Lecture 56: The History of the High Priesthood After the Death of Aharon and Until the Building of the First Temple

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy





Lecture 56: the history of the high priesthood after the death of aharon and until the building of the first temple


Rav Yitzchak Levi



            In this lecture, I wish to examine the history of the High Priesthood, from the period following the death of Aharon, through the periods of Yehoshua, the Shoftim, and Shmuel, and until the days of Shlomo in the book of Melakhim. I will survey the individuals who served in the office of the High Priest from the time of Aharon until the days of Shlomo and discuss the most important events that took place during the lives of each one of them.




            Elazar the son of Aharon was Aharon's direct heir:


· While the Mishkan wandered in the wilderness, Elazar was the chief over the heads of the Levites: "And Elazar the son of Aharon the priest shall be chief over the chiefs of the Levites, and have the oversight of those that keep the charge of the sanctuary" (Bamidbar 3:32). And similarly: "And to the office of Elazar the son of Aharon the priest pertains the oil for the light, and the sweet incense, and the daily meal offering, and the anointing oil, and the oversight of all the tabernacle, and of all that is in it, as to the sanctuary, and as to its vessels" (Bamidbar 4:16).


· Prior to Aharon's death, Moshe is commanded to go up with Aharon and his son Elazar to Hor Ha-Har and to dress Elazar with Aharon's garments: "And Moshe stripped Aharon of his garments, and put them upon Elazar his son; and Aharon died there in the top of the mount. And Moshe and Elazar came down from the mountain" (Bamidbar 20:25-29).


· Following the death of his father, Elazar the priest serves alongside Moshe. In this framework, he is mentioned in the census taken in Arvot Mo'av (Bamidbar 26:1), in the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad (Bamidbar 27:2), and in the account of the war waged against Midyan (Bamidbar 31:12).


· The two and a half tribes turn to Moshe and to Elazar the priest and to the chiefs of the congregation in their petition to receive their inheritance on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. Moshe announces the names of the people who will divide the land, Elazar the priest and Yehoshua the son of Nun (Bamidbar 34:17), and this is carried out in practice in the days of Yehoshua (Yehoshua 14:1).


· Scripture testifies that the territories of the remaining seven tribes were also divided up in Shilo by Elazar the priest:


These are the territories which Elazar the priest and Yehoshua the son of Nun and the heads of the fathers of the tribes of Bnei Yisrael divided for an inheritance by lot in Shilo before the Lord, at the door of the Tent of Meeting. So they made an end of dividing the country. (Yehoshua 19:51)




            Elazar's successor was his son Pinchas:


· Pinchas's priesthood began in the wake of the zeal that he demonstrated for God:


And when Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the priest saw it, he rose up from among the congregation and took a spear in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. (Bamidbar 25:7-8)


            In the wake of this action, Pinchas and his descendants are granted everlasting priesthood:


Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the priest has turned My wrath away from Bnei Yisrael, in that he was zealous for My sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say, Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace. And he shall have, and his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for Bnei Yisrael. (Bamidbar 25:10-13)


            Rashi explains (ad loc.):


For although the priesthood had already been given to Aharon's descendants, it was given only to Aharon and his sons who had been anointed together with him and to the offspring whom they might beget after they had been anointed. But Pinchas, who had been born previous to that and had not been anointed, had not attained the status of priesthood until now.


            This is also the view of Chazal in the gemara:


Pinchas did not attain the status of a priest until he killed Zimri. [1] (Zevachim 100b)


· Later, we find Pinchas taking part in the war against Midyan:


And Moshe sent them to the war, a thousand of every tribe, them and Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest, to the war, with the holy instruments, and the trumpets to blow in his hand. (Bamidbar 31:6)


· During the period of the conquest in the days of Yehoshua, Pinchas continued the priesthood of his father Elazar (Yehoshua 22:30).


