Main Page
Editorial Board
Journal Archive
Research Links


___ Paper ____________________________________________________________________


The Evolution of Priesthood and Priestly Offices in the Old Testament

Author: Martin Samson


A few years ago when I first read the article on priesthood in the Zondervan Theological Dictionary the following statement opened a door for me to explore the way I had hitherto understood the development of priesthood in the context of both the first testament and the Christian tradition.

The Priesthood in Israel . The LXX uses hiereus to trans. Heb. nheKo , Kohen, priest, cognate with Arab. kahin , seer, soothsayer. The view that one takes of the development of the priesthood in the OT depends considerably upon the view that one takes of the dating of the various books and sources behind them. The following reconstruction represents a cross-section of scholarly opinion.

The task of the priest in Israel was originally not sacrificial service, but oracular divination (cf. Jdg. 17:5; 18:5 f.; 1 Sam. 14:36-42) and instruction in the Torah (Deut. 27:9 f.; 31:4 ff.). The head of every family could offer sacrifice (cf. Gen. 8:20; 31:54). Moses' father-in-law, Jethro the priest of Midian (Exod. 2:18 ff.; 3:1), offered burnt-offerings and sacrifices at Sinai. He held a fellowship-meal with the elders of Israel and advised Moses in the regulations of sacral law (Exod. 18:12 ff.). [1]

I realized that I had not thought with any depth of the institutions, offices and roles of the priesthood as something that had undergone its own development beyond the outer changes of the reformation. I had really only accepted the forms of priesthood as I knew them as an age old God given expression through Moses.

I then came across an article in the SPCK volume called The Study of Liturgy and read Paul Bradshaw's article on Theology and Rite [2] and found that neither the second testament writings nor early Christian church documentation uses the word ‘priest' in connection with Christ setting up, instituting or ordaining a priesthood or in connection with instituting any form of church minister. Again I realized that I had just accepted the form and expression of the priesthood, as I knew them, as immutable.

These two texts have lived with me in the exploration of these themes; the unfolding of the functions, roles and offices of the priesthood - specifically in relationship to the changing religious practices and experiences of the people. Part one of this paper will focus on the unfolding of first testament priesthood while part two will be an excursion into trying to find the meaning of the parallel hidden story of the priesthood of Melchizedek.


Part One: An initial observation of the changes in the priesthood of Israel

The religious life of the early Israelites was primarily carried in the family institutions. Daily observances, purification rituals, sacrifices and rites of passage were performed by the head of the family. The role of the priest was that of a holy person who maintained a sacred site or sanctuary and was consulted for oracular divination and held a role in the community of teaching the Torah. These three functions of teaching, sacrifice and divination are reflected as the ‘intellectual leadership exercised by sage, priest and prophet' [3]

The progression of the priesthood of Israel in the first testament follows four great changes. The first period is the early settlement time which includes the religious expression of the patriarchs. The second epoch is the priesthood given through Moses on Mount Sinai followed by the third period defined by the changes that are incorporated during and after the Babylonian exile. Finally we see a fourth period where the priesthood becomes more influenced by the political arena in the times of the Maccabees, the Seleucids and Herodians and first century times into which Jesus was born. An obvious fifth step is the post Temple expression of priesthood in rabbinical Judaism but, I will only deal with that in as much as it progresses out of the Babylonian exile.

It seems, at first, that this is a journey of turning things around. The original priesthood had the functions of prophecy, oracular divination and teaching while the sacrificial roles were carried out in the religious life of a family by the head of a household. The locations of the priests, their altars and the sacrificial practices in the families were diverse. By the time Jesus was born the priests have confined the role of priesthood to holding sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple to entrench their political power. The teaching has been handed over to the scribes who used it to be ‘god's voice' to the people. Families had the core religious role of sacrifice taken from them and are only permitted to perform certain religious practices in their home; the Friday night Shabbat meal being the central one. As Roland De Vaux points out rites such as the circumcision that had initially been done by the father had, post exile, become more and more a Temple practice. Yet other practices such as marriages and funerals did remain in secular function. The teaching role became the domain of individual people's political endeavor, such as the Maccabeans, to sort the state of the nation. [4]

Does this reversal arise out of a natural process of the journey of the people in exile and their changing religious needs and possibilities of expression, or of the misuse of power, or of political manipulation, or a combination of all three?

