[Heb., ko·henʹ; Gr., hi·e·reusʹ].
The original meaning of the word ko·henʹ is not known, but its significance as used in the Bible can be clearly understood from an examination of the many texts in which the word appears, together with their context. A fine definition is given at Hebrew 5:1: “Every high priest taken from among men is appointed in behalf of men over the things pertaining to God, that he may offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” The priest ‘comes near to Jehovah’ (Ex. 19:22), representing God to the people he serves, instructing them about God and his laws and, in turn, representing the people before God, approaching God in their behalf, offering sacrifices and interceding and pleading for them.—Num. 16:43-50; Heb. 6:20; 7:25.
IN EARLY TIMES
The need for the offering of sacrifices to God was recognized soon after the fall of man in Eden. Along with this, the need of priestly services seems to have been acknowledged. Cain and Abel presented sacrifices to Jehovah. Their father Adam, having rebelled against God, possessed no basis on which to approach God in their behalf. (Gen. 4:1-5) Cain and Abel were grown men, and Cain, at least, was probably married. (Gen. 4:16, 17) (Perhaps not long after the murder of Abel, Seth was born ‘to take his place,’ at which time Adam was 130 years of age. [Gen. 4:25; 5:3] This would allow for Cain and Abel to be 100 years old, or more.)
In patriarchal times the family head served as priest for his family, the duty passing to the firstborn son in event of the father’s death. Thus, in very early times we find Noah representing his family in a priestly capacity. (Gen. 8:20, 21) The family head Abraham had a large household with which he traveled from place to place, building altars and making sacrifices to Jehovah at his various places of encampment. (Gen. 14:14; 12:7, 8; 13:4) God said of Abraham: “I have become acquainted with him in order that he may command his sons and his household after him so that they shall keep Jehovah’s way to do righteousness and judgment.” (Gen. 18:19) Isaac and Jacob followed the same pattern (Gen. 26:25; 31:54; 35:1-7, 14), and Job, a non-Israelite but likely a distant relative of Abraham, regularly offered sacrifices to Jehovah in behalf of his children, saying: “Maybe my sons have sinned and have cursed God in their heart.” (Job 1:4, 5; see also 42:8.) However, the Bible does not specifically call these men ko·henʹ or hi·e·reusʹ. On the other hand, Jethro, the family head and the father-in-law of Moses, is called a “priest [ko·henʹ] of Midian.”—Ex. 2:16; 3:1; 18:1.
Melchizedek king of Salem was a priest (ko·henʹ) extraordinary. The Bible gives no record of his ancestry, his birth or his death. His priesthood was not by inheritance and he had no predecessors or successors in office. Melchizedek held the office of king and priest together. His priesthood was greater than the Levitical priesthood, for Levi, in effect, tithed to Melchizedek, since he was still in the loins of Abraham when Abraham offered tithes to Melchizedek and was blessed by him. (Gen. 14:18-20; Heb. 7:4-10) In these things Melchizedek foreshadowed Jesus Christ, the “priest forever according to the manner of Melchizedek.”—Heb. 7:17.
Evidently the family heads acted as priests among the offspring of Jacob (Israel) until the Levitical priesthood was established by God. Hence, when God led the people to Mount Sinai he commanded: “Let the priests also who regularly come near to Jehovah sanctify themselves, that Jehovah may not break out upon them.” (Ex. 19:22) This was before the Levitical priesthood was established. But Aaron, though not yet designated as priest, was allowed to go partially up the mountain with Moses. This circumstance harmonized with the later appointment of Aaron and his posterity as priests. (Ex. 19:24) Seen in retrospect, this was an early indication that God had in mind a superseding of the old arrangement (of family-head priesthood) by means of a priesthood of Aaron’s house.
