Why Priests?

Within ancient Israel, Priests held extremely important roles. Priestly significance is demonstrated even more so by the entire ancient Near East. Unlike the 21st century western world, ancient civilizations in the Near East placed high value on the “sacred space”, often designating them as temples. The sacred space was essential to the survival of an ancient civilization because “it was considered the center of power, control, and order from which deity [brought] order to the human world” (Walton, 127). In effect, the temple, sacred space, was a sort of “government” for the ancient world in that provided life, prosperity, and justice. The sacred temple was also considered a microcosm of the cosmos, the center of the cosmos. With this context, it is evident why priests in Leviticus are so dignified and viewed with prestige.

The value of priesthood depended not upon the tribe or lineage. In its purest sense, priesthoods attained value because they acted as the ones who ensured the sanctity of the sancta (the sacred space). Consequently the priesthoods allowed (1) the gods to continues maintaining order and (2) permitted human involvement in retaining cosmic order (Walton, 130). Unfortunately, because the temple was simeltaneously a political entity and religious expression, priesthoods could easily evolve into political powerhouses rather than sanctifying/sancitified powerhouses. And due to our own context which dichotomizes religious practice and politics, we easily pick up on the political struggles but miss the high cultural value of priests within a cultic context. In this context, then, it is evident why the priests were so important to ancient Israel. Without priests, order could not be maintained and life could fall into non-order/disorder as the world was left without Yahweh’s presence.

References

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

By William Brown

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Re-Understanding the Leviticus Sacrificial System

Popular Christian tradition often defines and interprets ancient Israel’s cultic rituals and offerings in Leviticus through the narrow lens with which the New Testament discusses the issue of the sacrificial system. Passages like Matt 5:17-19, Rom 7:6, and Heb 10:1 leave an impression that the Levitical offering system was solely intended to prepare for Jesus and him alone. While this is undeniable in a sense, it is important to note the theological thrusts of these texts. Matthew, Romans, and Hebrews each work to demonstrate how Jesus fits into the grand scope of the Torah, not to provide a comprehensive discussion about the sacrificial system of Leviticus. Thus, in order to properly understand a book such as Leviticus, especially for a Christian, people must begin by recognizing that the New Testament is not definitive for Leviticus. If anything, Leviticus defines the New Testament and the New Testament operates within those parameters. Although it adjusts various understandings and interpretations (cf. Thomas Kazen 2002), it does not ever comprehensively discuss how the entirety of the system was abolished by Jesus.

In light of this brief discussion, what is required of biblical readers? Two basic ideas sum up how readers should approach Leviticus:

1) Recognize the layers of tradition within the offering system. Leviticus was not written over one year and left as the original copy 3,000 years later. Rather, it has been redacted through various editors who lived in their own time with distinct influences than others may not have had (cf. Yitzhaq Feder 2011). What readers read now is the results of centuries of redaction. As a final comment, that is not to imply that Leviticus in unreliable. On the contrary, it is reliable, except one must recognize the variation within it.

2) Leviticus should be read with recognition that the cultic ritual was central to lives in the ancient world. To ignore or place a glaze over Leviticus is to ignore the centrality of ancient Israel’s culture and life.

Although these are only two of many essential hermeneutic approaches to Leviticus, they are a good starting place. By observing these two ideas, it may actually be possible to read Leviticus. This begins with expanding beyond the narrow view of the New Testament’s understandings of sacrifice and atonement and moving towards a more comprehensive understanding of Leviticus that takes into account the textual redaction and centrality of sacrifice to the ancient world.