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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Priestly Legislation in the Pentateuch

(a) The High Priest

From the outset, P envisages a high priest in the person of Aaron and his son and successor Eleazar, the ancestor of Zadok. The high priest is instituted in his office by anointing, a rite which explicitly makes him holy (Lev. 8: 12) in the course of a complex ordination ceremony, a rite de passage designed to transfer Aaron and other priests from everyday society and to initiate them into their new status (Milgrom 1991: 566–9). Although Moses performs this rite, P does not thereby regard him as a priest, but rather as a kind of royal figure whose installation of priests may be paralleled in other ancient Near Eastern societies (Milgrom 1991: 556–7). Unlike Ezek. 40–8, where the ‘prince’ is firmly under the authority of the sons of Zadok in all that we hear of him, P's ruler-figure Moses takes precedence over Aaron the high priest: it is Moses to whom YHWH addresses his commands, including matters relating to priesthood and worship in the sanctuary. Only twice does YHWH address Aaron. To the high priest belong distinctive vestments: a golden plate attached to his head-dress and worn above his forehead deals with unintentional defects in Israel's offerings (Exod. 28: 38), and he himself appears as Israel's representative in the sacrificial service by bearing the names of the twelve tribes inscribed on two precious stones set upon each shoulder of his ephod (Exod. 28: 9–12). The tribal names are inscribed again, on each of twelve jewels set into ‘the breastplate of judgment’ to serve as a ‘memorial’ continually when Aaron enters the sanctuary (Exod. 28: 13–29). Into this breastplate, Moses is ordered to put Urim and Thummim, so that Aaron continually may carry the judgement of the Israelites before the LORD (Exod. 28: 30).

While it is almost universally agreed that Urim and Thummim were objects allowing priests to determine the divine will in a wide range of matters, there is no agreement on what they actually were, although LXX 1 Sam. 14: 41 suggests that they were sacred lots (e.g. Wellhausen 1963: 110). This view, however, has not gone unchallenged (Milgrom 1991: 505–11). In any event, P restricts their use to the sanctuary ‘before the LORD’ (Exod. 28: 30; Num. 27: 21), in contrast to their employment to enquire of God in pre-monarchic times (e.g. Judg. 20: 27–8) and during the early monarchy (e.g. by Saul, 1 Sam. 10: 22; 14: 41 ff., and by David, 2 Sam. 2: 1; 5: 23–4) outside the sanctuary. P is clear that Joshua, Moses' successor, is to stand with Eleazar before the LORD as the Urim and Thummim are consulted (Num. 27: 21). This verse is the only occasion in P describing the actual use of Urim and Thummim; and it is significant that their ‘judgment’ or decision is portrayed as necessary for Joshua's proper leadership of Israel (Num. 27: 15–23). For P, at any rate, they are part of the high priest's equipment for offering decisions, mišpaṭ; he is advisor to the ruler in matters of the divine will.

P certainly envisages Aaron the high priest as responsible for the most important elements in the daily worship of the sanctuary, the Tamid ritual—the trimming of the lamps on the menorah, the offering of incense at the daily sacrifices, and the weekly setting forth of the bread of the presence (Lev. 24: 1–9; Exod. 27: 20–1), a ritual complex which seems to betray a pre-Jerusalem organization and which has been associated with the shrine at Shiloh (Haran 1978: 194–204). In Second Temple times, these duties were carried out by ordinary priests; but the ceremonies of Yom Kippur remained restricted to the high priest, as they are in P. Lev. 16 makes Aaron responsible for this annual purging of accumulated impurity from himself and his family, the people Israel whom he represents, and the sanctuary, including the Holy of Holies which he alone enters on that day, sprinkling the lid of the ark with the blood of a bull offered as a purification offering. This complex, multi-layered rite shows signs of having developed over a period of time; but its essential antiquity is supported by the existence of similar (though not identical) rites in ancient Babylon, and by the obvious need for regular riddance of impurity which, if allowed to accumulate, would drive away the divine presence (Milgrom 1991: 1067–79). The central place occupied by the high priest in P's legislation has no better illustration than this.

