Priesthood – as it was in the beginning

Intrigued by the distinction between clergy and laity, I have started to investigate the backgrounds of the Christian priesthood / ordained ministry and other forms of ministry. The following is meant to become part of a book I intend to write on the subject.

I have started with the Old Testament, because the Israelite priesthood has been the only model available to the Church, apart from what Christ and for instance St. Paul have said about its fulfilment in Christ and His kingdom. Someone proof-reading this article asked why I did not start with the Mesopotamian or Egyptian priesthood. It is true that the Israelite priesthood had its own models, so I will write about that as well, in a separate article.

1. Priests in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, priests were almost exclusively connected to the rituals in the temple. Before Aaron, heads of the family, like Cain, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job also brought sacrifices and thus more or less acted like priests. After Aaron, Elijah would bring sacrifices, but he lived in the kingdom of the Ten tribes. Solomon and Samuel are other examples, from times when there was no central sanctuary. Melchizedek will be dealt with in a separate article.

The Hebrew word for priest, Cohen, may come from a verb meaning “to stand” as in standing before God to serve Him (but then Deut. 10:8 and 18:7 applies this to all Levites, the wider tribe to which the priests belonged). It may also come from an Arab word meaning “soothsayer”. These two meanings are not mutually exclusive. The tasks of priests included bringing sacrifices, acting as mediators between God and the people, taking care of the altar of incense in the Holy part of the tabernacle, and of the lamps and the bread. The fire on the altar of holocausts (burnt-offerings) was to be kept burning at all times. The priests also said prayers for the people, pronounced blessings, on feast days they blew on silver trumpets, they investigated ritual purity or impurity, performed ritual purifications, in early times consulted the divine oracle and could act as judges of appeal, especially in religious matters. Together with the Levites they also had a responsibility to teach the people about the Mosaic Law. Together with the Levites they were paid and given food by the other tribes in the form of tithes.

In times of old, priests were the representatives of God and the preservers of tradition. That is why, if you wanted to hurt a particular religion or its god, you would kill its priests. Apart from representing God, priests also represented the people before God by praying for them and handling the sacrifices they brought. It was generally accepted (compare the story of Moses going up and down the mountain) that it was dangerous to approach God directly, hence the need for intermediaries. All the rules surrounding the sacrifices and the other temple rituals underlined that this could not be done by just any individual. Even most priests were not allowed to enter the Most Holy part of the tabernacle, in which the presence of God was particularly focussed.

Another ancient office was that of prophet. The name (‘nabi’ in Hebrew) means speaker, preacher, announcer, interpreter of the word of God, of His revelation. When God’s word came to them, often unexpectedly, they were compelled to pass it on. They were sometimes called seers, servants of God or guardians. They often fiercely challenged social and spiritual abuses.
When we compare priests and prophets, it seems that priests were used to carrying out fairly well-defined tasks, based on detailed, eventually written, instructions. Prophets were needed when the tasks were not so clear or when the priests themselves had departed from the way in which they were meant to act. Prophets could stray from the straight path as well, but my point here is that they had different tasks. The two roles were not usually found in one person.

An interesting example of this is found in the Deuterocanonical book 1 Maccabees, chapter 4, when the sanctuary that had been defiled by Antiochus Epiphanes, is cleansed. First, it says that Judas chose “blameless priests devoted to the law”. Then there were certain straightforward tasks for the priests to carry out, like making new holy vessels, rebuilding the sanctuary and consecrating the courts. Verse 44 describes how they are having some difficulty deciding what to do with the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. To be on the safe side, “lest it bring reproach upon them”, they decide to tear it down. However, this is a fairly new situation and they do not know what to do with the stones. Whereas the stones of the sanctuary itself had just been moved to “an unclean place”, the ones of the altar were allowed to stay somewhere on the temple hill “until there should come a prophet to tell them what to do with them”!

2.    Levi and the origin of the Jewish priesthood

To understand the priesthood of Aaron, we should go back to Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, the third one by Lea, who doubted whether Jacob loved her. At Levi’s birth she said: “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Gen. 29:34, NRSV). The name Levi comes from the Hebrew stem ’lawah’ which means ‘he joined’. Levi (‘Lewi’) therefore means ‘joining, pledging, attaching’. In modern times when a woman thinks that having a child will improve or cement the marriage, this is not generally regarded as a healthy attitude, but sometimes it does work, and it may well have done in the culture of those days. Her next son would be Judah, who was to become the great leader of Israel’s Southern kingdom, containing the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. He was to give his name to the Jewish people and was a forefather of king David, king Solomon and Jesus.

Meanwhile there may have been psychological pressure on Levi and his brother Simeon to prove themselves to Jacob. In any case they became quite fanatical when they took revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah, by killing all the males in the city of Shechem. The cowardly and cruel aspect of these killings lay in the fact that by this time Jacob had already reached an agreement with the father of the rapist that there could be a marriage. Furthermore, the other party had already fulfilled the conditions, namely that all male citizens would be circumcised. While the men were recovering from their painful operations, they were killed. When it was time for Jacob to hand out blessings to his sons, Simeon and Levi received a curse instead of a blessing. Strictly speaking it was their anger and wrath which were cursed and not Simeon and Levi themselves, but there was nothing positive in the words of Jacob, either.

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. May I [my soul; my spirit] never come [enter] into their council; may I not be joined [united] to their company— for in their anger they killed men, and at their whim they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.” (Gen. 49:5-7, NRSV).

