In the world of the Old Testament text, the priest is one of four principal mediators between God and God’s people. The four mediators, each defined by their function in society, are: priest, king, sage and prophet. Each one has a particular role in mediating God’s presence in the life of a people called to be priest, king, sage and prophet at the service of the nations who do not yet know God. Whereas the king and the prophet are central characters in the often dramatic events that mark the history of salvation, the priest and the sage are central respectively in regular routine, worship and wisdom in day to day life in the world. The realm of the priest in the Old Testament is the Temple and there activity is focused on worship and its peak expression in the sacrificial cult. I will focus here uniquely on the priest and his role as presented in some Old Testament texts (particularly in the Pentateuch) in order to sketch out in broad strokes his portrait.
I will seek to examine two parallel priestly realities in the Old Testament. The first derives from the world of the text itself in which the figure of the priest fulfills an essential mediating role. This is particularly striking in the Pentateuch where much of the Law focuses on the function of the priest in the life of a people called to be “a kingdom of priests” and “a holy people” (Ex 19:6). However, other books in the Old Testament also emphasize the priestly role, for example 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Ezekiel.
It is interesting to point out that each of these four mediating figures is central to one of each of the four parts of the Christian division of the Old Testament (as distinct from the three part Jewish TaNaKh) – the priest in the Pentateuch, the king in the History Books, the sage in Wisdom Books and the prophet in the Prophetic Books. Often overlooked, it is the sage, in the division of labor among the mediators of God’s presence, who is focused on meditating on creation in day to day life, observing the created order that derives from an invisible God and pointing to his presence.
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David M. Neuhaus SJ serves as Latin Patriarchal Vicar at Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel. To learn more please visit www.catholic.co.il