The Levitical Covenant (Part 1): Returning a Priceless Work of Art to the Bible

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In 1990, two thieves posing as police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, Massachusetts) and stole 13 paintings, including Rembrandt’s priceless work, Christ in the Storm on the Sea. Estimated at $500M, this painting has been trailed by the FBI, but to date, it has not been found and the culprits have not been caught. Instead, in the room where the Rembrandt once hung is an empty frame, a reminder of what once was and an invitation, for the daring, to seek out and find the lost work of art.

In the Bible, there is a similar treasure that has gone missing. It has not been stolen, but its frame has often been left empty when art collectors, in this case biblical scholars and theologians, put the covenants together. That is to say, in book after book on the biblical covenants, one covenant is left out—the Levitical covenant. Though named explicitly in Malachi 2 and rooted in the history of Israel (Numbers 25), this covenant is often overlooked. And in some of the places it is addressed, I believe it is misunderstood.[1]

1. For instance, Irvin A. Busenitz, “Introduction to the Biblical Covenants: The Noahic Covenant and the Priestly Covenant,” Masters Seminary Journal 10 (1999): 188–89, includes it in his treatment of the covenants, but he suggests this eternal covenant is fulfilled in the millennium. Writing from a progressive covenantal perspective, it should not be surprising that I differ.

And so, like a treasure-hunter seeking to find a priceless work of art, I want to help us know and love and see the Levitical covenant rightly. Even more, because this work of art has never left the Bible, my aim is to challenge everyone writing articles, books, and commentaries to include this priceless work of art in their works of biblical theology.

To make my case, I’ll move in three steps. First, I will survey the covenantal landscape to show how little attention has been given to this covenant. Second, I will survey the Old Testament to show how the development of the Levitical priesthood led to the Levitical covenant. Third, I will outline a few ways this covenant contributes to a progressive covenantal reading of the Bible. Along the way, I hope to interest you in the Levitical covenant, so that it never goes missing again!

The Missing Work of Art

The Levitical covenant is left out of many books, sparsely treated in others, or misunderstood in yet others. The following list comprises more than a dozen sources. Certainly, this is not exhaustive, nor do I agree with every work. Rather, I have surveyed the books I have at my disposal to see where the Levitical covenant turns up. (Nota Bene: Should an adventurous PhD student be in need of a dissertation project, tracing the history of the Levitical covenant’s place in covenant theology would be a worthwhile endeavor).

The Levitical Covenant (Not) in Covenantal Theology[2]

2. There are dozens of books on priests, priesthood, and the Levitical covenant that I could have added, but I have restricted my list to those books, regardless of viewpoint, which are looking at the biblical covenants.

No Mention

• Thomas E. McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (1985).
• Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (1993).
• David McKay, The Bond of Love: God’s Covenantal Relationship with His Church (2001).
• Peter Golding, Covenant Theology: The Key of Theology in Reformed Thought and Tradition (2004).
• Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (2006).
• Greg Nichols, Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants (2011).
• Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison Between Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist and Paedobaptist Federalism (2013).
• Richard C. Barcellos, Getting the Garden Right: Adam’s Work and God’s Rest in Light of Christ (2017).
• Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant and His Kingdom (2020).

Brief Mentions

• O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (1980), 27.
• William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: A Theology of Old Testament Covenants (1984), 94.
• Gordon P. Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi (1994), 157.
• Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose (2007), 105–06.

Longer Sections

• Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, (2012), 576–78.[3]
• Irvin A. Busenitz, “Introduction to the Biblical Covenants: The Noahic Covenant and the Priestly Covenant,” Masters Seminary Journal 10 (1999): 186–89.

3. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 697–98, 729, also addressed the way in which Christ replaced the Levitical priesthood in order to establish a new covenant (see Heb. 7:11–12).

Entire Chapters or Articles

• Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (2009), 136–175.
• Douglas Van Dorn, Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Primer (2014), 104–08.
• Daniel I. Block, Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption (2021), 205–226.
• Jeffrey D. Johnson, The Story of Redemption: The Rise, Fall, and Restoration of the Kingdom of God (2023), 69–82.[4]


4. Johnson, in The Story of Redemption, argues for a priestly covenant with Aaron, not a Levitical covenant. Interestingly, he does not address Malachi 2 or Numbers 25.

From this bibliographic record, I would conclude that the Levitical covenant has received insufficient consideration. There are reasons for this, of course, as some may dismiss the covenant with Phinehas as lacking “epoch-making character.”[5] But I suspect others have failed to consider this biblical covenant, because those before them did not consider it either. Indeed, for the few that include a chapter or a section on this biblical covenant, most pass it by with a short footnote or the assumption that this covenant is sufficiently covered in the administration of the Mosaic covenant. This reasoning is what my article hopes to overturn.

5. See O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 27.

If this article has its intended effect, it will convince readers that we can no longer bypass the Levitical covenant. Instead, we must grapple with where it came from, what it is doing, and how it progresses redemptive history toward the new covenant. To that end, I now offer a reading of the Old Testament that focuses on the priestly story, which serves as the backdrop of the Levitical covenant.

The Priestly Story

In my book, The Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God, I outline the development of the priesthood in twelve steps.[6] Instead, of rehearsing that priestly backstory, I will simply list the steps with the key biblical texts.

6. In two other articles, I have attempted to show how the priesthood developed in the Pentateuch: “Restoring the Image of God: A Corporate-Filial Approach to the “Royal Priesthood” in Exodus 19:6,” SBJT 22.2 (2018): 25–60; “How a Kingdom of Priests Became a Kingdom with Priests and Levites: A Filial-Corporate Understanding of the Royal Priesthood in Exodus 19:6,” SBJT 23.1 (2019): 23–56.7. See my chapter on the “patriarchal priests.” David Schrock, The Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 27–45.
  1. Israel is identified as a kingdom of priests. (Exod. 19:5–6)
  2. Israel’s firstborn sons serve as priestly assistants. (Exod. 13:2; 19:22, 24; 24:5)
  3. Aaron and his sons are chosen as priests. (Exodus 28–29)
  4. Moses serves as a priest. (Ps. 99:6; cf. Exodus 32–34)
  5. The firstborn sons of Israel are replaced with the Levites. (Num. 3:40–51; cf. Exod. 32:26–29)
  6. The priests are given instructions for the house of God. (Leviticus)
  7. The Levites are given to the priests for temple service. (Num. 3:9; 8:16, 19; 18:6–8)
  8. The Levites are denied access to the altar. (Numbers 16–18)
  9. God makes a covenant with the priests and Levites. (Num. 25:11–13; Mal. 2:1–9)
  10. The high priest is established in Israel. (Num. 35:25, 28 [2x], 32)
  11. The priests and Levites are given cities in the land. (Numbers 35)
  12. The Levitical priesthood is established. (Deut. 17:9, 18; 18:1; 24:8; 27:9; cf. 21:5; 31:9)

In actuality, there is a pre-history to this list that goes back to Adam, Noah, and Abraham.[7] And there are actually more instructions for priests, as well as Levites, that could be excavated from the book dedicated to training priests—the book unfortunately titled “Leviticus.”[8] That being said, these twelve steps provide a rough outline for the way that the Levitical priesthood came into being.[9] It did not drop from the heavens fully formed, even if the priesthood is intended to mirror the service of the angels around God’s throne. Rather, it progressed over time, but especially at times when priests and Levites failed.

7. See my chapter on the “Patriarchal Priests” in The Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God, 27–45.

8. I say unfortunately, because the book is for priests (i.e., sons of Aaron) and hardly addresses the Levites (their assistants; see Num. 3:9; 8:16, 19; 18:6–8).

9. I understand “Levitical priesthood” to be shorthand for the priests who are established with Levites assisting them, not priests who are Levites. For support, see this article.

Consider how this works. After God chose Aaron and his sons to be priests (Exodus 28–29), the Levites did not enter the picture until Aaron and the firstborn sons of Israel broke covenant with the Golden Calf (Exodus 32).[10] As Numbers 3 reports, the Levites redeem and replace the firstborn sons as assistants to Aaron. Then Numbers 16 reports how the Levites also fail by following Korah (a Levite) to seek a priesthood not appointed for them. And once more, the Levites fail in Numbers 25, when they permit an unclean son of Israel to bring a Midianite woman near the tent of God. This is the occasion of the Covenant with Levi. Yet, to understand the setting, and the covenant that follows, we need to see how the Levites failed.[11]

10. Before the Levites redeemed the firstborn sons of Israel (Num. 3:40–51), young men, presumably firstborn sons, stood to assist the priests (Exod. 13:2; 19:22, 24; 24:5). On the priestly role of firstborn sons, see Scott Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 136–42.

11. The failure of the Levites in Numbers 25 is not always observed, but it should be, if we are going to rightly understand the context of Numbers 25 and the nature of the Levitical covenant.

