The kingdom of priests no longer an exclusive club


Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

Isaiah 54:11-55:5

I Samuel 20:18, 42

The care of ancient Israel's shrines, temples, and the rituals performed in them was entrusted to priests who served as intermediaries between the people and God. Differentiated from the general population by distinctive dress and customs, the Israelite priesthood was a hereditary position. Priestly activities included administration of the shrine, offering sacrifices, sounding trumpets on festivals and new moons, burning frankincense, maintaining lamps, setting out the shewbread (bread offering), identifying impurities, treating diseases, and judging and teaching the people. They also revealed the divine will through the use of the instruments of divination called the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8).

In some sections of the Torah, the priestly classes are clearly defined. The Kohanim, descendants of Aaron, were awarded the highest priestly prerogatives.

Among them: wearing distinctive garments; anointing with oil; washing hands and feet before entering the Temple or approaching the altar; abstaining from wine and other intoxicants, especially during performance of cultic duties; and avoiding contamination by the dead. Priests also adhered to a prohibition against marrying a divorcee or woman of questionable character, and they consumed special sacrifices apportioned exclusively for them (Ex. 25:1-29:37).

The Levites were the assistants of the Kohanim (Numbers. 3, 4, 8, 18). However, this distinction between the two priestly classes is not frequently mentioned. In Re'eh, this week's Torah portion, for example, reference is made only to "priest" or "Levite" in the following passage: "Be sure not to neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land" (Deuteronomy 12: 19).

Furthermore, in most other sections of the Torah and in the historical books of the early prophets, ill-defined priestly responsibilities result in an Israelite priesthood whose origin is shrouded in mystery. For example, it is unclear what relationship, if any, non-Aaronide priests who ministered at Shiloh (I Samuel 2:24ff), Nob (I Sam. 21ff) and Jerusalem (I Kings 2:35) had to the Levites and Kohanim.

Internal struggles for priestly pre-eminence are hinted at in a number of texts, including Numbers 16, in which an anti-Levitic civil uprising resulted from competition between Moses and Aaron, on the one hand, and Korah, Dathan and Abiram, on the other, for control of sacerdotal functions. Immediately following this power struggle, Aaronide supremacy is recorded in the account of Aaron's staff that miraculously sprouted, flowered and bore almonds overnight (Num. 17:16-26).

Gradual Aaronide consolidation and elimination of priestly competition occurred over many centuries, culminating in the abolition of local shrines during the reign of King Josiah (621 BCE). Later, after the return from the Babylonian exile, the responsibility of chief political representative was added to the priestly privilege. Only with the rise of the rabbinic period did the Pharisees effectively challenge the exclusive priestly prerogative to interpret the Torah; ultimately these cultic functionaries were supplanted and then put out of commission when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

The centuries following the destruction of the Temple and the disappearance of an active priesthood have relegated biblical patrimonies to distant memories. Although some Jews still cling to the practice of tracing lineage to ancient priestly descent, modern Jews, for whom there is no functioning priesthood, inherit priestly prerogatives.

With no priests accessible to intercede on behalf of supplicants, but with rabbis available to teach seekers how to achieve a measure of holiness or the penitent how to atone for regrettable behavior, serious Jews take up the priestly mantle to infuse their lives with priestlike holiness. This is the central message of Re'eh, written in the era of the priestly prerogative, but nevertheless, addressed to each Israelite: "…take care to observe all the laws and rules that I have set before you this day" (Deut. 11:32).

In ancient Temple days, implementing this injunction was a priestly responsibility that was in keeping with a long tradition of leadership. Today that is not the obligation of a special class of priests, but rather that of each individual Jew, in order that all those who seek a deep connection to Jewish life might have a share in becoming "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6).