#254. Who can burn incense in front of Yahweh: only Aaronids OR not? (Ex 30:7; Num 17:5; 1 Chr 23:13; 2 Chr 26:16-19; Lk 1:8-11 vs Deut 33:10; 1 Sam 2:28; 1 Kgs 9:25)


The message endorsed through the tale of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16-17—that only the Aaronid priests can offer incense to Yahweh and only at Yahweh’s altar—is yet but another story in a long list meant to legitimate the Aaronid’s sole right to minister to Yahweh. We have now seen in this Aaronid written text, the Priestly source, “Yahweh” endorse:

  • the sole selection of the Aaronids as his priests, while at the same time demoting the rest of the Levites to servants of the Aaronids—contradictory to the claims of the “Yahweh” of Deuteronomy (#152)
  • the sole right of the Aaronids to officiate sacrifices, which logically follows from the above (#149)
  • and therefore the sole right of the Aaronids alone to expiate/atone for sin and only through sacrifices (#174, #244)
  • the sole right of the Aaronids to enter the Tabernacle (#166, #231)
  • the sole right of the Aaronids alone to touch Yahweh’s holy sacra (#220)
  • the sole selection of Aaronid priests as judges (#153-154)
  • the sole right of the Aaronids to be able to eat Yahweh’s sacrifices (#177)
  • the sole right of the Aaronids as the beneficiaries of Yahweh’s tithes (#214)
  • and now the sole right to burn incense!

This pro-Aaronid legislation is just some of the data scholars use in determining, quite convincingly now, that this literature was written by an elite priestly guild that legitimated its sovereign right to rule by tracing its lineage back to Aaron and, not surprisingly, by writing a text set in the archaic past where the Yahweh in this text authenticated their sole right to be priests and to rule by proclaiming it so!

Again for readers unfamiliar with ancient Near Eastern literature—and that is most “readers” of the Bible—this is precisely what ancient literature did and was composed to do. Properly we would label this as propaganda—that is literature written to endorse and divinely authenticate in this case the sole authority, ideology, and beliefs of its authors!

Moreover, this is properly why the Bible is NOT the word of God. Sorry people, but it’s about time we started being honest to these ancient texts and to ourselves!

Indeed, the legislation in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and elsewhere does present itself as Yahweh’s words to Moses in an authoritative archaic setting. But so do numerous other pieces of literature from the ancient world! This was a literary technique employed by all cultures of the Levant! But more significantly, when studied objectively and from within its own historical and literary world we see that this is none other than an elite priestly guild’s attempt (and quite successful at that) to legitimate their own beliefs, worldview, social position, etc. by placing these tenets on the lips of their god! Since the Bible is a collection of some odd 70 texts, most of which do exactly the same thing (!) but from different perspectives, beliefs, and worldviews, studying the many diverse and competing texts of the Bible objectively naturally leads to concluding that these texts represent the beliefs, worldviews, legislative customs, etc. of their diverse authors—legitimated and authorized by placing them on the lips of that particular culture’s deity, in this case Yahweh, and in later cases on the lips of Jesus. This is what the biblical literature itself reveals about itself!

We have also seen that much of this pro-Aaronid legislation contradicts the pan-Levite legislation of Deuteronomy and what the “Yahweh” in that text decrees, where all Levites were granted the right to perform sacrifices, officiate before Yahweh, partake of his sacred meals and tithes, be judges, and lastly to burn incense (Deut 33:10)!

Why was the Priestly writer so adamant about taking this practice away from all other Levites and anyone else for that matter?

As exhibited above, this could just be part of the broader pan-Levite polemic launched throughout the Priestly source where it is expressed over and over again, against the theological tenets in Deuteronomy, that not all Levites could be priests. This privilege “Yahweh” placed on Aaron and his seed alone (and in the composite text of Exodus as we now have it, Yahweh was selecting Aaron as his sole priest and messiah while Aaron was leading the Israelites into their greatest sin–fabricating and worshiping the Golden Calf! #160-161).

You will notice also that in dethroning any and all Levite claims to the priesthood, one of the literary tactics employed by the Aaronid priesthood was to write a text whose narrative setting was at Sinai—so “Yahweh” selects Aaron and his seed as his priests before the narrative setting of the book of Deuteronomy, 40 years later on the plains of Moab where the Levites are selected!

