Levitical Duties and Salaries
There were two classes of Levites. The direct descendants of Aaron were the priests, while the rest of the tribe assisted. The Levites as a whole were employed as town magistrates, judges, and teachers. Moses treats them differently in Deuteronomy 18, for we see that verses 3-5 apply to the priests, while verses 6-8 focus upon the other Levites.
The priests themselves were employed in the central religious center where God had chosen to place His name. In the first few centuries they ministered in Shiloh where the tabernacle had been established; in later times they ministered in Jerusalem at the temple of Solomon. The rest of the Levites ministered primarily in the local towns, for they were scattered among the tribes. Moses often referred to “the Levite who is within your town” (Deut. 16:11).
Under the Old Covenant, the high priest’s office was to be held only by a direct descendant of Aaron, who was the first high priest of that order. From Aaron, the office was given to Eleazar (Num. 20:26).
The Temporary Dynasty of Priests
Eleazar’s son Phinehas succeeded him by means of a special “everlasting covenant” (Num. 25:13), which remained in place until the early days of Solomon, when he and his lineage were replaced by a new dynasty of kings from the family of Zadok (1 Kings 2:35).
It is noteworthy that the “everlasting” nature of this covenant with Phinehas only lasted about 300 years. The Hebrew word used is olam, which properly means an unknown and therefore an indefinite time period. That dynasty began to end after Eli refused to correct his sons at Shiloh (1 Kings 2:27), and within a century that line was replaced by Zadok. This change of priesthood, however, did not violate God’s covenant with Phinehas, for the word olam did not mean “everlasting.”
The same can be said about Aaron’s priesthood itself, as well as the sacrifices, and even the Old Covenant itself, all of which were said to be olam. If the word truly meant everlasting, then that system would be irreplaceable, and the changes set forth in the book of Hebrews would be unlawful. But olam refers only to an unknown time period, and God used this word in order to allow for future changes.
Priests given the Shoulder and Jawbone
Moses spoke of the payment for the services of the priests in Deut. 18:3-5,
3 Now this shall be the priests’ due from the people, from those who offer a sacrifice, either an ox or a sheep, of which they shall give to the priest the shoulder and the two cheeks and the stomach. 4 You shall give him the first fruits of your grain, your new wine, and your oil, and the first shearing of your sheep. 5 For the Lord your God has chosen him and his sons from all your tribes, to stand and serve in the name of the Lord forever [kol yom, “every day, or daily”].
The priests were supported by the first fruits offerings of various kinds; and when they offered a sacrifice, they were given the “shoulders” (front leg), the “two cheeks” (jawbone), and the stomach. Beyond the practicality of the food, the jawbone speaks symbolically of the fact that the priests were the spokesmen for God who gave instruction to the people. Likewise, they also represented the people in speaking (praying) to God. As priests, they were intercessors standing between God and man.
From a more prophetic standpoint, however, the jawbone represented the gift of tongues that is associated with Pentecost. We see this clearly in the story of Samson, whose exploits with the jawbone of the ass (Judges 15:15) prophesied of the gift of tongues and the destruction of the flesh.
The three parts of the tabernacle represented the arena of the three feasts: Passover in the outer court, Pentecost in the Holy Place, and Tabernacles in the Most Holy Place. The outer court was for citizens of the Kingdom, the Holy Place was for priests, and the Most Holy Place was reserved for the High Priest.
Hence, the jawbone was given to the priests, for it prophesied of a later time when all Spirit-filled believers would be called into the priesthood of the Melchizedek Order.
Engaging in Spiritual Warfare
Under the feast of Pentecost, Spirit-filled believers are called to be priests of God, intercessors between God and the other citizens of the kingdom. Pentecost equips such priests to minister to God in a greater way. They are also called to engage in spiritual warfare, for their duty is described in Num. 4:23,
23 from thirty years and upward to fifty years old, you shall number them; all who enter to perform the service [l’tsava tsava, “war the warfare”] to do the work in the tent of meeting.
Though priests were not called to engage in physical warfare, their duties are yet described in terms of warfare. But their battle was in the heavens, not in the earth. Hence, Spirit-filled believers are called as priests to engage in spiritual warfare and intercession on behalf of the rest of the church and nation. They are called also to present the true Sacrifice of Christ and lead people to make an acceptable sacrifice unto God as described by Paul in Romans 12:1,
1 I urge you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.
As for the stomach being given to the priests, the meaning of this is related to the food laws found in Leviticus 11. The stomach has to do with the animal’s ability to chew the cud, thus making it a clean food (Lev. 11:3).
Spiritual food that is dispensed from the pulpit or through the written media is unclean to the hearer—no matter how good it is—unless he meditates upon it and allows the Holy Spirit to confirm the word and to turn words into revelation. Likewise, the teacher must allow the people the right to “chew the cud,” rather than expect them to swallow all that the teacher says by virtue of his position or reputation.
We have already covered this in our study of Moses’ fourth speech in Deuteronomy 14.
