Exodus poses a juxtaposition for readers. Priests fulfill a role of demonstrating God’s own beauty and glory, in an ideal world. But Israel’s priesthood is full of compromise (Leviticus 10, 1 Samuel 1-4).
When Moses intercedes with God on behalf of Aaron and the people, he offers his own life (Exodus 32:31-32). Even though Moses forfeited his calling at the burning bush, it’s as if Moses can’t help but be what God called him to be: a shining prophetic priestly intercessor.
Interestingly, the quality of shining appears to be more than just an aspect of the priestly garments. It’s also part of the uncorrupted image of God, like when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain (Matthew 17:2).
The Hebrew Bible is clueing us in to what’s ahead. The royal priesthood of Aaron is doomed from the start. If there is to be a priest who will unleash the blessings of Eden within humanity once more, he’ll have to come from an entirely different line.
Show produced by Dan Gummel. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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