Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Who's a Kohen?

Parshat Vayikra

We open our third book of the Torah with a discussion on which group of people get the honor of serving God as the priests, or kohanim.  Of course, everyone already assumes they know the answer before we start.  The Kohanim are the descendents of Aharon (Aaron).  However, as we'll see this week, it's not actually that simple.

A Disagreement Between Sources

In previous weeks (here and here) we looked at the two of the four "sources", J and E, who appear to have been combined into the Torah we know today.  This week we'll look at the other two sources, P and D.  It turns out that J and E don't really make any important distinctions on who gets to be a priest, and since D is confined entirely to the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), it suffices to compare between the first four books (really, the middle three) and Devarim.

When we look at the first four books, the story is consistent. For example, at the beginning of this week's parsha (Lev 1:5)
And he shall kill the bullock before the LORD; and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall present the blood, and dash the blood round about against the altar that is at the door of the tent of meeting.
I won't belabor the point, and I doubt people will disagree with me, when I say that the Torah is really consistent in these books with identifying the priests as the sons of Aharon.

What about in Devarim?  Here we see language that is very different.  For example (Deut 17:9, the first occurance of the word Kohen) 
And thou shall come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days; and thou shalt inquire; and they shall declare unto thee the sentence of judgment.
The phrase, "the priests, the Levites" appears many more times, (Deut 17:18, 18:1, 24:8, 27:9, ) We also, see "the priests, the sons of Levi" twice (Deut. 21:4,  31:9).  There are two other occurrences of the word Kohen in Devarim (Deut. 19:17, 20:2), without any descriptor.  Needless to say, it never says, "The priests, the sons of Aharon," and just as importantly, the rest of the Torah never has either "the priests, the Levites" or "the priests, the sons of Levi."

Traditional explanation says that we should read, "The priests, the Levites" as something like, "the priests, who happen to be Levites," and that the fact this turn of phrase occurs only in Devarim and nowhere else is coincidental.  And, if you want to say, that it's just a turn of phrase that Moshe is using, and his specific to his vernacular, that does not hold up.  For example, Deut: 27:9, is clearly not spoken by Moshe:
And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke unto all Israel, saying: 'Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day thou art become a people unto the LORD thy God.
And even more so, when addressing Korach, the Levite who wanted to be a priests, Moshe makes a clear distinction (Num. 16:8-10).
8 And Moses said unto Korah: 'Hear now, ye sons of Levi: 9 is it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them; 10 and that He hath brought thee near, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee? and will ye seek the priesthood also?
Before, we delve further, I'll note that this is just one of the differences between Devarim and the rest of the Torah.  We'll get to some of the other differences later, and we'll probably devote at least one week to the topic exclusively when we get to Devarim itself.

In the rest of Tanach

The rest of Tanach also has inconsistencies in who serves as kohanimYehushua (Joshua) also refers to "the priests the Levites" (Josh 3:3, 8:33), and furthermore, has the kohanim carrying the ark (Josh 3:6), something that was traditionally the role of the non-kohen Levites, except of course for Devarim which has it also described as a task of the Kohanim (Deut 31:9).

