Oral teaching by the priests and Levites
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This document deals with the oral teaching by the priests and Levites. These people were charged with the oral teaching. We begin with going through the texts where they are described. We will see the behavior of those priests and Levites. From thence we form an opinion on the value of the oral tradition.
Table of contents
Orders to teach
Orders to listen
Carrying out of the teaching
Carrying out of the listening
Prophetic views of the priests
Finally: what's the use for us?
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Orders to teach
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Did the priests and the Levites teach on their own initiative? Surely not. The Scripture is full of orders to teach. Fathers are commanded to teach their children. Levites are commanded to teach the people. Here we concentrate on the orders to the Levites, that they should teach the people. Let's see some.
First we turn to the blessing, wherewith Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death, Deuteronomy 33:1. Having blessed Reuben en Judah, he comes to Levi. In the verses 8-12 you read thereof. 8. And of Levi he said, Let thy Thummim and thy Urim be with thy holy one, whom thou didst prove at Massah, and with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah. 9. Who said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children: for they have observed thy word, and kept thy covenant. 10. They shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law: they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt sacrifice upon thine altar. Notice in particular verse 10. There you read that the Levites shall teach Jacob God's judgements and Israel His law.
In Ezekiel 44:23,24 you read the utterance of God. He says that the priests shall teach My people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean. And in controversy they shall stand in judgment; and they shall judge it according to My judgments: and they shall keep My laws and My statutes in all Mine assemblies; and they shall hallow My sabbaths.
In Deuteronomy 21 we read of the case that one slain is found, while they don't know who is the offender. The elders of the closest city should bring a heifer unto a rough valley. And then the priests the sons of Levi shall come near. Why? For them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried, verse 5. You see that the priests are the ministers of God. Their ministry involves teaching. The LORD has chosen them.
In Leviticus 10, Aaron and his sons receive an order of God to teach the children of Israel. Read this in the verses 8-11. And the LORD spake unto Aaron, saying: do not drink wine nor strong drink. Thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die. It shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations; and that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean; and that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.
Orders to listen
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It speaks for itself, that, when there are orders to teach, that there are also orders to listen. Lest the priests teach in vain. We read in the Scriptures, that the people are commanded to listen diligently.
The first example is in Deuteronomy 24:8. Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that thou observe diligently, and do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you: as I commanded them, so ye shall observe to do. So, people, observe diligently everything that the priests shall teach you.
Also in Deuteronomy, in chapter 17, you read this. 9. And thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days, and enquire; and they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment. 10. And thou shalt do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the LORD shall choose shall shew thee; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee. 11. According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do: thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall shew thee, to the right hand, nor to the left. 12. And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel. The have to obey the voice of the priests the Levites, who tell them the truth of God. The people ! are urged to obey. But who will do presumptuously, will die.
Are there two men, between there is a controversy? The thing they must do is, that they shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days, Deuteronomy 19:17.
Even Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, an important man, has to stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall ask counsel for him after the judgment of Urim before the LORD. Let none think him too important. Everybody has to go to the priest, to be taught and instructed by him. Read this in Numbers 27:18, 21.
Carrying out of the teaching
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How is the teaching carried out? How have the priests and the Levites performed their task? Also here, the Scriptures leave us not alone. The answer to the question how the order to teach is carried out, follows below.
First we look to Asaph. Asaph was a Levite, as appears from 1 Chronicles 15:16, 17. How has Asaph performed his duty to teach the children of Israel? We read the answer in Psalm 78. In this entire Psalm, written by Asaph, he teaches. Already in the beginning, he calls his Psalm a Maschil, that is, a teaching or instruction. Surely, Asaph was a faithful minister of the LORD, and has performed his task well. Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth, he says in the first verse. And he continues: I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old. Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done. See the verses 2-4.
In 2 Chronicles 35:3 we read that Josiah said unto the Levites that taught all Israel, that they should put the ark in the house of Solomon. So we understand from this fragment, that the Levites taught all Israel. This is an obedient performance of their duty.
In 2 Chronicles 15:3 we hear that for a long season Israel hath been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law. We understand that there has been an interruption, for a long season, of the faithful performance of the teaching through the priest.
Jehoshaphat reigned over Judah, and sought to the LORD God of his father, and walked in his commandments, and not after the doings of Israel. This king also sent Levites, even Shemaiah, and Nethaniah, and Zebadiah, and Asahel, and Shemiramoth, and Jehonathan, and Adonijah, and Tobijah, and Tobadonijah, Levites; and with them Elishama and Jehoram, priests. And they taught in Judah, and had the book of the law of the LORD with them, and went about throughout all the cities of Judah, and taught the people. 2 Chronicles 17:1,4,8,9. This godly king commanded the Levites to teach throughout Judah, and they did so.
But what do we hear from the prophet Ezekiel? The priests, instead of faithfully performing their ministry, what are they doing? Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from my sabbaths, and I am profaned among them. Ezekiel 22:26. They have violated Gods laws. They have profaned His holy things. Instead of putting difference between holy and profane, they have done nothing of that sort. They have not shown difference between clean and unclean. They have not kept the sabbaths. And worst of all, the LORD Himself is profaned among them. How are the priests fallen from their former godliness!
In Haggai 2, the LORD of hosts commands the prophet to ask the priests. Ask now the priests concerning the law, saying: if one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, no. So, they knew the law. The prophet continues to ask them. Then said Haggai, If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean? And the priests answered and said, It shall be unclean. See verses 11-13. It appears that they knew the difference between clean and unclean.
Instead of the priests being faithful teachers of the law, we hear something else from Hosea. Hear ye this, O priests; and hearken, ye house of Israel; and give ye ear, O house of the king; for judgment is toward you, because ye have been a snare on Mizpah, and a net spread upon Tabor. Hosea 5:1. If we concentrate on the priests, then we read that they have been a snare, and a net spread; namely to catch the people instead of to instruct them. How are they fallen from their standard! Worst still, in chapter 6:9 we read this. As troops of robbers wait for a man, so the company of priests murder in the way by consent: for they commit lewdness. Terrible! Instead of teaching they are like robbers lying in wait. The troop of priests murder by mutual consent, instead of teaching the way of life. Instead of being holy, and teaching the difference between holy and unholy, they commit lewdness.
How was it in the time of Jeremiah? Were the Levites faithful servants of the holy LORD? Let's listen what the prophet has to say about this matter. You will be terror-stricken, if you attend on what he says. The priests said not, Where is the LORD? and they that handle the law knew Me not, chapter 2:8. From the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely. They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush. Jeremiah 6:13, 14, 15. From the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely. For they have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, peace, peace; when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush. Chapter 8:10-12.
Why is Jerusalem destroyed, and made a ruin? Why have the adversary and the enemy entered into the gates of Jerusalem? It is for the sins of her prophets, and the iniquities of her priests, that have shed the blood of the just in the midst of her. Lamentations 4:12, 13. Instead of spending their time in teaching the people the ways of the LORD, the priests have busied themselves in shedding the blood of the just, and in committing iniquity.
Now listen to the burden of the word of the LORD to Israel, by Malachi, chapter 2:1-9. 1. And now, O ye priests, this commandment is for you. Malachiís speech directed to the priests. 2. If ye will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart, to give glory unto my name, saith the LORD of hosts, I will even send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart. The priests are cursed, because they lay not to their heart to give glory to Godís Name. He continues. 3. Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it. 4. And ye shall know that I have sent this commandment unto you, that my covenant might be with Levi, saith the LORD of hosts. The prophet begins to tell how the Levites behaved in the better times. 5. My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear ! wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name. In the better times, the Levites feared the LORD, and His Name. Also, the covenant between them and God was life and peace. What more was there in the beginning, in the good times? 6. The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity. Truth was in their mouth. That is, they explained the law of God to the people. They did not commit any iniquity, but were just and righteous. They also walked with the LORD in peace and equity. Many of the people were turned away by the Levites, from iniquity. They were converted from iniquity to the LORD, and became righteous. People, see what a peaceable life the Levites lived, and how faithfully they performed their duties. 7. For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. Did this c! ontinue? Continued they to keep knowledge, and to tell and explain the law? No. The good times ended. Instead of continuing in the paths of truth, they have departed away. 8. But ye are departed out of the way; ye have caused many to stumble at the law; ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi, saith the LORD of hosts. First they are departed out of the right way. And if it wasnít enough to corrupt themselves only, they also corrupted their listeners and followers. They have caused many to stumble at the law. Moreover, they have corrupted the covenant of Levi. How terrible were those priests! Because they have acted so wickedly, they have received their due reward. 9. Therefore have I also made you contemptible and base before all the people, according as ye have not kept my ways, but have been partial in the law. They have forsaken Godís ways. They have been partial in the law.
Also in Micahís time, the corruption was tremendous. The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire and the prophets thereof divine for money. Micah 3:11. Letís, in the midst of this corruption, concentrate on what the priests did. Did they teach? Yes, they did; but it was for hire. So, they went out for money and hire. They taught, yes; but it was for filthy lucre.