UNDER THE LAW COVENANT
When the Israelites were in slavery in Egypt, Jehovah sanctified to himself every firstborn son of Israel at the time that he destroyed Egypt’s firstborn in the tenth plague. (Ex. 12:29; Num. 3:13) These firstborn ones accordingly belonged to Jehovah, to be used exclusively in special service to him. God could have designated all of these firstborn males of Israel as the priests and caretakers of the sanctuary. Instead, it suited his purpose to take male members of the tribe of Levi for this service. For this reason he permitted the nation to substitute the Levite males for the firstborn males of the other twelve tribes (the offspring of Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh being counted as two tribes). In a census there proved to be 273 more firstborn non-Levite sons from a month old and upward than there were Levite males, so God required a ransom price of five shekels for each of the 273, the money being turned over to Aaron and his sons. (Num. 3:11-16, 40-51) Prior to this transaction Jehovah had already set apart the family of Aaron of the tribe of Levi as constituting the priesthood of Israel.—Num. 1:1; 3:6-10.
Israel for a long period of time had the exclusive opportunity to supply the members of “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:6) That opportunity ceased to be exclusively theirs due to the national rejection of God’s Son.—Compare Matthew 21:43; 1 Peter 2:7-10.
Initially, Israel’s King was Jehovah. Later Jehovah directed that the kingship be vested in the line of David. Jehovah was still their invisible King but used the Davidic line as his representatives, as to secular rulership. As such, these earthly kings were said to sit on “Jehovah’s throne.” (1 Chron. 29:23) But the priesthood was still kept separate, in the line of Aaron. Therefore to that nation alone belonged both the kingdom and the priesthood of Jehovah God with its “sacred service.”—Rom. 9:3, 4.
Inauguration of the priesthood
The appointment of a priest must come from God; a man does not take the office of his own accord. (Heb. 5:4) Accordingly, Jehovah himself appointed Aaron and his house to the priesthood “to time indefinite,” separating them from the family of the Kohathites, one of the three main divisions of the tribe of Levi. (Ex. 6:16; 28:43) First, however, Moses the Levite as mediator of the Law covenant represented God in the sanctification of Aaron and his sons and the filling of their hands with power to serve as priests, the procedure being described at Exodus chapter 29 and Leviticus chapter 8. Their installation apparently occupied the seven-day period of Nisan 1-7, 1512 B.C.E. The newly installed priesthood began their services toward Israel the next day, Nisan 8.—See INSTALLATION.
Jehovah laid down the qualifications for those of Aaron’s family line who would serve at God’s altar. To be a priest, one had to be physically sound and of normal appearance. Otherwise he could not approach the altar with offerings and he could not come near to the curtain between the Holy and Most Holy compartments of the tabernacle. Such a one was entitled, however, to receive support from the tithe and could partake of the “holy things” provided as food for the priesthood.—Lev. 21:16-23.
The age for entering upon the priesthood is not specifically stated, although the census of the Kohathites, taken at Mount Sinai, included those from thirty to fifty years old. (Num. 4:3) The service of the Levites at the sanctuary began at twenty-five (reduced in King David’s time to twenty years). (Num. 8:24; 1 Chron. 23:24) Retirement of non-priestly Levites from obligatory service at the sanctuary was at fifty years, but there was no retirement provided for priests.—Num. 8:25, 26; see RETIREMENT.
God spoke of the tribe of Levi as “mine” (Num. 3:12) and the tribe was not given a block of land as an inheritance, but they were ‘scattered in Israel,’ receiving forty-eight cities in which to live with their families and cattle. Thirteen of these cities went to the priests. (Gen. 49:5, 7; Josh. 21:1-11) One of the cities of refuge, Hebron, was a priestly city. (Josh. 21:13) The reason why the Levites received no region as a tribal inheritance was, as Jehovah said, “I am your share and your inheritance in the midst of the sons of Israel.” (Num. 18:20) The Levites did the assigned work of their ministry and maintained their houses and the pasture grounds of the cities allotted, to them. They would also care for other land that the Israelites might devote to sanctuary use. (Lev. 27:21, 28, 29) Jehovah provided for the Levites by arranging for them to receive a tithe of all the produce of the land from the other twelve tribes. (Num. 18:21-24) Of this tithe or tenth the Levites were, in turn, to give a tenth of the very best of what they received, as a tithe to the priesthood. (Num. 18:25-29; Neh. 10:38, 39) The priesthood would thereby receive one percent of the national produce, enabling them to devote all their time to their assigned service of God.
