Priestly Source Week 2 Reading Guide


Who speaks for God? By what criteria does one person rule over another, or one group over another? Is one person inherently holier than another, or otherwise chosen by God for special rights or privileges? The Priestly Source, as the name might imply, is supremely concerned with the role of priests and the authority of the proper hierarchy at the top of a properly ordered society. The questions are timeless. The answers offered by the Priestly Source are conditioned by the historical circumstances of the destruction of the temple, the exile of the leading priests, and the restoration of Judean society under Persian rule. The Persians allowed a high priest but not a king, which made the high priest the main authority in Judean society during the Second Temple period.

The Priestly Source, along with the closely aligned Chronicler, portray the hierarchy as ordained by God and clearly structured from the beginning, with only a few wicked heretics opposing it. Historical-critical scholarship reveals a complex rivalry of different priestly groups fighting for dominance, or at least inclusion, in the hierarchy. At the surface, the Law of Moses offers a vision for an ideally ordered society with God at the center, surrounded by a clearly established hierarchy of human representatives. On close inspection, scripture reveals the timelessness of struggles to find a place in God’s social order, and to have one’s voice heard among others who have something to say about God’s society. Both the elegant vision and the complex historical reality are worth understanding.

The first step will be to understand the final form of the hierarchy, presented as a genealogy in which tiers of authority are branches and sub-branches of the same family tree (Levi, Aaron, Phinehas, Zadok). To guide you through the more accepted reconstructions of the actual historical development of the priesthood, I offer two important secondary sources. I say “offer” because I leave it up to you how much time to spend working through them. At least skim through them to get a feel for a historical-critical scholarly argument. The reading guide below should give you the main points, and we can flesh out further explanation in class.

Cody, Aelred, O.S.B. A History of the Old Testament Priesthood, pp. 146–174. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969. (PDF)
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. “The Judaean Priesthood during the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Periods: A Hypothetical Reconstruction.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 60.1 (1998) pp. 25–43. (PDF)

The second step will be to read some of the relevant passages in the Law of Moses with an eye to the rivalries and questions of hierarchy and social order that they address. This will also anticipate the last section of the course, on narrative as law.

Finally, Kugel will demonstrate how pre-modern interpreters brought very different assumptions and questions to the same texts, and found very different meanings. Hooray for meanings.

The Historical Development of the Priesthood, drawing especially from Cody and Blenkinsopp

The final form of the priestly genealogy as presented by P and C (the Priestly source and the Chronicler)

The Mushites: a brief history

Then the Danites set up the idol for themselves. Jonathan son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the time the land went into captivity. So they maintained as their own Micah’s idol that he had made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh. (Judges 18:30–31)
A man of God came to Eli and said to him, “Thus the LORD has said, ‘I revealed myself to the family of your ancestor in Egypt when they were slaves to the house of Pharaoh…’” (1 Sam 2:27)
The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart; all the members of your household shall die by the sword. 34 The fate of your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you—both of them shall die on the same day.  35 I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed one forever.  36 Everyone who is left in your family shall come to implore him for a piece of silver or a loaf of bread, and shall say, Please put me in one of the priest’s places, that I may eat a morsel of bread. (1 Samuel 2:33–36)
When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman [elsewhere the daughter of a Midianite priest] he had married. [Moses is vindicated] (Numbers 12:1)
Yet a certain Israelite came and brought in a Midianite woman to his clansmen in the view of Moses. [A bad thing] (Numbers 25:6)

Levites: a brief history

Simeon and Levi, brothers indeed, weapons of violence are their knives. 6 Let not my soul enter their council, or my spirit be joined with their company; For in their fury they slew men, in their willfulness they maimed oxen. 7 Cursed be their fury so fierce, and their rage so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob, disperse them throughout Israel. (Genesis 49:5–7)
The Levites themselves received no share of the land except cities to live in, with their pasture lands for the cattle and flocks. 5 Thus, in apportioning the land, did the Israelites carry out the instructions of the LORD to Moses. (Joshua 14:4–5)
The levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no territorial portion with Israel. They shall live only off the LORD’s offerings by fire as their portion, 2 and shall have no portion among their brother tribes: the LORD is their portion, as He promised them. (Deuteronomy 18:1–2)
If a Levite would go, from any of the settlements throughout Israel where he has been residing, to the place that the LORD has chosen, he may do so whenever he pleases. 7 He may serve in the name of the LORD his God like all his fellow Levites who are there in attendance before the LORD. 8 They shall receive equal shares of the dues, without regard to personal gifts or patrimonies. (Deuteronomy 18:6–8)
But the Levites who went far from me, going astray from me after their idols when Israel went astray, shall bear their punishment.... (Ezekiel 44:10)