Note that there is a play on words here. Jacob said he never wanted to be joined to their company. What the name Levi stood for, namely joining, had failed! The play on words is not made too obvious. Jacob uses a different Hebrew stem, namely yachad, ‘to be united’. However, it is clear that even after his death he does not in any way wish to meet or be associated with these two sons.

The numbers of the tribe of Simeon would indeed dwindle and they would only have a small piece of the Southern kingdom. Simeon is listed in the Book of Joshua, but elsewhere in the same Book these towns are ascribed to Judah. The tribe is completely absent from the Blessing of Moses. After the Babylonian captivity (the deportation of the people of Israel to Babylon), the Southern kingdom became simply the kingdom of Judah. What remained of Simeon had been assimilated. There are some legends that for some time after the Babylonian captivity the tribe continued to exist elsewhere, but this would still amount to being scattered.

The tribe we are most interested in here, because the priestly families came from their midst, is the tribe of Levi. This tribe was divided or scattered in another way than the one of Simeon. They did not receive any land[1] and were concentrated in certain[2] cities. The Lord Himself was said to be their inheritance (Deut. 18:2). They lived off donations, called tithes, given by the other tribes. The Levites who were not priests were musicians, served as guards or took care of the transport of the tabernacle.

The paradox of unity

The themes already mentioned of “attachment” and “unity” would always remain important in the lives of Levi, the Levites, the priesthood and all who in the course of history to a greater or lesser extent would choose the priesthood or the Levites as a model. These themes contain strange paradoxes and struggles which are still with us today, both in Christianity and in society at large. Levi was trying to create more unity but ended up achieving just the opposite. Priests were supposed to bring the people into a closer union with God, but the very existence of human mediators would often provide a barrier between the people and God. Levites were supposed to be free of attachments to earthly things and have only God as their inheritance, but one day there would be people called bishops, who would own vast amounts of land and riches. Later yet, we would see TV-evangelists and others depending on church donations, frequently developing, perhaps as a reaction, a strange kind of greed and/or a tendency to waste money.

From the first centuries AD onward, Christian leaders who encouraged unity within their own ranks, would often isolate groups of a slightly different persuasion, or even persecute them. First the persecution of Christians led them to make sharp distinctions between those who belonged to the flock and those who did not. Also, theologians called apologists, who defended Christianity against accusations from other religions and the government, wanted to be as consistent as possible and no more offensive than necessary. Later, the Emperor Constantine, who adopted Christianity as the religion of the State, did not like a wide diversity of views either and more or less forced bishops to decide on a clear set of doctrines, even though the result did not represent large groups of Christians. These detailed dogmas and prescriptions, which could have been a basis for unity, where therefore simultaneously an obstacle to unity. As a lack of true unity is always difficult to hide, compromises would also be struck. But these could never replace true unity or acceptance of differences and would sometimes lead to hypocrisy.

Such artificial unity still occurs today and has yet other disadvantages. It makes us so busy appearing to be tolerant, that we “accidentally” also accept intolerant behaviour and bullying. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, we have given in so much already, that any additional departure from our personal beliefs or lifestyle may suddenly become too much to bear. This then suddenly makes us very unreasonable. I have seen many examples of this behaviour and I also recognise some of it in myself. In each and every case the conflict has been building up over time, by continuing a relationship with no real mutual acceptance or respect. Even pastors may have a superficial notion of unity, in which “keeping up appearances” and “just make a new start” can be more important than understanding and dealing with the root causes of discord.

Honour-based behaviour

Now let us return to the time of Levi and make another important observation. I believe the act of Simeon and Levi is a clear example of the way things often work in honour-based societies. These societies, of which there are still many in existence, do not value individuals for their talents, skills or personality, but for the reputation of their families, the groups and parties to which they belong and for what certain trusted sources think of them. The honour or reputation of the family or group is easily damaged by a single mistake or by a single suspicion. If someone other than yourself has damaged your honour or reputation, this calls for revenge. The whole group will feel responsible for such revenge. The safety you may feel inside the group is paralleled by the lack of safety if you face such a group as an outsider. Even inside the group, there will often be suspicions about your degree of loyalty, and from time to time that loyalty will be tested.

Much has changed since the time of the patriarchs, but we have always struggled with a significant remnant of the old honour-based societies. As I write this there even seems to be an increase. Organised religions are no exception. Maybe because these organisations were so vulnerable to bad publicity, which would undermine their credibility, they have often tried to cover up misconduct. Both among ordinary followers and among those in positions of authority, there has always been a degree of pressure to only speak well of everyone inside. Now it is obvious that not all “dirty laundry” needs to be on public display. It might indeed do disproportionate damage to the credibility of an organisation which is, after all, trying to convey a spiritual message.

However, what if that message is about the dignity and value of every individual in the eyes of God? Should we then, just like the media do in a negative way, still give priority to and talk so much about the good reputation of our organisations? Or can we afford to focus on marginalised people and neglected problems, at the same time being more open about our organisations, showing that we dare to expose and correct hatred, intolerance, incompetence, indifference and discrimination when they sometimes occur in our own circles? If we cannot achieve this, how can we do the same thing on a wider scale, prophetically pointing out the many problems in society at large, and offer healing?

