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The Biblical Covenants, Part 4: The Priestly Covenant

While most people recognize the names of the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants, there is another covenant that God made with man: The Priestly or the Phinehatic Covenant (hereafter referred to as PC). If the objective of our study is to survey all the covenants God made with man in the Bible, then not only can we not ignore this covenant, but we must also form our theology around what God promises within this covenant rather than forcing God’s promises through preconceived ideas. The Priestly Covenant, as with the other covenants, progress God’s revelation of His future victory over the serpent through the seed of the woman.

 

Covenant Context


Yhwh proclaims the PC through Moses in Numbers 25. This portion of Numbers is near the dividing point of the book. The rebellious first generation and their experiences from Sinai through various acts of rebellion until the last rebel dropped dead in the wilderness takes up the first 25 chapters. The second generation from the Exodus and their experiences, expectations, and first fruits of conquest are recorded in chapters 26-36. The PC is given as the curtain is falling on the rebellious first generation. This is significant for many reasons, but that the individual to whom Yhwh establishes this covenant is Phinehas (the son of Eleazar, the grandson of Aaron) is most telling. Aaron died in the wilderness along with the first generation (Num. 14, 20) and was replaced as high priest by his son Eleazar. Either Eleazar was young enough at the time of rebellion at Kadesh-barnea (Num. 13-14) or he was spared. Either way, Eleazar’s son Phinehas is certainly a representative of those Israelites who were destined to enter and take the Promised Land.


Rebellion is what best marks the first generation. Even though they witnessed Yhwh’s power in Egypt, in the wilderness, and at Sinai, they repeatedly prove that they have no intention of obeying Yhwh’s word or keeping His covenant. The context of the PC is found at the climax of such rebellion. Poised on the edge of the Promised Land, Israel is attacked from within. Under the seductive influence of the Midianites, an Israelite prince from the tribe of Simeon brings a Midianite princess into the camp of Israel for the purpose of worshipping the pagan deity Baal through sexual congress. Everyone sees this happening. Everyone knows what is going on within the Simeonite’s tent. But only one man acts: Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest.


Phinehas took a spear in his hand, entered the tent where the abominable act was even then in progress, and pierced both offenders, the Israelite man and the Midianite woman, through the body. Because (1) this act of false worship was an act of treason against Yhwh and (2) was conducted in full view and with the full knowledge of the nation, Yhwh killed 24,000 Israelites that day via plague (Num. 25:9). Phinehas’ action stopped the plague in its tracks. For his faith set in motion, Yhwh made a covenant with Phinehas and with his seed.

 

Covenant is Cut (Num. 25:10-13)

Then Yhwh spoke unto Moses saying, ‘Phinehas son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, he has driven back My wrath from against the sons of Israel, when he was zealous with My zeal in their midst; so I did not consume the sons of Israel in My zeal. Therefore say: Behold I am giving to him My covenant of peace. And it is to him and to his seed after him, a covenant of everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and he made atonement over the sons of Israel.’

 

The covenant that God cut with Phineas brings many questions to mind. (1) How does this covenant fit within the grander scheme of God’s covenants? (2) What is promised within this covenant? (3) What are the implications of this covenant? These questions are important and must be answered.

 

How Does the Covenant Fit?


Because of the broad historical context (after the giving of the Mosaic Covenant c. 1446 BC and before the giving of the Davidic Covenant c. 976 BC), the PC is sometimes lumped into the conversation of the MC. Yet there are several things to notice about this text that clearly distinguish it from the MC and set it apart as its own unique covenant. The first thing of note is the language employed. There is (1) absent any sign of condition (if/then) and (2) similar language to covenants already established. Namely, the Noahic and Abrahamic Covenants. This is an unconditional covenant by which God will bless Phinehas and his seed with no strings attached. Simply put, this will happen. A second consideration is the timeframe of this covenant. Like the covenants made with Noah and Abraham, this is not a temporal covenant but looks down the corridor into eternity. Phinehas’ sons will serve Yhwh as priests forever. This fact alone is sufficient to separate the PC from the MC. A final observation is to note the use of seed (זֶרַע) or descendants. While this is not a dot in the chart of the seed of the woman,[1] this does invite future generations to trace this particular line. This covenant is not made with the entire tribe of Levi, nor all Aaron’s sons, nor even with all Eleazar’s sons. The covenant of perpetual priesthood is now linked with Phinehas and his seed.


While clearly standing as an independent covenant, it is just as clear that there is a connection between the PC and the MC. If for no other reason, the concept of priesthood (which is a major factor in the MC) stands front and center. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that the priesthood is exclusively tied to the MC. By selecting Israel to be Yhwh’s own nation, a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6) we learned how Abraham’s seed was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). The same priesthood that ties the PC to the MC also links it with the AC.

 

What Does the Covenant State?


