We’ve been learning about the various characters involved in the story of the first Christmas. We’ve learned about the Magi, who they were and where they came from. We learned about how they were learned in all areas of their domain from commerce, government and national laws, to experts on religion, societal traditions and also literature, the sciences and also astrology and astronomy.
In the last program we took some time to learn about the geopolitical situation between the Romans and the Persians and the possible suspected threat the Romans may have felt by a large delegation of Magi coming from Persia to worship a new-born King of the Jews. We also learned that Herod the Great, who was called the king of the Jews at that time, wasn’t Jewish at all, but he was a tyrannical despot who murdered anyone whom he thought posed a threat to his crown…even his own sons. It was an incredibly unstable, volatile and dangerous time for the Messiah of Israel to be born…and that’s the point!
In this program, we’re going to focus our attention of the priesthood ruling in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Tribe of Levi is the priestly tribe among the Jewish people, and their job was to serve the rest of the nation, maintain all aspects of the Temple and be a go-between for the people and God. Within the Tribe of Levi were many different families, one of which was the family line of Aaron and only the descendants of Aaron could fill the roles of the priests. Anyone not of the family line of Aaron could not be a priest. (Num 3)
The Tribe of Levi, and all the families that made up the Tribe of Levi held particular responsibilities during the wilderness wanderings.
Aaronites: Constructing and dismantling the Holy of Holies, packing and unpacking the holy vessels and instruments used in the Holy of Holies. No other person other than the family line of Aaron was allowed to touch anything used in that sacred and holy chamber and if they did, they would die. Remember Uzzah! (Num 4:1-15; 2 Sam 6:6-7)
Kohathites: Charged with transporting the Ark of the Covenant as well as the vessels packed up by Aaron and his sons. They were to carry these items on their shoulders. (Num 7:9)
Gershonites: Charged with conducting services in the Tabernacle, and they had to transport the curtains, badger skins and instruments used during the services, all under the supervision of Aaron’s son, Ithamar. (Num 4:28)
Merarites: Provided services in the Tabernacle, and were in charge of the boards, bars, pillars, socket pins, cords and instruments. They were also supervised by Ithamar. (Num 4:19-33)
They had specific sections in which they lived; the Kohathites always encamped on the south side of the Tabernacle, the Gershonites on the western side, the Merarites on the northern side and the Aaronites on the eastern side.
By the time of king David, the tribes were more settled into their regions and the Levites implemented more changes in their functions. Some were charged with providing music, choirs and song leading, others were given set tasks within the house of God. There were gate-keepers and ushers, trustees, treasuries and treasurers. (1 Chron 23:24-27; 25:1-7; 6:48; 9:17-24, 26-31) Under king Solomon, the permanent Temple was built and services and functions continued to develop further.
The Levites were permitted to keep portions of the offerings as payment and provision for the work they were doing in the Temple because they weren’t allocated a tribal land allotment like the other tribes. This meant that the rest of the nation provided for their needs through tithes and offerings, however the best portions of the offerings were to be burned before God, the rest would go to the priests and Levites.
By the time of the prophet Malachi, the priesthood had become thoroughly corrupt, and God pointed out that they were ripping the people off and they were ripping God off. How? The people would bring their tithes and offerings to God, but the priests were keeping the best of them for themselves.
Most of the time Malachi is used to encourage Christians to pay their tithes, however, part of the challenge of Malachi was that the priests themselves weren’t honouring the tithes being offered to God. God was angry with them and told them to get things in order.
In fact, the corruption was so wide spread, from the Temple to the people, that God was warning about their entire societal breakdown, but the repentance and change needed to start with the religious leaders. It was approximately 400 years later that Jesus came, and when He entered the Temple, He saw that nothing had changed. The priests were still ripping the people off and dishonouring God because they’d turned God’s House into a marketplace from which to turn a profit! (Mal; Matt 21:13)
Whenever the Israelites gave tithes or offerings, if it included money, only a Temple Shekel was acceptable because the currency used for buying and selling at the time of Jesus was Roman currency and had the image of Caesar on it. No graven images were allowed in the Temple and so Roman currency needed to be converted to Temple currency, hence the implementation of money changers.
Not only that, the priests had built a business selling animals for sacrifice as well. They had cages and pens filled with pigeons, oxen and sheep, that would be sold to people coming to offer sacrifice to the Lord and again, they couldn’t buy them with Roman currency, so they exchanged their Roman currency for Temple currency and of course, just like converting currency today with a foreign currency, there’s a fee involved. (John 2:14)
Jews were required to sacrifice a lamb at Passover (and of course at other times as well), but the Passover lamb had very specific requirements; it had to be a first-born, 1 year old male lamb without any kind of defect. If you brought your own lamb for inspection by the priests, how could you prove it was a first-born male lamb? How could you prove it was 1 year old? (Ex 12:5)
The priests by that time were so corrupt, it was in their own best financial interests to reject lambs that they themselves didn’t sell and so the populace simply bought their lambs from the priests at the Temple. The shepherd’s fields were only 8-9km away in Bethlehem.
When the Magi turned up, wanting to worship the new born King of the Jews, the priests wealth and authority came under direct challenge and threat. So my hypothetical question for this program is…is it possible that the priesthood had a breeding program established in Bethlehem where first-born male lambs were bred for sacrifice in the Temple, at the feat of Passover, when judgment would ‘passover’ the people because of the shed blood of the lamb?
In our next program we’ll take a look at the role of the Shepherds.