In Nehemiahís time, there has been a reformation. For Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law. Nehemiah 8:7. How did they cause them to understand the law? They read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading, verse 8. And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people: this day is holy unto the LORD your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law, verse 9. See the effect of teaching the law rightly, and causing the people to understand the true sense of the law. The effect is that all the people wept.
What have the priests, the Levites done in the past? Read Nehemiah 9. In this part the Levites pray to God, and confess their sins and the ones of their forefathers. God has done right, say they, but we have done wickedly. Neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, nor our fathers, kept thy law, nor hearkened unto thy commandments and thy testimonies, verse 34. It was the task of the priests both to teach and keep the law. But they havenít done that. They were obliged to hearken unto Godís commandments and His testimonies. Instead of doing this, they have done the opposite: refusing to hear and do them.
Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city! Her prophets are light and treacherous persons: her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law. Thatís the language of Zephaniah in chapter 3:1,4. Instead of teaching the difference between holy and unholy, the priests have polluted the sanctuary. Instead of teaching the law of God, they have done violence to it. They needs must turn the whole world upside down!
Carrying out of the listening
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Now we have seen how the command to teach was carried out, it is time to see what the people did with their command to listen. Have they obeyed, or have they thrown it behind their backs? Letís look up some places in the Scriptures, to find an answer on this question.
First we have the place of 2 Kings 12:2. And Jehoash did that which was right in the sight of the LORD all his days wherein Jehoiada the priest instructed him. We see that the priest Jehoiada instructed the king Jehoash. So the priest did his task. What did the king? He also did his task. He obeyed the voice of the LORD through the mouth of the priest, and did that which was right in the sight of the LORD. Yet, he did so only in the days of Jehoiada the priest. Afterwards he departed from the way.
The prophet Jeremiah had announced the judgement of God over Israel, because of their wickedness. Their land would be desolate. Every one that passed thereby should be astonished, and wag his head. And what did the people answer? They said of Jeremiah: come, and let us smite him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words, Jeremiah 18:18.
Prophetic views of the priests
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The priests had the task to teach the law of God. How do the prophets view the priests?
Isaiah calls Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah, faithful witnesses, chapter 8:2. In chapter 28:7 he says something different of the priests. Listen. The priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are out of the way through strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment. Through strong drink, the priests err in vision, stumble in judgment, and are out of the way.
What does Jeremiah say about the priests? He himself is the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth, chapter 1:1. The LORD has made this prophet, Jeremiah, a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the priests of Judah. They shall fight against him; but they shall not prevail against him, chapter 1:18,19. Did the priests know the LORD? No, they didnít. The priests said not, where is the LORD? And they that handle the law knew me not, chapter 2:8. The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means, 5:31. From the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely, 6:13 and 8:10. Pashur, the priest, smote Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks, chapter 20:2. Both prophet and priest are profane; yea, in my house have I found their wickedness, saith the LORD, chapter 23:11. When Jeremiah had finished speaking the LORDíS words, what was the reaction of the priests? Listen. ! Now it came to pass, when Jeremiah had made an end of speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak unto all the people, that the priests and the prophets and all the people took him, saying, Thou shalt surely die, chapter 26:8. The city Jerusalem had to God been as a provocation of His anger and of His fury, from the day that they built it even unto this day. Why? Because of all the evil which they have done to provoke Me to anger, they, their kings, their princes, their priests, and their prophets, chapter 32:31,32. Thus far about the wicked priests and Levites. What will happen to the Levites that minister unto God? As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured: so will I multiply the seed of David my servant, and the Levites that minister unto me, 33:22.
Ezekiel also prophesies about the evils that will come, due to the behavior of the people. We focus on the priests again. Mischief shall come upon mischief, and rumour shall be upon rumour. The law shall perish from the priest, and counsel from the ancients, 7:26. The priests have violated My law, and have profaned Mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from My sabbaths, and I am profaned among them, chapter 22:26. But it will be well with the priests, the keepers of the charge of the house, 40:45. The faithful priests the Levites that be of the seed of Zadok, which approach unto me, to minister unto me, saith the Lord GOD, will you give a young bullock for a sin offering, 43:19. The priests that minister the Lord, are distinguished from the evil ones. The Levites that are gone away far from me, which went astray away from me! after their idols; they shall even bear their iniquity. Yet they shall be ministers in my sanctuary, having charge at the gates of the house, and ministering to the house: they shall slay the burnt offering and the sacrifice for the people, and they shall stand before them to minister unto them. Because they ministered unto them before their idols, and caused the house of Israel to fall into iniquity; therefore have I lifted up mine hand against them, saith the Lord GOD, and they shall bear their iniquity. And they shall not come near unto me, to do the office of a priest unto me, nor to come near to any of my holy things, in the most holy place: but they shall bear their shame, and their abominations which they have committed. But I will make them keepers of the charge of the house, for all the service thereof, and for all that shall be done therein. But the priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok, that kept the charge of my sanctuary when the children of Israel went astra! y from me, they shall come near to me to minister unto me. And they sh all stand before me to offer unto me the fat and the blood, saith the Lord GOD. They shall enter into my sanctuary, and they shall come near to my table, to minister unto me, and they shall keep my charge. Chapter 44:10-16. We see that some Levites went astray away from the Lord after their idols. They caused the house of Israel to fall into iniquity. But the priests, that kept the charge of the Lordís sanctuary, will come near God to minister unto Him.
