The Problem of the Apparent Nonfulfillment of the Levitical Covenant
It is important to recall how the Levitical covenant lasts until the destruction of the Second Temple, although the Zadokite priesthood may not have endured nearly as long. The Zadokites apparently managed to retain the high priesthood until the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes. What became of the Zadokite priesthood thereafter remains a matter of debate.136 This raises the very difficult question of the apparent nonfulfillment of the Levitical grant-type covenant of perpetual priesthood, as well as Ezekiel’s prophetic oracle regarding the Zadokites. A comprehensive treatment of such questions is well beyond the scope of this study.137 Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that there are canonical considerations that argue both for and against the permanence of the Levitical covenant. In other words, there is a tension concerning the status of the Levitical covenant/priesthood in the Bible itself.
To begin with the considerations against its permanence, these may be enumerated as follows. First, the Levitical priesthood arose as a result of Israel’s sin (Exod 32:25–28). The second consideration is closely related: the original intent of God was a royal priestly primogeniture for all Israel (Exod 4:22; 19:6).
To recapitulate what we have seen above, a natural royal priesthood of the firstborn son seems implicit in the biblical narrative from Adam through the end of the patriarchal period, that is, throughout the Genesis narrative. In Exodus, this royal priestly primogeniture was offered to Israel in both a collective and individual sense: Israel was to be God’s firstborn son with a priestly role toward the nations (Exod 4:22; 19:6) and within Israel the firstborn sons (apparently) were to serve as ministerial priests (Exod 19:22, 24:5).138 This priestly firstborn role was forfeited by Israel to the Levites after the golden calf incident (Exod 32:25–28; Num 3:40–51). Thus the Levites were appointed to assume the covenant of priestly primogeniture in Israel, but they, in turn, forfeited the fullness of their covenant, first to Phinehas and his descendants (Num 25:12–13), and then further to the Zadokites (Ezek 44:9–15).
This in itself suggests that the Levitical covenant economy was not God’s original intent for Israel, but a remedial response to their hardheartedness. It may be viewed primarily as a corrective arrangement that naturally retains something of a provisional character. Israel stood in need of some temporary Levitical remediation, during which time the Levites would instruct and guide Israel in the practice of holiness, while retaining a subordinate share and a mediatory role in the original covenant vocation that God issued to his “firstborn son” to serve as “a kingdom of priests” (Exod 4:22; 19:6). In fact, future generations of Israel’s twelve (lay) tribes are nowhere forbidden from aspiring to merit the royal priestly call their fathers forfeited at Sinai and in the wilderness. This may have been the overarching purpose behind God’s dual covenant plan with Israel.
To use an architectural metaphor, the whole Levitical economy was a scaffolding erected around the House of Israel in order to repair it. The divine architect was free to use the Levitical priesthood for as long as it took to restore the House of Israel fully to the covenant. Thus, in the eschatological age when Israel’s idolatry (e.g., the sin of the calf) would be definitively overcome and the hard-hearted sinfulness of the people completely removed (Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 36:25–27), the Levitical economy would no longer be necessary, precisely because it had served its purpose. The scaffolding could be removed since the house had been repaired: the people would be restored to their original royal priestly primogeniture promised them before they sinned with the calf (Exod 4:22; 19:6).139 The Levitical covenant may be viewed primarily as a corrective arrangement, then, in which case it naturally retains something of a provisional character.
Third, the Levitical grant-type covenant is anomalous in that it is nowhere founded on an oath. We have observed that in general, an oath by the suzerain is a formal necessity for the establishment of a covenant of grant. Nonetheless, while having all the other features of a grant-type covenant, no divine oath for the Levitical covenant can be found in the Law, the Prophets, or the Psalms. This fact may be another indication of its apparent provisional character described above; in any event, we will see in Chapter 10 that the author of Hebrews sees in it evidence for the transience of the Levitical covenant.
Fourth, certain prophetic texts more or less explicitly suggest an eschatological change of the Levitical covenant economy. We leave out of consideration for the moment certain texts that imply the inadequacy of the Levitical priesthood’s Temple (e.g., Isa 66:1–2), sacrifices (e.g., Isa 1:11; 66:3–4; Ps 50:7–15; 51:16–17), and covenant (Jer 31:31–34; Mal 2:1–9), since the interpretation of these texts is complex. A more obvious challenge to the perdurance of the Levitical priesthood is found in certain other texts of Isaiah which suggest an eschatological opening up of the priesthood to all of the Lord’s people and even foreigners:
For I know their works and their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues, and they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations … and they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord. (Isa 66:18–21 RSV)
The antecedent of “them” in v. 21 is ambiguous: it could refer to “your brethren” (presumably Israelites) from v. 20 or it could be the same “them” as in v. 19, namely, “all nations and tongues.” In either case, it suggests an eschatological age in which “priests and Levites” will no longer be selected only from the descendants of Levi but either from all Israelites or from all nations.