The promise of perpetual priesthood is given to Phinehas and his seed on account of Phinehas’ actions that day. The zeal (קִנְאָה – (a) jealousy due to competition, (b) zeal/anger being the active sense of that jealousy) of Phinehas was Yhwh’s zeal. It was not that Phinehas was zealous/jealous for Yhwh so much as he was zealous/jealous with Yhwh’s zeal/jealousy.[2] He was acting on Yhwh’s behalf and not out of personal emotion or in any self-serving capacity. This zeal reveals what Phinehas knew and believed. Phinehas knew that the adulterous act conducted with the Midianite woman was also an adulterous act against Yhwh. The noun קִנְאָה is used for the first time in the book of Numbers in chapter 5 (7x), a text that describes what a faithful husband is to do with a wife suspected of infidelity. Yet here, there is no suspicion and the only thing to do is to execute Yhwh’s revealed will. Both parties must die. Regarding what Phinehas believed this action demonstrates the necessity of keeping the nation holy. He understands that the MC articulates the purpose of the AC; namely, to make a kingdom of priests by which the world will be blessed. Phinehas is acting the part of the whole nation, taking upon himself the role that should have been conducted by every member of the nation: to cut off the idolator. Phinehas’ actions reveal his faith and were efficacious for himself and the nation.


Because Phinehas executed Yhwh’s jealousy, Yhwh didn’t execute that same jealousy upon the whole nation (v. 11). Phinehas was a faithful Israelite who trusted Yhwh as his God (Gen. 17:7; Ex. 6:7; 19:6). This act of wrath on sin was considered an act of atonement (כפר) for the sons of Israel (v. 13). The act of the one covered the sins of the many and checked Yhwh’s wrath and He thus establishes His covenant of peace (בְּרִית שָׁלוֹם). There is now a promise of peace between Yhwh and the seed-line of Phinehas. Therefore, this one will serve before Yhwh , he and his seed after him in an everlasting priesthood. Here stands a true Israelite whose descendants will forever serve Yhwh on behalf of the nation. Here is an example of one man doing what the nation was called to do. Yhwh has spoken. This will happen.

 

What Does the Covenant Mean?


There really is not much guesswork involved with understanding what this covenant means. When God promised Phinehas that his line would serve as priests before Yhwh forever, He meant that Phinehas’ line would serve as priests before Him forever. The only reason that discussion exists regarding the meaning of these words is because men tend to interpret their Bibles via experience and circumstance rather than by the author’s intention. That is, because there is no priesthood in Israel today, many find some ulterior meaning for this text. Yet, no such alterations are necessary if there is a future temple with future priests of Phinehas’ line serving Yhwh in Jerusalem.


What this covenant means is that there will forever be a link for Israel to receive the blessings of the AC. The MC was given in order to reveal what it looks like for Yhwh to be Israel’s God and explain the purpose such a relationship but this new PC promises the reality of peace between Israel and Yhwh through the priesthood. That the MC was given as a Suzerain-Vassal covenant combined with the fact that Israel broke the covenant repeatedly before they ever entered the land would bring into question the reality of Israel ever receiving such blessings. Yet, because God promised that (1) a priesthood would continue to exist, (2) that the line of priests would still stem from Aaron via Phinehas, and (3) that peace is the overarching theme of this covenant, there now remains a way for Israel to be Yhwh’s chosen nation and for Yhwh to be their God. Here is proof that though the MC will pass away, the plans and purposes of God will never pass away.

 

Covenant Continuation


The prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament are forever looking back upon the promises of God in order to exhort the people of their own time. If later prophets refer to the PC, then we had better check in to see if we are interpreting this passage in the same way they did. Fortunately for us, the above interpretation of the PC (perpetual priesthood in fulfillment of the AC outside of the MC) is supported by how later authors interpret, expound, and develop upon this covenant.


Even though the phrase “Priestly Covenant” or Phinehatic Covenant” are never found in the Bible (similarly, the term “Mosaic Covenant” is absent from the biblical text), there remain clear references to this covenant. These references include (1) terms taken directly from the covenant such as “covenant of peace” (בְּרִית שָׁלוֹם), a phrase only found in a few key passages (Num. 25:12; Is. 54:10; Ezek. 34:35; 37:26; Mal. 2:5) and (2) references such as “My covenant with Levi” (בְּרִיתִי אְת־לֵוִי – Mal. 2:4) or the covenant with the “Levitical priests” (Jer. 33:18-22) that can only refer to this covenant. Examining these texts will confirm our previous exegesis as well as provide additional details regarding this covenant.

 

Isaiah 54:10

“’For the mountains will be removed and the hills will stagger, but My loyal love will never be removed from you, and the covenant of My peace will never stagger’ says Yhwh who has compassion on you.

 

The connection between this text and the PC is found in the description of Yhwh’s covenant of peace. According to Isaiah, this covenant will outlast the mountains and the hills. The illustration of the longevity of creation seems to link this covenant with the previous Noahic Covenant (Gen. 8:22) but certainly sets this covenant apart from the MC, which was broken (Deut. 31:16, 20; Jer. 11:10) and is now done away though the mountains and hills remain. Yet, the choice of wording, using God’s loyal love (חֶסֶד) and His compassion (רחם) echoes some sort of connection with Yhwh’s covenant fidelity to the nation Israel (Ex. 34:6-7). Isaiah (1) draw a distinction between the PC and the MC, (2) speaks of the PC in similar terms as the Noahic Covenant, and (3) presents the PC in similar language as the MC.

 

Jeremiah 33:20-22

Thus says Yhwh, ‘If you can break My covenant with the day and My covenant with the night, so that day and night will no longer be in their time; then My covenant with David My servant will be broken, from having a son to rule upon his throne; also with the Levitical priests, My ministers. As the hosts of heaven will never be counted and the sand of the sea will never be measured; thus, I will multiply the seed of David My Servant and the Levites who minister to Me.’

 

In the clearest terms possible, Jeremiah states that it is not possible to break either the Davidic Covenant or the covenant God made with the Levites (the PC). The precedence for both these everlasting covenants is predicated upon the Noahic Covenant, God’s covenant with the day and the night (Gen. 8:22). This statement also borrows language from the AC regarding the multiplication of David’s seed with the comparison of the heavens’ hosts (Gen. 15:5). There is a place for the priesthood outside of the MC alongside these other eternal covenants. Yet, the duties and service of the priesthood is exactly what is described within the MC. Though the MC will not continue, the priesthood will.


One final note on this. The connection to the Noahic covenant is more than metaphorical but is given as a sign that this future PC will come to fulfillment. The fact that the Noahic Covenant is still in effect by virtue of the earth’s stability is the sign of the PC. Thus, the promise of Phinehas’ seed serving before Yhwh is connected with the promise of stability for the seed to come and gain victory of the serpent.

 

Ezekiel 34:25, 30

“’And I will cut a covenant of peace with them and will banish harmful beasts from the land; and they will dwell securely in the wilderness, and sleep in the forests…And they will know that I, Yhwh their God, am with them; and they are My people, the house of Israel’ declares Lord Yhwh.

 

The context of this verse is within Yhwh’s condemnation of Israel’s shepherds (princes and priests) and His promise to personally shepherd His people, Israel. In addition to the priest-line from Phinehas, the whole nation will benefit from this covenant. This covenant of peace will, at the very least, greatly reduce the effects of the curse if not completely reverse them. Wild beasts will no longer be a threat to those in the wilderness and the forest will be safe enough for one to camp out without posting a guard. This is all the more potent when we remember that the metaphor of Israel as sheep continues throughout this chapter. In v. 30, the connection with the MC becomes most obvious because it is through this covenant of peace that Israel will effectively be Yhwh’s people in that they will know Yhwh and He will be their God. The purpose of the AC was to make Israel Yhwh’s own nation where He is their God. The MC was supposed to articulate what was necessary for that to take place. The PC will effectively secure this reality. In short, Israel is promised a connection to the promises of the AC without the MC.

 

Ezekiel 37:26-28

And I will cut a covenant of peace with them, an everlasting covenant it will be with them. And I will give to them and multiply to them, and I will give My sanctuary in their midst forever. And My sanctuary will be with them, and I will be God to them; and they will be My people to Me. And the nations will know that I, Yhwh sanctifies Israel; when My sanctuary is in their midst forever.

 

The same covenant of peace is perfectly intertwined with the language of the AC and the MC. The PC is part of God’s plan to accomplish all that was promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The PC is necessary because God’s sanctuary, His holy “tent” will be in the midst of Shem (Gen. 9:27) and His priests must minister to Him (Jer. 33:20-22). Through the service of the priests, the foreign nations, or the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3) will know that Yhwh is a covenant keeper and be blessed.

 

Malachi 2:1-9


Malachi is the last of the Old Testament writing prophets and his message is mostly that of condemnation against the religious hypocrisy of Israel. In chapter two, he begins a specific condemnation of Israel’s priests, still operating under the guise of the MC. The condemnation begins with a reminder that disobedience is accompanied with a curse (v. 2), for which a curse must certainly come (v. 3). This curse is to draw the priests to repentance as they remember the promise of the PC, a covenant that is for life and peace (vv. 4-7). This covenant anticipates a priest who will fear God, speak truth and righteousness, and walk with God in peace. Because the priests of Malachi’s day have not kept the MC, they cannot possibly be the priests anticipated by the PC. The close of the Old Testament affirms that the MC has been broken and anticipates a future fulfillment of the PC.



[1] Ever since Gen. 49:10, the search for the promised seed to come as God’s victor has been traced to Judah’s line, not Levi’s.


[2] C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, trans. James Martin, vol. 1, Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), The Fourth Book of Moses, p. 206.

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