The Levitical Covenant (Part 2): Three Truths About the Levitical Covenant

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In Part one, I introduced the Levitical covenant as the missing covenant in many biblical and theological treatments of the subject. I also offered a brief sketch on the way in which the priesthood developed in the Pentateuch and how a multi-layered history provides the best backstory for the “covenant with Levi” in Numbers 25, which is then detailed and denounced in Malachi 2:1–9.

Today, I am offering a three-part proposal for understanding the Levitical covenant as a covenant unto itself and a covenant that contributes significantly to a progressive covenantal approach to the whole Bible. Indeed, without this covenant, the new covenant lacks its priestly character. Or at least, the priestly nature of the new covenant, as I will outline in Part three, can be downplayed. Yet when the Levitical covenant is firmly in view, then the royal and priestly office of Jesus Christ is more clearly seen as the cornerstone for his new covenant—a covenant that creates a new kingdom of priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9–10) by means of the Spirit given to us by our high priest enthroned in heaven (Psalm 110).

1. The Levitical Covenant is a Priestly Covenant that Originates in Numbers 25.

As noted in Part one, the covenant of perpetual priesthood came into effect when a righteous priest (Phinehas) redeemed the Levites from their failure to guard God’s house. As Numbers 3:9; 8:16, 19; 18:6–8 explain, the Levites were given to their brothers, the priests, to stand between the priests and the people. As the people drew near to Aaron in Exodus 32, he succumbed to the pressure of forming a Golden Calf. Accordingly, he failed in his priestly duties. To assist Aaron and his sons, God established a barrier between the people and the priests so that what happened with the golden calf would not happen again.

Spatially, the Levites stood between the tabernacle and its courtyard and the people (see Numbers 3). They assisted in carrying every part of the tabernacle and its furniture. And they literally wielded weapons to remove any and all transgressors (cf. 2 Chron. 26:17–18). They were the guardians of the priests. In this way, the Levites and priests, who shared a brotherhood in Levi also shared a common service (Deut. 33:8–11). Importantly, however, Levites were not priests. They did not approach the altar, nor have access to the house of God, as the sons of Aaron did.[1] But they did make up a Levitical system, on which Israel’s entire worship of Yahweh depended. In this way, when the Levites failed in Numbers 25, the whole system was in jeopardy.

1. This was Korah’s error in Numbers 16:1–35, when he, a Levite, sought the place of Moses and Aaron.

Thus, the atoning work of Phinehas redeemed the people given to the priests (i.e., Levites), which is why Malachi can call this covenant, “the covenant with Levi” (Mal. 2:4). As Douglas Stuart notes, there are at least nine linguistic connections between Malachi 2 and Numbers 25.[2]

Linguistic Connections Between Malachi 2 and Numbers 25

Numbers 25:11–13

Malachi 1:6–2:9

son of Aaron/priest (Num. 25:11)

priest/priests (Mal. 1:6; 2:1; 2:7)

turn back (hēšîb) (Num. 25:11)

turn [back] (hēšîb) (Mal. 2:6)

be zealous (qnʾ) (Num. 25:11)

be zealous (sîm ʾal lēb) (Mal. 2:2)

give (ntn) (Num. 25:12)

give (ntn) (Mal. 2:2)

covenant (Num. 25:12, 13)

covenant (Mal. 2:4, 5, 8)

peace (Num. 25:12)

peace (Mal. 2:5, 6)

descendants (Num. 25:13)

descendants (Mal. 2:3)

priesthood (Num. 25:13)

priest, priests (Mal. 1:6; 2:1, 7)

made atonement (Num. 25:13)

turned many away from sin (Mal. 2:6)

2. Douglas Stuart, “Malachi,” in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, ed. Thomas E. McComiskey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 1316. Stuart also highlights twelve connections between Malachi 1:6–2:9 and Deuteronomy 33:8–11 (ibid.), but ultimately concludes that Malachi shows a greater dependence on Numbers.

This confirms the origin of the covenant and proves that the covenant is for priests, not just for Levites. In other words, the covenant does not make Levites priests. Rather, it legislates the whole system of priests and Levites, one that I have developed in at least twelve steps across the Pentateuch.[3]

In sum, the covenant with Levi is a priestly covenant, one that refers to the entire system of priesthood that stands in Israel until the coming of a better priest. More on that below.

3. David Schrock, The Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 27–45.

2. The Levitical Covenant reinforces the Mosaic Covenant.

Hebrews makes it plain that the covenant with Israel was weak (Heb. 7:18), passing away (Heb. 8:13), dependent on weak and mortal priests (Lev. 7:11, 23), and in need of a better promises (Heb. 8:5–6). All that God revealed to Moses was holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12), but because of Moses’s weakness (Heb. 3:16; cf. Num. 20:10–13), the weakness of the priests (Heb. 7:28), and the weakness of the law (Rom. 3:20), there was always need for a new and better covenant. Anticipation of a new and better covenant begins with Moses himself (Deuteronomy 30), and it continues throughout the Old Testament (Jer. 31:31–34), until the New Testament, and especially Hebrews, explains God’s eternal plans—to bring his Son in the fullness of time to establish a new covenant.

