In non-Israelite ANE religions, the priests act as intermediaries between people and their god. but here, God wants to to something different: he wants the people to be part of a kingdom of priests, which can be read as a “kingdom made up of priests”* (See Kugel 2007, 240-241 for more on this). But if God wants to create a kingdom of priests, why didn’t he create one? On one hand, the laws and sacrificial rites don’t make sense for a democratized kingdom of priests, as they’re just doing what other ANE religions did: making priests the intermediary. On the other hand, political authority isn’t related to priestly qualification (that is, Levitical descent plus something, depending on the text [see Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? for more on this]), as Joshua–a man without priestly qualifications–is the next leader and the judge system doesn’t depend on this either. So God isn’t building a “kingdom ruled by priests”, which could be a plausible alternative reading.
In the LDS and (apparently) Kabbalaistic narratives (see here), something went wrong, and God wasn’t willing or able to make a kingdom of priests. But he never quite recants this promise, which, for LDS, is part of our narrative of a higher law that will only come back with Jesus. I think there are difficulties with the LDS narrative, but it is an explanation for this gap. Joseph Smith puts forward two competing explanations for the second set of tablets. In one, God removes “the priesthood” in favor of a “law of carnal commandments” (JST Ex. 34:1-2; here, scroll down) following the incident with the Golden Calf in Exodus 32, which suggests that the Israelite’s failure with the Golden Calf drives God’s refusal to give them the priesthood–so no kingdom of priests, then. But if this is correct, it raises a host of questions about the covenant that God, Moses, and the children of Israel made in Exodus 24. Was this covenant superceded? What of the distinctly “Mosaic” (to Mormons, at least) legal material that Ex. 24 and Ex. 32 bookend? Was the Ex. 24 covenant superceded by the Ex. 34 covenant? Was the legal material likewise superceded?
In the other approach Joseph Smith takes, he argues that it was the Israelite’s unwillingness to enter God’s presence that leads to the loss of the Priesthood (D&C 84:23-26)–either as expressed after the Israelites refuse God’s presence after He gives them the 10 commandments (Ex. 20:19) or in their failure when the spies report on the land (Numbers 14). While God is clearly angry after the second incident, refusing to allow any of the current generation of Hebrews to enter the promised land, he’s not angry when they refuse to remain in his presence after God gives the 10 commandments to them. But the first approach fails because Sinai comes before the spy story, so the failure of the spies and Israelites to want to enter the promised land can’t explain God’s (in the narrative as it’s presented, at least). This leaves us with God frustrated at his people’s unwillingness to enter His presence, but neither God nor Moses express that frustration. So this explanation doesn’t seem to work with the text as it stands, and the JST doesn’t make the additions that might bolster either case.
I’d argue further that it’s not clear to me that analysis within the framework of the Documentary Hypothesis explains this gap. It explains why, in Exodus, Moses comes down from the mountain twice, why the Israelites covenant with God twice, etc, but not why God doesn’t create a kingdom of priests. Then again, according to Kugel, there isn’t much of a gap to explain: the section that includes the line about having a “kingdom of priests” predates the development of a priestly class, since it’s hardly in their interests to democratize their work (see 721, fn 5). So, for whatever reason, the Biblical redactor included this passage (possibly, as Friedman argues, because he had too–enough people knew about these passages that their exclusion would have rendered that version of a “Bible” (well, proto-Bible, at least) illegitimate.
The standard Christian reading of the law fails here too, because it can’t account for the fact that the Torah never justifies its failure to create a kingdom of priests. In the Christian reading Jesus fulfills the law and that his “law” (or whatever you’d call it, in the light of Paul’s writings) is higher than the law of Moses. It seems to me that a Christian might argue for Christ’s role as priest (which doesn’t create a kingdom of priests, as it’s not clear who the other priests under Christ’s high priest are) or that a priesthood of believers would create this kingdom. This approach fails because it still doesn’t explain why God never follows through on his challenge to make a kingdom of priests, since the Bible never has God give a reason for giving a “lesser law” as a result of the people’s unwillingness to enter God’s presence. So an LDS approach gets close, but presents its own difficulties (difficulties rooted in a Documentary Hypothesis approach can be found here, parts 1, 2, and 3).
Like the author in the last set of links, I don’t want to prove the LDS understanding of the giving of the lower law instead of a higher law false. I want to push on our ideas about how revelation works and what these passages mean when you confront the contradictions that are built into these different passages. To me, the narrative in Exodus contradicts itself and, even if we ignore the documentary analysis, Joseph Smith’s approaches contradict each other and the text of Exodus. Joseph Smith created the kingdom of priests that God failed to create among the children of Israel, but it’s not clear to me that Joseph Smith’s revelatory efforts solved any of the textual problems. To me, this points strongly to an idea that I wrestle with: doctrine can be correct even if it’s built on texts that, upon closer inspection, are contradictory. That is, Joseph’s attempts to explain how the Melchizidek priesthood fits into the Hebrew Bible are interesting and useful, despite the fact that they don’t fit the Biblical texts. In other words, revelatory conclusions can be correct, even if they don’t fit their textual premises. But then again, I also think that revelatory conclusions can be incorrect, even if they do fit their textual premises.
*While I am strongly sympathetic to the idea that the Priesthood can be extended to women, I’m not going to get into it here. I doubt that an appeal to the “kingdom of priests” idea to argue for a non-gendered priesthood, since it’s unlikely that Moses or anyone else in ancient Israel would have understood this to mean that both men and women would have priesthood.
Friedman, Richard Elliot. 1987. Who Wrote the Bible? New York: HarperOne.
Kugel, James. 2007. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. New York: Free Press.
Tvedtnes, John A. 2002. “The Higher and Lesser Laws” In Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks, editors. Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies.