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The Priesthood, the Urim and the Thummim,
Temple Duties and Singers and Musicians

What is the meaning of the Old Testament priesthood, the urim, thummim and the temple duties etc?

Blood Sacrifice

When we read in the Old Testament about the priests and the sacrifices; the shedding of blood, it can appear strange, even odd to a Western mindset, but even more so in the twenty-first century. However, as we read the Old Testament we can have a better understanding of the New Testament and vice versa, but specially when we read that Jesus was the ‘Lamb of God’ (John 1:29) that was sacrificed for our sins, pure holy and without spot or blemish. ‘For whatever things were written before were written for our learning…’ Romans 15:4.

‘For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool and hyssop and sprinkled the book itself and all the people saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you.” Then likewise he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. And according to the law almost all things are purged with blood and without the shedding of blood there is no remission…He [Jesus] has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself…So Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him, He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation’ Hebrews 10:19-22, 26, 28.

‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed’ Romans 3:23-25.

Animal sacrifice was a ritual through which the Israelites made atonement (payment or compensation for a wrong) for their sins (Exodus 24:6-8). Leviticus chapters 1, 3, 4 and 7 and Leviticus 17:11, which included consecration, expiation (covering of sin) and propitiation (satisfaction of divine anger) and emphasised the importance of blood and its covering.

The Israelites had to shed blood to atone for their sins, as they were under the Law. Where as Jesus the Lamb of God, shed His blood once and for all as the final sacrifice for our sins (the sins of mankind) but now we are under the new covenant of grace, ‘Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness for sins’ (Hebrews 9:22).

‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’ 1 Corinthians 1:18.

‘But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been made near by the blood of Christ’ Ephesians 2:13.

‘To Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel’ Hebrews 12:24.

‘…You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold...but with the precious blood of Christ as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you’ 1 Peter 1:18-20.

‘And all who dwell on the earth will worship him [the dragon], whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’ Revelation 13:8.

“Come now and let us reason together” says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool” Isaiah 1:18.

The Cross and the Blood of Jesus Go

The Priesthood

When the priesthood was instituted in the wilderness under the direct order of God, Moses consecrated his brother Aaron as the first High Priest of Israel (Exodus 28:1-29:46 and Leviticus 8:6-9). Aaron’s sons were in succession in the line of priesthood. They were anointed with oil and then all had to be cleansed by the blood of the sin offering, a bull (Leviticus 8:14-15 and Leviticus 8:10-30). This speaks of believers who go into the ministry, that they need to have an anointing and need to be under the blood of Jesus. In verse 30 we see that the oil and the blood were also sprinkled on them and their garments after they had been cleansed as a continual sanctifying process.

The High Priest Dress Code

The High Priest dress code represented his function as mediator between God and the people of Israel. His most important responsibility was once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to enter into the Holy of Holies and to make a sacrifice, first for his own sin and then a sacrifice for the sins of the nation (Exodus 30:10).

Over the regular priestly garments which included linen shorts (Exodus 28:42) the High Priest wore an ephod, a two piece apron, and a breastplate of righteous that was inlaid with twelve precious stones. On each stone was engraved the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel (Exodus 28:1-43).

For believers in Christ Jesus this can mean that we are meant to have all the nations of the world on our heart for prayer (Psalm 2:8). Some people are called as intercessor to pray for specific people or groups, but all disciples of the Lord Jesus must be concerned for mankind.

For example when we pray for Israel, especially for ‘the peace of Jerusalem’ there are both Jew and Arabs in Jerusalem (and others) all of whom need to know Jesus as the Saviour of the world. There are both Palestine and Jewish followers of Jesus. We need to be very careful how we think in our hearts, as we could easily become guilty of being prejudiced. ‘For God so loved the world…’ John 3:16. God loves all and so should we, God tells us that He has ‘no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they might turn and repent’ Ezekiel 33:11.

