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Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:5–6, ESV)

Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, 6 but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests [תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים] and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (Exodus 19:5–6, JPS Tanakh)

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Adam and Eve in the garden were the first people called to be royal priests. They were kings because God called them to rule over all the other creatures. And they were priests because Eden was created as a temple, and they were told to “to tend it and to keep it (avad & shamar). Elsewhere in the bible, those two words together appear as a description of the job priests and Levites had in the tabernacle (Numbers 8). Adam and Eve fell short of that calling.

Later we have a taste of a royal priesthood in the lives of Noah and Abraham. But the clear calling from God to be a royal priests returns in Exodus 19. This time, JHVH tells the whole nations to be a kingdom of priests. But the Israel just like Adam and Eve before them failed to live up to the expectations.

The story of the golden calf has hyperlinks to the story of the fall in Eden. Aaron as the new Adam got tempted by the people of Israel, the new Eve. As a result of this, he got punished by being appointed as a high priest. Just like Adam's hard work led to death, Aaron's everyday labour by the sacrifices couldn't give him everlasting life. The people were put under Aaron's authority, just like Eve was ruled by Adam. Instead of being intercessors for other nations, they proved the need of one for themselves.

The concept of royal priesthood returns only after Christ's resurrection. The followers of Jesus, the spiritual Israel of God, are the royal priesthood.

As for chronology of the events at Sinai, there are a few things that have to be pointed out.

God in Exodus 19 called the whole nation or at least all the firstborns as representatives of each family to be royal priests. He also instructed the Israelites how to build a stone altar in Exodus 24. Why would He change that only three chapters later (Exodus 27&28) without any good reason for the change?

In Deuteronomy 10 Moses is told by God to make a prototype of the ark of the covenant after the sin of the golden calf.

Exodus 31 ends with sabbath instruction, and chapter 35 starts with the same. These “sabbath brackets” indicate the use of a writing technique called parenthesis.

“In rhetoric, a parenthesis or parenthetical phrase is an explanatory or qualifying word, clause, or sentence inserted into a passage. The parenthesis could be left out and still form grammatically correct text.”

There are another examples of the parenthetical phrase in the bible.

Genesis 37:36 and 39:1 work as the brackets with the whole chapter 38 (where the story of Judah and Tamar) was inserted into the tale of Joseph's abduction to Egypt. Chapter 38 is not chronological with chapters 37 and 39 and did not happen in between them.

Exodus 6:11-13 and 6:28-30 bracket the inserted genealogies of Moses and Aaron. The story of the exodus stops in 6:13, the background of the leaders is given, and then continues from 6:28. Repetition of verses 6:11-13 in verses 6:28-30 is an indication of the use of a side note/ parenthetical phrase.

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  • Would you elaborate with facts to back up this view.
    – Perry Webb
    Feb 12, 2022 at 13:20
  • The story of the golden calf has hyperlinks to the story of the fall in Eden. Aaron as the new Adam got tempted by the people of Israel, the new Eve. As a result of this, he got punished by being appointed as a high priest. Just like Adam's hard work led to death, Aaron's everyday labour by the sacrifices couldn't give him everlasting life. The people were put under Aaron's authority, just like Eve was ruled by Adam. Instead of being intercessors for other nations, they proved the need of one for themselves. Feb 12, 2022 at 17:00
  • The concept of royal priesthood returns only after Christ's resurrection. The followers of Jesus, the spiritual Israel of God, are the royal priesthood. Feb 12, 2022 at 17:10
  • Adam and Eve were called to be royal priests too. Feb 12, 2022 at 17:11
  • Integrate your comments into your answer. Also add the basis for "Exodus 25-31 happened after Exodus 32-34" into your answer.
    – Perry Webb
    Feb 12, 2022 at 22:33
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This is somewhat vexed and controversial but here are the facts:

Israelite Covenant

The original Israelite covenant expressed in Ex 19 - 23 envisioned no formal priesthood, except for Aaron's high-priesthood. The pre-Sinai practice of the head of each family was a de-facto priest was to have continued. This is confirmed by the opening statements in the Israelite covenant in Ex 19:5, 6 as quoted by the OP.

However, something happened, just what is debatable, but the most likely candidate is the golden calf incident while, of all times, Moses was in the mountain receiving further instructions. This lead to a formal change in priesthood as described below.

Levitical Covenant

The Levitical Covenant is formally stated in Lev 1-9, 16, 21-27 , Num 3, 4, 8, 18, 25:10-13, Deut 33:8-11, Neh 13:29, Mal 2:4-8. This is an eternal covenant (Num 25:12, 13, Ps 106:30) of salt, Num 18:19.

The Levitical covenant is stated in Num 3:11-13, 25:12 where God takes the Levites (especially the line of Phineas as High Priest) instead of the all the firstborn of each family, thus changing the (informal) priesthood from the firstborn of each family to the (formal) priesthood of tribe of Levi. Several Bible writers refer to this Levitical Covenant including:

  • Neh 13:29 – “the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites”
  • Jer 33:18, 21 – “covenant with the Levitical priests.”
  • Mal 2:4-8 – “the covenant with Levi”
  • Num 25:10-13 – the eternal covenant of priesthood was also a covenant of peace and a covenant of “salt” (Num 18:19), ie, very solemn and eternal.
  • Isa 54:10 & Eze 34:25 also describes the covenant of peace with the Levites

From other Bible passages we can see what the Levitical covenant was.

