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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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a general name for the minister of religion. The priest under the law was, among the Hebrews, a person consecrated and ordained of God to offer up sacrifices for his own sins and those of the people, Leviticus 4:5-6 . The priesthood was not annexed to a certain family till after the promulgation of the law of Moses. Before that time the first-born of every family, the fathers, the princes, the kings were priests. Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Job, Abimelech and Laban, Isaac and Jacob, offered themselves their own sacrifices. In the solemnity of the covenant that the Lord made with his people at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses performed the office of mediator, Exodus 24:5-6; and young men were chosen from among the children of Israel to perform the office of priests. 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, then the right of offering sacrifices to God was reserved to the priests alone of this family. The Lord ordained, Numbers 16:40 , that no stranger, which was not of the seed of Aaron, should come near to offer incense unto the Lord, that he might not be as Korah and his company. The punishment of Uzziah is well known, 2 Chronicles 26:19 , who, having presumed to offer incense to the Lord, was suddenly smitten with a leprosy, put out of his palace, and excluded from the administration of affairs to the day of his death.

However, it seems that, on certain occasions, the judges and the kings of the Hebrews offered sacrifices unto the Lord, especially before a constant place of worship was fixed at Jerusalem; for in 1 Samuel 7:8 , we are told that Samuel, who was no priest, offered a lamb for a burnt-sacrifice to the Lord; and in 1 Samuel 9:13 , it is said that this prophet was to bless the offering of the people, which should seem to be a function appropriated to the priests; lastly, 1 Samuel 16:5 , he goes to Bethlehem, where he offers a sacrifice at the inauguration or anointing of David. Saul himself offered a burnt-offering to the Lord, perhaps as being king of Israel, 1 Samuel 13:9-10 . Elijah also offered a burnt-offering upon Mount Carmel, 1 Kings 18:33 . David himself sacrificed, (at least the text expresses it so,) at the ceremony of bringing the ark to Jerusalem, and at the floor of Araunah, 2 Samuel 6:13 . Solomon went up to the brazen altar that was at Gibeon, and there offered sacrifices, 2 Chronicles 1:5 . It is true the above passages are commonly explained by supposing that these princes offered their sacrifices by the hands of the priests; but the sacred text will by no means favour such explanations; and it is very natural to imagine, that in the quality of kings and heads of the people, they had the privilege of performing some sacerdotal functions, upon some extraordinary occasions; thus we see David clothed with the priestly ephod, and consulting the Lord; and upon another occasion we find David and Solomon pronounce solemn benedictions on the people, 2 Samuel 6:18; 1 Kings 8:55 . God having reserved to himself the first-born of all Israel, because he had preserved them from the hand of the destroying angel in Egypt, by way of exchange or compensation accepted of the tribe of Levi for the service of the tabernacle, Numbers 3:41 . Of the three sons of Levi, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, the Lord chose the family of Kohath, and out of this the house of Aaron, to exercise the functions of the priesthood. All the rest of the family of Kohath, even the children of Moses and their descendants, remained of the order of mere Levites. See LEVITES .

The posterity of the sons of Aaron, namely, Eleazar and Ithamar, Leviticus 10:1-5; 1 Chronicles 24:1-2 , had so increased in number in the time of David, that they were divided into twenty-four classes, which officiated a week at a time alternately. Sixteen classes were of the family of Eleazar, and eight of the family of Ithamar. Each class obeyed its own prefect or ruler. The class Jojarib was the first in order, and the class Abia was the eighth, 1Ma_2:1; Luke 1:5; 1 Chronicles 24:3-19 . This division of the priesthood was continued as a permanent arrangement after the time of David, 2 Chronicles 8:14; 2 Chronicles 31:2; 2 Chronicles 35:4-5 . Indeed, although only four classes returned from the captivity, the distinction between them, and also the ancient names, were still retained, Ezra 2:36-39; Nehemiah 7:39-42; Nehemiah 12:1 .