At this point, my fellow-Christians may say, “I have heard this so many times. Can’t we talk about all the good things the Church has done?” However, this is precisely the reaction you would expect in an honour-based society. Many have become so identified with the church (perhaps instead of with Christ), that there is an immediate reflex to protect the church, which is after all one’s “own” group. I may someday devote another article to a discussion of those people who think they “own” their church. What is important here is to realise that Jacob was ahead of his time. He realised that cruelty to people is always wrong, even if it seems to be in the interest of the group. There are many kinds of cruelty, and they all need to be condemned.

Jacob did not hesitate to pronounce a curse when a blessing was expected. Theologians have been quick to point out that in the case of Levi, this curse was later turned into a blessing[3]. After all, Levi was to become the priestly tribe. However, this priesthood would not last, and what came in its place was also, quite possibly in fulfilment of the curse, scattered in many fashions. So perhaps we should take this curse far more seriously than we have done. It tells us something about how God wants to be represented and how He does not want to be represented. Like many prophecies in the Old Testament, both promises and threats, these blessings and curses are probably conditional. The behaviour of Levi did not necessarily have bad consequences for all his descendants, but it definitely put the finger on a danger for which all priests and pastors and their co-workers need to constantly watch out. It is not OK to sacrifice people (or allow them to be sacrificed) in order to rescue reputations or for any other reason. Ignore this, and you will literally undermine your own vocation and effectiveness in God’s cause.

Without denying that it was an honour for the Levites to later serve God in many ways related to the temple rituals, this may well have been (additionally) God’s gentle way of keeping an eye on them. For, as we will see, priests were in no way exempt from human weaknesses and the priesthood would come with its own temptations.

Levi and personality types

Questionnaires to determine one’s personality type come in many shapes and flavours. Some of them are based on the 12 tribes of Israel. About Levi they would say something like “‘Levi’ means ‘attached’ or ‘joined’. Levi is the personality of dedicating your life to serving a higher calling. Of freeing yourself from your bonds to material survival and attaching yourself to Divine service.” It was no surprise to me, that Levi turned out to be my personality type in one of these tests. I have always thought that relationships, justice, truth, and spirituality were more important than material things like cars, careers or money. In other tests, I scored high on loyalty (joining).

The downside is that in a material world one is not always understood. The same goes for any environment which, for one reason or another, becomes more and more focused on money and management. Due to secularisation churches also have to be run more and more like businesses, although to some extent, they always have been. All I am saying is that priests (and the likes of myself) will probably have some difficulties if they are expected to be managers. This does not mean we like to waste money, on the contrary. We can suddenly be very alert when a waste of money threatens the continuity of our spiritual activities. However, the reason is not the money itself, but our focus on the spiritual.

The loyalty of “Levites” is strong, but may suddenly end when justice and truth are seriously violated, or when material concerns start to prevail. That in itself does not have to be a weakness. What I am always concerned about, though, is how to maintain some kind of unity. I have found that unity exists on different levels. On one level, we are always one and connected, whether we agree with something or somebody, or not. This is because we are all connected. When one person suffers, it will always affect the community as well and vice versa. On another level, we can be more “one” by never abandoning the ideals of peace and reconciliation.

However, that in itself may be misunderstood. Some people and organisations will not distinguish between seeking or recognising unity and giving them your full support. This is because they assume that they themselves have found the best way to promote unity. If that were true, supporting them would indeed be an efficient way to promote unity. However, we all have our own responsibility in this respect. This means that we cannot and should not give the full measure of our support to groups or policies which have exclusion as one of their aims or side-effects and therefore remain divisive, even though they may contain many good things which are worthy of support.

Another such personality test commented that Levi was like a “love doctor”, mending relationships and bringing unity. That may have been Levi’s intention and in the best scenario’s a strength, but as we saw it does not always work the way we expect. Defending one party may alienate us from another. Being too loyal to others in general, and not focusing on our own goals, is usually a dead end as well. I am pretty sure this has happened to me a couple of times. It is interesting, though, that priestly types indeed seem to have a habit of long trying to fix even things that are irreparably broken before finally giving up in great frustration. As I was checking this article, I had just received news that senior pastor Pete Wilson, founder of Cross Point megachurch, had resigned. On September the 11th, 2016 (whether it was a coincidence or not) he called himself “not OK, tired, broken”. Another local minister was quick to point out that, for the church, it would be business as usual, but Pete said he would need prayers more than ever.

Yet other tests do not have “Levi” as a tribe, nor Joseph (the suffering one). They have the sons of Joseph instead. On the one hand, this makes Joseph more important, as he is represented by two “tribes”, but it also tends to obscure the way Joseph became great, namely through suffering. Along with this mystery, which is similar to the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice and victory, the mysterious “Levi” disappears. On a spiritual level, this means that there is more attention for outward success than for inner processes. Mystery disappears from the equation, along with those who represent it.

I have often felt a little invisible or out of place myself. There is that sense of not belonging to anything this world has to offer, sometimes not even to a church. I am reminded of what Hebrews 11:13 says about the patriarchs, “they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth”. Hebrews 11 even mentions several people who lived after the entry into the Promised Land and says (in verse 39) that “none of them received what had been promised”. Perhaps this is the whole point about Levi, being the odd one, the invisible and unpredictable, seeking to transform and to be transformed, having only God as his or her inheritance. And perhaps this very intangibility and our seeming uselessness to the world, which grows as the world becomes harsher, is tempting us to cling to every outward symbol and title that could give us some recognition. It is not easy to just use  these powerful symbols as illustrations and for the rest simply, with Christ, fall into the earth like a seed, dying and rising to new life, life for ourselves and others.

