Priestly Profiles: Aaronic Priesthood (1)

It has taken longer than an indulgent editor or the long-suffering readers might reasonably have expected, but our survey of biblical priesthood has eventually arrived at the Aaronic priesthood. Though it is not the terminus of our journey, this will be a very important stop, for Aaron and the Aaronic priesthood are fundamental to our understanding of the concept of priesthood as a whole. The features of that priesthood are elaborated to a degree that goes far beyond the minimal details provided about earlier priests, and Aaron’s priesthood is paradigmatic, not only for our understanding of the priests that preceded Aaron, but also for our appreciation of Christ’s priesthood, as demonstrated by the attention paid to it by the writer to the Hebrews.[1]

Because Aaron’s priesthood is so important and because its different aspects are recorded in such detail, any kind of comprehensive treatment would be impossible within the confines of this series. In any case, there is no shortage of helpful treatments of the various aspects of Aaron’s priesthood: the Tabernacle, the offerings, and the garments of the High Priest have all been examined and expounded in detail. With the more specific parameters of this series in mind, we will need to omit much of the detail and focus on the central aspects of Aaron’s priesthood: the sanctuary where it operated, the garments that it involved, the consecration that inaugurated it, and the service that it entailed. Like the writer to the Hebrews, we will find much “of which we cannot now speak particularly” (Heb 9:5),[2] but we will seek to gather sufficient to fill in the most important details of Aaron’s priestly service.

It is important to note not just those details but also the sequence in which they are given to us. The section of Exodus that outlines the elements of the Aaronic priesthood begins in Exodus 25 with the tabernacle. Or, more accurately, it begins with the ark and the mercy seat and moves outward from the holy of holies, through the courts of the tabernacle, and out to the perimeter hangings and gate. This is followed, in Exodus 28, by the instructions about the garments of the priests, and, in Exodus 29, by the details of the consecration of the priests.

Everything starts with God. His presence was the purpose for the building of the tabernacle: “And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them” (Exo 25:8). That He should do so was an act of extraordinary grace and condescension, as Solomon realised later at the inauguration of an even more splendid sanctuary: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?” (1Ki 8:27). But notwithstanding the grace that was displayed, to have the dwelling place of God in your midst was a solemn business, and the tabernacle was designed to ensure that the Israelites never forgot that.

The sort of sanctuary that God dwells in is determined by the sort of God that He is. The character of the sanctuary places demands on the character of the priests, demands that are visually represented in the garments “for glory and for beauty” (Exo 28:2) that equipped him for service, and osmically in the carefully compounded fragrances produced exclusively for the anointing oil (Exo 30:32-33). And that character places constraints upon the priest’s actions – what he will fill his hands with and what he will use them for. This chain of priesthood begins with God and extends to man. It vividly communicates the holiness of God and the awesomeness of approaching His presence. But while it displays the immensity of approaching God, it also communicates the possibility of doing so, for, clothed and consecrated and with a fitness that did not come from within, Aaron need not remain outside in the wilderness, but could approach – albeit with restrictions and with fear – right into the presence of God.

The tabernacle was constructed to emphasise the awesomeness of the priest’s journey into the presence of God. As he moved eastwards through the court and into the holy place, the priest would have noted an increase in the costliness of the materials used in the construction and the intricacy of the workmanship.[3] The bronze of the court gave way to gold and silver, and the plain whiteness of the curtains – striking enough amongst the wilderness scrub – gave way to the embroidered cherubim of the wall hangings and the astounding intricacy and splendour of the veil. Every step towards the veil – and the ark that it concealed – was a step closer to the Divine presence and must surely have been fraught with awe and reverential fear.

This idea of access lies at the heart of the way in which the writer to the Hebrews deals with the tabernacle. His list of the furnishings of the tabernacle borders on the cursory, to an extent that might seem surprising, given the information we have about their construction and the rich typological significance that they undoubtedly possess. Indeed, we might well wish that the inspired writer had lingered to speak particularly of these details. But he passes over them, because the feature of the tabernacle that he wants to stress is its structure. So, he disregards the court and focuses instead on the two compartments of the tabernacle proper, the veil that divided them, and the distinction in terms of the movements of the priests: “The priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing” (Heb 9:6-8). The tabernacle, then, is significant not so much because it allows access to the presence of God but for the way in which it controls and restricts that access.

The significance of the tabernacle goes beyond this. We have noted in an earlier article the possible links between Sinai and the tabernacle.[4] These links underline the idea of God’s holiness and the limitations on access to His presence consequent upon that holiness. Arguably less compelling, but still suggestive, are the parallels between the tabernacle and Eden.[5] In addition, some commentators have convincingly identified parallels between the account of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 with the account of the construction of the tabernacle.[6] The significance of these parallels is debated. Almost certainly, it is going too far to conclude on their basis that the tabernacle is a microcosm of creation. Those who see the function of priesthood as primarily one of “border policing” argue that the separations and classifications of creation are echoed in the ways in which the work of the priest involved “making distinctions, assigning things to their proper category and assessing their fitness, and hallowing the Sabbath.”[7] These suggestions deserve consideration. It does seem, however, that the debate has paid insufficient attention to Romans 1. Paul begins the epistle by describing God’s revelation of Himself in creation: “The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (v20). The proper response to that revelation was, as is worship, to glorify God and be thankful (v21). In that responsibility fallen man failed. The miniature new creation of the tabernacle likewise revealed God, and it was to be a place – the place – of worship. “The tabernacle is the world order as God intended writ small in Israel.”[8]

These parallels remain, to some degree, speculative. What is certain is that the tabernacle is a representation of heavenly realities, “the patterns of things in the heavens” (Heb 9:23), a “figure of the true” (v24). It manifests on earth a heavenly reality. What that reality is and in what way it is manifest are debated but, for the writer to the Hebrews, the import of this reality is clear. The tabernacle and the temples that replaced it were remarkable constructions, not so much because of the intricacy and splendour of their construction, though they were considerable. Rather, their importance lay in the fact that they made it possible for God to dwell among His people. But the writer to the Hebrews does not want us to forget that, remarkable though they were, they were only figures of a greater and heavenly reality. Likely it is that any one of us would give our eye teeth to be able to walk through the tabernacle, to approach, as the priest did, the veil and to pass beyond. But though we scarcely value it as we ought, we have a greater access, not tentative and fearful, but boldly, not into a representative sanctuary but into a heavenly. The lesson of the tabernacle is that such a privilege is not to be lightly esteemed.

[1] Just how inevitable this is is neatly demonstrated by 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), 25-60. Although Schrock vigorously espouses a diachronic (developing through time) over a synchronic (static) approach to defining priesthood, his treatment of pre-Aaronic priesthood is full of references to the Aaronic/Levitical priesthood. In many instances, we can only identify particular actions as priestly because of their resemblance to actions performed by Aaron and his sons. Strictly speaking, a diachronic approach to priesthood is only possible if you focus solely on individuals who are explicitly identified as priests.

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

[3] See, for a detailed discussion, W. Ross Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known: The Missionary Heart of the Book of Exodus, New Studies in Biblical Theology 28 (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012), 126-131.

[4] Mark Sweetnam, “Priestly Profiles: Moses,” Truth & Tidings, 72:12 (Dec 2021), 376-8.

[5] See the discussion in Mark Sweetnam, “Priestly Profiles: Primeval Priests (Part 1),” Truth & Tidings, 72:4 (April 2021), 114-6.

[6] See Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known, 135-142, for a useful summary.

[7] Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 127.

[8] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1991), 271.