From the time of the covenant at Mount Sinai, the Israelites had formal priesthood. The priests were qualified men selected from the tribe of Levi. They were mediators between God and the people. They offered sacrifices in the Holy Place of the Temple, including animal sacrifices.
PRIESTS AND LEVITES
This parable of the Good Samaritan has a priest and a Levite as characters. There is a difference in their designation. All priests were Levites, but not all Levites were priests. The Levites descended from Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Before God’s covenant with the Israelites at Mount Sinai, all the heads of the families were priests. After the sin of Golden Calf, only the Levites declared faithfulness to God. So, God selected them for divine service at the Holy Place in the tabernacle and later in the Temple of Jerusalem.
God selected Aron, the brother of Moses, who was also a Levite as the chief priest. His sons and their descendants were priests and high priests. The high priest was the highest in rank among the priests. Only the high priest had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple once a year on the Day of Atonement.
Though the head of the Aaronic family was supposed to be the high priest, the Romans had removed him to appoint their own favorite person in that prestigious position. High priests included the then high priest along with those who held the same office before.
During the public ministry of Jesus, Caiaphas was the High Priest. His father-in-law Annas, who was the former high priest, was the head of the Sanhedrin and coworker of Caiaphas. Both were known as high priests. Besides these two, the heads of the twenty-four courses of priests were known as chief priests.
DIVISION OF PRIESTS
All priests served in the temple of Jerusalem during the busy season of the three main Jewish feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Feast of the Tabernacles. At other times, each division of priests served two terms of one week each in a year. Even then, all priests of the division were not needed in the Temple during the off season. So, they were selected by a lot, which was a selection from God. Many would not get this opportunity. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, got this opportunity by lot to serve in the Temple when Angel Gabriel visited him and announced the birth of his son, John.
PRIESTS WORKING ON SABBATH
The priests must work double on a Sabbath in the Temple to make sure the sacrifices take place according to the prescriptions of the Law. “On the sabbath day: two unblemished yearling lambs, with a grain offering of two tenths of an ephah of bran flour mixed with oil, and its libation. This is the sabbath burnt offering each sabbath, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its libation” (Num 28:9). This involved priests’ work like cleaning of sacrificial animals, lighting of fires, slaughter of animals, lifting of them on to the altar, and other related works. In addition, the priests also had to change the showbread on every sabbath. Such works would become a violation of the Sabbath for ordinary people (Lev 24:8). However, the law itself gave precedence to the sacrifice over the Sabbath rules. Jesus, who gave importance to human suffering, also expressed precedence for acts of mercy over Sabbath regulations.
In the New Testament period, all the baptized share in the royal priesthood of Jesus and thus we have the privilege of taking part in the sacrifice of Jesus. While leading a sacrificial life for Jesus and for the people entrusted to our service, let us cooperate with the ordained priests who serve us. Peter reminds us: “you are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises’” (1 Pet 2:9).