James Patrick’s Blog

August 11, 2009

Priests in early Israel, and the ‘eternal’ covenant with Phinehas

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 3:53 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Numbers 25:1-13 and Psalm 106:28-31 describe a covenant that God made with the high priest’s son Phinehas during the lifetime of Moses.  As God used the word ‘eternal’ or ‘perpetual’ to describe this covenant, people have sometimes taken this as evidence that ‘eternal’ covenants don’t necessarily last ‘for ever’, since the people of Israel no longer have priests ministering before the altar.  They then apply this to other covenants such as the ‘everlasting’ possession of the land of Canaan that was promised to Abraham (Genesis 17:7-8).  In order to understand the significance of this particular covenant, therefore, it is important to first get a general understanding of the development of the priesthood following the Exodus from Egypt, according to the Pentateuch and historical books.

Brief summary of priesthood in Israel

Aaron, brother of Moses, was made high priest over the people of Israel (Exodus 28:1), being from the tribe of Levi through Kohath (Exodus 6:16-27) along with Moses.  The tribe of Levi was set apart as a whole tribe (perhaps because of Exodus 32:25-29) to be without inheritance, representing all the firstborn of Israel (Numbers 8:25-26) as the Lord’s portion (Numbers 18:1-24, esp. 20; Deuteronomy 10:9; 18:2).  They served the congregation in the cities of Israel, and served Aaron and his sons who ministered in the Tabernacle (Numbers 3:5–4:49).  Aaron with his four sons – Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, Ithamar – were chosen to minister in the holy place of the Tabernacle (Exodus 28:1–29:44), set apart even from the rest of the tribe of Levi, as “the highest among his brothers” (Leviticus 21:10).

Early history of priesthood in Israel

When the Israelites first arrived at Mount Sinai after escaping from Egypt, God told Moses to bring up the mountain with him Aaron, his two oldest sons Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel (cf. Numbers 11), along with Moses’ attendant Joshua, for a meal with the Lord (Exodus 24:1-14).  After that, Moses went further up the mountain for his first forty days meeting with God and receiving the Ten Commandments.  In the meantime, the people of Israel then went to Aaron to make for them a god, since Aaron was Moses’ deputy (Exodus 32:1-6).  On his return Moses saw that Aaron had let the people get out of control (32:35), and so he stood at the camp entrance and called to him those on the Lord’s side.  His own tribe of Levites gathered to him and were sent out to execute 3000 of the worst offenders, perhaps resulting in God’s specific choice of that tribe as His possession (32:26-29).  Moses went back up the mountain for another forty days, starting with seeing God’s glory, and being given the second pair of stone tablets (Exodus 34).  On his return, face shining, he instructed the people about constructing the Tabernacle first (40:17-35), and then instructed them about sacrifices (Leviticus 1-7) and about the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests (Leviticus 8-9; although God had apparently chosen Aaron even before the golden calf incident – Exodus 27:21-28:30 ff.).

Almost immediately after their consecration, however, Nadab and Abihu offered incense in their firepans before the Lord in an inappropriate way, and fire came out from God’s presence to consume them (Leviticus 10:1-3), as would happen later with the Korahites.  Their brothers Eleazar and Ithamar who had also been anointed were not permitted by Moses to outwardly mourn (see 10:4-20; 21:10-12), but Moses understood when they burned the daily sacrifice completely, being unable to eat it as they were meant to.  The laws of atonement for priests and for the community were instituted after Nadab and Abihu’s death (16:1-34).  Nadab and Abihu died without children, so their brothers served with Aaron in their place (Numbers 3:2-4).

The elder of the two remaining sons of Aaron, Eleazar, served as chief of the leaders of Levi as well as chief of the clan of the Kohathites, who were responsible for performing the duties of the sanctuary and looking after its holy contents (3:27-32; 4:16).  After the consecration of the Tabernacle and the priests (Aaron and his sons), the offerings brought to the Tabernacle by the leaders of all the tribes were distributed among the Levitical clans of Gershon and Merari under the oversight of Ithamar, younger brother of Eleazar.  The Kohathites under Eleazar didn’t receive any because of their more holy responsibilities (7:1-9).  This was all within their first year of being in the wilderness, after which they travelled north to spy out Canaan (Numbers 13-14).

