Tuesday, August 30, 2022

When Is a Priest Not a Priest?

“... and David’s sons were priests.”

Hmm. That would seem to require an explanation, no?

God had chosen the tribe of Levi to serve him as a priestly caste. Even then, not all Levites qualified to serve as priests. Service at the altar was limited to the sons of Aaron, Moses’ brother, who were ordained in an elaborate ceremony and served in that capacity thereafter.

God not only inaugurated this system; he also put his stamp of approval on Aaron and his family during Korah’s rebellion, which was an attempt by Levites to expand the service of the altar to include themselves. But in seeking the priesthood, Korah and his presumptuous brothers incurred the wrath of God. Over 15,000 Israelites perished in various ways as a result.

The evidence strongly suggests God was quite serious about enforcing the limitations he had placed on the ministering priesthood.

So then, knowing these things about Israel’s history, how would David’s sons end up as priests? After all, the Davidic line was descended from Judah, not Levi.

1/ A Watered-Down Priesthood?

One possible answer is that the priesthood had become watered down during the time of the judges, its genetic purity never fully restored, and that God just got used to accepting less than the best from his people.

There is certainly some evidence in Israel’s history of a compromised priesthood that somehow managed to survive God’s judgment. Judges 17 is the story of an Ephraimite named Micah who ordained one of his own sons to serve as his household priest. Immediately thereafter, the Holy Spirit makes the editorial comment, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And yet even Micah knew it was better to have a Levite as a priest than any old Israelite. When given the opportunity to replace his son with an actual Levite, Micah quickly did so, commenting “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest.” The knowledge of God’s will was not lost to these people. They were simply disobedient to it.

That knowledge did not just disappear after the judges were gone. Many years later, King Abijah of Judah railed at the armies of Israel from a mountaintop. To demonstrate that God was on his side, he cited Israel’s sins in regard to the priesthood:

“Have you not driven out the priests of the Lord, the sons of Aaron, and the Levites, and made priests for yourselves like the peoples of other lands? Whoever comes for ordination with a young bull or seven rams becomes a priest of what are not gods.”

So then, even in those latter days of abject spiritual decline, it was well understood that only the Aaronic family was to serve God as priests. Anything else risked the disfavor of the Almighty. Yes, there were times when for various pragmatic reasons the rules regarding priesthood were not followed, but everyone in Israel knew priests from other tribes were an inferior substitute and that God was not pleased with them. If this was true in the time of the judges and in Abijah’s day, it was certainly true in David’s time.

David was a man after God’s own heart. His recorded sins were generally spontaneous errors rather than persistent violations of the law. I find it difficult to picture him accepting inferior priests, even to promote his own children.

2/ It Happened, But It Was Not a Good Thing

Another possibility is that perhaps David’s sons were indeed ordained as priests, but it was a very bad moral misstep.

The difficulty with that is that while 2 Samuel is a book of history rather than a polemic against immoral behavior, it is history punctuated by the observations of a divine Editor with the occasional moral point he wants to make very clearly. So when Eli’s sons do not walk in his ways, or when David numbers the fighting men of Israel, or when he sins with Bathsheba, we read comments such as that Eli’s sons “would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death” or that “God was displeased with this thing” or that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord”. We are not obliged to compare history with revelation trying to sort out whether what Hophni, Phineas or David did was morally acceptable; the answer is plainly stated for us by the Holy Spirit of God. These are things we might guess for ourselves in some cases, but God has seen fit to ensure we don’t fail to get his point.

That technique is not employed concerning every moral misstep we encounter in the historical books, or else they would consist of almost nothing but editorial asides, but it is certainly used to highlight a large number of the more egregious errors documented by the historians. It seems extremely unlikely that God would have overlooked David allowing his sons to serve at the altar in violation of his expressed will without passing some sort of comment. Instead, the reference to their being priests is so subtle most people would probably miss it. And when characters like Absalom and Adonijah — whose relevance to the narrative is significant — appear later on, there is no reference to their ever having engaged in priestly service.

I suspect David’s sons did not really serve as priests at all, at least not in the sense of making atonement for sins or offering sacrifices.

3/ It Never Happened

Hear me out. I know very well that’s what it says. The Hebraism translated “priest” is kōhēn, a word used 744 times in the Old Testament to describe every type of spiritual office from that of Melchizedek to the priests of Baal. In only six instances is it used any other way. Moreover, only one verse prior, kōhēn is used in its normal sense to describe men who served at the altar: “Zadok the son of Ahitub and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar were priests.” On what basis would we interpret this second instance of kōhēn to mean something different from the first?

And yet translators struggle with this brief sentence. Most are resistant to the notion that David’s sons served at the altar. A quick survey of major translations turns up eight that opted for “priests”, while nineteen others went with the word “princes”, or with amplifications like “priestly leaders”, “chief rulers”, “chief ministers”, “chief advisors” and “chief officials”. Where translators diverge to this extent, there is usually good reason.

As it turns out, there are other places in the historical books where kōhēn appears twice in the same context in two apparently distinct senses. For example, the list of Solomon’s officials includes three separate references to men who served as kōhēn. Zadok, Abiathar and Azariah we know to be ministering priests, but there is also a man called Zabud the son of Nathan who is referred to as “priest [kōhēn] and king’s friend”, which would seem to be a different role. Perhaps he was a spiritual advisor. A second list of David’s officials in 2 Samuel includes a man named Ira the Jairite who may have served David in a similar capacity. He is listed as “David’s priest” [kōhēn]. It is highly unlikely this was a tabernacle-based role; Jair was a city in Gilead, making Ira as ineligible for true priestly service as David’s sons. So then, in each of these three lists, the repeated references to men who served as kōhēn are either redundancies — or else the word is being used in a different sense the second time around. Many translators therefore opt for descriptions like “chief official”.

Even Job uses the word kōhēn long before God established a priesthood in Israel. It is unclear what he means by it.

In summary, it seems there is a secondary and much less spiritually significant sense in which the writers of Bible history use the word “priest”. This is probably the sense in which David’s sons are said to be “priests”.

No One Has Ever Served

Why does it matter? Good question. In one sense it does not. We know of plenty of times in Israel’s history when the priesthood was corrupt, weak, watered-down and a mere shadow of what God intended, though it seems rather improbable that the reigns of David and Solomon should be numbered among them.

More importantly, though, in Hebrews 7 we read about the priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is after the order of Melchizedek rather than Aaron, and therefore quite unprecedented. The writer of Hebrews says this:

“The one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.”

If David’s sons ever served at the altar, not only is there an established historical precedent for a Judean priesthood, but the writer to the Hebrews is wrong.

The logical conclusion is that he was not. David’s sons did not serve at the altar. Whatever roles they occupied were likely administrative.

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