The priestly role in early Israel

The life of the Israelites in the Promised Land is a complex story of a nomadic people finding a place to live, including a conquering of an indigenous people known as the Canaanites and the Palestinians (Philistines.) Before Abram leaves Chaldea there is a culture present in Palestine with its polytheistic practices and we know, through archeological findings, that these people were thinking and acting in way that did not reflect a later Israeli canon in the book of Deuteronomy. In fact it is more likely that the ways of Palestinian life reflected similar purification systems that the Israelites picked up and codified into the Law of Yahweh them selves later. Abram's group also has a religious-cultic life that reflects its nomadic nature:

It is obvious that the level of complexity at which a cult and priesthood operate is correlative and coextensive with the stage of development of the society in General. As long as the kinship system remained functionally decisive, the paterfamilias would have represented the local unit in the performance of cult acts, often involving the ancestors of the group in question. Something like this situation is re-created in the narrative cycles about the ancestors in Genesis 12 -50. We read of one or another patriarch building an altar and calling on the name of Yahweh, that is setting up the Yahweh cult at what was formerly a Canaanite holy place – Bethel (Gen. 12:8; 13:4; 28:18; 22; 35;7), Shechem (12:6-7; 33:20) and Beersheba (26:25) in particular. [5]

What becomes evident is that the early culture of Abram was as polytheistic and nomadic in its nature as any of the other Mediterranean groups of people at the time. Only through its own journey with the Patriarchs and the captivity in Egypt does a more henotheistic (The one special god of one's people, a folk spirit, amongst all the other gods) and later the monotheistic understanding appear. This later period arises with Moses and the appearance of the priesthood of Aaron and the Levites with its codes.

The early priesthood roles of sacrifice and cult are held within the paterfamilias, while the sacred shrines or high places of Palestine are filled initially with the sages and oracles that were existent but slowly become sacred places to Yahweh and managed by priesthoods established by the patriarchs. The diversity of the priesthoods and cults is as diverse as the places and natures of the original Palestinian sacred places. In many ways it is an acculturation of Palestine by the new people later to be called the Israelites.

The second development of the priesthood

Interestingly enough this second phase of the priesthood falls between the Captivity in Egypt and the Exile in Babylon . Prior to the captivity he social structures suited a nomadic people until they were taken captive in Egypt, which can be seen as a result of an underdeveloped leadership not being able to plan for the long term needs of an emerging nation. This also resulted in a non defined leadership not being able to rouse the captives to leave Egypt until a young Moses hears the voice and instruction of his sending by the one god of his people! Post captivity the leadership roles and forms needed another expression.

Through his journey with the people in the desert Moses claims both political and intellectual leadership specifically through the Mt. Sinai episode which showed that the people up until that point were still comfortable in holding to a more polytheistic cult to gods of the region. M. Esther Harding gives us a convincing insight as to who this deity, that guides Moses, may be:

The name of this moon god, Sinn, is familiar to us in Mount Sinai , which means Mountain of the Moon. This fact throws an interesting side light on Jewish history for it will be recalled that it was on Mount Sinai that Moses received the tablets of the Law. Sinn, as moon god (of the Babylonians), was the ancient law giver long predating Moses. It was therefore in a very appropriate place that he sought and found the divinely given tablets. [6]

It is at this point that the early Israelites focus on the moon god, known to them as Yahweh, as the one god of their people, requiring a new and specific priesthood; that of Aaron and the Levites. Harding also points out how the Jewish calendar and festival events are calculated from the cycles of the moon; specifically the dating of the Passover/Easter festival. I will for the purposes of this paper equate Yahweh with the Moon God and differentiate him from the Sun deities known as the Elohim in the Jewish tradition.

If this observation is taken seriously the relationship between this one god of Israel and God Most High that Melchizedek serves is placed into an open field of questions. I will explore the possibilities of this relationship within the Elohim (The plural form of Eloha) in the meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek in part two. We hopefully will see there that The One God of Abraham and the God Most High whom Melchizedek serves are the Deities of Moon and Sun, who have specific roles in the journey of Israel .

