Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Natural Priesthood

The priesthood is as old as the first man. God instituted the “original covenant of royal-priestly primogeniture” from the very beginning.[i] He created the world in six days and on the seventh he rested. The Sabbath is set up by God as a holy day of rest. It is the climax of creation; God’s covenant with mankind. When we celebrate the liturgy, we celebrate this covenant that God has made with man. In fact, all of creation is oriented towards this divine liturgy of the divine covenant. That is why we work six days out of the seven. The whole week leads up to this one day, so that each week is a sort of new creation. With this in mind, it is no surprise that Adam, the first man, was a priest. His priesthood, however, is not the same as the kind we know now, nor was it like the priesthood of the Levites. Adam’s priesthood was a natural one. The actions that Adam was to do in the Garden of Eden, “keep” and “till”, are priestly actions also proscribed for the Levitical priests in their duties in the temple. Eden was a primordial temple.[ii] Scott Hahn explains that “the basis for the patriarchal religion was the natural family order, most especially the patriarchal authority handed down from father to son—ideally the firstborn—often in the form of ‘the blessing.’”[iii] He also points out that “at this point in salvation history, family and church are coextensive—houses are domestic sanctuaries, meals are sacrifices, hearths are altars—all because fathers and their (firstborn) sons are empowered as priests by nature.”[iv] The “domestic church” existed way before Christianity.

So, in Genesis, we see the natural priesthood passed down from Adam to Seth[v] down to the time of Noah. When God causes the flood starting the world over with Noah and his family, we see Noah performing the same priestly actions as Adam did in the garden.[vi] The natural priesthood goes on and Shem inherits his father’s blessing and so on. Then, we reach chapter 14 of Genesis and seemingly out of nowhere comes this mysterious “Melchizedek king of Salem [who brings] out bread and wine” and he is also “priest of God Most High.”[vii] This is the first instance in the Bible where a person is referred to as a priest. But he is not just any priest. He is a “priest of God Most High.” Melchizedek also blesses Abram. But who is this Melchizedek? Who made him a priest? More importantly, where did he get this blessing that he gives to Abram?! For, a person cannot give a blessing without first receiving one. The answers to these questions can be found in St. Ephrem the Syrian’s Commentary on Genesis: “Melchizedek is Shem[viii], who became a king due to his greatness; he was the head of fourteen nations. In addition, ‘he was a priest.’ He received this from Noah, his father, through the rights of succession.”[ix] Shem/Melchizedek passes the blessing he received from Noah onto Abram who was promised to be blessed by God back in chapter 12 . The priesthood continues on this way up to the time of Moses and the Exodus.

[i].Hahn, Scott, “Priesthood in the Old Testament.” in Russell Shaw, ed., Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine. (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1997), 525.
[ii].Wenham, Gordon J, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story.” in R.S. Hess and D. S. Tsumara, eds., I Studied Inscriptions From Before The Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 401. Cf. Numbers 3:7-8, 8:26, 18:5-6.
[iii].Hahn, Scott, “Priesthood in the Old Testament”, 524.
[v].The firstborn was to receive the blessing from the father passing on authority and priestly duties. This is not always the case, however. As we see in Genesis, the sin of the firstborn can cause the blessing to bypass him and fall to a younger brother.
[vi].Genesis 9.
[vii].Genesis 14:18.
[viii].Shem is the first righteous firstborn we meet in the Bible. It is also important to note that Melchizedek is not a name, but a title meaning “king of righteousness.” Cf. Hebrews 7:2.
[ix].Quoted in Gadenz, Pablo, “The Priest as Spiritual Father”, in Scott Hahn & Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. ed., Catholic for a Reason. (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, Inc., 1998), 218. For more on Shem/Melchizedek Cf. Hahn, Scott Walker, Kinship By Covenant: A Biblical Theological Study of Covenant Types and Texts in the Old and New Testaments. (PhD dissertation, Marquette University, 1995), 153-159, 171-181, 568-593.

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