|Model of the tabernacle tent, Israel|
Before we go any further with Hebrews, I want to provide a little more context, as the next section takes up the theme of Christ's priesthood, and I think requires a bit of less familiar Old Testament (and the tradition on interpreting it) to really understand what is being said.
The Old Testament provides us essentially with three key models of priesthood: the patrilinear tradition before Moses for example in the sacrifices offered by Abel, Noah after emerging from the Ark, and Abraham; the mysterious figure of Melchisedek, the first person explicitly referred to as a priest in Scripture; and the Aaronite priesthood, supported by the Levites. All three figure in Hebrews' narrative, but I want to focus for the moment on the second, since a lot of Hebrews is devoted to just why this priesthood is now superseded.
Tomorrow, I'll look briefly at the alternative model of Old Testament priesthood in Melchizedek.
The sacrifice of Christ and the day of atonement
The key things we need to understand here by way of context for Hebrews is the importance of the Day of Atonement.
Verse 14 of Chapter Four of Hebrews mentions Christ as our High Priest who has passed into the heavens. The idea that Christ has passed into heaven, or rather, as we shall see, the 'holy of holies', and intercedes there for us, is a key theme of Hebrews, but one it requires a bit of context to fully understand.
Most Catholics will be familiar with the Old Testament texts around the Passover lamb as a context for Easter.
Hebrews, though, points us to another key Old Testament feast as key to Christ's saving sacrifice, namely the Day of Atonement, the one day of the year that the High Priest entered the holy of holies, or inner sanctum of the Temple (and tabernacle).
The first key point is that Jewish tradition understood the Tabernacle, which housed the ark of the covenant while the people of Israel wandered about the desert for forty years, and the First Temple (constructed by Solomon) as being a copy of heaven, and of the Garden of Eden in particular, and perhaps a microcosm of the universe.
Both tabernacle and temple were built according to blueprints set out by God and given to Moses and David respectively). And there is a lot of symbolism in the description of their construction that leads to this interpretation. First, there is some key number symbolism: the Exodus 25-31 and 35-40 explain that the construction was effected in seven days; similarly the Temple was constructed in seven years. Secondly there are parallels that can be found in the tasks completed each day in that construction, and God's ornamentation of the universe in the days of creation as described in Genesis. And thirdly there is some important symbolism associated with the furniture in the tabernacle, and in the vestments worn by the high priest, linking it to the garden of Eden (the original temple).
A number of modern theologians have recently advanced this interpretation as if they had discovered for themselves, but in reality it is not new: it is a tradition well attested to in the Old Testament non-canonical literature and utilised by the Fathers (St Bede provides the most extended commentaries on the subject in his On the Temple and On the Tabernacle)
The tabernale as the dwelling place of God, where man can meet God
Closely related to the ideas about the tabernacle noted above is the function of the tabernacle as the place where God came down and dwelt among his people through the medium of Moses, Aaron and the priests. Just as Adam and Eve talked to God face to face in the Garden of Eden, so too Moses speaks to him in the tabernacle, as Exodus 33:7-11 describes:
Moses, too, removed his tent, and pitched it far off, away from the camp, calling it, The tent which bears witness to the covenant; to this, all who had disputes to settle must betake themselves, away from the camp. And when Moses repaired to this tent of his, all the people rose up and stood at the doors of their own tents, following Moses with their eyes till he went in. And, once he was within the tent that bore witness of the covenant, the pillar of cloud would come down and stand at the entrance of it, and there the Lord spoke with Moses, while all watched the pillar of cloud standing there, and rose up and worshipped, each at his own tent door. Thus the Lord spoke with Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And when he returned to the camp, Josue, son of Nun, the young man who served him, never left the tent unguarded.The tabernacle (and subsequent temple) each contained an inner sanctum which housed the Ark of the Covenant, which in turn was under the veil of the covering suspended by four pillars and an outer chamber (the "Holy Place").
|Model of the holy of holies in the temple|
The Aaronite priesthood
A key feature of both temple and tabernacle is that no-one but the priests were allowed to enter certain parts of the temple, and only the High Priest was ever allowed to enter the inner sanctum, the holy of holies.
The institution of the Aaronite priesthood is set out in Exodus 28-29:
And now, that I may have priests to serve me among the sons of Israel, summon thy brother Aaron, with his sons, Nadab, Abiu, Eleazar and Ithamar, to thy presence. Thou shalt have sacred vestments made for thy brother Aaron, to his honour and adornment, bidding all those cunning workmen, whose art is the gift of my spirit, so clothe him as to set him apart for my service...Thither, too, thou shalt bring Aaron and his sons; and when thou hast washed them, father and sons in water, clothe Aaron in his vestments, the robe, the tunic, the mantle, and the burse made fast to his mantle’s band, and put the mitre on his head, and the holy plate over the mitre. And then anoint his head with oil; so shall he be consecrated. Then it is the turn of his sons to approach, and be clothed in their linen robes, and have their girdles tied and their mitres put on, like Aaron himself; so they shall be my priests, hallowed eternally.
