Priests of the Bible – 4. Eleazar
When I began to prepare for this Priests of the Bible series, I took the view that covering one son of Aaron (Nadab) would be enough, and all I needed was to give his three brothers a mention when doing Nadab. But as I read on, I came to the view another son (Eleazar), quite a different proposition to his brother who was slain by God for offering strange fire, was also significant, not just because of the number of times he is mentioned but he more than passed the significance test, upon taking on the role of assisting his father, Aaron, in his priestly duties, early in the Wilderness journey after the priesthood was begun at Mount Sinai, then taking on extra responsibilities upon the deaths of Nadab and Abihu and toward the end of forty years in the Wilderness becoming High Priest and continuing in that office the whole twenty five years when Joshua led Israel. Right at the end of the Book of Joshua and soon after Joshua died we read: “And Eleazar the son of Aaron died; and they buried him in a hill that pertained to Phinehas his son, which was given him in mount Ephraim” Joshua 24:33.
Please bear with me for quoting Wikipedia at length but here it does provide an excellent summary: “Eleazar played a number of roles during the course of the Exodus, from creating the plating for the altar from the firepans of Korah’s assembly, to performing the ritual of the red heifer. After the death of his older brothers Nadab and Abihu, he and his younger brother Ithamar were appointed to the charge of the sanctuary. His wife, a daughter of Putiel, bore him Phinehas, who would eventually succeed him as High Priest. Leviticus 10:16–18 records an incident when Moses was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, for failing to eat a sin offering inside the Tabernacle in accordance with the regulations set out in the preceding chapters of Leviticus regarding the entitlement of the priests to a share of the offerings they made on behalf of the Israelite people. As the Israelites moved through the wilderness during the Exodus journey, Eleazar was responsible for carrying the oil for the lampstand, the sweet incense, the daily grain offering and the anointing oil, and also for oversight of the carriage of the Ark of the Covenant, table for showbread, altar and other tabernacle fittings which were transported by the Kohathite section of the Levite tribe. Following the rebellion against Moses’ leadership recorded in Numbers 16, Eleazar was charged with taking the rebels’ bronze censers and hammering them into a covering for the altar, to act as a reminder of the failed rebellion and the restriction of the priesthood to the Aaronid dynasty. On Mount Hor he was clothed with the sacred vestments, which Moses took from his father Aaron and put upon him as successor to his father in the high priest’s office, before Aaron’s death. Eleazar held the office of high priest for more than twenty years. He took part with Moses in numbering the people, and assisted at the inauguration of Joshua. He assisted in the distribution of the land after the conquest. When he died, he “was buried at Gibeah, which had been allotted to his son Phinehas in the hill country of Ephraim” … The high-priesthood remained in the family of Eleazar until the time of Eli, into whose family it passed. Eli was a descendant of Ithamar, Eleazar’s brother. The high priesthood was restored to the family of Eleazar in the person of Zadok after Abiathar was cast out by Solomon.”
Eleazar is mentioned by name 8 times in the Book of Joshua, whereas the term “priest” is used 36 times. The point being that the function of the priests, e.g. making offerings and carrying the Ark of the Covenant, was more important than individual personalities, and the work of the priests as intermediaries between God and the people, under the supervision of the High Priest, when it came to taking possession of the Promised Land, as led by Joshua, was very important. Except for a strange incident soon after the slaying of Nadab and Abihu: “And Moses diligently sought the goat of the sin offering, and, behold, it was burnt: and he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron which were left alive, saying, Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin offering in the holy place, seeing it is most holy, and God hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord?” Leviticus 10:16,17, we read of no other complaint (and it could be Moses was wrong in this case) against Eleazar during the whole of the 60 plus years that he served as priest, doing so with distinction.
Eleazar had been through a lot including seeing God’s judgment against two of his brothers and his own father and Moses and several instances of God dispensing justice on sinners and Israel’s enemies. But throughout that period he just got on and carried out his duties and the fact little attention was paid to him as a person suggests it was without ostentation. Unlike most other characters of the Bible who we deem to be good, we can discern no character flaw. He was a worthy successor to Aaron, the one with whom most future High Priests (also his descendants) would later be traced to.