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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Priest, Hebrew

(כֹּהֵן, koh, ἱερεύς ). We base the following article upon the Scriptural information, with important additions from other and more modern sources.) (See SACERDOTAL ORDER).

I. General Considerations.

1. The Name.

(1.) The English word priest is generally derived from the New Test. term presbyter (πρεσβύτερος, elder), the meaning of which is, however, essentially different from that which was intended by the ancient terms. It would come nearer if derived from προϊ v στημι or προϊ v σταμαι "to preside," etc. It would then correspond to Aristotle's definition of a priest, "presiding over things relating to the gods" (Polit. 3, 14), and with the very similar one in Hebrews 5:1 : "Every high-priest taken from among men is constituted on the behalf of men, with respect to their concerns with God, that he may present both gifts and sacrifices for sins." It would then adequately represent the ἱερεύς ( ἱερὰ ῥέζων ) of the Greeks, and the sacerdos (a sacris faciundis) of the Latins. (See PRESBYTER).

(2.) It is unfortunate that there is nothing like a consensus of interpreters as to the etymology of the above Hebrew word kohê n. Its root-meaning, uncertain as far as Hebrew itself is concerned, is referred by Geseniuls (Thesaurus, s.v.) to the idea of prophecy. The kohê n delivers a divine message, stands as a mediator between God and man, represents each to the other. This meaning, however, belongs to the Arabic, not to the Hebrew form, and Ewald connects the latter with the verb הֵכִין (hekin), to array, put in order (so in Isaiah 61:10), seeing in it a reference to the primary office of the priests as arranging the sacrifice on the altar (Alterthü m. p. 272). According to Saalschü tz (Archaö l. der Hebr. c. 78), the primary meaning of the word is to minister, and he thus accounts for the wider application of the name (as below). Bahr (Symbolik, 2, 15) connects it with an Arabic root=קרב, to draw near.

Of these etymologies, the last has the merit of answering most closely to the received usage of the word. In the precise terminology of the law, it is used of one who may "draw near" to the Divine Presence (Exodus 19:22; Exodus 30:20) while others remain afar off, and is applied accordingly, for the most part, to the sons of Aaron, as those who were alone authorized to offer sacrifices. In some remarkable passages it takes a wider range. It is applied to the priests of other nations or religions, to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18), Potipherah (Genesis 41:45), Jethro (Exodus 2:16), to those who discharged priestly functions in Israel before the appointment of Aaron and his sons (Exodus 19:22). A case of greater difficulty presents itself in 2 Samuel 8:18, where the sons of David are described as priests (kohanim), and this immediately after the name had been applied in its usual sense to the sons of Aaron. The writer of 1 Chronicles 18:17, as if reluctant to adopt this use of the title, or anxious to guard against mistake, gives a paraphrase, "the sons of David were first at the king's hand" (A. V. "chief about the king"). The Sept. and A.V. suppress the difficulty by translating kohanim into αὐλάρχαι and "chief officers." The Vulg. more honestly gives "sacerdotes." Luther and Coverdale follow the Hebrew strictly, and give "priests." The received explanation is that the word is used here in what is assumed to be its earlier and wider meaning, as equivalent to rulers, or, giving it a more restricted sense, that the sons of David were Vicarii Regis, as the sons of Aaron were Vicarii Dei (comp. Patrick, Michaelis, Rosenmü ller, ad loc., Keil on 1 Chronicles 18:17).