When thou hast consecrated their hands, bring out the bullock in front of the tabernacle that bears record of me; there, when Aaron and his sons have laid their hands upon its head, thou shalt slay it in the Lord’s presence, at the tabernacle door. Some of its blood thou shalt smear, with thy hand, upon the horns of the altar; the rest thou shalt pour out at the altar’s foot. Then take all the fat about its entrails, the membrane of its liver, and the two kidneys with the fat on them and offer them as a burnt-sacrifice on the altar; the flesh, skin and dung of the bullock thou shalt burn beyond the confines of the camp, as an offering for sin....
The sacred vestments which Aaron wore shall be worn by his sons after him when they are anointed and consecrated; whatever son of his shall succeed him, entering the tabernacle that bears record of me and ministering before me in the sanctuary, shall wear them for seven days continuously...All this that I have told thee must be done to Aaron and his sons; thou art to spend seven days in consecrating their hands, and on each of those days a bullock must be sacrificed as a sin-offering to atone for them. So offering a victim to make atonement, thou wilt cleanse the altar, and sanctify it by anointing. Seven whole days thou must spend in winning favour for the altar and consecrating it; so it shall be all holiness, and whoever touches it shall become holy thereby.The key task of this priesthood is to offer the daily sacrifices prescribed:
On this altar thou shalt sacrifice two lambs day by day, with no intermission; one is to be offered in the morning, the other in the evening. One lamb each morning, with a tenth of a bushel of flour, kneaded in three pints of pure oil, and as much wine for a libation; and another offered in the evening with the same rite and all the additional offerings aforesaid, a fragrance acceptable to the Lord.
This is his sacrifice, to be performed day after day, by one generation of you after another, in the Lord’s presence, there at the door of the tabernacle that bears record, the appointed place where I will give thee audience. There I will issue my commands to the sons of Israel; that altar shall be hallowed by my glorious presence. Hallowed it shall be, and hallowed the tabernacle that bears record of me; hallowed shall Aaron be and his sons, for their priestly office. And I will dwell in the midst of the Israelites, and be their God; and they shall know me for the Lord God that rescued them from the land of Egypt, so as to abide among them, their Lord and their God.The Day of Atonement
Leviticus 16 explains that Aaron is never to enter the inner sanctum, the equivalent of the later holy of holies in the Temple, save for once a year, and then only after elaborate preparation:
After the death of Aaron’s two sons, that were punished for offering up unhallowed fire, the Lord spoke to Moses giving him a message for his brother Aaron: He must never present himself without due preparation within the sanctuary, behind the veil, where the throne stands above the ark. If he does so, the penalty is death; it is over this shrine that I mean to reveal myself in cloud.
And this is the preparation he must make; he must offer a young bullock as a victim for his faults, and a ram by way of burnt-sacrifice. He must be clad in the linen robe, with linen breeches for decency, and must be girt with a linen girdle, and wear the linen mitre on his head; these are the sacred vestments he must put on, after washing himself.
And the whole people of Israel must provide him with two goats as victims for their faults, and a ram for burnt-sacrifice.
He will offer the bullock to make intercession for himself and for his family.
The two goats he will present before the Lord, at the door of the tabernacle that bears record of me, and will cast lots between them; one is to be the Lord’s due, the other is for discharge. The one chosen by lot to be the Lord’s due must be offered for their faults; the one chosen for their discharge must be presented before the Lord alive, to let intercession fall upon it, and then be turned loose in the desert.
So, with due ceremony, he will offer the bullock, making intercession for himself and his family, and immolate it. And now, filling his censer with coals from the altar, and taking a handful of beaten spices for incense, he will pass beyond the veil into the inner sanctuary, putting incense on the coals, so that a cloud of smoke may hide that shrine over the ark, which none may see and live. He will take some of the bullock’s blood, too, and sprinkle it with his finger seven times over the eastern end of the sanctuary, opposite the throne. And afterwards, when he has immolated the goat for the faults of the people, he will carry some of its blood, too, within the veil, and sprinkle it there opposite the shrine, like the bullock’s blood. So he will purify the sanctuary from all the faults the sons of Israel have committed, their transgressions and their uncleanness. With the same ceremony he shall purify the tabernacle that bears the Lord’s record, pitched there amongst them, with all the defilement of their dwellings round about.
This ceremony you are to observe for all time. On the tenth day of the seventh month you will keep a fast; no work is to be done by citizen or by alien that day. It is a day of atonement on your behalf, to cleanse you from all fault, and make you clean in the Lord’s sight; it must be all repose; so that you can observe the fast, year after year. He who then holds the office of high priest, duly anointed to serve in place of his father, will make atonement, clad in linen robe and sacred vestments; purify sanctuary, tabernacle, altar, priests and people. You will continue for all time to make intercession, once a year, for the children of Israel, and for all the faults they have committed.And now back to Hebrews...