Chapter 3: Priests from Adam to Moses

Chapter 3: Priests from Adam to Moses

While the Book of Genesis is a particularly significant book of the Bible since it examines origins of so many things, including priests, it says very little about priests per se. The Bible only goes to town on the subject of priests, specifically to do with Aaron and his family and the tribe of Levi, when Israel was camped by Mount Sinai for the giving of the Law, by God, to Moses. Yet, unlike kings, the notion of priesthood can be detected right at the beginning of God’s dealing with humankind, in the Garden of Eden. The Garden represented heaven on earth, where God and his human creation, Adam and Eve, were freely ably to communicate in wonderful harmony, with no need of a priestly intermediary since direct access was always available and was as God intended. When later, God talks of Israel as being kings and priests and later still the same applying to the Church, that same perfect relationship that was enjoyed in the Garden of Eden would have been alluded to, and can be anticipated in time.

The very first “priest” reference in the Bible was “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.” Genesis 14:18-20, which followed Abraham’s involvement in the war fought between the four kings against the five, when he brought Abraham (then named Abram) bread and wine and bless him and God. We will have a lot more to say concerning Melchizedek when we consider Jesus, the Great High Priest, and Melchizedek himself (in Part 2). As we study the Bible, we can see a close association between Jesus and Melchizedek, including not only were they priests of the same order but they were kings too.

The only other “priest” reference in Genesis was when Pharoah gave to Joseph as “wife Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On” Genesis 41:45. We know little about this priest other than a sense of his importance in Egyptian life. The very fact that Joseph was given the priest’s daughter in marriage was also indicative of how much Pharoah valued him. The fact that the god the Egyptian priest represented was NOT YHWH God, is the one clear example of priests in the Bible who are NOT of YHWH. When Joseph achieved power in Egypt by virtue of him predicting and then put in charge of organising the food supply in the light of seven years of famine that happened, he extracted a high price in terms of tribute, in exchange for helping the people but not with the priests: “Only the land of the priests bought he not; for the priests had a portion assigned them of Pharaoh, and did eat their portion which Pharaoh gave them: wherefore they sold not their lands … And Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth part, except the land of the priests only, which became not Pharaoh’s” Genesis 47:22,26.

Given most nations outside Israel did not worship YHWH begs the question: who were the gods that these nations followed? But since there is little to go on in the Bible narrative concerning priests that were not priests of YHWH, it is not a subject to be covered in this book, other than when making reference to their false gods and idols and noting several gods are named, e.g. Baal, and that idolatry, along with sexual immorality, were besetting sins found throughout Israel’s OT history. There is strong indication that even in Israel, when people departed from the true worship of YHWH an alternative priesthood was set up. We see this when the kingdom divided (ten tribes to the North under Jeroboam – Israel, and two tribes to the South under Rehoboam – Judah). Under Jeroboam worship of golden calves at Bethel and Dan was introduced. We learn “After this thing Jeroboam returned not from his evil way, but made again of the lowest of the people priests of the high places: whosoever would, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places” 1 Kings 13:33. “And the priests and the Levites that were in all Israel resorted to him out of all their coasts. For the Levites left their suburbs and their possession, and came to Judah and Jerusalem: for Jeroboam and his sons had cast them off from executing the priest’s office unto the Lord: And he ordained him priests for the high places, and for the devils, and for the calves which he had made. And after them out of all the tribes of Israel such as set their hearts to seek the Lord God of Israel came to Jerusalem, to sacrifice unto the Lord God of their fathers” 1Chronicles 11:13-16.

While priests were not mentioned before Joseph in Genesis (other than Melchizedek), when later they were we learn that one of the main priestly functions was to make offerings and sacrifices to the Lord. This happened before there were priests appointed for such tasks. We read in Genesis 4 of how Cain and Abel both made offerings to the Lord and that God accepted Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s and this had as much to do with the attitude of the one who was making the offering. We read later of how Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob also offered animal sacrifices, as did Job, who it is reckoned also operated before the Exodus, all before the setting up of the Levitical priesthood. What we see in all these cases is heads of families taking on a priestly role, a lesson worth taking on board today, when it comes to men being good role models and godly examples in their own families. In Abraham’s case, he offered more than once and when God instructed him to offer up Isaac, who he was not to know would be reprieved at the last moment, and which was a test of obedience, we had a picture of the ultimate sacrifice of God’s son freely offered himself as an atoning sacrifice, when he died on the cross. Offerings and sacrifices represented two powerful truths in OT times, as we will consider later – it was a way of saying sorry to God and was a way of saying thank you to God.

One other priest deserves a mention, before we consider the Levitical priesthood that will be the major consideration for this book, and that is Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. The first mention of “the priest of Midian” was in Exodus 2:16, when Moses was on the run for his life from Pharoah’s palace, having earlier killed the Egyptian task master who was oppressing the Hebrews, and he helped the daughters of this priest of Midian in a dispute around being able to draw water from the well. We learn some time later: “Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb” Exodus 3:1. Then some 40 years after the first meeting, having met God at the site of the burning bush and given orders to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, we read: “And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said unto him, Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive. And Jethro said to Moses, Go in peace” Exodus 4:18.

Then the one other time we read of Jethro was soon after embarking on his wilderness journey: “When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father in law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt; Then Jethro, Moses’ father in law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her back” Exodus 18:1:2. We read of at least two significant actions that involved Jethro. Firstly: “And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, whom he had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians. And Jethro said, Blessed be the Lord, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians – And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God: and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God”. Exodus 18:9-10,12. Secondly, it was concerning Jethro’s wise advice that few would dispute has universal application. Moses was inundated when it came to listening to and judging disputes and how to resolve them. Soon after, we read: “And Moses let his father in law depart; and he went his way into his own land”.

Jethro played an important part in Moses’ life, especially during his second forty years when Moses, having thought he was a somebody, growing up in Pharoah’s palace during his first forty years, then having to live a nomadic existence, living in the Wilderness (all perfect preparation) and with Jethro’s support, learning that he was a nobody and then lastly in his final forty years learning who God can use nobodies. Scholars have speculated what exactly was Jethro a priest of, although it is evident, by the time he joined Moses soon after he had crossed the Red Sea, that he was one who reverenced YHWH. One credible explanation was he was a descendant of Keturah, Abraham’s second wife, and that the Midian offspring, which Jethro was part of, would have known something of the true God. 

Shortly after Moses last reported encounter with Jethro, we find him and the Children of Israel encamped by Mount Sinai, where the Covenant is established, the Law is given and the Levitical Priesthood is established. He reminds Moses “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel” Exodus 19:6, which is an important theme (OT and NT), which we will return to. It is worth noting, even before Aaron was appointed the first High Priest that priests were already in existence, although we don’t know the details: “And let the priests also, which come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them” Exodus 19:22. Also “And the Lord said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the Lord, lest he break forth upon them” Exodus 19:24.


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