Question: If the priesthood during Old Testament times could only be held by the tribe of Aaron, how did Lehi's descendants, who were of the tribe of Joseph, hold the priesthood?

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Question: If the priesthood during Old Testament times could only be held by the tribe of Aaron, how did Lehi's descendants, who were of the tribe of Joseph, hold the priesthood?

Both the Levitical or Aaronic priesthood and the higher Melchizedek priesthood were exercised in Old Testament times and the higher priesthood was used to offer sacrifice

The Book of Mormon states that Lehi is from the Tribe of Joseph. However, in 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi it talks about how Lehi's descendants performed sacrifices, ordained priests, and built a temple after the manner of Solomon's temple. In the Old Testament with the Law of Moses it talks about how the Tribe of Levi were the only ones were allowed to exercise the priesthood to perform sacrifices, become priests, and work in the temple. Since we know that Book of Mormon people were subject to the Law of Moses prior to the birth of Jesus Christ, how is it that Lehi and his family were able to exercise priesthood authority?

As pertaining to the problem of Nephites and Lamanites officiating in the priesthood (Mosiah 2:3), it seems clear that the authority by which sacrifices were offered was the Melchizedek and not the Levitical priesthood.[1] That there are two priesthoods is clear in Hebrews 5:1-10 and Hebrews 7:5-28. Both the Levitical or Aaronic priesthood and the higher Melchizedek priesthood were exercised in Old Testament times and the higher priesthood was used to offer sacrifice (Heb. 7:27). Five Old Testament prophets who were apparently not Levites are mentioned in connection with the offering of sacrifices:

  1. Joshua (Ephraimite) - Josh. 8:30-31; 24:30
  2. Samuel (Ephraimite) - 1 Sam. 1:1-2, 20; 2:18; 7:9-19; 11:14-15
  3. Elijah (Gad or Manassah) - 1 Kings 18:31-38; 17:1
  4. David (Judah) - 1 Chron. 16:2; Matt. 1:2-6
  5. Solomon (Judah) - 1 Kings 3:2-3; Matt. 1:2-6

The Cambridge Bible Dictionary affirms the fact that although Samuel was "not a priest he performed priestly functions and constantly offered sacrifice at various places" [2]Latter-day Saints believe that all prophets from Adam to Moses held the higher or Melchizedek priesthood [3] Until Moses, no other priesthood existed and all sacrifices offered prior to that time were done by the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood (Gen. 4:4; 8:20-21; 31:54; 46:1; Ex. 5:3, 8, 17). Since the Nephites held this priesthood, they also were empowered to offer sacrifices just as Old Testament prophets had.[4]

Jesus himself was not a Levite, and yet he was a priest

Jesus himself was not a Levite. So how could he be a priest? The New Testament takes this back to priests even before the time of Moses (before the rule that listed being a Levite as a requirement for becoming a priest), and we read in Hebrews 7:21 "... The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec." From an LDS perspective, we also see that the Aaronic Priesthood (the Levitical priesthood) could be bestowed by someone having authority to do so. And so we believe that we have the Aaronic Priesthood today in the Church. The distinction that we sometimes make is that the priesthood was never intended to be given just to the Levites. In Exodus 19:5-6, God speaks to Moses and tells him to tell Israel this:

Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.

God wanted Israel to be a nation of priests. But, the people are afraid to come to God - so in Exodus 20:18-19 -

And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us.

So Moses becomes an intermediary between the people and God, and after Moses speaks to the people, he goes back up into the mountain for 40 days to speak with God (and it is during this time that he is given instruction on how to build a temple, and gets the commandments, and so on). And Moses is gone so long, the people think he is dead, and so in Exodus 32:1 -

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.

And this triggers the event with the golden calf - in which the tribe of Levi distinguishes themselves and this is why they are made priests. The point of all this is that there are plenty of ways in which to justify having a priesthood apart from being the one of the Levites.

When this suggestion is made (that there couldn't be priests) the idea is that the Lehite group would be required to only adhere to the Law of Moses and its stipulation about Levites. This assumption isn't likely to be accurate. The Book of Mormon deals with this directly. Nephi portrays their departure from Jerusalem as a second Exodus. Nephi describes how Lehi is chosen as a second Moses. Moses sees a burning bush. Lehi sees the fire on the rock. Both speak with God, and so on, and so Lehi becomes a prophet like Moses was, and he is then able to ordain priests (as Moses did), and this creates a priesthood class among the Nephites. And so, given all of these different sorts of issues, the idea of a priesthood only belonging to the Levites is one that isn't really a problem.


Notes

  1. (Alma 4:16-20; Alma 13:1-14; see also Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 1:124-126; Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah, pp. 410-412).
  2. Cambridge Bible Dictionary, "Samuel," p. 90; see also LDS Bible Dictionary, p. 599-600, 768).
  3. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 180-181.
  4. See also A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, pp. 132-134; March 1994 Ensign, p. 54.