This provision for the priesthood, though abundant, was in contrast to the luxury and financial power attained by the priesthood of pagan nations. In Egypt, for example, the priests owned portions of the land (Gen. 47:22, 26) and by crafty maneuvering eventually were the richest and most powerful men in Egypt. J. H. Breasted, in A History of the Ancient Egyptians, records that during the so-called “Twentieth Dynasty” the Pharaoh was reduced to a mere puppet. The priesthood had possession of the Nubian gold country and the great province of the Upper Nile. The high priest was the most important fiscal officer of the state, next to the chief treasurer himself. He commanded all the armies and held the treasury in his hands. He is represented more prominently in the monuments than the Pharaoh.
It was only when Israel became lax in their worship and negligent in paying their tithes that the priesthood suffered, along with nonpriestly Levites, who had to look for other work to provide for themselves and their families. In turn, this bad attitude toward the sanctuary and its maintenance caused the nation to suffer still further for lack of spirituality and knowledge of Jehovah.—Neh. 13:10-13; see also Malachi 3:8-10.
Besides (1) the regular tithe, the priesthood also received: (2) The redemption money for a firstborn male child or beast. In the case of a firstborn bull, male lamb or goat, they received the flesh for food. (Num. 18:14-19) (3) The redemption money for men and things sanctified as holy and also the things devoted to Jehovah. (Lev. chap. 27) (4) Certain parts of the various offerings brought by the people became the priests’, as well as the showbread. (Lev. 6:25, 26, 29; 7:6-10; Num. 18:8-14) (5) They benefited from the offerings of the best of the first ripe fruits of grain, wine and oil. (Ex. 23:19; Lev. 2:14-16; 22:10 [“stranger” in the latter text means one not a priest]; Deut. 14:22-27; 26:1-10) Except for certain specified portions that only the priests could eat (Lev. 6:29), their sons and daughters and, in some cases, the priest’s household—even slaves—could lawfully share. (Lev. 10:14; 22:10-13) (6) The priests no doubt shared in the third-year tithe for the Levites and the poor. (Deut. 14:28, 29; 26:12) (7) They shared in the booty taken in war.—Num. 31:26-30.
In performing their official duties, the priests served barefooted, in harmony with the fact that the sanctuary was holy ground. (Compare Exodus 3:5.) In the instructions for making the special garments for the priests, sandals were not mentioned. (Ex. 28:1-43) They wore linen drawers extending from the hips to the thighs for moral propriety, “to cover the naked flesh . . . that they [might] not incur error and certainly die.” (Ex. 28:42, 43) Over this they wore a fine linen robe tied about the body by a linen sash. Their headgears were “wrapped” upon them. (Lev. 8:13; Ex. 28:40; 39:27-29) This headdress seems to have been somewhat different from the turban of the high priest, which may have been sewn into a wraparound form and set on the high priest’s head. (Lev. 8:9) It appears that it was in later times that the underpriests on occasion wore ephods of linen, though these were not richly embroidered as was the ephod of the high priest.—1 Sam. 2:18.
Regulations and functions
The priests were required to maintain personal fleshly cleanliness and high moral standards. When entering the tent of meeting and before presenting an offering at the altar, they were to wash their hands and feet at the basin in the courtyard “that they [might] not die.” (Ex. 30:17-21; 40:30-32) With similar warning they were commanded not to drink wine or intoxicating liquor when serving at the sanctuary. (Lev. 10:8-11) They could not defile themselves by touching a corpse or mourning for the dead; this would make them temporarily unclean for service. The underpriests (but not the high priest) might do so, however, for one in very close family relationship: mother, father, son, daughter, brother and virgin sister who was close to (apparently, living with or near) him; also the wife was possibly included as one close to him. (Lev. 21:1-4) Any priest who became unclean by leprosy, by a running discharge, by a corpse or other unclean thing, could not eat of the holy things or perform sanctuary service until cleansed, otherwise he must die.—Lev. 22:1-9.
