“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)
In my last post I reviewed that from the Catholic perspective God clearly establishes three kinds of priesthoods in the Old Covenant – the high priest, the ministerial priesthood of Aaron and his sons from the tribe of Levi, and the priesthood of the nation of Israel. We see these fulfilled in the New Testament as Christ as our high priest, the ministerial priesthood of the Church, and the priesthood of the believer. For many Protestants, they have simply been taught that the Old Covenant had priests, but we are all priests in the New Covenant. There is no awareness that those verses about the priesthood of the believer in the New Testament correlate to the priesthood of the nation of Israel in the Old Covenant. For others, they may realize this, but the claim is then made that even though God made all of Israel priests, He later actually revoked the priesthood of the nation of Israel and replaced it with the ministerial priesthood of the family of Aaron. As Catholics we would reject that view and believe the Bible teaches that these two priesthoods co-existed in the Old Covenant as they co-exist today in the Catholic Church.
In recent years as Catholics we have been blessed with many converts from other Christian groups who have become high profile teachers and writers. Unfortunately, they will sometimes bring with them Protestant thinking in some areas, although I believe unintentionally. So you can find prominent Catholic authors who promote the concept that the priesthood of the nation of Israel was revoked by God and replaced with the priesthood of Aaron, and that they did not co-exist.
For Catholic readers as always I would turn to the Catechism to discover what the Church actually teaches. And in CCC1539 we read “The chosen people was constituted by God as ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ But within the people of Israel, God chose one of the twelve tribes, that of Levi, and set it apart for liturgical service; God himself is its inheritance. A special rite consecrated the beginnings of the priesthood of the Old Covenant. The priests are ‘appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.’” This clearly shows the Catholic position is that these two priesthoods co-existed; that the ministerial priesthood was a group from within the larger group of the priesthood of the nation.
This view is also expressed in this Vatican document – “During the Exodus crossing through the desert of Sinai, God built up the people of Israel as ‘a kingdom of priests and a consecrated nation’ (Ex 19:6). Yet within this people, completely priestly in nature, God chose one of the twelve tribes, that of Levi, for liturgical service.”
We also see this from Pope Benedict XVI – “It is clear then that the common priesthood of the baptized, which follows from their entrance into the history of God’s covenant initiated on Mount Sinai and renewed in the cross of Christ, is in no way opposed to the ministerial priesthood, just as the common priesthood of the people of Israel was never set in opposition to its priestly orders.”
When we turn to Scripture to determine if the ministerial priesthood of Aaron and his sons co-existed with the priesthood of the nation of Israel, the first question that always comes to my mind is where does the Bible actually say that God ever revoked the priesthood of the nation from Israel? Because that is something I have never been able to find. People seem to make an assumption that it was due to the golden calf incident, but nowhere does God ever indicate he revokes the priesthood of the nation of Israel. It is a baseless claim.
When the Israelites reach Mt. Sinai God establishes his covenant with them. “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (Exodus 19:5-6) The priesthood of the nation of Israel is intrinsically linked to their being God’s chosen people – “my own possession among all peoples.” This is one reason I always find it interesting when people profess God revokes their priesthood because of the golden calf incident, yet most adamantly maintain that the Jews are still the Chosen People. Being the Chosen people is by definition to be a priestly people; the two cannot be separated.
Moses relates what God has said to the people, and they respond with “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) God then instructs Moses to prepare the people to witness His presence on Mt. Sinai in three days. On the third day, Moses brings the people out of the camp to meet God on the mountain. The Lord descends as a thick cloud on the mountain along with trumpet blasts, thunder, lightning and smoke, and the entire mountain quakes. The Israelites are afraid. (Exodus 19:9-18)
God then delivers the ten commandments to Moses orally. The people only hear the thunder, and they are still afraid. They say to Moses “You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:19) This is one place where some claim that God revoked their priesthood, because they wanted Moses to hear God for them as an intermediary instead of hearing for themselves. The actual text gives no indication of this, or even indicates God was displeased with their action. One problem I see with that view is that the role of the ministerial priesthood was not to “hear” God for the people, and Moses himself is not a priest. The role of “hearing” God on behalf of the people in general belonged to the prophets, many of whom were not priests.
