Standards for Priestly Leadership

April 23, 2013, 0 Comments

The establishment of the class of priests within the Israelite people is documented throughout the Mosaic Law. One dictionary explains the essential idea of the priesthood in the following manner. “Moses furnishes us with the key to the idea of Old Testament priesthood, in Numbers 16:5, which consists of three elements—the being chosen or set apart for Jehovah as his own, the being holy, and the being allowed to come or bring near. The first expresses the fundamental condition, the second the qualification, the third the function of the priesthood.”[1] The priests, therefore, fulfilled specialized functions that were reserved only for them. The men who were a part of the priesthood were to live in such a way as to represent God’s holiness and to communicate his Law to the people. Matthews states, “The challenge was to the priests to officiate at the holy altar where the laity brought their offerings as ‘food offerings’ to the Lord. These offerings were the layperson’s act of worship.”[2] He went on to describe that the dress of the priests was distinct as well. In overseeing the burnt sacrifices, priests dressed in white inner and outer garments to communicate the purity of God.[3] Therefore, their service in the Temple was to help in the worship and offering of sacrifices by the people to God in their actions and even by their very appearance. From the peculiar dress to the required standard of holiness, these Old Testament leaders were required by God to perform their duties for the sake of his kingdom.

One scene from the history of the priesthood, found in 1 Samuel 2, is helpful for understanding God’s standards for leadership among the priesthood. At this time, Eli was serving as the high priest. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, were reported to be “wicked men” (verse 12), and abused the sacrificial system for their own personal gain. “They treated the LORD’s offering with contempt” (verse 17) by requiring the one making the offering to give the priests a portion of the offering that was reserved for God.

An anonymous “man of God” delivers a prophecy to Eli that the family will suffer because of the sins of his sons. Members of Eli’s family will not reach elderly ages, they will witness distress in the place of worship, bring grief to the place of worship, and die by violent means (2:27-34). The man of God informs Eli that the sign that all of these things will come true is that Hophni and Phineas will both die on the same day (verse 34).

Since Eli’s house will be cut off from the work of the priesthood, the prophecy included the message that God would provide a replacement. In 2:35, the man of God says on behalf of the Lord, “Then I will raise up a faithful priest for Myself. He will do whatever is in My heart and mind. I will establish a lasting dynasty for him and he will walk before My anointed one for all time.”

In this episode, specifically 2:35, it is shown that God will establish another family to lead “in the most weighty duties associated with Israelite sanctuary worship.”[4]  From the new responsibilities given to another family, several insights can be observed about leadership for God’s people. Klein stated, “This faithful line of priests, in sharp contrast to the Elide line, will conform their lives to Yahweh’s heart (the seat of intellect and will) and soul (the seat of desires and appetites; the terms are frequent in deuteronomistic context with regard to one’s own heart and soul, e.g. Deut 6:5; 1 Kgs 2:4; 2 Kgs 23:25).”[5]  Klein went on to note that “the priestly line of Zadok is set apart by God’s promise” to fulfill the role of the priesthood.[6] Therefore the first observation is that God establishes leadership when he states in verse 35, “Then I will raise up. . . .” As has been illustrated through the previous sections, which surveyed Moses and the prophets, only God has the authority truly to establish someone as a leader. Bergen noted regarding the change in leaders, “It was the sinful acts of Hophni, Phineas, and Eli (cf. 1 Samuel 2:17, 29) that eventuated their judgment and death, just as it was Samuel’s pious and obedient service (cf. 1 Samuel 2:26; 3:18) that caused him to rise to the level of an esteem national leader (cf. 1 Samuel 3:20).”[7] Even though those who were fulfilling the role of priest were failing in their duties and fidelity to God, this leadership role would not fall because of their inabilities. Rather, because God desires to have leaders among his people, he would establish a new person to fill the role. No one should assume leadership unless God appoints them.

Furthermore, another principle centers on the loyalty of the leader. “One of the central truths discernable in this passage is that everyone—even Levitical judges—must be subject to the requirements of the Torah.”[8] As Hophni and Phineas disobey the Law (2:29), they are disqualified from leadership is that they placed their own needs (hunger for food) above the worship of God. To this, God would replace Eli’s house with a “faithful priest for Myself.” In commenting on verse 30, Tsumura wrote, “Honoring one’s sons more than Yahweh, thus reversing the priority of devotion, and despising the divine commandment go side by side in the lives of sinful men.”[9] As Eli failed in his leadership duties, his sons followed in the same path and God removed them all from the work. Therefore, it can be seen then that the leader God appoints must show loyalty first to God to fulfill his work among humanity. God does not allow for human selfishness to be tolerated among his leaders. As briefly touched upon earlier, even the reluctant prophet Jonah was pressed into adverse circumstances so that he would fulfill God’s wishes rather than his own. In the case of Eli’s family, they were totally disqualified from leadership, so God could place a faithful person in the role.

Worthy of note is how the new leaders’ service is described in 2:35 as doing whatever is in the heart and mind of God. The leaders God will call and utilize are ones he makes “privy to the very thoughts of God and obedient to him.”[10] Therefore, the work of the leader is not according to their personal whims, but is in line with both the passion and plan of God. The leaders called by God, thus far seen in the examples studied, are solely beholden to God’s message and purposes for his people. The king who would one day lead the Israelites was to carry a physical copy of the Law with him while seated on the royal throne (Deut 17:18). With Moses, he was to speak only what God had revealed. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets were to fulfill their roles by speaking as God’s oracles to both the Hebrews and the surrounding nations on behalf of God. Leadership, as revealed in the Old Testament examples surveyed, was to center not on the human called into the role, but rather on the God who performed the calling.


As part of my doctoral project, I offered an overview of various types of leadership laid out in the Bible. The preceding comes from that overview.

[1] Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1957), 882.

[2] Kenneth A. Matthews, Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2009), 179.

[3] Ibid., 62.

[4] Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, vol. 7 of New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1998), 84.

[5] Ralph W. Klein, 1 Samuel of Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Book, Publishers, 1983), 28.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, vol. 7 of New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1998), 45.

[8] Ibid., 60.

[9] David T. Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel of The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 167.

[10] Ronald F. Youngblood, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, vol. 3 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), 588.

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