Hence, the stomach is given to the priests as a reminder that they were to dispense clean spiritual food to the people. If the priest understood the food laws properly, he would fulfill the law; if not, he would force the people to accept his own understanding of the law, which both Isaiah and Jesus called “the traditions of men” (Isaiah 29:13; Matt. 15:9).
Offerings and First Fruits
For the priests’ service, they also were given the first fruits and various offerings that the people brought to the tabernacle or temple. Num. 18:8-10 gives more detail:
8 Then the Lord spoke to Aaron, “Now behold, I Myself have given you charge of My offerings, even all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, I have given them to you as a portion, and to your sons as a perpetual allotment. 9 This shall be yours from the most holy gifts, reserved from the fire; every offering of theirs, even every grain offering and every sin offering and every guilt offering, which they shall render to Me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons. 10 As the most holy gifts you shall eat it; every male shall eat it. It shall be holy [set apart, consecrated] to you.
The sin offerings were to be eaten by the priests. Lev. 6:26 says, “the priest who offers it for sin shall eat it.” This was an intercessory work, where we read that the priest was to bear the iniquity of the people. In doing so, the priests foreshadowed Jesus Christ, who bore the sin of the world; yet insofar as Jesus was also the Sacrifice, we are to eat His flesh in a spiritual manner (John 6:53).
Intercessors bear the burden of their brethren, identifying with them and partaking of their situation. Intercession can be difficult, as the prophet discovered in Ezekiel 4. God told him, “you shall bear their iniquity.” Hence, we are intercessors under Christ, for we follow His example of being willing to share the blame and the burden for the sins of the people. For a full study on this topic, see my book, Principles of Intercession.
The priests had no land inheritance and were therefore limited in their ability to support themselves. The people’s offerings provided their support, since God Himself needs no support. The people were thus expected to support the government of His Kingdom.
As for the tithes, we read elsewhere in Numbers 18:21,
21 And to the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting.
Of this, a tenth of the tithe was given to the priests who ministered in the tabernacle or temple. Num. 18:26 says,
26 Moreover, you shall speak to the Levites and say to them, “When you take from the sons of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present an offering from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe.”
Thus, the main tithe was given to the Levites scattered throughout the towns, and the Levites in turn gave a tenth of the tithe to the treasury of the temple. In addition, part of the tithe was used to support the people’s journey to the center of worship in order to keep the feast days (Deut. 14:23-26). In fact the following verse seems to imply that tithing to Levites was a secondary usage of the tithe:
27 Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your town, for he has no portion or inheritance among you.
It is clear that the Levites were supported primarily by the tithe, while the priests were supported mainly by the offerings, supplemented by “a tithe of the tithe.” Moses continues in Deuteronomy 18 with a short discussion about the Levites and their support:
6 Now if a Levite comes from any of your towns throughout Israel where he resides, and comes whenever he desires to the place which the Lord chooses, 7 then he shall serve in the name of the Lord his God, like all his fellow Levites who stand there before the Lord. 8 They shall eat equal portions, except what they receive from the sale of their fathers’ estates.
This shows that ordinary Levites often came to the tabernacle to assist in the sacrifices. The priests, of course, were required to officiate in the offering, but other Levites were allowed to assist. When they did so, they were also allowed to eat “equal portions” of meat that were allotted to the priests themselves.
Priests and Levites
Up to now we have discussed the distinction between citizens and priests, showing that the priests represent the overcomers who are called to rule with Christ. But it is apparent that the tribe of Levi was also subdivided into two groups. Both exercised authority in their proper realms. The regular Levites functioned mostly as civil magistrates, although they were also allowed to assist in the tabernacle. The duties of the priests centered primarily upon the tabernacle or temple.
These two classes really began with Moses and Aaron. Both were Levites, but Moses served as a civil ruler, while Aaron was the religious leader. Both were subject to the rule and law of God, of course, and both were required to know God and His ways. So also is it today, for government in the Kingdom of God is no more secular than those who serve in church government. All are subject to the same law of God.
New Covenant Application
What is the New Covenant application of this separation in their duties? It is plain that our government officials are called to apply the law of God to daily life in the community, while the priests are called to minister in a religious or spiritual work, such as pastoring churches.
Priests and Levites, being schooled in the law, often served as judges, or at least the main judges, as we saw in Deut. 17:9,
9 So you shall come to the Levitical priest or the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall inquire of them, and they will declare to you the verdict in the case.
The elders of a city or tribe also served as judges—perhaps serving in the role of a jury over which a priest presided as judge. In Exodus 18 Moses appointed the seventy elders to judge the people. In Deut. 19:12, 21:2, 3 we find the elders of the city participating in the judicial process along with priests. Hence, the judges were not limited to priests or Levites. In Israel’s later history, God raised up various judges—such as Gideon—and these were from various tribes. These judges first delivered the people from captivity as military generals, and then in time of peace, they “judged Israel.”
To judge essentially meant to rule the people, for the rulers were the judges. Anyone who feels called to rule and reign with Christ must be qualified to judge the people, as this is one of the primary duties of a ruler. To this end a ruler must know the law and be able to judge by the mind of Christ.