II. The Ordination and Service of Israel’s Priests (Leviticus 8:1–10:20)
II. The Ordination and Service of Israel’s Priests (8:1–10:20)
A. The Ordination Ceremony (8:1-36)
8:1 With Israel’s sacrifices described and instituted, the nation now needed a consecrated priesthood to administer them before the Lord. God chose Moses’s brother Aaron and his sons for this holy assignment and gave Moses specific instructions for the priests’ anointing and ordination to ministry. The importance of this section is marked by the opening statement: The Lord spoke to Moses. Everything concerning the priests’ consecration was to be done according to divine revelation.
8:2-5 The ordination was to be a public ceremony. God told Moses to bring Aaron and his sons along with everything needed for the ceremony and to assemble the whole community at the entrance to the tent of meeting (8:2-3). Moses obeyed and made it clear to the community that this was what the Lord . . . commanded (8:4-5).
8:6-9 The service began with a ceremonial washing of Aaron and his sons, symbolizing the fact that they as sinful humans were intrinsically unclean and needed to be purified before they could minister before a holy God (8:6). Once the priests were washed, Moses dressed Aaron in the high priest’s garments, including a tunic undergarment and a beautiful breastpiece with its twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel (8:8; see Exod 28:15-30). This symbolized the fact that the high priest carried the people close to his heart and represented them when he ministered before the Lord.
Next the Urim and Thummim were placed in a pouch on the breastpiece (8:8; see Exod 28:30). We assume these were two named stones that were used to determine God’s will in circumstances when the people needed special guidance. But actually, nothing is said in Scripture about their specific purpose or usage. Aaron’s turban was also magnificent, featuring a gold medallion (8:9).
8:10-13 Moses then took the anointing oil and sprinkled the altar and everything else in the tabernacle that needed to be consecrated for the priests’ use (8:10-11). This was followed by the anointing of Aaron (8:12-13)—which wasn’t done by dabbing a mere drop of oil on his forehead. In the Psalms, David referred to the “fine oil on the head, running down on the beard, running down Aaron’s beard onto his robes” (Ps 133:2). Aaron was thoroughly anointed to serve the Lord. Moses also dressed Aaron’s sons in their priestly garb (8:13).
8:14-21 Oil played an important part in the consecration of Israel’s priests, but it was not enough by itself. Blood was required to atone for sin, so the next steps in the ordination process were offerings to purify Aaron and his sons, and even the altar, from the contamination of sin. The sin offering (8:14-17) was made for atonement. Moses applied the blood to the altar and dealt with the rest of the sacrifice as God had instructed previously (see 4:1-35), except that in this case the blood was applied to the altar of burnt offering instead of the altar of incense. Next came the burnt offering (8:18-21), which was completely consumed on the altar as a pleasing aroma, a fire offering to the Lord (8:21), symbolizing the offerer’s complete dedication to God.
8:22-24 The third offering was called the ordination offering, which completed the purification that Aaron and his sons needed to be able to serve as priests (8:22). It involved a unique element that was not part of the people’s offerings: the application of the blood to the right earlobe, the right thumb, and the right big toe of both Aaron and his sons (8:23-24). These parts of the body could have been chosen because they stood for the activities of hearing, doing, and walking (or obeying)—all of which needed to be consecrated to the Lord’s use.
8:25-30 Moses also put a portion of the offering into the hands of Aaron and his sons, which they then presented before the Lord as a presentation offering (8:27). These parts of the sacrifice were then burned, in keeping with God’s command. Moses’s final act of consecration was to sprinkle Aaron and his sons with the oil and blood (8:30).
8:31-36 Once the required sacrifices were made, the priests had one more requirement to fulfill: they were to eat an ordination meal at the entrance to the tent of meeting (8:31). The food came from the parts of the ordination ram and the consecrated bread that were not burned. The priests also had to observe a seven-day confinement period, during which they could not leave the area around the tabernacle under penalty of death (8:33-35). The priests apparently offered and ate the same sacrifice each day during the seven days, at the end of which they were fully ordained to serve the Lord.
B. The Beginning of the Priestly Ministry (9:1-24)
This chapter makes it clear that Israel’s worship program got off to the best start possible. The priests functioned flawlessly in presenting the sacrifices both for themselves and for the people, and when it was all done the awesome glory of God appeared to everyone.
