If you haven’t read the previous installments yet, this is the third part of a series (part 1, part 2) that I started last year covering the much misunderstood concept of the “nation of priests” written of in Exodus 19 and the book of Revelation in 1:6 and 5:10 (The KJV “Kings and priests,” I have come to find out, is not necessarily the best translation – Kingdom of priests is a viable alternative and would actually hearken back to Exodus, however).
So, in the past I have covered this conceptual idiom in terms of the unique Ancient Near Eastern relationship between the major gods and the king and priests (to the virtual exclusion of the laymen – aka, normal people), which in Israel was given to all and not just the elite. I also explored this within the context of the individual mandate to do justice and righteousness – something that would have been implicitly understood by the congregation at Sinai. There was something, however, that I lacked understanding of last year – and that is the ANE and, specifically, Biblical concept of Holiness. Allow me to explain.
No god can be approached on human terms – not pagan gods and not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is Holy and therefore must be treated with our absolute respect, and with the honor He deserves. As we could not go over to England and barge into Buckingham palace and demand an audience with the Queen, unbathed and dressed however we feel like it, in the same way, God presented Himself as the King of kings and the Lord of lords – therefore deserving of far more respect than the gods and kings of the surrounding nations. That meant that in order to collectively have an ongoing relationship with Him, the Israelites themselves needed to have a special status – they needed to be a Holy nation. They needed to have the type of set-apart status that was reserved in the ANE for kings and priests.
The kings of the nations claimed to be the sons of the gods, suckled at the breasts of goddesses, and were destined to become one with those gods in the afterlife (we see this especially in Egypt). Israel was called the children of God for precisely this reason, BUT the pagan elements of being suckled at the breast of a goddess and attaining oneness with God in the afterlife was stripped from their understanding. They were set apart like priests, but not according to the Egyptian culture that had become their context for hundreds of years.
Joshua Berman’s incredible chapter on Kedushah, or Holiness, in his book “The Temple: Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now” has absolutely transformed how I see these “nation of priests” verses – especially in light of my ANE studies into the religion of the nations. I absolutely recommend this book – even if you do nothing more than read that first chapter it is worth every cent. It was recommended to me by my Temple teacher Joseph Good as part of the extensive Temple study course that he offers.
I grew up thinking that Holy meant “super good” and in recent years I simply thought it meant “set apart” but I have come to learn that my understanding was woefully lacking in what is probably the most important term in all of scripture to understand. First, the basics –
Only God can decide what is and is not Holy to Himself. Despite our declaring this or that to be holy (Batman was really good at doing that), we don’t have the right to make that call ourselves. Our sanctuaries might be set apart for our use, but they are not Holy ground. In fact, in Scripture God declares very few things to be Holy. The first is the Sabbath – nothing else in creation was declared holy (we’ll see why in a bit), the second is the ground around the burning bush. You will notice that no people have been mentioned yet… and no single person ever will be, not by God (and no Nazirite’s don’t count as personally Holy, the station, vow, condition of being a Nazirite is Holy). What is designated as Holy is the Nation of Israel as a whole, collectively, not individually. The Aaronic priesthood is also Holy unto God, but the people themselves are not intrinsically holier than other Israelites – their office and function is.
Holiness is attributed to things, to specific areas, to periods of time, to functions, and to the People of Israel as a whole.
Everything Holy has a certain thing in common – restrictions. Things and people that are Holy can not be used for, or participate in things, that things and people which are not Holy can participate in. The garments of the priests, for example, were never to be worn outside and could not be re-used as rags afterwards – instead they were turned into Menorah wicks when they became unusable. They were too Holy to be used outside of the Temple/Tabernacle or for any purpose that was not Holy. The Sabbath, and later the Feasts – especially Yom Kippur – were Holy convocations and hence there were restrictions (which is why the Sabbath alone out of Creation was called Holy). Certain activities are forbidden when you are operating on Holy time. The offerings to God at the Tabernacle/Temple had restrictions on where they could be offered, how they could be offered, who was able to offer them, who could eat of them and where they could eat of them. Entrance to the Temple grounds themselves were subject to restrictions and even the High Priest could not go anywhere He wanted whenever He wanted, nor could the King (Uzziah found out the hard way). Moses had to take off his shoes when he walked on Holy ground and the Priests likewise ministered in the Temple in bare feet. The Priests were restricted in whom they could marry. Israelites cannot eat of animals that God created to be garbage disposals. Holiness is always accompanied by restrictions.
All of these restrictions were due to the Holy nature of specific things, times, offices, and general life as an Israelite. (The Pharisees and their whole beef with Yeshua (Jesus) in Mark 7 came down to the fact that they were trying to bring those Holiness standards of the Temple into people’s houses, as though to declare them Holy ground and Yeshua had a problem with that. Today we see similar circumstances when people try to strictly enforce some (but not all) impurity laws that were meant for the Temple – case in point, enforcing menstrual impurity requirements within congregations, but not those related to seminal emissions, normal sexual relations or corpse impurity, which is the most serious impurity and can be contracted by even being in the same room with a dead body). Holiness belongs only to the things, times, functions and nation that God ascribes – not the things that we ascribe them to.
Holiness was ascribed to the entire Nation, and thus they were (and we are) expected to behave accordingly – our behavior is restricted because we serve a God who calls the shots on how and when He will be worshiped, as well as how He will be represented before the unbelieving world. Holiness is about God’s value system, not about random, outdated laws that are meaningless.
Israel was called Holy and thus compared to a nation of priests (set apart ones), but their Holiness came part and parcel with living according to restrictions. There is no Holiness where there are no restrictions – it is an impossible situation.
In chapter 19, after being told that they will be a nation of priests, we still see a priestly division among the people. When given the commandments about keeping clear of Mt Sinai – it was given to the people and to the priests. They were not all called priests and never at any point in the Scriptures is there a lack of priestly designation. Certain people were allowed to ascend to certain levels of physical closeness to God.
There are those who say that the Tabernacle and the Priesthood were only given because of the golden calf incident in Genesis 31, but the furnishings were commanded in Exodus 25, the Tabernacle itself in Exodus 26, the provisions for the Courtyard in Ex 27, the Priesthood for Aaron and his sons in Ex 28, the consecration of the Priests in Ex 29, and other functions in Ex 30. It was only after all of this happened that the Israelites sinned. The Tabernacle and the Priesthood were all part of the plan.
Why? Because a Holy God who has deigned to live among His people deserves to be treated like the King of kings, with a splendid dwelling place, with the best of everything, and served by those He purposefully set apart for the task – those who lived by more stringent guidelines because of the gravity of their position and their nearness to the Holiness of God. Frankly, the job of the Priests was to keep the pollution of day to day human living as far away from God’s Holiness as possible (not all pollution was sin, mind you). They did this through teaching people what is and is not clean and what is and is not holy (there is a big difference – everything holy is clean but not all clean things are holy). The maintenance of the Holiness of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) was about God’s honor, and a big part of the job of the Priests boiled down to decontamination – mediation, cleansing through lifeblood, and through instruction in holiness and cleanliness. Their job was Holy, they ministered in a Holy place, with Holy things and even they had to seriously ramp up their own personal Holiness level during Holy times.
The rest of Israel didn’t have those responsibilities, or those restrictions – they were a “nation of priests” in that they were Holy, but they cannot be confused with actual Priests because they never served that function.