1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments and the anointing oil and the bull of the sin offering and the two rams and the basket of unleavened bread. 3 And assemble all the congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” 4 And Moses did as the Lord commanded him, and the congregation was assembled at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
5 And Moses said to the congregation, “This is the thing that the Lord has commanded to be done.” 6 And Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. 7 And he put the coat on him and tied the sash around his waist and clothed him with the robe and put the ephod on him and tied the skillfully woven band of the ephod around him, binding it to him with the band. 8 And he placed the breastpiece on him, and in the breastpiece he put the Urim and the Thummim. 9 And he set the turban on his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden plate, the holy crown, as the Lord commanded Moses.
10 Then Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the tabernacle and all that was in it, and consecrated them. 11 And he sprinkled some of it on the altar seven times, and anointed the altar and all its utensils and the basin and its stand, to consecrate them. 12 And he poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him. 13 And Moses brought Aaron’s sons and clothed them with coats and tied sashes around their waists and bound caps on them, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Leviticus 8:1-13 ESV
At this juncture in the narrative, an important change is about to take place within the Israelite community. Up to this point, Moses has functioned as their de facto priest, leading and serving them as God’s emissary and acting as the divinely appointed mediator between Yahweh and His chosen people. Each time Moses ascended Mount Sinai to meet with the Lord, he did so as the representative of his people. On all the occasions when he had entered Pharaoh’s palace to demand the release of the people of Israel, he had done so as the designated spokesman for God and the divinely appointed leader of the Israelite community.
Along the way, Moses repeatedly interceded before God on behalf of his people. At Mount Sinai, he pleaded with God to forgive and spare the people from His wrath for their worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32:11-14). It was to Moses that God gave the Ten Commandments and His plans for the sacrificial system. Moses was the one to whom God laid out His designs for the construction of the Tabernacle as His earthly dwelling place. But God also gave Moses instructions regarding the priesthood with his brother, Aaron, designated to serve as the first high priest.
More than four decades later, when Moses was nearing death and preparing to turn over the leadership of the nation to Joshua, he offered up this blessing concerning Aaron and the rest of the priestly tribe of Levi.
“The Levites obeyed your word
and guarded your covenant.
They were more loyal to you
than to their own parents.
They ignored their relatives
and did not acknowledge their own children.
They teach your regulations to Jacob;
they give your instructions to Israel.
They present incense before you
and offer whole burnt offerings on the altar.” – Deuteronomy 33:9-10 NLT
God had designated the Levites as the sole tribe to serve as priests and caretakers of the Tabernacle. And in chapter 8 of Leviticus, Moses is preparing to officially turn over the priestly duties that he had performed for so long. From this moment forward, Aaron and his sons would serve as the spiritual leaders of Israel, with responsibility for teaching God’s law, maintaining the purity of the Tabernacle, and offering sacrifices before God to atone for the sins of themselves and the people.
In the book of Malachi, God refers to the covenant He made with the tribe of Levi.
“The purpose of my covenant with the Levites was to bring life and peace, and that is what I gave them. This required reverence from them, and they greatly revered me and stood in awe of my name. They passed on to the people the truth of the instructions they received from me. They did not lie or cheat; they walked with me, living good and righteous lives, and they turned many from lives of sin.
“The words of a priest’s lips should preserve knowledge of God, and people should go to him for instruction, for the priest is the messenger of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” – Malachi 2:5-7 NLT
This divine statement of the Levite’s covenantal relationship with God was included to accentuate their fall from grace. At the time Malachi penned these words from God, the Levitical priesthood was in disarray and morally compromised. The opening verses of Malachi chapter 2 paint a rather bleak picture of their degraded spiritual status.
“Listen, you priests—this command is for you! Listen to me and make up your minds to honor my name,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “or I will bring a terrible curse against you. I will curse even the blessings you receive. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you have not taken my warning to heart. I will punish your descendants and splatter your faces with the manure from your festival sacrifices, and I will throw you on the manure pile. Then at last you will know it was I who sent you this warning so that my covenant with the Levites can continue,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – Malachi 2:1-4 NLT
They had broken their covenant bond with God, having failed to maintain their faithfulness to Him. The priests were complicit in the moral and spiritual fall of the people of Israel and God was holding them accountable.