On the Hem of the High Priest garments were pomegranates and bells (Exodus 28:33-34). The pomegranates speak of healing as they were used for medicine in Old Testament times and the bells speak of proclamation, e.g. the old town crier proclaims, “Hear ye, hear ye…” or the church bells ringing, denoting specific time or functions - warnings or jubilation. When the High Priest moved you could hear where he was and only he was allowed into the Holy of Holies and that being just once a year. This reveals that as Jesus moves, who is our great High Priest, He also proclaims healing (see Isaiah 53:5, Matthew 12:15 and 1 Peter 2:24).

The woman with the issue of blood had faith and insight into who Jesus was and she pressed in and touched His hem to receive her healing by faith (Matthew 9:18-26). ‘Wherever He entered into villages, cities, or in the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Him that they might just touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched Him were made well’ Mark 6:56.

For the Israelites the hem of a garment represented who you were, in Jesus' time it was used like a credit card of sorts. The hem, which was woven in various patterns, was imprinted on clay tablets as a sign that you had purchased an item.

The Urim and the Thummim

In the pocket of the breastplate directly over the High Priest's heart were the Urim and the Thummim (Exodus 28:30). This was the medium in which God frequently communicated His will to His people, the Israelites (Numbers 27:21). Moses walked close with God and spoke face to face with Him (Exodus 3:6 and Exodus 33:11). Prophets were also used as a means to communicate with the leaders of the day (1 Kings chapter 18). Today we have the Holy Spirit who will guide us and direct us into all truth (John 16:13).

Nobody knows exactly what the Urim and the Thummim were or what they looked like but possibly they were like lots (Proverbs 16:33) and some scholars say that the precious stones that were on, by, or in the breast plate of the High Priest were these lots; but the truth remains a mystery (1 Samuel 14:19 1 Samuel 23:7-12, and 1 Samuel 30:7-8). But we do know that the kings of Israel and other people asked the High Priest to enquire of God via the Urim and Thummim on their behalf (1 Samuel 28:6, Ezra 2:63 and Nehemiah 7:65).

Being Responsible

The High Priest was also responsible for seeing that the duties of all the priests were carried out in a similar fashion as to a manager or a foreman (2 Chronicles 19:11). When things went wrong then the High Priest had to take the responsibility as the buck stopped with him (Aaron - Leviticus 10:16-20).

Aaron’s sons made a grave error and offered profane fire before the Lord and it cost them their lives (Leviticus 10:1-3, see also Numbers 16:35-40). All believers must be very serious in the things of God and we are not to take our responsibilities lightly. Whatever we do we are meant to do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31) not just when we are being watched; i.e. when we are working and the boss is around. God sees all and knows all and He knows the thoughts and the intents of the heart.

King David organised twenty-four groups of priest to serve at the tabernacle during his reign as King of Judah, which was chosen by lots (1 Chronicles chapters 23-26 and 1 Chronicles 24:31). King Hezekiah and Josiah assisted the High Priest in reform and restoration of the temple (2 Chronicles chapters 29-31 and chapters 34-35). After the Israelites had returned from exile other people like Ezra and Nehemiah etc. were commission to help reinstate the priesthood (Ezra 5:1-2, Ezra 6:16-18, Ezra 10:18-24 and Haggai 2:1-9).

Jesus the High Priest

In the New Testament we see Jesus figuratively as a ‘High Priest.’ He was not of the order and lineage of Aaron, but of Melchizedek, priest of God Most High, an eternal priesthood, without mother or father (Genesis 14:18-20, Hebrews 5:1-10 and Hebrews chapter 7). Jesus had no need to sacrifice for His sin, for He had no sin (Hebrews 7:26-28). Jesus offered Himself as a living sacrifice with His ‘own blood,’ ‘once and for all’ (Hebrews 9:12, 26 and Hebrews 10:10-12). Therefore we can come boldly to the throne of grace (Hebrews 10:19) into the presence of God through the ‘one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus who gave Himself a ransom for all…’ 1 Timothy 2:5-6.

‘Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh. How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?’ Hebrew 9:11-14.

