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American Tract Society Bible Dictionary


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One who officiated in the public worship of God, especially in making expiation for sin, being "ordained for men in things pertaining to God, to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins." In the Old Testament, the priesthood was not annexed to a certain family till after the promulgation of the law by Moses. Before that time, the firstborn of each family, the fathers, the princes, the kings, were priests in their own cities and in their own houses. Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, and Job, Abimelech and Laban, Isaac and Jacob offered personally their own sacrifices. In the solemnity of the covenant made by the Lord with his people, at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses performed the office of mediator, and young men were chosen from among Israel to perform the office of priests, Exodus 24:5 . But after the Lord had chosen the tribe of Levi to serve him in his tabernacle, and the priesthood was annexed to the family of Aaron, the right of offering sacrifices and oblations to God was reserved to the priests of this family, Numbers 16:40 . The punishment of Uzziah king of Judah is well known, who having presumed to offer incense to the Lord, was suddenly smitten with a leprosy, 2 Chronicles 26:19 . See also the case of Saul, 1 Samuel 13:7-14 . However, it seems that on certain occasions the Hebrew prophets offered sacrifice to the Lord, especially before a constant place of worship was fixed at Jerusalem. See 1 Samuel 7:9 , where Samuel, who was not a priest offered a lamb for a burnt sacrifice to the Lord. See also 1 Samuel 9:13 16:5 1 Kings 18:31,33 .

The Lord having reserved to himself the firstborn of Israel because he had preserved them from the hand of the destroying angel in Egypt, by way of exchange and compensation, he accepted the tribe of Levi for the service of his tabernacle, Numbers 3:41 . Thus the whole tribe of Levi was appointed to the sacred ministry, but not all in the same manner; for of the three sons of Levi, Gershom, Kohath, and Merari, the heads of the three great families, the Lord chose the family of Kohath, and out of this family the house of Aaron, to exercise the functions of the priesthood. Al the rest of the family of Kohath, even the children of Moses and their descendants remained among the Levites.

The high priest was at the head of all religious affairs, and was the ordinary judge of all difficulties that belonged thereto, and even of the general justice and judgment of the Jewish nation, as being at the head of all the priests by whom this was administered, Deuteronomy 17:8-12 19:17 21:5 33:8,10 Ezekiel 44:24 . He only had the privilege of entering the sanctuary once a year, on the day of solemn expiation, to make atonement for the sins of the whole people, Leviticus 16:2 , etc. He was to be born of one of his own tribe, whom his father had married a virgin; and was to be exempt from corporal defect, Leviticus 21:13 . In general, no priest who had any such defect could offer sacrifice, or enter the holy place to present the showbread. But he was to be maintained by the sacrifices offered at the tabernacle, Leviticus 21:17-22 . The high priest also received a tithe from the Levites, Numbers 18:28 .

God also appropriated to the high priest the oracle of his truth; so that when he was habited in the proper ornaments of his dignity, and with the Urim and Thummim, he answered questions proposed to him, and God disclosed to him secret and future things. He was forbidden to mourn for the death of any of his relations, even for his father or mother; or to enter into any place where a dead body lay, that he might not contract or hazard the contraction of uncleanness, Leviticus 21:10-12 .

The priests served immediately at the altar. They slew and dressed the public sacrifices, or at least it was done by the Levites under their direction. Private offerers slew their own victims, except in the case of turtledoves or young pigeons. But all offerings upon the altar, the sprinkling of blood included, were made by the priests alone. They kept up a perpetual fire on the altar of burnt sacrifices, and in the lamps of the golden candlestick in the sanctuary; they kneaded the loaves of showbread, baked them, offered them on the golden altar in the sanctuary, and changed them every Sabbath-day. Compare Exodus 28:29 Leviticus 8:1-36 . Every day, night and morning, a priest appointed by casting of lots at the beginning of the week, brought into the sanctuary a smoking censer of incense, and set it on the golden table, otherwise called the altar of incense, Luke 1:9 .