A prayer for all God’s servants

Eternal God,
Forgive me for turning your words and your visions
Into idols which I can touch and understand;
For seeking a different inheritance than the heavenly one;
For then becoming impatient and blaming your vision;
For not trusting that you already gave me all I need to be Your servant.
Take away, Lord, what distracts me from You and Your image in me.
Help me to accept that I am loved
regardless of success or failure;
That I was meant to be a little strange in a good way
And unite me with all who were strangely made in Your image.

3. Moses and Aaron

Moses and Aaron were both Levites. The first thing that struck me, in the context of our description, was the temper which Moses displayed when he killed an Egyptian in his zeal to protect his fellow-Israelites. This is completely in line with what we have seen with Levi. In spite of this, Moses became the great agent in the liberation of the people of Israel from Egypt and in the reception of the Law at Sinai. You might say this is grace: God often choosing the most unlikely people to do His work. This is true, but at the same time it tells us something about the difficulties we can expect when trying to distinguish true vocations from “dead ends”. In some cases, it is only God who can tell the difference. In the kingdom of God, failure is a very relative concept!

Priesthood followed plan B

The second thing that struck me was how God’s own plan was not realised in the story of the sending of Moses. To this day there are still thousands of preachers who claim that if God really wants something to happen, it will happen. Apart from offering an easy escape from personal responsibilities, this statement is clearly untrue. Things – and this includes important ones – often proceed in a way that God did not intend. God wanted Moses to speak to Pharaoh. This amounts to a vocation as a prophet. When Moses kept resisting this idea, God called Aaron to be the mouthpiece or “prophet” of Moses. This was clearly plan B. What actually happened here, was that an extra layer was inserted in the hierarchy, the theocracy if you like, the communication channel between God and mankind. Aaron does not replace or equal Moses, but he becomes his mouthpiece. It literally says in Exodus 4:15,16, “You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth… and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him”. However, this was intended as a temporary arrangement. This is already reflected in the same verse 15, where it also says, “I will help both of you speak and teach you what to do”.  And indeed, it seems that at a later stage, Moses tended to act and speak for himself (Exodus 9:23, 10:13,22).

I think it was Rabbi Sacks who discovered or at least emphasised that there are many instances in the Torah where God first miraculously helps us to do something and then expects us to take responsibility ourselves. This is, for instance, the case with the two tablets containing the 10 commandments. First God makes them, but the second time around Moses has to do it. God is constantly teaching us, developing God’s image in us, so that in the end we don’t need a Moses or Aaron or any priest. As it says in Hebrews 8:11, “No longer will a man teach his neighbour, saying, ‘Know the Lord’, because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest”. In the end, no hierarchy will remain, at least not in spiritual matters. The ultimate purpose of the priesthood, is, therefore, strange as it may sound, to make itself obsolete. This is not always how priests or ordained ministers experience it or like to present themselves.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves if, especially stipendiary, ministers are not faced with a partially self-imposed, insoluble conflict of interest. By which I am not saying that there is no use or employment for them anymore, as if the whole of humanity had reached the perfect knowledge of God already. Also, there is no doubt that most full-time ministers are doing great work spreading the knowledge of salvation. But how about empowering and allowing as many as possible to join them part-time? How about really affirming that all people can and should be led by the Holy Spirit, as such having a direct relationship with God? Some, although they would never admit it, would see this as threatening their position.

I realise there are all kinds of legitimate difficulties and excuses. There is the matter of order and authority. There is a limit to the capacity to train people, especially if we set the same standards as for existing clergy. However, where does God say that we all have to have at least a Master’s in Theology, either to follow Christ, or to teach others to follow Christ? There is of course the matter of an increasingly complex society, which calls for increasingly educated people, but then priests are not necessarily always more educated than their flock. It should therefore be possible to make “ourselves” obsolete by teaching the essentials to as many as we can. That is, instead of using our intelligence just to keep “the herd” on board and in line. Not much will change if only those are admitted as teachers who are like us, promising to be 100% obedient, mainly imitating others, and to impose the same rules on following generations. In that case only external events could drive change.

Again, I can see all the difficulties – you don’t have to tell me -, but I still think that along with all the good things which must somehow be preserved, something unreasonable and counter-productive has, until now, also been perpetuated. The clergy themselves are suffering because of it, no less than those who miss out on the necessary empowerment, essential training, and the use of their talents. Having “Lay” ministers is only part of the solution and may even be part of the problem. More about lay ministries another time.

In any case, it should be clear to any serious student of the New Testament that the Old Testament priesthood became obsolete, if not by the destruction of the first and second temple, then certainly by the fact that Christ became our High Priest. The priesthood did not exactly make itself obsolete, which goes to show how extremely difficult this is. So I hope you do not read my words as vile and easy criticism of Jewish and Christian priests. It can be extremely frustrating if you are an agent of change, who should be able to relax once the change is completed, only to find that
(a) your work is never done;
(b) the people always want to hear more, but seem to have stopped listening;
(c) you discover that you have made some considerable mistakes yourself!
(d) suddenly a Messiah or another unnatural phenomenon appears which calls for a completely new start and leaves you disoriented! However, the book of Hebrews is perfectly clear about this central fact: We must develop a new understanding of temples and priests. And this is not just about changing vestments, liturgies or music!

