Priestly Profiles: Patriarchal Priesthood

Judges 17 begins the epilogue to the book of Judges. That epilogue comprises a pair of narratives that break the chronological sequence of the book and whose purpose is to make clear the disordered state of the nation when “there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25).[1]

The section opens with the story of Micah’s idolatry. On the slopes of Mount Ephraim, far away from the tabernacle at Shiloh, Micah had set up his religion, complete with “an house of gods, … an ephod, and teraphim” (v5). To serve in this idolatrous shrine, Micah “consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest” (v5). He seems to have been dissatisfied with this arrangement – certainly, when the arrival of a young Levite from Bethlehem-judah offered him the opportunity to upgrade to a more authentic priest, he jumped at it. Even among the many curious details of this distressing narrative, the terms of the offer that Micah made to this young man are striking: “Dwell with me, and be unto me a father and a priest” (v10). Micah’s language seems strange, in light of the explicit mention of the Levite’s youth in verse 7 and the statement in verse 11 that “the young man was unto him as one of his sons.” How could the younger man be a father to the older, and how could he be a son and a father too?

The answer lies in Micah’s coupling of “father” and “priest.” In setting up his idolatrous priesthood, Micah was looking for inspiration, not just to the Aaronic but back to a patriarchal model of priesthood, where a father was priest for his family. We have already seen this sort of family priesthood in relation to Job, and we see it in operation, too, in the lives of the patriarchs.

When we consider the patriarchs as priests, we must note the caveat that the Bible never speaks of them as priests. They did not function as a formal priesthood, they served in no sanctuary, and we have no account of any sort of priestly installation or inauguration. Notwithstanding this, it is clear that they did carry out priestly functions. And when they did so, those functions were associated particularly with altars. The altars of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob dot the pages of the book of Genesis, just as they dotted the territory of the Promised Land. They are a valuable study and have many important and weighty lessons for us. Any sort of exhaustive examination of them lies well beyond the scope of this series, but a consideration of some of their important characteristics will help us to flesh out our understanding of what it meant for the patriarchs to serve as priests.

The Purpose of the Altar

The fundamental purpose of patriarchal altars was the worship of God by the offering of sacrifices. This is implicit in the word most often translated “altar” in the OT, which comes from the verb “to slaughter” and means literally “slaughter place.” The association between altars and sacrifice is further strengthened by the link between Noah’s altar and the sacrifices that he offered upon it (Gen 8:20), and by the detailed instructions given for the offering of sacrifice on the brazen altar in the tabernacle (Exo 27). It is striking that, so far as the patriarchs are concerned, the offering of sacrifices is hardly ever mentioned in connection with the building of altars; only Abraham’s altar on Mount Moriah, built for the offering of Isaac and ultimately used for the offering of the ram, is explicitly linked with sacrifice.

This fact has led some commentators to suggest that altars were not necessarily intended to be places of sacrifice, but rather, that they served as memorials to God’s faithfulness, as expressions of worship and piety, or – a suggestion that has recently gained in popularity – as territorial markers, staking out a claim to the land of promise.[2] These functions may well have been involved in altar building, but the denial that sacrifice was crucial to their purpose “seems a little perverse. … Both building an altar and offering a sacrifice were expressions of faith in the promise and were integral to the worship of God.”[3] Wenham suggests that “presumably only the altar-building is mentioned here because it survived longer than the sacrifices as a witness to God’s promise and the patriarchs’ response.” It is equally likely that the association between building altars and offering sacrifice is so strong as to require explicit mention only when the sacrifice and the circumstances in which it was offered were as exceptional as they were in Genesis 22.

The Pattern of the Altar

Genesis provides no descriptions of the altars erected by the patriarchs. However, the “Law of the Altar” in Exodus 20:24–26 does outline the requirements for an altar, and it is probably safe to project these back into the patriarchal period: “An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen. … And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” It is noteworthy that this passage closely connects altars and sacrifices, but what is especially striking is the prohibition of any human artifice in the construction of the altars. As places of worship, altars were all about God, and anything that distracted from Him was forbidden. Human worship is ever prone to slip downwards, and history is replete with evidence to show how quickly the place where God is worshipped can, itself, become an object of worship. The deliberate crudeness of these altars helped to mitigate against the operation of the flesh.

The Permanence of the Altar

Notwithstanding their lack of ornamentation, there was a permanence about the altars built by the patriarchs. Whether or not they functioned as territorial markers, it is clear that they were monuments in the lives of the patriarchs, marking out their experiences with God. So, for example, in Genesis 13, at a very significant moment of his life, Abram returns “unto the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first” (v4). The permanence of the altar is when we are told that Abram, having left Haran in obedience to the Divine summons, “pitched his tent … and … builded an altar” (12:8, cf. 26:25).[4] As far as Abram’s own comfort was concerned, a temporary and insubstantial tent would suffice. He would move on, leaving no trace of himself behind. But what would remain on the face of the wilderness was the altar that spoke of his worship of God. His example challenges our own priorities, for often we are far more invested in our own comfort and the mark we make in this world, rather than the worship of God.

The Prompt for the Altar

Why did the patriarchs build altars? Although Genesis provides us with a number of answers to this question, there is one reason that is considerably more prominent than any other. Altars were built in response to theophanies. In Genesis 12:7, 13:18, 35:1,7, the building of altars is a direct response to the appearance of God. And that connection can hardly be a surprise. Scripture makes it clear that divine revelation is the cause of all true worship, and so it was in the experience of the patriarchs – to see God was to worship God.

To someone encountering them amidst the wilderness of Canaan, these crude stone cairns or mounds of earth must have seemed entirely unremarkable. But to the patriarchs who built them they were the record of their fellowship with God, and we can scarcely doubt that they were precious to God. For us, these monuments of priestly men are still replete with lessons about our own priestly responsibility to worship the Father in spirit and in truth.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[2] See, for example, Arie C. Leder, (2019). ‘“There he built an altar to the Lord” (Gen 12:8): City and Altar Building in Genesis,’ Old Testament Essays, 32(1), 58-83. and Benjamin J. Noonan, ‘The Patriarchs’ Altar-Building as Anticipation of the Israelite Conquest’ in Miglio, Reeder, Walton, and Way (eds), For Us, but Not to Us: Essays on Creation, Covenant, and Context in Honor of John H. Walton, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2020), 254-275. The currency of the idea of altars as boundary markers owes something to Beale’s suggestions about the priesthood of Adam, and his stress on Adam’s responsibility to ‘dress’ and to ‘keep’ the garden. This is another symptom of the way in which Beale’s approach (unhelpfully) reorientates the concept of priesthood.

[3] Gordan J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 280.

[4] G.K. Beale, ‘Adam as the First Priest in Eden as the Garden Temple,’ SBJT 22:2 (2018), 9–24, 17–18 argues that references to the patriarchs pitching tents should be understood as evidence of ‘the building of small sanctuaries.’ The lack of any real evidence to support this and the clearly domestic role of tents in Genesis makes this suggestion implausible.