Priestly Profiles: Primeval Priests (Part 3)

In the previous article, we identified Abel as the first priest in Scripture. We noted that his priesthood is only sketchily delineated; we are given no explicit detail of where or how his sacrifice was offered and little indication whether that offering was intended to achieve anything beyond Abel’s own acceptance by God. In this article we will see how in the accounts of Noah and Job the details of priesthood begin to be filled in.

Noah

Noah was a preacher before the flood (2Pe 2:5); after he leaves the ark we find him acting as a priest. The account of Noah’s sacrifice in Genesis 8:20-22 adds a number of details to our understanding of sacrifice and priesthood.

Firstly, the place of Noah’s sacrifice is significant. Noah had stepped out of the ark into a world with a dramatically altered topography. The breaking up of the fountains of the deep (Gen 7:11) and the deluge of water from above had scoured the surface of the earth, leaving soaring mountains and yawning valleys in their wake. The ark had come to rest on the top of one of these mountains (Gen 8:4). Like so many encounters with God in Scripture (see, for example, Gen 12:8; Exo 3:12; 19:3), Noah’s priestly ministry would begin on a mountain top.

Genesis 8:20 is the first reference in Scripture to an altar.[1] An altar was a platform of earth or stone upon which a sacrifice was offered. The Hebrew word for altar means “a place of sacrifice” – the altar and what was offered upon it are etymologically welded together[2] and would, from this point forward, be almost synonymous (cf. 1Co 10:18; Heb 13:10). The altar elevated the sacrifice above the level of the earth in a physical reminder that the offering was to and for God. It was also a reminder of God’s holiness: “the practice of … altar building elevated the importance of respecting God’s holiness and accentuated the necessity of approaching God through the appropriate means of mediation and sacrifice.”[3] Ultimately, a more permanent altar would form part of the tabernacle and the temple, but the pathway of the patriarchs would be marked out with altars, which served as memorial markers of their experiences with God. In relation to Noah’s offering, it is striking that on the face of a world that had been wiped clean, the first structure to be built was an altar.

Noah’s sacrifice is also the first time we read of clean offerings. The account of Cain and Abel makes it clear that some things are appropriate to offer to God, while others are not, but the emphasis falls on the need to give God what is best. Now, Noah’s offering of “clean” animals adds an additional criterion. “Clean” occurs again and again throughout the Pentateuch, almost always in connection with the service of God. The requirement – for people and for things, as well as for offerings – emphasizes the holiness of God and the need for holiness among His priests and His people.

Noah’s offering is also the first sacrifice to be described as “a burnt offering” and the first to produce “a sweet savor” (“soothing aroma” NKJV) for God. Under the Levitical system, the burnt offering was offered by an Israelite “of his own voluntary will” (Lev 1:3). Although it would “make an atonement” (v4) for the offerer, it did not deal specifically with sin in the life of the individual.[4] Rather, it was an act of worship, a voluntary offering of a – potentially costly – sacrifice to God, just because He is God. Because it did not deal with sin, it, like the meat and peace offerings, but unlike the sin and trespass offerings, was a “sweet savor” offering – it offered something for the enjoyment of God. The inclusion of “sweet savor” here leads us to understand Noah’s burnt offering in the light of Leviticus, and to conclude that his offering was not so much intended to deal with the deficit of sin but an act of thanksgiving and worship. In the terminology of Hebrews 5:1, it was a gift, rather than a sacrifice for sin. God appreciated the soothing aroma: an appreciation that is expressed in the promises of Genesis 8:21,22.

The mediatorial purpose of Noah’s offering, while implied rather than stated, is clearer than that of Abel’s sacrifice. Abel’s sacrifice dealt with his own need, but here Noah offers on behalf of his family (and thus of mankind) and on behalf of creation as a whole. The cosmic scope of his sacrifice is indicated by the promises given by God in verses 21 and 22. We see further evidence of Noah’s mediatorial role in, as it were, the other direction, in Genesis 9:24–27. We might be tempted to see in Noah’s words the petulant response of an embarrassed old man, lashing out at an indiscreet son. However, the pronouncement of blessings (Num 6:22-27) and curses (Num 5:21ff) is a priestly function and, in spite of the failure in the preceding verses, Noah speaks for God.[5]

Job

While its exact date is impossible to establish, it is clear that the book of Job gives us an insight into life in the pre-patriarchal or patriarchal era. For our present purposes, those parts of the book that describe Job’s priestly activity are of particular interest.

With remarkable economy, the opening verses of the book offer us a striking sketch of Job’s character. This “man in the land of Uz” (Job 1:1) was remarkable for his prosperity, but what really mattered was his piety. That piety is encapsulated in the way that Job functioned as a priest for his family: “When the days of their feasting were gone about, that Job sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all: for Job said, It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts. Thus did Job continually” (Job 1:5 KJV). The priorities of Job’s life were shaped by his concern for the honor of God and the wellbeing of his sons. There is no suggestion in the text that his children were in any way profligate or prodigal – we are left, rather, with the impression of “uninterrupted domestic felicity.”[6] The sacrifices that Job offered were not necessitated by any flagrant act of outward sin. Rather, they were motivated by a father’s solicitous care for the spiritual wellbeing of his children. That wellbeing was secured by the offering of sacrifices on their behalf.

This offering seems to have taken place in Job’s home – he “sent” for his children, summoning them to the family home. Job also “sanctified,” or “hallowed,” his children. While this might serve as a summary of the actions that follow, it is, perhaps, more likely that it describes the physical cleansing of those who were about to come into the presence of God – another reminder that approach to God requires separation from the defilement of the world. Job’s priestly ministry was a priority for him, not just something that he did continually, unceasingly, but a purpose that caused him to rise early in the morning.

It is worthy of note that, as with the sacrifice that Noah offered, Job’s sacrifices are described as “burnt offerings.” Unlike Noah’s offering, however, there is no reference to a “sweet savor,” and this, along with the clearly propitiatory intent of the sacrifice, suggests that the term is used as “a general term … not in the technical sense of ‘whole burnt offering’ e.g. Lev 1.”[7] That is, perhaps even more clearly the case at the end of the book, as Job’s friends are instructed by God to avail themselves of Job’s priestly ministry: “Therefore take unto you now seven bullocks and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you: for him will I accept: lest I deal with you after your folly, in that ye have not spoken of me the thing which is right, like my servant Job” (Job 42:8 KJV). Once again, Job functions as mediator between God and man, and “the Lord … accepted Job” (42:9).


[1] Though, of course, Cain and Abel may have used an altar, we should, perhaps, be a little more cautious than some scholars in filling in the silences of Scripture. See, for example, Tremper Longman III, Immanuel in Our Place: Seeing Christ in Israel’s Worship, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 15, 17–18, and Tyler Morgan Smith, “The Guardian-Priesthood, the Special Presence of God, and Church Discipline: a Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Priesthood,” (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2019), 40–42.

[2] Longman, Immanuel in Our Place, 16.

[3] Smith, “Priesthood,” 39–40.

[4] Though note the use of the same word in Job 1:5, as discussed below.

[5] Noah’s failure was real – and is still a relevant warning about the dangers of alcohol. It is noteworthy that both drinking wine (Lev 10:9) and nakedness (Exo 20:26; 28:42) were later proscribed as incompatible with priesthood.

[6] David J.A. Clines, Job 1–20, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1989), 17.

[7] Clines, Job, 16.