The development of Israel now reflects a re-forging of the roles of intellectual and political leadership in the social development of a nation. The shift of the political leadership is from a patriarchy through the judges, who still show some ability of oracular power; to that of the kings. The intellectual and teaching roles move from local priests to a centralized Temple priesthood supported by the state. The voice of Yahweh, once passed on through local priests, becomes heard only through the prophets. The sacrificial role and cultic functions of the paterfamilias are more and more assumed by the Temple priesthood leaving the people disempowered to understand and interpret the law. The emphasis of the holy places being in many surroundings shifts from the Diaspora into the Temple of Jerusalem . King David establishes his own line of Priesthood out the tradition of the original Jerusalem Priesthood of Zadok, which also then get the Levitical status conferred upon them as their lineage ‘was traced back through the family of Eli at Nob to that of Eli at Shiloh' (2 Sam. 8:17; 1 Chr. 24:3). [7]

The change in the role of Priesthood through the Jerusalem Temple becoming more and more the high place of Yahweh, and the other priesthoods and holy places being sidelined, is the assuming of the office of sacrifice on behalf of the people. This shift is also an assumption of the role of atonement, which then later gets conferred onto the high priest of Jerusalem in specific. At the same time we get the picture that the Jerusalem Temple puts a lot of effort into becoming a primary focus of the Jewish cult and priesthood, but should not forget that it also was partially successful. This raises more questions of the politics and diverse cultural leanings within Israel that could have been the cause of much tension between the Jews of Jerusalem and the Samaritans and Galileans, who weren't considered ‘pure' enough in their religious expressions, as they worshiped elsewhere than Jerusalem. As Blenkinsopp reminds us:

In the earliest period of the history, there were as many priesthoods as there were cult centers. With the emergence of the state system, the priesthoods of the state-sponsored cults – at Bethel and Dan in the North, Jerusalem in the South –achieved dominance, though they were not entirely successful in suppressing unofficial cult centers attested in both biblical and the archeological records. Even the determined effort to create a Jerusalemite and Yahwistic cult monopoly in the in the last decades of the Kingdom of Judah was only partially successful (2Kings 23:4-20; cf. Deut. 12:1-28). Several sanctuaries other than the three (Bethel, Dan, Jerusalem) mentioned appear, sometimes in passing, in narrative and prophetic texts – Shiloh (1 Samuel 1-3), Schechem (Judges 8-9), Beersheba (Amos 8:14), Gibeon (1 Kings 3:4), Gilgal (Amos 4:4; 5:5) – and there were also numerous open-air shrines or ‘High places' (bamot) that would have required the services of one or more priests. [8]

The effects of the Babylonian Exile on the third phase of the development of priesthood

When the first Temple was destroyed and the Israelites were in Babylon two major influences appeared; the place of cult and religious practice had to change and the influence of the Iranian culture was absorbed. These two factors have a huge effect on Jewish expression in the post Babylonian times until the rebuilding of the second Temple by Herod. Initially there is no Temple left and the people are in exile resulting in the appearance of rabbinical leadership and synagogue based teaching and worship. At the same time once the Jews return from Babylon their language and images around the messianic eschatology reflect a strong influenced from the Persian and Zoroastrian teachings. [9] These include the dualistic images of the Messianic expectation being couched in language of the prince of light – prince of darkness, and the Son of Man, a teaching of Zoroaster also found in the book of Enoch.

It is possible that the exile also had a very strong releasing affect on the people's connection to the high places they visited when living in Israel and that upon their return the Jerusalem cult took predominance and advantage of this fact. They further asserted their understanding of the political and intellectual leadership, re-instated the Jerusalem Zadokite priesthood which had claimed itself as the authentic one during the exile (Ezek. 44:15), started rebuilding the priesthood, vested the scribes with teaching roles and began a dominance that lasted until the Maccabean revolt.

It also became evident that a body of scholarly experts took charge of interpreting the Law and in fact became more powerful than the Temple priests whose task was confined to sacrifice and atonement, which had lost a far bit of prominence in the exile due to people getting used to having no Temple. The people became less and less allowed to interpret the law and fulfill the purification laws for themselves without fear of an intellectual policing of their actions by the scribes and interpreters of the law. At one level it was the worst case scenario of what was possibly a very positive and free religious experience of rabbinical Judaism in exile, now claiming an authoritative predominance over both the priestly and oracular powers of the intellectual leadership. I see that the intellectual leadership role of ‘Sage' had become that of spiritual lawyer claiming to know the will of god and assuming the oracular function of prophet in a negative way. (Jn. 8: 1-12) This reached its pinnacle at the time of Jesus with the Scribes and Pharisees being cursed by Christ for this way of leadership. (Mt. 23: 1-39)

