Several days ago, a good friend of mine was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church. Those who are called to the ministry, be it as a priest in the Anglican Church or as a pastor in a Baptist or Methodist Church, labor under a sacred trust imposed upon them. Those who are sent by God are sent to lead men and women, young and old, to the ways of Christ.
Ministers are called by God to a transformative ministry, the kind of ministry that will challenge men and women to accept things that really matter and to abandon those things that hold them captive. The gospel of Jesus Christ transforms the life of people. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings people from night to day, from darkness to light, from death to life. Such is the life of ministry; it is a sacred and glorious calling that one receives from a holy God. It is a calling that brings with it an awesome responsibility.
The Ministry of the Priest
The ordination of my friend reminded me of the ordination of Aaron and his sons to become priests of a holy God, to serve in the tabernacle, and to minister to the people of Israel. The ordination of the priest was a complicated process which, if reinterpreted from a perspective of the twenty-first century, has valuable lessons for those who aspire to the ministry.
The study below on the ordination of Aaron and his son is not meant to be an exhaustive study of all that was involved in the ordination of the priest in Israel. Rather, the intent of this post is to focus on the anointing of the priest for his ministry as a priest.
The priest played an important role in the life of the people of Israel. A quick survey of an English Bible (in this case the NRSV) reveals that in the Old Testament the word “priest” appears 432 times and the plural, “priests,” 329 times. In the Hebrew Bible, there is a verb using the word cohen that appears several times with the meaning “to act like a priest.”
In the Old Testament, the priest acted as a mediator between God and his people. The priest was a servant of God who stood between God and the people, with the exclusive function of blessing the people (Numbers 6:22–27) and mediating reconciliation between people and God through ritual sacrifices. The priest was a visible agent of God in the community, and for this reason, people came to the priest to seek instruction from his mouth (Malachi 2:6–7).
The priest was called to a rigorous commitment to the ways of the Lord. Because the priest ministered in the presence of God, he was called to live a life of integrity and uprightness (Malachi 2:6). The priest was a great influencer in the community. As the prophet Hosea said, “what the priests do, the people also do” (Hosea 4:9 NLT). As an influencer, the priest had the power to affect the behavior of people because of his position of authority. One of the most important functions of the priest was to interpret, teach, and instruct the law of God to the people (Ezekiel 7:26b).
In addition, the priest was responsible for leading the community in worship. Any person in Israel could pray and speak directly to God, but the formal worship in the temple was to be led by the priest. The priest was the custodian of holy things and of the sacred objects housed in the temple. The priest ministered to the people at the various festivals during the year. Additionally, the priest was the keeper and the teacher of the traditions of Israel. The priests ministered to the people throughout their entire lives, from birth, circumcision, marriage, and death.
The Ritual of Ordination
Instructions for the ordination of the priest are found in Exodus, chapters 28–30 and chapter 40. Exodus 28 deals with the special vestment that the priest must wear on the day of his ordination. Chapter 29 deals with animals that will be sacrificed on that special day. Chapter 30 deals with the preparation of the special anointing oil that will be used in the anointing of the priest. Chapter 40 details what will occur on the day of the priest’s ordination.
The description of the ordination process on the day the priest was ordained is found in Leviticus 8. On the day of the priest’s ordination, Moses followed the instructions he had received from Yahweh. Leviticus 8 begins with an enumeration of the things that Moses must do to prepare for the ordination of Aaron and his sons: “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Take Aaron and his sons with him, the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread’” (Leviticus 8:1–2).
The ritual of ordination began when Moses brought Aaron and his sons before the whole congregation of Israel gathered at the entrance of the tent of meetings. Moses washed Aaron and his sons with water as a sign of ritual purity before the ritual of ordination began. The following items were required for the ordination:
The Priestly Vestments
The vestments of the priest were made according to the instructions Moses received from Yahweh (Exodus 28). According to Grossman and Hadad (2021:479), “the purpose of the vestments is to qualify those who wear them to minister in the tabernacle as priests.” “These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. They shall make those sacral vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons, for priestly service to Me” (Exodus 28:4 TNK).