Zadokites: a brief history

Zadok son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were priests; Seraiah was secretary. (2 Samuel 8:17)
I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed one forever. (1 Samuel 2:35)
However, any sacred gifts or votive offerings that you may have, you shall bring with you to the place which the LORD chooses, 27 and there you must offer both the flesh and the blood of your holocausts on the altar of the LORD, your God; of your other sacrifices the blood indeed must be poured out against the altar of the LORD, your God, but their flesh may be eaten. (Deuteronomy 12:26–27)
The priests, the descendants of Levi, shall also be present, for the LORD, your God, has chosen them to minister to him and to give blessings in his name, and every case of dispute or violence must be settled by their decision. (Deuteronomy 21:5)
But the Levites who went far from me, going astray from me after their idols when Israel went astray, shall bear their punishment.... (Ezekiel 44:10)
The divisions of the descendants of Aaron were these. The sons of Aaron: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 2 But Nadab and Abihu died before their father, and had no sons; so Eleazar and Ithamar became the priests. 3 Along with Zadok of the sons of Eleazar, and Ahimelech of the sons of Ithamar, David organized them according to the appointed duties in their service. (1 Chronicles 24:1–3)
Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees)... (Acts 5:17)

Aaronides: a brief history

The LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.” (Exodus 7:1)
Then bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests. (Exodus 28:1)
Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went back to Bethel and wept, sitting there before the LORD; they fasted that day until evening. Then they offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being before the LORD. 27 And the Israelites inquired of the LORD (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, 28 and Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days)... (Judges 20:26–28)
Sarezer sent Regemmelech and his men to Bethel to implore favor of the LORD 3 and to ask the priests of the house of the LORD of hosts... (Zechariah 7:2–3, Blenkinsopp’s reading)

Exodus 32 (HTML)

This chapter is important and fascinating for many reasons. The reason most relevant to the topic at hand is that it is one of the few traces left in the canon of pro-Levite, anti-Aaronide polemic. At least in the final form, Aaron looks very bad and the Levites very good. The chapter also attacks the shrine at Bethel, and perhaps also Dan. Besides Aaronides perhaps being associated with Bethel (above), they also used a golden calf to represent the footstool of God, as opposed to the golden cherubim that represented the throne of God in Jerusalem. The problem cannot be reduced to worshipping the wrong God or the use of gold sculpture in the cult.

Jeroboam thought to himself: “The kingdom will return to David’s house. 27 If now this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, the hearts of this people will return to their master, Rehoboam, king of Judah, and they will kill me.” 28 After taking counsel, the king made two calves of gold and said to the people: “You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough. Here is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” 29 And he put one in Bethel, the other in Dan. 30 This led to sin, because the people frequented these calves in Bethel and in Dan. 31 He also built temples on the high places and made priests from among the people who were not Levites. (1 Kings 12:26–31)

Exodus 32 should be understood in the context of the rivalry between the northern and southern kingdoms, and the rivalries between the shrines at Dan, Bethel, and Jerusalem.

According to Cody the story has several stages of revision:

When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” 28 The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29 Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”
…for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies. (Exodus 32:25b)
[The LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf] – the one that Aaron made. (35b)

By the way, this passage is the source of what has been called the Jewish original sin. It is also a prime example of the idea of intercession.