The second shift in leadership role was that their was no independent political leader outside of the Sanhedrin, the high priest had political leadership vested upon him by way of default through having the chief seat in the Sanhedrin. Here I see the intellectual leadership role of ‘Priest' had become a political power using the priestly function of sacrifice to protect is position by instilling fear into the religious practices of the people. (Lk. 22: 1 – 6)

Further the third intellectual role of ‘Prophet' was now forced to be assumed by the people epitomized by the Maccabeans (Heads of the Family) assuming the function of teaching to educate the people politically. The knowledge of social dysfunction led to a violent political struggle. The prophetic powers were then confined to individuals such as John the Baptist and small groups of people. One of these groups was known as the Essenes who lived in an eschatological hope-driven community after the Hasmoneans gained their foothold on the Jerusalem Temple.

My initial question: Does this reversal (of function, role and office of the intellectual leadership) arise out of a natural process of the journey of the people in exile and their changing religious needs and possibilities of expression, or of the misuse of power, or of political manipulation, or a combination of all three, seems to have answered itself around 200BC!

The Maccabees and the Roman influence

Towards the time of Jesus things became more and more politically driven, which was further complicated by the influence of increase in Hellenistic thinking among the scholarly elite, the Seleucids and the Roman presence.

During the last two centuries before Jesus there is an incredible intensification of the complexities already mentioned. Due to a conflict in the Hellenistic – Jewish thinking within the leadership, the nation became vulnerable to political manipulation by the Seleucids. The Maccabees revolted against this and placed the Hasmonean Jonathan as high priest in Jerusalem. The ousted Zadokite priesthood founded the Qumran community and, influenced by the Iranian thinking brought back from the Exile, started to see in the Hasmoneans the ‘Wicked Priest'. Their own founder was seen to be the ‘Teacher of Righteousness'. The Office of High Priest becomes a bought leadership, with Herod and the Romans arbitrarily placing high priests into office, who more or less reflect Caiaphas' political attitude of “We have no king but Caesar!” (Jn. 19:15).

At the same time because the high priest became more and more a singular political-religious leader the people also began to have a priestly expectation of the Messiah alongside that of a kingly figure!

Conclusion and Riddles

As Kobelski points out we see a convergence of Jewish, Iranian and Hellenistic thinking within Israel clashing with the political machinations of the Roman Caesarian cult assuming the role of Son of God. 9 The various roles of leadership within the Jewish nation are re-forged according to its journey and influences. At this point is difficult to see the unfolding of the priesthood within Old Testament times beyond the anthropological comment of Blenkinsopp: “It is obvious that the level of complexity at which a cult and priesthood operate is correlative and coextensive with the stage of development of the society in General.” [5]

My original observation was that the priestly function was an oracular function of helping people hear god speak in their life. In the first two phases of development above, this role still seems to function amongst the local high places of original religion of Palestine and Israel, and also in the priesthood established on Sinai. It is only through the political influence of the kings, the exile and the later influence of other cultures in their lands that the actual function of mediating the word of god gets lost. It also then becomes confused in both the functions and the eschatological expectations within various communities according to their leanings.

If priesthood is to provide some sort of connection or mediation between a god and her or his people then we cannot remain satisfied with the above progression of development. There must be some other level of observation possible that will allow us to find a religious or theological connection to the unfolding of the priestly roles and offices, which at first appear so easily undermined by the social progression. Regardless of form and persuasion there must be the opportunity for the priesthood to maintain its functions of cult, sacrifice, atonement, teaching and prophecy.

We can also say that there is a more positive conclusion to be drawn from the shifts of function reflected on above. Certain streams of priesthood become influenced by power and politics, loosing their ability to function in a spiritually real way. Other parts of the community then take charge of that function, assuming the role for that aspect of the priestly office for a time. In many ways God finds ways to keep the connectivity and the revelation happening.