The book of Shoftim also has curious statements about kohanim.  The story of Micha (Micah) in chapters 17 and 18 stands out.  This story may not be familiar to people so I'll describe it.  Micha wants to make a house of God and he does (Judg. 17:5)
And the man Micah had a house of God, and he made an ephod, and teraphim, and consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest.
However, Micha knew that he wasn't a real priest, he needed something better.  This is the neat part of the story, I'll quote in full (Judg 17:8-13)
7 And there was a young man out of Beth-lehem in Judah--in the family of Judah--who was a Levite, and he sojourned there. 8 And the man departed out of the city, out of Beth-lehem in Judah, to sojourn where he could find a place; and he came to the hill-country of Ephraim to the house of Micah, as he journeyed. 9 And Micah said unto him: 'Whence comest thou?' And he said unto him: 'I am a Levite of Beth-lehem in Judah, and I go to sojourn where I may find a place.' 10 And Micah said unto him: 'Dwell with me, and be unto me a father and a priest (kohen), and I will give thee ten pieces of silver by the year, and a suit of apparel, and thy victuals.' So the Levite went in. 11 And the Levite was content to dwell with the man; and the young man was unto him as one of his sons. 12 And Micah consecrated the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah. 13 Then said Micah: 'Now know I that the LORD will do me good, seeing I have a Levite as my priest (kohen).' 
But the story doesn't end there.  A bunch of people from Dan are relocating and they stop by Micha's house and essentially rob it.  They convince the Levite to come with them (Judg 15:20)
15 And they turned aside thither, and came to the house of the young man the Levite, even unto the house of Micah, and asked him of his welfare. 16 And the six hundred men girt with their weapons of war, who were of the children of Dan, stood by the entrance of the gate. 17 And the five men that went to spy out the land went up, and came in thither, and took the graven image, and the ephod, and the teraphim, and the molten image; and the priest stood by the entrance of the gate with the six hundred men girt with weapons of war. 18 And when these went into Micah's house, and fetched the graven image of the ephod, and the teraphim, and the molten image, the priest said unto them: 'What do ye?' 19 And they said unto him: 'Hold thy peace, lay thy hand upon thy mouth, and go with us, and be to us a father and a priest; is it better for thee to be priest unto the house of one man, or to be priest unto a tribe and a family in Israel?' 20 And the priest's heart was glad, and he took the ephod, and the teraphim, and the graven image, and went in the midst of the people. 
Then later, it describes the situation at the temple in Dan. Judg. 18:30:
And the children of Dan set up for themselves the graven image; and Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land.
To make things even more confusing, the Manasseh appears to have a small letter nun.  If you remove that letter, you get that the priest was the grandson of Moshe, who actually did have a child named Gershom.  Is this an indication that there was a group of priests located in Dan who traced their lineage to Moshe?

The same pattern in Devarim holds for the books of Yehushua through Melachim (Kings).  Priests are not mentioned in relation to the children of Aharon.  There are a couple mentions of Aharon in these books, but not with relationship to the kingship.  Pinchas (Phineas) is mentioned in Shoftim, (Judg 20:28) but with regard to leading an army.  Also, Aharon, is mentioned in a speech by Shmuel (Samuel, 1 Sam. 12:6-8) but only with respect to leaving Egypt.  The name Aharon is found nowhere in Melachim. In fact, when priests are appointed, there are no qualifications given as to their ancestry.

What About Divrei Hayamim?

In contrast to the books of Yehushua through Melachim, Divrei Hayamin (Chronicles) explicitly gives the ancestry of David's priests, and echos the first four books of the Torah regarding who can serve.  For example (1 Chr 6:33-34)
33 And their brethren the Levites were appointed for all the service of the tabernacle of the house of God. 34 But Aaron and his sons offered upon the altar of burnt-offering, and upon the altar of incense, for all the work of the most holy place, and to make atonement for Israel, according to all that Moses the servant of God had commanded.
 and (1 Chr 23:13-14)
13 The sons of Amram: Aaron and Moses; and Aaron was separated, that he should be sanctified as most holy, he and his sons for ever, to offer before the LORD, to minister unto Him, and to bless in His name for ever. 14 But as for Moses the man of God, his sons are named among the tribe of Levi.
 and explicitly regarding the priests that David appointed (1 Chr 24:3)
And David with Zadok of the sons of Eleazar, and Ahimelech of the sons of Ithamar, divided them according to their ordering in their service.
It is universally agreed that Divrei Hayamim was written after Melachim by religious and secular scholars alike.  In many places they are exactly the same text.  However, there are some differences.  It turns out, and this is a topic we'll explore fully later, that when they differ, the Divrei Hayamim version aligns with the first four books of the Torah (specifically, the P source, but usually these are topics that J and E don't discuss).  In contrast, Melachim aligns with Deuteronomy.  This case is no exception.  Divrei Hayamim had the same agenda as in the first four books.  Only the children of Aharon can be priests.  They rewrote the stories of Melachim and edited in these details to make sure that this was clear.

