posted on Feb, 13 2015 @ 05:01 PM
“The Levitical priests, and only the priests, are the people who offer sacrifice.”
That’s our normal understanding of the religion of the Old Testament.
But the rule is not true- at least, not in the early days.
Cain and Abel both offered sacrifice to the Lord.
Doing it themselves, presumably, since there was no-one else.
This represents the time when any householder could be his own priest.
Noah built an altar and offered sacrifice.
Abraham built altars and offered sacrifice.
Jacob built altars and offered sacrifice.
It might be said “These are patriarchs, and privileged, and in any case the Law of Moses had not yet been published”.
All right then, some examples from the time of Judges;
Gideon was instructed by the Lord to build an altar and sacrifice on it his father’s second-best bull. Ch6 vv25-27
Samson’s father Manoah was also instructed to offer a burnt offering. Ch13 vv15-20
An enterprising man called Micah set up his own shrine with a graven image, made an ephod and installed one of his own sons as priest.
Admittedly he thought that his set-up was improved when he found a genuine Levite.
Indeed this episode comes with a disapproving editorial note; “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own
eyes”. Ch17 vv4-13
Yet the kings themselves also sacrificed.
In the early days of Saul’s kingship, there was a rendezvous at Gilgal for the army to gather and prepare to meet the Philistines.
Samuel was late, the people were beginning to disperse, and Saul was afraid that the Philistines might attack before he had sought the Lord’s
So he ordered the burnt offering and peace offerings to be brought out and began to offer them himself. He was in the middle of this (he had just
finished offering the burnt offering) when Samuel arrived.
Samuel condemned him for acting against God’s command. 1 Samuel ch13 vv8-13
The common explanation is that Saul’s fault was sacrificing without being a priest.
However, it cannot be shown that Saul was being blamed for ignoring a general prohibition.
The command which he disobeyed was the more specific instruction that he should wait until Samuel came.
(The command is in ch9 v8, though the connection is obscured by the arrangement of the material.)
For that matter, Samuel himself was not a Levite. He was an Ephraimite by birth.
If he had any particular authority to make the intended sacrifice, it must have been as a prophet, rather than as a Levitical priest.
Therefore this passage does not genuinely support the doctrine that sacrifice belongs to the priests alone.
When the time came to fight the Philistines, the people were faint with hunger, because Saul had instructed them to fight fasting.
They won the battle, but then “the people flew upon the spoil, and took sheep and oxen and calves, and slew them on the ground; and the people ate
them with the blood”.
In order to stop this happening, Saul built an altar in the spot so that the men themselves could sacrifice the animals properly, giving the
due portions to the Lord, before eating them.
“It was the first altar that he built to the Lord” (which implies that there were more). 1 Samuel ch14 vv31-35.
When David brought the ark of the Lord into Jerusalem, he celebrated by offering burnt offerings and peace offerings, and he also blessed the people
in the name of the Lord of hosts. 2 Samuel ch6 vv17-19
At a later time, when plague approached Jerusalem, he bought the threshing-floor of Araunah.
In that place he built an altar and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. 2 Samuel ch24 vv24-25
At the inauguration of the new Temple, Solomon prayed in front of the altar, and gave a blessing to the whole company of Israel.
He then “offered as peace offering to the Lord twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep”. Given the numbers, we might want
to take this as “caused to be offered”.
Yet we’re also told that he “consecrated the middle of the court…for there he offered the burnt offering and the cereal offering and the fat
pieces of the peace offerings”. 1 Kings ch8 vv62-64
When Jeroboam established a new kingdom in the north, he both sacrificed and offered incense at his shrine in Bethel.
This may have been the beginning of a tradition. At least we don’t know when the kings of Israel stopped sacrificing at the altar, or if they ever
Bethel was being called a “royal” shrine in the time of Amos.
Nor, for that matter, do we know exactly when the kings of Judah stopped sacrificing.
I think an important turning-point could have been the usurpation of Athaliah, when the priests were bringing up the child Josiah, hidden in the
Temple, and could teach him anything they liked about the relation between kings and priests.
We only know that Uzziah got himself into trouble when he tried to offer incense, so the custom must have fallen into disuse by that point.
What comes out of this survey is that the priestly monopoly attached to the tribe of Levi is a comparatively late development.
Even ordinary people, let alone kings, were deemed capable of offering their own sacrifices for a long stretch of Israel’s early history.
As for the laws in Leviticus, where the exclusive rights of the priesthood are taken for granted, modern scholarship is inclined to regard these too
as a later development than the time of Moses.
At the time of the Exile in Babylon, the priestly community were collecting and preserving the religious traditions, making it possible that the
principle “only priests can sacrifice” was inserted into the Laws of Moses retrospectively.
There may be good reason to see the growth of the priestly monopoly as a gradual encroachment, not necessarily required as part of God’s real
Though it does provide, for the New Testament, an important metaphor which can be applied to the function of Christ.
In the New Testament period, the offering of sacrifice has come to an end, for both Jews and Christians.
The Christians no longer have the need (see Hebrews) and the Jews no longer have the opportunity.
So we are now living in the period after the priestly monopoly in this field.