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Priests and Priesthood in the Hebrew Bible

Ryan Bonfiglio
Emory University

Introduction

Few topics are more central to the Hebrew Bible than priests and priesthood. Priestly perspectives and concerns are on display in various places, from legal materials to historical narratives and from the prayers of the Psalms to the discourses of the prophets. In many ways, the Hebrew Bible bears witness to a community of people whose social identity, religious beliefs, and ritual practices were deeply enmeshed in matters related to the priesthood.

This thematic guide is designed with two purposes in view: 1) to provide an organized, easily accessible introduction to major topics and issues pertaining to priests and priesthood in the Hebrew Bible; and 2) to highlight additional resources, many of which are available through OBSO, which can facilitate further study of this topic.

The following outline organizes the major issues covered in this thematic guide:

  1. 1. Priestly Texts and Sources
  2. 2. Priestly Function and Identity
  3. 3. Origins and Evolution of the Priesthood
  4. 4. Controversies and Influence of the Priesthood
  5. 5. Resources for Further Research

Texts and Sources

Before turning to specific questions about who priests were and what they did, it will be helpful to briefly highlight where one encounters priests in the Hebrew Bible.

Texts

Priests figure prominently in a wide variety of texts throughout the Hebrew Bible. While they are most frequently associated with the legal materials found in Leviticus, priests are also the subject of numerous genealogies (i.e., 1 Chron 6; 24; Ezra 2; Neh 7), narratives (i.e., Exod 32; Num 8) and prophetic discourses (i.e., Hag 1; Mal 2). Likewise, the Psalms emerge from and reflect a priestly setting insofar as they consist of prayers and liturgies associated with Temple worship. In addition, priests were likely involved in the process of writing and editing various biblical materials. For instance, Jeremiah (Jer 1:1–2), Ezekiel (Ezek 1:1–3), Zechariah (Zech 1:1; Neh 12:16), and Ezra (Ezra 7:1–6) are all said to be priests or at least are from a priestly lineage. Although its authorship is uncertain, the book of Chronicles is also clearly written from a priestly perspective.

Sources

Priestly concerns and perspectives are most explicitly foregrounded in one of the major sources behind the Pentateuch—namely, the Priestly source (P) . The author(s) of P most likely come from priestly circles in an exilic or postexilic context. This source, which gives special attention to rituals, worship, genealogies, and cultic institutions, is responsible for much of the material in Leviticus that addresses regulations regarding sacrifices (Lev 1–7), the consecration of priests (Lev 8–10), and ritual purity (Lev 11–6). In addition, P supplies numerous stories about priests, such as the inauguration of the priesthood (Exodus 28–29) and the role of Aaron and his sons (i.e., Numbers 3–4; 16–17). A second source, the Holiness Code or Holiness Collection (H), also reflects priestly theologies, especially as they pertain to ritual and ethical laws. The priestly theology expressed in the Holiness Code, which is contained mostly in Leviticus 17–26, seems to have exerted a great influence over the book of Ezekiel and its vision of a purified priesthood and a restored Temple.

Priestly Function and Identity

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the term priest (kōhēn) is commonly used to refer to an official who was set apart from the rest of the community in order to carry out certain duties associated with worship and sacrifice. As "ministers of the LORD" (Joel 1:9; 2:17), priests functioned as mediators of God's presence and were responsible for the day-to-day operation of cultic sites, whether the tabernacle, local shrines, or the Temple in Jerusalem.

Specific Roles and Functions

One of the primary roles of the priest was to oversee the sacrificial cult. Cultic duties associated with sacrifices and offerings were exclusively the prerogative of priests in part because only they were thought to possess a degree of holiness fitting to approach the holy space of the sanctuary and its altar. In their capacity as "ministers of the altar" (Joel 1:13), priests performed certain rituals, including the sprinkling of blood before the divine presence. According to specific regulations, the priests would burn all or a portion of a given sacrifice. The various items offered at the altar served a dual purpose: they not only were a sacrifice to God on behalf of the worshipper, but they also functioned as provisions for the priests who were allowed to consume part of the grain and animals offerings in compensation for their service. Due to the close contact they had with the sanctuary and the altar, priests had to maintain levels of ritual purity not required for other worshippers (Lev 21:1–23).