It can hardly be said, however, that this accounts satisfactorily for the use of the same title in two successive verses in two entirely different senses. Ewald accordingly (Alterthü m. p. 276) sees in it an actual suspension of the usual law in favor of members of the royal house, and finds a parallel instance in the acts of David (2 Samuel 6:14) and Solomon (1 Kings 3, 15). De Wette and Gesenius, in like manner, look on it as a revival of the old household priesthoods. These theories are in their turn unsatisfactory, as contradicting the whole spirit and policy of David's reign, which was throughout that of reverence for the law of Jehovah and the priestly order which it established. A conjecture midway between these two extremes is perhaps permissible. David and his sons may have been admitted not to distinctively priestly acts, such as burning incense (Numbers 16:40; 2 Chronicles 26:18), but to an honorary, titular priesthood. To wear the ephod in processions (2 Samuel 6:14), at the time when this was the special badge of the order (1 Samuel 22:18), to join the priests and Levites in their songs and dances, might have been conceded, with no deviation from the law, to the members of the royal house. There are some indications that these functions (possibly this liturgical retirement from public life) were the lot of the members of the royal house who did not come into the line of succession, and who belonged, by descent or incorporation, to the house of Nathan, as distinct from that of David (Zechariah 12:12). The very name Nathan, connected as it is with Nethinim, suggests the idea of dedication. (See NETHINIM).

The title kohê n is given to Zabud, the son of Nathan (1 Kings 4:5). The genealogy of the line of Nathan in Luke 3 includes many names-Levi, Eliezer, Malchi, Jochanan, Mattathias, Heli-which appear elsewhere as belonging to the priesthood. The mention in 1 Esdras 5, 5 of Joiakim as the son of Zerubbabel, while in Nehemiah 12:10 he appears as the son of Jeshua, the son of Josedek, indicates either a strange confusion, or a connection, as yet imperfectly understood, between the two families. The same explanation applies to the parallel cases of Ira the Jairite (2 Samuel 20:26), where the Sept. gives ἱερεύς . It is noticeable that this use of the title is confined to the reigns of David and Solomon, and that the synonym "at the king's hand" of 1 Chronicles 18:17 is used in 25:2 of the sons of Asaph as "prophesying" under their head or father, and of tie relation of Asaph himself to David in the choral service of the Temple.

2. Essential Idea of the Hebrew Priesthood. This may be called mediation; hence the fact that in the epistle to the Hebrews mediator and priest are considered as synonymous. Yet by this the specific object of the priesthood, in contradistinction to the two other theocratical offices of prophet and king, is by no means sufficiently expressed. The prophet is also a mediator between God and man, since he speaks to the latter in the name of tie former; while the king is the mediator of the judicial and executive power of God among his people, acting in the name of Jehovah. The priest also was clothed with representative power (Deuteronomy 18:5); but this power was mainly directed to represent the people as a holy people in the presence of Jehovah, and to prepare a way by which they themselves might approach God.

Israel was the full-grown family of God, and the domestic priesthood was to become a nation of priests, a royal priesthood (Exodus 19:3-6; Deuteronomy 7:6; Numbers 16:3). But that Israel was chosen to be the royal priesthood with respect to other nations, like many other things, was only expressed in idea, and not actually realized in fact. Israel was incapacitated by its natural sinfulness, and by its incessant transgressions of the very law through the fulfillment of which it was to be sanctified, to penetrate into the immediate presence of God (Exodus 19:21). Hence the necessity of the nation having individual representatives to mediate between them and Jehovah. As a separate element the priesthood represented the nation as yet unfit to approach God. The people offered their gifts to God by means of a separated class from among themselves, and in connection with the propitiatory sacrifices this was calculated to keep alive the consciousness of their estrangement from God. The very place assigned to the priests in the camp was expressive of this idea, that they keep "the charge of the sanctuary for the charge of the children of Israel" (Numbers 3:38).

The insufficiency of the priesthood was expressed by their being excluded from the most holy place. Only the high-priest, in whom the idea of this typical institution concentrated, could penetrate thither; and he only as the type of the future Mediator who was absolutely to lead us into the most holy of the world of spirits. Because the priests were not altogether removed from the sins of the people, even the chief-priest had access only once a year to the most holy, and that just on the day when the entire guilt of the nation was to be atoned for. He had on that occasion to confess his own sin, and bring a sin-offering; to lay aside his magnificent robes of office, and to officiate in a plain linen garment. Moreover, when he entered the dark, narrow space of the most holy, the cloud of incense was to cover the mercy-seat "that he die not" (Leviticus 16:13).

