The Levitical priesthood began with Aaron, the older brother of Moses (Exodus 28:1–3). Aaron’s descendants served as the priests in Israel, ministering in the tabernacle and, later, the temple, primarily as mediators between man and God. The Levitical priests bore the responsibility of offering the sacrifices required by the Mosaic Law. Some of the Levitical priests in the Bible are Ezra; Eli; and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.
The term Levitical is derived from the Israelite tribe of Levi. Levi was the third son of Leah and Jacob (Genesis 29:34) and the father of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of Moses and Aaron. Originally, it was the firstborn son of every family who was consecrated to God and inherited the birthright, leadership, authority, etc. (Exodus 13:2). We see this institution of “first” things being what God requires as far back as Genesis 4:4 when God was pleased with the firstborn of Abel’s flock that he offered to God (see Proverbs 3:9 and Romans 11:16). Later, when God made Israel into a nation, He called them His firstborn son (Exodus 4:22–23), and each individual Israelite was called to be holy, priestly, and royal (Exodus 19:5–6). And then out of the nation of Israel God chose the tribe of Levi to serve Him and the sons of Aaron to be the priests. Thus, all priests were Levites, but not every Levite was a priest.
Some Bible commentators have said God chose the tribe of Levi to be His priests because they were obedient to God after the infamous “golden calf” incident at the foot of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32:26–29). However, God had made Levi’s tribe priestly before that time (Exodus 28:1–4). Furthermore, on his deathbed, Jacob had issued a stern malediction against his son Levi (Genesis 49:5–7). Patriarchal prophecies such as these were not taken lightly, and Jacob’s words must have dealt Levi a sharp blow.
Jacob’s prophecy that Levi’s descendants would be scattered throughout Israel (Genesis 49:7) was fulfilled when God appointed them as the priestly tribe who, unlike the other tribes, would receive no land inheritance. However, in God’s sovereign and mysterious way, Jacob’s prophecy turned into a blessing because Levi’s inheritance was better than land—it was God Himself (Numbers 18:20). And God promised to provide for the Levites from the abundance of all of the other tribes (Numbers 18:8–14).
The Levites who were not priests were given various duties in the caretaking of the tabernacle and its furnishings (Numbers 3:21–26). The priests among the Levites were given the immeasurable privilege of doing service in the tabernacle. The Levitical priests also served as judges (Deuteronomy 17:8–13) and teachers of God’s law (Deuteronomy 33:10).
The high priest could deliver edicts to guide the nation (Numbers 27:21). He was the only one permitted to enter the Most Holy Place (1 Chronicles 6:49; Leviticus 24:9), divided by a curtain from the rest of the tabernacle and containing the Ark of the Testimony (or Covenant), the symbol of God’s very presence (Hebrews 9:3; 1 Kings 8:6; Exodus 25:22). The high priest could only enter the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement to offer sacrifices for all the people, including himself (Hebrews 9:7). There was only one high priest at a time.
God held the priests to the most stringent standards of behavior and ritual purity (Leviticus 21). Abihu and Nadab were sons of Aaron and two of the first priests. They disobeyed God, however, and were instantly struck down (Leviticus 10:1–2). Later, the sons of the high priest Eli “treated the offering of the Lord with contempt” and were also judged (1 Samuel 2:12–17).
In the time of Christ, the Sadducees comprised most of the priesthood and were known to be a wealthy class of people. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection (Matthew 22:23) or in any kind of spiritual realm such as angels and demons (see Acts 23:8). The chief priests Caiaphas and Annas were instrumental in having Jesus crucified (John 18:13).
The Levitical priesthood was never intended to be permanent (Hebrews 7:11). The death of Christ put an end to the Old Covenant and the Levitical priesthood, as evidenced by the rending of the temple veil (Matthew 27:51). Now Jesus Himself serves as the believer’s Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14), called according to the order of Melchizedek, not of Levi (Hebrews 7:11–17). Through His death and resurrection, we have access to God’s presence, where we can freely enjoy Him forever (Hebrews 6:19–20).