Numbers 16 (HTML)

Exodus 32 was exceptional in that it made Aaron look bad. Numbers 16 is typical of the Priestly source in that it defends the hierarchy against claims of equality by the Levites or all of Israel. This story can be confusing because it conflates what are essentially two separate stories on a common theme. This may have been done intentionally to add authority to the later story by combining it with an authoritative classic. One is about Dathan and Abiram, who challenge Moses, such that the earth opens and swallows them and their families (my preferred form of conflict resolution). This story is older than D and P (perhaps J), and is not specifically concerned with the priesthood. (Deut 11:6 mentions Dathan and Abiram but not Korah.)

The Korah story is more typical of the Priestly source. Korah challenges Moses and Aaron, “All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” Since P here categorically rejects this claim, there seems to be some tension with H, which would at least put this possibility within the realm of aspiration (Lev 19:2).

Even among modern scholars who strive for objectivity, Catholic/Protestant positions on hierarchy have crept into evaluation of the Priestly source. Julius Wellhausen might be accused of borrowing from Protestant rhetoric against Catholicism in his characterization of the Priestly source. It is worth keeping in mind that Wellhausen was writing in the decade following Vatican I (1869–1870). Vatican I entrenched the Catholic hierarchy against the egalitarianism of modernity, which threatened to abandon faith in favor of pure reason.

There is no point in exhausting all the pro-hierarchy passages in Numbers. Numbers 17 continues the same theme. Numbers 12 is also interesting for a couple of reasons. It may have a root at a stage when the Mushite priesthood was defending itself against criticism for being linked to the Midianite priesthood. As we have it, the issue is more about the authority of prophecy below that of Moses. Aaron is not exactly heroic, but Miriam is the only one punished for questioning Moses’ authority.

Numbers 18 (HTML)

Gifts to God fall into categories of holiness, which determine who can consume them.

There are substantial differences between the laws of tithes in Numbers 18, and those in Deuteronomy 12:17–19; 14:22–29 (see also Leviticus 27:30–33). They differ substantially on who can eat tithes and firstlings. P, unlike D, distinguishes between priests and Levites. D, unlike P, distinguishes between every third year and the other two years. Pre-modern interpreters labored extensively to try to reconcile the apparent contradictions.

Numbers 25 (HTML)

This chapter establishes the authority of the line of Phinehas, grandson of Aaron. This chapter is among many that are part of the discussion of the justification of violence in the Bible (John J. Collins, Does the Bible Justify Violence?, Fortress Press, 2004). Phinehas’ zeal was imitated in the rhetoric establishing the Hasmonean priesthood (1 Macc 2). Frank Moore Cross believes the story was, at one point, polemic in favor of the Aaronide priesthood, in opposition to the Mushite priesthood. The chapter also develops a theme more typical of Deuteronomy, that ethnic intermarriage leads to idolatry. In later texts (e.g. Ezra 9–10; Jubilees 30), intermarriage is inherently defiling.

Ezekiel 44:10–16 (HTML)

So technically this is not the Law of Moses, but it is very important for understanding the historical context of P. Ezekiel was a prophet during the Babylonian Exile. Scholars believe this passage was written by Ezekiel’s followers slightly later, but still during the Babylonian Exile. Besides disagreeing slightly with P, this passage is significant because it argues for the distinction between the Zadokites and the Levites as an innovation and a punishment for a recent crime, not a return to the way it had been or should have been. The Priestly source claims that the role of the Levites as hierodules (temple slaves) went back to the days of Moses and Aaron. Note also that the category “Aaronide” is not mentioned here or anywhere in Ezekiel (which is striking because Ezekiel was a priest and very concerned with matters of priesthood, temple, and purity). This passage is the major anchor for dating the final form of the priestly genealogy/hierarchy after the Babylonian Exile.

Kugel, “The Golden Calf” (pp. 417–437)

Pre-modern interpreters accept the hierarchy/genealogy presented in the Priestly Source and Chronicles as the eternal will of God, so will not see the polemics that modern interpreters see. They will see Aaron as perfect, even to the exclusion of a bad day or a character flaw. Consequently, Aaron’s role in Exodus 32 will be justified. Other sections are not immediately relevant to the theme for the week, but nevertheless interesting and important. The idea that the earthly temple is a copy of heavenly/angelic liturgy is a major theme in the Second Temple Period, perhaps most known to Christians through the books of Hebrews and Revelation. To varying degrees architects of sacred space attempted to incorporate this idea.