The idea of mediation between God and the people is expressed by the priest presenting the atonement for the congregation, and the gifts of a reconciled people (הקְרִיב, Leviticus 21:7; Numbers 16:5; Numbers 17:5). Again, he brings back from God's presence-the blessing of grace, mercy, and peace (Leviticus 9:27, etc.; Numbers 6:22-27). In the earliest families of the race of Shem the offices of priest and prophet were undoubtedly united; so that the word originally denoted both, and at last the Hebrew idiom kept one part of the idea and the Arabic another (Gesenius, Hebraisches und Chalddisches Handworterbuch [Leips. 1823]). It is worthy of remark that all the persons who are recorded in Scripture as having legally performed priestly acts, but who were not strictly sacerdotal, come under the definition of a prophet, viz. persons who received supernatural communications of knowledge generally, as Adam, Abraham (Genesis 20:7), Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Job, Samuel, Elijah (comp. Luke 1:70). The following definition of a priest may be found sufficiently comprehensive: A man who officiates or transacts with God on behalf of others, statedly, or for the occasion.

3. Origin of the Sacerdotal Order. The idea of a priesthood connects itself, in all its forms, pure or corrupted, with the consciousness, more or less distinct, of sin. Men feel that they have broken a law. The power above them is holier than they are, and they dare not approach it. They crave for the intervention of some one of whom they can think as likely to be more acceptable than themselves. He must offer up their prayers, thanksgivings, sacrifices. He becomes their representative in "things pertaining unto God." He may become also (though this does not always follow) the representative of God to man. The functions of the priest and prophet may exist in the same person. The reverence which men pay to one who bears this consecrated character may lead them to acknowledge the priest as being also their king. The claim to fill the office may rest on characteristics belonging only to the individual man, or confined to a single family or tribe. The conditions of the priesthood, the office and influence of the priests, as they are among the most conspicuous facts of all religions of the ancient world, so do they occupy a like position in the history of the religion of Israel.

No trace of a hereditary or caste priesthood meets us in the worship of the patriarchal age. (For its occasional appearance in a general form, see § 3.) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob perform priestly acts, offer sacrifices, "draw near" to the Lord (Genesis 12:8; Genesis 18:23; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 33:20). To the eldest son, or to the favored son exalted to the place of the eldest, belongs the "goodly raiment" (Genesis 27:15), the "coat of many colors" (Genesis 37:3), in which we find perhaps the earliest trace of a sacerdotal vestment (comp. Blunt, Script. Coincid. 1, 1; Ugolino, 13:138). Once, and once only, does the word kohê n meet us as belonging to a ritual earlier than the time of Abraham. Melchizedek is "the priest of the most high God" (Genesis 14:18). The argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews has a historical foundation in the fact that there are no indications in the narrative of Genesis 14 of any one preceding or following him in that office. The special divine names which are connected with him as the priest of "the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth," render it probable that he rose, in the strength of those great thoughts of God, above the level of the other inhabitants of Canaan. In him Abraham recognized a faith like his own, a life more entirely consecrated, the priestly character in its perfection. (See MELCHIZEDEK).

In the worship of the patriarchs themselves, the chief of the family, as such, acted as the priest. The office descended with the birthright, and might apparently be transferred with it. As the family expanded, the head of each section probably stood in the same relation to it. The thought of the special consecration of the first-born was recognized at the time of the Exodus (see below). A priesthood of a like kind continued to exist in other Shemitic tribes. The Book of Job, whatever may be its date, ignores altogether the institutions of Israel, and represents the man of Uz as himself "sanctifying" his sons, and offering burnt-offerings (Job 1:5). Jethro is a "priest of Midian" (Exodus 2:16; Exodus 3:1). Balak himself offers a bullock and a ram upon the seven altars on Pisgah (Numbers 23:2, etc.).