The twelve spies returned from the land of Canaan with their report, but the tribes drew back in unbelief and were condemned to wander the wilderness for forty years.  Shortly after this, Korah, who was of the same Kohathite clan within the tribe of Levi as were Aaron and Moses, along with two Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, rebelled against God’s choice of Aaron and his family as priests.  As a result, God opened up the ground and swallowed them alive.  The 250 Korahites who had brought censers with incense before the presence of the Lord were consumed with fire that came from His presence (Numbers 16).  Eleazar was then instructed to clean up the censers of those who had died in God’s presence (16:36-40).

Eleazar was given increasing responsibility under Aaron, supervising the creation of holy water from the ashes of the red heifer (Numbers 19:1-10).  At the end of the forty years wandering, God told Moses to take Aaron and Eleazar up Mount Hor, and there put the high priestly garments of Aaron onto Eleazar to be high priest after him, before Aaron died there on the mountain top (20:22-29).  Eleazar took his father Aaron’s place as Moses’ deputy and high priest (Deuteronomy 10:6), helping him with a census of Israel in the plains of Moab (Numbers 26), as Aaron had done forty years earlier at Mount Sinai.  Eleazar also assisted Moses in making judgements concerning inheritance (27:1-11; 34:17), consulting the Urim and Thummim for Moses and his successor Joshua (27:15-23), and making distribution decisions concerning the spoils of war from the battle with the Midianites (31:12-54).

Phinehas was a son of Eleazar and his wife, one of the daughters of Putiel (Exodus 6:25; Putiel was probably Ethiopian, as ‘Phinehas’ means ‘black-skinned’).  Phinehas joined with the congregation of Israel when they gathered at the doorway of the Tent of Meeting to weep over the immorality and idolatry of the Israelites with the Moabite and Midianite women (Numbers 25:1-18).  A leader of a clan in the tribe of Simeon, Zimri, brought his Midianite mistress Cozbi, daughter of a Midianite clan leader, into his tent publicly in full view of the congregation weeping before the Tent of Meeting.  Seeing this, Phinehas took a spear and ran it through both of them in their tent, averting God’s wrath.

Because of this action of zeal for the glory of God, atoning for the sons of Israel, God told Moses that Phinehas would have a ‘covenant of peace’, for him and his descendants after him, described as ‘a covenant of perpetual priesthood’ (25:12-13).  This terminology of a ‘perpetual priesthood’ was specifically used at the consecration of Aaron and his sons as high priest(s), as seen in Exodus 29:9, 40:15, Numbers 18:8 and Deuteronomy 18:5.  The significance of God’s pronouncement here was that although Phinehas was not yet succeeding his father in the high priesthood, God was at this time decreeing that the succession of the high priesthood would always come from the line of Phinehas son of Eleazar rather than from the other priestly line of Ithamar.

Eleazar remained as high priest throughout the rulership of Joshua (Joshua 17:4; 19:51; 21:1; 24:33), while Phinehas was the one who went off to war against the Midianites with the 12,000 soldiers and with the holy vessels and trumpets (Numbers 31:6; see also Numbers 10:9 and Joshua 22:13, 30-32).  He continued this role in warfare even after he succeeded his father in the high priesthood, presumably ministering at Shiloh (Judges 21:19) even though his family inheritance was apparently at Gibeah in Ephraim (Joshua 24:33).  [This was a different Gibeah from the Benjamite city of Judges 20:14, which was not among the Aaronic Levitical cities allotted in Benjamin (Joshua 21:13-19), although Gibeah in Ephraim is not listed elsewhere among the Levitical cities of Ephraim.]  Phinehas as high priest apparently accompanied the ark of the covenant from Shiloh to Bethel when the armies of the tribes of Israel gathered at Mizpah against the immoral tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19-21), inquiring of God for the people and offering sacrifices.

More than 250 years later, by the time Eli became judge over all Israel at Shiloh, the high priesthood had apparently passed to his father (1 Samuel 2:28, 30) and thence to Eli.  Eli as high priest also judged Israel for forty years, under the domination of the Philistines.  However Eli was of the line of Ithamar rather than Eleazar, as we see from King David’s later distinction between the two Aaronic clans for the sake of temple worship: the line of Ithamar was represented by Ahimelech son of Abiathar son of Ahimelech son of Ahitub son of Phinehas son of Eli (see 1 Samuel 14:3; 22:20; 1 Chronicles 24:6), and the line of Eleazar was represented by Ahimaaz son of Zadok son of (a different) Ahitub son of Amariah (1 Chronicles 6:4-8, 52-53; 24:3).  Although Abiathar initially succeeded his father as high priest for David with the ephod during his wanderings before he was king (1 Samuel 23:6-12), by the time King David brought the ark into Jerusalem he was served by both Zadok and Abiathar representing both clans of Aaron (1 Chronicles 15:11-15).  They both served in an official capacity as David’s priests, heads of the two clans (1 Chronicles 18:16; 2 Samuel 8:17), and remained so under Solomon also (1 Kings 4:4).