That being the case, we should not miss the weakness of the Sinai covenant in Exodus itself. For in Exodus 32, Aaron led the people of Israel to break the second commandment, which in turn broke the covenant and invited God’s judgment. While Moses intervened and God graciously reissued the covenant with greater mediation—the covenant with Israel (Exod. 24:8) became a covenant with Moses and Israel (Exod. 34:27)—the weakness of the Mosaic covenant was evident to all. Yes, the sacrificial system provided atonement for sins and purification of God’s house. Nevertheless, the people could not circumcise their hearts (Deut. 10:16), and thus continued to break the covenant.

Enter the Levitical covenant. This covenant is not the same as the Mosaic covenant, nor is it disconnected from it. It is like the old BASF commercials, “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy; we make a lot of the products you buy better.” To this day, I don’t know what BASF is, but I know what it claimed to do. And I suppose that the BASF-modified products I bought were better, even if BASF only delayed the engineered obsolescence.

The Covenant with Levi is similar. While not fully cognizant of every feature of this priestly covenant—for Numbers 25 does not have any instructions to the priests—it is clear that this covenant was given to reinforce the weakness of the covenant with Moses.[4] As Doug Van Dorn has suggested, “[The Levitical covenant] is the covenant that figuratively and literally surrounds the Mosaic covenant like the Tabernacle and Temple surround the Ark.”[5]

4. In relating the Mosaic covenant to the Levitical covenant (or, priestly covenant), Paul Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Plan (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), 105–06, observes “Thus the Priestly and Mosaic covenants, while remaining distinct, run in parallel with one another, and are closely related in purpose; namely, maintaining the relationship between God and Israel.” Where Williamson speaks of these covenants running “parallel,” I prefer to think of the Levitical covenant as “reinforcing” the Mosaic, which is in a fashion a parallel construction. Later, however, I will speak of the Levitical covenant running parallel to the Davidic covenant, as the priestly and royal covenants move from the shadow of Mosaic covenant to the substance of the new covenant.

5. Douglas Van Dorn, Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Primer (2014), 103.

Practically speaking, scholars can and have ignored this covenant, because when they do, they still have the content of the Mosaic covenant. You can take away the shell of an egg and you still have the yolk. Yet, without the shell, the yolk will not last very long. So too the Levitical covenant. Throughout Israel’s history, when the priests and their assistants (the Levites) failed to teach the people—something expected of the priests and Levites (see Lev. 10:11; Deut. 33:10)—the people had no knowledge of God (Hos. 4:6).

Positively, the priests were given to Israel to teach them the law and to tell them, “Know the Lord!” This is how Malachi describes the covenant with Levi (Mal. 2:4–9). Sadly, however, they often failed. Consider the wicked sons of Eli and the need for a new priesthood (1 Samuel 2), or the idolatrous condition of the temple in Ezekiel 8–10. In both instances, the priests failed to guard their holiness or the holiness of God’s house. Axiomatically, therefore, ignorance of the Law, which invited God’s judgment, is what happened in Israel, when the priests broke their covenant. Take away the shell of the Levitical covenant, and the yolk of the Mosaic covenant is inevitably lost.

Most striking is in this regard is Malachi 2, the passage where covenant with Levi is described. In that passage, the priests had failed to teach the people (Mal. 2:4–9) and were instead offering blemished animals (Mal. 1:6–14) and permitting (or participating in) marital unfaithfulness (Mal. 2:13–16). Tragically, the priests who were supposed to turn people away from their sins by means of their instruction (Mal. 2:5–6) had defiled themselves and let the people of Israel do the same. In short, they had broken their covenant, and by extension their unfaithfulness invited the rest of Israel to do the same. Break the shell, and the yolk spills out. So it is with the Levitical covenant, and hence the reason why a new covenant depends upon a new and better priest—a royal priest from the line of David.

3. The Levitical Covenant parallels the Davidic Covenant and anticipates the New covenant.

In Israel’s history, we know that the royal tribe is Judah and the priestly tribe is Levi. That said, we can overly and unduly divide the royal and priestly offices. As I attempted to argue in my book on the royal priesthood, these two offices are meant to be held in unison. Sin made it necessary to transfer the priesthood of Israel to the tribe of Levi alone,[6] just as sin complicated the inauguration of the kingdom in Israel. Nevertheless, from Adam, who was created to be a royal priest; to Melchizedek, who is the prototypical royal priest; to Jesus, who is the perfect royal priest, the goal of redemptive history has always been a priest wearing a crown (Zech. 6:13–14) and a king drawing near to the throne of God (Jer. 30:21). Indeed, from Psalm 110 and Psalm 132 to Zechariah 3:1–10 and Daniel 7:13–14 the pattern is clear—the messiah will be a royal priest.