· Pinchas is later mentioned in the story of the building of the altar along the bank of the Jordan by the two and a half tribes:


And Bnei Yisrael sent to the children of Reuven and to the children of Gad and to the half tribe of Menashe, into the land of Gil'ad, Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest, and with him ten princes. (Yehoshua 22:13)


· Pinchas's next and final appearance is found at the end of the book of Shoftim in the story of the concubine in Giv'a:


And Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon stood before it in those days, saying, "Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Binyamin my brother, or shall I cease?" And the Lord said, "Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand." (Shoftim 20:28)[2]




            As we saw above, the verses imply that Pinchas lived a very long life and served in the priesthood for a lengthy period during the days of the Shoftim. At the end of the period of the Shoftim, at the beginning of the book of Shmuel, the priesthood passes from the dynasty of Elazar the priest to the house of Eli, descendants of Elazar's brother Itamar.


            Following the death of Eli, the priesthood remains in his family, and passes through Chofni and Pinchas, I-Khavod, Achimelekh the son of Achitov, and Evyatar, and only then does it return to Tzadok the priest, a descendant of Elazar. The genealogy of the priests is outlined in the book of Divrei Ha-yamim, which records the generations from the days of Elazar and Itamar to the days of David:


Elazar begot Pinchas, Pinchas begot Avishua, and Avishua begot Bukki, and Bukki begot Uzzi. And Uzzi begot Zerachya, and Zerachya begot Merayot. Merayot begot Amarya, and Amarya begot Achituv, and Achituv begot Tzadok, and Tzadok begot Achima'atz. (I Divrei Ha-yamim 5:30-34)


            Regarding the dynasty of Itamar, we read:


But Nadav and Avihu died before their father, and had no children; therefore, Elazar and Itamar executed the priests' office. And David and Tzadok of the sons of Elazar, and Achimelekh of the sons of Itamar, divided them up according to their offices in their service. (I Divrei Ha-yamim 24:2-3)


            From these verses, we learn that Achimelekh was a descendent of Itamar, and from another source we know that Achimelekh was the son of Achituv (I Shmuel 22:11), who in other places is called Avimelekh the son of Evyatar (I Divrei Ha-yamim 18:16). In addition, Evyatar was one of the descendants of Eli (it says in I Shmuel 22:20: "And one of the sons of Achimelekh the son of Achituv, named Evyatar, escaped and fled after David").


            Thus, we learn indirectly from the verses that Eli was a descendant of Itamar.


            In summary, from the days of Aharon the priest, the priesthood continues through Elazar and Pinchas, who is last mentioned in the story of the concubine in Giv'a, and at the end of the period of the Shoftim and the beginning of the book of Shmuel, it passes to the house of Eli, who traces his lineage back to Itamar the son of Aharon and not to Elazar.




            Why didn't the dynasty of Elazar continue through the descendants of Pinchas? When did Pinchas cease to serve in the office of the priesthood? Scripture does not say a word about this,[3] but what is not explicit in the biblical text is clarified in the words of Chazal in several places. Thus, we read in the midrash in connection with Yiftach's vow:


Surely, Pinchas the son of Elazar lived in those days! Rather, Pinchas said: I am a High Priest, son of a High Priest; how then can I go before an am ha-aretz? And Yiftach said: I am the head of the judges of Israel, the chief officer; shall I humiliate myself and go before an ordinary person? Between the two of them, that wretched girl passed from the world. Woe to greatness that buries its possessors, woe to greatness that never leads to good! (Tanchuma Bechukotai 5)


            The midrash adds:


The holy spirit departed from Pinchas. This is what is stated: "And Pinchas the son of Elazar was the ruler over them in time past, and the Lord was with him" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 9:20). (Vayikra Rabba 37, 4)


            We see, then, that the midrash links the transfer of the priesthood from Pinchas to Eli on Pinchas's conduct in the story of Yiftach's vow. The midrash points an accusatory finger at Pinchas and Yiftach, both of whom credited themselves with greatness and thus led to the death of Yiftach's daughter.


