The priesthood was, in the Old Testament, generally seized in its initial stages by force. It comes as a reward for manslaughter. This is a simple fact that confronts any careful reader of the Old Testament in general and the Torah in particular. This truth produced an entire tradition of zealotry within the Old Testament that continued into the New Testament period. Simply defined, zealotry in this context is the idea that acts of violence, even the killing of other human persons, are not only allowed but required in defense of that which is holy and pure. This idea has been (wrongly) appealed to and applied throughout Christian history to defend everything from the inquisition to the crusades to witch-hunting. How ought this violence in defense of the sacred be understood?
In the earliest phase of Biblical history, the patriarchal period recorded in the book of Genesis and reflected in Job, there was not an established priesthood per se. For the most part, sacrifices were offered by fathers and heads of families. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job, and others offered sacrifices on behalf of themselves and their families without being part of a priestly order or separate priestly tribe or clan. The major exception to this would be the figure of Melchizedek, who appears briefly in the narrative of Abraham’s life (Gen 14:17-24). Melchizedek is a priest-king in typical ancient fashion. As the king of a city, he is seen as the father of all of its people. His priesthood is, therefore, actually an extension of, rather than an exception to, the general rule.
This situation prevailed among Abraham’s descendants until the time of the Exodus. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro is a priest of God Most High and serves his extended family and clan as both leader and priest (Ex 3:1). He continued to fulfill this role even after the Exodus and the birth of Israel (Ex 18:1-12). The development of an institution of priesthood distinct from the role of leader, judge, and later the king was an anomaly in the history of Israel, which distinguished her from most of her neighbors. Certainly, the prohibition of leaders and kings from performing priestly functions was unique. The reunion of these offices in the person of Christ and the formation of a royal priesthood in the New Testament is not itself strange (Heb 7:1-17; 1 Pet 2:9). This restoration is the removal of a preceding anomaly.
The violence surrounding the initiation of the priesthood and priestly orders is a facet of the severing of these two roles. There was not a perceived need for a priestly class leading to the question being asked, “Who is it who will fill this role?” Rather, the responsibilities and privileges of the priesthood are taken away from persons and given over to a separate priesthood as an act of judgment against those from whom they are removed. Typically, in these episodes recorded in Scripture, the priesthood is given to the ones who act in judgment against those who have abused the priestly role. The injustice and wickedness of priests are dealt with, and those who deal with this injustice and restore the proper order receive those responsibilities in their stead.
This judgment begins with Moses himself. When called by Yahweh, the God of Israel, to be the leader and deliverer of Israel from Egypt, Moses responds with a series of excuses grounded not in humility but in general reticence and fear (Ex 4:10-13). In response, a portion of his authority is taken from him and given by God to his brother Aaron (v. 14-17). Moses further complicates the matter by returning to Jethro rather than traveling to Egypt as commanded and by having failed to circumcise himself and his son (v. 24-26). The recalcitrance that this reflected on Moses’ part was so great that Yahweh is said to have been prepared to kill him. His own wife, Zipporah, was required to step in and fulfill his responsibilities to atone for his sin. It is for this ritual failure by Moses that the portion of his authority taken and given to Aaron is the priesthood. Aaron eventually became the first high priest, with his sons serving as priests (Lev 8:1-36).
The tribe of Levi is known to have been the priestly tribe for ancient Israel and Judah. Moses and Aaron were Levites, as were the priesthoods of both the later Jerusalem temple and many of the false and pagan shrines established by disobedient Israel. When landholdings were assigned to the tribes and clans of Israel, the Levites received no land but rather had Yahweh as their inheritance (Josh 18:7). Rather than being responsible for working a parcel of land to provide for themselves and their families, the Levites would receive portions of the offerings brought to the God of Israel at the tabernacle and later temple. This assignment of the priesthood to the Levites did not take place at the time of the division of the land under Joshua. It occurred earlier as an act of judgment.
Aaron received the role of the high priest, which had been taken from Moses, but this did not remove priestly responsibilities from the elders, fathers, and leaders of the various tribes and clans of Israel. They had, after all, not participated in Moses’ disobedience. The elders retained these responsibilities at the time of the Exodus and immediately afterward. While Moses met with Yahweh atop Mt. Sinai, nascent Israel took part in her first great act of rebellion, the worship of the golden calf. This worship was led by Aaron (Ex 32:1-5). This idolatrous worship was not purely his work, however. The plurality of the elders of Israel took part in the idolatrous sacrifices and incorporated sexual immorality (v. 6).
