The Priests: Keeping Israel Holy
Ancient Israel’s three great offices were prophet, priest, and king. Of these, the most enigmatic to people today is that of priest. However, without the priesthood, the nation could not have existed because only the priests could fulfill God’s foremost requirement: Keep Israel holy!
God told Israel, “No one is holy like the LORD” (1 Sam. 2:2) and “you [Israel] shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). For this purpose God chose Israel as His people “above all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Dt. 7:6). If Israel was to represent the Holy God on Earth, the Israelites had to understand what it meant to be holy—and that task was the job of the priests.
The priests represented the nation before God. They were to demonstrate in their person, dress, and behavior how distinct the Almighty was from men. Even the king needed the priests, beginning with his first act as ruler: “When he sits on the throne of his kingdom, . . . he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites” (17:18).
Because Israel’s neighbors worshiped false gods, Israel needed to regard the true God as unique. Disregarding the protocols of holiness profaned God’s holy name (Lev. 22:32). Therefore, God insisted that all who served Him must treat Him as holy (10:3). When Moses and Aaron failed to do so, they were forbidden to bring the people into the Land (Num. 20:12; Dt. 32:51).
The priests’ garments set them apart from others (Ex. 28:4). In the Lord’s presence the high priest wore a golden miter on his head that read “HOLINESS TO THE LORD” (v. 36) and a breastplate bearing the names of the 12 tribes of Israel (v. 29). Without this sacred attire, the priests were unacceptable to God and unable to make atonement for the people’s sins in the Holy Place; and the high priest was unable to function within the holy of holies of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). Only the Aaronic priests were allowed to see the holy vessels inside the Tabernacle, and the vessels had to be covered before being transported by the Kohathite priests (Num. 4:15, 19–20).
Though these regulations seem strange to us today, we need not doubt their historicity, as have some critics of the Bible. Many doubt the Exodus actually occurred; yet the Levitical priests offer significant proof for the event. The names Hophni, Hur, Merari, Mushi, Phinehas, and Moses require that the tribe of Levi had a real connection to Egypt.1
Archaeological discoveries at such sites as Mount Ebal, Hazor, Megiddo, Khirbet Qeiyafa, Arad, Dan, Motza, and Jerusalem have included sanctuaries, altars, priestly chambers, and ritual vessels. Numerous inscriptions on ostraca and bullae (seals) at Arad and the City of David contain names of people mentioned in the Bible as priests. Ritual vessels discovered in many places (City of David, Ophel, Temple Mount excavations, Kuntillet ‘Ajrud) bear inscriptions or signs relating to tithes received and offerings conducted by priests.2
All of these evidences remind us the priests played a vital part in Israel’s history and that today, as then, God wants His people to be holy (1 Pet. 1:15). Moreover, we now have a Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus, who has made atonement for us and sanctifies us by His grace (Heb. 2:11).
- Richard Elliot Friedman, “The Historical Exodus,” TheTorah.com (tinyurl.com/TORAHhh). The author also explains this point in his book The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2017).”
- For example, see cooking pot handles with ritual marks = terumah (biblical heave offering) in Aren M. Maeir, “And brought in the offerings and the tithes and the dedicated things faithfully” (2 Chron. 31:12): On the Meaning and Function of the Late Iron Age Judahite “Incised Handle Cooking Pots,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 130:1 (2010), 43–62.