Priests Daily Duties at the Temple

The Sanhedrin and Kohanim

For the following information most of the facts is obtained from Jewish sources, some Scriptures are given to illustrate a point or meaning and are not necessarily to say this is where it is mentioned. See also 1 Chronicles 23:3-32 and chapters 24-27.

The Sanhedrin, the supreme body of judicial legislation, had their offices on the south side of the court. It was built of square hewn stone, half was built in the sanctified area of the temple area and half was in the unsanctified area. The court was held in the outer area in a semi circle, and was responsible for teaching and examining candidates for the priesthood.

The Kohanim (Kohathites) were priests that were responsible for daily service in the temple. There were twenty-four shifts each for one week at a time; this covered all the temple services. Each shift was sub divided into clans (family branches) who worked for one day each week and everybody worked on the Sabbath. Due to the number of priests not all could work at the same time, so four lotteries were performed by the casting of lots (1 Chronicles 25:8, 1 Chronicles 26:13-14 and Nehemiah 10:34) to determine who would serve that day.


The entire priesthood first had to purify themselves in a Mikvah - a special pool of water. The lotteries took place at the chamber of hewn stone. A pre-selected number of priests were chosen, more than was actually required as some could be defiled. The chosen priests were divided into two columns.

Each column formed the dawn patrol, responsible for checking that everything in the temple was in its right place; all ninety-three of the sacred vessels (Jeremiah 52:17-19). One group went east, and the other went west and they met at the chamber of Meal Offering, where the High Priest’s daily meal offering was prepared. If all was in order they then sang, ‘Peace, all is peaceful.’

Lottery One

Lottery one was to decide which priests would carry out the removal of ashes from the altar. The altar was on Mount Moriah where Abraham was prepared to offer Isaac; the site is now known as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Israel, which is in Muslim hands and is the scene of many contentions.

The altar was sixteen metres wide and five metres high with a large ramp leading to the top. There were three woodpiles, one for the live coals, one for the perpetual fire and the other for sacrifices. Only the priests could enter the Great Hall in order to carry out their duties.

Firstly they checked the machine of ‘Ben Katin,’ this had a wheel and a pulley system so that the Laver (washing bowl) could be lowered into a well overnight. They took the shovel up the ramp for collection of the ashes. Other priests moved any un-burnt sacrifices to the side (it was not removed and had to be re-burnt). Other priests brought new wood for the altar and they returned for the second lottery.

Lottery Two

Lottery two was to choose thirteen priests so that they could perform the Tamid (daily sacrifice), this could not be done until the gates of the sanctuary had been opened:
  • (a) To slaughter the animal.
  • (b) To collect the blood.
  • (c) To remove any excess ash.
  • (d) To trim the wicks of the Menorah (lamp stand).
  • (e) To clean the cups that was used for the oil and the ash.
  • (f) To carry parts of the sacrifice to the altar.
  • (g) To bring fine flour up to the altar.
  • (h) To bring the High Priest his meal offering.
  • (I) To pour out the wine oblation.

    The Temple Sanctuary

    Everyone listened for the announcement that the sun had risen, because only then could the gates be opened and the daily sacrifice could begin. The overseer said, “Let us go up to a high place in the temple, to see whether the time has arrived for the morning sacrifice” (2 Samuel 18:24 and Isaiah 21:12). The watchman cried out, “Barkai, the day has dawned.”

    The priest then waited for the second announcement when the watchman would cry out, “The entire eastern horizon is illuminated.” One of the people below would cry out, “Does the glow extend all the way to Hebron?” If the watchman said yes, then it was the proper time for the morning sacrifice and the gates of the sanctuary to be opened. It is interesting to note that the priests started to minister to God before the sun had risen; all believers are priests (Revelation 1:6 and Revelation 5:10) but are we prepared to get up early to minister before God in prayer? Maybe we will have to sacrifice certain things in our lives to get to that place?