In Numbers 25 Moses recounts Phinehas’s priestly redemption of Levi, which establishes a priestly covenant. In response to an Israelite bringing his sexual sin before Moses and the whole congregation (v. 6), Aaron’s grandson picks up his spear and puts the couple to death (vv. 7–8). In their execution, Phinehas removes the plague from camp (vv. 8–9) and atones for the sins of the people (v. 13). Critically, the presence of the plague indicts the Levites, because they should have been doing what Phinehas did. Numbers 8:19 says God gave the Levites to Aaron, “that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.” The presence of a “plague” exposes their failure.[12]

12. Schrock, The Royal Priesthood, 60. A similar event of priestly atonement for the sins of Levites occurs in Num. 16:47–50. In this instance, Aaron enters the midst of the people, censer in hand, to make atonement for the plague brought through Korah’s rebellion. In both instances, the plague comes because of Levitical disobedience; it ends because of priestly atonement.

If the Levites failed in their service, then their future is in peril. Previously, when the sons of Aaron offered unauthorized fire, they were struck down (Lev. 10:1–10). Similarly, the firstborn sons of Israel lost their standing when they failed to protect Aaron (Exod. 32:25–29; Num. 3:40–51). At the same time, Aaron himself, after breaking the covenant, had to be restored by the intercession of Moses (Deut. 9:20). And now again, a righteous priest would need to intervene, or the Levites would be lost (cf. Num. 16:47–50).

Enter Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the grandson of Aaron. As Psalm 106:28–31 indicates, the priestly action of Phinehas is “counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever.”[13] And “incredibly, by leaving his holy precincts and entering the camp, Phinehas purifies the people and restores the Levites to service.”[14] In the moment, Phinehas’ action makes atonement for the camp. It assuages the wrath of God, and it permits Israel to enjoy God’s blessings again. At the same time, however, this action initiated a priestly covenant. As Numbers 25:10–13 states,

13. Schrock, The Royal Priesthood, 61.

14. Schrock, The Royal Priesthood, 61.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. 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 people of Israel.

The Levitical priesthood, therefore, has an historical origin.[15] Yet, unlike the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, which come by way of divine initiation (see Genesis 12 and 2 Samuel 7), this covenant comes in response a priestly action of obedience. In this way, the covenant is more like the “ratification” of God’s promise to Abraham, when the Lord swore to bless him “because” he obeyed God’s voice and sought to offer Isaac (see Gen. 22:18; 26:3).[16] Indeed, service in God’s house was granted to the Levites because of their obedience to God, at a time when their brothers rebelled (Deut. 33:8–9). And here, the grant of “perpetual priesthood” came as a reward to the priestly righteousness of Phinehas.[17]

15. While some might suggest that the covenant of Levi is with the Levites, I am inclined to see the covenant as made with the priestly sons of Aaron, who in turn blessed the Levites, as well as the nation of Israel (cf. Psalm 133).

16. Cf. Ronald Allen, “Numbers,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 922.

17. R. Dennis Cole, Numbers (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 441, writes, “In comparing the role of Phinehas in this incident to that of the Levites in the case of the gold calf (Exod 32:19–20), [Jacob] Milgrom remarks that “both had to slay ‘each his brother,’ for which both received ordination to the priesthood.” Deuteronomy 33:8–9 makes the same point—God chose the tribe of Levi because of their steadfast allegiance to God, even over their loyalty family. Jesus, likewise, picks up this way of thinking when he calls his disciples to follow him and leave their families behind.

Now, before anyone suggests that I am smuggling some type of works-righteousness into the covenant of grace, let me offer two responses. First, I am in this first article grappling with the what the text says, not how to assimilate these priestly texts into a coherent system of covenants. That will come next. Second, the blessing of God does depend upon a faithful mediator and a righteous priest. In the Old Testament, every covenant from Adam to David ultimately failed because the priestly mediator failed. Accordingly, in Hebrews we find that the strength of the new covenant is dependent upon the strength (i.e. perfection) of the mediating priest. In fact, Hebrews goes so far as to suggest that the new covenant follows the arrival of a new priest (Heb. 7:12), which makes us ask the question: What does the Old Testament say about priests?

That question requires a whole biblical theology. But at the center of that theology is a clear understanding of the Levitical covenant and its relationship to the other covenants.

The Road Ahead

In Part two, I will attempt to explain the meaning of the Levitical covenant in Numbers 25 and Malachi 2, as well as Jeremiah 33, and I will orient it to the rest of the biblical covenants and the framework of the whole Bible. Indeed, any covenant theology worth its salt (see Num. 18:19) must include the Levitical covenant. And so, I will offer a progressive covenantal proposal for including this priestly covenant.

 
 
 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • David Schrock

    David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.

David Schrock

David Schrock

David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.