Outside of their sacrificial duties, priests also oversaw many other aspects of ancient Israelite life. For instance, priests are occasionally associated with oracular activity. The Urim and Thummim, which seem to function as a type of sacred lot used in divine consultation, are exclusively associated with the priests (Deut 17:9, 12; 33:8; Ezek 15:1, 24; Ezra 2:63) and are even placed in the breastplate of the High Priest (Exod 28:30; Lev 8:8). As a possible extension of their role in divine consultation, priests were also closely associated with discerning God's will as expressed through the Torah (Deut 33:10; Jer 18:18). In this role, priests were responsible for communicating the law and adjudicating legal matters (Lev 10:10–11; Deut 17:8–13; 21:5; Ezek 44:24), though in the Second Temple period, such activity was eventually taken over by scribes. In addition, priests were charged with the responsibility of pronouncing blessings over the people (Num 6:22–27) and overseeing matters related to ritual purification (Lev 11–16; Num 19). The priests also carried out numerous administrative roles, including the collection of tithes, the maintenance of the Temple, and the blowing of the trumpet on festive occasions.

Identity and Distinctions

In ancient Israel, the priestly office was restricted to men from the tribe of Levi. No female priests are attested, but there are several references to the daughter of a priest (baṯ kōhēn). In the book of Deuteronomy, all Levites were afforded the right to serve as priests and as such, they did not receive an inheritance of land (Deut 10:8–9). Deuteronomy employs the term "Levitical priests" (hakkōhănîm halwiyyim) most likely to underscore the fact that all Levites were qualified to be priests (Deut 17:9, 18; 18:1; 24:8; 27:9). Numerous others texts, including Exod 32:25–29, Mal 2:4–9, and much of the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua2 Kings), likewise affirm that all Levites had the right to be priests.

However, a different situation obtains in the Priestly (P) source. P limits the priesthood to a particular branch of the Levitical line—namely, Aaron and his sons (i.e., Aaronides). In Exodus 28–29, only Aaron and his sons are set apart to serve as priests. Likewise, Leviticus 8–9 describes an elaborate, seven-day ordination ceremony in which the Aaronides are anointed with oil and clothed in priestly vestments. In this context, the common Hebrew idiom yĕmallē' 'et-yedḵem (lit: "to fill your hands") is used to indicate that these priests are installed to the position of priesthood and ordained to carry out cultic duties at the altar.

The books of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah also make a distinction between priests and Levites. While the Levites still play an important role in Temple activities, they are primarily assigned to serve as gatekeepers and singers (1 Chron 23:26–32). Only the Aaronides are permitted to perform sacrifices at the altar. Likewise, in Ezekiel 40–48, Levites are also relegated to lesser roles in and around the Temple. In Ezekiel's vision, it is only the Zadokites—descendants of the chief priest under Solomon's reign—who have the right to serve at the altar (Ezek 40:46; 43:19; 44:15). That the Zadokites are separated from the Levites is made especially clear in Ezek 48:11 where only the sons of Zadok are said to be "consecrated priests."

Outside of these controversies regarding the proper lineage of priests, there were other hierarchical distinctions between different types of Temple officials. For instance, in talking about Temple personnel, Ezra 7:24 refers not only to the priests and Levites but also to a group of priestly assistants or sub-priests, including "the singers, the doorkeepers, the Temple servants, or other servants of this house of God." At the other end of the spectrum, the priest with the greatest sacral authority is referred to as either "the high priest" (hakkōhēn haggādōl), or in postexilic literature, "the chief priest" (hakkōhēn hārō'š). Beginning with Aaron, the high priest alone was able to enter the Holy of Holies and only then on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:2–3, 15, 32–34). Throughout the monarchy, the high priest functioned as the head of the Jerusalem priesthood. In postexilic times, the high priest took on increasing political authority and, in many ways, functioned as the head of state in lieu of a king.