This account from the book of Malachi is important to consider when looking at the watershed moment recorded in the book of Leviticus. Here, Moses records the inaugural moment when the priesthood was established and the Levites assumed their roles as the spiritual leaders of the nation of Israel.
But before Aaron and his sons could serve in their new capacity as priests, they had to be consecrated and purified. So, God commanded Moses to “Bring Aaron and his sons, along with their sacred garments, the anointing oil, the bull for the sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of bread made without yeast, and call the entire community of Israel together at the entrance of the Tabernacle” (Leviticus 8:2-3 NLT).
A special ceremony was arranged for the dedication and consecration of the Levitical priesthood. A new phase in Israel’s spiritual journey was about to begin, and it would be marked by sacrifice, purification, and the dedication of Aaron and his sons to God’s service. From this point forward the Levites would become servants of the Most High God. And to mark the occasion, God ordered a special ceremony that was meant to prepare them for their unique and indispensable role.
This ordination service was to take place under the watchful eyes of the people of Israel. God commanded Moses to “assemble all the congregation” (Leviticus 8:3 ESV). No one was to be left out. The entire community was to serve as a witness to this auspicious event, and Moses told them that what they were about to see was “the thing that the Lord has commanded to be done” (Leviticus 8:5 ESV). In other words, this was going to be a God-ordained ceremony that would forever alter the nature of their interactions with God. Up to this point, they had always seen Moses as their primary intercessor and spiritual leader. When Moses had lingered longer on Mount Sinai than they thought necessary, they had panicked and decided to appoint Aaron as his successor, even demanding that their new leader fabricate a new god for them to worship. But now, God was officially turning over the responsibility for the spiritual well-being of His people to someone other than Moses.
The entire ceremony began with a purification process in which Aaron and his sons were physically and ceremonially cleansed for their new role. The next phase of the process involved their “robing,” a special ceremony that involved Moses placing upon each of the men the sacred garments that God had designed for them. In a sense, these garments symbolized their holiness by distinguishing them from the rest of the Israelite community. God had given detailed instructions for the manufacturing of these special robes, ordering Moses, “you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood” (Exodus 28:2-3 ESV). These were to be “holy garments” (beḡeḏ qōḏeš), that served to set apart Aaron and his sons and illustrated that they belonged to God alone. The purification process cleansed them from defilement and sin. Dressing them in the sacred robes that symbolized that God was clothing them in His righteousness.
This elaborate ritual was designed to remind everyone involved that these men were being consecrated for a special role that required cleansing and holiness. In their capacity as priests, there was no place for sin, impurity, or defilement of any kind. Their job would be to maintain their own purity and that of the people so that the presence of God might continue to dwell among them.
“Wearing the brilliant garments of the priestly office indicated to the people that the high priest was God’s representative and was ready to function in any of the priestly capacities. The message of this ritual is that those who minister must be prepared and equipped to do what God called them to do.” – Alan P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus
Having dressed Aaron and his sons in their robes of righteousness, Moses preceded to anoint them for their new roles. This part of the ceremony was to serve as their official consecration to God’s service. The oil represented the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon these men, sanctifying them to serve as His ministers and mediators. They had been cleansed of all sin, dressed in robes of righteousness, and were now being empowered by God to perform the formidable task to which He had called them. The anointing with oil of the Tabernacle, its content, and the priests who would serve within it, also symbolized God’s divine seal of approval on the entire enterprise. He was pleased and was providing His Spirit’s power and enablement so that this tent made with human hands might become all that He had intended it to be. Without the Spirit of God, the Tabernacle would remain just another earthly dwelling place made by human hands. Without the Spirit of God, Aaron and his sons would be nothing more than well-dressed men masquerading as servants of God. Without the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God and His divine enablement, buildings and people remain nothing more than empty shells that lack the power to reflect God’s glory and any hope of accomplishing His will.
God had a job for Aaron and his sons to do, and He not only provided them with proper attire for their new role, but He also provided them with the power to do all that He had called them to do. They had everything they needed to do what He had set them apart to do.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.