A general priesthood of all Israelites seems suggested by Isaiah 61:5–6:
Aliens shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers; but you shall be called the priests of the Lord, men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their riches, you shall glory.
On the other hand, a priestly status even for foreigners seems suggested by Isaiah 56:6–7, which speaks of non-Israelites being able “to minister” (see Jer 33:21) to the Lord, “to be his servants” (see Num 4:28; 8:11, 15, 19, etc.), and (apparently) to offer acceptable sacrifices:
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isa 56:6–7 RSV)
Thus, we have four canonical considerations that would argue for the provisional nature of the Levitical covenant and its eventual alteration or cessation in the future age. On the other hand, certain biblical texts affirm the unbreakable perpetuity of the Levitical covenant of the priesthood. Besides Exodus 40:15 and Numbers 25:13, the most compelling prophetic texts in this regard are found (surprisingly) not in Ezekiel but Jeremiah:
For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn cereal offerings, and to make sacrifices for ever.…” Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers. As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me. (Jer 33:17–18, 20–22 RSV)
Here, in no uncertain terms, the Levitical covenant is made as permanent as the covenant with David and the covenant with all creation (cf. Sir 45:15, 24–25).
The tensions between this text and the considerations we have raised above are palpable. Is it possible that there is a biblical-theological solution to this tension which recognizes the Levitical covenant as, in some sense, both perpetual and provisional?
The status of the priesthood between the old and new covenants is addressed in the New Testament most directly by the Epistle to the Hebrews and First Epistle of Peter. Between these two epistles it is possible to construct a new covenant theology of priesthood in which the Levitical covenant is in one sense replaced, and in another sense, maintained and fulfilled.
Hebrews stresses the discontinuity between the priesthood of Christ and the Levitical priesthood. As we will see at greater length in Chapter 10, the author of Hebrews points out not only the lack of the requisite divine oath (Heb 7:20–21) but many other indications of the impermanence of the Levitical covenant economy as well. According to Hebrews, with the coming of Christ, the natural, royal priesthood of the firstborn son—lost to Israel since the golden calf—is restored (cf. Heb 1:2, 6; 7:1–28; etc). Since there is now adequate atonement, healing, and forgiveness for Israel’s sin (and that of all humanity), the Levitical economy that arose as a result of that sin is no longer necessary (Heb 10:11–18). To return to the architectural metaphor, the scaffolding of the Levitical covenant may be removed, because the purpose for which it had been constructed—the restoration of Israel’s royal priestly primogeniture—had been accomplished in Christ.
But is there any participation of the Lord’s people in this royal priesthood of Christ? The author of Hebrews suggests there is. In Hebrews 1:6, the author applies to Christ the theologically charged term ho prōtotokos, the firstborn, a status that entitles him to royal and priestly privileges (cf. Heb 7:15–17). The term is used only once more near the end of the Epistle, this time in the plural, when the author refers to his readers as the ekklēsia prōtotokōn, “the assembly [or church] of the first-born” (Heb 12:23 RSV). The faithful participate in Christ’s status as firstborn. It follows that the privileges of the firstborn, namely kingship and priesthood, accrue also in some sense to the individual believer.
This is made more explicit in 1 Peter 2:5, where the author speaks of his readers being “built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Those “who believe” (v. 7) become “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (v. 9). This brief verse clearly echoes Exod 19:5–6 as the author applies the concepts of sĕgullâ (“special possession”), mamleket kōhănîm (“royal priesthood”),140 and gôy qādôš (“holy nation”) to the Christian community. The theological message is clear: for those who believe in Christ, the corporate royal priestly primogeniture promised to Israel prior to the calf incident (Exod 19:5–6) is restored. Everyone “born anew” through Jesus Christ (see 1 Pet 1:3) partakes of this priesthood, including those who were priests and Levites under the old economy. The numbers of old covenant priests who came to faith in Christ were not negligible, according to Acts 6:7. These descendants of Levi who entered into the new covenant did not cease to be priests but became priests of a different sort. In Christ, the royal priestly firstborn, they became royal priestly firstborns (Heb 12:22). Thus, the promise of the grant-type covenant to Levi is never broken. The promise of the Levitical covenant was not that every single descendant of Levi (or Phinehas or Zadok) would serve as a priest, nor that his descendants and only his descendants would be legitimate priests, but simply that he would never lack descendants who would be priests before the Lord (cf. Jer 33:18; Sir 45:7, 15, 24; Exod 40:15, Num 25:13). In the new covenant, all God’s people participate in Christ’s priesthood—thus, nothing is taken away from the Levites who enter the new covenant. However, the rest of God’s people gain what previously only the Levites enjoyed. In this way, the covenant with the Levites is not broken, even though the bicovenantal economy under which the Levitical priesthood operated is replaced. The canonical tension between the permanence and transience of the Levitical covenant is resolved.
