Priestly Atonement, by the Numbers

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 14, 2017

As I continue this excursion through the somewhat trying Biblical books of Leviticus, Numbers and eventually Deuteronomy, one of the most important concepts in Numbers that I’d like to introduce is that of atonement. The idea of atonement is absent in Genesis, makes a slight appearance in Exodus, develops in Leviticus (a priestly book) and attains its Old Testament glory in Numbers. Given that atonement lies at the very heart of the New Covenant, there are spiritual benefits to seeing how it develops in the Old.

In the Book of Exodus, there is one reference each to Aaron and Moses making atonement for the people. As Moses expressed it, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Ex 32:30). Otherwise, there are references to sin offerings for atonement, to the sacredness of objects used to make atonement, and to the half shekel atonement “tax” required of everyone (which I discussed when looking at the roots of Catholic social teaching). Despite the fact that each person makes atonement for himself through this payment, the early books of the Old Testament gradually make it clear that priests (such as Aaron) make atonement in a special way. For example, they alone can eat certain portions of the animals used in atonement sacrifices.

Atonement is from the first linked to sacrificial offerings, usually burnt offerings, but not necessarily so—as in the half shekel payment, which is a different kind of sacrifice though it is not optional. In Leviticus, however, there is a great deal of instruction on both how atonement is to be made, and what sorts of things put a person into a state in which he or she needs additional atonement. These things are moral or ritual failures, either actual sins or contamination from eating something “unclean”, from making contact with a dead body, or even from the flow of blood in menstruation. In fact, atonement has a great deal to do with blood, for blood is (at the earthly level) the source and symbol of life itself, which is sacred to the LORD. Thus the LORD instructs Moses:

“If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life.” [Lev 17:10-11]

But it is not until the Book of Numbers that the extent of the role of the priesthood in atonement becomes clear. This is communicated in instructions, images and warnings which are rich in typology for the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

The Priestly Role

It is striking that the priesthood is closely linked with both redemption and atonement. We get some idea of this in Exodus, of course. In the final and most serious of the ten plagues, God slays the firstborn of the Egyptians but arranges for the Israelites to be protected by smearing the blood of a lamb on the doorposts and lintels of their homes. This plague and the protection (or redemption) of Israel is also tied to the concept of offering the first fruits of crops and herds to the Lord. In God’s plan, firstlings are owed to Him as a kind of sign that everything that is good comes to us as His gift.

Recall too that Abraham found favor with God because he was willing to offer his first-born son, Isaac, but that instead, at the last moment, God provided the sacrifice. Made in God’s image and likeness, the human person obviously has a special place in His Providence. God’s will is that man himself should not live only in order to die but rather die to himself in order to live.

In Numbers, however, there is an interesting and important shift when the tribe of the Levites is dedicated to the service of the priests. Note how God expresses this decision:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Number all the first-born males of the sons of Israel, from a month old and upward, taking their number by names. And you shall take the Levites for me—I am the LORD—instead of all the first-born among the sons of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstlings among the cattle of the sons of Israel.” [Num 3:40-41]

The priests themselves are Aaron and his sons (some of whom had been killed because of their sins), but God here accepts the Levites as a tribe set apart to serve the priests. Notice that he does this instead of taking the first-born sons of all Israel, which were due him, in essence, as a redemption offering. This indicates a significant strengthening of the concept of the sacred (for the Levites were set apart to tend to all the sacred things and to facilitate all the sacred ceremonies) and, certainly, of the priesthood itself, which now had a designated tribe in its service.

Notice also how this is linked to the concept of atonement: “And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the people of Israel, to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting, and to make atonement for the sons of Israel…” (Num 8:19).

Toward the end of the book, when the Israelites dwelt in Shittim, they began to participate in the worship of the gods of Moab—in particular Ba’al—because of their attraction for the “daughters of Moab”, whom they quietly began to bring into their homes. As punishment, the LORD sent a plague among them. But Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron saw an Israelite bringing a Midianite woman into his family openly, in the sight of Moses and all the people. Therefore he rose up, followed them into the home, and killed them both. The plague immediately abated. And the LORD took advantage of this opportunity to strengthen the concept of the priesthood. He said to Moses:

Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the sons of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the sons of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, “Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; and it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the sons of Israel.” [Num 25:10-13]

I should mention that God had given Israel strict orders not to intermarry with the foreigners, in the lands in which they dwelt on their journey through the wilderness, because this would inevitably lead them to mix their own worship with the pagan worship of the peoples with which they intermarried. What is most important for our discussion of the priesthood, however, is the manner in which God attributes a kind of righteousness to the whole people through the actions of the priests. Moreover, God made the priestly clan perpetual because of a signal act of obedience to God on behalf of the whole people, an obedience which involved a sacrifice of blood to the LORD—however difficult it may be for us to grasp the importance of teaching the Israelites in this particular way.

The Dawn of Understanding?

Perhaps the most striking instance of this concept of priestly atonement is recounted in Numbers 16. A large number of the Israelites had rebelled against Moses and Aaron (and therefore against God), so that the LORD struck them again with a plague. He told Moses to get away from the multitude “that I may consume them in a moment” (v. 45). But Moses told Aaron to take his censer and “carry it quickly to the congregation, and make atonement for them; for wrath has gone forth from the LORD, the plague has begun” (v. 46). The brisk courage of Moses here is astonishing, but so is the result:

So Aaron took it as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly; and behold, the plague had already begun among the people; and he put on the incense, and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living and the plague was stopped. [Num 16:47-9]

We cannot understanding everything that goes into God’s plan for us, but if we find God’s dealings with Israel disturbing at times we need to keep in mind that His plan is ordered to the perfect happiness of a people in union with Himself. The question is this: What will it take to convince them and us? What will it take, at any given time in history, to form a human culture responsive to God’s unwavering will for our good?

At the very least, then, this Old Testament background should give us a new appreciation and a deeper understanding both of Christ’s perfect sacrifice for us and of the unique importance of the Church’s priesthood—which makes this same perfect sacrifice present in every time and place. With Our Blessed Lord, our priests stand between the dead and the living so that the plague of evil may be stopped. Our priests stand in the breach, so that for all eternity we may not die.


Scripture Series
Previous: Catholic Social Teaching: Rooted in Leviticus?
Next: Making sense of the Old Testament God

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.