By Ellsworth A. Archer
We now come to the consideration of the priesthood, which was an important part of the tabernacle history and worship.
A priest is one who is duly authorized to minister in sacred things, particularly to offer sacrifices at the altar, and who acts as a mediator between men and God.
A prophet is one who speaks in behalf of God to man, while a priest speaks to God in behalf of man.
The origin of the priesthood is undoubtedly due to the universal need which mankind has always felt for superhuman aid and assistance in the struggle of life. Its origin was very early in the history of the human race, and did not originate with the Hebrews, for all of the nations which had existed before them, and the ones which now surrounded them, had their priests. Mr. Hastings, in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, says that the first indication of the priest's office can be traced back almost to the very origin of religious practices.
During the time of the patriarchs and after the time that the Israelites departed from Egypt, about 1500 years B. C., the eldest son of each family was especially dedicated to God, and exercised both ecclesiastical and civil power, "being both kings and priests in their own houses." But later, when Moses on Mount Sinai received instructions concerning the tabernacle and its furnishings, Jehovah commanded that Aaron and his sons be selected from among the children of Israel as priests, and a little later the tribe of Levi was set apart for the service of the sanctuary, and were accepted in the place of the first born. They were divided into three separate branches -- Levites, priests, and high priests -- each branch having its own special function.
The Levites usually entered upon their duties at 30 years of age. (Nu. 4:23, 30, 35). They were dedicated to their work by a special ceremony, which consisted of sprinkling with water, shaving their bodies and washing their clothes. After this they were solemnly presented to God by laying on of the hands of the high priest. They were required to offer two bullocks, one for a sin-offering and the other for a burnt-offering (Nu. 8:5-22). The Levites were a substitute for the first-born, who by right belonged to God; and they were the assistants of the priests. They really occupied a middle place between the priests and the people, thus they might come nearer to the tabernacle than the other tribes. They were requested to do everything in connection with the service of the tabernacle which the priests themselves were not required by law to do.
The Levites consisted of three families, namely: Kohath, Gershon, and Merari. The family of Kohath (the one to which Moses and Aaron belonged) was the first in rank and had the most honorable work. When the tabernacle was moved it was the duty of the Kohathites to take charge of the sacred vessels-such as the altars, the candlestick, the table of shewbread and the ark-all of which had to be carried on their shoulders. They were located on the south side of the tabernacle. To the Gershonites, who were located on the west side, was given the moving of the curtains, the wails and the tent hangings. The Merarites, who camped on the north side, had charge of the heavier furniture of the tabernacle, such as the boards, the bars and the pillars, so they and the Gershonites were permitted to use oxen and wagons in which to carry their portion. These had been contributed by the congregation.
The Levites were supported by the tithe of the produce of the land and the cattle, and they in turn gave one-tenth of their income, or one-tenth of the tithe, to the priests.
The ceremony by which the priests were consecrated to their office was more imposing than that for the Levites. They first laid aside their old garments, after which they washed their bodies with pure water, anointed themselves with holy oil, and then arrayed themselves in their new vestments (Ex. 29:4-7). Before they could offer sacrifices for others, it was necessary to first offer one for themselves. This was done by laying their hands on the head ' of a bullock, which symbollically transferred their guilt to the bullock. Then a ram was slain as a burnt-offering and its blood was sprinkled on the altar. this was done to show their absolute and entire devotion to their calling. Next, another ram was slain as a peace .:`offering, and some of its blood was placed on the tip of the right ear of the priest, on the thumb of his right hand and on the great toe of his right foot--thus indicating that every part of his body was dedicated to the service of Jehovah. Last, portions of the sacrifice, with cakes of unleavened bread, were waved before the Lord.
During their ministrations, the priests were required to wear special vestments.. These were linen breeches, over which was drawn a closely fitting white tunic or cossack, woven in one piece, reaching to the feet and fastened around the waist by a girdle of blue, purple and scarlet, mixed with white. The head was covered with a linen tiara in the form of a flower calyx. It seemed that they were barefooted during the time they were performing their duties.
There were certain qualifications necessary before they could enter upon their duties. During the period of their ministration they could not drink wine nor strong drink; they could not mourn for the dead except in the case of relatives; they could not shave their heads nor cut their flesh like priests of the heathen nations; they could marry, but were forbidden to marry one of an alien race, an unchaste woman, one who had been divorced, or the widow of any one except a priest.
The priests had many duties to perform. They had to keep the fire burning on the altar of burnt-offering day and night; they trimmed the golden lamps and kept them filled with oil; they offered the morning and evening sacrifices at the door of the tabernacle;, they placed fresh shewbread on the table every seventh day; they blew the silver trumpet and proclaimed the solemn days; they acted as judges and expositors of the law, and they taught the people the statutes of the land.
The Apostle of our Profession. Heb III.
The High Priest in his robes of glory and beauty coming forth to bless the people.