One set of last questions remain to be addressed. If Yahweh is the one god if the Israelites, later being promoted as the only god, what is the function of the other deities? Do other deities have a role in the shift from the polytheistic origins, through the henotheistic awakening of a people in relationship to a folk spirit, and then claiming a monotheistic regime over a people? Who are the priests of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a moon god called Yahweh, in relation to the priests of God most High? What is the relationship between Yahweh and the God most High? Can we just presume that they are one and the same deity in the light of a culture that was originally polytheistic? We do this out of a long monotheistic Christian tradition, but is it really that simple?


Part Two 

In this part of the paper I will explore the priesthood and person of Melchizedek to try and show that even though he was an historical figure he also has mythic and spiritual/cosmic dimensions that create the eschatological hopes of the Israelites. With this I will also take a look at the priestly nature of Abraham to show that two forms of priesthood were active in the journey of the Jewish nation so that the forces of the Sun and the Moon could be part of the preparation of the indwelling of the Logos in Jesus.

The Priesthood of Melchizedek

The meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek is enigmatic in that it is condensed into two references in the first Testament in the 14th chapter of Genesis and the 110th Psalm, both of which are cursory in their nature. The other Biblical source for the priesthood of Melchizedek is the book of Hebrews. The Legends of the Jews [10] interprets the story that because Melchizedek greets Abraham before God he has his priestly office taken from him, which is then transferred to Abraham.

This event seems to be unrelated to the appearance of the Levitical priesthood, one which is to prepare the appearance of the Messiah, as revealed in the Moses/Aaron story. The only point of correlation is that Melchizedek is referred to as a priest and that the Messiah is mentioned in the psalms (Ps. 110:4) as being of the priesthood of Melchizedek:

The high esteem of the high-priestly office led to a widespread Jewish expectation of an eschatological priest or high priest alongside the kingly messiah (Test.Reub. 6:8; Test.Lev. 18:2; Test.Jud. 21:2; 24:1; 1QS 9:10 f.; 1QSa 2:12 ff.; 1QSb 4:23; 4QpPs 37 2:15; CD 12:23 f.). This was joined with angel speculations (Test.Dan. 6:2, Eth.Enoch 89:76; Sl.Enoch 22:4 ff.; Hag. 12b, where Michael offers a spiritual sacrifice), and the myth of the primeval man. Adam (Gen.R. 20; Num.R. 4), Enoch, or Metatron (Jub. 4:25, Heb.Enoch 48C, 7; 48D, 1; Sl.Enoch 64:5A) and Melchizedek all appear as incarnations of the primeval man or primeval priest. [13]

Is it possible that even though we have a highly visible Temple priesthood there is a parallel story of priesthood going on that we know very little of? It seems that this idea also finds some scholarly support even though there is not much evidence around to critique this claim. That is, not until the finding of the Qumran text known as 11Qmelch. It may only be through the Qumran texts that we find any continuity in this priesthood of Melchizedek in the development of Israel at all.

The Temple priesthood development had the task of focusing a certain amount of religious energy on interiorizing the energy of the One God, to prepare the incarnation of the I-Am/Logos in the events of Palestine. The theme of the indwelling of God as part of the Israelites journey is well represented in both Old (Sir.24: 3-11) and New Testament (Jn. 14:23). At the same time the more hidden aspect of the Melchizedek priesthood remains a question in regard to its existence or role in this story.

The different languages in the two streams, including the sacrificial symbols, the names of God and the fields of expression, point to the possibility that the meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek was possibly not transference of priestly office from some Pagan culture to the Yahwistic need. It could be a meeting of acknowledgement that both forms were required to prepare the transformation of Priesthood through the working of Christ. [11] It is interesting that Christ became the high priest of the order of Melchizedek and not that of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! (Ps. 110:4; Heb.7)

Emil Bock in his book on Genesis 11 studies the Legends of the Jews and Ephraem of Syrus' Cave of Treasurers and shows that the relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek was not limited to this one event. Bock uses historical and Narrative criticism to reveal a number of interesting legends: Isaac enters into the School of Shem (another name for Melchizedek) at Moriah after the Angel held Abraham's hand with the knife back; Melchizedek is present at the funeral of Sarah. The activity of Melchizedek on Mount Moriah in the Valley of the Kings, which he names as Jerusalem, is an active and present priesthood in the lives of the early Israelites. There is a lot of lost history including the fact that Melchizedek is related to Shem, the son of Noah, who is the founder of the Semitic people after the flood; that the site of Jerusalem was also the burial place of Adam's body; and that there was a priestly activity of bread and wine on this site of the Kidron Valley for many generations prior to Abraham's arrival.