    Daily Sacrifice

    The overseer then said, “Bring a lamb from the chambers of lambs.” There was at all times a minimum of six lambs that had been previously checked and certified as blemish free, which were available for the daily sacrifice (Exodus 29:38-39). The lamb was then rechecked using a lit stick or pole. It was given a drink from a golden vessel before it was slaughtered as this made it easier to skin.

    The priest collected the ninety-three sacred silver and gold vessels and the selected priest led the lamb to the court at the north of the altar. There were metals rings on the floor to tie the animals to, eight small stone columns, topped with wooden blocks and fitted with metal rings for removing the skin. There were marble tables for preparing the sacrifices that were to be brought to the altar.

    The priest that was assigned to remove the ash from the incense altar performed his duty by using his hands and tidied up with a brush. The basket of ashes was collected later. The priest whose job it was to trim the Menorah wick etc. performed his job now.

    The daily sacrifice (Ezekiel 46:13 and Daniel 12:11) was slaughtered and then the next six priests brought various parts up to the altar ramp. The seventh priest brought the fine flour for the meal offering that accompanied the daily sacrifice. The eighth priest brought the High Priest’s meal offering to the altar. Finally the last priest brought the quarter hin of wine (about one litre) which was to be poured out on the altar for the morning wine oblation (offering).

    The entire staff of priests then returned to the chamber of hewn stone for prayers and recitation, “Hear O Israel,” “Blessing,” and the “Ten Commandments.” The priests raised their hands and delivered the ‘priestly blessing’ upon the congregation. An extra blessing was performed on the Sabbath when the outgoing shift greeted the incoming one.

    Lotteries Three and Four

    Lottery three was to determine who would have a chance to officiate the incense offering. This was considered as the most acceptable part of the temple service in God’s eyes. The incense speaks to us of prayer, having fellowship with God.

    Lottery four was to determine who would bring the parts of the sacrifice up the ramp to the top of the altar. This priest would also prepare the vessels for the incense service. The priest responsible for the incense service, with the priest who carried the shovel stopped on the way and took the Magrepha (an instrument of powerful sound, used to signal the beginning of the service) and blew it. This signalled that:
  • (a) The priests who were outside should run forward and prostrate themselves with the other priests before the Lord.
  • (b) To the Levites that their choir should enter the court to their position on the platform to begin their service of daily singing and worshipping of God.
  • (c) The defiled priests had to gather together at the eastern gate so that they could be identified. The two priests were joined by the two that were already on the altar and completed their tasks, and the cloud of incense filled the chamber. The sanctuary service was concluded by a group recital of Numbers 6:24-26, the ultimate blessing.

    Temple Singers and Musicians

    King David was the originator of the temple liturgy of which his psalms were a part; seventy-three of the psalms are designated as Davidic and fifty are anonymous. When David made preparations for bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, he ‘spoke to the chief of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers with instruments of music, psalteries and harps and cymbals, sounding, by lifting up the voice with joy’ (1 Chronicles 15:16).

    Of the leaders appointed at that time, three were assigned the honour of signalling with cymbals, and fourteen (eight with psalteries and six with harps) were designated to play the string instruments which constituted, then and later, the typical accompaniment for Jewish choral music.

    Chenaniah was appointed to supervise the singing, 'instructed about the song, because ‘he was skilful,’ ‘the music master’' (1 Chronicles 15:22, 27, see also 2 Chronicles 34:12). He proved to be an able teacher; when the first temple establishment was formally organised shortly afterwards, David found it possible to appoint 288 (1 Chronicles 25:7) skilful Levitical musicians in twenty-four groups of twelve (1 Chronicles 25:31) each group with its designated leader.

    For ordinary occasions these small groups may have served in rotation, but at more important ceremonies the entire body of Levitical musicians performed. At the splendid ceremonies conducted at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, this already large choir was further augmented by the addition of ‘a hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets ... the trumpeters and singers ... as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord’ (2 Chronicles 5:12-13).

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    Leviticus: The Mosaic Law. Sacrifices, the Feasts and Festivals; Jesus and the Law Go

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