Lev. Xvi 24; Ex. Xxviii 2
The priests were supported by a special provision which was made for them. They received the tithe of the tithe from the Levites; the loaves of shewbread, the first fruits of the oils, corn and wine; the redemption money for the first born of man or beast; the profit of the sacrifices, the the peace-offerings, the trespass-offerings, and especially the wave-breast and the heave shoulder; a fixed portion of the spoils taken in war; and special offerings, as that of the leper.
The office of high priest was first conferred on Aaron and then on his son Eleazer.
The distinctive vestments of the high priest were more rich and splendid than the ones worn by the priests. He wore linen drawers, and over these the robe of the ephod. This was- made of blue woven work without seams and with no sleeves; a hole, fringed with a border of woven work, was in the top, and the garment reached to the feet. Around the bottom was a fringe of bells and pomegranates, alternating.
The ephod was a short coat of two parts which was worn over the robe. One part went over the back and the other over the breast, and these were held together by two shoulder pieces. Upon each shoulder of the ephod was an onyx stone with the names of the children of Israel engraved on them, six on each stone. Thus the high priest bore "their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for a memorial." (Ex. 28:12.) The ephod, which was made of -fine linen--blue, purple and scarlet interwoven with gold, was gathered around the waist by a girdle of the same material.
The breastplate, or the breastplate of judgment, was above the girdle.
It was worn upon his breast over the ephod, and was fastened to the shoulders and girdle by chains of gold and a lace of blue. The breastplate contained the Urim and Thummin, which mean light and right. There is much mystery connected with them, but they were a means of communicating with God. The priest, used them for the purpose of obtaining an answer from Jehovah. The rabbinical writers say that these stones lit up when the answer was favorable and remained dark when it was unfavorable. However, since the Bible gives no explanation concerning these mysterious objects, except that through them the will of God could be ascertained by the high priest, it is impossible to tell just what they were. Besides these he wore a mitre on his head and on it was a gold plate with the inscription, "Holiness to the Lord."
The High Priest of our Profession. Heb III.
The High Priest in his robes of fine linen sprinkling blood upon the mercy seat. Lev. Xvi. 14
The high priest could marry, but only a virgin in the first freshness of her youth. The name of his mother as well as his father was registered in order to be sure of his legitimacy. His office lasted for life, but he does not seem to have had any compensation above that of the ordinary priests. His duties were not so numerous as the priests, but he consulted the divine oracle which he alone could do-and presided over the court of judgment.
His most important duty was to enter the Holy of Holies once a year, on the Day of Atonement. This occurred on the tenth day of the seventh month of the sacred year, and lasted but one day, although the seven days preceding it were spent by the high priest in preparation for it. It was a day of national humiliation, when sacrifices were offered for the sins of both priest and people.
The ritual for the observance of this Day of Atonement by the high priest was very elaborate. He first bathed himself and put on his white linen garments (Lev. 16: 4, 32), (later on this custom seems to have undergone some change), after which he brought, as a sacrifice for himself and the priests, a bullock for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. For the sins of the people, he brought two he goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. The two he goats were presented to the Lord at the brazen altar, where the high priest cast two lots on them-one for Jehovah and the other for the scape goat (Lev. 16:8). After this had been done, he slew the bullock which was for his own sin offering and that of his order. He then filled a censer with live coals, took some incense, and went through the holy place, where he put the incense upon the coals in the censer, so that the fragrance therefrom might surround the Mercy Seat. This done, he returned to the brazen altar, where he took some of the blood of the bullock in a vessel, and going back to the Most Holy Place, sprinkled it upon the Mercy Seat seven times. Thus was atonement made for the priestly order.
His next duty was to sacrifice for the sins of the people. To do this, he slew the goat upon which the lot for Jehovah had fallen; took of its blood into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled it as he had the blood of the bullock. When he returned from the Holy of Holies this time, he purified the Holy Place by sprinkling the blood of both of the victims seven times upon the altar of incense.
So Christ, our High Priest, has made atonement for us. As the high priest removed his royal robes and put on the simple white robes common to the other priests, so Christ laid aside His royalty, His glory, His honor, His kingship, and came to earth in the humble form of man that He might make atonement for the sins of the race.
This was the goat upon which the lot had fallen as scapegoat. The high priest laid both of his hands upon the goat and confessed the sins of the people. He then gave the goat to a man who led him away, and the goat was to bear their "iniquities into a land not inhabited."
The scapegoat is symbolical of Christ taking away our sins, so far that they will not be called to mind again.
In Isaiah, chapter 53, a portion of verse 6, it says, "and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all."
The high priest confessed over the head of the scapegoat all the iniquities and sins of the children of Israel, and then sent the goat away with them. If we confess our sins, Christ, our High Priest, will forgive them, and He says, "their sins and iniquities will I remember no more." (Heb. 10:17)'
After the high priest had confessed for the sins of the people on the scapegoat, he re-entered the tabernacle, where he bathed in pure water, changed to his royal robes and offered the burnt offering, both for the sins of the priests and of the people. This ended his duties for this day of Holy Convocation.