Swedenborg Study.com

Online works based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg


XX. The Priesthood

The Tabernacle of Israel, by George de Charms, 1969

High Priest, Priest, Levite

Because the tabernacle, by its three divisions, represented the three degrees of the heavens, the uses performed in it by the priests represented the functions and the offices of the angels. Inmostly considered, all heavenly uses consist in cooperating with the Lord in His Divine work of human salvation. This belongs to the Lord alone, but in performing it He acts, not only immediately from Himself, but also mediately through both angels and men. This He does in order that they may be blessed with the delight of use which is the very joy of heaven. All human uses contribute in some degree to the salvation of souls, but the work of the priesthood does so in a very special sense. This is because it consists in teaching the truth of the Word, and in leading thereby to the good of spiritual life. It is therefore most closely related to the uses of the angels, all of which have this same end in view. Nevertheless, there are in heaven innumerable functions, offices, and occupations. In fact, the variety of uses there is incalculably greater than it is among men on earth. This is because the interiors of the human mind, to the perfection of which all heavenly uses minister, are far more complex than are the externals of the body and the natural mind which provide the basis for all the uses of earthly society. There are in heaven uses which correspond to every profession, business, occupation, and trade known to men. All of these, more or less remotely, contribute to the formation of character, and thus to man's preparation for heaven. Although for the most part, the way they affect the inner spirit of man is not realized by those on earth, it is clearly perceived by the angels. Nothing can be done by the body that does not affect the mind, and for this reason there is a direct correspondence between uses on earth, and those in heaven. For this reason the functions of the angels appear outwardly altogether similar to those of men. In the work of the priesthood however, the inner purpose of all use and its contribution to man's spiritual life openly appears, and is consciously recognized as the end in view. It is concerned directly with worship and spiritual instruction. Among the Jews it consisted in conducting the sacred rites of the tabernacle whereby there was communication with Jehovah.

Because there are three degrees of the human mind, and three corresponding degrees of the heavens, there were established three degrees in the Jewish priesthood. The tribe of Levi was first consecrated to the service of Jehovah, and then the family to which Moses and Aaron belonged was set apart from the other Levites. Aaron was anointed to be high priest, and his sons were ordained to serve as priests under him. The functions of these three priestly degrees represented specifically the uses of the three heavens in their order.

In very ancient times, however, there was no organized priesthood. Instead the priesthood resided in the head of each family or tribe, and was passed down by hereditary succession to every firstborn son. Only as the church declined did the need arise for an organized priesthood. At the time of Moses this had existed in various forms among many nations for countless generations. Among the sons of Israel, however, the more primitive mode had been perpetuated throughout the period of the patriarchs and during the years of captivity in Egypt. Before they came to dwell in the land of Goshen, they were but a single family, and had no need of a separate priesthood. Nevertheless a highly organized priesthood had been established among their ancestors, especially with Eber and his immediate descendants, when animal sacrifices were adopted as the primary means of approach to God. At first these rituals were correspondential, and served as an acceptable instrument of mediation; but gradually men yielded more and more to the loves of self and the world, and their interest in spiritual things waned. Religion was used increasingly for unworthy purposes, and the priesthood became corrupt. Abominable practices were introduced into their worship, and these became the basis for influx from the hells. This came to pass, not only among the ancestors of the Jews, but with all the nations of the ancient world. Everywhere the true worship of Jehovah had been turned into some debased form of idolatry. It was imperative, therefore, that a genuinely representative form of worship should be raised up among the sons of Israel, lest all communication between heaven and earth should be lost.

According to a very ancient law, every firstborn male was to be sanctified to the Lord. This was to be done in recognition of the truth that all life is a Divine gift, and every blessing must be ascribed to God. However, the rite of sanctification among idolatrous nations degenerated into rites of sacrification. Human sacrifice became well-nigh universal, and a strong tendency to adopt it was inherited by the Hebrew people. This practice was so abominable, however, in the sight of heaven, that it could not be permitted. In place of it two less objectionable rites were instituted, namely, the sacrifice of animals, and the sanctification of the firstborn. With the sons of Israel, however, it was commanded that the entire tribe of Levi should be set apart for the use of the priesthood, and by this act all the firstborn of Israel would be redeemed.

At the time of the Exodus there were 22,000 male Levites from one month old and upward.1 In the eleven other tribes, there were 22,273 firstborn males one month old and upward. It was decreed, therefore, that the 22,000 Levites should be substituted for 22,000 of the firstborn of Israel, while the 273 additional males were to be redeemed with silver by the payment of five shekels apiece for the service of the tabernacle.2 It was commanded, however, that only those who were between the ages of thirty and fifty years could enter into the active service of the priesthood.3 The number of these was 8580,4 and was divided among the three families descended from Levi as follows: Gershonites 2630,5 Kohathites 2750,6 and Merarites 3200.7

1 Numbers 3:39.
2 Numbers 3:40-51.
3 Numbers 4:1-4.
4 Numbers 5:48.
5 Numbers 5:40.
6 Numbers 5:36.
7 Numbers 5:44.

The sanctification of the tribe of Levi involved that they were to receive no inheritance, as did the other tribes, for it is said "the Lord was their inheritance."8

When they came into the land of Canaan, they were to be scattered among the people in every tribe, where they were to be supported upon the bounty of those with whom they lived. In return, they were to act as leaders and teachers. They might not be called upon to fight in the wars, but they were to perform the service of the tabernacle, and later that of the temple, which service was called "warfare."9 This name was given to it because it represented the conflict of the Lord and the angels against the hells in and for man throughout the process of his regeneration.