The sacred dress of the priests consisted of the following articles: short linen drawers; a close-fitting tunic of fine linen or cotton, of woven work, broidered, reaching to the feet, and furnished with sleeves; a girdle of fine linen. Plain linen ephods are also ascribed to them, 1 Samuel 22:18; and a bonnet or turban, also of fine linen, in many folds. The priests always officiated with uncovered feet. The high priests were nearly the same dress with the priests, and four articles in addition: an outer tunic, called the robe of the ephod, woven entire, blue, with an ornamented border around the neck, and a fringe at the bottom made up of pomegranates and golden bells: an ephod of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, with golden threads interwoven, covering the body from the neck to the thighs; having shoulder-pieces joined on the shoulders by clasps of gold in which were set onyx-stones graven with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel; and also a girdle of fine linen, woven with blue, purple, scarlet, and gold, passed several times round the body: a breastplate, attached at its four corners to the ephod, and likewise bearing the names of the twelve tribes on twelve precious stones; and the miter, a high and ornamented turban having on the front a gold plate with the inscription, "Holiness to the Lord." Neither he nor the priests wore their sacred dresses out of the temple as we infer from Ezekiel 42:14 44:17-19 Acts 23:5 .

The Lord had given no lands of inheritance to the tribe of Levi, in the Land of Promise. He intended that they should be supported by the tithes, the first fruits, the offerings made in the temple and by their share of the sin offerings and thanksgiving offerings sacrificed in the temple; of which certain parts were appropriated to them. In the peace offerings, they had the shoulder and the breast, Leviticus 7:33,34; in the sin offering, they burnt on the altar the fat that covers the bowels, the liver, and the kidneys; the rest belonged to themselves, Leviticus 7:6,10 . The skin or fleece of every sacrifice also belonged to them. When an Israelite sacrificed any animal for his own use, he was to give the priest the shoulder, the stomach, and the jaws, Deuteronomy 18:3 . The priest had also a share of the wool when sheep were shorn, Deuteronomy 18:4 . Thus, though the priests had no lands or inheritances, their temporal wants were supplied. God provided them houses and accommodations, by appointing forty-eight cities, six were appointed as cities of refuge for those who had committed casual and involuntary manslaughter. The priests had thirteen of these cities; the others belonged to the Levites, Joshua 21:10 .

A principal employment of the priests, next to attending on the sacrifices and the temple service, was the instruction of the people and the deciding of controversies; distinguishing the several sorts of leprosy, divorce causes, the waters of jealousy, vows, causes relating to the law and uncleanness, etc. They publicly blessed the people in the name of the Lord. In time of war their duty was to carry the Ark of the Covenant, to consult the Lord, to sound the holy trumpets, and to encourage the army, Numbers 10:8-9 Deuteronomy 20:2 .

The priesthood of Christ is the substance and truth, of which that of the Jews was but a shadow and figure. Christ, the everlasting priest according to the order of Melchizedek, abides forever, as Paul observes; whereas the priests according to the order of Aaron were mortal, and therefore could not continue long, Hebrews 7:1-28 . The Lord, to express to the Hebrews what great favors he would confer on them, says he would make them kings and priests, Exodus 19:6; and Peter repeats this promise to Christians, or rather, he tells them that they are in truth what Moses promised to Israel, 1 Peter 2:5,9 . See also Revelation 1:6 . In an important sense every Christian offers himself a spiritual sacrifice, "acceptable to God through Jesus Christ;" but in the Christian church, there is no priest to make expiation for sin by a sacrifice but Christ alone, Hebrews 9:11-26 .

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain and are a derivative of the topics are from American Tract Society Bible Dictionary published in 1859.

Bibliography Information
Rand, W. W. Entry for 'Priest'. American Tract Society Bible Dictionary. 1859.

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