Returning to our story, if Moses himself could have done the job of going to the Pharaoh, a priesthood of some kind would probably still have arisen. I find it, however, fascinating how Aaron appears to have received his status as high-priest as a result of his role as the right hand of Moses (a role that would later be taken over by Joshua). I don’t think it is very likely that Aaron would have received this second honour if he had refused the first. Is it not amazing that a temporary assignment and a willingness to be an assistant-prophet stood at the cradle of a priesthood which would last until the time of Christ? And is it not amazing that, likewise, that priesthood itself is but a temporary shadow of the priesthood of Christ? Without in any way denying the majestic nature of the Exodus or the priesthood, they have both become signs of things even greater, things truly eternal. The signs themselves, on the other hand, turned out not to be eternal.[4]

Here we find a strange paradox. What is temporary and almost accidental can be very valuable and decisive for all that follows. Moments may become symbols on which generations can build, but the symbols from the past can never replace the eternal reality which is here and now, to which Christ granted us access. Priesthood, too, can only be eternal if it is somehow fulfilled in this moment and in this place. And this moment, this place, is where I am now and where you are now.

Not knowing what to do

The story of the making of the golden calf[5] is set before the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests. Moses had gone up the mountain and had stayed there for a long time. He had left Aaron in charge. This is a classical situation in which a Levite would not function well. Remember that the people of Israel had not even received the Ten Commandments, the very first two of which would forbid having other gods and making “graven images”. Of course, there were other ways in which they could have known that this was forbidden. The way I see it, their sinfulness was in their impatience, which ignored the miracles that had already taken place, in wanting to be led by something they made (a kind of dumb artificial intelligence) and in claiming that their new gods were the ones who had led them out of Egypt, which is obviously impossible.

Anyway, Aaron allowed and supervised the construction and worship of a golden calf. Bull worship was common both in Egypt and in surrounding nations. The Israelites were thus familiar with it. Still, it is strange to suppose that an Egyptian god would help Israel to escape Egypt, unless to them this god had some universal meaning. In Aaron’s defence, we must also mention that he proclaimed a day “for the Lord”. He must have thought that the worship of the bull and of Yahweh could go together. It was probably not an attempt by Aaron to return them to the true religion because he does not mention it in his own defence. In Islam, the sin of the Calf-worshippers is considered to have been ‘shirk’ or polytheism (the worship of many gods), and I think they are right. Aaron may also temporarily have reverted to this polytheism.

Note that Aaron blamed the people as if he had had no choice. However, Ex. 32:35 speaks of “the calf that Aaron had made”.  He probably did not make it himself, but he was held responsible.[6] Surprisingly, no particular punishment for Aaron is even considered. It is as if Aaron was not expected to show any other behaviour! This would confirm what I have said earlier about priests of the old dispensation carrying out certain straightforward tasks and not being very good at dealing with unexpected situations. It takes Moses, the great prophet, to explain that worshipping this man-made idol is unacceptable and incompatible with the true faith.

The rise of the Levites

Moses knew about the incident with the golden calf before he actually saw it. God had told him about it on the mountain. The bad news cut short Moses’ fasting and meditation there. God initially wanted to be “left alone” so that He could destroy the people of Israel, which would have included Aaron and his family. Only Moses and his family would be spared, to form a new nation. Moses then reminded God of the oath to give Israel land and to make them numerous. Then God “relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened” (Ex.32:14). Why did Moses’s intervention make a difference? Could Israel not still have been made numerous through the family of Moses and inherited the Promised Land? Actually, no. They could have been made numerous, but they could not have inherited any land because Moses was a Levite. God honoured Jacob’s “curse” against cruelty and had mercy on the other tribes so that Jacob (Israel) could still inherit the Promised Land.

The Levites had nearly become the only surviving tribe. The incident made it likely that the future priesthood would need foot soldiers to take care of certain pleasant as well as less pleasant duties. Exodus 32:25 describes how Moses saw that “the people were running wild and Aaron had let them out of control and so become a laughing stock to their enemies”. Please notice the honour-based language. It was one thing that the people had sinned, but it was another that they were “out of control” and that the reputation of Israel was damaged by the chaotic, or if you like diverse, religious expressions.

Moses then asked all those who were “for the Lord” to come to him. The Levites responded. Mind you, they were not ordered, but responded voluntarily, not knowing what they would have to do. Were the Levites the ones who had been most opposed to the calf-worship, while Aaron had joined in? Or were they anxious to erase something that was now considered dishonourable? The latter seems the most likely. Once they had come forward, they were ordered to kill a random selection of idolaters, even if these happened to be brothers, friends or neighbours. “That day about 3000 of the people died”.

Here we see how the violent nature of Levi, which Jacob had condemned, was put to “good” use by turning the Levites into some kind of policemen and executioners, guarding the true faith. Mind you, this was not even the actual punishment of God for the calf-worshippers. That would follow later in the form of a plague (Ex. 32:35). This first action was only to restore order and to test the Levites.  “Then Moses said, ‘You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you today” (verse 29). Here Jacob’s curse is juxtaposed with a blessing on account of their obedience. The Levites had kept their violent inclinations, but these were now sanctioned. The Levites were now acting on orders instead of on their own instigation. I think the combination of violence and obedience is a problematic one. When given the right orders, obedience can help to suppress violent inclinations, but the wrong orders can amplify them. Hence it will be very important who is in charge of ministry affairs!

