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Priestly Celibacy: Unnatural? Or…Supernatural? The Levitical Priesthood

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Part 2

The second type of priesthood in the Old Testament was the Levitical priesthood. It was established by God on Mount Sinai — whereto Moses took the people to offer sacrifice to God. There is one aspect of the Levitical priesthood that is often overlooked by those who read the Bible through anti-celibacy eyes: God our Lord imposed three conditions for the people to receive the priesthood, to become a priestly kingdom, a holy nation (Exodus 19:3-6).
They were to a) be sanctified, symbolized by the washing of their garments (verse 10); b) keep themselves away from the holy mountain, and not even touch it, under penalty of death — it was God’s sanctuary, and, as they were not yet priests, they could not approach the sanctuary (v. 12); c) not touch their wives for three days (v. 15). There we have marital continence, as a condition to receive the priesthood. They were to remain “celibate” as it were, away from their wives, for three days: Then they would receive the priesthood.
What happened? Well, we know the story. They not only did not do as God had commanded, but fell into spiritual adultery — idolatry — with the famous golden calf, a pagan god of Egypt, and became involved in the practices of the Egyptians, which involved singing, dances, and most likely orgies, as it is euphemistically suggested by the fact that the people were naked (verse 25).
Moses was angry with them, and said, “If any man be on the Lord’s side, let him join with me” (the Lord’s side is chaste, continent). “And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him.”
The Levites, by Moses’ order, killed 23,000 idol-worshipers and, as a reward, Moses said to them, “You have consecrated your hands this day to the Lord.” Since then, only the family of Aaron received the priesthood in perpetual ordinance (Exodus 29:9).
This is a very important point: All the males of the other eleven tribes were forever excluded from the priesthood. They did not fulfill the conditions to become priests (washing of garments, keep away from the mountain-sanctuary and not to touch their wives). They had a chance to redeem themselves by answering to Moses’ call, but since only the Levites responded, every man of all the other tribes missed out on a unique privilege: to be a priest of the most high God. Amazing how God takes very seriously our lack of seriousness!
Levi and his sons were consecrated priests in a way that seems to prefigure aspects of the Catholic Ordination. It included having them dressed in a special vestment and a girdle. Then an anointing with oil would follow, then a consecration of their hands, and they would be priests to God by a perpetual ordinance (Exodus 29:4-10).
The point I am making here is that God asked only three things from the men who were going to be consecrated to the priesthood, and one of those things was precisely marital continence — here we have a third hint of the future counsel of perfection to celibacy in the Church of the New Testament.
The fourth hint of celibacy happened during young David’s flight from his tempestuous father-in-law. Old King Saul had something against David, and decided to send him to the other world. Saul’s son and good friend of David, Jonathan, warned the potential victim of the danger and encouraged him to flee (1 Kings 21 or Samuel 21).
David and his party of friends left for Nobe and met Abimalech the priest, and asked him for food. Unfortunately, they had no “common bread” but only the “holy bread,” the breads of the proposition, which could only be eaten by the priests. Abimalech established a condition for David and his friends to eat the holy bread: to have been continent, or more precisely, “clean, especially from women” (verse 4). David replied in the affirmative and specified that he and his friends had been continent for three days. Then, “the priest gave him hallowed bread” (verse 6).
Isn’t that interesting? To eat the “holy bread,” which was but a symbol of the Eucharist to come, they had to have been continent from their wives. Since the priest ate of the hallowed bread, he also had to be continent. There we have a fourth hint in the Old Testament that God our Lord was pleased to have continent priests when they ate the “holy bread,” prefigure of the Eucharist.
A fifth hint in the Old Testament in favor of marital continence is in the Book of Tobias. The Archangel Raphael asked young Tobias to remain continent with his newlywed wife for three days prior to consummating their marriage. And his explanation was remarkable indeed (Tobias 6:16-22):
“Then the angel Raphael said to him: Hear me, and I will show you who they are, over whom the devil can prevail. For they who in such manner receive matrimony, as to shut out God from themselves, and from their mind, and to give themselves to their lust, as the horse and mule, which have not understanding, over them the devil has power….And when the third night is past, you shall take the virgin with the fear of the Lord, moved rather for love of children than for lust, that in the seed of Abraham you may obtain a blessing in children. . . .
“Then Tobias exhorted the virgin, and said to her: Sara, arise, and let us pray to God today, and tomorrow, and the next day: because for these three nights we are joined to God: and when the third night is over, we will be in our own wedlock. We are the children of saints and must not be joined together like heathens that know not God” (8:4-5).
My point here is that since God our Lord is pleased with continence, even among the married, how much more wouldn’t He be pleased to see continence among his priests, who minister in His sanctuary? It’s just another hint.
And by the way, I would strongly recommend couples to be married to read the Book of Tobias. It will be very helpful to them to orient their married life. In other articles, we’ll see how St. Paul goes much further into the issue of counseling celibacy.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke of a “New Covenant” between God and His people, “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers.” This New Covenant would not only supersede the first one, but also perfect it. Instead of animal bloody sacrifices, there would be a clean oblation, of which Malachi prophesied in his book. Malachi also says that in that New Covenant, those who offer the clean oblation (the priests) are called to be “the angel of the Lord of hosts.”
It is interesting to remember that Jesus compared the resurrected to be like the angels of God in Heaven, who “neither marry nor be married” (Matt. 22:29-30).
A holy calling indeed, as St. Paul refers to the priesthood as God’s holy calling in his Second Letter to Timothy: “I admonish you that you stir up the grace of God which is in you, by the imposition of my hands….Be not ashamed of the testimony of the Lord, nor of me His prisoner: but labor with the gospel, according to the power of God, who has delivered us and called us by His holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:5-9).
Next article: Celibacy in the New Testament.

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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI], president of the Sacred Heart Institute and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is:

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