(b) The Priests

Priestly office is reserved for male descendants of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi: Moses consecrated Aaron's sons at the same time as he consecrated Aaron as high priest (Lev. 8). They preside at sacrifices by handling the sacrificial blood and fat (YHWH's prerogatives), and consume the portions of the victims and the cereal offerings allotted to them. In P, they are never subject of the verb ‘slaughter’, šhṭ. Rather, they send up offerings in smoke (verb qṭr), perform (verb cśh) them, and bring them near to YHWH. The blood of animal sacrifices they daub on the altar to purge (verb kippēr) and effect purification (verbs ṭm' and ṭhr). The crucial importance of this priestly manipulation of blood is heavily emphasized in Lev. 17: 10–16, which explicitly asserts its purgative and purificatory purpose. As they carry out these duties, the priests are never made by P the subject of the verb ‘say’ ('mr). There is no suggestion, therefore, that they recite formulae of incantation, spells, or arcane utterances. They do, however, administer oaths, as in the case of the suspected adultress (Num. 5: 16–28), and pronounce the solemn blessing which places YHWH's name upon Israel (Num. 6: 22–7).

Central to their duties is the inspection of persons suffering from skin diseases (‘leprosy’). Priests alone may declare such persons pure or impure, having first carefully scrutinized them in accordance with written regulations. Clothing and houses are also susceptible to ‘leprosy’, and in all matters connected with this form of impurity the priests alone adjudicate, declare what is the case, and, when appropriate, pronounce the person or object to be clean, performing the prescribed ceremonies (Lev. 13–14). Priests also carry out the formal rituals purging persons rendered impure by sexual discharges, menstrual blood (Lev. 15), and childbirth (Lev. 12); and the most contagious source of impurity, corpse uncleanness, depends for its removal on a ritual involving the high priests in preparing the ashes of a red heifer to mix with lustral water, which is then administered to the unclean person by ordinary priests (Num. 19). The priests are thus deeply involved in the lives of the Israelite people at a number of different levels; and it should be noted that the priestly laws themselves are given, through Moses, not simply to Aaron, but to ‘the sons of Israel’.

Knowledge of these laws, therefore, is not confined by the legislator to the priestly class, but disseminated throughout the community. If P does not explicitly demand that the priests teach, it is because it assumes that Israel has access to those laws which are designed to foster that purity necessary for the holy God to be with his people to bless them and make them holy. God's absence brings decay and death, for he is author of life. His presence means blessing and holiness and life; Israel's purity being the necessary condition for God's presence in Israel. Given this, it is evidently in the interests of the priests to ensure that non-priests are properly instructed in the laws.

(c) The Levites

All members of the tribe of Levi who do not belong to Aaron's descendants P designates ‘Levites’. Levi's sons Gershon, Kohath, and Merari are regarded as the heads and ancestors of specific family divisions within this group (Exod. 6: 16–20), their primary duties being the physical labour (abōdāh, Milgrom 1991: 7–8) of setting up, dismantling, and transporting the tent and its sacred objects. The Gershonites had charge of the tent and its coverings; the Kohathites of the ark, menorah, table, and altars; and the Merarites of the tent's boards, pillars, and sockets (Num. 3: 21–9). These Levites are subordinate to Aaron and his sons, given to them out of the Israelites (Num. 3: 9), a note followed by the ominous warning that any non-priest encroaching on Aaron's priesthood shall be put to death (Num. 3: 10; cf. 3: 38; 18: 7). The Levites have the function of guarding the sanctuary.