In Egypt the Israelites came into contact with a priesthood of another kind, and that contact must have been for a time a very close one. The marriage of Joseph with the daughter of the priest of On a priest, as we may infer from her name, of the goddess Neith (Genesis 41:45) (See ASENATH) the special favor which he showed to the priestly caste in the years of famine (Genesis 47:26), the training of Moses in the palace of the Pharaohs, probably in the colleges and temples of the priests (Acts 7:22) all this must have impressed the constitution, the dress, the outward form of life upon the minds of the lawgiver and his contemporaries. Little as we know directly of the life of Egypt at this remote period, the stereotyped fixedness of the customs of that country warrants us in referring to a tolerably distant past the facts which belong historically to a later period, and in doing so we find coincidences with the ritual of the Israelites too numerous to be looked onl as accidental, or as the result of forces which were at work independent of each other, but taking parallel directions. As circumcision was common to the two nations (Herod. 2, 37), so the shaving of the whole body (ibid.) was with both part of the symbolic purity of the priesthood, once for all with the Levites of Israel (Numbers 8:7), every third day with those of Egypt. Both are restricted to garments of linen (Herod. 2, 37, 81; Plutarch, De Isid. 4; Juven. 6:533; Exodus 28:39; Ezekiel 44:18). The sandals of byblus worn by the Egyptian priests were but little removed from the bare feet with which the sons of Aaron went into the sanctuary (Herod. 2, 37). For both there were multiplied ablutions. Both had a public maintenance assigned, and had besides a large share in the flesh of the victims offered (ibid. 1. c.). Over both there was one high-priest. In both the law of succession was hereditary (ibid.; comp. also Spencer, De Leg. Hebrews 3, 1, 5, 11; Wilkinson, Anc. Egypt. 3, 116). They were exempt from taxes. Wine was allowed to them only in the strictest moderation, and entire abstinence from it was required during the fasts, which were frequent (Plutarch, De Isid. 6). Each grade of the priests was distinguished by its peculiar costume. The high-priests, who, among other official duties, anointed the king, wore a mantle made of an entire leopard-skin; as did the king, when engaged in priestly duties. The sacerdotal order constituted one of the four principal castes, of the highest rank, next to the king, and from whom were chosen his confidential and responsible advisers (comp. 2 Samuel 8:18; 1 Chronicles 18:17; Isaiah 19:11; Diodorus, 1, 73); they associated with the monarch, whom they assisted in the performance of his public duties, to whom they explained from the sacred books those lessons which were laid down for his conduct (Wilkinson, Anc. Egypt. 1, 237, 257-282). (See EGYPT).

Facts such as these leave scarcely any room for doubt that there was a connection of some kind between the Egyptian priesthood and that of Israel. The latter was not, indeed, an outgrowth or imitation of the former. The faith of Israel in Jehovah, the one Lord, the living God, of whom there was no form or similitude, presented the strongest possible contrast to the multitudinous idols of the polytheism of Egypt. The symbolism of the one was cosmic, "of the earth earthy," that of the other, chiefly, if not altogether, ethical and spiritual. But looking, as we must look, at the law and ritual of the Israelites as designed for the education of a people who were in danger of sinking into such a polytheism, we may readily admit that the education must have started from some point which the subjects of it had already reached, must have employed the language of symbolic acts and rites with which they were already familiar. The same alphabet had to be used, the same root-forms employed as the elements of speech, though the thoughts which they were to be the instruments of uttering were widely different. The details of the religion of Egypt might well be used to make the protest against the religion itself at once less startling and more attractive.

At the time of the Exodus there was as yet no priestly caste. The continuance of solemn sacrifices (Exodus 5:1; Exodus 5:3) implied, of course, a priesthood of some kind, and priests appear as a recognized body before the promulgation of the Law on Sinai (Exodus 19:22). It has been supposed that these were identical with the "young men of the children of Israel" who offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings (Exodus 24:5) either as the first-born or as representing in the freshness of their youth the purity of acceptable worship (comp. the analogous case of" the young man the Levite" in Judges 17 :and Ewald, Alterthü mer, p. 273). On the principle, however, that difference of title implies in most cases difference of functions, it appears more probable that the "young men" were not those who had before performed priestly acts, but were chosen by the lawgiver to be his ministers in the solemn work of the covenant, representing, in their youth, the stage in the nation's life on which the people were then entering (Keil, ad loc.).

