Light from the Sidra

Tetzaveh ('You shall command...')

Torah: Exodus 27:20-30:10. Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34*

Who ever heard of a Jewish priest?

Have you noticed that priests in TV sitcoms tend to have names like Father O’Reilly, Father O’Leary? We don’t see many Father Cohens or Father Shapiros. The funny and surreal nineties sitcom, Father Ted, which is still shown on British TV, follows the misadventures of three Irish priests on the Irish parish of Craggy Island, somewhere off the west coast of Ireland. Think priest; think Irish. Or, perhaps, Italian.

But our reading from Exodus this week features detailed instructions for the ordination, the clothing and ministry of Aaron and his sons for the priesthood in ancient Israel; all of them Jewish! Who ever heard of a Jewish priest?

The whole of Exodus 28 is devoted to describing the garments worn by Aaron the high priest, the most holy man in the world. His ‘sacral vestments,’ or garments of glory, set him apart from every other Israelite. Only Aaron and his successors could wear the gold, the blue, purple and crimson clothes of fine linen. Unlike the Pope, no one could work their way up from the bottom of the priestly ladder to become high priest, at least not according to the regulations of the Torah. That would change centuries later when the post became politicised. When Saul, in the Haftarah, presumed to act as a priest by offering a sacrifice, God rejected him as king.

In his robes that were made of the same material as parts of the tabernacle, the house of God, Aaron was a walking, talking vertical version of the tabernacle. He was the visible representation of the invisible, glorious God of Israel. In the tabernacle and in the high priest, heaven and earth intersected. The high priest’s role was to symbolically carry the people of Israel on his heart continually by wearing twelve precious stones mounted on a breastplate of fine linen fixed in place with chains of gold. Here was a wonderful picture of the God of Israel loving his people perpetually.

On his forehead, a golden plate announced he was Kadosh l’Adonai, ‘Holy to the Lord’. The high priest was the great mediator between Israel and their God. Each day, he stood between God and the people, praying for them and offering sacrifices on their behalf. He alone was allowed to enter the most holy place in the world every Yom Kippur to offers the sacrifices that could cover their sins.

Everything about the kohen gadol, the high priest, was symbolic: his clothes, his duties and his ministry. He was the visible representation of God but there was something lacking, something unsatisfactory, about the high priest. For a start, all his perfections were merely symbolic. Aaron was as morally and spiritually weak as the people he ministered to. The fact that he had to offer sacrifices for the sins of the people daily was an indication that the offerings he presented to God could not truly remove sin; they could only ‘cover’ offences, which is what kippur or kopher means. Also, each high priest died and had to be replaced by another. And eventually the Aaronic priesthood was terminated. It didn’t come to an end because it had achieved perfection; it died out because it was weak and imperfect. Nevertheless, there are religious Jews in Israel who are attempting to resurrect the priesthood, along with the temple and its offerings.

A perfect priest would be one who was a perfectly holy mediator who could offer a single sacrifice that would remove our sins for all time. A perfect priest would never die and he would be able to truly sympathise with us and pray for each of us continually. But what man could possibly be all those things and do all those things? A priest who is both God and man! A priest who could hold two perspectives simultaneously. A priest who could understand God’s holiness and human weakness.

That could never be a reality under the priesthood of Aaron, which is why King David speaks of another priesthood in Psalm 110: ‘YHWH said to Adonai, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool… YHWH has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’!

We were introduced to Melchizedek in Genesis 14.He was ‘king of Salem’ and ‘priest of the Most High God,’ who met Abraham when he was returning from the battle with the four kings who had kidnapped Lot and his family. ‘Melchizedek’ means ‘King of Righteousness’ and ‘Salem’ means ‘Peace,’ so Melchizedek was ‘King of Righteousness’ and ‘King of Peace,’ and Abraham gave him a tenth of the spoils. Melchizedek towers out of the past without any record of family ties and no account of his beginning or end. He is like the Messiah, a huge priestly presence dominating the religious landscape. We realise just how great Melchizedek was when we see that the father of the Jewish nation gave him a tenth of the captured booty. Priests descended from Levi were commanded by law to collect tithes from the people, even though priests and people were all more or less equals. But Melchizedek collected tithes from Abraham and blessed the one to whom God gave great promises. And we know that in acts of blessing, the greater are always blessed by the lesser.

If the priesthood of Levi and Aaron, which provided the framework for the giving of the Torah, could make people perfect, there wouldn’t have been a need for a new priesthood, a greater priesthood like that of Melchizedek. But since the Aaronic priesthood didn’t, as it were, get the job done, God revealed there was going to be a change of priesthood. God called the new priesthood into being with an added promise: ‘You are a priest for ever.’ This makes Jesus the Messiah the guarantee of a far better way between us and God, one that really works! A new covenant.

Under the Torah there were lots of priests because they all died and had to be replaced but Messiah’ priesthood is permanent. He is able from now to eternity to save everyone who goes to God through him. This high priest perfectly fits our needs: Messiah Jesus is completely holy, uncompromised by sin, with authority extending as high as God’s presence in heaven itself. Unlike the other high priests, he doesn’t have to offer sacrifices for his own sins every day before he can atone for our sins. He did it once and for all by offering up himself as the sacrifice. The Torah appointed as high priests fallible men who were never able to get the job done properly but God appointed his Son, who is absolutely and eternally perfect, to do the job. And he did.

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