Nadab and Abihu

The ordination celebrations for Aaron and his 4 sons lasted for 8 days. Already during this time (some say on the 1st day) a couple of things went terribly wrong. After a successful sacrifice by Aaron, in which his sons had assisted him by occasionally carrying blood, somewhat like modern altar servers,[7] his sons wish to take some initiative. Nadab and Abihu then offer incense, in such a way that Lev. 10:1 speaks of “unauthorised fire”. This may have been because the fire came from the wrong source, like the kitchen instead of the altar, or because the whole sacrifice was unnecessary and therefore overdone, or both. In any case, the two are instantly killed by the same fire coming from the presence of the Lord that had not long ago consumed the animal sacrifice.

Most readers and students of Leviticus 10, myself included, are deeply shocked by the severity of this punishment, which is made worse by the sterile way in which the story is told and the surrounding rather boring details about temple rituals which show even less emotion. After the tragic event, everyone seems more concerned with possible ritual pollution from touching the dead bodies than with the tragedy itself. Many Christian interpreters incorrectly assumed that Aaron exhibited a commendable and devout self-control when it says “Aaron remained silent”. Jewish interpreters offered a better explanation: Aaron, struggling with emotions, did not know what to say! In line with this, may I suggest a simple explanation of why Aaron and his other sons did not eat of the sin offering which was sacrificed next like they were supposed to? They were not hungry!

The simplest explanation of why Nadab and Abihu had to die, was of course that they did not follow protocol. That, according to this line of reasoning, would then be a lesson for us as well: to be extra careful and obedient to God in a legalistic or near-legalistic way. It will make you think twice about becoming a Jew or a Christian, let alone a priest or a minister. Some anti-Jewish Christians saw in this story the ultimate proof of the absurdity of the whole Jewish sacrificial system. The Jews would have made it all up, including what God was supposed to have said. If there were casualties, it was because of their own legalistic fabrications. That view is also a little too easy. More sensitive interpreters noticed a parallel with the Holy Innocents and with the way Christ died as a ransom to set others free. And indeed, if you think about it, Aaron’s own sin (with the golden calf) had not been punished yet. We may wonder, however, to what extent Nadab and Abihu’s sacrifice was voluntary. Also, in that case, we would have expected their bodies to have been totally consumed like the bull. As Ephraim Radner writes in his commentary, “Christ hovers on the horizon, but no more, and we are left with an unresolved tension between human grief and divine atonement”.

More promising is what the (Leviticus) Rabbahhas to say. This is a Midrash (commentary) containing ancient rabbinical interpretations. Rabbah 12 introduces the discussion of the story by saying that God himself mourned the deaths of Nadab and Abihu “twice as much” even as Aaron. It then reminds us of Eccl. 9:2, where it says that “one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked”, implying that those who died, were not necessarily more evil than the rest. Nadab and Abihu are placed from the start with the righteous. I am also reminded of Ex. 33:20 where it says that “man may not see me and live”. That it was the very closeness to God, and not a sinful distance, which caused the two to die, is confirmed by the summary in Lev. 16:1 where the emphasis is placed on “approach”. Moses then receives instructions to not enter the Most Holy Place “whenever he chooses”, again in order to let him maintain a safe distance.

Jewish legend and philosophy (Philo) would also contain the notion of Nadab and Abihu’s righteousness. Numbers Rabbah 2.23 sensed that the events were actually the result of their special relationship with the Lord. The two priests were thought to have been too good for this world and the Zohar would raise them to the level of saints, suffering on behalf of others. The Sefer Emet on Lev. 10:1-6, quoting yet other, unspecified, sages, explained it thus: “in the place where the repentant stand, the truly righteous cannot stand”, to continue, “therefore they were punished on our behalf, this is why we must weep for them”. It ends with the mysterious warning “And it is better not to go on at length about this point”.

In spite of that warning, I wish to go a little further. It struck me that fire was answered by fire. Could it be that both fires had been unauthorised? God’s fire was indeed also unauthorised, in the sense that God needed no authorisation. It could not even have been authorised, as there was no One higher than God to authorise it. This reminded me of the many people who suffer because no appeal is possible. Their dreams or even their lives ended because some authority determined it. End of discussion. The verdict itself could perhaps be accepted if there was a satisfactory explanation, but any questions (if they are even allowed) are too often met with the sheer arrogance of power.

I could cite examples that are far worse, but I will just mention this one, which has a relationship to ordained ministry. Did you know that until 1998 candidates for the priesthood in the Church of England had no right to read what was reported about them to the bishop, following a selection conference? That did not mean that if they were “not recommended” they received no explanation at all, but it depended on the person breaking the bad news to them. The candidates were not able to verify what was said and why. It took the British Data Protection act of 1998 (an external event) to change this situation. Then the church suddenly noticed that these reports had often been of poor quality. Too often selectors had presented conclusions without mentioning any evidence. Such reports might still be useful to the bishop, who should be able to trust the selectors and the selection process, but they were of little use to the candidate. So that was changed as well, which “inevitably led to longer reports. It represented a significant change”.[8]

Another example would be that of a retired Reader I know, whose permission to officiate was suddenly ended after he became too popular and some people had accused him of behaving as if he was ordained, even though he had always followed the instructions of the Archdeacon. The real reasons remain unclear, as the church would not answer pertinent questions. A number of Seventh Day Adventist ministers I knew have either temporarily or permanently lost their credentials (licenses) for very questionable reasons, like having become too popular or knowing too much. It finished the people in question as priests or ministers or brought them back in line, which sometimes amounted to the same thing.

