Priestly Profiles: Kingdom of Priests (2)

Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Exo 19:4-6).[1]

God’s words to Israel outlined a remarkable prospect for the nation. To be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation was to stand apart from all the other nations, uniquely privileged in access to God, uniquely placed to manifest His character to all the world beside. But the promise of a special status was not unconditional. Rather, its fulfilment depended on Israel’s faithfulness: “if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant.” And that, of course, was the problem, for Israel failed – swiftly, suddenly and appallingly. “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (v8), they declared, and yet, in a tragically short space of time this priestly nation was prostrating itself in idolatry before the golden calf, and the tables of the divine law lay smashed on the slopes of Sinai. As a result of Moses’ intercession and because of God’s promises to the patriarchs, Israel would be spared and the covenant renewed (34:10-28; Deu 15-21), and so Israel’s failure brought about a fundamental transformation in her character as a priestly nation.

Having, in the previous article in this series, considered what a kingdom of priests meant, and what it meant for Israel to be a kingdom of priests, we must now consider a third question: How did Israel’s failure to keep the covenant affect her priesthood – how did she go from being a kingdom of priests to a kingdom with priests?

Answering this question is not simple, not least because Scripture does not draw an explicit line between Israel’s failure and the inauguration of the Levitical priesthood. Moreover, the relationship between the priesthood of Aaron and his sons and the “kingdom of priests” in Exodus 19:6, on one hand, and the fully elaborated Levitical priesthood on the other is not entirely clear – in part because the chronology of Exodus 24-40 is not always clear. Taking account of these factors, it behoves us to proceed with some caution and with due deference about the certainty of our conclusions.

That being said, there are some inferences that it seems safe to draw from the structure of Exodus 19-32. Although it is the case that the detailed instructions for the tabernacle (chs25-27), the garments (ch28) and the consecration (ch29) of the priests, and the golden altar (ch30) are separated from the covenant outlined in Exodus 19-24, it is nonetheless the case that they are associated closely with it and are introduced before the account of Israel’s (and Aaron’s) failure in Exodus 32. This seems to suggest that the priesthood of Aaron and his sons was not introduced in response to Israel’s failure as a “kingdom of priests,” but that it (including the tabernacle where they served and the garments that they wore) was intended by God to operate in parallel with Israel’s function as a kingdom of priests.

It is also significant to note that, up to Exodus 32, there is no mention of a special status for the tribe of Levi. The details of the clothing and the consecration of the priests mention Aaron and his sons – they seem to stand alone in their priestly office. This is worth noting, for “commonly, Aaron’s choice as priest is associated with his origin from Levi and God’s choice of that tribe. But such a reading does not pay attention to Moses’s chronology. It reads the choice of Aaron through the later addition of the Levites, instead of seeing how Aaron and his sons were chosen alone.”[2] The point is well made; if we read Exodus through without any previous conception of how Israel’s priesthood worked, by the time we reached the end of chapter 31 we would have concluded that, as well as being a divinely-chosen kingdom of priests, Israel was a nation with priests, and that those priests were Aaron and his sons.

If we are correct in the view, outlined in the last article, that Israel’s status as a “kingdom of priests” is corporate rather than individual – i.e., it means that she is a priestly kingdom, rather than a kingdom composed of priests – there is no particular difficulty with the concept of Aaron functioning as a priest for Israel, even as Israel, corporately, functioned as a priest for the world. Indeed, in light of the fact that the operation of Aaron’s priesthood is outlined with a level of detail that contrasts so markedly with the very limited information that we have about earlier priests and their approach to God, we might well argue that Israel needed Aaron to show her what was involved in priesthood – as “a scale model of the more important reality.”[3] Aaron and his sons “are intended … to present a concretization of the image of Israel’s royal priesthood, a visual lesson on the ideal prospect set before the nation as a whole.”[4]

Aaron’s priesthood, then, was introduced to complement, not to replace, Israel’s national priesthood. This lends emphasis to the tragedy of his failure at Sinai; even as his priesthood was inaugurated, he failed to represent God properly to the people and led the people in worship that, however we may understand its specifics, was deeply defective. The man who should have led the people allowed himself to be bullied and browbeaten. In the aftermath of his failure, the priestly ministry of Moses is needed, to mediate with God on behalf of the nation and, specifically, for Aaron: “And the Lord was very angry with Aaron to have destroyed him: and I prayed for Aaron also the same time” (Deu 9:20).[5] Moses’ four intercessions with God are a masterclass in prayer (Exo 32:11-13; 32:31-32; 33:12-18; 34:9), and God’s response a rich revelation of His character.[6] Israel was restored to covenant relationship with God, but the dynamics of that relationship had been radically altered.

Part of that alteration was the emergence of the Levites: “Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord’s side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him” (Exo 32:26). Levi’s faithfulness to God, expressed in their willingness to act as the instruments of divine judgement upon their brethren, brought them into a special place of blessing: “Moses said, You have been consecrated today for the Lord, for each of you was against his son or against his brother, so he has given a blessing to you today” (v29 NET). Moses links the elevation of Levi to the death of Aaron: “At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister unto him, and to bless in his name, unto this day” (Deu 10:8). The priestly status of Levi is confirmed when Phineas stands against the sin of the people at Shittim (Num 25), and is rewarded with a divine promise: “Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel” (Num 25:12,13). This recognition of Levi gave the tribe a special priestly status, but that status had as much to do with a loss of privilege by the other tribes as it did with a conferral of privilege upon Levi. Priestly function within the nation was growing narrower and more constrained.

The second crucial alteration in the dynamic of the Aaronic priesthood is recorded in Leviticus 16: “And the Lord spake unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the LORD, and died; And the Lord said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the vail before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not” (vv1-2). The sin of Nadab and Abihu, recorded in Leviticus 10:1-2, resulted in a further diminution of priestly access. The implication of the verses is that up to this point Aaron had been able to enter the Holy Place “at any time.” Failure in priesthood meant that this would no longer be the case, and priestly access before the mercy seat would be restricted to one day in the year.

The Aaronic priesthood was a remarkable institution. In coming articles, in the will of God, we will note some of the vivid object lessons that it gives us about access to God and succour for His people. But though its comparisons with the priesthood of Christ are instructive, its contrasts are greater and more instructive still. Even in its fullest form, Aaron’s priesthood was only ever typical. Through failure, it ended up diminished beyond what God had intended. Thank God that we can look beyond Aaron and his limitations and failures to a Great High Priest who never failed and who never will.

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

[2] David Schrock, “How a Kingdom of Priests Became a Kingdom with Priests and Levites: A Filial-Corporate Understanding of the Royal Priesthood in Exodus 19:6,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 23.1 (2019), 27.

[3] Andrew S. Malone, God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of Priesthood, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Apollos, 2017), 130.

[4] John A. Davies, A Royal Priesthood: Literary and Intertextual Perspectives on an Image of Israel in Exodus 19.6 (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 139.

[5] See article 7 in this series.

[6] For a detailed discussion of these passages see W. Ross Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known: The Missionary Heart of the Book of Exodus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2018), 168–85.