However when the ark was brought into Jerusalem, David left Zadok rather than Abiathar in charge of the Tabernacle that was still in Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39-40).  About thirty years later Abiathar supported Adonijah when he had himself proclaimed king in place of his father David (1 Kings 1:7), whereas Zadok submitted himself to David and therefore supported David’s chosen heir Solomon (1 Kings 1:8, 38-39).  Abiathar was therefore dismissed from priestly service by Solomon and returned to his family inheritance at Anathoth (1 Kings 2:26-27), which is said to have fulfilled the prophecy against Eli’s descendants (1 Samuel 2:27-36).  For this reason, by the end of Solomon’s reign, Azariah son of Ahimaaz son of Zadok ministered as the sole high priest (1 Kings 4:2), as did his heirs even until the exile to Babylon (1 Chronicles 6:4-15), fulfilling God’s promise of a perpetual priesthood for Phinehas son of Eleazar.

Thus we see that the ‘eternal’ covenant with Phinehas was specifically related to the inheritance of the high priestly position, using the same technical vocabulary as in other passages about the high priesthood.  This covenant is therefore self-evidently dependent on the larger decree of God for the priesthood in Israel to belong to the tribe of Levi, a decree that has been superseded by the greater decree given to Jesus within the order of Melchizedek, according to Hebrews 7:11-28.  It is even arguable that the Levitical priesthood was only ever a ‘permission’ of God for the Israelites because of their hardness of heart, as suggested by the change from Exodus 19:5-6, because of the people’s reaction in 20:18-21, to the establishment of Moses and his family and tribe in the priesthood in 28:1.  But further explanation of that idea must be left to another post.

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2 Comments »

  1. I am not well versed in Biblical languages (Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew), but I had a thought. Simon Peter is called the son of John. If this is John the Baptist, son of Zechariah, the priest, and therefore a Levite, as was Phin’ehas, could the line be perpetuated in the office of Saint Peter as Pope, the vicar of the high priest, Jesus Christ? It is a long jump, and I am not sure of lineage, which I have been unable to find anywhere, but this would solve the problem. Even if a descendant of Phin’ehas was ordained a bishop who then consecrated other bishops, and the line was continued from those bishops, it could solve this problem of a perpetual priesthood.

    Comment by Joshua — October 6, 2015 @ 10:18 am | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment.

      Although Peter’s father’s name in John’s Gospel (21:15-17) is said to be ‘John’, Matthew 16:17 gives it as ‘Jonah’. However, even if Peter’s father was called ‘John’, it is almost impossible that this could have been John the Baptist. The Gospels and early Church tradition never make such a connection, and since John the Baptist was just six months older than Jesus, the oldest a son of his could have been at the start of Jesus’ ministry was about fifteen, since Jesus was about thirty (Luke 3:23). Yet Peter was already married when he began following Jesus (Matt 8:14).

      As for John the Baptist being a descendant of Phinehas, this is possible but perhaps unlikely. His father Zechariah was of the priestly division of Abijah (Luke 1:5), which was the eighth division of twenty-four appointed by David (1Chron 24:1-19). These twenty-four were chosen from both the descendants of Eleazar (father of Phinehas) and of Ithamar (brother of Eleazar), the latter having half as many heads of clans as the former. If 1Chron 24:6 is interpreted to mean that clans were appointed in turn, “one … for Eleazar and one … for Ithamar”, then Abijah would be of Ithamar. I am not aware of any more evidence about which line Abijah came from, but it would be difficult to argue that Zechariah was definitely a descendant of Phinehas.

      My post suggests that the covenant with Phinehas was understood to be incorporated within the covenant with Aaron, and therefore superseded by the priestly order of Melchizedek held by Yeshua / Jesus, the son of David. Even so, Jeremiah 33:14-22, Zechariah 12:10-14, and Malachi 2:1-4 all suggest that God will preserve the descendants of Levi (and by implication the descendants of Phinehas) throughout the generations until the glorious return of the Messiah. Still today in synagogues all over the world, men of priestly and levitical descent are given particular honourable duties in weekly services. It would seem therefore that this promise of preservation is still in place, and that God does have certain plans for these family lines within His Jewish people in the coming age of the Kingdom.

      Comment by alabastertheology — October 6, 2015 @ 2:35 pm | Reply


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