You shall command
“Faithful Priests Minister to God”
by Mark Huey
This week, our Torah portion Tetzaveh, deals with the specific commands of the Lord regarding the attire and anointing of the high priest (ha’kohen ha’gadol), and the priesthood that was originally designated to serve the community of Ancient Israel. At this juncture in Israel’s desert sojourn, after details regarding the Tabernacle had been articulated and responded to by heartfelt offerings of the materials required for their construction, Moses now turned to deliver the Lord’s instructions regarding the Levitical priesthood. However, before the meticulous aspects of this priesthood were elaborated upon, there was a request that the Israelites bring purified olive oil, for a lamp that would burn continually before the Lord:
“You shall charge the sons of Israel, that they bring you clear oil of beaten olives for the light, to make a lamp burn continually. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall keep it in order from evening to morning before the LORD; it shall be a perpetual statute throughout their generations for the sons of Israel” (Exodus 27:20-21).
From the onset of our Torah reading, despite the concentration of instructions devoted to the specifics of the priesthood, it is useful for us to consider how just as a light was to burn continually before the Lord—so are His people throughout all generations to function as a light to a world darkened by sin. The image of contributing to, or being a light to the world, is required by Yeshua the Messiah by all of His followers:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16; cf. Isaiah 42:6-8).
Some of us, when encountering a Torah reading like Tetzaveh—and all of its details surrounding a Levitical priesthood that has been pretty much gone since the destruction of the Second Temple—have a little bit of difficulty understanding it. While most of us are not Levites, all of us who have confessed the God of Israel as the Creator are to represent Him and serve Him, representing Him as intermediaries to a world that has widely rejected Him and His ways. For, the true chosenness, of being of the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16), is that we are all living forth the imperatives of the priestly calling (cf. Exodus 19:5-6; 1 Peter 2:9; Titus 2:14).
The High Priest
As the revelation came forth from the Most High to Moses, during Ancient Israel’s desert sojourn, while many of the elements of a Tabernacle, priesthood, and animal sacrifice might seem strange to us as modern Bible readers in the Twenty-First Century C.E.—they were not strange to people in the Thirteenth Century B.C.E. The basic elements, of Ancient Israel’s worship system, were not dissimilar from those of their pagan neighbors in the Ancient Near East. This, at least, can help establish for us that what is described in the Torah, especially in the later Books of Leviticus and Numbers, is something historically viable.
What Believers in Yeshua tend to do, in reading the Torah’s instruction about the high priesthood and Tabernacle—obviously looking back many centuries, and considering what took place in history via His arrival and sacrifice for sinners—is thinking on how it was beneficial for the Israelites to have a high priest like Aaron, whose responsibilities foreshadowed the arrival of the ultimate High Priest, Yeshua. The Tabernacle on Earth is regarded to be a copy of the Tabernacle in Heaven (Hebrews 9:23).
Of course, on a larger scale, God’s people themselves—those who are not Levites—still bear a priestly calling as His servants. Non-Levites can still learn important lessons about obeying God and representing Him, by examining the Levitical priesthood. The challenge throughout the millennia, and up until today, is whether we will adequately apply such lessons.
One critical facet, of God’s plan for the ages, has been to utilize specifically chosen representatives who were designated to perform intermediary roles between Himself and His chosen people. Moses was uniquely chosen to communicate His Law to the people. The high priest would perform sacred duties in worship, ritual, and sacrifice. Even the kings of Ancient Israel would function as representatives of God to the people. And, on a bigger level once again, the people of Israel were to serve as representatives of God to the nations at large.
In Tetzaveh, we find that the description of the Tabernacle is essentially complete, but in the course of making known the details, there is specific mention of altars (Exodus 27:1). Obviously, the Holy One of Israel desired to be worshipped by His people, and sacrificial offerings were an integral part of this, as seen as far back as Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:3-5), Noah (Genesis 8:20), and Abraham (Genesis 12:7-8). The positions of the high priest, and the associated priests, were specific—in that they would minister in the Tabernacle. The Hebrew noun most often rendered as “priest” is kohen; the related verb kahan basically means “minister in a priest’s office, act as priest” (TWOT):
“Then bring near to yourself Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the sons of Israel, to minister as priest [kahan] to Me—Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons. You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful persons whom I have endowed with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him, that he may minister as priest [kahan] to Me. These are the garments which they shall make: a breastpiece and an ephod and a robe and a tunic of checkered work, a turban and a sash, and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons, that he may minister [kahan] as priest to Me” (Exodus 28:1-4).
