Genealogy of the Priests
John Heading, Aberystwyth
A paper for detailed study
The study of genealogies in the Bible is very rewarding. Such a study keeps us occupied with the Word in great detail, providing incentive for further study and profitable research. One object should be to develop spiritual principles of conduct and service, learning both from the failures and from the achievements of the people involved. In a genealogy, every name should be followed up throughout Scripture. This may take several weeks of diligent searching with the aid of a concordance, during which time the facts are ascertained. Secondly these facts are collated, being arranged not necessarily in historical but in moral order, thereby bringing out the corresponding New Testament principles of conduct and service. The discovery of these spiritual truths corresponding to the historical facts may take many further weeks, but in the end such a detailed study brings lasting blessing to the individual soul.
The High Priests before Eli
Originally, the firstborn in Israel were to serve God and to be set apart, Num. 8. 17. They were particularly precious to Him., since they had been saved twice - once from the smiting judgment of God, Exod. 12. 13 and secondly from Egypt itself. But the faithlessness of the people caused God to single out the tribe of Levi for service. At the very moment when God was giving the tabernacle instructions to Moses on the mount, Aaron was making the golden calf, saying, “These be thy gods, O Israel”, 32. 4. Yet
Aaron was taken from the depth of sin to the privileged position of entering within the vail. This change took place because at his consecration there were available a bullock for a sin offering, Lev. 8.14, and a ram for a burnt offering, v. 18I Aaron had four sons, Exod. 6. 23, who served as priests, 28.1; Immediately after the erection of the tabernacle, two of these sons, Nadab and Abihu, died before the Lord because of sin, Lev. 10. 2. and in the confusion that followed, the two sons that were left, Ithamar and Eleazar, failed to distinguish between the two kinds of sin offering, w. 16-20. One kind had to be burnt and the other not; one was for worship God-ward and the other for food saint-ward, Lev. 6. 24-30. Nearly forty years later, Aaron died, and
Eleazar not Ithamar was selected by God to become high priest, Num. 20. 26. This high office was only taken up after many years of preparation in lower spheres of work. We are not told directly why Eleazar was chosen, but it may be fair to say that the choice was based on outlook. Eleazar had been occupied with things essentially in the centre of the tabernacle Num. 4. 5-16, reflecting on the preciousness and centrality of the person of Christ Himself. Ithamar, on the other hand was occupied with the sum of the tabernacle, with the bars and with its exterior, Exod. 38. 21; Num. 4. 17-33, reflecting on things more on the circumference. The mount of transfiguration and the garden of Gethsemane demonstrate a focus on the Centre by the chosen three apostles, while the occupation of the others was more widely scattered.
Who would follow Eleazar as high priest? God’s decision still remained to be revealed. But in Numbers 25,
Phinehas, Eleazar’s son, demonstrated such faithfulness in maintaining holy things that God decreed once and for all that he and his seed would have “the covenant of an everlasting priesthood”, v. 13. He had been zealous both for his God and with the zeal of his God to maintain holy conditions in the camp. Hence the high priesthood would remain in Eleazar’s family throughout Old Testament days, with Ithamar’s family only providing some of the priests. Psalm 106. 30-31 refers to this, and Deuteronomy 33. 8-11 would also appear to refer both to it and to its future implications; the phrase “the loins of them that rise against him” v. 11, seems to refer to the family of Ithamar rising against the family of Eleazar.
We know that all believers are priests today, 1 Pet. 2. 5. God expects all to rejoice in having been called out of darkness into his marvellous light (as was Aaron), v. 9; He expects all to be occupied with Christ as the central theme of worship and service (as was Eleazar), owning that He is the “chief corner stone, elect, precious”, v. 6, and He expects faithfulness in maintaining the holiness of all spheres of service (as did Phinehas), 1. 15-16.
During the 250 years covered by the book of Judges, silence is maintained regarding the priesthood, but the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6.4-8 shows that God preserved His chosen line through Eleazar. However, when 1 Samuel opens, we find that the occupants of the high priestly office appear no longer in the genealogy of Eleazar!
The High Priests after Eli
Eli was a son of Ithamar and not of Eleazar, and as such the lessons derived from the priests following Eli tend to be negative in character rather than positive. At some point in the times of the Judges, and unrecorded in Scripture, the line of Ithamar had probably usurped this office and deposed the sons of Eleazar. The Jewish historian Josephus suggests that Eli was the first high priest in the wrong line, thereby not being in the place of God’s choice. The sons of Eleazar in 1 Chronicles 6. 5-7 could afford to remain almost unrecognized, since they had been chosen by God for this function; faith would trust that God’s purpose would ultimately triumph regardless of the apparent supremacy of others who temporarily held this office.
Eli did not recognize the purity of God necessary for the priesthood. He allowed his sons to manipulate the sacrifices according to their own taste, 1 Sam. 2. 12-17; 3. 13. They wanted to roast the sin offering instead of boiling it, thereby seeking to satisfy their own palate regardless of the fact that only the passover lamb should be roasted. Today, the flesh in the believer can still dominate his approach to the holy institutions and service of God, and carnal tastes - gratifying to the flesh but not implanted by the Spirit - can sometimes intrude into the service of God.
Ahimelech did not recognize the presence of God necessary for the priesthood,1 Samuel 14. 3 shows that he was Eli’s great-grandson; he served in the tabernacle at Nob, 21.1. But the ark of the covenant had long been absent from the tabernacle, 4.4, and it had never been returned there, 7.2. Moreover Psalm 78. 60 shows the interpretation of these events. The Lord had forsaken the tabernacle of Shiloh; He disowned the arkless tabernacle - His throne was no longer there. Yet ceremony was still perpetuated in its precincts, speaking of many who adhere to religious forms rather than to Christ Himself. But Christ is greater than the system, Matt. 12. 3, 4, 6. Believers should seek fellowship where the presence of Christ is recognized and appreciated, Matt. 18. 20. Next, we note that Ahimelech’s son
Abiathar, the only one who escaped the massacre of Saul, 1 Sam. 22. 20, did not recognize the purpose of God necessary for the priesthood. King David later brought back the line of Eleazar, by making Zadok high priest together with Abiathar, 1 Chron. 15. 11; 24. 1-6. There were therefore two high priests, but Abiathar did not realise that the purpose of God was that Zadok alone should hold this office. He was in competition with God’s man. But rivalry cannot go hand-in-hand with full spiritual prosperity; hence, later, King Solomon disposed of Ithamar’s son Abiathar, 1 Kings 2. 27, before the temple was built, in order to promote conditions ripe for blessing that the house might be filled with the glory of the Lord. Likewise he deposed Adonijah, Joab and Shimei in the same chapter. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of the man of God, 1 Sam. 2. 27, who spoke to Eli “I will raise me up a faithful priest, that shall do according to that which is in mine heart and in my mind: and I will build him a sure houses and he shall walk before mine anointed for ever”, v. 35,1 Kings 2.27. Hence Zadok and the line of Eleazar were re-established, and the book of Ezekiel, for example, traces the name of Zadok into the prophetic days yet to come, Ezek. 44.15.
The overall lessons are not hard to find. We have seen that some priests accomplished God’s will while others did not. The position and work that God chooses for each believer are according to His will, for our daily life, fellowship and service. If we fail to abide fully by this divine choice, then we substitute the interests of the natural man in place of the unique fulness of Christ. Such cannot promote spiritual prosperity and must ultimately come to naught. Let us measure ourselves according to the rule of Holy Scripture.