This priesthood of Melchizedek was the original priesthood in Jerusalem and could possibly be related to the Jerusalem priesthood of Zadok, which David made into the Temple priesthood. The fact that the word High priest is used in connection with Melchizedek and for the Priesthood of Zadok (1Chr. 29:22) opens a door of possible connection beyond purely being priesthoods at the same place. The Words Zedek and Zadok are also similar and have a common root in etymology meaning righteousness:

Melchizedek (MT malkî- ??????? ), who in Gen. 14:18 and Ps. 110:4 (109:4) is called king of Salem and priest of ' ??? -'elyôn (LXX “the Most High God”), is according to Josephus ( War 6, 438; Ant. 1, 180 f.), the founder and first priest of Jerusalem. … An eschatological ??????? - ??????? repeatedly stands alongside the messiah (Cant. R. on 2:13; Sukkah 52b; Ab.R.N. 34). Hippolytus ( Haer. 7:36; 10:24) and Epiphanius ( Haer . 55) report of a probably gnostic group of “Melchizedekians” who worshipped Melchizedek as a higher Logos than Jesus… ??????????? , only in 1 Chr. 29:22 in the LXX (for Zadok's priesthood), but several times in the Apocrypha (e.g. Sir. 45:24; 1 Macc. 2:54) goes back to the basic meaning of priestly office. [13]

The meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek requires a further pondering as Abraham himself held a priestly position under the auspice of being a patriarch and it seems the two continued to acknowledge the valid place of the other in the development of the nation.

The priestly nature of Abraham

This leads us to the question of the priestly nature of Abraham as predecessor of the Levitical order. Abraham journeys throughout Canaan and establishes altars (Shechem, Bethel and Hebron) of sacrifice; burnt offerings of animals. He also establishes or replaces priesthoods at certain high places. The altars and sacrifices were to Yahweh, the one special God amongst others, who had called Abraham to take on the task of strengthening his activity in Humanity. This God was a moon being as we have already heard above.

Emil Bock in his book on Genesis also confirms Abraham's journey out of a polytheistic culture, through the Egyptian and Babylonian influence, focusing on the Moon God Yahweh. In fact one can say that Abraham performed the priestly roles of the head of the family, the Patriarch, of sacrifice, prophecy and teaching. [11]

Two major differences between Abraham and Melchizedek in their priestly work give us cause to open another possibility of this relationship. The first is that Melchizedek remains in one place, Jerusalem, while Abraham moves around in nomadic fashion establishing holy sites around the Promised Land eventually settling in Mamre. The second is that Melchizedek offers bread and wine while Abraham at first offers burnt sacrifices of animals and later adds the sacrifice of tithing to Melchizedek.

The first difference could possibly lead us to wonder what the relationship between the Zadokite priests of Jerusalem and the priesthood of Melchizedek really was. In claiming to be the real Temple priests as established by David, the Zadokites after the Babylonian captivity become part of the Qumran community which really speaks of them being a secret priesthood. After the Hasmoneans ousted the Zadokites from Jerusalem the Qumran and Essene communities establish a very esoteric and socially removed order out of the Iranian influence. [12] Here we can observe yet another cultural shift. At first the more hidden priesthood of Melchizedek are the custodians of the holy place of Jerusalem, brought into the public through David and the Zadokites, yet after the Exile they are ultimately dispossessed and others assert themselves on Mount Moriah while the Melchizedekians/Zadokites move to other monasteries to continue their task of preparing a specific aspect of Priesthood.

The Second difference is a more exciting one as we can follow the theme of the difference between sacrifices of animals and crops right back to Cain and Abel. Is it possible that the priesthood of Melchizedek has a task of holding the rejected form of offering, fruit of human labor, to a point where it was to be an acceptable form again, the institution of the Eucharist by the high priest in the order of Melchizedek? I think that this priesthood is based on the idea that labor or the work of an individual, the offering of an individuals work, is a transformative element in the world. Originally this kind of sacrifice from Cain was rejected by God as it was at that point untimely in that it is only through the high priest Christ that the work of the individual can attain atonement. Paul tells us that it is not through works of the Law but works that source themselves in the Faith in Christ that now are the valid sacrifice. (Rom. 3: 21-31)

In the mean time the public priesthood of Aaron had to continue establishing sacrificial communion with God. This was done under the ordination of Yahweh and the forms that were given worked upon the people in such a way that their consciousness grew in the understanding that they needed to allow the I-Am to dwell in the human soul. In fact their whole story was about the indwelling of God. (Jn 14:1 – 31)

When Christ came to earth both forms of priesthood were incorporated into the Christian priesthood through the last supper: The Melchizedekian sacrifice of bread and wine, showing that the fruit of human work was now part of the sacred journey of transformation; and the Levitical forms in the cycle of festivals such as Easter at Passover, and in the structure, forms and roles of the vestments, liturgy and priesthood.