The second thing that struck me in the story of Nadab and Abihu was the explanation which Moses himself gave in Lev. 10:3. Citing hitherto unknown words of God, he says “This is what the Lord spoke of when He said, ‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honoured’”. Here we have it: the word “honour”. In an honour-based society, this would indeed be the way God had to behave to make it clear that He had to be respected. At any given time, God can only reveal Himself in ways that are understood at that time. Now we understand why God is sometimes grieved about God’s “own” deeds. Why God suffered when Christ died. Why God suffers when people of a particular gender or age or sexual orientation are marginalised even by religious organisations. It is because God’s revelation (and certainly what we people make of it) is necessarily always more limited than God’s infinite love.

We are not finished yet, as the story has one more horrible detail. I already mentioned that ritual purity became an issue, more important than the death of the two brothers. Mourning made a person ritually unclean, so priests were not allowed to mourn, except when it concerned their family. To this, there was another exception, namely if you were a high-priest. Then it was forbidden regardless. In this case, however, yet another exception was made. Especially for this occasion, not even the brothers could mourn.[9] If there is one thing I find difficult to handle, it is new rules appearing out of nowhere. Things that you simply could not have known and that you are not prepared for and which have a huge personal impact, hitting you when you are vulnerable already. To the list of requirements for priests, already containing violence and blind obedience was added “learning to have no emotions”. This made for an even more lethal mix. It makes you wonder how the family of Aaron still produced some wonderful people like Zadok, Zachariah and John the Baptist.

Then I began to see ways in which the death of Nadab and Abihu could still have meaning. Their death released them from a vocation in which they would never have felt at home. Even if they could have quite their jobs as priests, they would still have been Levites. I realised that they had offered incense, a symbol of prayer, for which no blood had to be shed. Their free spirits and gentle nature belonged in a different time or place. They were priests alright, but not as their contemporaries would understand. To this day scholars are puzzling on what exactly their sin might have been. Does that in itself not tell us something about their innocence? When do we stop judging? At least this incident forces us to ask such questions. That is another way in which their deaths can be meaningful. It is a shame that the story is hidden away in a Bible book that almost nobody reads.

Slow learners?

Neither Moses nor Aaron was allowed to enter the Promised Land. They had both made some grave mistakes in their lives and they had not only made them at the beginning of their ministry, when they were still inexperienced, but also when they were about to reach their goal. We are told that the reason was that both of them rebelled against Gods command at the waters of Meribah (Numbers 20:12,24). Interestingly, the story nowhere tells us what Aaron had done wrong this time. All it says is that he had accompanied Moses, so he must have been nearby when Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it, as the Lord had commanded.

Could it have been that he was too loyal to Moses, and passive in letting it all happen, like he had done before when the people wanted a golden calf? Or is this one of the examples in the Old Testament where it is considered normal that descendants or subordinates are punished together with the head of the family or the leader? Was perhaps “P”, the priestly author of this part of the Torah, protecting Aaron, by leaving out some crucial information? We will probably never know for certain until God one day reveals it to us on the New Earth.

We need to realise, though, that Meribah means quarrel. The people had been complaining about the way Moses and Aaron had been leading them. This was immediately after the Edomites had not allowed Israel to peacefully travel via their territory, where water would be available. Moses and Aaron together had apparently not been able to settle this quarrel, at least not in the right way. Moses started by saying, “listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Moses and Aaron had probably taken the complaints of the Israelites too personally. After all, they were equally, if not more so, directed against God. Nowadays we would add that calling someone a rebel does not do much to reconcile two parties, but that was probably a minor matter in those days. Then Moses “gives” the people what they asked for, water. And while doing this, he forgot the precise instructions he had received from God.

In all these elements there is a lesson for those who exercise a kind of priestly ministry today or have an ambition or a sense of calling in that direction. First of all the way we settle quarrels and complaints is not by becoming defensive, wishing there was a church without laity and especially without ones who ask awkward questions. It is not by switching to the automatic pilot and doing exactly what you have done before. God’s instructions may be different this time! It is not by immediately giving the people (or the majority) what they want, to calm down the situation. Most of all, it is not by taking away responsibility from the people themselves, as if the only correct explanations and solutions should always come from a prophet or a priest or from a religious body.

Now the people of Israel were clearly not ready to enter the Promised Land without some strong leadership, but I believe God was trying to create a beginning of awareness that there was another, more spiritual, way in which the promise of receiving a Holy Land could and would be fulfilled. I once wrote an article in which I surmised, “I think that Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is right when he says that Moses’ striking the rock was not the reason why he couldn’t lead the Jews into Canaan, but that it was a symptom of the reason. As we all know, Moses had difficulty convincing people, to really interact with them verbally. He was relying on a combination of his own perseverance and the supernatural. While this may have worked for the generation that left Egypt, it was not what God had in mind for the generation entering the Holy Land. They were not to obliterate their opposition by brute force or miracles, but to change the world by dealing with it on its terms, and eventually “cajole” the world to higher levels of godliness. Now Aaron had no problem communicating with the people, but he did not manage to convey this spiritual message, either. Sadly, even the Church would, for centuries on end, mix their spiritual message with one form of violence or another. To God, that future did not make such a lack of sensitivity less serious.