Idolatry and sexual immorality are sins that bring curse and corruption upon the land itself. The God of Israel informs Moses that they must be removed and that He will begin again by bringing forth a people from Moses (v. 7-10). Moses intercedes, and the nation is not destroyed, but it still falls to him, as the leader of the people, to re-establish God’s justice when he descends the mountain. This begins with a confrontation with Aaron (v. 15-24). Even as Moses was taking action with Aaron regarding his sin, the people were continuing in their debauchery (v. 25). This continued, ongoing, unrepentant rebellion jeopardized not only those participating but the entire community which had come into the presence of the holy God. Action had to be taken.
To assist him in putting an end to the rebellion, Moses calls out to ask who is on the side, not of Moses himself, but of Yahweh, the God of Israel. It is the Levites who respond (v. 26). Moses thereby offered peace and his intercessions (v. 30-34) to all of the people. Those who were hardened in their rebellion refused to respond and deliberately took sides against the God who had redeemed them and brought them to that place, had to be removed from the community. Their refusal of repentance and violent resistance was met with force by Moses and the Levites, who were forced to kill a great many of the men who had been given the role of leadership and priesthood over their clans and families. In return, those responsibilities were given by Yahweh to the Levites who had proven loyal and zealous for his justice (v. 29).
Later, a similar act of rebellion unfolded at Peor. On the verge of entering the promised land of Canaan, Israel again fell into idolatry and related sexual immorality at the high place there to Baal (Num 25:1-4). Moses gave an order to his elders and fellow leaders of Israel that this could not be allowed and that those who remained in this rebellion and refused repentance must be cut off from among their tribes and clans (v. 5). Despite this proclamation of the life and death seriousness of this rebellion, a man of Israel not only continued in this rebellion but flaunted it before the very gates of the tabernacle (v. 6). In response to the flagrance of this rebellious act, Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, took up a spear and put the Israelite man and the ritual prostitute of Baal to death (v. 7-8). Yahweh responds to this action on the part of Phinehas by making his family line the high priestly line of Israel in perpetuity (v. 10-13).
This religious fervor to defend and preserve the holiness of God’s presence and to protect the people from the consequence of its violation became known as zeal. The zeal to preserve sacred space, to make atonement for sin and protect the people, to maintain the honor and glory of Israel’s God, is the stuff of priesthood itself. Phinehas, in particular, would be held up as a model. It is this zeal that would later inspire the Maccabees in their revolt against the Seleucid Greek king who had desecrated Yahweh’s temple (1 Macc 2:1-14). By the first century AD, factions and coalitions of zealots planned violent insurrection against the Roman Empire who controlled Judea. These insurrections would culminate in the Jewish revolts that ended with the destruction of the temple in AD 70 and the city of Jerusalem entire in AD 135.
The New Testament does not repudiate this tradition. Christ Himself, in His purification of the temple in Jerusalem, is said to have fulfilled Psalm 69/68:9, “Zeal for Your house has consumed me” (John 2:13-17). Immediately following this episode, Christ redirects the understanding of zeal from a physical space to be protected with violence to His own person, which will suffer violence (v. 18-20). The temple is now His own body (v. 21). Two of Christ’s twelve disciples are identified as members of zealot groups. The obvious disciple is St. Simon the Zealot (Matt 10:4; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). The Judas who betrayed Jesus is identified with the surname Iscariot (Matt 10:4; 26:14; Mark 3:19; 14:10; Luke 6:16; 22:3; John 6:71; 12:4; 13:2, 26). This surname seems to identify him as a member of the Sicarii, a particularly violent zealot group known for assassinating Roman officials. That it is he who ends up collaborating with the Romans to kill the Messiah is deliberate irony in the Gospels.
St. Paul, likewise, who in his zeal was persecuting Christ Himself, does not repudiate zeal, but zeal not according to knowledge (Rom 10:2). For St. Paul, the Holy Spirit now indwells every Christian in the way in which He formerly indwelt the temple, making them sacred and holy (1 Cor 6:19). This holiness and the honor of the Spirit must be defended and protected zealously. St. Paul goes so far as to use metaphors of doing violence to one’s self in defense of this purity (1 Cor 9:27). The restoration of the royal priesthood to all faithful Christians requires zeal and even ruthlessness in pursuing both holiness and purity.