The Priesthood – Hebrews 5

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Nothing is said in this chapter about God requiring that we have a priest, for him to receive us. The chapter outlines the need of humanity for a priest, and God’s provision of that priest as a gift for our benefit. The chapter doesn’t say God demanded we have a priest for our sin, but that man needed this for himself and for his communities.

This depends though on how we understand the term priest. Adam and Eve were priests, which meant they were God’s image bearers, his representatives in his rule over the creation. Genesis 2 describes the creation as a temple, in which God put his image. The pagan creation narratives were similar. After creation a temple was made for the god and his image or statue was placed in the temple. God’s image is humanity and God formed mankind and placed him and her in the garden as his statues, his representatives in the world. Just as the temple in ancient times was the place where heaven came into and renewed the world, so Eden was the place from where God’s sabbath government would continue to envelop the whole creation.

But Adam and Eve, as priests offered no sacrifice for sins. Their task was to reflect God’s image and character into their relationships and into the natural world. They were the heavenly conduit for the wellbeing of creation.

After the fall, the priesthood took on a different character. Though God did not instruct this anywhere in Genesis, gifts began to be offered to God. We don’t have details about why this started. The clothing of Adam and Eve, in Genesis 3, wasn’t through the slaying of an animal, as sometimes has been taught. The language used refers to priests’ clothing, garments of woven cloth, not animal skins. It was clothing “for their skin,” not “of skin.” (See also Exodus 22:27)

Cain and Abel also gave offerings, but there was no mention they were for sin, or that God asked for them. There is no mention of blood shedding either. Sheep could have been offered for milk and wool, to share with the community. There was no mention of meat eating. The first blood shedding in sacrifices mentioned in the scripture is that of Noah after the flood, which God accepted from Noah’s faith, though didn’t ask for. Then God began to monitor animal sacrifice and make regulations about it.

It was sometime after the fall that blood sacrifices for sin began within human culture. It probably happened due to the human need of appeasing the gods from a sense of fear, alienation and rejection. We see this with Adam and Eve, portrayed in the Garden, when they fled and hid from God. It was their own conscience. The letter of Hebrews puts it this way, as we shall see in subsequent chapters. Though we often read Genesis 1-3 in a law/ punishment way, the text wasn’t written that way. It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son that wakes us up to this.

As mankind began to make offerings for sin, they needed a priesthood to officiate at such offerings. The priesthood became a necessity, to alleviate this human need, and also to keep a sense of equilibrium within the communities. If sin troubled the heart of man, then this trouble would more likely disrupt human relationships and bring chaos to the community. So, the priesthood was a necessary player in all human civilization. It played a very important part.

We may say our cultures are more sophisticated today, since we don’t have sacrifice and need of such priests. But we still offer sacrifices for the sake of our own conscience and the equilibrium of our communities. These are usually in the form of scapegoating others, their reputation, people of other faiths or races. Our priests are often politicians, or others who officiate over our divisions, the offering of other humans for the collective good. This is still common and still part of how civilizations find cohesion.

This is why the scriptures say things like, “I never spoke to your fathers to bring me offerings and blood offerings.” (Jeremiah 7:22) These things, and the temples made for the ritual of blood offerings, were intact in ancient civilizations well before Moses’s time. We may say that God entered into our systems of religion, in Christ, and fulfilled them. In doing so, he took away our need to sacrifice, for us to do things his way, to restore goodness to our communities through self-giving, with free forgiveness, kindness and love towards our neighbour and enemy. That is, he replaced sacrifice with justice and mercy, which is what the Prophets said was the will of God. (Hosea 6:6) The letter of Hebrews tells us the same thing, as we shall see.

So, we have two kinds of priests in the scripture. One officiates over the death of others, to appease the sense of alienation in the human heart and in the community. This system was intact in the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus came. The other priesthood was that of Jesus, who offered himself instead, to forgive his enemies freely, and show God’s love to a conscience-stricken humanity. When people share this love with others, this also restores the sense of forgiveness and wellness to the whole community. To move us from our human understanding of priesthood, to God’s kind of priesthood, is very difficult. It means overcoming the sense of retributive justice that is native and dominate to all our hearts. This was a mammoth task and could only be achieved by the shed blood of Christ.

So, Hebrews 5 begins with “every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” This was happening in the temple in Jerusalem in that day. But the mission of the priesthood was failing. All the Jews knew that the priesthood was corrupted. The office of the high priest was bought by gifts by people who weren’t the ones the law said should occupy the position. The office was also corrupted by Rome.

So, the priesthood was failing. It was failing to bring a sense of reconciliation with God on an individual level for the worshipper, because everyone knew that the offerings were tainted. And it was also failing to bring a sense of cohesion to the society because the sense of corruption and alienation was being passed on in the community from one aggrieved person to another. The priesthood, that was supposed to restore equilibrium, was adding to disequilibrium. Jerusalem was in big trouble. The sense of retributive justice in the human heart would only become heightened in such a situation, when it wasn’t been properly appeased within the society. This was dangerous for everyone, making the society very angry. Retribution would then be settled as seemed right to each person on the street.

So, as the author of Hebrews says, the people needed a priest who was perfect, without fault, untainted by our human corruption. Only this priest could appease our hearts with God, take away our wrath against ourselves, and against our neighbour. Only a righteous priest could announce God’s forgiveness to us, which we could then with assurance share with all others in our neighbourhood.

I think we have a problem in reading the bible when we do so outside of its human context, in this case the historical setting of Jerusalem into which the author of Hebrews was writing. Then our faith just becomes a set of doctrines divorced from our human situation, irrelevant to our society. When our theology is divorced from anthropology, it just becomes a dogma we hold to. But the true faith isn’t like that. It is God interacting with us on a human level, entering our history and troubles, in our social systems, in a way we can then understand, and solving them at the root of their cause, in our hearts. This is the kind of God we can’t do without. He is not just a God of creed, but the God who knows and heals our communities.

But I guess all this would be hard to explain, as the author says, to the person of that day, embroiled as they were, in the “righteous” causes of conflict. They all wanted to solve Israel’s ills by installing a perfect priest, to take away their sins, but this would always mean more conflict. From the Maccabees to the day of the author of Hebrews, installing a kosher high priest was always a bloody affair, and many would die in the quest. But the need would always arise again, and more conflict in its wake. But Jesus takes the whole conflict away, takes the whole struggle of sin and sacrifice out of our hearts, and leaves us with an infinity of grace, more than enough grace to spread throughout all our relationships, bringing peace to our cosmos.

No more sacrifice is needed because Christ’s solution is final. He delivers us forever from sin and its judgement and destruction in and flowing from our hearts. ”To those who obey him:” Who pass this grace onto others, rather than fall back into a hostility of judgment and rejection of others, in the way they lived their Old Testament faith.

Hebrews 5 again stresses the gentleness of the priest in dealing with our weakness, not as the harshness common in Jerusalem at that time. This is the gentleness with which we are to deal with each other as well, serving others in a spirit of meekness, mindful of our own need.

That is, the high priest is there to help us and to heal our infirmities, not because God requires it for his own demand in law.