The Levitical Priesthood

Holiness, so it was pointed out, was the property of God’s priests, of Aaron and his sons. We learn this from Moses’ reply to Korah, “Tomorrow the Lord will show who is His, and who is holy. . . .” Num. 16:5. It was made plain that the character of the holiness which this statement ascribes to Aaron was symbolical. It was thus the bodily cleanliness that resulted from his being washed with water; the beauty and the purity of the dress in which he, as priest, was clad; the anointing oil and the blood of the sacrifice as sprinkled upon his garments, the blood of the sacrifice as put upon his ear and hand and foot, the sweet fragrance of his anointed head. Through his being supplied with this (symbolical) holiness, he was consecrated to the office of priesthood, he and his sons, and as so consecrated, possessed the right to perform the work of a sacrificer, the right to atone the sins of God’s people in the holiest place.

In his symbolical holiness, Aaron was the type of Christ. His cleanliness signified the perfect moral purity of Christ; the splendor of his dress was the emblem of Christ’s spiritual beauty, of the righteousness and salvation with which the Father clothed Him, when He raised Him up and set Him together with His people in heavenly places, and this in fulfilment of the promise, “I will clothe her priests with salvation,” Ps. 132: 16. Such was the significance of the priestly dress taken on a whole.

This dress, as was shown further, was comprised of several portions, two of which—the breastplate and the crown of gold—had a significance of their own and therefore must be dealt with separately. As has already been noticed, the breastplate was made of blue, of purple, and of scarlet yearn, and fine-twined linen, worked throughout with gold thread. Its length and breadth was half a cubit (nine inches). The woven cloth was laid together double, and in it were set twelve precious stones and upon them were written the names of the sons of Israel. “And Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goeth into the Holy place, for a memorial before the Lord continually,” Ex. 28:29. The typical significance of all this has already been set forth in a previous article.

Into the breastplate Moses put the Urim and Thummim; that they might “be upon Aaron’s heart, when he goeth in before the Lord.” Let us now take up and answer the questions what the Urim and the Thummim were and the related question what the object of them was. If we turn to etymology for assistance, we are on uncertain ground. It is generally held, however, that the words mean light, and perfection. The Urim and the Thummim appear seven times in Scripture.

Ex. 28:30, “And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart, when he goeth in before the Lord: and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually.”

Lev. 8:8, “And he put the breastplate upon him; also he put in the breastplate the Urim and the Thummim. . . .

Num. 27:21, “And he (Joshua) shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall ask for him after the judgment of Urim before the Lord; at his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the children of Israel with him, even the whole congregation.

Deut. 33 :8, “And of Levi He said, Let thy Thummim and Urim be with the holy one, whom thou didst prove at Massah, and with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah. . . .

I Sam. 28:6, “And when Saul enquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.

Ezra 2:63, “And the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and with Thummim.

Neh. 7:65, “And the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and Thummim.” These scriptures tell us little. They contain no answer to the questions wherein the Urim and the Thummim consisted and how they made known the will of God. It may be that they consisted in two stones, put into the breastplate of the highpriest and that it was thus through their glistening that the mind and will of God became known. It is certain that they belonged to the same category of revelation as the lot.

Although Holy Writ does not say just what the Urim the Thummim were, it does shed light on the question what the character was of the revelations which they instrumentally imparted. When Abiathar the high priest fled to David to Keilah, he came down with an ephod in his hand,—with the ephod to which was attached the Urim and Thummim. Thus he brought with him the high priestly dress from Nob. Knowing that Saul was seeking his life, David requested the priest to bring the Ephod. The latter did so and then David put to the Lord the following question, “O Lord God of Israel, thy servant hath certainly heard that Saul seeketh to come to Keilah, to destroy the city for my sake. Will the men of Keilah deliver me up into his hand? will Saul come down as thy servant has heard? O Lord God of Israel, I beseech thee, tell thy servant. And the Lord said, He will come down. Then said David, Will the men of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hands of Saul? And the Lord said, They will deliver thee up,” (I Sam. 23:7-12).

These answers, coming from the Lord to whom the questions had been put, were given certainly through the instrumentality of the Urim and Thummim. Now both these answers were the equivalents of a simple yes and were given in reply to questions which David had put to the Lord in one of the crises of his life. The conclusion is thus warranted that the Urim and the Thummim were God-given instruments through which the Lord made known His will to His people in the crises of their national existence, that the revelations which they instrumentally imparted were replies to definite questions which could be answered by a simple yes or no.

