The Work of a Priest… Leviticus-Style (@Byers_Andy)

The Old Testament book of Leviticus is being featured this month at BigBible. Moses would surely have never imagined the sort of technological realm we live in today, much less that his detailed descriptions of sacrificial offerings and priestly responsibilities would end up being shared by way of something called digital social media!

In this post, I want to consider the role of a priest—a topic Leviticus has quite a lot to say about.

I was ordained in 2006 by the Greater Cleveland County Baptist Association in rural North Carolina. I remember sitting around a conference table with ten or so ministers and theologians while they posed a litany of questions. Baptist ordination is much simpler than it is most other church traditions. The idea is that the ordination committee simply wants to officially confirm what is already evident in the life and work of the minister (the Baptist understanding of “the priesthood of believers” is such that none of us ever goes by the title “priest,” of course). I always experience both relief and (perhaps ironically!) a twinge of guilt when I hear of friends in the midst of a more rigorous ordination process.

But none of us have experienced anything like the ordination of Aaron and his sons in Leviticus 8–9.

Leading the religious institutional life of Israel called for a rather different sort of skill-set than that which is expected of those of us in the ministry today. The ancient priests of the Tabernacle were skilled in animal handling and, well, to put it rather bluntly—animal slaughter. Butchers and bakers (cakes of bread were a regular part of the offerings) are more vocationally suited to the line of work assigned to the Levitical priests of old. I grew up around animals on a farm, but I never considered that background good training for ministry.

The sights of the ancient priests’ workplace consisted of animal entrails, gobs of extracted fat, and nervous beasts of burden brought in from foraging the shrubs and sparse grasses of the desert. And there was regularly the sight of blood—no weak stomach’s for this sort of ministry. The sounds included the bleats and moos of those consecrated creatures and the disturbing sounds of their demise. There was the smell of blood, the pungent aroma of ongoing smoke, and blending into the olfactory melangé was also the fragrance of frankincense.

It was red-handed work, being one of those priests. Blood was stained within the grooves of their palms and under their fingernails. When Moses ordained Aaron and his sons to the high priestly offices, there was no theological questioning or written essays or case studies (though knowledge of the Law codes was certainly expected). Instead, there were odd ceremonial practices like the smearing of blood on their ear lobes,  thumbs, and  big toes (on their right, not on their left, just to be clear).

Baptists have their quirks, but I’ve never seen anything like this in an ordination service.

There is at least one thing we ministers of today have in common with the ministers of that ancient Tabernacle: we all remind worshipers that God’s presence is available and accessible through the means of sacrifice.

I have never slaughtered an animal in a worship service. But I do offer wine to the penitent (well, okay—sometimes it’s grape juice).

Drawing on imagery from Leviticus, here is how the author of Hebrews puts it:

…When Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Heb 9:11–14).

I am pleased to be enlisted in the ministry of the great High Priest, Jesus, whose wine flows freely for thirsting souls coming in from the desert. Amen.

About AndyByers

I serve as the Chaplain for St Mary's College at Durham University while working on a PhD in the Department of Theology. CODEC has also taken me on to work as a theological consultant of sorts for the BigBible blog. My first book is about cynicism toward the church and disillusionment with God—'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint' (IVP Likewise, 2011). My latest is ‘TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age’ (Cascade Books, 2013).