9:1-7 On the eighth day following the seven days the priests spent in separation, the people brought the required sacrifices to the tabernacle—sin offering and burnt offering, fellowship offering and grain offering—as Moses had commanded (9:1-4). Everyone stood in front of the altar (9:5) as Moses turned to Aaron and gave him the go-ahead to officially begin Israel’s sacrificial system. He said, Approach the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering; make atonement for yourself and the people. Sacrifice the people’s offering and make atonement for them, as the Lord commanded (9:7).
9:8-14 Appropriately, Aaron’s first sacrifices were a sin and a burnt offering for himself to atone for his sin and signal his complete consecration to the Lord (9:8-14). It’s important to point out the irony here in that Aaron was instructed to offer a calf (9:8) as his sin offering, a glaring reminder that he had made the golden calf idol in the wilderness in disobedience to God (see Exod 32). Regardless, the people were now assured that Aaron’s sin had been forgiven and that he was authorized to serve as their high priest.
9:15-24 Aaron was then ready to offer the sin, burnt, and fellowship offerings the people had brought. These sacrifices atoned for their sin, symbolized their complete dedication to God, and provided a way for sinful humans to have fellowship with a holy God. The sacrifices made it possible for God to dwell among his people without contaminating his holiness or having to judge the people for their sins. Such forgiveness and fellowship is what the Israelites needed then; it’s also what we still need today.
God demonstrated his acceptance of their worship by his appearance in the cloud of glory and the consuming fire. The people shouted and fell facedown (9:23-24). This was not only a response of worship but also of godly fear. They knew God’s fire could just as easily have consumed them as it did a sacrifice. Tragically, the fire of God’s wrath would soon render judgment on disobedience (10:1-3).
As believers whose sins have been forgiven once-for-all by Christ’s death on the cross, we are truly in a privileged position today. The writer to the Hebrews says that God’s awesome, holy presence was so terrifying in the days of Moses that even he trembled in fear (see Heb 12:18-24). Incredibly, we can come into God’s presence with assurance and joy, and even share in his holiness, through the atoning death and resurrection of Christ.
C. The Tragic Sin of Nadab and Abihu (10:1-20)
10:1-3 At the inauguration of Israel’s sacrificial system, Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two oldest sons, presented unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them to do (10:1). It’s not clear exactly how they erred, but clearly the fire they presented was somehow contrary to what God had commanded. The point is that Nadab and Abihu knew better. They did not sin in ignorance. And as a result, fire came from the Lord, and Aaron’s sons died (10:2). Afterwards Moses reminded Aaron that it was critical for all the people to understand the Lord’s holiness. Aaron didn’t attempt a reply; he made no excuses for his sons’ sin (10:3).
It’s critical for God’s people to understand that the Lord isn’t our pal or our buddy. He’s our God. He is “holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8)—the pure, perfect, and powerful Creator of the universe. When he issues a command, he means for it to be obeyed.
10:4-7 Sadly, Aaron had to watch as two of his cousins carried his sons’ corpses outside the camp (10:4). In other words, the sin of Nadab and Abihu led them from the place of God’s presence to a place that came to symbolize being rejected and discarded. And that wasn’t all. Aaron and his surviving sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, were forbidden to mourn for the dead (10:6-7).
10:8-11 The priesthood and Israel’s worship had to go on, so Moses issued a fresh set of instructions to Aaron. This included helping the people to distinguish between the holy and the common, and the clean and the unclean, which Nadab and Abihu had failed to do and thus paid the price (10:10).
10:12-20 Moses also reminded Aaron and his remaining sons to eat the portions of the people’s offerings that had been designated for the priests (10:12-15). At this point it wouldn’t be surprising if Aaron and his sons showed reluctance to carry on with the sacrifices, for fear of displeasing the Lord and sharing the fate of Nadab and Abihu. Sure enough, Eleazar and Ithamar burned a part of the sin offering they were supposed to have eaten (10:16-18). Moses was angry (10:16) about this, but Aaron explained that their mistake was due either to fear of offending the Lord or maybe grief (10:19). Moses accepted the explanation, and God obviously forgave Aaron’s sons since they were not struck down (10:20).