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The events of Exodus 19 onward occurred during the first Pentecost. These events took place about 50 days after the first Passover in Egypt. There were no ordained priests in Israel yet. The only offices known at that time were the offices of the elders and the Judges. But yet the Lord gives instructions about priests even when no mention of them had been made throughout the book or prior to this time.

"Also let the priests who come near the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them." But Moses said to the LORD, "The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai; for You warned us, saying, 'Set bounds around the mountain and consecrate it.' "
Then the LORD said to him, "Away! Get down and then come up, you and Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest He break out against them."

Exodus 19:22-24 (NKJV)

A priesthood was yet to be created in Israel for the following reasons:

  • The covenant of Sinai was not yet established. It was only established after the LORD had finished speaking to the people. (Exodus 24:8).

  • Aaron was not yet High priest and his sons were not yet priests; Moses was yet to receive the law and the ordinances concerning the priesthood.

  • The Levites were only ordained after Moses had come down from the mountain some forty days after he went up (Exodus 32).

So in light of the points above, who were the priests that YHVH was referring to in these verses?

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Some of the Rabbis are talking about a first generation of priests that was replaced by Aaron and his descendants. More specifically in Midrash Rabbah - Bamidbar 4:8 and in Midrash Rabbah 5:7 we find that starting with Jacob who purchased the birthright in order THAT HE MIGHT SERVE GOD, these "priests" were the first born males from Exodus 13:1-2, replaced later on with the Levites (Numbers 3:12-13). Same commentaries are saying that originally the firstborn were "priests", but because they committed the sin of the Golden Calf, the Levites and Aaron&co were privileged to enter in their stead. Exodus 19:22-24 is just before the Golden Calf episode, so perhaps it does make sense.

Of course, there is also an explanation according to which Exodus 19:22-24 is either an anachronism or is a fragment from a different strand of priestly tradition.

Please find below a fragment from the interesting Midrash, according to which „firstborn” is rather a title or even something like a sacramental function:

Noah arose and offered a sacrifice, as it says: And he took of every clean beast... and offered burnt-offerings on the altar (Genesis 8:20). Noah died and transmitted them to Shem. But was Shem a firstborn? Japheth, surely, was the firstborn, as it says: Shem... the brother of Japheth the elder (Genesis 10:21)! Why then did he hand them on to Shem? Because Noah foresaw that the line of the patriarchs would issue from him. There is proof that Shem offered sacrifices, since it says: And Melchizedek, king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High (Genesis 14:18). Now was it to him that the priesthood was given? The priesthood, surely, was not given to any man until Aaron arose. What then is the meaning of the statement here, "and he was priest"? Because he offered sacrifices like priests. Shem died and handed it on to Abraham. But was Abraham a firstborn? The fact is that because he was a righteous man the birthright was transferred to him, and he offered sacrifices, as it says: And offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son (Genesis 22:13). Abraham died and handed it on to Isaac. Isaac arose and handed it on to Jacob. But was Jacob a firstborn? No; but you find that Jacob prudently took it [the birthright] from Esau. He said to him: "Sell me first your birthright" (Genesis 25:31). Do you suppose perhaps that it was for no good reason that Jacob asked Esau to sell him the birthright? No! Jacob wished to offer sacrifices and could not, because he was not the firstborn.

Midrash Rabbah - Bamidbar/Numbers 4:8

And there is also this story of Jethro, Moses' father-in-law. Jethro is introduced as "the priest of Midian" (Exodus 18:1). Not Jewish, don't know if firstborn of any sort. Later on, after hearing Moses' story, Jethro declares: “Praise be to the Lord ... Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods" (18:10-11) and brings "a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God. And Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God." (18:10-12) Perhaps is this a ritual of "ordination"?