Throughout Tetzaveh, the concept of ministering unto the Lord indicates that each of the specific actions, to be taken by the priests, were a means of worshipping the Lord that generated His approval. Not only was the Lord detailing the role and responsibilities of the high priest as the sacrificial system was being formalized, but these actions were definitely ways for the priests to please the Lord. Whether it was the consecration of the priests or the sacrificial offerings, by ministering to the Lord, He promised to dwell among Israel and be their God:
“You shall put them on Aaron your brother and on his sons with him; and you shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve Me as priests [kahan]” (Exodus 28:41).
“Now this is what you shall do to them to consecrate them to minister as priests [kahan] to Me: take one young bull and two rams without blemish,” (Exodus 29:1).
“It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the doorway of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. I will meet there with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; I will also consecrate Aaron and his sons to minister [kahan] as priests to Me. I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God. They shall know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God” (Exodus 29:42-46).
With ministering to the Lord a major theme of Tetzaveh, the designation of the high priest to meditate between God and people, is described. As the Levitical priesthood was being established, God once again reminded His people about His extreme holiness, and how as a Perfect Creator He is widely unapproachable by sinful human beings. In this case, the Levites were chosen, with particular emphasis on the office of the high priest. Upon surveying the details of the high priest’s attire, it is particularly notable that weaved into the construction of the various garments, is his representation for all Twelve Tribes of Israel before the Holy One:
“You shall take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel, six of their names on the one stone and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, according to their birth. As a jeweler engraves a signet, you shall engrave the two stones according to the names of the sons of Israel; you shall set them in filigree settings of gold. You shall put the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of memorial for the sons of Israel, and Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for a memorial. You shall make filigree settings of gold, and two chains of pure gold; you shall make them of twisted cordage work, and you shall put the corded chains on the filigree settings. You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, the work of a skillful workman; like the work of the ephod you shall make it: of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet material and fine twisted linen you shall make it. It shall be square and folded double, a span in length and a span in width. You shall mount on it four rows of stones; the first row shall be a row of ruby, topaz and emerald; and the second row a turquoise, a sapphire and a diamond; and the third row a jacinth, an agate and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl and an onyx and a jasper; they shall be set in gold filigree. The stones shall be according to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, according to their names; they shall be like the engravings of a seal, each according to his name for the twelve tribes” (Exodus 28:9-21).
What would it have meant for the Israelites at large to hear this instruction regarding the high priest, as one who was to represent them all before the Holy One—especially in the sanctuary and through the various offerings made to atone for the sin of the people? The names of Israelites would be literally borne on the breastpiece, over the heart of the high priest. Does this mean that the high priest was to carry all of the hopes, concerns, and fears of the people in before the Lord when serving Him?
“Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment over his heart when he enters the holy place, for a memorial before the LORD continually. You shall put in the breastpiece of judgment the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the LORD; and Aaron shall carry the judgment of the sons of Israel over his heart before the LORD continually. You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. There shall be an opening at its top in the middle of it; around its opening there shall be a binding of woven work, like the opening of a coat of mail, so that it will not be torn. You shall make on its hem pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet material, all around on its hem, and bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around on the hem of the robe. It shall be on Aaron when he ministers; and its tinkling shall be heard when he enters and leaves the holy place before the LORD, so that he will not die. You shall also make a plate of pure gold and shall engrave on it, like the engravings of a seal, ‘Holy to the LORD.’ You shall fasten it on a blue cord, and it shall be on the turban; it shall be at the front of the turban. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take away the iniquity of the holy things which the sons of Israel consecrate, with regard to all their holy gifts; and it shall always be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD” (Exodus 28:29-38).
