I’ve said this elsewhere, perhaps more than once, but I disagree with church folks who say, “Don’t read the commentaries, read the Bible!” Perhaps such folks are well-intentioned; they want to allow the Holy Spirit power to open up meanings for us. But the Holy Spirit can open the Scriptures for us via commentaries as well.
After all, there are themes in the Bible that may not “jump out” at you until you read the work of some scholar who has devoted years to scriptural study. For instance, did you know that the Bible has “pro- and anti-monarch” passages? I certainly didn’t until recently, as I was rereading a book by my div school teacher, Brevard S. Childs.
The Biblical Monarchy
In his book Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986, p. 115), Childs notes that the OT scholar Julius Wellhausen identified a “promonarchial source in 1 Samuel 8-12, specifically 9:1-10:16 and 11:1-5. Those texts affirm the new Israelite monarchy, while 8:1-22, 10:17-27, 12:1-25 “regarded the rise of the kingdom as a rejection of God’s true rain”…and saw it as an act of disobedience which emulated Israel’s pagan nations.” Later, the OT scholar Gerhard Von Rad reinterpreted those passages as complementary rather than contradictory. Following Von Rad but also looking to the canonical shape of the text, Childs believes that the anti-monarchical source “brackets the earlier source at both beginning and end (p. 116), but that the pro-monarchical source still has power because “God is still deeply involved in the rise of the monarchy even when it was not according to his original plan for Israel (p. 116). Thus Israel has to choose for God or against God, whether ruled by a king or not (p. 117).
Even though the anti-monarchical source questions the properness of an Israelite king—because Yahweh is Israel’s true king, and the previous rulership of Israel had been the shoftim (judges)—the career of David becomes significant for Israel’s messianic hope: for instance, Isa. 9:6-7, Jer. 23:5ff, and Psalms like 45, 72, and 110 (Childs, pp. 119-120). Thus, even though the monarchy was not according to God’s original plan, God incorporated the monarchy—and specifically King David—as a “type of God’s kingdom.” (In another example, Childs further argues, with von Rad in mind, that the “succession narrative 2 Samuel 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2 has not been artificially broken up by 2 Samuel 21-24, but that those four chapters places David’s career in context with the messianic hope of Israel, precisely as David’s speech in chapter 22 echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2: p. 118.)
Of course, in Christian affirmation, David and his kingdom become precursors and “types” of Christ (the great descendent of David and member of David’s tribe, Judah) and his kingdom.
The Biblical Priesthood
Still leafing through Childs’ text, I reread his chapter on the Israelite priesthood. Here again, I would never have noticed differences in the biblical text concerning the priesthood. Honestly, if I was reading through some of these passages (for instance, while reading the Bible over a set time period) I might daydream my way through these sections that seem to have less relevance to my daily life.
Childs notes that in Ex. 28-29 and Lev. 8-10—where we find much information about the biblical priests—Aaron and his sons are consecrated to an eternal priesthood. Also, the Aaronic priests performed cultic rites while Levites were responsible for maintenance of the tabernacle (e.g. Num. 1:47ff) (p. 145, 150). But, Childs notes, we don’t find that distinction in Deuteronomy, which describe “Levitical priests” who have cultic responsibilities.
Other biblical passages also show interesting variations. Childs cites Wellhausen’s research that we find no Aaronite clergy in Judges and Samuel. For instance, Eli is the chief priest but he is from the Ephraim tribe. When we get to Chronicles, we return to the separation of priest and Levites that we saw in Exodus and Leviticus(pp. 145-146).
Wellhausen explains the discrepancies in terms of the time period of the material. He argued that Ex. 25-40, Leviticus, and Numbers are post-exilic, while Deuteronomy is pre-exilic (i.e., late monarchy, from the time of Josiah) (p. 146).Childs addresses and untangles these issues with a canonical approach. Whatever was the historical development of the Israelite priesthood, it is background history and never entirely clear or recoverable form the biblical materials, and thru resist historical reconstruction (pp. 149-150, 153), “Rather, the post-exilic form of the Israelite priesthood has been made normative” (p. 153), that is, the priesthood described in Exodus and Leviticus, where the priests not only sacrifice but also intercede for the people. Moreover the Levites are set apart because of their “zeal for Yahweh” (Deut. 10:8, 12:19ff, 18:6ff, 33:8ff), in contrast to the Aaron and his sons who worshiped and love Yahweh but also sinned (Ex. 32, Lev. 10:1-3) (p. 150). Meanwhile, the Chronicler depicts the priests and Levites in conformity to Leviticus and Numbers, as we see not only in Chronicles itself but also in Ezra and Nehemiah (Ez. 6:18, 10:5, Neh. 11:10) (p. 151-152).