What has Hosea to say about the priests? Because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me. Seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children, 4:6. Hear ye this, o priests, for judgment is toward you, because ye have been a snare on Mizpah, and a net spread upon Tabor, 5:1. And in chapter 6:9, he says this. As troops of robbers wait for a man, so the company of priests murder in the way by consent: for they commit lewdness.
Micah says that the priests teach for hire, chapter 3:11.
Zephaniah rightly complains that the priests have polluted the sanctuary; they have done violence to the law, chapter 3:4.
Also Zechariahís view is important, since he represents the LORDíS view. These are his words, nay, those of the Lord. Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves? So, the priests indeed did fast and mourn, during those seventy years. But they did it not unto the Lord. They fasted and mourned for themselves. That is, they honored themselves by fasting: "see us; how we obey the Lord". In that way they honored themselves instead of God. Zechariah 7:5,6.
Malachi also warns the priests. About the priests he says: o priests, that despise My name. The priests despised Godís Name. Yet their ignorance was so great that they were not aware of it. For they say, Wherein have we despised thy name? Malachi 1:6. And in 2:7,8 he says something of the same meaning. The priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth. For he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. But ye are departed out of the way; ye have caused many to stumble at the law; ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi, saith the LORD of hosts. The priests, the children of Levi, were defiled much. But the Lord, in His great mercy, shall purify them. For He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. And He shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness, chapter 3:3.
Finally: whatís the use for us?
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We see that there has been a remnant of faithful priests and Levites. They taught the law of God in truth. But the greater part of the priests and Levites were great sinners against both God and the people.
Teaching people is done orally. The priests and Levites taught the people by mouth. Later, this oral teaching became the well-known oral Jewish tradition. At least, they say so. After having existed orally for a long time, this tradition was written down afterward.
Some attach a great value to their oral tradition. Some even think that God has inspired this oral tradition. However this may be, and whatever they may think, it is important for us to read the Scriptures, and to learn what they tell us about the oral tradition, and the means whereby this tradition is passed on.
Letís now concentrate on the means whereby the oral tradition was handed on. The means whereby it was handed on, is the mouth; more precisely, the mouth of the priests and the Levites. A remnant of the priests and Levites taught the true ways of God. But the greater part erred in the way. We read that for a long season Israel has been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law (2 Chronicles 15:3). So the oral teaching of the priests has been interrupted for a long season. This interruption does not add to the reliability thereof. The oral tradition is passed on through the mouth of priests that have violated Godís law (Ezek. 22:26). That have profaned the LORD, that have been a snare on Mizpah, and a net spread upon Tabor (Hos. 5:1). That murder in the way by consent and commit lewdness, and lay in wait for a man as troops of robbers (Hos. 6:9). That knew not the Lord (Jer. 2:8). That deal falsely, and! speak of peace where there is no peace, and that commit abomination without being ashamed and without blushing (Jer. 6:13,14,15). The oral tradition is handed on by priests and Levites, that have shed the blood of the just in the midst of Jerusalem, wherefore the city is destroyed (Lamentations 4:12,13). Priests, that are cursed because they hear not the Lord; whose seed is corrupted; that are departed out of the way. What is worse, they have caused many to stumble at the law, namely through their oral teaching, which later became the oral tradition (Malachi 2). Like in earlier times, also now they cause many to stumble at the law by their oral tradition. Times have not changed. Also, the oral tradition is passed on by priests that teach for hire (Micah 3:11). Priests, that kept not Godís law, nor hearkened unto His commandments and testimonies (Nehemiah 9:34). The oral teachings were given by priests and Levites that have polluted! the sanctuary, and that have done violence to the law (Zephaniah 3:4). We may add much to this list.
One thing that we may conclude from the behavior of the priests and Levites, who were appointed by God to teach orally, is that their oral teaching is not reliable. They have caused many to stumble in the law, Malachi 2. Therefore the Jewish oral tradition is not reliable at all. It is the result of erring priests and Levites. If you wish to stumble at the law, then attach value to the oral tradition.
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