Priest. The English word is derived from the Greek presbyter, signifying an “elder” (Heb. côhên). Origin.—The idea of a priesthood connects itself in all its forms, pure or corrupted, with the consciousness, more or less distinct, of sin. Men feel that they have broken a law. The power above them is holier than they are, and they dare not approach it. They crave for the intervention of some one of whom they can think as likely to be more acceptable than themselves. He must offer up their prayers, thanksgivings, sacrifices. He becomes their representative in “things pertaining unto God.” He may become also (though this does not always follow) the representative of God to man. The functions of the priest and prophet may exist in the same person. No trace of a hereditary or caste priesthood meets us in the worship of the patriarchal age. Once and once only does the word côhên meet us as belonging to a ritual earlier than the time of Abraham. Melchizedek is “the priest of the most high God.” Gen. 14:18. In the worship of the patriarchs themselves, the chief of the family, as such, acted as the priest. The office descended with the birthright, and might apparently be transferred with it.
When established.—The priesthood was first established in the family of Aaron, and all the sons of Aaron were priests. They stood between the high priest on the one hand and the Levites on the other. [High Priest; Levites.] The ceremony of their consecration is described in Ex. 29; Lev. 8.
Dress.—The dress which the priests wore during their ministrations consisted of linen drawers, with a close-fitting cassock, also of linen, white, but with a diamond or chess-board pattern on it. This came nearly to the feet, and was to be worn in its garment shape. Comp. John 19:23. The white cassock was gathered round the body with a girdle of needle-work, in which, as in the more gorgeous belt of the high priest, blue, purple, and scarlet were intermingled with white, and worked in the form of flowers. Ex. 28:39, 40; 39:2; Ezek. 44:17-19. Upon their heads they were to wear caps or bonnets in the form of a cup-shaped flower, also of fine linen. In all their acts of ministration they were to be barefooted.
Egyptian High Priest in Full Dress.
Duties.—The chief duties of the priests were to watch over the fire on the altar of burnt offering, and to keep it burning evermore both by day and night, Lev. 6:12; 2 Chron. 13:11; to feed the golden lamp outside the vail with oil, Ex. 27:20, 21; Lev. 24:2; to offer the morning and evening sacrifices, each accompanied with a meat offering and a drink offering, at the door of the tabernacle. Ex. 29:38-44. They were also to teach the children of Israel the statutes of the Lord. Lev. 10:11; Deut. 33:10; 2 Chron. 15:3; Ezek. 44:23, 24. During the journeys in the wilderness it belonged to them to cover the ark and all the vessels of the sanctuary with a purple or scarlet cloth before the Levites might approach them. Num. 4:5-15. As the people started on each day’s march they were to blow “an alarm” with long silver trumpets. Num. 10:1-8. Other instruments of music might be used by the more highly-trained Levites and the schools of the prophets, but the trumpets belonged only to the priests. The presence of the priests on the field of battle, 1 Chron. 12:23, 27; 2 Chron. 20:21, 22, led, in the later periods of Jewish history, to the special appointment at such times of a war priests. Other functions were hinted at in Deuteronomy which might have given them greater influence as the educators and civilizers of the people. They were to act (whether individually or collectively does not distinctly appear) as a court of appeal in the more difficult controversies in criminal or civil cases. Deut. 17:8-13. It must remain doubtful, however, how far this order kept its ground during the storms and changes that followed. Functions such as these were clearly incompatible with the common activities of men.
Provision for support.—This consisted—
1. Of one tenth of the tithes which the people paid to the Levites, i.e., one percent on the whole produce of the country. Num. 18:26-28. 2. Of a special tithe every third year. Deut. 14:28; 26:12. 3. Of the redemption money, paid at the fixed rate of five shekels a head, for the first-born of man or beast. Num. 18:14-19. 4. Of the redemption money paid in like manner for men or things specially dedicated to the Lord. Lev. 27. 5. Of spoil, captives, cattle, and the like, taken in war. Num. 31:25-47. 6. Of the shew-bread, the flesh of the burnt offerings, peace offerings, trespass offerings, Lev. 6:26, 29; 7:6-10; Num. 18:8-14, and in particular the heave-shoulder and the wave-breast. Lev. 10:12-15. 7. Of an undefined amount of the first-fruits of corn, wine, and oil. Ex. 23:19; Lev. 2:14; Deut. 26:1-10. 8. On their settlement in Canaan the priestly families had thirteen cities assigned them, with “suburbs” or pasture-grounds for their flocks. Josh. 21:13-19. These provisions were obviously intended to secure the religion of Israel against the dangers of a caste of pauper priests, needy and dependent, and unable to bear their witness to the true faith. They were, on the other hand, as far as possible removed from the condition of a wealthy order.
Courses.—The priesthood was divided into four and twenty “courses” or orders, 1 Chron. 24:1-19; 2 Chron. 23:8; Luke 1:5, each of which was to serve in rotation for one week, while the further assignment of special services during the week was determined by lot. Luke 1:9. Each course appears to have commenced its work on the Sabbath, the outgoing priests taking the morning sacrifice, and leaving that of the evening to their successors. 2 Chron. 23:8.
Numbers.—If we may accept the numbers given by Jewish writers as at all trustworthy, the proportion of the priesthood to the population of Palestine, during the last century of their existence as an order, must have been far greater than that of the clergy has ever been in any Christian nation. Over and above those that were scattered in the country and took their turn, there were not fewer than 24,000 stationed permanently at Jerusalem, and 12,000 at Jericho. It was almost inevitable that the great mass of the order, under such circumstances, should sink in character and reputation. The reigns of the two kings David and Solomon were the culminating period of the glory of the Jewish priesthood. It will be interesting to bring together the few facts that indicate the position of the priests in the New Testament period of their history. The number scattered throughout Palestine was, as has been stated, very large. Of these the greater number were poor and ignorant. The priestly order, like the nation, was divided between contending sects. In the scenes of the last tragedy of Jewish history the order passes away without honor, “dying as a fool dieth.” The high priesthood is given to the lowest and vilest of the adherents of the frenzied Zealots. Other priests appear as deserting to the enemy. The destruction of Jerusalem deprived the order at one blow of all but an honorary distinction.