These duties, however, are presented in an exalted setting. All first-born creatures belong to YHWH (Exod. 13: 11–16); but out of Israel God has selected the Levites in place of the first-born sons (Num. 3: 11–13, 40–51). The ritual for their formal institution to office makes it absolutely clear that they are to be devoted to purity: at the outset, they are purged of all corpse uncleanness, and they are separated from the Israelites (Num. 8: 14, 21). Purity is the watchword of their office (Num. 8: 6, 7, 21); nevertheless, P never describes them as holy (Milgrom 1991: 519). Their guarding of the tent and its sacred objects must be seen in this light. Far from being menial, their duties are essential to P's understanding of the whole of Israel as separated from impurity (e.g. Lev. 15: 31) to ensure that the tent, the place of the divine presence, might be guarded and secure from uncleanness.

Perhaps this exalted status is not unrelated to P's awareness of attempts by Levite groups to acquire priestly rank for themselves. Num. 16–18, which tells of Korah's rebellion against Aaron's authority, openly speaks of bitter disagreements between priests and Levites; and further disharmony, this time within the Levite groups themselves, may perhaps be discerned in variations in order of named Levitical groups, some claiming higher status or even the priesthood (e.g. Num. 3: 17, Gershon–Kohath–Merari, and Num. 4: 2, 22, 42, Kohath–Gershon–Merarai: so Gunneweg 1965: 171–88). While this is likely, it should not be over-pressed. Korah's group did indeed claim the priesthood, but based this claim, not on Levitical rights, but on the assertion that the whole congregation is holy (Num. 16: 3), over against P's repeated insistence that Israel is to be holy (Lev. 11: 44–5; 19: 2; 20: 7, 26). P has no animus against Levites, and in return for the work with the tent they are granted the whole of the tithe (Num. 18: 21–4), a massive economic benefit from which they are in turn to grant one-tenth to the priests (Num. 18: 26).

(d) The Date of the Priestly Legislation

Since Wellhausen (1973: 28–51), P has been conventionally assigned to a date late in exilic or early in Second Temple times, at any rate later than Ezek. 40–8, whose basic tenets regarding the priesthood it is thought to presuppose. Embedded within it is the Holiness Code (Lev. 17–26, conventionally labelled H), a separate unit thought by most to ante-date Ezekiel's work (e.g. Kaiser 1975: 113–15). This commonly accepted dating of sources yields an apparently smooth development of the offices of high priest (not apparent in H or Ezekiel; named as such in the late sixth-century prophetic books of Haggai and Zechariah; summed up in P's legislation as Aaron; and fully represented in Zadokite form by the Chronicler); of priest (all Levites being priests in Deuteronomy; then priesthood being restricted to named family groups: sons of Zadok in Ezekiel, sons of Aaron in P and Chronicles); and of Levites (acceptable as priests in Deuteronomy, demoted by Ezekiel's plans; reduced to status of clerus minor by P, the Chronicler; Ezra and Nehemiah following this with some variations). This historical process was accompanied by conflicts and bitter disagreements between various priestly groups (sons of Zadok, sons of Aaron, sons of Ithamar), between them and different Levitical families (Kohathites, Gershonites, Merarites); and between other professional interest groups such as door-keepers and singers, until some more or less stable modus vivendi came about in later Second Temple times, possibly as a result of the Chronicler's work (cf. Schaper 2000).

Yet even in its own day, Wellhausen's late dating of P was not universally accepted (Baudissin 1889); and recent advances in research point increasingly to a pre-exilic setting for it. Its language, especially its use of key Priestly technical terms, appears to be earlier than Ezek. 40–8 (Hurvitz 1982); two of its most important terms, mišmeret and abôdāh, bear meanings they never had in post-exilic times; the granting of all tithes to Levites makes little sense for a post-exilic legislator in days when Levites were few in number (Ezra); and the social institutions it presupposes fit pre-exilic times better than post-exilic (Haran 1978: 140–8; Polzin 1976; Rendsburg 1980). The legislation lacks any call for a single, central sanctuary. The likelihood that P legislated for a pre-exilic world is not easily dismissed, and it suggests that the ‘classical’ arrangement of a ‘high’ priest alongside the ruler, presiding over priests drawn from particular families or groups, and Levites as assistants to those priests and guardians of the sanctuary, is deeply rooted in Israel's traditions. That such may well be the case appears possible from recent research on Deuteronomy.

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