Prophetic priests (Leviticus 8:1-13)
Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (July 6, 2009)
The “books of Moses” (Genesis through Deuteronomy) tell of the founding of ancient Israel — a community called to know God and to bless all the families of the Earth with its witness. Some of the details seem be a bit strange, and the extensive legal prescriptions may cause our eyes to glaze over.
However, when we keep God’s overall concerns in mind, even if we can’t make sense of all the details, we should be able to find meaning and encouragement from these materials.
The Book of Leviticus may be the most tedious. I am sure others have shared my experience as a young adult when I set out to read the entire Bible start to finish and got fatally bogged down in this, Bible’s the third book. Just about all it contains are seemingly endless laws.
But let’s think of the laws in relation to God’s agenda. God’s purpose was to establish and sustain a community of justice as a contrast society with the Egyptian Empire, whose injustice had nearly ground the Hebrews into dust.
What purpose does ordination serve?
Likewise, when we focus specifically on our present text, the account of the ordination of the first priests, our understanding will be enhanced by looking at it in its broader context. As with all rituals, we should ask of the ordination service, what broader purpose does it serve?
Our first and most essential clue comes from the role Moses plays. Moses himself was never ordained. Nor was he ever installed as king. His central identity was that of a prophet — one who listened closely to God and “forthtold” God’s message to God’s people. As with later biblical prophets, Moses’ role was to speak God’s challenging message to the present, exhorting the people to faithfulness (not to predict or “foretell” the future).
However, Moses oversees the process of ordination. He’s the “priest-maker.” As the first of the prophets, he ordains the first of the priests. He instructs them of their duties. Later, when his brother Aaron (the high priest) dies, Moses transfers the office to Aaron’s son Eleazar (Num. 20:22-29).
So, the priests serve the prophet. Moses’ agenda, seen in the two foundational events for Israel, focused on: 1) leading the people out of slavery (the exodus); and 2) bringing to the people God’s commandments, which sought to sustain the community as a counterculture to Empire, a place of justice and dignity for all members (Torah).
Aaron and his sons are ordained to a ministry of serving this prophetic agenda God gave Moses. The details of the ordination and of the specific responsibilities of the priests may seem difficult to apply to our modern context — though it is worth the effort to think about how they might.
Witness to life-affirming freedom
The broader message of this account of ordination, though, should be clear and challenging to us who understand ourselves to be Moses’ spiritual lineage. The ordinations initiated the priests into the ministry of leadership in guiding the community in its prophetic task. This task included gaining and sustaining freedom from the spiritual and physical oppression of Egypt. It also included witnessing to the reality of this freedom and to the God who granted it, so that all families of the Earth might be blessed. How might our ordinations serve similar purposes?
Even more broadly, this ordination account might also challenge us in relation to all of our religious rituals. What deeper purpose do they serve? Are they also empowering us to embody genuine spiritual and physical freedom and wholeness?
Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.