  • Thanks constantin. Your point about the first born males being priests holds a lot of weight especially in the light of Exodus 13 where the firstborns are all dedicated to the Lord. This is a very strong answer. +1. But I also wonder about whether the men who killed the Passover were the actual priests being referenced here. What are your thoughts on that. The Passover was and still is the most important sacrifice in Jewish history. – user20490 Dec 22 '17 at 19:40
  • Zohar, Exodus, Section 2, Page 45b: „the firstborn killed whomsoever they could lay hands on” – but are those the actual priests from Exodus 19:22sq.? Difficult to express an opinion. Well, maybe, if we read Exodus 13:2 sq. as a parallel to Exodus 11-12. I mean as describing events that are happening synchronously. In fact, in this respect Passover can be read as a sort of antithesis: the first born of Egypt are killed vs. the firstborn of the Jewish people are receiving a mission to serve the Lord. – Constantin Jinga Dec 22 '17 at 21:26
  • it indeed was like a ritual of ordination because they ate the meal in the presence of the LORD. That's what Aaron and his sons were later asked to do. – user20490 Dec 22 '17 at 22:51
  • @user20490 Thank you very much indeed for your question, I really do. It made me discover Jethro and things about OT priesthood in a new light. In Exodus 18 in fact there are important things to consider, in addition to eating in the presence of the Lord. There is an outline: story as told by Moses + followed by something like a confession of faith + doxology and only then + eating in the presence of the Lord. If you read this in parallel with something like Acts 8:29-39, you almost can x-ray a sketch or a layout of a gospel into it. Am I perhaps going to far? – Constantin Jinga Dec 23 '17 at 8:18
  • Nope. According to Paul, the mysteries that are embedded in the scriptures are unsearchable. So you can never go too far. Always follow all connections you make to their logical conclusions. I discovered that Ishmael and Hagar story was indeed a parallel with the Sinai/congregation story by going "too far" initially. The scriptures are all related to each other through christ. So every scripture exists within every other scripture. – user20490 Dec 23 '17 at 9:53
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There were priests prior to the giving of the Law, with Melchizadek being a prime example (Gen. 14:17-20). There were also those who performed the burnt offering sacrifice prior to the Law of Moses as well, Adam and Noah are two examples. Prior to the Law there would have to have been at least some priests within the nation of Israel. Depending upon the date for the events in Job, he would have also been an example of a person who offered sacrifices.

What becomes firmly established in the future life of Israel is the fact that the sons of Aaron and specifically the Levites were to be the permanent priests in the life of Israel. A much more difficult question that goes unanswered in Scripture is what happened to those priests were not a Levite after the giving of the Law. That too is not of that much concern because those people who were priests prior to the Law all died in the wilderness as a result of the sin at Kadesh Barnea.

Assuming the description of the temple and its sacrifices is literal in Ezek. 40-48, then the priesthood with its sacrifices will be narrowed even further to only the sons of Zadok, who was himself a Levite (Ezek. 40:46). This will occur in the millennial kingdom promised by the prophets.

46 And the chamber whose prospect is toward the north is for the priests, the keepers of the charge of the altar: these are the sons of Zadok among the sons of Levi, which come near to the LORD to minister unto him. Ezek. 40:46 KJV

  • Thanks for a good answer +1. But I tagged it under "referent-identification". So who were these individuals that the Lord was referring to. Were they the elders of Israel, the heads of the fathers houses, the Judges he had appointed in chapter 18, e.t.c. If you can give me something definite about their identity, then that will fully answer the question. – user20490 Dec 22 '17 at 16:37
  • I think it would be very difficult to determine who they were exactly. What complicates this is it is not just people who performed sacrifices. The burnt offering was a sacrifice open to more than just priests as long as it was not done in the tabernacle or the temple. Melchizadek is the only priest who is identified by name and he was a king. In Job 1:5, Job offered burnt offerings for each of his children but the text does not say that he was a priest. – Ken Banks Dec 22 '17 at 19:15
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I would say they were more than likely sons of Aaron(1Chr 24:1-2), for why would the statement be made that they would be a nation of priests and a holy nation(v.6), a seeming distinction of the priesthood from the people, that he should make some non-Levites think they were priests(e.g. Joshua/Hur), even though that definition would be later confined strictly to the sons of Aaron?(Numbers 16). If he had had the sons of Aaron in mind to be the priests in Exodus 19,24:4-5, then the dissenters in Number 16 would have had no case for themselves, which, as it turned out, they didn't. Also since Aaron spoke for Moses before Pharaoh, and since Aaron therefore told Pharaoh that they needed to sacrifice in the wilderness burnt offerings and peace offerings(Exd. 10:8-9;24-26), who among them should have been first to volunteer for the job besides him, but in that case, his house, seeing that Aaron went up with Moses(v.24)? As to whether it referenced the firstborn only, I would say no, since the rulers/judges would seemingly have mostly been firstborn(1Ch 26:10), and by that definition, make them priests(Exd. 18:24-26), a concept not often found in scripture(1Sam. 2:35).

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