Additionally, we read how the Lord required a golden plate, engraved with the notation qodesh l’ADONAI—which was yet another symbol that the high priest had been separated apart from others. The high priest was specially consecrated to deal with the iniquities of the people, and his mind was to be definitively focused on the holiness of God.
After more details are given, about the garments of the rest of the priesthood (Exodus 28:40-43), the specifics of how the priesthood was to be consecrated are recorded (Exodus 29:1-9). The Levitical priests were be washed, anointed with fragrant oil, and their being separated out involved some specific sacrifices (Exodus 29:4-21). As important as these things were for the Levitical priesthood, we might be able to see some significant foreshadowing for Yeshua’s own consecration, as it involved His ministry in the Gospels. Yeshua began His ministry with water immersion (Matthew 3:16), He was anointed with a costly perfume (Matthew 26:7), but most significantly His being offered up as the sacrificial Lamb (John 1:29).
For the Levitical priests, identification with the sacrificial offerings was critical for their service unto the Lord. They had to know how animal blood was shed, in order to cover their limitations as humans (Leviticus 17:11). Additionally, by placing the blood of the ram on the right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe, the priests were to be totally dedicated to the service. Presumably, the right ear symbolized how they were to listen wisely before making decisions. The right thumb meant that the work of their hands was to be focused to the labor of the Lord. The right toe pointed to everywhere they walked. Being consecrated as Levitical priest was a service of total dedication to God’s work:
“Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the doorway of the tent of meeting and wash them with water. You shall take the garments, and put on Aaron the tunic and the robe of the ephod and the ephod and the breastpiece, and gird him with the skillfully woven band of the ephod; and you shall set the turban on his head and put the holy crown on the turban. Then you shall take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him. You shall bring his sons and put tunics on them. You shall gird them with sashes, Aaron and his sons, and bind caps on them, and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute. So you shall ordain Aaron and his sons. Then you shall bring the bull before the tent of meeting, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the bull. You shall slaughter the bull before the LORD at the doorway of the tent of meeting. You shall take some of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger; and you shall pour out all the blood at the base of the altar. You shall take all the fat that covers the entrails and the lobe of the liver, and the two kidneys and the fat that is on them, and offer them up in smoke on the altar. But the flesh of the bull and its hide and its refuse, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering. You shall also take the one ram, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram; and you shall slaughter the ram and shall take its blood and sprinkle it around on the altar. Then you shall cut the ram into its pieces, and wash its entrails and its legs, and put them with its pieces and its head. You shall offer up in smoke the whole ram on the altar; it is a burnt offering to the LORD: it is a soothing aroma, an offering by fire to the LORD. Then you shall take the other ram, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram. You shall slaughter the ram, and take some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear and on the lobes of his sons’ right ears and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet, and sprinkle the rest of the blood around on the altar. Then you shall take some of the blood that is on the altar and some of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and on his garments and on his sons and on his sons’ garments with him; so he and his garments shall be consecrated, as well as his sons and his sons’ garments with him” (Exodus 29:4-21).
The Work of the Ministry
After the seven-day process of consecrating the priesthood and purifying the altar, we see how the altar was to be most holy, and that whatever touched the altar would also be holy. A description of the evening and morning sacrificial offerings, and the need to continually offer them, indicated that the Lord desires His people to be perpetually at service to Him (cf. Romans 12:1). The benefit of so doing was to be communion with Him, and the constant reminder that He would speak to His people and dwell among them, in order that they would know that the Holy One is their God as they ministered unto Him:
“Thus you shall do to Aaron and to his sons, according to all that I have commanded you; you shall ordain them through seven days. Each day you shall offer a bull as a sin offering for atonement, and you shall purify the altar when you make atonement for it, and you shall anoint it to consecrate it. For seven days you shall make atonement for the altar and consecrate it; then the altar shall be most holy, and whatever touches the altar shall be holy. Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two one year old lambs each day, continuously. The one lamb you shall offer in the morning and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight; and there shall be one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering with one lamb. The other lamb you shall offer at twilight, and shall offer with it the same grain offering and the same drink offering as in the morning, for a soothing aroma, an offering by fire to the LORD. It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the doorway of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. I will meet there with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; I will also consecrate Aaron and his sons to minister as priests to Me. I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God. They shall know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God” (Exodus 29:35-46).