  • The purpose of the Levitical covenant was to teach and inculcate the plan of salvation (Deut 33:9, 10, Heb 9:8, 9, 11-14, 10:1-3, Col 2:16, 17). That is, it symbolically taught about salvation by grace through the coming Messiah via His substitutionary death in the place of the sinner. Thus, the sacrifices, Levites, priests and High Priest became a type of Jesus in various ways.
  • A promise by God to set them apart, ie, make them “holy” (Num 3:12, 13), to be a substitute for the first born in Israel, and to have the primary responsibility for caring for the sanctuary, its ritual services and sacrifices, maintaining and transporting its equipment. Ex 32:25-29. In this way, they became the priests of Israel. All these regulations were contained in Lev 1-9, 16, 21-27.
  • Thus, the Levites enjoyed a “blessed” (and privileged) status. Ex 32:29, Mal 2:5.
  • The book of Leviticus (and Num 1 & 18) sets out the responsibilities of the Levites in operating the ceremonial rites and sanctuary services and caring for the sanctuary equipment. See also Num 1:53, 18:2, Deut 10:8, 31:9, 25, Josh 3:3, 2 Sam 15:24, 1 Chron 15:26.
  • The token/sign (Heb: “oth”) of the Levitical covenant appears to have been the unleavened bread at the annual festival (Ex 13:6, 9, 16, Lev 24:8).

The Israelite Covenant never mentions a formal priesthood; thus the Israelite covenant was distinct from the Levitical covenant. In the NT, this Levitical Covenant with all its ceremonies was often abbreviated to “the Law of Moses”, or just, “circumcision” and are clearly understood as distinct from the Old Israelite covenant laws, 1 Cor 7:19, Eph 2:15, Acts 15.

The Transition

The formal change from family-firstborn-priests to Levitical priesthood was done using the mechanism of the redemption money as described (in detail) in Num 3:40-51 and Num 18:14-16.

The New Covenant

When Christ came to fulfill, that is be the anti-type of the Levitical priesthood and high priest of the new covenant, the Levitical priesthood became obsolete. However, the purpose of the Old Covenant is exactly the same as the New Covenant: Specifically, God said of the Christian community, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, to proclaim the virtues of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9, 10 (Compare Ex 19:5, 6, Hos 1:9, 4:6).

Jesus is the high priest of the New Covenant Heb 4:14-16, 5:10, 7:23-28, 8:1, 2, 9:1-28, 10:1-18. Thus, Jesus inherits and was the fulfillment of the Levitical Covenant (See Mal 3:1). Jesus did this in several ways as well such as:

  • Jesus was the fulfillment of what the sanctuary/temple typified, John 2:19-21, Heb 9:1-28, 10:1-18
  • Jesus represented the foundation of the temple as well, 1 Peter 2:4-8 (Compare Isa 28:16, Ps 118:22)
  • Jesus’ body was represented by the curtain in the temple, Heb 10:20.
  • Jesus was the bread of life, John 6:35, 41, 48 (compare Ex 25:23-30, Lev 24:8).
  • Jesus was the light of life, John 8:12, 9:5 (compare the lampstand Ex 25:31-39, Lev 24:3, 4, Isa 53:11, Ps 56:13, etc)
  • Jesus provides the water of life, John 4:13, 14 (Compare the laver Ex 30:17-21. See also 1 Cor 6:11)
  • Jesus is the promised seed of the woman Gal 3:16 (compare Gen 3:15, and the Abrahamic Covenant)
  • Jesus was the Passover Lamb and thus the promised Messiah, John 1:29, 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Peter 1:19 (compare Ex 12:1-14).
  • Jesus is the High Priest of the New Covenant in fulfillment of the Levitical covenant, Heb 4:14-16, 5:10, 7:23-28, because He was “pure, blameless, set apart” exactly as the Levites were. See also Heb 9:15, 12:24.
  • Jesus provided the blood of the new covenant of which the communion ceremony was to be a memorial, Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25, Heb 13:20, 1 Peter 1:19 (compare Ex 24:5, 8).
  • Jesus was the anti-type of the “red heifer” (Num 19:1-10) and its associated ashes that “purify our consciences from works of death”, Heb 9:13, 14.
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The covenant God made through Moses that the Israelites would be His people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, was conditional. It depended upon them keeping His covenant and obeying the 613 commandments (including the Ten Commandments).

‘Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people (Exodus 19:5-6).

Time and again they broke the covenant. They disobeyed their God by falling into idolatry and following the pagan religions of the Canaanites and others. The prophet Jeremiah reminded the Israelites that it was their failure to keep God’s covenant laws that had resulted in the destruction of the temple and being taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Jeremiah then speaks of the future restoration of Israel, that they will be released from captivity and restored.

But did they ever become a holy nation of priests in fulfilment of Exodus 19:5-6? No, not even when the king of God’s kingdom walked in their midst.

It was not until after Jesus established His church that Peter was able to write to Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman world and apply the words of Exodus 19:5, 9-10 to them:

...you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ... But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:5, 9-10). In the Revelation, John records the words of Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth:

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. (Revelation 1:6).

Christ Jesus is the King and the High Priest of this kingdom, a kingdom that includes both believing Jews and believing Gentiles. The Old Testament designation of Israel as a kingdom of priests is applied in the New Testament to the church that Christ Jesus rules over.

The kingdom of priests in the Mosaic Covenant has given way to the spiritual kingdom of priests who have entered into the New Covenant.

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