There are signs that the priests of the older ritual were already dealt with as belonging to an obsolescent system. Though they were known as those that "come near" to the Lord (Exodus 19:22), yet they are not permitted to approach the Divine Presence on Sinai. They cannot "sanctify" themselves enough to endure that trial. Aaron alone, the future high-priest, but as yet not known as such, enters with Moses into the thick darkness. It is noticeable also that at this transition-stage, when the old order was passing away, and the new was not yet established, there is the proclamation of the truth, wider and higher than both, that the whole people was to be "a kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6). The idea of the life of the nation was that it was to be as a priest and a prophet to the rest of mankind. They were called to a universal priesthood (comp. Keil, ad loc.). As a people, however, they needed a long discipline before they could make the idea a reality. They drew back from their high vocation (Exodus 20:18-21). As for other reasons, so also for this, that the central truth required a rigid, unbending form for its outward expression, a distinctive priesthood was to be to the nation what the nation was to mankind. The position given to the ordinances of the priesthood indicated with sufficient clearness that it was subordinate, not primary, a means and not an end. Not in the first proclamation of the great laws of duty in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17), nor in the application of those laws to the chief contingencies of the people's life in the wilderness, does it find a place. It appears together with the ark and the tabernacle, as taking its position in the education by which the people were to be led towards the mark of their high calling. As such we have to consider it.

II. Personal Characteristics of the Hebrew Priesthood, -

1. Consecration. The functions of the HIGH-PRIEST, the position and history of the LEVITES as the consecrated tribe, have been fully discussed under those heads. It remains to notice the characteristic facts connected with "the priests, the sons of Aaron," as standing between the two. Solemn as was the subsequent dedication of the other descendants of Levi, that of the priests involved a yet higher consecration. A special word (קָדִשׁ, kadá sh) was appropriated to it. Their old garments were laid aside. Their bodies were washed with clean water (Exodus 29:4; Leviticus 8:6) and anointed with the perfumed oil, prepared after a prescribed formula, and to be used for no lower purpose (Exodus 29:7; Exodus 30:22-33). The sons of Aaron, it may be noticed, were simply sprinkled with the precious oil (Leviticus 8:30). Over Aaron himself it was poured till it went down to the skirts of his clothing (Leviticus 8:12; Psalms 133:2). The new garments belonging to their office were then put on them (see below). The truth that those who intercede for others must themselves have been reconciled was indicated by the sacrifice of a bullock as a sin-offering, on which they solemnly laid their hands, as transferring to it the guilt which had attached to them (Exodus 29:10; Leviticus 8:18). The total surrender of their lives was represented by the ram slain as a burnt- offering, a "sweet savor" to Jehovah (Exodus 29:18; Leviticus 8:21). The blood of these two was sprinkled on the altar, offered to the Lord. The blood of a third victim, the ram of consecration, was used for another purpose. With it Moses sprinkled the right ear, that was to be open to the divine voice; the right hand and the right foot, that were to be active in divine ministrations (Exodus 29:20; Leviticus 8:23-24). Lastly, as they were to be the exponents, not only of the nation's sense of guilt, but of its praise and thanksgiving, Moses was to "fill their hands" with cakes of unleavened bread and portions of the sacrifices, which they were to present before the Lord as a wave-offering. This appears to have been regarded as the essential part of the consecration; and the Heb. "to fill the hand" is accordingly used as a synonym for "to consecrate" (Exodus 29:9; 2 Chronicles 13:9). The whole of this mysterious ritual was to he repeated for seven days, during which they remained within the Tabernacle, separated from the people, and not till then was the consecration perfect (comp. on the meaning of all these acts, Bä hr, Symbolik, vol. 2, ch. 5, § 2). Moses himself, as the representative of the Unseen King, is the consecrator, the sacrificer throughout these ceremonies; as the channel through which the others receive their office, he has for the time a higher priesthood than that of Aaron (Selden, De Synedr. 1, 16; Ugolino, 12:3). In accordance with the principle which runs through the history of Israel, he, the ruler, solemnly divests himself of the priestly office and transfers it to another. The fact that he had been a priest was merged in his work as a lawgiver. Only once in the language of a later period is the word kohê n applied to him (Psalms 99:6).