Finally, although no definitive treatment of the subject is possible here, we may note that Luke, in his account of the presentation (2:22–38), portrays Jesus as a holy firstborn Israelite with a natural priestly status.141 Most commentators note that this Lukan narrative is quite anamolous on careful reading. Luke describes Jesus as being dedicated or presented in the Temple in fulfillment of the Law. However, the Law did not require the presentation of each firstborn. Exodus 13:13 required all firstborn males to be redeemed, like an unclean donkey. Yet Luke’s quotation concerning the firstborn (2:23) is based not on Exodus 13:13 but on Exodus 13:1–2, which speaks not of the redemption of the firstborn but of their consecration to the Lord. Furthermore, Luke records no redemption ritual being performed for Jesus.142 C. H. Talbert describes the situation succinctly:
The prescription of Exod 13:2 concerning the first-born son was literally fulfilled in the case of Jesus, the firstborn (Luke 2:7), who was not ransomed (Exod 13:13; Num 3:47; 18:16). Contrary to normal custom, Jesus was dedicated to God and remained his property.… The closest parallel to this emphasis is found in 1 Samuel 1–2, where Hannah gives Samuel, at his birth, to the Lord for as long as the child lives.… If Jesus, in a similar manner, was dedicated to God and not redeemed, he belonged to God permanently. This would explain the reason Jesus would not understand why his parents did not know where to find him in Jerusalem (2:48–49): since he was God’s he could be expected to be in his Father’s house, as in the case of Samuel. At the plot level of the narrative, Jesus had made a personal identification with the decisions his parents had made about him at his birth.143
Talbert’s findings agree with those of B. Reicke: “Thus Lk 2:22 uses παραστῆσαι τῷ κυρίῳ [parastēsai tō kuriō, to present to the Lord] in connection with the presentation of Jesus in the temple, and we best understand this in terms of the presentation of a sacral minister to his master. The author would seem to mean that like Samuel or a Nazirite Jesus is basically set in and dedicated to the service of God. In this Messianic sense the law of the consecration of the firstborn (Ex 13:2, 12–15) is here fulfilled, v. 23. The narrator is not implying, then, that this kind of presentation is normal for all Israelites.”144 Thus, Luke presents Jesus as a righteous firstborn who—unlike other Israelite males since the calf incident—is not redeemed from service to the Lord (Exod 13:13) since he is not unclean, but consecrated as a firstborn (Exod 13:1–2). As H. D. Park observes: “On the basis of the fact that Jesus is dedicated to the Lord not as a Levite or a priest but as a firstborn son in Lk 2:22–23, it seems justifiable to conclude that Jesus is consecrated to the Lord in the sense of a firstborn male and in the sense of a voluntary gift to the sanctuary.”145
136 Some scholars believe that the origin of the (Essene?) community at Qumran may stem from the Zadokites losing the high priestly office. See F. M. Cross, The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961) 127–69; idem, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 334–42. But to the contrary, see A. Schofield and J. C. Vanderkam, “Were the Hasmoneans Zadokites?” JBL 124 (2005) 73–87; and more generally, J. C. Vanderkam, From Joshua to Caiaphas: High Priests after the Exile (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004).
137 The apparent cessation of the Davidic and Levitical covenants gave rise to messianic hopes, but the subject of “messianism” in later Judaism is fraught with complexity. Variations of Davidic and Levitical forms of “priestly messianism” emerged, like those found in the Qumran scrolls. See J. Marcus, “The Jewish War and the Sitz im Leben of Mark,” JBL 111 (1994) 441–62, who notes: “Even at Qumran, where two Messiahs are expected, a Davidic one (‘the Messiah of Israel’) and a priestly one (‘the Messiah of Aaron’), the term ‘the Messiah,’ used absolutely, refers to the Davidic figure” (457 n. 76). On the larger subject, see D. L. Olayiwola, “Messianic Metaphor in Levitical Covenant,” Bible Bhashyam 17 (1991) 221–32; Zerafa, “Priestly Messianism in the Old Testament,” 318–41; W. M. Schniedewind, “King and Priest in the Book of Chronicles and the Duality of the Qumran Messiah,” JJS 45 (1994) 71–78; G. J. Brooke, “The Messiah of Aaron in the Damascus Document,” RQ 15 (1991) 215–30.