Priestly Propaganda

At this point it's pretty easy to construct a hypothesis to the origin of the idea that only Aharon's descendents could be priests.  Originally, the Levites had established themselves as a people with priestly access to the divine.  However, there were various different sects of Levites that were vying for power.  For example, the Levites in Dan that claimed descent (possibly) from Moshe.  At some point, one of the kings, possibly David, possibly someone later, appointed Levites who claimed descent from Aharon to the high priest position.  Those priests then went back and rewrote a new version of history, to indicate that they were always the priests directly chosen by God.  This rewriting probably occurred fairly late, in the Exilic period or just before.

One of the clues to how this occurred might be contained in Yehezkel (Ezekiel).  Yehezkel, is one of the later prophets, writing just prior to and during the exile.  He was a priest himself, and he spends a good chunk of his book describing priestly roles, sacrifices, ritual holiday services and other similar things.  Yehezkel mentions Zadok, the priest appointed by David, and traces the proper priestly lineage to him.  The verses in question, I will quote in full (Ezek 44:10-16):
10 But the Levites, that went far from Me, when Israel went astray, that went astray from Me after their idols, they shall bear their iniquity; 11 and they shall be ministers in My sanctuary, having charge at the gates of the house, and ministering in the house: they shall slay the burnt-offering and the sacrifice for the people, and they shall stand before them to minister unto them. 12 Because they ministered unto them before their idols, and became a stumbling block of iniquity unto the house of Israel; therefore have I lifted up My hand against them, saith the Lord GOD, and they shall bear their iniquity. 13 And they shall not come near unto Me, to minister unto Me in the priest's office, nor to come near to any of My holy things, unto the things that are most holy; but they shall bear their shame, and their abominations which they have committed. 14 And I will make them keepers of the charge of the house, for all the service thereof, and for all that shall be done therein. 15 But the priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok, that kept the charge of My sanctuary when the children of Israel went astray from Me, they shall come near to Me to minister unto Me; and they shall stand before Me to offer unto Me the fat and the blood, saith the Lord GOD; 16 they shall enter into My sanctuary, and they shall come near to My table, to minister unto Me, and they shall keep My charge.
Here, Yehezkel is describing when the duties of the priesthood fell onto a single lineage of Levites.  It was not, as the Torah states, at the time of the golden calf.  Rather it was fairly late into the monarchial period.  The divisions of labors that Yehezkel is describing mimic exactly those in the first four books of the Torah, and as in the changes made in Divrei Hayamim.

The conclusion is clear.  Sometime, probably just before or during the time Yehezkel is writing, the priests of the Zadok lineage claimed official solitary control of the priestly offices.  Then, probably during this time or afterwards, the authors of the relevant sections of the first four books of the Torah, retrojected that claim all the way back to Moshe and Aharon.  To complete the chain, the even later authors of Divrei Hayamim, went and invented a full lineage for Zadok describing him as a descendent of Aharon.  We would never have been able to figure out that this was a later lie, if it wasn't for all the earlier hints scattered throughout Devarim - Melachim that describe an entirely different set of events.


  1. Well done. Many times have I seen a claim for a rival Mushite priesthood descending from Moshe, but this is the first time I've seen something that presented any evidence in the text, even if it's just a drash on a small nun! Also the relative chronology is certainly consistent as the Judges story takes place only a few decades after the Exodus.

  2. PS - it would also be an historical aberration were there NOT some claim to high authority by a faction claiming rights of succession by way of birth, in this case the rights to the priesthood by the descendents of two brothers. Of course, endless drashes point to this as an example of humility (or some other positive trait) among the sons of Moshe who accepted that their cousins were the ones chosen by God as the primary spiritual progenitors of their way of life (bring in Korach as a counter example if so inclined.)

    1. Korach is an interesting story and one that I'm excited to get to. It appears that early versions of that story (like the one in Devarim and I think Tehillim) only mention a rebellion of Datan and Aviram against Moshe. In the Korach story, that's a side note, and the real rebellion is Korach against Aharon.

  3. this post highlights the difficulties in reconstructing a clear and coherent account of what really happened but it is fun to look at the texts and try to imagine.