The Anointing Oil
The priest was anointed with holy oil to consecrate him to his ministry. The Lord told Moses how to prepare the “sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil” (Exodus 30:25). The Lord told Moses, “You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, in order that they may serve me as priests” (Exodus 30:30). Aaron was anointed first and then his sons. The Lord told Moses to anoint Aaron and then anoint his sons, “as you have anointed their father” (Exodus 40:15). The word “consecrate” literally means “to sanctify” or “to make holy.” Moses “poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him, to make him holy” (Leviticus 8:12). Aaron and his sons were set apart for their holy duties of serving a holy God as priests.
The Bull for the Sin Offering
The bull was sacrificed on behalf of Aaron and his sons. They placed their hands on the head of the bull to make atonement for their sins. Moses put the blood on the horns of the altar to cleanse the altar from sins. Moses “poured the rest of the blood at the bottom of the altar and declared it holy so that priests could use it to make peace with the LORD” (Leviticus 8:14–15).
The Two Rams
During the ceremony of ordination, two rams were sacrificed. The first ram was the ram for the burnt offering (Leviticus 8:18) and the second ram was the ram of ordination (Leviticus 8:22). Aaron and his sons are the ones offering the burnt offering, “Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the ram” (Leviticus 8:22). The ram for the burnt offering was offered for “a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD” (Leviticus 8:21). The purpose of the offering was to invoke the presence of God during the ceremony of ordination.
The ram of ordination in the Hebrew text is called “the ram of filling.” The expression “days of your ordination” (Leviticus 8:33 RSV) literally means “the days of filling.” This expression means that the priest is entitled “to fill his hands” or to receive a portion of the sacrifice offered in the temple.
The Basket of Unleavened Bread
The unleavened bread was given to Aaron and his sons after the ram of ordination or “the ram of fulfilling” was sacrificed. “Moses had to sacrifice the ram of ordination as the final sacrifice before Aaron and his sons could perform cultic acts” (Boyd 2020:9). After “the ram of fulfilling” was sacrificed, Moses took from the basket of unleavened bread “one cake of unleavened bread, one cake of bread with oil, and one wafer, and placed them on the fat and on the right thigh. He placed all these on the palms of Aaron and on the palms of his sons” (Leviticus 8:26–27). Aaron’s and his sons’ hands were “filled” with the offering that was given by the people for the ceremony of ordination.
Then Moses took the bread and the fat from their hands and turned them into smoke on the altar with the burnt offering. “This was an ordination offering for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD” (Leviticus 8:28). The reason Moses took the bread and the fat from Aaron’s and his sons’ hands was because the priest could not receive a portion of his own offering
The Anointing of the Priest
During the ceremony of ordination two rituals were performed: the anointing with oil (see above) and a blood ritual. The blood ritual with the blood taken from the ram of ordination occurred twice during the ceremony. The first time was when Moses approached Aaron and his sons and “put some of the blood on the lobes of their right ears and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet” (Leviticus 8:24).
The second time was when “Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled them on Aaron and his vestments, and also on his sons and their vestments” (Leviticus 8:30). “Blood is taken from the very altar of sacrifice and splashed on the priests in their identifying garments so that they will always wear before Yahweh the symbol of life that committed them to his service” (Fleming 1998:409).
The holy oil mixed with blood from the altar was sprinkled on Aaron and his vestments and also on his sons and their vestments (Leviticus 8:30). Milgrom (1991:534) says that the sprinkling of Aaron and his sons with the blood from the altar sanctified them for their work as priests in the tabernacle, “whatever touches the altar shall become holy” (Exodus 29:37). “Anointing Aaron and his sons (v. 30) transforms them into God’s personal servants; they belong permanently to the sphere of the divine” (Schwartz 2004:223).
This blood ritual has received different interpretations. One interpretation is that the extreme parts of the body represent the whole body or the entire person. It has also been suggested that the right side is the preferential side in the Bible.
Although the meaning of the ritual is debated, I will offer a few suggestions that may apply to the work of ministers today. This blood ritual can be considered as an anointing of specific parts of the body which priests will use in their ministry as they serve God and the community. Although today’s priests and pastors are not anointed with blood, the ritual carries an important message for those who are in the ministry.
