Levitical Priesthood

Levitical Priesthood January 5, 2016

“Despite the central role which the priesthood played in Israel’s life and worship,” writes Nicholas Haydock (The Theology of the Levitical Priesthood), it has only a small role in “the majority of Old Testament theologies” (xii). This neglect is partly due to the influence of Wellhausen’s documentary thesis, which treated the priestly literature as late, legalistic, and inferior. Wellhausen’s thesis has been proven false on a number of central counts, and in this new setting Haydock has been inspired by Brevard Childs’s call “to revisit the Levitical priesthood from a canonical perspective” (xv).

He strikingly links the priesthood to mission. That is a rare combination. Drawing on Christopher Wright, he suggests that “just as the priests taught the law to Israel, so Israel was to teach the law to the nations and just as the priests led Israelites into worship so the nation was to do for the Gentiles” (xvi-xvii). The Levites embodied the mission of Israel, the priestly nation. Thus throughout the book, Haydock stresses the links between priestly ministry and the mission of Israel (and the church). He sees it, for instance, in the vision of Ezekiel 47, where a stream flows from the temple to refresh the world: This shows “that God’s presence will be mediated through priesthood and a restored Israel to bless the nations” (8). The priesthood is an “outward sign of Israel’s spiritual reality” (7).

Haydock outlines the theology of the priesthood under several headings. Priests who blessed the people with the Aaronic blessing were to demonstrate the “costly obedience” that is the source of blessing (17). Priests led Israel in worship, including the singing of Psalms; worship had a pedagogical role not only for Israel but for the nations. The Psalms demonstrate that the law and worship of Israel were themselves “missional” (21). As a sanctified order within Israel, the priests were “spiritual lightning conductors” to whom “God’s wrath is transferred from the people,” since the priests were qualified to be acceptable sacrifice (40). The fact that the Levites were landless “placed them in a position to offer God’s provision and blessing to the other landless groups: the poor, the foreigner, the widow and the orphan” (63). 

In a chapter on priesthood in the new covenant, he disputes the notion that the Levitical ministry “failed” or was “ineffective,” and raises questions about the vagueness of saying that the Levitical ministry is “fulfilled” in the church. But he says that “God’s covenant with Levi is continued in the person of Chirst,” and that means that “the relationship with Jesus and the people of God” resembles “that held by the Levites and the ancient Israelites.” Jesus does what priests did: teaching, offers Himself as sacrifice, is a servant, submits to landlessness “all for the sake of God’s mission” (71).

Haydock’s brief book is, as I’m sure he would admit, only a beginning. A fuller theology of priesthood would have to pay much more detailed attention to the sanctuary setting for priestly ministry, the specifics of priestly work, the various forms of sacrifice, the system of “graded holiness” that governed Israel’s religious life, etc. Because Haydock doesn’t give attention to these things, his portrait of priesthood is distorted. One would not realize reading his book, for instance, that a priest might spend the bulk of his day killing things and splattering blood about. One could read this book without realizing that priests had much attachment to sanctuaries at all. Perhaps in his salutary efforts to show the relevance of priesthood to the church’s mission, he minimizes the drastic difference between old and new.

One fundamental unclarity damages the book as a whole: Haydock nowhere distinguishes clearly between the tribe of Levi, the Levites, and the Aaronic priesthood. Haydock writes of the consecration of Levites (Numbers 8) without reference to the very different ordination  ceremony in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8-10. One is the ordination rite for  priests, the other for Levites (assistants to the priests). “Levitical priesthood” is a biblical phrase, especially found in Deuteronomy. But that phrase is a generalization; in practice, the priesthood was not just part of Israel’s hierarchy but was itself a hierarchy.

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