The Priesthood of the Jewish Patriarchs

Recently, through personal correspondence, a Bible professor told me that the phrase “inquire of the Lord” (Gen. 25.22) means that the person went to a priest since that is the consistent usage of the term. He had it that Rebekah visited the local priest of the land when the text states that she “inquired of the Lord” about her twins struggling in her womb. I thought it an odd idea since the neighboring tribes were Pagan and hostile. I do not believe she went to a local priest, but probably had Isaac build an altar and sacrifice a burnt offering to The Lord, then pray to Him about the struggling offspring yet to be born. So she did go to a priest, just not a Canaanite, but her husband Isaac.

Isaac was a priest just as his father Abraham was. Isaac’s son Jacob was also a priest. The evidence for my assertion are the accounts of altar building by these Patriarchs. Abraham built an altar at Shechem after The Lord appeared to him (Gen. 12.7). Verse 6 mentions that the Canaanites were in the land at that time. This statement is obviously an editorial comment for later readers when the Canaanites had mostly disappeared from Israel. The compiler of the account doesn’t seem to be Moses since Canaanites were certainly in the land before Israel entered it; and Moses never entered but died in Moab. The compiler could have been Ezra, who was a scribe and teacher of God’s Law (Ezra 7.6, 10, 12, 14, 21, 25). The point in the text, in Gen.12.6, is Abraham building an altar instead of mingling with the Canaanite cultus in any way.

After moving on toward Bethel, in Gen. 12.8, Abraham builds another altar to worship God without mention of any interaction with the land’s residents or their worship practices: From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord (NIV).

After a sojourn in Egypt and the Negev, Abraham returned to the altar at Bethel and called unto the name of the Lord (Gen. 13.4). After splitting from his nephew Lot, Abraham went to live near Hebron and, again, built an altar to the Lord. These instances show that Abraham did not rely on the land’s residents for priestly services.

When God tested Abraham in the offering of his son Isaac, he was told to go to Moriah, the mountain of the Lord (Gen. 22. 14). At the place where he was told by God, Abraham built an altar to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham passed the test with God stopping the sacrifice and provided a ram as an offering instead. Therefore, Abraham functioned as a priest without reliance on any existing cultic practices of the surrounding Canaanites.

Abraham’s son and grandson also operated as priests, as seen by the altars they built. In Gen. 26.23-25, Isaac and his flocks traveled to Beersheba where the Lord appeared to him and promised him blessings, based on the previous covenant God made with his father Abraham. The Abrahamic Covenant promised that The Messianic Seed would be from his lineage who would provide redemption for the world (Gen. 12.3b,7 – cf. Gal. 3.8,16).

Jacob, also, after returning from Paddan Aram, built an altar outside the city of Shechem on the plot of ground he bought from Hamor. This altar was away from the local inhabitants of the land. There is zero evidence he intermingled with the Canaanites’ gods or worship practices. This altar, outside of Shechem, Jacob called El Elohe Israel. The name probably means “El is the God of Israel,” or better, “mighty is the God of Israel.” The reason for the latter preference is based on his just having met with his brother Esau where Jacob was unsure of his reception by him. All turned out well, however, even though Esau headed an army of 400 men.

In Gen. 35. 1, Jacob receives a direct command from God to build an altar at Bethel, the place where God had previously appeared to him 20 years earlier when initially fleeing from Esau. Jacob named the place Bethel (House of God) while the inhabitants had previously named it Luz. This new name indicates discontinuity from the existing naming conventions and non-compliance with their religious culture. The altar Jacob named was El Bethel (the God of Bethel), since God met with Jacob and talked with him (Gen. 28.13, Hosea 12.4b). Jacob also saw a stairway, which is a better rendering than “ladder,” as the stone houses often had a stairway on an outside wall giving access to the roof. This stairway featured angels of God from heaven ascending to and from Jacob. This revelation prefigured what Jesus would experience during the first century. Just as angels ascended and descended to Jacob, so with Jesus, notably, at Jesus’ Ascension (see Jn. 1.51 where epi should not be rendered “on” as most translations, but instead, “to”).

Now, back to Rebekah’s inquiry of the Lord. It is abundantly clear that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob functioned as priests and did not intermingle or participate in Canaanite cultic practices. Therefore, instead of Rebekah going to a priest in the land of their sojourn, most likely she had Isaac offer a sacrifice, and asked God in prayer about her pregnancy.

In Gen. 25.21, Isaac had previously prayed for Rebekah due to her inability to bear children, and God answered his prayer. Isaac may have sacrificed at this time since prayer coincided with the time of sacrifice as seen in Is. 56.7: these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (NIV). Acts 3.1 designates the Jewish hour of prayer: One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon (NIV). Also, in Acts 10.3,30, Cornelius said he prayed at 3 PM with God answering him with a vision. 3 PM is when the daily evening sacrifice was being offered in the Temple at Jerusalem. Isaac’s priesthood, along with the pattern of sacrifice with prayer, shows that Rebekah most likely inquired of the Lord through an offering presented by Isaac and did not go to a local priest of Canaan.