Childs’ untangling of these layers of biblical tradition made me think of a book I like by John G. Gammie, Holiness in Israel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1989). Gammie provides interesting information about the process of ordination whereby the priest was made holy (Ex. 29). Those steps are worth looking at, as well as the different priestly vestments described in Exodus 28-29). Gammie notes that the priests’ conferred holiness made them particularly susceptible to the uncleanness of the dead, which had to be deal with in prescribed ways (as in Numbers 19, and discussed in Lev. 21); thus the rituals of Lev. 22. (p. 31). He also writes that, in the Torah, Aaron and his sons are so holy that even Moses cannot enter the place of God’s glory; only they and the ordained priests could do so (Ex. 27:21, 28:40-43, 29:29, 40:34-35, Lev. 18) (p. 34-35). But nevertheless, “their holiness is derivative” to God’s holiness, and is certainly not inherent (p. 36).
Gammie notes that “the priestly theology of holiness can be summarized by the twin notions of separation and purity,” wherein distinctions are maintained between clean and unclean animals, as well as by separation of holy persons, holy times, and holy places. Nevertheless, as we know from Leviticus 19, “humanitarian conduct” was a deep part of priestly holiness too, so that the distinctions of cleanness and purity, addressed through ritual, “were deeply rooted in a world view that unflinchingly affirmed that the holiness of God requires a highly ordered and just conduct with one’s fellow human beings, as well as a scrupulous maintenance of personal purity” (p. 44).
Sacrifice was an accepted ancient religious rite that people would have assumed to be necessary. Most ancient cultures had sacrifices. According to scholars, Israel’s sacrifices differed in that God did not need the sacrifices for his own nourishment (some gods required sacrifices in order to stay strong), and Israel strongly connected sacrifice with having a right heart and a right motive. The rituals were connected to true religiousness and morality or else the rituals meant nothing. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Jewish sacrifices came to an end and have never been revived.
Gammie asserts that Leviticus 19, Amos 5, Micah 6, Ezekiel 18, and Job 31 are “high points of Old Testament ethics,” and thus it’s regrettable that Lev. 19 is so rarely discussed in this regard (p. 34). Thus we shouldn’t envision sacrifices only within the scope of cultic rites pertaining to purity, but within the overall context of Old Testament concerns for justice, rightness of heart, and service to others (p. 34).
A New View of Our Heritage
Thinking of the Israelite monarchy and priesthood in turn made me think of some research I did several years ago for a Bible study periodical, on the book of Hebrews. I appreciated the chance provided by Abingdon Press to delve into this fascinating epistle, and what follows is based on that research. The Hebrews author (whose identity is now lost to us) uses both monarchy and priesthood to affirm the identity of Jesus. So understanding the Israelite monarchy and priesthood gives us important background on the meaning of Christ for us.
Reflecting on the person and work of Jesus, early Christian thinkers like Paul and the Hebrews author articulated a problem with sacrifices: they had to be done over and over again. That is, as long as the Temple stood, they had to be conducted repeatedly. Sacrifices had to be repeated because, of course, people continued to sin; by analogy, we might say that people need to bathe as long as they perspire and get dirty.
In kind with the impermanence of sacrifices, the priests “didn’t last”: they were mortal, sinful people (although holy with regard to their role and duties), many of them served over the years. There was no single “eternal high priest,” any more than there was an eternal king and no eternal sacrifice (other than the relationship of sacrifices, priesthood, and monarchy to the eternal Lord).
Looking at the priesthood from a Christian perspective, we affirm—quite gratefully—that Jesus serves all those roles! Jesus is the sacrifice par excellence. As explained by the Hebrews author, Jesus’ sacrifice does not need to be repeated over and over again, nor was it aimed at the particular sins of particular individuals. It was done once for the sins of everyone who believe (Heb. 7:26-27). Furthermore, the sins and weaknesses of the high priest need not be a prior consideration, for Jesus the high priest was “a Son… perfect forever” (Heb. 7:28).
The author of Hebrews teaches that Jesus is not only our perfect sacrifice, but our perfect high priest as well. Not mortal and successive as were the other priests, Jesus lives forever and continues forever.
Just as the Levitical priests did not choose to serve in order to seek status, Jesus too, did not serve as our high priest for his for self-glorification (5:5). God “appointed” Jesus to be high priest, in fulfillment of the messianic scriptures Psalms 110:1 and Psalm 110:4. As Jesus is God’s firstborn and beloved king, so he is also God’s eternal priest in the order not of Aaron but of Melchizedek (5:6 and 10).
Each year, the priest entered the holiest place of the Temple, where the Ark was kept, and thereby stood in the special location of God’s holy presence on the Day of Atonement (9:6-7). Because he is mortal and sinful, too, the priest makes sacrifices for himself in addition to the people (5:3), in order that God’s holiness be conferred to the priest (as discussed by Gammie, above). Although the priest does not strictly speaking need to be sympathetic toward people’s weaknesses, he is conscious of human weakness and sin because of the necessity of first sacrificing for himself.