In point of fact, this is the same literary technique employed by many of the New Testament writers—how do you legitimate the beliefs about Jesus that this emergent church had? Same way: create narratives, even prophecies, that place Jesus or the promise of Jesus before Moses (Matt 3:3; Jn 5:46), before Abraham (Jn 8:58), and at last resort before the creation of the world (Jn 1:1; Col 1:15-16; Heb 1:2, etc.)! Many modern readers unfortunately cannot see these texts for what they are—literary re-interpretive acrobatics meant to legitimate a later and contrary culture’s beliefs, worldview, and values, or in short theologized propaganda.

Another possibility is that the Aaronid priesthood wished to restrict and eliminate practices that were of the religious norm during the monarchal or pre-exilic period—where any and all individuals burned incense to Yahweh at the high places. The books of Kings is notorious for its pejorative stance against this practice. Every king except Josiah, if I remember correctly, is castigated for burning incense on the high places. The pro-Aaronid author of Chronicles even rewrites some of the passages in King’s in order to highlight the pro-Aaronid polemic against such practices by Judean kings (2 Chr 16:16-21).

Yet on the other hand, we find Solomon burning incense before Yahweh in the Temple and there is no hint of wrong-doing here (1 Kgs 9:25). This too must be a time before the Levites were chased out of Jerusalem according to Deuteronomic tradition (1 Kgs 2:26-27).

Also, more ambiguous, it seems that the priests at Shiloh also burnt incense before Yahweh in the shrine there (1 Sam 2:28). Although Chronicles later implies that the house of Eli descended from the Aaronids, many scholars see Eli as a descendent of Moses’ family tree and thus representative of a Levite priesthood in Shiloh.

Finally, I find Luke’s narrative details about the priest Zacharias quite interesting. I’m not sure what his sources were (in retrospect I’m thinking Chronicles now) or what amount of knowledge “Luke” had about the laws and customs of the priesthood, but he sticks closely to Aaronid laws from Leviticus and the later pro-Aaronid books of Chornicles (4th c. BCE), not pan-Levite laws from Deuteronomy, in a couple interesting places.

  • Zacharias who does offer up incense to Yahweh at his altar is given an Aaronid pedigree! “Zacharias of the division of Abijah” (Lk 1:5-9; cf. 1 Chr 24).
  • Zacharias alone, as Aaronid priest, enters the inner shrine and burns incense on the incense altar in front of Yahweh, per what is stated in Numbers 17.
  • Jesus is circumcised on the 8th day according to Aaronid covenantal law (Lev 12:3; Gen 17:10-14). Both of these passages are from P, and no where else in the Torah is circumcision presented as a covenantal law! See #31.
  • Mary waits the prescribed number of days of purification after she gives birth (Lev 12:2).
  • Jesus, as first born, according to Aaronid redemption theology, is Yahweh’s. He must therefore be redeemed by substituting an animal in his place which acts as a sacrificial substitution (see #145). Luke presents this as happening (Lk 2:22-24). This is strange because according to Pauline and Johannine redemption theology, Jesus as first born is the sacrifice that redeems everyone else; no substitute therefore is necessary! Luke’s fulfillment of this redeemed substitution sacrifice, again per Aaronid law (Lev 27:26-27; Num 3:12-13, 3:40-59, 8:16-18, 18:15-18), is counter intuitive to Paul’s and John’s Jesus-as-the-redemptive-sacrifice theology. But then again, as many NT scholars have noticed, there is no sacrificial redemption theology in Luke!

Additionally, Luke’s attention to upholding purity laws of the Priestly source—remember an Aaronid can only approach Yahweh and burn incense because he has been consecrated to Yahweh, made holy—is ironic in the Lukan narrative because Luke specifically destroys these priestly categories of pure and impure, interpreting them away. Two passages come to mind: the Good Samaritan pericope where according to the same Aaronid law code, damn right a priest or Levite cannot come close to a maimed or “dead” corpse; he will become contaminated (Lev 21:11-12)! But either Luke completely misses the point here (as I’ve argued elsewhere, #184), or he consciously starts to breakdown this priestly worldview. The other Lukan passage is in Acts, where Peter stating Aaronid (and here also Deuteronomic) dietary law, which is based on the pure and the impure, Luke has Peter abandon it (#183)!

It must also be stated for those unfamiliar with ancient literature: just because Luke impregnates his narrative with real historical data and customs of the times doesn’t necessarily lend itself to concluding that the narrative is historical. This would be the same fallacy as concluding, just because the writers of Iron Man accurately depict New York subway systems, its institutions, and historical politicians, etc. that the narrative is then historically accurate. We, of course, would not make such a mistake because Iron Man is a product of our own culture whose compositional techniques we are familiar with. Most readers of the NT however, being unfamiliar with the literary customs of the ancient world, fall into making this exact fallacy.

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