There is evidence that this simple yes or no was often supplemented by an additional revelation. When the Philistines came up yet again, and spread themselves in the valley of Ephraim, David again enquired of the Lord whether he should go up to the foe. It is not stated that David on this occasion was availing himself of the Urim and Thummim. Yet, whereas the high priest Abiathar was with him still, this may be assumed. The reply of the Lord, “Thou shalt not go up,” was given through the oracle under consideration, perhaps, as has already been suggested, through the glittering of its stones. To this reply, equivalent to a simple no, was added a lengthy instruction that reads, “but fetch a compass behind them, and come upon them over the mulberry trees, that then thou shalt bestir thyself: for then shall the Lord go out before thee,” (I Sam. 5:24). It would seem that a revelation of this character could not very well be imparted by inanimate and thus inarticulate objects such as the Urim and Thummim evidently were, and must therefore have been communicated by inspiration. However this may be, the main point is that the Urim and the Thummim were instruments through which the Lord gave guidance to His servants in times of stress and that, as attached to the official dress of the high priest, they raised this personage also to the rank of prophet in Israel, yet not to the rank of true prophet; for the revelations received were given not by the indwelling Spirit of prophecy but by what must have been a mechanical device. The Urim and Thummim, together with the official robes of the priest of which they formed a part, belonged to the category of the shadows. They formed a temporary expedient. Even as early as the days of Solomon, they ceased, so it seems to function. It was therefore a questionable sentiment to which a certain writer gave expression when he said, The Urim and Thummim connect with the breastplate, if not identical with it, and through which, in cases of emergency, he, the high priest, obtained unerring responses from Heaven, bespoke the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the mind and will of God, with which he should be endowed to fit him for giving a clear direction to the people in times of deepest moment, and the perfect rectitude of the decisions he was to be the instrument of conveying to them.” True it is, that the Urim and Thummim bespoke the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the mind and will of God, but it at once bespoke the person of the high priest not as endowed with but as devoid of this spirit, and therefore as being in the need of a device such as the one under consideration. The sacrifices by blood bespoke the unreality of Aaron as priest; so did the Urim and Thummim bespeak the unreality of Aaron as prophet.

Another article of the high priest’s dress, to which special attention must be directed, was the plate of gold called crown of gold in Ex. 29, 30, and upon which was engraved the words holiness to Jehovah. By means of a ribbon of blue fastened to it, it attached to the front of the brilliant white head-dress of the high priest—a dress that, judging from the name it bears in the Hebrew text (miznephet from zanaph to twist) was wrapped in folds about the priest’s head and thus had the form of a turban. The one thing about this dress that had special significance was the golden plate. When the high priest was robed in his official dress, this plate was above his forehead. It was to him that its inscription referred. He, the priest, was symbolically holiness to the Lord, that “he might bear the iniquity of the holy things, which the children of Israel sanctified with respect to all their holy gifts. . . .as an acceptableness for them before Jehovah” (Ex. 28:38). The holy things were the offerings prescribed by the law. As sinful man pollutes whatever he touches, these things were held to contract the iniquity of the offerer by which they were presented, and could therefore be placed upon Jehovah’s altar only after this iniquity had been born away by the high priest through the sacrifice by blood on the day of the great atonement. In order to bear iniquity the priest had to be holy.

As to the other portions of the priestly dress, the outer robe, body coat, girdle and under-drawers, they, too, were strikingly expressive of holiness. With the exception of the girdle, the material of them all was linen and must be held to have been white. They are not expressly so-called in the Pentateuch, but are described as white in II Chron. 5:12. The white and clean garment was made to stand out in the minds of God’s people as expressive of ethical purity, holiness. Hence, in the book of Revelations the saints frequently appear as robed in such garments, which are expressly declared to mean “the righteousness of saints”. So in Revelations 19:8, “And to her (the church, the wife of the Lamb) was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.”

Finally, the individual of the seed of Aaron the priest had to be free from every kind of physical blemish and defect in order to serve the altar, “And the Lord spake unto Moses saying, Whosoever he be of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not appear to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not appear: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or anything superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookedbacked, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken; no man that hath a blemish of the seed of Aaron the priest shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire: he that a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God” (Lev. 21:17-21). The individual thus had to be physically perfect in order to qualify for the priestly office. The absence of this mark of perfection proved an utter disqualification and rejection of God. Not that God was interested in this perfectness as such. The reason that He required it in respect to His priests is that, as so perfect, the priests might stand out in the minds of those whom they represented—the Israelitish worshippers—as individuals of a perfect symbolical holiness, ethical purity. This physical perfection was thus the token of ethical perfection. And if it be considered that at the root of all physical imperfection operates the principle of sin, it will be seen that here, too, the agreement and connection between the sign and the thing signified is close. We speak here of course in general. The meaning is not that in every case physical deformity and disorder is to be regarded as transgression, that is being made to return to the individual as punishment for definite gross sins that he committed.