The priests were commanded not to shave their heads or the extremities of their beards, nor to make cuttings in themselves, practices common among pagan priests. (Lev. 21:5, 6; 19:28; 1 Ki. 18:28) While the high priest could marry only a virgin girl, the under-priests could marry a widow, but not a divorced woman or a prostitute. (Lev. 21:7, 8; compare verses 10, 13, 14.) Evidently, all the members of the high priest’s family were to uphold the high standard of morality and the dignity due the priest’s office. Thus, a priest’s daughter who became a prostitute was to be put to death, being burned afterward as something detestable to God.—Lev. 21:9.
When in the wilderness, at the time of moving camp, it was the duty of the priest to cover the holy furniture and utensils in the tent of meeting before the Kohathites were allowed to come in to carry them, so that the Kohathites would not die. Likewise they uncovered and set up these things in the tent at the new location. (Num. 4:5-15) On the march, the priests carried the Ark of the covenant.—Josh. 3:3, 13, 15, 17; 1 Ki. 8:3-6.
The priests were responsible for blowing the holy trumpets, thus giving definite leadership to the people, whether in the matter of setting up or breaking camp, assembling, engaging in battle or celebrating some festival to Jehovah. (Num. 10:1-10) The priests and Levites were exempt from military conscription, though they did serve as blowers of the trumpets and singers before the army.—Num. 1:47-49; 2:33; Josh. 6:4; 2 Chron. 13:12.
The duties of the priests when on assignment at the sanctuary were the slaughtering of sacrifices brought by the people, sprinkling the blood on the altar, cutting up the sacrifices, keeping the altar fire burning, cooking the meat and accepting all other offerings, such as the grain offerings, and taking care of matters of uncleannesses contracted by individuals, and their special vows, and so forth. (Lev. chaps. 1-7; 12:6; chaps. 13-15; Num. 6:1-21; Luke 2:22-24) They took care of the morning and evening burnt offerings and all other sacrifices regularly made at the sanctuary except those that it was the high priest’s duty to offer; they burned incense on the golden altar. (Ex. 29:38-42; Num. 28:1-10; 2 Chron. 13:10, 11) they trimmed the lamps and kept them supplied with oil (Ex. 27:20, 21) and took care of the holy oil and the incense. (Num. 4:16) They blessed the people at the solemn assemblies in the manner outlined at Numbers 6:22-27. But no other priest could be in the sanctuary when the high priest went into the Most Holy to make atonement.—Lev. 16:17.
The priests were primarily the ones privileged to explain God’s law, and they played a major role in Israel’s judiciary. In the cities allotted to them the priests were available to assist the judges and they also served with the judges in extraordinarily difficult cases beyond the ability of local courts to decide. (Deut. 17:8, 9) They were required to be on hand along with the older men of the city in cases of unsolved murder, to assure that the proper procedure was followed to remove bloodguilt from the city. (Deut. 21:1, 2, 5) If a jealous husband charged his wife with secret adultery, she had to be brought to the sanctuary, where the priest carried out the prescribed ceremony in which Jehovah’s knowledge of the truth of the woman’s innocence or guilt was appealed to for His direct judgment. (Num. 5:11-31) In all cases, judgment rendered by the priests or appointed judges was to be respected; deliberate disrespect or disobedience brought the death penalty.—Num. 15:30; Deut. 17:10-13.
