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In the Temple of Herod
Of course these services, as also those of the singers and musicians, and of the porters and guards, were retained in the Temple of Herod. But for the employment of Levites as 'officers and judges' there was no further room, not only because such judicial functions as still remained to the Jews were in the hands of the Sanhedrim and its subordinate authorities, but also because in general the ranks of the Levites were so thinned. In point of fact, while no less than 4,289 priests had returned from Babylon, the number of Levites was under 400 (Ezra 2:40-42; Neh 7:43- 45), of whom only 74 were 'priests' assistants.' To this the next immigration, under Ezra, added only 38, and that though the Levites had been specially searched for (Ezra 8:15,18,19). According to tradition, Ezra punished them by depriving them of their tithes. The gap in their number was filled up by 220 Nethinim (Ezra 8:20), literally, 'given ones,' probably originally strangers and captives, * as in all likelihood the Gibeonites had been the first 'Nethinim' (Josh 9:21,23,27).
* This is also confirmed by their foreign names (Ezra 2:43-58). The total number of Nethinim who returned from Babylon was 612--392 with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:58; Neh 7:60), and 220 with Ezra (Ezra 8:20).
Though the Nethinim, like the Levites and priests, were freed from all taxation (Ezra 7:24), and perhaps also from military service (Jos. Anti. iii. 12; iv. 4, 3.), the Rabbinists held them in the lowest repute--beneath a bastard, though above a proselyte-- forbade their intermarrying with Israelites, and declared them incapable of proper membership in the congregation.
Duties of Priests and Levites
The duties of priests and Levites in the Temple may be gathered from Scripture, and will be further explained in the course of our inquiries. Generally, it may here be stated that on the Levites devolved the Temple-police, the guard of the gates, and the duty of keeping everything about the sanctuary clean and bright. But as at night the priests kept watch about the innermost places of the Temple, so they also opened and closed all the inner gates, while the Levites discharged this duty in reference to the outer gates, which led upon the Temple Mount (or Court of the Gentiles), and to the 'Beautiful Gate,' which formed the principal entrance into the Court of the Women. The laws of Levitical cleanness, as explained by the Rabbis, were most rigidly enforced upon worshippers and priests. If a leper, or any other who was 'defiled,' had ventured into the sanctuary itself, or any priest officiated in a state of 'uncleanness,' he would, if discovered, be dragged out and killed, without form of process, by 'the rebels' beating.' Minor punishments were awarded to those guilty of smaller offences of the same kind. The Sabbath-rest was strictly enforced, so far as consistent with the necessary duties of the Temple service. But the latter superseded the Sabbath law (Matt 12:5) and defilement on account of death. If the time for offering a sacrifice was not fixed, so that it might be brought on one day as well as another, then the service did not supersede either the Sabbath or defilement on account of death. But where the time was unalterably fixed, there the higher duty of obedience to a direct command came in to supersede alike the Sabbath and this one (but only this one) ground of defilement. The same principle applied to worshippers as well as priests.
The Week's Service
Each 'course' of priests and of Levites (as has already been stated) came on duty for a week, from one Sabbath to another. The service of the week was subdivided among the various families which constituted a 'course'; so that if it consisted of five 'houses of fathers,' three served each one day, and two each two days; if of six families, five served each one day, and one two days; if of eight families, six served each one day, and the other two in conjunction on one day; or, lastly, if of nine families, five served each one day, and the other four took it two in conjunction for two days. These divisions and arrangements were made by 'the chiefs' or 'heads of the houses of their fathers.' On Sabbaths the whole 'course' was on duty; on feast-days any priest might come up and join in the ministrations of the sanctuary; and at the Feast of Tabernacles all the twenty-four courses were bound to be present and officiate. While actually engaged on service in the Temple, the priests were not allowed to drink wine, either by day or by night. The other 'families' or 'houses' also of the 'course' who were in attendance at Jerusalem, though not on actual duty, were, during their week of ministry, prohibited the use of wine, except at night, because they might have to be called in to assist their brethren of the officiating 'family,' which they could not do if they had partaken of strong drink. The law even made (a somewhat curious) provision to secure that the priests should come up to Jerusalem properly trimmed, washed, and attired, so as to secure the decorum of the service.
These Functions Not Sacerdotal
It would be difficult to conceive arrangements more thoroughly or consistently opposed to what are commonly called 'priestly pretensions,' than those of the Old Testament. The fundamental principle, laid down at the outset, that all Israel were 'a kingdom of priests' (Exo 19:5,6), made the priesthood only representatives of the people. Their income, which even under the most favorable circumstances must have been moderate, was, as we have seen, dependent on the varying religious state of the nation, since no law existed by which either the payment of tithes or any other offerings could be enforced. How little power or influence, comparatively speaking, the priesthood wielded, is sufficiently known from Jewish history. Out of actual service neither the priests nor even the high-priest wore a distinctive dress (comp. Acts 23:5; see also chapter 7), and though a number of civil restrictions were laid on priests, there were few corresponding advantages. It is indeed true that alliances with distinguished priestly families were eagerly sought, and that during the troubled period of Syrian domination the high-priest for a time held civil as well as religious rule. But the latter advantage was dearly bought, both as regarded the priests and the nation.
Nor must we forget the powerful controlling influence which Rabbinism exercised. Its tendency, which must never be lost sight of in the study of the state of Palestine at the time of our Lord, was steadily against all privileges other than those gained by traditionary learning and theological ingenuity. The Pharisee, or, rather, the man learned in the traditional law, was everything both before God and before man; 'but this people, who knoweth not the law,' were 'cursed,' plebeians, country people, unworthy of any regard or attention. Rabbinism applied these principles even in reference to the priesthood. It divided all priests into 'learned' and 'unlettered,' and excluded the latter from some of the privileges of their own order. Thus there were certain priestly dues which the people might at will give to any priest they chose. But from some of them the 'unlettered' priests were debarred, on the ostensible ground that in their ignorance they might have partaken of them in a state of Levitical uncleanness, and so committed mortal sin.