God then proceeds to give Moses a series of laws for governing the people (Exodus Chapters 20-23). Moses relays these laws to the people, and they once again respond with “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses then sanctifies the people with blood, and seals the covenant. (Exodus 24:3-8)
God then calls Moses up to the mountain for 40 days. There he receives the very detailed instructions for constructing the Tabernacle and everything in it, including the Ark of the Covenant. (Exodus Chapters 24-31) God tells Moses that “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abi′hu, Elea′zar and Ith′amar. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. And you shall speak to all who have ability, whom I have endowed with an able mind, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood.” (Exodus 28:1-3) God never states that these priests called to liturgical service are to be a replacement for the priesthood of the nation of the people of Israel, either because of something that has already happened or will happen. That simply is not in the text anywhere.
I would always encourage those who think God is not concerned with the details of worship to read these chapters from the book of Exodus and observe the painstaking detail in the instructions He gives to Moses. To believe that God somehow changes and this detail and reverence for sacred objects and the way we are to worship is no longer needed would deny the great truth that God does not change.
God also gives Moses the ten commandments written on stone tablets while he is on the mountain. But meanwhile, the Israelites have grown impatient with the absence of Moses, and they convince Aaron to build a golden calf for them to worship. God informs Moses this has happened, and that he plans to destroy the Israelites and make a great nation out of Moses. Moses successfully intercedes on behalf of his people (Exodus Chapter 32). It is important to remember that Moses did not “change God’s mind” in this exchange, as there was never a time when God did not know he would not destroy the Israelites.
Moses returns from the mountain, observes the scene of idolatry, and then breaks the stone commandments. He then calls out “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” (Exodus 32:26) And it is the sons of Levi (the men from the tribe of Levi) who respond. And they slaughter 3000 men that day (Exodus 32).
Moses then commends the Levites and tells them that “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day.” (Exodus 32:29). The KJV renders this as “Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day.” Some translations indicate they are ordained as priests, but that is not in the original text. It rather seems to be an assumption. But as we move forward in the story it is clear that the priesthood has been reserved to one family within the tribe of Levi, and that is Aaron just as God established with Moses when he was on the mountain. The rest of the Levites are indeed used in liturgical service but they are not priests. This is confirmed in Numbers 16:8-10 when Korah leads 250 of these Levites in rebellion against Moses and Aaron, and Moses reminds him of their special service to the Lord but then asks him “And would you seek the priesthood also?”
I find the claim interesting that God revoked the priesthood of the nation from Israel and gave it to Aaron and his sons because of the golden calf incident. Aaron was the person left in charge when Moses went up on the mountain. When the Israelites approached him wanting an idol, he instructed them to bring them their gold. He is the person who actually created the calf, built an altar before it, and proclaimed a feast day to celebrate it (Exodus 32:1-6). Aside from the fact that nowhere in the text does it ever indicate that God revoked the priesthood of the nation from Israel, are we really to believe God would then take the priesthood from them and give it to the man who not only did not try to stop them but with full participation led them into their sin?
The golden calf was the first of many times the Israelites would fail God in holding up their end of the bargain. But God never failed them. They never ceased to be His chosen people, and they never ceased to be a nation of priests. We see the St. Paul testify to the reality of this when he tells Timothy that “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). And he writes to the Romans regarding the Jewish people that “As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:28-29).
And we also see Moses attest to this reality 40 years later as the Israelites are preparing to enter the Promised Land. He reminds them of the covenant God made with them – “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. (Deuteronomy 5:2-5).
Moses expressed that the covenant God made with them that day is still intact – the covenant where God told them that “you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)
Moses then reminds them of the ten commandments and repeats them. He reminds them that they asked God to speak to them through Moses. “Go near, and hear all that the Lord our God will say; and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you; and we will hear and do it.’ And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me; and the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they have rightly said all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a mind as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their children for ever!” (Deuteronomy 5:27-29) Far from being upset with the Israelites for wanting to hear God through Moses as some have claimed, God praised them and wished for them that they had “such a mind as this always.”
So from the Catholic perspective it is clear the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the nation of Israel co-existed in the Old Covenant. In my next post I will look at the Scriptural evidence that the fulfillment of these – the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the believer also co-exist in the New Covenant.