Aaron, the high priest, was set apart to his office by the same ceremonies with which his sons the priests were, with this exception, that the former was clothed in his robes, and the sacred oil was poured upon his head, Exodus 29:5-9; Leviticus 8:2 . The other ceremonies were as follows. The priests, all of them with their bodies washed, and clad in their appropriate dress, assembled before the altar, where a bullock, two rams, unleavened bread, and wafers of two kinds in baskets, were in readiness. When they had placed their hands upon the head of the bullock, he was slain by Moses as a sin-offering. He touched the horns of the altar with the blood, poured the remainder of it round its base, and placed the parts which were to compose the sacrifice on its top. The remaining parts of the animal were all burned without the camp, Exodus 29:10-14; Leviticus 8:2-3; Leviticus 8:14-17 . They in like manner placed their hands on the head of one of the rams, which was also slain by Moses for a whole burnt- offering, the blood was sprinkled around the altar, and the parts of the ram were separated and burned upon it, Exodus 29:15-18; Leviticus 8:18-21 . The other ram, when the priests had laid their hands upon him, was likewise slain by Moses for the sacrifice of consecration. He touched with the blood the tip of the right ear of the priests, the thumb of the right hand, and the great toe of the right foot. The rest of the blood he sprinkled in part upon the bottom of the altar, and a part he mingled with the consecrated oil, and sprinkled on the priests and their garments. He anointed the high priest by pouring a profusion of oil upon his head; whence he is called the anointed, Leviticus 5:3; Leviticus 5:5; Leviticus 5:16; Leviticus 6:15; Psalms 133:2 . Certain parts of the sacrifice, namely, the fat, the kidneys, the haunches, the caul above the liver, and the right shoulder, also one cake of unleavened bread, a cake of oiled bread, and a wafer, were placed by Moses upon the hands of the priests, that they might offer them to God. This ceremony was called "filling the hands," expressions which accordingly in a number of passages mean the same as consecrating, Exodus 32:29; Leviticus 16:32; 1 Chronicles 29:5 . All the parts which have been mentioned as being placed in the hands of the priests, were at last burned upon the altar. This ceremony, which continued for eight days, for ever separated the priests from all the other Israelites, not excepting the Levites; so that there was subsequently no need of any farther consecration, neither for themselves nor their posterity, Exodus 29:35-37; Leviticus 10:7; Romans 1:1; Ephesians 3:3; Acts 13:2-3 . That the ceremonies of inauguration or consecration, however, were practised at every new accession of a high priest to his office, seems to be hinted in the following passages, Exodus 29:29; Leviticus 16:32; Leviticus 21:10; Numbers 20:26-28; Numbers 35:25 .

It was not customary for the priests to wear the sacerdotal dress except when performing their official duties, Exodus 28:4; Exodus 28:43; Ezekiel 42:14; Ezekiel 44:19 . The description of the dress of the priests which is given in Exodus 28, is by some thought defective, as many things are passed in silence, apparently for the reason that they were at that time sufficiently well known, without being expressly stated. Some additional information is communicated to us by Josephus; but the dress of the priests, as he describes it, may have been in some respects of recent origin. It was as follows:

1. A sort of hose, made of cotton or linen, which was fastened round the loins, and extended down so as to cover the thighs, Leviticus 6:10; Ezekiel 44:18 .

2. A tunic of cotton which extended, in the days of Josephus, down to the ankles. It was furnished with sleeves, and was fabricated all of one piece without being sewn, Exodus 28:39; Exodus 28:41; Exodus 29:5; John 19:23 .

3. The girdle. According to Josephus it was a hand's breadth in width, woven in such a manner as to exhibit the appearance of scales, and ornamented with embroidered flowers in purple, dark blue, scarlet, and white. It was worn a little below the breast, encircled the body twice, and was tied in a knot before. The extremities of the girdle hung down nearly to the ankle. The priest, when engaged in his sacred functions, in order to prevent his being impeded by them, threw them over his left shoulder, Exodus 39:27-29 .