The Anointing of the Lobe of Aaron’s Right Ear
The Lord said that his ears were attentive to the prayers of the people made in the temple (2 Chronicles 7:15). The ear of the priest should be attentive to the voice of God. The priest must always be ready to listen and obey the voice of God.
Today’s minister will hear the confessions of the people. People will seek the minister and open their hearts, confessing their sins and expressing their concerns. Ministers must realize that what they hear in private is a sacred confession that must not be shared with others. Some ministers tend to use the confessions of the people as illustrations for their sermons. This is a violation of the trust people place in their ministers.
The Anointing of the Thumb of Aaron’s Right Hand
In the tabernacle, Aaron and his sons would be touching holy things. The priests would use their hands to discharge their priestly duties in the house of the Lord. The psalmist asked, “Who may stand in His holy place?” His own answer was, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4).
Today’s ministers will use their hands in different ways to perform their sacred duties as ministers of Jesus Christ. Today’s ministers must discharge their duties with clean hands. They also must withhold their hands from sin (Ezekiel 18:17).
The Anointing of the Big Toe of Aaron’s Right Foot
In their ministry in the tabernacle, Aaron and his sons would walk on sacred places. As people set apart for the service of God, Aaron and his sons should walk in the ways of holiness. Because priests yielded much power and authority in the community, priests were expected to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
In the Old Testament the idea of walking was tantamount to a way of life (Psalm 1:1–6). Ministers today should seriously ask themselves whether their daily walk, their way of life, is consistent with the sacred office to which they were called.
The Anointing of the Wallet of Aaron’s Right Pocket
I am sure that if Moses were anointing Aaron today, he would also anoint Aaron’s wallet in his right pocket. The ordination of the priest is “a filling of the hands.” The hands of the priests were filled with what the people brought to the temple to be offered to the Lord.
There are some ministers today whose hands are not only filled but overflowing. I believe that ministers should be well compensated for the work they do for God. But, it seems that some ministers are grabbing more than their hands can hold.
One example of greed among priests is the case of Eli’s sons. Hophni and Phinehas had no regard for the duties of the priests in dealing with the people (1 Samuel 2:13). The Mosaic law allowed the priests to receive a portion of the sacrifice (Leviticus. 7:30–36). However, Eli’s sons required worshipers to give to them much more than they were allowed to receive.
Some pastors have stolen money from their churches; other have used church money for personal use. There is a pastor in Brazil whose net worth is one billion dollars. There is a pastor in South Africa whose net worth is six hundred million dollars, and one in the USA whose net worth is one hundred forty-seven million dollars.
The money that God’s people give to God through their churches should be considered holy gifts unto the Lord. That money belongs to God. The prophet Malachi asked this question, “Can a person rob God?” (Malachi 3:8). May today’s priests and ministers not be found guilty of taking illegally that which belongs to God.
The priest was to be a stabilizing element for the people of the Old Testament. They had the responsibility of being a shepherd to the people of Israel, to come alongside them in their life-events. The priest was a mouthpiece for God, he taught God’s word to the people. The priest preformed a service that was unique in their society. They led the people in the worship of God. They taught about Israel’s sacred traditions and about God’s saving work.
God is still calling people today to be priests and ministers of the gospel. Called people are set apart to teach about the gracious and merciful God who became human and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Those whom God set apart to do the work of ministry are a special group of people whose lives will touch and bless the lives of those who want to know and experience the amazing love of God revealed in its fulness in Jesus Christ.
NOTE: This post is dedicated to my friend Ralph K. Hawkins, Professor of Religion at Averett University, on the occasion of his ordination as a priest in the Anglican Church.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Boyd, Samuel L. “Applied Ritual: The Application of Blood and Oil on Bodies in the Pentateuchal Sources.” Biblical Interpretation 20 (2020) 1–28.
Daniel Fleming, “The Biblical Tradition of Anointing Priests” Journal of Biblical Literature 117 (1998): 401–414.
Grossman, Jonathan and Eliezer Hadad, “The Ram of Ordination and Qualifying the Priests to Eat Sacrifices.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45 no 4 (2021:) 476–492.
Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1–16. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
Schwartz, Baruch J. “Leviticus.” The Jewish Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.