The priesthood proper abode with Aaron and his sons. Moses and Aaron were brothers. They were Levites, descended from the house of Kohath,10 and they were called and appointed by the Lord to deliver the people from Egyptian bondage. Together they represented the law Divine, or the Divine truth proceeding from the Lord. This is of two kinds; that which proceeds immediately by means of revelation or the Word, and that which proceeds mediately through the ministration of angels who give illustration and inspiration to men. Moses represented the first of these, which in itself is above the perception of either angels or men. Aaron, however, represented truth proceeding mediately from the Lord, thus truth tempered and accommodated to human reception.11 Such is the Divine truth in and with the celestial angels. No truth from the Lord can be received by men on earth, except as it is tempered by a transflux through the heavens, and thus is adapted to the spiritual sight of the human mind. This is the reason why it is said of Moses that he could not carry the Word of Jehovah to the people, for he complained that he was "slow of speech and of a slow tongue." The Lord therefore said unto him, "Is not Aaron the Levite thy brother? I know that he can speak well . . . even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God."12 Aaron therefore represented the celestial heaven, through which the Lord in-flowed to reveal the Word before the time of His advent. Since that time He has been present with men immediately in His glorified Divine Human; yet even now He also inflows through the heavens, and this influx is specifically represented by the intermediation of Aaron as high priest. The government established with the sons of Israel was a theocracy, and the high priest was the supreme governor because he was the spokesman for Jehovah.13 Because the answers he received when he inquired of the Lord came through the celestial heaven, represented by the holy of holies, that inmost sanctuary was associated with the ministry of Aaron. No one was allowed behind the veil except the high priest and even he was permitted to enter there only once a year on the great day of atonement, when he sprinkled upon the ark and the mercy seat the blood of the sacrifice as an expiation for the sins of the whole congregation.14

8 Deuteronomy 10:9.
9 A.C. 5335.
10 See Appendix VI.
11 A.C. 6998.
12 Exodus 4:10-17. A.C. 6998-7010.
13 A.C. 4677.
14 Leviticus 16

Aaron had four sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleasar, and Ithamar. These sons represented Divine truth accommodated to the spiritual degree of the mind. Such is the truth received by the angels of the spiritual heaven who have no such interior perception as is enjoyed by those who are celestial. They are in the light of intelligence, which is distinguished from the light of wisdom in that it is not received directly from the sun of heaven in which is the Lord, but indirectly as if reflected from another object. It is therefore compared to the light of the moon. Nevertheless their intelligence far exceeds that of men on earth, whom they can serve as spiritual leaders, teachers, and protectors. The sons of Aaron, therefore, were inaugurated as priests under him. They were not allowed to enter the holy of holies, but prepared the bread of faces, tended the lamps, and burned incense in the holy place.

The rest of the tribe of Levi, or those among them who were without blemish, were inaugurated into the third, or lowest degree of the priesthood. Only between the ages of thirty and fifty years were they allowed to enter into active service. They were frequently distinguished from Aaron's sons by the expression "priests and Levites." In many passages of the Scripture, however, the Levites also are called priests.

The service of the Levites was connected with the court. They were not permitted to offer sacrifices, nor were they allowed to enter within the door of the tabernacle except for the purpose of removing the furniture and the sacrificial vessels after these had been covered by the priests. But they were to care for all the parts and furnishings of the tabernacle, and were to assist the priests in preparing for the sacrificial rites. They were to lake down the tabernacle, and set it up. They were to transport its parts and its furnishings from place to place. They were to act as servants to the priests, preparing sacrificial bread and wine, cleaning the vessels, and otherwise rendering subordinate services. While they were excluded from the performance of any priestly act of mediation, later when the conquest of the holy land had been accomplished, they came to act as judges and as instructors to the people, keeping alive among them the knowledge of the Mosaic law and inspiring reverence for it.15

In general the work of the Levites represented the ministry of the natural angels. The natural heaven represents the "animus" or the lowest degree of the human mind, where worldly ambitions arise, and where man's thoughts are controlled by his emotions. This mind must be governed by the rational and perceptive faculties of the higher degrees. It is of service to them by storing up knowledges and sense experiences on which all rational understanding must be based. A more particular consideration of the Levites and their service will be found in a later chapter.

15 Deuteronomy 17:8-12; 33:10.


Crown of Revelations
Rebirth, Reincarnation
The Holy Center
Salvation in the Gospels
Psychology of Marriage
Precious Stones
The Human Mind
The Moral Life
Saul, David & Solomon
Bible Lost & Found
The Human Soul
Genesis and Exodus
City of God
Swedenborg Cosmology
Ultimate Reality
The Pattern of Time
Means of Salvation
NC: Sex and Marriage
Book with Seven Seals
My Lord and My God
Philosopher, Metaphysician
Inspiration of Genesis
Words In Swedenborg
Book Expo
Missionary Talks
Tabernacle of Israel
A Brief View of the Heavenly Doctrines
Ancient Mythology
Odhner: Creation
Ten Commandments
Christ and The Trinity
Discrete Degrees
Body Correspondences
Language of Parable
The Ten Blessings
Creation in Genesis
The Third Source
Noble's "Appeal"
Life After Death


• Back • Home • Up • Next •

The Priesthood

Webmaster: IJT@swedenborgstudy.com