Jesus, of course, is our tenderhearted high priest—because of his monarchical identity as God’s Son. Because the Son of God experiencing human suffering as we do, he “learned obedience” through his suffering and his experience of suffering draws us closer to him. Because he was obedient, Jesus has been gloried by God, who has made him pioneer and source of our salvation, as the Hebrew author argues True, Jesus did not share specific kinds of human suffering: for instance, the distress and sorrows of old age. But Jesus did suffer the onslaught of Satan’s cruelties to a greater extent than any of us. The sinlessness of Jesus (4:15) qualifies him to be our high priest fully sympathetic to our own distresses, sins, and sorrows.
The Mosaic law, under which the Levitical priesthood was established, failed to perfect the people (Heb. 7:11-12). “Perfect” in this sense means not complete perfection but rather a secure, full relationship with God. Paul argued similarly in his letters, notably Romans: none of us can keep the whole law well enough to have a full and lasting relationship with God. Paul cites the weakness of the “flesh” (that is, human nature), which requires the assistance of God’s Spirit (e.g., Romans 7 and 8). In Hebrews, the law itself (including the sacrificial role of the Levitical priesthood) does not wield enough power to help us overcome our fallen human nature. The law is “weak and ineffectual (for the law made nothing perfect)” (Heb. 7:18b-19a). Remember that the Israelites, struggling in the wilderness, had terrible, disastrous trouble remaining close to God and trusting his promises, even though (at least at the stage of Numbers 13-14) they had been given parts of the law. That is why we now need the priesthood of Christ, who brings about a new covenant.
The change of priesthood and law means that we have “the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God” (7:19). The word “approach” connects us to Hebrews 4:14-16. Recall that, to approach God on the Day of Atonement, the high priest passed through the Temple curtain, entered the holy inner sanctum, where the Ark was kept, and was present to God there. Christ, who is our new high priest, has made it possible for all of us to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). In turn, we can be bold to turn to him for help, because of his sensitivity and gentleness with sinners. In him we have a high priest who loves us and ever takes our side.
People of the 1st century would have been more concerned about an aspect of Jesus’ priesthood than we’d notice: Jesus was not a Levite—he was not a member of the tribe of Levi (5:13-14). True, kings sometimes served intercessory and priestly roles (e.g., 2 Samuel 8:18, for instance), but nevertheless, Jesus’ tribe was Judah (that of David, in keeping with his kingly identity but not his priestly identity). But Hebrews affirms that God called Jesus to the priesthood, not according to the law per se, in which tribal and family descent is required, but according to the promise of Psalm 110:4, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (7:16-17).
Melchizedek, the Canaanite priest-king in Genesis 18, was a type of Christ. Hebrews argues that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham (and by implication his descendants like Levi). That’s because Abraham gave his tithe to the king/priest (Heb. 7:4-10). Also: Genesis lists genealogies of many people but not Melchizedek, is also important. Presumably Melchizedek had forbearers the same as everyone, but the omission in Genesis of historical details gives the king, in the Hebrews author’s mind, an eternal quality (7:3). His very name is a combination of the Hebrew words for “king” and “righteousness.” Melchizedek “resembled” an eternal Son of God (7:3).
But if Melchizedek resembled a son of God, Jesus Jesus really was God’s Son! Jesus’ priesthood comes from his “indestructible life” (7:16). The fact that Jesus in turn “resembles” Melchizedek (7: 15) reveals the authority of Jesus’ priesthood in spite of his different tribal membership.
We can see the subtle ways that the Hebrews author weaves together aspects of Jesus’ kingship and priesthood. Psalm 110, quoted above, is a messianic psalm, wherein God gives the Davidic king a place of honor at God’s right hand (110:1), and also God also names the king “a priest forever after Melchizedek” (110:4). Other New Testament authors found tremendous meaning in that psalm as they elucidated the importance of Jesus: for instance: Rom. 8:34, 1 Cor. 15:25, Col. 3:1, Eph. 1:20, and elsewhere. Don’t forget that the Apostles’ Creed quotes Ps. 110:1 when it says that Jesus “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father.” In addition to other, rich scriptural arguments (look up all the different scriptures alluded to in Hebrews chapter 1 alone!), the Hebrews author connects verses 1 and 4 to give us a rich picture of Christ’s identity as Lord and Savior, King and Priest.
Strengthening Our Faith
Studying all these topics makes me think about their contemporary relevance: the holiness and foundation of the church is Christ, his person and work, which is also the foundation of our faith. The church people to which the Hebrews author wrote were starting to “drift” and to give up on their faith. Apparently they were experiencing significant but not yet life-threatening persecution. Many of us, myself most assuredly included, have faith-struggles, doubts, and panic attacks over issues much less dire than persecution! The Hebrews author tries to help the people be a church by reminds them of the riches, power, and truth of Christ. These biblical topics are potentially powerful ways not only to remind us of the truths of our faith, but also to tap (and share) amazing, freeing divine power.
1. Paul Stroble, “Hold Fast to the Faith,” Daily Bible Study curriculum quarterly (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), June, July, August 2004.