The consecrated character thus imparted did not need renewing. It was a perpetual inheritance transmitted from father to son through all the centuries that followed. We do not read of its being renewed in the case of any individual priest of the sons of Aaron. Only when the line of succession was broken, and the impiety of Jeroboam intruded the lowest of the people into the sacred office, do we find the reappearance of a like form (2 Chronicles 13:9) of the same technical word. The previous history of Jeroboam and the character of the worship which he introduced make it probable that, in that case only, the ceremonial was, to some extent, Egyptian in its origin. In after-times the high-priest took an oath (Hebrews 7:23) to bind him, as the Jews say, to a strict adherence to established customs (Mishna, Yoma, 1, 5).

2. Dress. The "sons of Aaron" thus dedicated were to wear during their ministrations a special apparel at other times apparently they wore the common dress of the people. The material of the sacred garments was to be linen, and not wool (Ezekiel 44, 17; Leviticus 21:1-10); but Ewald (Alterthü mer, p. 317), Josephus (Ant. 4:8), and the rabbins (Mass. Kilaim, p. 9) maintain that the holy garments were made of a mixture of wool and linen, called שִׁעִטְּנֵז (shaatnez); and a typical meaning is found in this by Braun (Vest. Sac. Hebr. § 30), as if it was to signify the imperfection of the Levitical priesthood; while Ezekiel 44:17, which restricts the material to linen, was considered significant of the simplicity of the New Test. (See HETEROGENEOUS).

The prohibition in Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:11 against the people generally wearing any garments of such "mingled" material was hence explained by Josephus that they might not assume what was characteristic of the priests (Ant. 4:11). But the more satisfactory and natural view is that the priests only wore linen, and that the Israelites were prohibited from wearing the mixture to teach them that even in garments they should avoid all needless artificiality, and to respect the creation of God in the simplicity of the material. (See LINEN).

It is well known that the Roman poets speak of the Egyptian priests as the linigeri, the wearers of linen (Juvenal, Sat. 6; Ovid, Met. 1). The reason for fixing on this material is given in Ezekiel 44:18; but the feeling that there was something unclean in clothes made from the skin or wool of an animal was common to other nations. Egypt has already been mentioned. The Arab priests in the time of Mohammed wore linen only (Ewald, Alterthü m. p. 289). As there were some garments common both to the priests and the high priest, we shall begin with those of the former, taking them in the order in which they would be put on. (See APPAREL).

(1.) The first was be מִכְנְסֵי בָד, "linen breeches," or drawers (Exodus 28:42; Sept. περισκελῆ λινά; Vulg. feminalia linea). These extended from the loins to the thighs, and were "to cover their nakedness." The verecundia of the Hebrew ritual in this and in other places (Exodus 20:26; Exodus 28:42) was probably a protest against some of the fouler forms of nature-worship, as e.g. in the worship of Peor (Maimonides, Moreh Nebochim, 3, 45; Ugolino, 13:385), and possibly, also, in some Egyptian rites (Herod. 2, 60). According to Josephus, whose testimony, however, of course relates only to his own time, they reached only to the middle of the thigh, where they were tied fast (Ant. 3, 7, 1). Such drawers were worn universally in Egypt. In the sculptures and paintings of that country the figures of workmen and servants have no other dress than a short kilt or apron, sometimes simply bound about the loins and lapping over in front; other figures have short loose drawers; while a third variety of this article, fitting closely and extending to the knees, appears in the figures of some idols, as in the cut. This last sort of drawers seems to have been peculiar in Egypt to the gods, and to the priests, whose attire was often adapted to that of the idols on which they attended. The priests, in common with other persons of the upper classes, wore the drawers under other robes. No mention occurs of the use of drawers by any other class of persons in Israel except the priests, on whom it was enjoined for the sake of decency. (See BREECHES).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Priest, Hebrew'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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