In only a few cases does the Hebrew Bible refer to non-Israelite priests. For instance, Melchizedek, although an enigmatic figure, was likely a Canaanite priest (Gen 14:18). In 2 Kgs 10:19, Jehu summons the prophets of Baal as well as "all his priests." Several other references are made to "idolatrous priests" (kĕmārîm) who worshipped other gods (2 Kgs 23:5; Hos 10:5; Zeph 1:4).

Origins and Evolution of Priesthood

As a religious institution, the priesthood was not unique to ancient Israel. Not only are priests attested in civilizations throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, but the root khn, from which we get the Hebrew words "priest" and "to act as priest," is also known from Northwest Semitic literature. While the purpose of this thematic guide is not to offer a comparative analysis of the priesthood in the ancient world, it should be noted that the picture we encounter of the priesthood in the Hebrew Bible, like many other aspects of Israelite religion, was most likely derived from and influenced by the religious systems of surrounding cultures.

Origins in the Pre-monarchical Period

It is not easy to obtain a clear picture of the origins of the priesthood from a straightforward reading of the Hebrew Bible for two reasons. To begin with, different sources reflect different perspectives on when priestly acts were first carried out. For instance, while in J and E non-priestly individuals perform sacrifices at holy places during the ancestral period (i.e., Gen 31:54), in P no ritual acts that presuppose the need for either a sanctuary or a priest are performed prior to Exodus 19. Second, later priestly perspectives and practices are often insinuated into narrates that depict earlier stages of Israelite history. As one example, many scholars agree that much of the material in Exod 25–31 and 36–40, which comes from P, projects realities of the Jerusalem Temple and priesthood back into the story of Israel's wilderness journey.

In light of these considerations, it is best to locate the earliest stage of the priesthood during the time of the settlement. At this time there most likely existed multiple local shrines, each equipped with their own sanctuary attendants. This seems to be the situation in Judges 17, where Micah sets up a household sanctuary and installs his son as a priest. However, when a Levite comes by in search for a place to stay, Micah hires him as a priest in place of his son. Since in this case a Levite becomes a priest (Judg 17:12), some scholars have speculated that it is only during the time of the settlement that the Levites began to take up priestly roles, perhaps because they lacked a claim to land.

Various texts in Judges and 1 Samuel 1–12 seem to associate different groups of priests with different areas and local shrines. For instance, while Judges 18:30 associates Gershom, Jonathan, and Moses with the Levitical priests at Dan, Judges 20–21 links Eleazar, Phinehas, and Aaron with the priesthood at Bethel.

That these associations might have persisted into the time of the divided monarchy is suggested by the fact that the rival sanctuaries Jeroboam establishes in Dan and Bethel seem to be associated with Levitical priests and Aaronide priests, respectively. In fact, the earliest tradition of the story of Aaron and the golden calf (Exod 32:1–6) might have functioned as a cult etiology that links Aaron to the sanctuary at Bethel, since bull iconography was known to be associated with ancient El worship at Bethel.

Prior to the establishment of the Jerusalem Temple, Shiloh was likely the most important sanctuary, as is evident in the fact that the ark was stored there under the care of Eli, a Levite. Yet the exalted position of Shiloh as a sanctuary soon come to an end. Eli's sons, Hophni and Phineas, are said to be corrupt and as a result, a mysterious man of God visits Eli and proclaims that God would raise up a faithful priest to take the place of Eli and his family as ministers before God (1 Sam 2:27–36). While this faithful priest remains unnamed in 1 Sam 2, he is later understood to be Zadok, the high priest who rises to prominence during the reign of Solomon.