            What happens later after the transfer of the priesthood to the house of Eli?      In the wake of the sins of the sons of Eli in the Mishkan, who profane God's offering with their actions (I Shmuel 2:12 and on), a man of God appears to Eli and informs him that his seed will be cut off. God's word is executed in stages: First, Eli's sons, Chofni and Pinchas, are killed in the battle of Even Ha-Ezer (I Shmuel 4:11); Eli himself dies when he hears that the ark of God was captured (I Shmuel 4:18); his daughter-in-law, the wife of Pinchas, dies as she gives birth to I-Khavod (ibid. v. 20); Achimelekh and eighty five wearers of a linen efod are killed by Shaul when he destroyed Nov, the city of priests;[4] and to completely fulfill the prophecy, Evyatar is sent away by Shlomo (I Melakhim 2:26: "And to Evyatar the priest the king said, 'Get you to Anatot, to your own fields…' So Shlomo thrust out Evyatar from being priest to the Lord, that he might fulfill the word of the Lord, which He spoke concerning the house of Eli in Shilo").


            With the banishment of Evyatar, the priesthood returns to Tzadok the priest, and thus to the house of Elazar the son of Aharon the priest. From this we learn that the continuation of service in the office of the High Priest is conditioned on the actions of the priests. As soon as they are unfit, the priesthood passes from the house of Elazar to the house of Itamar; later, in the wake of the unseemly actions of the priests, it returns from the house of Itamar to the house of Elazar.




            How is the Mishkan moved to Nov following the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo? Why was Nov, the city of priests, selected?[5] Grintz argues that Nov was chosen owing to its proximity to Kiryat-Ye'arim, where the ark was watched over by priests, descendants of Aharon. It is possible that members of the house of Eli - perhaps Eli's grandchildren, headed by Achimelekh the son of Achituv – moved the Mishkan to Nov.


            Logic dictates that the move to Giv'on took place after the destruction of Nov. It is reasonable to assume that it was Shaul who selected the site of the great bama in Giv'on, as Shaul's family came from Giv'on (I Divrei Ha-yamim 8:29; 9:35). Accordingly, the Mishkan was erected by Shaul in the city of Shaul.[6]


            In this context, Grintz proposes that since Shaul was at great odds with the house of Eli because of the assistance that Achimelekh had provided David when he was fleeing from Shaul (I Shmuel 20), it was Shaul who initiated the search for a different priestly family, from the branch of the descendants of Elazar, who would serve in the priestly office in place of the descendants of Eli. Following in this direction, it is reasonable to assume that Shaul would choose Tzadok, a priest from the house of Elazar, to serve at the great bama in Giv'on. Indeed, the fact that Tzadok was a priest of the house of Elazar is stated explicitly in Divrei Ha-yamim:


And Tzadok the priest and his brethren the priests before the Tabernacle of the Lord in the high place that was at Giv'on, to offer burnt offerings to the Lord upon the altar of the burnt offering continually morning and evening, and to do according to all that is written in the Torah of the Lord, which He commanded Israel.[7] (I Divrei Ha-yamim 16:39)




            As stated, the priesthood passed from the house of Elazar to the house of Eli and remained there until the time of Evyatar, when it passed to Tzadok the priest, a descendant of Elazar. How did this transfer take place? Let us trace this transfer in the verses.


            Regarding the kingdom of David, we read:


And Tzadok the son of Achituv and Achimelekh the son of Evyatar, were the priests. (II Shmuel 8:17)


            At the time of Avshalom's revolt, however, Tzadok is mentioned before Evyatar:


And lo, Tzadok also came, and all the Levites with him, bearing the ark of the covenant of God, and they set down the ark of God, and Evyatar went up, until all the people had finished passing out of the city. (II Shmuel 15:24)


            Chazal in Seder Olam Rabba (chapter 14) comment:


When David was fleeing from his son Avshalom, Evyatar remained until he went up by the ascent of the Mount of Olives, and he inquired of the urim and tumim, and then Evyatar was removed from the High Priesthood and Tzadok entered in his place.


            This is also stated in the gemara in Yoma (73b):


Any priest who does not speak with the holy spirit and the Shekhina rests upon him, we do not inquire through him. For Tzadok inquired and he succeeded, [whereas] Evyatar [inquired] but he did not succeed. As it is stated: "And Evyatar went up, until all the people had finished."


