The essential idea of a Hebrew priest was that of a mediator between his people and God by representing them officially in worship and sacrifice. By virtue of his office he was able to draw nigh to God, while they, because of their sins and infirmities, must needs stand afar off. The priest exercised his office mainly at the altar by offering the sacrifices and above all the incense (Num. 16:40; 18:2–3, 5, 7; Deut. 33:10) but also by teaching the people the law (Lev. 10:10, 11; Deut. 33:10; Mal. 2:7), by communicating to them the divine will (Num. 27:21), and by blessing them in the name of the Lord (Num. 6:22–27).
The priests must be Aaron’s sons (Num. 16:3–10, 40; 18:1) and free from all important bodily blemishes or infirmities or diseases. They were under special restrictions with respect to uncleanness for the dead, marriage, wine or strong drink when engaged in sacerdotal duties (Lev. 10:9). The ordinary universal prohibitions were specially binding on them; their families were under special and stricter laws, and liable to more severe punishments than the rest of the people.
Nothing is specified in the law as to the age at which a priest might begin to exercise his office. Levites were qualified according to the law at 30 or 25 (Num. 4:3; 8:23–26), and according to later usage at 20 (1 Chr. 23:24, 27). Consecration to the priestly office consisted of two parts: ceremonial and sacrificial.
Their ceremonial functions were: (1) They were washed at the door of the tabernacle. (2) They were clothed with the priestly garments (coats, girdles, and miters or turbans). (3) They were anointed (Ex. 40:15) with holy oil. Their sacrificial function included the offering of three sacrifices: (1) a bullock as a sin offering, to put away their sin; (2) a ram as a burnt offering, to indicate the full and complete surrender of themselves to God; (3) a ram as a peace or consecration offering. The blood of the ram was put upon the tip of the priest’s right ear, the thumb of his right hand, and the great toe of his right foot. Obedience to the divine voice and activity in the divine service were thus symbolized. The priest’s hands were filled (see 1 Kgs. 13:33, “consecrated him”; Hebrew “filled his hand”) with the fat, the kidneys, the right thigh or shoulder, and part of the meal offering. The gifts that henceforward they would offer to the Lord on behalf of the people were thus committed to them.
For the maintenance of the priests were assigned: (1) Portions of the Altar Offerings—namely, the whole of the sin and guilt offerings (except the fat), and the meal offerings, except the small portion burnt on the altar (Num. 18:9); the skin of the burnt offering (Lev. 7:8); the wave breast and the heave thigh of the peace offerings (Lev. 7:34). (2) The Firstfruits, especially of the seven products of Palestine (Deut. 8:8)—wheat, barley, oil, wine, figs, pomegranates, and honey; but also all kinds of fruits (Num. 18:13; Deut. 26:2); dough (Num. 15:20–21; Neh. 10:37); and the fleece of sheep (Deut. 18:4). There was also the heave offering, the gift of the best of the produce of the soil (Num. 18:12; Neh. 10:35, 37). (3) The Firstborn: the redemption money, in the case of man (five shekels, Num. 18:16), and unclean beasts (one-fifth more than the priest’s estimation, Lev. 27:27); and the clean beasts themselves (Num. 18:15–17). (4) The Tithe of the Levitical Tithe (Num. 18:26–28). (5) The Offerings. Some of these were given to the service of the Sanctuary, but things devoted were the priest’s (Lev. 27:21). (6) Certain cities (13 in number, all in Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin) with their suburbs; but the priests were to have no part or inheritance in the land (Num. 18:20; Josh. 21:13–19).
David divided the priestly families into twenty-four courses. Four only returned from the captivity, and these were again subdivided into twenty-four. Each course officiated for a week at a time, the change being made on the Sabbath, between the morning and the evening sacrifices. All the courses officiated together at the great festivals. See also High priest; Ministry.