4. The mitre or turban was originally acuminated in its shape, was lofty, and was bound upon the head, Exodus 28:8; Exodus 28:40; Exodus 29:9; Leviticus 8:13 . In the time of Josephus the shape of the mitre had become somewhat altered; it was circular, was covered with a piece of fine linen, and sat so closely on the upper part of the head, (for it did not cover the whole of the head,) that it would not fall off when the body was bent down. The Hebrew priests, like those of Egypt and other nations, performed their sacred duties with naked feet; a symbol of reverence and veneration, Exodus 3:5; Joshua 5:15 .

The ordinary priests served immediately at the altar, offered sacrifices, killed and flayed them, and poured the blood at the foot of the altar, 2 Chronicles 29:34; 2 Chronicles 35:11 . They kept a perpetual fire burning upon the altar of burnt-sacrifices, and in the lamps of the golden candlestick that was in the sanctuary; they prepared the loaves of shew bread, baked them, and changed them every Sabbath day. Every day, night, and morning, a priest appointed by casting lots at the beginning of the week, brought into the sanctuary a smoking censer, and set it upon the golden table, otherwise called the altar of perfumes, Luke 1:9 . The priests were not suffered to offer incense to the Lord with strange fire, Leviticus 10:1-2; that is, with any other fire than what should be taken from the altar of burnt- sacrifices. It is well known with what severity God chastised Nadab and Abihu for having failed in this. Those that would dedicate themselves to perpetual service in the temple were well received, and were maintained by the constant and daily offerings, Deuteronomy 18:6-8 . The Lord had given no lands of inheritance to the tribe of Levi in the distribution of the land of promise. He designed that they should be supported by the tithes, the first fruits, the offerings that were made in the temple, by their share of the sin-offerings, and thanksgiving-offerings that were sacrificed in the temple, of which certain parts were appropriated to the priests. They had also a share in the wool when the sheep were shorn. All the first-born, both of man and beast, belonged to the Lord, that is, to his priests. The men were redeemed for the sum of five shekels, Numbers 18:15-16 . The first-born of impure animals were redeemed or exchanged, but the clean animals were not redeemed; they were sacrificed to the Lord, their blood was sprinkled about the altar, and all the rest belonged to the priest, Numbers 18:17-19 . The first fruits of trees, Leviticus 19:23-24 , that is, those that came on the fourth year, belonged also to the priest. They gave also to the priests and Levites an allowance out of the dough that they kneaded. They had the tithe of all the fruits of the land, and of all animals which were fed under the shepherd's crook, Leviticus 27:31-32 . God also provided them with houses and accommodations, by appointing them forty-eight cities for their habitations, Numbers 35:1-3 . In the precincts of these cities they possessed as far as a thousand cubits beyond the walls. Of these forty-eight cities six were appointed to be cities of refuge, for the sake of those who should commit any casual or involuntary manslaughter; the priests had thirteen of these for their share, and all the others belonged to the Levites, Joshua 21:19 . One of the chief employments of the priests, next to attending upon the sacrifices and the service of the tabernacle or temple, was the instruction of the people and the deciding controversies, distinguishing the several sorts of leprosy, the causes of divorce, the waters of jealousy, vows, all causes relating to the law, the uncleannesses that were contracted several ways; all these things were brought before the priests, Hosea 4:6; Malachi 2:7 , &c; Leviticus 13:14; Numbers 5:14-15 . They publicly blessed the people in the name of the Lord. In time of war their business was to carry the ark of the covenant, to consult the Lord, to sound the holy trumpets, and encourage and harangue the army.

The term priest is most properly given to Christ, of whom the high priests under the law were types and figures, he being the high priest especially ordained of God, who, by the sacrifice of himself, and by his intercession, opens the way to reconciliation with God, Hebrews 8:17; Hebrews 9:11-25 . The word is also applied to every true believer who is enabled to offer up himself "a spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God through Christ," 1 Peter 2:5; Revelation 1:6 . But it is likewise improperly applied to Christian ministers, who have no sacrifices to offer; unless, indeed, when it is considered as contracted from presbyter, which signifies an elder, and is the name given in the New Testament to those who were appointed to the office of teaching and ruling in the church of God. See AARON .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Priest'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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