The priests were teachers of the Law to the people, reading and explaining it to those coming to the sanctuary to worship. Also, when not on assigned duty, they would have wide opportunity for such teaching, whether in the area of the sanctuary or in other parts of the land. (Deut. 33:10; 2 Chron. 15:3; 17:7-9; Mal. 2:7) Upon returning to Jerusalem from Babylon, Ezra the priest, assisted by other priests along with the Levites, gathered the people and spent hours reading and explaining the Law to them.—Neh. 8:1-15.
The priestly administration served as a safeguard to the nation in religious cleanness as also in physical health. The priest was to judge between the clean and the unclean in cases of leprosy of a man, a garment or a house. He saw that the legal quarantine regulations were carried out. He also officiated in the cleansing of those who had been defiled by a dead body or were unclean from morbid discharges, and so forth.—Lev. chaps. 13-15.
Of the twenty-four divisions or courses of the priests established by King David, sixteen were made up from the house of Eleazar and eight from the house of Ithamar. (1 Chron. 24:1-19) However, at least initially, priests from only four of the divisions returned from the Babylonian exile. (Ezra 2:36-39) Some suggest that, in order to continue the former organizational arrangement, the four families returning were divided so that there were again twenty-four courses. Dr. Edersheim, in The Temple, suggests that this was accomplished by each family drawing five lots for those who had not returned, thereby forming from their groups twenty more courses to which they gave the original names. John the Baptist’s father Zechariah was a priest of the eighth division, that of Abijah. However, if the above view represents the true case, he may not have been a descendant of Abijah, only belonging to the division which carried his name. (1 Chron. 24:10; Luke 1:5) Absence of full information does not allow for firm conclusions on these points.
In the temple service the priests were organized under various officers. Lots were drawn in assigning certain services. Each of the twenty-four divisions served one week at a time, being on assigned duty twice a year. Evidently the entire priesthood served at festival seasons when thousands of sacrifices were offered by the people, as they did at the temple dedication. (1 Chron. 24:1-18, 31; 2 Chron. 5:11; compare 29:31-35; 30:23-25; 35:10-19.) A priest might serve at other times as long as he did not interfere with the allotted services of the priests on assigned duty. According to rabbinical traditions, in the time of Jesus’ earthly life, the priests were numerous, so that the service of the week was subdivided among the various families making up the division, each family serving one or more days according to their number.
Probably considered the most honorable of the daily services was the burning of incense on the golden altar. This was done after the sacrifice was offered. During the burning of incense the people would be gathered outside the sanctuary in prayer. Rabbinical tradition is that lots were drawn for this service, but that one who had previously officiated was not allowed to participate unless all present had performed the service before. If this is so, a priest would usually have the honor only once in a lifetime. It was this service that Zechariah was performing when the angel Gabriel appeared to him to announce that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. When Zechariah came out of the sanctuary, the crowd gathered there could discern by his appearance and his inability to speak that Zechariah had seen a supernatural sight in the sanctuary; thus the event became public knowledge.—Luke 1:8-23.
Each sabbath day, it appears, the priests had the privilege of changing the showbread. It was also on the sabbath that the priestly division for that week completed its service and the new course began duty for the following week. These and other necessary duties were performed by the priests without constituting a breaking of the sabbath.—Matt. 12:2-5; compare 1 Samuel 21:6; 2 Kings 11:5-7; 2 Chronicles 23:8.
When the ten tribes broke away from the kingdom under Rehoboam and established the northern kingdom under Jeroboam, the tribe of Levi remained loyal and stuck with the two-tribe kingdom of Judah and Benjamin. Jeroboam made priests of men not of the tribe of Levi to serve in the worship of golden calves and drove out the priests of Jehovah, the sons of Aaron. (1 Ki. 12:31, 32; 13:33; 2 Chron. 11:14; 13:9) Later on in Judah, while many of the priests became unfaithful to God, the priesthood at times exercised strong influence to keep Israel faithful to Jehovah. (2 Chron. 23:1, 16; 24:2, 16; 26:17-20; 34:14, 15; Zech. 3:1; 6:11) By the time of the ministry of Jesus and the apostles the high priesthood had become very corrupt, but there were many priests with good hearts toward Jehovah, as evidenced by the fact that not long after Jesus’ death “a great crowd of priests began to be obedient to the faith.”—Acts 6:7.