Who is Melchizedek?

The way Philo uses the word for priest (hiereus) and high priest (archiereus) brings in another aspect of priesthood to that of the oracular function of the Hebrew Kohen:

Philo saw in the priest t he symbol of the Logos ( Abr. 198; Cher. 16 f.), and, when psychologizing, equated him with the conscience ( Deus Imm. 131 ff.) or with the divine power of the soul in the reason of man ( Som. 1, 215). Stoic influence betrays itself. The Levites are the picture of the true priesthood in renouncing the passions and in turning to the true Logos ( Ebr. 76; Fug. 109). Everyone who no longer walks in the way of sin belongs to the priestly family ( Spec.Leg. 1, 243). Philo's idea of the high priest is a unique synthesis of these motifs. Moses is, as high priest ( Rer. Div. Her. 182) and chief head of the people, the first Logos of all, who stands on the border-line between creation and Creator ( Rer. Div. Her. 205 f.), since he is no longer man, but divine Logos ( Fug. 108). Everyone who lives according to the law is, according to Wis. 18:20 ff. , a high-priestly Logos ( Spec.Leg. 2, 164). As Logos, the high priest holds sway in the Temple of the cosmos of which his vestments are an image. He himself becomes a “cosmos in miniature” ( Som . 1, 214 f.; Spec.Leg. 1, 82-97; Vit.Mos . 2, 109-135) [13]

Here we see that there was and is an opening that the priestly roles are not confined to an ordination or a particular intellectual leadership. The priestly role is also a faculty in the human being that establishes a communion between God and the individual through conscience. The high priestly aspect is then a person who lives a life in fulfillment of the Law and becomes a leader in the community as they are an embodiment of wisdom and stand on the border between creation and creator; a theme developed in the New Testament in the book of Hebrews.

Paul Kobelski in his book Melchizedek and Melchiresa [9] explains how the fragmentary Melchizedek scroll, 11QMelch, gives us insight into the being and role of Melchizedek. In this work he shows us that there are many correlations between a real person in an ordained priesthood and a mythic character along the lines that Bock explored. He also sees that the Iranian influence brings in a dualistic philosophy of light versus darkness in the Qumran community. Melchizedek takes on a common identity with the Archangel Michael who is the leader of the Angels of Light against the Angel of Darkness, Melchiresa or Belial.

Further to this he explores the fact that the term Elohim is applied to Melchizedek. This term is also brought into alignment with the fact that Melchizedek is the priest of God Most High and not the One God of Abraham. By using the term Elohim and identifying him with Michael the Melchizedek scroll points to the fact this priesthood has a lot to do with the sun forces and the God of the Sun. [14] In Jewish Angelology the Elohim, the Creator spirits are the Angels of the Sun. Yet another possibility of understanding that at a certain point in time the Jewish people needed to concentrate on a more moon filled quality in their outer religious life, while Melchizedek maintained a connection for the people with the Sun forces. These two streams then find unification in the event of Jesus Christ. [11]

Kobelski leaves the whole question of Melchizedek's identity open, but points in the direction that Melchizedek in the identity of Michael has a priesthood that is in the spiritual world and acts as a spiritual mediator at God's throne for humanity. At the same time Melchizedek starts to play into the eschatological expectations of the Messiah and all the attributes of him as the high priest and the Angel of Light as mediator and bringer of atonement are formed as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek. This priesthood then receives an earthly expression in Jesus Christ who becomes the mediator on the earthly plain.


I have shown the journey of priesthood in the Old Testament as one of transforming and transferal of roles. Throughout the development of the societal forms the priesthood shifts to meet this in respect to creating a single Temple in Jerusalem for the indwelling of God into the human soul. At the same time the intellectual leadership roles of sacrifice, teaching and prophecy move from secular family leaders and institutionalized priesthoods so that by the time Christ is born the roles have done a complete shift in who, where and how they are practiced.

