In his farewell speech Moses is pictured as giving three basic functions to the sons of Levi, the Israelite priesthood, in what seems to be their order of importance.
Deuteronomy 33:8-10 begins with consulting the Urim and Thummim, the sacred lots cast in order to discern God’s will in answering a problem.
These were gemstones attached to the garment of the high priest and associated with them were assertions of yes/no, innocent/guilty, true/false. Little else is really known about them because their use gradually declined during the days of the monarchy, as the prophets took over the task of speaking God’s will to the people, ‘Thus says the Lord…’
After the return from Babylon, in the days of the Second Temple [around 500 BCE], the role of the priest as the one who answered in God’s name seems to have died out altogether. This seems to be hinted at in Ezra 2:63 and Nehemiah 7:65 which speak of waiting ‘until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim’. While to us the practice would seem to be superstitious, like casting dice for an answer, it is important to notice that in the Old Testament, priesthood involved proclaiming God’s will to the people.
Deut 33:10 goes on to say ‘They teach your ordinances and law.’ The Torah (‘teaching’ is a better translation than ‘law’) was in the hands of the priests to communicate to the people, a task committed to the priests. In this, the Year of the Priest, this solemn duty is an urgent one lest the rebuke of Hosea 4:6 be heard again, ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge’ (read ‘perish for a famine of hearing the Word of God’).
A year ago the Synod on Scripture took place in Rome. Are its effects being felt with the urgency that underlies Hosea? Are we uncomfortable with the reputation of being the least biblically literate of the churches?
The priests of the Northern Kingdom, probably at Shechem, put together the heart of Deuteronomy (chs 12–26) and those of the South gave us the priestly collection found in Leviticus 1–16, Exodus 25–31, and Numbers 1–10.
For Israel, Torah or law, meant teaching, and we sing their words ‘Your law is a light unto my feet, a lamp unto my path’. We, as Catholics, have lived through an overdose of legalism within our tradition and this has influenced our attitude to law.
The Year of Paul should have shown us that Paul’s concern was with the cultural aspects of law that were being imposed on gentiles. Law has its positive and life-giving aspects and intelligent understanding and application of it made the canon lawyers of Vatican II among the greatest reformers.
The warm and vibrant presentation in Deuteronomy where law is the heart of persuasive religious exhortation shows us how noble was the priestly teaching of law. It was a way of life that was being inculcated, not an external impersonal norm but an interior principle of spirituality. Deut 30:11-14 speaks of its being ‘something very near to you, right on your lips and in your heart, so that you have only to keep it’. The priests formed a people by their teaching, and only in a later period lost their teaching function to the scribes.
What was there at that time is still urgent today given the large numbers of people whose learning is confined to their school days and Sunday homilies.
Teaching has a sacred character about it; ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Teacher’ is an honoured title in Judaism, and the rebuke of Malachi 2:7-8, the last book of our Old Testament, sends an angry rebuke to those priests who did not take seriously their ongoing call: ‘For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way.’
Sacrifice and cultic offering
The last of the priestly functions in Deut 33:10 is this connection with sacrifice, but we need to recognise that the actual function of the priest was not the killing or immolation of the animal victim. This was done by the person who brought it.
The priest’s task lay with the blood which was to touch the altar sacred to God and on the sections of the animal that were to be placed on the altar, making the priest ‘the minister of the altar’.
What happened historically was that the first function of priesthood—speaking the will of God—shifted to the prophet; the second function—teaching—shifted to the scribe, and, by the end of the Old Testament, the priest was left with the third function—sacrifice.
This process left us at the beginning of the New Testament with the notion that sacrifice was all there was to priesthood, that a priest ‘is appointed to act on our behalf in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins’ (Hebrews 5:1).
Instead of this one-way flow from humanity to God, much of the Old Testament flowed in the opposite direction, from God to humanity (the first two functions in Deuteronomy). The image is of a two-way bridge with a two-way interchange. This now brings us to the priesthood of the New Testament.
Reference: R E Brown Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections, Paulist Press.