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The implication of Numbers 4 is that priests began serving in the temple when they were thirty years old.

But what did they do before then?

Were they expected to train to be priests? If so, were they studying or performing minor roles or some form of apprenticeship?

Or were they expected to go into secular work to broaden their horizons before taking on a priestly role?


My reason for asking is based on Ezekiel, who was probably 25 (Ezekiel 1:1-2) when taken into exile in Babylon. Had he stayed in Jerusalem, he would have been a priest (Ezekiel 1:3) when he reached 30 (Ezekiel 1:1). However God called him to be a prophet (Ezekiel 2:3-5). Yet he was apparently able to support himself and his wife (Ezekiel 24:18) in Babylon. I'm wondering if he therefore learnt a secular occupation.

In addition, Nebuchadnezzar took the skilled people into exile (2 Kings 24:13-14) which further implies that Ezekiel would have had a skill useful in Babylon. Furthermore, others who were priests when the Babylonians returned were not so lucky (2 Kings 25:18-21), still further implying that simply being a priest was not a useful skill for the Babylonians.

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Not sure whether this is a 100% fit here - advice welcome. –  Wikis Mar 25 '14 at 9:08
They were altar boys until then. :) –  david brainerd Mar 26 '14 at 4:04
Might be interesting to note that the age limit changes in the Hebrew Bible. Numbers 8:24–26 puts the lower bound at 25 and King David further reduced it in 1 Chronicles 23:27. –  Frank Luke Mar 26 '14 at 15:40
@FrankLuke: this gets more confusing by the hour... :S –  Wikis Mar 26 '14 at 16:13
@Wikis I have no idea what everyone did before he was 30 years old. However, I believe that in Ezekiel 1:1-3 he was in his 30th year, but not yet 30 years old. "In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day..." (NIVUK) There I believe he's talking about his 30th year of life. –  John Martin May 17 '14 at 18:13

2 Answers 2

As was described in this Mi Yodeya article, priests only actually worked in the temple for 2 days a year. This is a result of the priests being divided up into 24 groups (mishmarim) for Temple service, with each group being further subdivided by family. So even priests over the age of thirty would have had a lot of time on their hands to do things other than the Temple service.

As Israel was a predominantly agrarian society before the Roman occupation, the default trade for an Israelite was probably something related to farming. This would have been no different for priests, who were also allowed to own land within Levitical cities (q.v. Leviticus 25:32-34 and Leviticus 27:21). So a priest who lived a life as a common man (am ha'aretz) would likely have been involved with farming. However, according to the Chofetz Chaim, a rabbinic commentator, one day of service in the Temple required 6 months of preparation. Along this line of thinking, the priests were expected to essentially be Torah scholars while not working in the Temple. In practice, we might be justified to imagine priests as being Torah scholars who also did some part-time farming.

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But the priests also worked during the feasts. So it wasn't only 2 days/ year. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 5 at 0:03

Jesus, the Great High Priest, did not begin His earthy ministry until He was 30 years old. So using Him as an example, it is assumed that he learned His step-father's trade, that of a carpenter until He was 30.

Perhaps the young men, priests-to-be, learned another skill or useful trade, generally making themselves useful to their society until they reached the age where they could serve in the priestly capacity. The calling and service of a priest was a far higher calling than any other occupations, however other occupations/skills were important in daily activities.

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