Development Throughout the Monarchical and Postexilic Periods

David's consolidation of the monarchy marked a key turning point in the history of the Israelite priesthood. Though the Temple would not be built until Solomon's reign, David centralized the cult for the first time in Jerusalem, a former Jebusite city. In his effort to unite northern and southern factions, David shrewdly chose two high priests: Abiathar (a northern Levite) and Zadok (a southern Aaronide). By coupling a southern Aaronide priest with a northern Levitical priest, David attempted to broker a compromise in cultic leadership within Israel itself. However, this delicate balance did not last. During the struggle for power that ensued after David's death, Zadok backed Solomon while Abiathar backed Adonijah, a rival claimant to the throne (1 Kgs 1:1–8). When Solomon ascended to the throne, Zadok and his sons gained sole control over the Jerusalemite priesthood and Abiathar and his followers were exiled to Anathoth (1 Kgs 2:26). It is generally assumed that these events inaugurated a Zadokite dynasty of high priestly control at Jerusalem that continued through the postexilic period.

Under the cult centralization reforms associated with Hezekiah and Josiah, the Jerusalem Temple and its priesthood gained even greater prominence. However, cult centralization did not necessarily mean that all priestly activity was constrained to Jerusalem. In fact, there is good reason to believe that pockets of Aaronide and Levitical priests continued to minister not only at sanctuaries such as Dan and Bethel, but also at various "high places." The fall of Judah and the destruction of the Temple resulted in many priests going into exile, as seems to be suggested, though surely with some exaggeration, by the lists of returnees provided in Ezra 2 and Neh 7.

Priests continued to play an important role in the life and worship of ancient Israel during the postexilic period. For instance, Ezra, who is given a priestly lineage through both Zadok and Aaron (Ezra 7:1–6), is instrumental in re-instituting the Passover and re-dedicating the Temple. Another priest, named Jeshua (elsewhere Joshua), is said to have joined the governor Zerubbabel in giving leadership to the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 3:2; 5:2). This same figure is named as the high priest in Haggai 1:1 and Zech 3:1–10; 6:11. In general, the high priest took on added significance in the Persian period. While Neh 12:10–11 provides a list of six high priests (Jeshua, Joiakim, Eliashib, Joiada, Jonathan/Johanan, and Jaddua), it is uncertain if this list is complete. In general, the priesthood seems to have increased in size during the postexilic period to the extent that divisions of priests likely rotated shifts in carrying out their Temple service. Throughout the Persian (539–333 B.C.E.) and Hellenistic (333–63 B.C.E.) periods, the priesthood was the most important institution in the nation and the high priest become its most powerful political leader.

Controversies and Influence of the Priesthood

While the institution of the priesthood was subject to certain controversies, it also exerted great influence over the life and faith of ancient Israel and early Judaism.

Controversies about Levites, Aaronides, and Zadokites

The most prominent and persistent controversy regarding the priesthood had to do with whether all Levities could serve as priests or, alternatively, if only certain branches of the Levitical line (the Aaronides or the Zadokites) were qualified for the priestly office. One of the chief ways in which these controversies were negotiated was through competing stories that tried to establish claims to the priesthood in the distant past. For instance, Exod 32:25–29 recounts how Moses rewards the Levities with the priesthood because of their zealous (though violent) behavior against those who had worshipped the golden calf. The story seems to represent one of the primary claims for priestly legitimacy among the Levites.

In contrast, Num 16 affirms the elevation of Aaron and his sons over against other Levites. In this story, Korah, the great grandson of Levi, joins 250 others in challenging Aaron and Moses. God ultimately sides with Aaron and Moses and the earth swallows up Korah and the other rebels. The story concludes with Moses telling Eleazar, Aaron's son, to take the fire censers of the rebels and to hammer them into plates as a covering for the altar so as to be a reminder to the Israelites that "no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, shall approach to offer incense before the Lord" (16:40). Num 17 makes this point even more explicit. In this narrative, Moses gathers the staffs of representatives of all 12 tribes and God tells him that the staff that buds will indicate the one who is chosen as priest. That Aaron's staff produces a bud (Num 17:8) is clear indication that his descendants are the true proprietors of the priestly office.