To balance this journey we also see the priesthood of Melchizedek in Jerusalem upholding a particular role in sacrificing bread and wine. This is the sacrifice of Cain, originally rejected by God, being held in a quite parallel story until such time that the high priest, Christ the King-Priest Messiah, could bring it into the main stream again.

I would like to think that the role of priesthood was originally that of prophecy and teaching which then needed to step into the role of sacrifice and establishing communion with God for a specific time of our journey in history. This was in a time when the priestly role of living our lives according to the Law, in conscience, was not yet fully developed. The priestly role of Melchizedek was to uphold the possibility of communion with God out of fruit of the work of our hands. The time needed to come when the act of atonement between the human being and God was established so that this faith could allow us, as individuals, to become a co-creative entity on the earth, as is told us in the book of Hebrews.



1. J. Baehr, Priest,” in Zondervan Theological Dictionaries , Edited by Willem A. VanGemeren Ph.D & Colin Brown, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan interactive, 2002), CD-ROM, G2636.

2. Paul F. Bradshaw, “Theology and Rite AD 200 - 400,” in The Study of Liturgy, Revised Edition, Edited by Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold SJ & Paul Bradshaw, (London: SPCK), second impression 1993, 355.

3. Joseph Blenkinsopp, Sage, Priest, Prophet; Religious and Intellectual Leadership in Ancient Israel, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 1.

4. Roland De Vaux, Ancient Israel, its Life and Institutions, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1961, (fifth impression1980).

5. Blenkinsopp, Sage, Priest, Prophet , 72.

6. M. Esther Harding, Woman's Mysteries Ancient and Modern; A Psychological Interpretation of the Feminine Principle as portrayed in Myth, Story and Dreams, ( London: Century, 1989), 90.

7. Baehr, “Priest”, CD-ROM, G2636.

8. Blenkinsopp, Sage, Priest, Prophet, 70-71.

9. Paul J. Kobelski, Melchizedek and Melchiresa, Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1981, 84-98.

10. Louis Ginsberg, Legends of the Jews, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1909-38, Volume 1, Chapter V, The War of the Kings.

11. Emil Bock, Genesis; Creation and the Patriarchs, Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1983, 86-108.

12. Kobelski, Melchizedek and Melchiresa, 84-98.

13. Baehr, “Priest”, CD-ROM, G2636.

14. Kobelski, Melchizedek and Melchiresa, 59 -62..



Baehr, J. “Priest.” in Zondervan Theological Dictionaries . Edited by Willem A. VanGemeren Ph.D & Colin Brown. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan interactive, 2002. CD-ROM

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Sage, Priest, Prophet; Religious and Intellectual Leadership in Ancient Israel. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.

Bock, Emil. Genesis; Creation and the Patriarchs. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1983.

Bradshaw, Paul F. “Theology and Rite AD 200 – 400.” in The Study of Liturgy, Revised Edition. Edited by Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold SJ & Paul Bradshaw. London: SPCK, second impression 1993.

Cody, Aelred. A History of Old Testament Priesthood. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969.

Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. A Dictionary of Judaism and Christianity. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991.

De Vaux, Roland. Ancient Israel, its Life and Institutions. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1961. (fifth impression1980)

Enoch, Book of. Oxford: Clarendon, 1912.

Ephraem of Syrus, St. Cave of Treasurers.

Flusser, David. Review of Melchizedek and Melchiresa , by Paul J. Kobelski. The Jewish Quarterly Review: New Series, Vol. 73, No. 3 (1983): 294-296.

Ginsberg, Louis. Legends of the Jews. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1909-38.

Gruenwald, Ithamar . “Melchizedek.” In Encyclopedia Judaica. 11:1287-1289. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, Fourth Printing 1978.

Harding, M. Esther. Woman's Mysteries Ancient and Modern; A Psychological Interpretation of the Feminine Principle as portrayed in Myth, Story and Dreams. London: Century, 1989.

Kobelski, Paul J. Melchizedek and Melchiresa. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1981.

Vanhoye, Albert. Old Testament Priests and the New Priest. Petersham, Massachusetts: St. Bede's Publications, 1986.