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Priest; Priesthood

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words

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A. Noun.

Kôhên (כֹּהֵן, Strong's #3548), “priest.” This word is found 741 times in the Old Testament. More than one-third of the references to the “priests” are found in the Pentateuch. Leviticus, which has about 185 references, is called the “manual of the priests.”

The term kôhên was used to refer not only to the Hebrew priesthood but to Egyptian “priests” (Gen. 41:50; 46:20; 47:26), the Philistine “priests” (1 Sam. 6:2), the “priests” of Dagon (1 Sam. 5:5), “priests” of Baal (2 Kings 10:19), “priests” of Chemosh (Jer. 48:7), and “priests” of the Baalim and Asherim (2 Chron. 34:5).

Joseph married the daughter of the “priest” of On (Gen. 41:45), and she bore him two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 46:20). Joseph did not purchase the land of the “priests” of Egypt, because the Egyptian “priests” received regular allotments from Pharaoh (Gen. 47:22).

A “priest” is an authorized minister of deity who officiates at the altar and in other cultic rites. A “priest” performs sacrificial, ritualistic, and mediatorial duties; he represents the people before God. By contrast, a “prophet” is an intermediary between God and the people.

The Jewish priestly office was established by the Lord in the days of Moses. But prior to the institution of the high priesthood and the priestly office, we read of the priesthood of Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18) and of Midianite “priests” (Exod. 2:16; 3:1; 18:1). In Exod. 19:24, other “priests” are mentioned: these may have been either Midianite “priests” or “priests” in Israel prior to the official establishment of the Levitical priesthood. No doubt priestly functions were performed in pre-Mosaic times by the head of the family, such as Noah, Abraham, and Job. After the Flood, for example, Noah built an altar to the Lord (Gen. 8:20-21). At Bethel, Mamre, and Moriah, Abraham built altars. In Gen. 22:12-13, we read that Abraham was willing to offer his son as a sacrifice. Job offered up sacrifices for his sinning children (Job 1:5).

The priesthood constituted one of the central characteristics of Old Testament religion. A passage showing the importance of the priesthood is Num. 16:5-7: “And he spake unto Korah and unto all his company, saying, Even tomorrow the Lord will show who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto him: even him whom he hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him. This do; Take you censers, Korah, and all his company; And put fire therein, and put incense in them before the Lord … the man whom the Lord doth choose, he shall be holy.…”

God established Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar as “priests” in Israel (Exod. 28:1, 41; 29:9, 29- 30). Because Nadab and Abihu were killed when they “offered strange fire before the Lord,” the priesthood was limited to the lines of Eleazar and Ithamar (Lev. 10:1-2; Num. 3:4; 1 Chron. 24:2).

However, not all individuals born in the family of Aaron could serve as “priest.” Certain physical deformities excluded a man from that perfection of holiness which a “priest” should manifest before Yahweh (Lev. 21:17-23). A “priest” who was ceremonially unclean was not permitted to perform his priestly duties. Lev. 21:1-15 gives a list of ceremonial prohibitions that forbade a “priest” from carrying out his duties.

Exod. 29:1-37 and Lev. 8 describe the sevenday consecration ceremony of Aaron and his sons. Both the high priest (kôhên haggadol) and his sons were washed with water (Exod. 29:4). Then Aaron the high priest dressed in holy garments with a breastplate over his heart, and there was placed on his head a holy crown— the mitre or turban (Exod. 29:5-6). After that, Aaron was anointed with oil on his head (Exod. 29:7; cf. Ps. 133:2). Finally, the blood of a sacrificial offering was applied to Aaron and his sons (Exod. 29:20-21). The consecrating bloodmark was placed upon the tip of the right ear, on the thumb of the right hand, and on the great toe of the right foot.

The duties of the priesthood were very clearly defined by the Mosaic law. These duties were assumed on the eighth day of the service of consecration (Lev. 9:1). The Lord told Aaron: “Therefore thou and thy sons with thee shall keep your priest’s office for every thing of the altar, and within the veil; and ye shall serve …” (Num. 18:7).

The “priests” were to act as teachers of the Law (Lev. 10:10-11; Deut. 33:10; 2 Chron. 5:3; 17:7-9; Ezek. 44:23; Mal. 2:6-9), a duty they did not always carry out (Mic. 3:11; Mal. 2:8). In certain areas of health and jurisprudence, “priests” served as limited revelators of God’s will. For example, it was the duty of the “priest” to discern the existence of leprosy and to perform the rites of cleansing (Lev. 13-14). Priests determined punishments for murder and other civil matters (Deut. 21:5; 2 Chron. 19:8-11).

B. Verb.

Kâhan (כָּהַן, Strong's #3547), “to act as a priest.” This verb, which appears 23 times in biblical Hebrew, is derived from the noun kohen. The verb appears only in the intensive stem. One occurrence is in Exod. 28:1: “And take thou unto thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office.…”

Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Priest; Priesthood'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words.​dictionaries/​eng/​vot/​p/priest-priesthood.html. 1940.