The priests (and so the common Levites) had to be not only free from any kind of physical blemish and deformity but also physically vigorous and vital. Hence, the age at which they entered upon the sacred duties of their office, is stated in Num. IV, at thirty, while in chap. VIII, twenty-five is given; and the age at which they were retired is set at fifty. There seems to be a discrepancy between the two notices, specified above, as to what they state respecting the age at which the service was to commence. When examined, however, they are seen to be in perfect agreement. As appears from the context, the former (Num. 4:3) has respect to the work of the Levites consisting in their transporting the tabernacle from place to place; the latter speaks of the period of their entering on their duties in the tabernacle; but the point to be noticed here is that the age prescribed for the Levites and in all likelihood also for the priests comprehended the period of natural life’s greatest vigor and completeness. Now this vigor, too, as well as the required physical perfectness, had symbolical significance. It betokened the spiritual health of God’s believing people, of the saints made perfect in Christ.

There were still other restrictions laid upon the priests and carrying the same meaning. They should not be defiled for the dead among their people through contact, excepting in cases of nearest relationship: mother, father, son, daughter, brother and virgin sister. They should not make baldness upon their head, neither shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh. They should not marry a woman of bad fame, nor one that had been divorced. The high priest was still further restricted. He was not to defile himself even for his father and mother, and should marry only a virgin. In the midst of the record of these restrictions in Lev. 21 occurs the statement, “They shall be holy unto their God. . . Here holiness is enjoined. That it was also the property of the priests, we learn from a word spoken by Moses to the rebellious Korah and his company, “Tomorrow the Lord will show who is his and who is holy. . . .”

The Hebrew word for holy is derived from a root that means to cut, to separate and thus expresses separation. The word is used of persons and things separated from common use and placed in a distinct and special relation to God and His service. The word, at least in the first instance, does not signify an internal, ethical attribute, ethical purity, but denotes that a thing or person is separated from the common terrene and is dedicated, devoted, to God. Holy Writ and in particular the Pentateuch thus speaks of holy land, Sabbath, places ointment, garment, house, water, host, bread, ark, city, and covenant. It is God only who sanctifies land, places, the garment, Israel, the priesthood, temple altar.

In the light of these observations, it is plain what is to be understood, in the first instance, by the notice to the effect that Aaron and his sons (and the Levites in general) were holy. Aaron was separated from all his brethren (fellow Israelites) and dedicated wholly to God’s service, placed in a particular relation to Him.

What now was the character of Aaron’s holiness? A distinction must be made here between Aaron as such and Aaron in his capacity of priest. The character of Aaron’s holiness as high priest was solely ceremonial, symbolical-typical. It was this as the office of priest with which he was vested, was solely symbolical. But the truth of this answer is also born out by the how of God’s sanctifying him, that is, of His separating Him from the common sphere and dedicating Him to His service and to Himself. The Lord sanctified Aaron through His washing him through the agency of Moses with water, through His anointing him with the oil of consecration, through His sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifice and of the anointing oil upon Aaron and his garments, through His preparing for him a body free from every physical deformity and blemish and endowed with natural strength, thus, in a word, through His rendering him symbolically clean, pure, sinless. Aaron’s symbolical sinlessness was thus his cleansed body—cleansed in the holy water and in the blood of the animal that had symbolically atoned for the guilt of all his sins through its suffering and dying. And Aaron was also commanded to be holy, to sanctify himself, which he did through his refraining from defiling himself for the dead among his brethren and from mutilating his body. In addition he was clothed in beautiful garments; and the beauty of these garments was the effulgence, the brightness, of his symbolical purity. There is then a close connection between holiness and purity.

We must now speak of true holiness. True holiness must be looked for first in God. He, being light, is separated from the creature and thus also from sin and is wholly devoted to Himself. Being what he is holy God, He sanctifies His people in Christ. He separates them in the spiritual sense from the terrene of sin, from the world that lieth in darkness and dedicates them wholly to Himself. And He does so through His redeeming the people from all their sins in Christ and making them partakers of His nature. And He also commands them that they sanctify themselves by His mercy, which they do through their mortifying their members which are on the earth.

The priesthood, as to its elect nucleus, was also truly holy. Aaron was, he being a child of grace. This is forcibly brought out in the description given of the character of Aaron and of those who were originally appointed to the priesthood in Mal. 11:1-7, “My covenant was with him (Levi) of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name. The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity.” But there were many among the priests who despised God’s name through their offering polluted bread upon His altar and the blind for sacrifice and the lame and the sick (Mal. 1). These the Lord threatened with destruction. He would send a curse upon them, corrupt their seed and spread dung upon their faces. The priesthood had to fear God and thus show forth the grace betokened by the outward, symbolical things. The aggregate of these things, all the typical things of the law, formed the face of God in which was to be seen His glories and the glory that he prepared in Christ for His people. To pollute these things was to despise this glory.