Priestly Authority

Hus, Wycliffe, or Luther were not the first to interpret the priesthood as a bid to monopolize the graces given to all the elect. Nor were Machiavelli and Spinoza the first to interpret Israel’s polity in secular terms. No, all of these seem to have been beaten to the punch by the Levites Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and their followers (cf. Numbers 16:1-35). Here’s what happens: these three rouse a group of 250 Levites to rise up against Moses and Aaron: “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?” (Num 16:3) Dathan and Abiram summarize the charge against Moses: “Thou make thyself altogether a prince over us…Thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey, or given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up” (Numb 16:13). Moses, they claim, isn’t just a tyrant; he’s an ineffective one. If you’re going to seize power, at least make the trains run on time!

The rebels seem implicitly to be appealing to Exodus 19:5-6: “If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” How can Moses and Aaron justify their privileged priestly status within Israel, claiming a unique role in mediating between the LORD and the people, when all Israel is holy, and the LORD dwells among them? Why shouldn’t the Levites be priests as well? (cf. Numb 16:9-10)

This protest against Moses is strikingly similar to the protest against the Catholic hierarchy levied by the Reformers, who tended to appropriate Exodus 19:5-6 as it was taken up by 1 Peter 2:9 (cf. Luther, Babylonian Captivity of the Church 7.9-10). (Just to clarify, I’m referring here, not to the Reformers’ protests against the abuse of priestly authority, but rather to their additional arguments against the legitimacy of a hierarchical priesthood itself.) The New Covenant inaugurated by Christ and prophesied in Jeremiah 31 might be indirectly relevant as well (cf. “they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them,” Jer 31:34), but that passage isn’t taken up by 1 Peter, nor by Luther in Babylonian Captivity. No, it looks as though the LORD’s promise to make his elect — first Israel according to the flesh, and then also the Church — a “kingdom of priests” should itself be a death-blow to priestly hierarchy.

Moses, of course, doesn’t see things that way, and neither does the LORD (cf. Numb 16:32-33). Even in Exodus 19, there is a clear distinction between the people and the priests (Exod 19:21-22); the priests are drawn from the sons of Aaron, and set over the Levites, who are to assist them (Numb 3:3-6). This service, Moses reminds the rebels is no “small thing” (Numb 16:9). It seems, then, that we’re to hold both the Pentateuch’s commitment to the priesthood of all believers together with its commitment to hierarchy. How? “Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, Sec. 10).

 

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