As we continue our deep-dive into the Book of Leviticus, we learn more about the people of Israel, the God they worshiped, and maybe even the underpinnings of why we still engage in certain rites and rituals within our churches.
Beginning in Chapter 8, we observe the next leg of our journey through the Law. First, God laid out all the kinds of sacrifices that needed to be made and for what occasions. Next, God taught Aaron and his sons the proper way to make all the necessary sacrifices. And now, Aaron and his sons are going to be ordained to the ministry to which God has called them.
God relays specific instructions to Moses, who then conducts the ordination process, by first calling the entire congregation to stand at the entrance to the tent of meetings. There were several items necessary for the ordination, which they took with them to the tent: vestments, anointing oil, the bull for purification offering, two rams, and a basket of unleavened bread. Devoting these specific items indicates that there is a method or procedure for ordaining priests. This isn't a ritual to be taken lightly. It must be witnessed by the whole congregation and must be carried out per God's instructions.
First, Moses washed Aaron and his sons with water. This act of cleansing is present in many religious traditions and signifies the desire to present oneself before God as holy and pure. As representatives of God and servants of the tent, Aaron and his sons had special garments that they wore. These garments were much more elaborate than what we wear today and included a tunic, a robe, an Ephod (an ornate, sleeveless outer garment made of fine, twisted linen decorated with gold, blue, purple, and scarlet material), shoulder pieces and a belt made of the same material, a breastplate (also made of the same material and adorned with 12 precious stones to represent the 12 Tribes of Israel), and pockets in the breastplate that held Urim [lights] and Thummim [perfections] (presumed to be precious stones that aided in receiving divine instruction from God, especially when inside the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant resided). Some scholars have suggested that these two substances were crucial in protecting the priests inside the Holy of Holies, believing that the Ark of the Covenant was made from radioactive material.
Once Aaron and his sons were fully clothed in their vestments, they made several sacrifices beginning with the bull of purification. This act was to purify the space, blood from the bull was placed on the altar and at the base of the altar with the remainder of the bull being burned outside the camp. With each act of sacrifice, they were performing a part of the ritual as prescribed by God. The whole process feels long and drawn out, but reveals the importance of the occasion and the seriousness of being ordained. As the congregation witnesses the rites and rituals of this ordination, they are joining with God to covenant with their spiritual leaders. They are acknowledging their spiritual leaders and their authority over them to provide leadership among the people. The sacredness of this moment is palpable and signifies a unity of the people by their God to 'be holy as God is holy.'
Once ordained, their is an eight day waiting period at which time the ordained is inaugurated to their position. The process of inauguration was as extensive as that of the ordination. This was the moment in which Aaron would officially perform, for the first time, the sacrifices of the community. After all had been completed, the text tells us that, "Fire came out from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and feel on their faces."
There is a recognition by the congregation of how important the rites and rituals were, and how they were designed to connect the people to God. The people saw it, they felt it, they experienced the presence of God in a way that was unmistakable.
The difficult part in reading the institution of the law is when we realize that God was visible, in the form of fire, to the people of Israel, but does not remain so throughout their history. The Ark of the Covenant is lost in future generations, and God's presence is no longer centered in the tent of meeting, or the Tabernacle. In fact, God doesn't reside in any man-made object or structure. Maybe God never did.
What, then, was the purpose of the existence of the Ark, the construction of the tent, and the ordination of Aaron and his sons? The text isn't explicit here. We have to make a few assumptions, which could be entirely wrong. However, based on what was written about the Israelite people and their desire to be separate and apart from those who occupied the land around them, the best way to establish your identity, especially at that time in history, was through your religious devotion and the claiming of sovereignty of your God.
The rituals, practices, and rites instituted by God were designed with one purpose in mind, to show the people how to be holy, fully consecrated to God. It is likely that the Israelite people, like most of us need a demonstration of power in order to believe in the unbelievable. God, or at least the God of the Israelites, revealed something of God's self to the people so that they would grasp the importance of being human and being chosen. This is also the moment God reveals his sovereignty over the people.
There is this single moment of grave disappointment, however, and it comes in Chapter 10 when Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu decide to operate outside of God's instructions; they were killed. It is hard to imagine God taking the life of a minister for not performing a particular duty correctly. This seems entirely out of character for God. But in the beginning, God had a lot to prove. The way we conduct religious ceremonies has also changed dramatically. What can we learn from our past that informs our present?
As we continue in the Book of Leviticus, we'll discover more about the nature of God at this time in history, and even more so, the nature of the people and the land in which they flourished.