Other applications of the term
Moses was called a priest, at Psalm 99:6, because of his mediatorship and his being designated to perform the sanctification service at the sanctuary, in which Aaron and his sons were inducted into the priesthood. Moses interceded for Israel, calling upon Jehovah’s name. (Num. 14:13-20) The word “priest” was also used occasionally to denote a “lieutenant” or “chief minister or official.” In the list of the chief officers serving under King David the record reads: “As for the sons of David, they became priests.”—2 Sam. 8:18; compare 2 Samuel 20:26; 1 Kings 4:5; 1 Chronicles 18:17.
THE CHRISTIAN PRIESTHOOD
Jehovah had promised that if Israel kept his covenant they would become to Him “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:6) However, the priesthood of Aaron’s line was to continue only until the coming of the greater priesthood that it foreshadowed. (Heb. 8:4, 5) It would endure until the ending of the Law covenant and the inauguration of the new covenant. (Heb. 7:11-14; 8:6, 7, 13) The offer was first made exclusively to Israel to become Jehovah’s priests serving in God’s promised kingdom arrangement; in time this offer was extended to the Gentiles.—Acts 10:34, 35; 15:14; Rom. 10:21.
Only a remnant of the Jews accepted Christ, the nation thereby failing to provide the members of the real kingdom of priests and the holy nation. (Rom. 11:7, 20) Because of Israel’s unfaithfulness God had forewarned them of this by his prophet Hosea centuries before, saying: “Because the knowledge is what you yourself have rejected, I shall also reject you from serving as a priest to me; and because you keep forgetting the law of your God, I shall forget your sons, even I.” (Hos. 4:6) Correspondingly, Jesus told the Jewish leaders: “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and be given to a nation producing its fruits.” (Matt. 21:43) Nevertheless, Jesus Christ, being under the Law while on earth, recognized the Aaronic priesthood as being in force and directed ones whom he cured of leprosy to go to the priest and make the required offering.—Matt. 8:4; Mark 1:44; Luke 17:14.
On Pentecost day of the year 33 C.E. the Law covenant came to an end and the “better covenant,” the new covenant, was inaugurated. (Heb. 8:6-9) On that day God made manifest this change by the outpouring of holy spirit. The apostle Peter then explained to the Jews present from many nations that their only salvation now lay in repentance and acceptance of Jesus Christ. (Acts chap. 2; Heb. 2:1-4) Later, Peter spoke of the Jewish builders rejecting Jesus Christ as the cornerstone and then said to Christians: “But you are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for special possession.’”—1 Pet. 2:7-9.
Peter explained also that the new priesthood is “a spiritual house for the purpose of a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 2:5) Jesus Christ is their great High Priest and they, like Aaron’s sons, make up the underpriesthood. (Heb. 3:1; 8:1) Yet, differently from the Aaronic priesthood, which had no part in kingship, kingship and priesthood are combined in this “royal priesthood” of Christ and his joint heirs. In the Bible book of Revelation the apostle John speaks of the followers of Jesus Christ as “loosed . . . from our sins by means of his own blood,” and says that he “made us to be a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.”—Rev. 1:5, 6.
This last book of the Bible also reveals the number composing the body of underpriests. Those whom Jesus Christ made “to be a kingdom and priests to our God” are shown as singing a new song in which they say that they were bought by Christ’s blood. (Rev. 5:9, 10) Farther on, the ones singing the new song are enumerated as 144,000 persons “bought from among mankind as a first fruits to God and to the Lamb.” (Rev. 14:1-5) Finally this underpriesthood is shown as being resurrected to heaven and joining Jesus Christ in his rule, becoming “priests of God and of the Christ” and ruling “as kings” with Christ during his thousand-year reign.—Rev. 20:4, 6.