Moses would have the sad task of escorting Aaron to the top of mount Hor, there to strip him of his priestly garments. These were given to Aaron’s son Eleazar, who was already head of the leaders of the Levites. Aaron died earlier than he would have done if “Meribah” had not happened. In a sense, therefore, his ordination had not been “for life”. He had to hand in his garments and his credentials before his life would normally have ended. Unlike the future prophet Elijah, he did not pass his cloak to his successor, but Moses took it from him. This emphasised that Moses was still in charge, with God speaking to Aaron indirectly. Apparently, the divine appointment, signified by the anointment which was reserved for kings and high priests (and the temple furniture!), did not necessarily indicate being a direct or lasting channel for revelation.

Maybe Aaron should have become a mouthpiece of God, but as I said about the Levites, they were best at following strict, preferably written, orders. If these orders were not written, they would write them down. Even that was no guarantee they understood or powerfully upheld all the implications. If it had been otherwise, God would not have had to raise up prophets. Why Aaron had to die before Moses, is again not clear. I am guessing that it was slightly easier to replace a priest than it was to replace a prophet. That both were great, however, was testified by the fact that the entire house of Israel would mourn for 30 days, just as they would later do for Moses. Similar greatness as that of Moses and Aaron would never be found until Christ, or after that.

Epilogue: Some humility

Personally, the incident at mount Hor alone would make me extremely hesitant to call myself a priest, even if I were to be ordained as such, but I will deal later with the word “priest” as it might still be used under the New Covenant. In my humble opinion, a total absence of reservations about the word “priest” is never a good sign. Although nothing can stop them, many have either used or avoided the word just to impress, while not always displaying a “priestly” concern for God’s people as a whole. Most ordained ministers do not come anywhere near the importance of Moses and Aaron when it comes to leading people out of all kinds of (ancient and modern) slavery, whereas they are still supposed to, whether you call this office ‘prophet’, ‘priest’, ‘pastor’, ‘minister’ or even (in Dutch) ‘dominee’ (lordship).

On the contrary, both the Jewish religion and the Church throughout the ages have sadly tended to produce a proliferation of rules, methods and “appropriate” customs, not counting the variations per denomination (and not limited to their paid staff). This may have been foreseen by St. Paul when he wrote in Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage”. So again, I would be hesitant to call myself a priest if a major part of my job would be to maintain some dignified status quo. And I would be compelled to speak up if colleagues or superiors were too focused on status quo or mutual admiration, while neglecting justice, equality and charity.

Fortunately, this is increasingly less often the case, but I still feel that churches are not humble enough in this respect. In this information age, and with the present amount of justified questions confronting the Church, it would be wise (even in the interest of our mission) to do a little more self-reflection. We could, for instance, check our language. I am not saying that we cannot be proud of some of our traditions, and what (to us!) they stand for, but it won’t be long before some of those will be seriously misunderstood. A title like “reverend”, used by Catholics and Protestants alike, which means “one who is to be respected”, should be abolished straight away. By now it should be utterly clear, especially to those who call themselves spiritual, that everyone is to be respected. So, either we invite each and everybody to use this title, or it should be discouraged among all. I don’t care that judges are still called “your honour”.

Jesus said, “I do not accept glory from men” (John 5:41). “If I honour myself, my honour is nothing” (John 8:54). Also, when honour comes from other humans, Jesus considers that as a pitfall. “How can you believe if you accept glory from one another, yet do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). Now what if we say that the title “reverend” is given by God via the Church (as part of the sacrament of ordination)? This is unlikely, because Jesus did not even want his followers to call themselves teachers. “But you are not to be called ‘rabbi’, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8). Unfortunately most Christians would gradually forget this. Now even our friends the Buddhists have taken over this bad habit from Christianity and are calling their teachers “Reverend”. Paradoxically, if we would concentrate more on the simple teachings of Christ, we might become better teachers! All this without requiring any title. In another article, I hope to expand on Christ’s relationship towards the various religious figures of his day.


[1] Apart from some land for their cattle.

[2] In total 48 towns or cities (4 in the territory of each tribe) including 6 free-towns (3 on either side of the Jordan) where people could flee who had accidentally caused the death of another person. Thus they could escape blood feud.

[3] Based on Ex. 32:29.

[4] Ex. 40:16 and other places speak of a “priesthood that will continue for all generations to come”. Eternity or continuation may also be achieved by fulfilment. The word “fulfilment” refers to continuation on a higher level. For instance, Christ fulfilled the law by writing the essence of the law in our hearts and by becoming a sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

[5] I am aware of the literary criticism concerning this story. Some scholars even argue that it did not happen at all. The story would be the result of religious-political strife between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms concerning the place of worship and it would be a projection back in time of another calf-story, as found in 1 Kings 12:26-30. The duplication of the story would serve to strengthen the case against the apostate Northern Kingdom. I have assumed here that this is either incorrect or, even if it would be true, the place of this story in the account of the Exodus is full of meaning. In that sense my observations are more theological than historical.

[6] The Quran has a version of this story in which not Aaron but a person called Samiri was responsible for making the golden calf. This could either be true, or be an attempt to make the story more logical. In any case, Aaron remained responsible for not intervening.

[7] Some scholars believe that the event took place when Aaron’s sons had not yet been ordained and could therefore indeed only perform some simple tasks. This would have made their later sacrifice unlawful. This is unlikely, though, as the ordination of Aaron and his sons is described 2 chapters earlier, in Lev. 8.

[8] Robert Reiss, The Testing of Vocation, p. 255.

[9] Lev. 21:1-4,10-11. This also indicates that either the chapters of Leviticus are not in chronological order, or Aaron and his sons would have known even less what to expect regarding the burial of Nadab and Abihu.

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