            We see from here that the transition from Evyatar, of the house of Eli from the descendants of Itamar, to Tzadok, the priest from the descendants of Elazar, took place during Avshalom's rebellion.


            One question that lacks a clear answer is what the relationship between the end of the Mishkan's stay in Nov and the end of the kingdom of Shaul is. To put it differently, on the assumption that it was Shaul who selected Giv'on and Tzadok, to what extent did his reign correspond to the continued existence of the great bama at Giv'on? Did he merely select the place and the priestly house, and with that his rule came to an end? We have no tools with which to decide this issue.


            In any event, as we have already noted, the main period of Giv'on was during the days of David, and therefore it is reasonable to assume that the main period of Tzadok parallels the rule of David.


            On the assumption, as was noted earlier, that the choicest priestly family is the family of Elazar, there is good reason to see Tzadok's service as priest as paralleling the days of David.


            The service of the descendants of the family of Itamar began after the days of Yiftach, toward the end of the period of the Shoftim. Eli the priest and his descendants served in the priesthood in the wake of Pinchas's conduct in connection with Yiftach's vow and until the destruction of Nov.


            This intermediate period corresponds to the end of the period of the Mishkan's stay in Shilo, when the great corruption of Eli's sons leads directly to the destruction of the Mishkan, which was followed by the period of Nov which mainly parallels the rule of Shmuel and Shaul.


            Corresponding to the transfer of the kingdom from Shaul to David, the priesthood also passed from the house of Itamar to the house of Elazar, from Evyatar, a descendant of the house of Eli, to Tzadok who belonged to the house of Elazar, and this itself took place during the days of David himself, as we demonstrated through the verses.


            Even if Shaul initiated the transfer of the priesthood from the house of Itamar to the house of Elazar, as we proposed, the main period of Tzadok parallels the days of David. The fact that the priesthood was removed from the house of Itamar precisely at the same time that the kingdom was removed from Binyamin and passed to Yehuda is a very interesting point.




            This is the last lecture for this year. The series began with an account of the resting of the Shekhina in the camp of the Levites in the wilderness, through the entry into Eretz Yisrael, and down to the days of David. Next year, we will continue this series and focus on the resting of the Shekhina during the first Temple period.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] In this framework, we will not discuss the details of the way in which Pinchas attained the status of priest.

[2] In this context, we will not attempt to date these chapters at the end of the book of Shoftim, which, according to various opinions, occurred at the beginning of the period of the Shoftim. This would account for the presence of Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the priest at these events.

[3] It is possible that the very fact that there is no reference to the lineage of the priesthood during this period, and that we must piece together the information collected from different verses, constitutes further testimony that during this period the priesthood enjoyed little importance.

[4] It is clear that neither Shaul nor Shlomo adopted a policy to fulfill the prophecy regarding the house of Eli, but rather each of them acted out of his own considerations – Shaul's actions were based on the desire to punish those who supported David, and Shlomo based his on the desire to punish Evyatar for his support of Adoniyahu. God manages the world in such a way that human choices coincide with the word of God. This is a very broad topic, relating to God's omniscience versus free choice, and this is not the forum in which to expand on the matter.

[5] This is connected to another question: Why didn't they rebuild the Mishkan in Shilo after its destruction and after the ark was taken by the Pelishtim? Is it possible that they understood what is explicitly stated in Tehillim 78:9, that God had rejected Shilo?

[6] We have noted in the past the connection between the seat of government - the kingdom - and the site of the Mishkan (e.g., Yehoshua in Shilo in Mount Efrayim). What is interesting and meaningful here is the connection between Giv'on and Shaul. In this case, however, we have related primarily to the selection and foundation of the place, as most of the time that the great bama was in Giv'on corresponds to the 40 years of David's rule and the first 4 years of Shlomo's reign.

[7] While these verses relate to the days of David, we have related to the beginning of the process, to the very selection of the place and the beginning of the service there.