138 See N. H. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991) 107, who comments on the identity of “the priests” in Exod 19:22: “According to Exodus 28 and 29, the priesthood was not established in Israel until after the Sinaitic revelation, which would make the present reference to priests, like that in verse 24, an anachronism. Many modern scholars regard these verses as reflecting a different strand of tradition about the origins of the priestly institution. Jewish commentators understood ‘priests’ here as referring to first-born males, in that the latter functioned as priests until they were replaced by the Aaronids, as recounted in Numbers 3:11–13 and 8:16–18.” See also the comments of Wenham (Numbers, 97–98), on the dedication of the Levites at Sinai on the occasion of the “second passover” in Numbers 8–9: “Thus the dedication of the Levites to take the place of the first-born is very appropriate here [Num 8], for the next chapter describes the second passover.” Wenham also states: “The Levites are being substituted for the first-born Israelites, who as a result of the passover were given to the Lord” (98).
139 Briggs (Messianic Prophecy, 103) comments: “This is the way in which the seed of Abraham is to be a blessing to the world.… Thus Israel was called to a universal priesthood. This priesthood was prior to the establishment of any priestly office in Israel.… This universality in the calling of Israel as a nation is at the basis of all the Mosaic institutions, and was not abrogated by any subsequent legislation. The selection of an order of priesthood in Israel, at a subsequent time, did not do away with the universal priesthood of the nation. The establishment of a royal dynasty did not supersede the royalty of the nation. The promise maintained its validity in all the subsequent history of Israel.… In the priesthood of the nation there is the generic priesthood which advances through the Levitical, Aaronic, and Zadokite lines, until it culminates in the Messianic priest.”
140 On the translation, “royal priesthood,” rather than “kingdom of priests,” see John A. Davies, A Royal Priesthood: Literary and Intertextual Perspectives on an Image of Israel in Exodus 19:6 (JSOTSup 395; London: T. & T. Clark, 2004).
141 Note Luke’s description of Jesus as the firstborn of Mary in Luke 2:7, and commentary by J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke 1–9 (AYB 28; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980; reprint, New Haven: Yale University Press) 407.
142 R. Brown comments: “It has been argued that the reason why Luke does not mention the redemption of the child Jesus through the payment of the five shekels is that he wants the reader to think that Jesus stayed in the service of the Lord” as a priest (The Birth of the Messiah [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979] 449). See discussion in P. Gadenz, “The Priest as Spiritual Father,” in Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God (ed. S. Hahn and L. Suprenant; Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 1998), 228–29.
143 C. H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 1989) 36. See also B. Reicke, “Jesus, Simeon, and Ana (Luke 2:21–40),” in Saved by Hope: Essays in Honor of Richard C. Oudersluys (ed. J. I. Cook; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 100: “In the present case, the prescription concerning the firstborn in Exod 13:2 was fulfilled literally, so that Jesus was really given to the Lord and not ransomed like other males in accordance with the instruction about substitute offerings added in Exod 13:13.… Against normal custom the child Jesus was thus dedicated to God, and remained his property. This exceptional obedience to God’s will implied fulfilling the law on its messianic level, that is, the law understood as evidence of the Lord’s dispensations for the salvation of his people.” Jesus is much like Samuel, Hannah’s firstborn son, who was dedicated to the Lord’s service (1 Sam 1:28), served as priest (1 Sam 2:11, 18), and replaced Eli the high priest as judge of God’s people (cf. 1 Sam 2:22–33, 4:18, 6:15). This fits into a larger Samuel-Christ typology-evident in the infancy narratives: one has only to compare the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) with Hannah’s song (1 Sam 2:1–10) or the accounts of the growth of Samuel and Jesus in stature and favor (1 Sam 2:26; 3:19–4:1; Luke 2:40, 52). The possibility that Luke, in his description of the relationship of John to Jesus, is showing the provisional Levitical priesthood giving way to its fulfillment in a righteous firstborn Israelite who will be raised up as a faithful priest (1 Sam 2:35) and so restore the true priesthood of Israel, poses an intriguing avenue for further research.
144 B. Reicke, “παρίστημι, παριστάνω” TDNT 5:837–41, here 840–41. See also the following note.
145 H. D. Park, Finding Herem? A Study of Luke–Acts in the Light of Herem (LNTS 357; New York: T. & T. Clark, 2007), 160.
 Hahn, S. W. (2009). Kinship by covenant: a canonical approach to the fulfillment of God’s saving promises (pp. 166–172). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.