After the giving of the law, the priest was restricted to one family, that of Aaron: “Take unto thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister unto Me in the priest’s office, even Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons.” Exodus 28: 1
Every applicant for the priesthood had to prove his descent from Aaron, and was required to be free from bodily defect or blemish. An Israelite, for example – who had a flat nose, or who was broken-footed, broken-handed, or crook-backed, or who had married a profane woman or one who had been put away from her husband – was not permitted to discharged priestly duties, even though he belonged to the illustrious house of Aaron. Exclusion from the priest’s office because of these and similar physical and moral disqualifications, pointed to the dignity and holy character of the position occupied by a priest, and to the inward purity that was needed for the proper discharge of his sacred duties.
The chief duty of the priests was to offer or present offerings and sacrifices to God. Sometimes they had to kill the victims, but always they had to sprinkle and pour out their blood, and burn their carcasses, or part of them, on the altar. They had charge of the altar and the sanctuary. Their general duties were:
to see that they fire was ever burning on the altar
to make loaves of shewbread
to trim and keep the lamps of the golden candlestick burning
to burn incense on the golden altar every evening and morning
to conduct the sacred services of the tabernacle worship
Their duties were not just confined, however, to the performance of the rites and ceremonies of worship. Along with the Levites, they were entrusted with the teaching of the Law and religious instruction to the whole Israelite nation. Since they knew the Law and had been instructed well in this area, the people were encouraged to come to them and be taught this knowledge so that they could serve God better.
The whole tribe of Levi was given to the priests for the purpose of assisting them in their sacred work. The only time, though, that the Levite could actually perform a priestly act was in the case of a dire emergency. He could not offer up the sacrifices, pour out or sprinkle the blood, or burn incense on the golden altar. He could do much as the servant of the priest, though, in assisting him in his many duties. It appears that a Levite could even officiate as a priest should the priests at any time be too few in number to be able to do their official duties. For the most part, though, the Levites were just assistants to the priest to help them carry out their many time-consuming duties.
The priests were not permitted to follow any secular calling. Their time was entirely devoted to their sacred work, so it was necessary and just that their maintenance should be provided for at the expense of those for whose spiritual and temporal welfare they ministered. Their pay consisted principally of the redemption money that was paid for first-born Israelites, the first-fruits of the field, the fruit of trees in the fourth year, parts of various offerings, and a tenth of the tithes which fell to the Levites. They were not able, of course, to reap all these dues until they reached the promised land when they were assigned 48 cities to live in and were provided land around them.
In the next text, we will study about the beautiful garments that were made for the high priest and what they each meant.