Finally, some details about the altar of incense are delineated, as the God of Israel desired a pleasant aroma before Him. Included within this was a prohibition against burning “strange incense” (qetoret zarah):
“Moreover, you shall make an altar as a place for burning incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. Its length shall be a cubit, and its width a cubit, it shall be square, and its height shall be two cubits; its horns shall be of one piece with it. You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and its sides all around, and its horns; and you shall make a gold molding all around for it. You shall make two gold rings for it under its molding; you shall make them on its two side walls—on opposite sides—and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. You shall put this altar in front of the veil that is near the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is over the ark of the testimony, where I will meet with you. Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; he shall burn it every morning when he trims the lamps. When Aaron trims the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense. There shall be perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations. You shall not offer any strange incense [unauthorized incense, ESV] on this altar, or burnt offering or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a drink offering on it. Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year; he shall make atonement on it with the blood of the sin offering of atonement once a year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD” (Exodus 30:1-10).
As the details of what the Levitical priesthood, and specifically the high priest, were specified, it was apparent for the need to separate out a specific group of people to perform these tasks. Aaron and his sons were chosen, and consequently the sons of Levi became the priests who worked in and around the Tabernacle, and eventually the First and Second Temples. The Levitical priesthood functioned as a form of “aristocracy” for Ancient Israel, as those who served within it, played a specific function, and were born into the task. Many of the Levitical priests served their purpose, and demonstrated godly patterns and principles which were greatly influential for the Ancient Israel, the Ancient Jewish people, and certainly Believers in Yeshua the Messiah for millennia—to strengthen their worship and pursuit of the Holy One. While the Levitical priesthood is to be regarded as a special group of people, there are undeniably key lessons to be appropriated from their service, as we all must represent the Lord to a world that has largely rejected Him.
Faithful Priests Minister to God
As the details found in Tetzaveh are enunciated, we as Believers in the ultimate High Priest, Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ), can draw many parallels between what was received by Moses—and what is currently taking place in Heaven, as the Son intercedes before the Father (Hebrews 7:25). When we review some of the temporal elements of the Levitical priesthood, and the grand service that it offered Israel in the past—we should have a greater appreciation for the permanent atonement offered by Yeshua, and the everlasting priesthood which He occupies. The author of Hebrews addresses this:
“Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. For the one concerning whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no one has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of Him, ‘YOU ARE A PRIEST FOREVER ACCORDING TO THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK’ [Psalm 110:4]. For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God. And inasmuch as it was not without an oath (for they indeed became priests without an oath, but He with an oath through the One who said to Him, ‘THE LORD HAS SWORN AND WILL NOT CHANGE HIS MIND, YOU ARE A PRIEST FOREVER’ [Psalm 110:4],) so much the more also Yeshua has become the guarantee of a better covenant. The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Yeshua, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:11-28).
In God’s infinite wisdom, He established a Levitical priesthood that was responsible for revealing His laws, ordinances, statutes, and regulations to Ancient Israel. This was a critical institution. As multiple examples have indicated, unredeemed people need a mediator between themselves and their Creator, in order to avoid His righteous judgment. The arrival of Yeshua the Messiah on the scene of human history, and His exaltation into Heaven, have certainly changed the dynamics a bit. The power of His priesthood transcends the limited abilities of the Levitical priesthood.
As we consider the grand service of the Son of God for each of us (cf. Philippians 2:5-11), should we not be able to offer ourselves up to His service, and faithfully minister to the Lord in His tasks? He has, after all, bought each of us with a price:
“For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20).
The overarching and underlying themes of Tetzaveh should illuminate each of us, so that we might be motivated to serve and minister to the Holy One. But, whether one is extracting the purest of oil for the lamps of the sanctuary—or sharing the light of His salvation from the rooftops—the key is faithfully offering your worshipful service to Him. May we all be counted among those “priests,” who are called to continually and faithfully minister unto Him!
 J. Barton Payne, “kahan,” in TWOT, 2:431.