Priestly Profiles: Aaronic Priesthood

Leviticus 8 records a unique day in the history of Israel. By this time, the tabernacle had been completed. Divinely equipped and empowered, the brickmakers of Egypt had turned weavers and dyers, seamstresses and goldsmiths in the service of Jehovah. The “tent of meeting” stood, gleaming and white amidst the congregation. But at this point it was a tent of meeting in name only, for, though God had taken up His dwelling in the tabernacle, there was no man who was fitted to pass through its gate or to move from compartment to compartment. It stood, rather, as a silent witness to the distance between a holy God and a sinful people. But a change was about to take place, for a man was about to be taken from the congregation and consecrated to God so that he might move in mediatorial office through the gates, into the holy place, and, ultimately and awesomely, into the very presence of God in the holiest of all. And the same man who moved in with blood would move out with blessing – that, indeed, would be the climax of the rite of consecration recorded in Leviticus 8 and 9.

The consecration of the priests was the inauguration of a mediator, and the layout of the ceremony prescribed in Exodus 28 and described in Leviticus 8 was designed to emphasise this. The tabernacle was the focus of the consecration: the whole congregation was summoned by Moses to “the door of the tabernacle of the congregation” (Lev 8:3).[1] There, Aaron and his sons were set apart – “taken” (v2) and “brought” (v6), physically separated from the congregation as a whole. That separation was emphasised in the washing of Aaron and his sons. Although the ongoing service of the priests involved washings that were as much practical as they were typical, this unique washing of the whole body of Aaron and those of his sons signified a decisive break with their previous existence and a radical transformation that equipped them to move as priests between God and the people.

There was a positive as well as a negative aspect to this separation – a separation to, as well as from. This was figuratively communicated in the clothing of Aaron and his sons and their anointing. Both these things marked them out as men of and for the sanctuary. We have already considered how Aaron’s garments for glory and beauty not only made him distinct from every other individual in the camp but echoed the materials and the construction of the sanctuary where he served. His anointing with the unique and special anointing oil – which could not be used for any secular purpose on pain of death (Exo 30:32) – also linked him with the tabernacle: he not only looked like it, but he smelled like it too. But the significance of anointing went beyond the establishment of a link with the tabernacle; it spoke of “a supernatural endowment” for the office of priesthood and made it clear that Aaron was being made a priest, not by Moses, but by God Himself.[2]

Although the emphasis in this series of articles is on tracing the development of the concept through the Old Testament rather than reading it in the light of New Testament revelation, it is difficult for us to read these Scriptures without thinking of Christ, our Great High Priest. As we do so, we rejoice to reflect that the washing and the clothing that were part of Aaron’s consecration were not needed for our Great High Priest. They made Aaron typically what Christ was essentially. We should notice, too, that “Aaron was anointed before the blood was shed, because he stands before us as the type of Christ, who, in virtue of what He was, in His own Person, was anointed with the Holy Ghost, long before the work of the cross was accomplished. The sons of Aaron, on the other hand, were not anointed until after the blood was shed.”[3]

The washing, clothing and anointing of Aaron, and the washing and clothing of his sons, were followed by the shedding of blood in the offering of sacrifices. The first of these was “the bullock for the sin offering” (Lev 8:14; cf. Exo 29:10-14). The fact that a bullock was offered emphasized the solemnity of this occasion: “large cattle, like bulls, are used for purifying either a high priest or the entire community, whereas for other individuals smaller animals suffice.”[4] This offering differs in a significant respect from the sin offering for the high priest outlined in Leviticus 4:1-12. In Leviticus 4, the priest was to “sprinkle of the blood seven times before the LORD, before the vail of the sanctuary” (v6), whereas here, the blood was only placed upon the horns of the altar. Any explanation of this difference must, to some extent, be speculation, but it may serve to emphasize the fact that, at this point in the consecration of the priests, there was still no one who had been fitted to move into the Holy Place. It is noteworthy that while Aaron and his sons placed their hands on the head of the bullock, there is no mention of the confession of sin and no mention of forgiveness. This is, rather, an act of identification with the sacrifice. It is also, importantly, an indication that the hands of Aaron and his sons are empty. God is about to fill them in service and worship, but before He can do so, they must be placed, empty and portraying identification, on the head of the sacrifice.

The sin offering was followed by the offering of a ram for a burnt offering and the sacrifice of “the ram of consecration.” Once again, there is an emphasis on the hands of Aaron and his sons, first as they are laid once more upon the head of the offering, and then as their right thumbs, along with their right ear and the great toe of their right foot, are anointed with blood. The only other occasion on which an anointing like this happened was when an offering was made for the cleansing of the leper (Lev 14:14,25). In both instances, “the individual is passing from one state to another” – the leper from unclean to clean, Aaron from being an ordinary member of the congregation to being a priest.[5] In pictorial form, it reflected the whole range of priestly ministry: Aaron’s ears, hands and feet were all required by God, all came under the claims of the blood, and would all be engaged in the execution of his priestly responsibility.

With the blood applied, the consecration reached its climax: “And out of the basket of unleavened bread, that was before the LORD, he took one unleavened cake, and a cake of oiled bread, and one wafer, and put them on the fat, and upon the right shoulder: And he put all upon Aaron’s hands, and upon his sons’ hands, and waved them for a wave offering before the LORD” (Lev 8:26-27). The importance of this act is underlined by the fact that the word “consecration” means, literally, a filling of the hands. The waving of this offering before the Lord was the first priestly action of these men, the beginning of a lifetime of presenting to God the sacrifices that He had mandated (and that were designed, as we, with the benefit of NT revelation, know) to speak of Christ. In any discussion of the primary responsibility of priesthood, this passage must loom large; the first act of the Aaronic priesthood was not boundary marking, not policing, but worship.

The offering of the consecration wave offering was followed by a pause. For seven days, Aaron and his sons remained in the tabernacle, and then, on the eighth day, the day of resurrection, Moses called them with a repeated and remarkable promise: “to day the LORD will appear unto you” (9:4), “the glory of the LORD shall appear unto you” (v6). Those words of summons were followed by a veritable flurry of sacrifice: Aaron’s sin offering, burnt offering, and the sin offering, burnt offering, meal offering and peace offering of the people all had to be killed, divided and offered in accordance with the divine command. The multiplicity and variety of sacrifices set the tone for the priestly ministry that would unfold; here began the continual and repeated offering that was the hallmark of Aaron’s ministry, that defined both its scope and its limit.

Moses’ promise was fulfilled, and the newly inaugurated priesthood received the stamp of divine approval in a dramatic form: “And Aaron lifted up his hand toward the people, and blessed them, and came down from offering of the sin offering, and the burnt offering, and peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces” (vv22-24). Here, again, our attention is drawn to Aaron’s hand. The hand that had rested empty on the head of the sacrifice, that had been smeared with blood and filled with the worship of the wave offering, was now upraised in blessing on God’s people, and the man who had been equipped to go into the sanctuary to satisfy the claims of God was now coming out to meet the needs of God’s people. A new priesthood had been established, and though it was a temporary and partial prefiguring of a greater priesthood to come, the Israelite who grasped anything of its significance must surely have wondered that the God who made His dwelling in the Tabernacle would provide such a mediator.

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

[2] Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 499.

[3] C.H. Mackintosh, Notes on the Book of Exodus (London: Pickering & Inglis, n.d.), 306.

[4] Hamilton, Exodus, 500.

[5] Hamilton, Exodus, 501.