Zadokite claims to the priesthood are most clearly surfaced in Ezek 40–48. In these chapters, altar service is restricted to the sons of Zadok while other priests, here called "Levites," take on lesser roles. In fact, in Ezek 44:10–15, the lower position of the Levities is described as a punishment for their past disobedience, a view that perhaps draws upon the warning issued to the Levites in 1 Sam 2:27–36. As the true "levitical priests" (Ezek 44:15), the sons of Zadok not only dismiss the Levites, but they co-opt their priestly heritage.

However these controversies played out, it seems certain that a pro-Aaronide theological perspective eventually won the day. In P, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah, Aaronide priests alone can offer sacrifices at the altar while the Levites are relegated to lesser activities. Nevertheless, very little is known about how Aaronide priests rose to prominence during the postexilic period, nor how they, as opposed to the Zadokites, came to control the high priestly office. While such questions have generated much speculation, it is likely that some type of compromise was brokered between the Aaronides and Zadokites. In fact, it is noteworthy that in both the genealogies found in Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles, the priests of the postexilic period are given lineages that explicitly name both Aaron and Zadok.

Influence in and beyond the Hebrew Bible

From the time of the settlement (ca. 12th c. B.C.E.) through the close of the Hellenistic period (ca. 1st c. B.C.E.), priests played a critical role in socio-political realities, from ritual practice to cultural memory, from sacral authority to religious identity, and from political administration to foreign affairs. Priests, and especially the high priest, figure prominently in the literature of Second Temple Judaism and are critical to the sectarian beliefs on display at Qumran.

Despite this influence, or perhaps because of it, priests were occasionally the subject of critique. For instance, postexilic prophets such as Haggai, Malachi, and third Isaiah offer a sharp ethical appraisal of certain aspects of the priesthood. Rather than advocating for an outright dismissal of the institution, these prophets called for a reformation of its practices. An even more extreme critique can be found in the New Testament, where priests are occasionally cast as a legalistic and misguided foil to the teachings of Jesus and his disciples. While it is true that anti-priestly rhetoric can be found throughout the New Testament, it is nevertheless the case that early Christianity was highly influenced by concepts related to the priesthood. For instance, the Letter to the Hebrews reworks notions surrounding sacrifice, the high priesthood, and priestly lineage as a way of articulating new beliefs about the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. Likewise, 1 Peter 2:4–5, Rev 1:5–6, and Rev 5:9–10 all attempt to re-interpret Exod 19:6 in order to develop a theology of "the priesthood of all believers." Thus, even as both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity eventually moved away from the priesthood in their worship practices, the influence of the priesthood is still discernible.

Resources for Further Research


Background Essays


Priests and Levites (A Dictionary of the Bible)
High Priests (A Dictionary of the Bible)
Priests and High Priest (The Oxford Companion to the Bible)
Zadok, Zadokites (The Oxford Companion to the Bible)
Levites (The Oxford Companion to the Bible)
Aaron (Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible)
Priests at Qumran (Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls)
The Social World of Israelite Religion (The Oxford Study Bible)
Public and Private Worship in Ancient Israel (The Oxford Study Bible)
Priesthood, Temple(s), Sacrifice (The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies)
NOAB Introduction to the Book of Leviticus
NOAB Introduction to the Book of Numbers
NOAB Introduction to the Book of Ezekiel
NOAB Introduction to the Book of Chronicles

Selected Bibliography


  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. 1995. Sage, Priest, Prophet: Religious and Intellectual Leadership in Ancient Israel. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press.
  • Cody, Aelred. 1969. A History of the Old Testament Priesthood. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute.
  • Haran, Menahem. 1978. Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel: An Inquiry into the Character of Cult Phenomena and the Historical Setting of the Priestly School. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Himmelfarb, Martha. 2006. A Kingdom of Priests: Ancestry and Merit in Ancient Judaism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Nelson, Richard D. 1993. Raising up a Faithful Priest: Community and Priesthood in Biblical Theology. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.
  • Rooke, Deborah. 2000. Zadok's Heirs: The Role and Development of the High Priesthood in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • VanderKam, James. 2004. From Joshua to Caiaphas. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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