By comparing the priesthood of Israel and its functions and benefits toward the people of that nation (Heb. 8:5), we can get some idea of the benefits and blessings to be received by the people of earth from the perfect and everlasting priesthood of Jesus Christ and his body of underpriests during their joint reign over the earth for a thousand years. The privilege will be theirs of teaching the people the law of God (Mal. 2:7), accomplishing complete forgiveness of sins on the basis of the ransom sacrifice of the great High Priest (administering the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice) and bringing about the healing of all infirmities (Mark 2:9-12; Heb. 9:12-14; 10:1-4, 10), distinguishing between what is clean and what is unclean in God’s sight and removing all uncleanness (Lev. chaps. 13-15), judging the people in righteousness and seeing that Jehovah’s righteous law is enforced throughout the earth.—Deut. 17:8-13.
Just as the tent of meeting in the wilderness was God’s place of dwelling with men, a sanctuary where they could approach him, so God’s tent will again be with mankind in a much closer, more lasting and beneficial way, in his spiritual temple comprised of his holy priesthood. (Rev. 21:3) With such a royal priesthood the people will certainly be happy, as was Israel when the kingdom and priesthood were functioning faithfully toward God, during which time “Judah and Israel were many, like the grains of sand that are by the sea for multitude, eating and drinking and rejoicing” and dwelling “in security, everyone under his own vine and under his own fig tree.”—1 Ki. 4:20, 25.
The ancient nations had priests through whom they made approach to their gods. These men were reverenced by the people and always wielded great influence, generally being among the ruling class, or being close advisers to the rulers. The priesthood was the most educated class and generally held the people in ignorance. In this way they were able to prey on the superstition of the people and their fear of the unknown. In Egypt, for example, the people were led to worship as a god the Nile River, viewing their priests as possessing divine control over its seasonal overflow, on which their crops depended.
This encouragement of superstitious ignorance was in direct contrast to the priesthood of Israel, who constantly read and taught the law to the entire nation. Each man was to know God and his law. (Deut. 6:1-3) The people themselves were able to read and write, being commanded by Jehovah to write his commands on their gates and doorposts and to read and teach his law to their children.—Deut. 6:4-9.
Egyptian priesthood not the pattern for Israel’s priesthood
In the face of these facts there are some who claim that Moses, the mediator of the Law covenant, was deeply influenced by his life in Egypt, his training in the court of Pharaoh and his instruction “in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” (Acts 7:22) Thus they attribute to the man Moses the setting up of the priesthood of Israel and the formulation of its regulations and say that many of its features were patterned after those of Egypt. Their line of argument, however, ignores what the Bible itself says. Moses, though used to deliver the Law to Israel, was in no sense the lawmaker. Israel’s Lawgiver was Jehovah God (Isa. 33:22), who used angels to transmit the Law by the hand of the mediator Moses.—Gal. 3:19.
Every detail of Israel’s worship was outlined by God. The plans for the tent of meeting were given to Moses (Ex. 26:30), and it is written that he was commanded: “See that you make all things after their pattern that was shown to you in the mountain.” (Heb. 8:5; Ex. 25:40) All the service at the sanctuary was of Jehovah’s origination and direction. The record repeatedly assures us of this by saying that Moses and the sons of Israel “kept doing according to all that Jehovah had commanded Moses. They did just so.” “According to all that Jehovah had commanded Moses, that was the way the sons of Israel did all the service. And Moses got to see all the work, and, look? they had done it just as Jehovah had commanded. That was the way they had done.” “And Moses proceeded to do according to all that Jehovah had commanded him. He did just so.”—Ex. 39:32, 42, 43; 40:16.