Training of Priests
In general, the priests had to undergo a course of instruction, and were examined before being allowed to officiate. Similarly, they were subject to the ordinary tribunals, composed of men learned in the law, without regard to their descent from one or another tribe. The ordained 'rulers' of the synagogues, the teachers of the people, the leaders of their devotions, and all other officials were not necessarily 'priests,' but simply chosen for their learning and fitness. Any one whom the 'elders' or 'rulers' deemed qualified for it might, at their request, address to the people on the Sabbath a 'word of exhortation.' Even the high-priest himself was answerable to the Sanhedrim. It is distinctly stated, that 'if he committed an offence which by the law deserved whipping, the Great Sanhedrim whipt him, and then had him restored again to his office.' Every year a kind of ecclesiastical council was appointed to instruct him in his duties for the Day of Atonement, 'in case he were not learned,' or, at any rate, to see to it that he knew and remembered them. Nay, the principle was broadly laid down--that 'a scholar, though he were a bastard, was of far higher value than an unlearned high-priest.' If, besides all this, it is remembered how the political influence of the high-priest had decayed in the days of Herod, and how frequently the occupants of that office changed, through the caprice of the rulers or through bribery, the state of public feeling will be readily understood. At the same time, it must be admitted, that generally speaking the high-priest would, of necessity, wield very considerable influence, and that, ordinarily, those who held the sacred office were not only 'lettered,' but members of the Sanhedrim. According to Jewish tradition, the high-priest ought, in every respect, to excel all other priests, and if he were poor, the rest were to contribute, so as to secure him an independent fortune. Certain marks of outward respect were also shown him. When he entered the Temple he was accompanied by three persons--one walking at each side, the third behind him. He might, without being appointed to it, officiate in any part of the Temple services; he had certain exceptional rights; and he possessed a house in the Temple, where he lived by day, retiring only at night to his own home, which must be within Jerusalem, and to which he was escorted by the people after the solemnities of the Day of Atonement, which devolved almost exclusively upon him.
* According to the Rabbis, he was appointed by the Sanhedrim.
Without here entering into the complicated question of the succession to the high-priesthood, the following may be quoted from the Talmud (Talmud Jer. Ioma, I.), without, of course, guaranteeing its absolute accuracy: 'In the first Temple, the high- priests served, the son succeeding the father, and they were eighteen in number. But in the second Temple they got the high- priesthood for money; and there are who say they destroyed each other by witchcraft, so that some reckon 80 high-priests during that period, others 81, others 82, 83, 84, and even 85.' The Rabbis enumerate 18 high-priests during the first Temple; Lightfoot counts 53 from the return from Babylon to Matthias, when the last war of the Jews began; while Relandius reckons 57. But there is both difficulty and confusion amid the constant changes at the last.
There was not any fixed age for entering on the office of high- priest, any more than on that of an ordinary priest. The Talmudists put it down at twenty years. But the unhappy descendant of the Maccabees, Aristobulus, was only sixteen years of age when his beauty, as he officiated as high-priest in the Temple, roused the jealousy of Herod, and procured his death. The entrance of the Levites is fixed, in the sacred text, at thirty during the wilderness period, and after that, when the work would require less bodily strength, but a larger number of ministers, at twenty-five years of age. *
* It is thus we reconcile Numbers 4:3 with 8:24, 25. In point of fact, these two reasons are expressly mentioned in 1 Chronicles 23:24-27, as influencing David still further to lower the age of entrance to twenty.
Disqualifications for the Priesthood
No special disqualifications for the Levitical office existed, though the Rabbis insist that a good voice was absolutely necessary. It was otherwise with the priest's office. The first inquiry instituted by the Sanhedrim, who for the purpose sat daily in 'the Hall of Polished Stones,' was into the genealogy of a candidate. Certain genealogies were deemed authoritative. Thus, 'if his father's name were inscribed in the archives of Jeshana at Zipporim, no further inquiry was made.' If he failed to satisfy the court about his perfect legitimacy, the candidate was dressed and veiled in black, and permanently removed. If he passed that ordeal, inquiry was next made as to any physical defects, of which Maimonides enumerates a hundred and forty that permanently, and twenty-two which temporarily disqualified for the exercise of the priestly office. Persons so disqualified were, however, admitted to menial offices, such as in the wood-chamber, and entitled to Temple support. Those who had stood the twofold test were dressed in white raiment, and their names properly inscribed. To this pointed allusion is made in Revelation 3:5, 'He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life.'
Thus received, and afterwards instructed in his duties, the formal admission alike of the priest and of the high-priest was not, as of old, by anointing, but simply by investiture. For even the composition of the sacred oil was no longer known in the second Temple. They were called 'high-priests by investiture,' and regarded as of inferior rank to those 'by anointing.' As for the common priests, the Rabbis held that they were not anointed even in the first Temple, the rite which was applied to the sons of Aaron being valid also for their descendants. It was otherwise in the case of the high-priest. His investiture was continued during seven days. In olden days, when he was anointed, the sacred oil was not only 'poured over him,' but also applied to his forehead, over the eyes, as tradition has it, after the form of the Greek letter X. The coincidence is certainly curious. This sacred oil was besides only used for anointing such kings as were of the family of David, not other Jewish monarchs, and if their succession had been called in question. Otherwise the royal dignity went, as a matter of course, by inheritance from father to son.