6. On the ways in which Israel became a kingdom with priests instead of a kingdom of priests, see my article, “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.

In redemptive history, this pattern is confirmed by the covenants, as well. In particular, the Mosaic covenant bestows upon Israel the status of royal priesthood (Exod. 19:6). Conceived as God’s holy nation and treasured possession, the covenant people of God are to be a kingdom of priests, just as Adam himself was king-priest. Sin short-circuited this plan, and required a division of labor in the nation of Israel—namely, the formation of a Davidic kingdom with Levitical priests. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that this division, like the Law of Moses itself, was always temporary and anticipatory of something to come. For this reason, progressive covenantalism has always argued for the prophetic and revelatory nature of the Mosaic covenant and all the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12).

Equally, when it comes to the Levitical covenant, we should observe how this priestly covenant ran parallel to God’s royal covenant with David. Or to say it differently, if the Davidic covenant works within the Mosaic covenant to bring about the promise of a king (see Deut. 17:14–20); the Levitical covenant does the same. Even as the Levitical covenant reinforces the Mosaic covenant, it also establishes a priestly office that foreshadows the high priest who will come and bring eternal redemption (see Leviticus 16).

Indeed, moving from the promise of a better priesthood to the fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the priestly covenant runs parallel to the royal covenant, revealing what is needed to redeem God’s people. This is seen in 1–2 Samuel, as this Former Prophet anticipates a new and better priest (1 Sam. 2:35), even as he promises a son of David to sit on an eternal throne (2 Sam. 7:9–14). While I cannot go into the details of the 1–2 Samuel, there is good reason for seeing David as a priestly figure who is likened to a new Melchizedek.[7] Indeed, a careful reading of 1–2 Samuel, as well as 1 Chronicles, provides excellent background for understanding the union of priesthood and kingship in Psalm 110.[8]

7. For support of this point, see my “In Search of a Righteous King: A Melchizedekian Reading of Samuel’s David” (Unpublished article).

8. See also, Matt Emadi, The Royal Priest: Psalm 110 in Biblical Theology, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2022).
 

Equally, when Jeremiah promises a new covenant (Jer. 31:31–33), he grounds this new covenant in the coming of a prince who draws near like a priest (Jer. 30:21).[9] In keeping with the way that the death (and “resurrection”) of the high priest would establish new covenantal arrangements in Israel (see Num. 35: 35:25, 28 [2x], 32) and anticipating the argument of Hebrews 7:12, which has the new covenant depend upon the arrival of a new and better priest, Jeremiah shows how the new covenant follows the arrival of a new and royal priest.

9. For an exegetical connection between Jeremiah 30:21and Jeremiah 31:31–34, see my dissertation, “A Biblical-Theological Investigation of Christ’s Priesthood and Covenant Mediation with Respect to the Extent of the Atonement,” (2013): 217–20.

Moreover, just as the arrival of the royal priest in Psalm 110 leads to the establishment of a new priesthood in Psalm 132, Jeremiah 33 announces the restoration of the priesthood upon the arrival of a new covenant.[10] Here is what it says,

For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings, and to make sacrifices forever.” The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers. As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the offspring of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me.

10. Schrock, The Royal Priesthood, 91–97, 110–13.

While some read this verse as strictly literal (i.e., the reestablishment of a priesthood in the millennium),[11] the fulfillment of the new covenant in books like Hebrews leads us in another direction. Instead of suggesting that physical descendants of Levi will rise to serve as priests in the millennium, the New Testament repeatedly identifies the church of Jesus Christ, whether Jew or Greek, as the true priests. Therefore, just as David’s covenant is fulfilled by Christ in the new covenant, granting to all his people a place in the kingdom. So too, the Levitical covenant (which runs parallel to the Davidic covenant), is also fulfilled by Christ in the new covenant, thereby granting his saints a place of service in the household of God—which is another way of saying that Christ as our great high priest confers upon his people the status of priests.

11. E.g., Charles L. Feinberg, Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983) 237; Irvin A. Busenitz, “Introduction to the Biblical Covenants: The Noahic Covenant and the Priestly Covenant,” Masters Seminary Journal 10 (1999): 188–89.

In fact, when we read the Latter Prophets together, we even discover in Isaiah instructions for reading Jeremiah. Consider these words in Isaiah 66:21–23, which speak of a coming new creation.

And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord. 22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. 23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord.

In this passage, God promises to restore the Levitical priesthood (i.e., priests and Levites) at the time of the new creation. Thus, when the new creation arrived in Christ’s death and resurrection, it is fair to say that great high priest, Jesus Christ, received a new set of priests and Levites to serve alongside him in the temple he is building. In fact, by means of a new covenant priesthood, one that is assembled by baptizing disciples from all the nations, we begin to see how God intended to fulfill these priestly promises in the new covenant of Christ. This is also a covenant replete with priestly themes, as I will show in part three.

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.