According to Egyptologists, in some things the dress of the Egyptian priests was similar to that of the priests of Israel, such as the use of linen; there was a shaving of the bodies of the Egyptian priests, as with the Levites (though the priests of Israel did not—Num. 8:7); there were washings. But do these few similarities prove that they had the same origin, or that one came from the other? Similar materials and methods are used world wide in making clothing, houses and buildings and in performing daily duties, such as washing, but there is great divergence also in style and methods. We do not say that one came from the other, or that the dress or the act has the same religious or symbolic significance.
In most features of their dress and functions there was no similarity whatsoever between the Israelite and the Egyptian priests. For example, while the Israelite priests served barefooted, the Egyptian priests wore sandals. The robes of the Egyptian priests were entirely different in design and their dress and appurtenances bore symbols of the worship of their false gods. They shaved their heads, which Israel’s priests did not do (Lev. 21:5), and used wigs or wore headgear totally unlike that of Israel’s priests, according to monumental inscriptions found in Egypt. Furthermore, Jehovah made it clear that Israel was not to adopt any of the practices of Egypt or the other nations, either in worship or in judicial practice.—Lev. 18:1-4; Deut. 6:14; 7:1-6.
The argument made by supporters of the theory that Israel’s priesthood borrowed from Egypt has, therefore, no foundation. We must remember that the idea of sacrifice and priesthood came originally from God and was expressed by faithful men from the beginning, such as Abel and Noah, and was carried out in patriarchal society by Abraham and others. All nations would therefore have an inheritance of this knowledge, though perverted into many forms as they forsook the true God and pure worship. Having the inborn desire to worship, and without the guidance of Jehovah, the pagan nations developed many unrighteous and even degrading rites, all of which brought them into opposition to true worship.
Disgusting practices of pagan priests
The Egyptian priests of Moses’ day opposed Moses before Pharaoh, trying to discredit Moses and his God Jehovah by the practice of magic. (Ex. 7:11-13, 22; 8:7; 2 Tim. 3:8) But they were forced to bow in defeat and humiliation. (Ex. 8:18, 19; 9:11) The worshipers of Molech of Ammon sacrificed their sons and daughters by burning them in the fire. (1 Ki. 11:5; 2 Ki. 23:10; Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5) Baal worshipers of the Canaanites followed the same detestable practice, also performing self-laceration and lewd, disgusting immoral rites. (Num. 25:1-3; 1 Ki. 18:25-28; Jer. 19:5) The priests of the Philistine god Dagon and the Babylonian priests of Marduk, Bel and Ishtar practiced magic and divination. (1 Sam. 6:2-9; Ezek. 21:21; Dan. 2:2, 27; 4:7, 9) All of them worshiped images made of wood, stone and metal. Even King Jeroboam of the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel set up priests to direct the worship of golden calves and “goat-shaped demons” to prevent the people from engaging in true worship at Jerusalem.—2 Chron. 11:15; 13:9; see MICAH No. 1.
Unauthorized priesthoods condemned by God
Jehovah was unalterably opposed to all these forms and practices, which actually constituted the worship of demons. (1 Cor. 10:20; Deut. 18:9-13; Isa. 8:19; Rev. 22:15) Whenever these gods or the priesthood representing them came into open defiance of Jehovah they were humiliated. (1 Sam. 5:1-5; Dan. 2:2, 7-12, 29, 30; 5:15) Often their priests and prophets suffered death. (1 Ki. 18:40; 2 Ki. 10:19, 25-28; 11:18; 2 Chron. 23:17) And since Jehovah recognized no priesthood aside from that of the house of Aaron during the existence of the Law covenant, it follows that what Aaron’s office foreshadowed, namely, the priesthood of Jesus Christ, who is also the greater High Priest according to the manner of Melchizedek, is the only way of approach to Jehovah. (Acts 4:12; Heb. 4:14; 1 John 2:1, 2) Any priesthood that opposes this God-ordained King-Priest and his underpriesthood, God’s spiritual temple or sanctuary, is to be avoided by true worshipers of God.—Deut. 18:18, 19; Acts 3:22, 23; Rev. 18:4, 24; see HIGH PRIEST.