A Pattern of Priesthood from the Beginning
In the beginning God created a priest. And not just any priest, but a royal priest—a man made in God’s likeness, a son fashioned to reflect God’s beauty, an image bearer commissioned to rule God’s world with holy affections. God commissioned the first family—Adam and his fellow image bearer, Eve—to be fruitful and multiply and fill the world with God’s glory.
The first few chapters of Genesis bring the reader into a foreign world with many ancient places, practices, and people. Presented as symbol-laden history, Genesis tells us where humanity came from, why we are here, and what went wrong. It also hints at who will “fix” it. While priesthood is not defined or assigned until Sinai, we can see how priesthood in Israel finds an original pattern in Genesis.
Evidence for the First Priest
Genesis 1–2 presents Eden as a garden sanctuary and the first man as royal priest. Later, after humanity’s fall (Gen. 3), sacrifice will be added to complete the cultic system. Together, the indivisible complex of sanctuary, priesthood, and sacrifice begins in Genesis 1–3.1
Even secular societies participate in cultic worship. Malls, models, and merchandise form a materialistic cult alluring worshipers to make a sacrifice at the altar of Apple or REI. Similarly, worship in the Bible requires a Holy Place (a temple), a devoted priesthood, and a sacrifice on the altar.2 As strange as ancient religions may look, patterns of priestly worship still surround us. And going back to Eden, we discover why. In fact, Moses gives at least four ways to see priesthood in Eden.
First, Adam is placed in a garden sanctuary. Set on a mountain where the waters flowed down from Eden, the “garden of God” (Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 28:13; 31:9) was the place where Adam and Eve enjoyed Yahweh’s presence. While Eden was a perfect environment for man to dwell, Genesis 1–2 is theological, not agricultural. The garden was far more than verdant farmland; it was the place where God approached Adam, and Adam entered God’s presence—hence a garden sanctuary.
Like the tabernacle, which had three spheres of increasing holiness (the courtyard, the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place), Eden also had three regions of ascending holiness (the world outside the garden, the garden itself, and the top of God’s mountain, where his presence dwelt). In all, God created Adam and all of his children in his image to commune with him and to serve as his priests in his Holy Place.3
Second, image bearers are royal priests who mediate God’s presence. Genesis 1:26–28 says God made humanity in his own image and likeness. And while Adam and Eve’s royal function is observable in the words “subdue” and “have dominion over” in verse 28, there is reason to assign priesthood to these words too. In the ancient Near East, image bearing was inherently priestly, as the king mediated the presence of God to the people and vice versa. Similarly, Adam plays a priestly role whereby he mediates the relationship between God and his children.4 The blessing Adam receives from God (v. 28) is to be communicated to his family as he serves as their priest. Conversely, standing as the head of his family, he is to lead them to worship and serve their Creator. All of this fails when Adam sins, but in Genesis 1–2 we can see God’s original intent. Even more, when we read 1:26–28 with 2:15, it becomes clearer that Adam, as God’s image bearer, is commissioned to be a priest.
Third, Adam is given a priestly commission. Genesis 2 says that when God planted a garden in Eden (v. 8), “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (v. 15). Adding to the ruling commands of Genesis 1:28, Adam is given the priestly task of “serving” Yahweh in his garden sanctuary and “guarding” his sacred space. We know this double command (i.e., “work/serve” combined with “keep/guard”) is priestly because of the way Moses uses it later in Numbers 3:7–8; 8:25–26; 18:5–7. In Numbers these two words, when used together, are uniquely assigned to the Levites, who are called to assist in the priestly service of the tabernacle.5
Adam is therefore presented in priestly terms. He is “an archetypal Levite.”6 Confirming his priesthood, God calls him to serve in his presence and to guard the boundaries of his holy space from anything unclean.7 Later, Levites are called “guards” (1 Chron. 9:23) and “gatekeepers” (1 Chron. 9:17–27; Neh. 11:19). Moreover, the Levites’ service begins because of their willingness to draw the sword against their brothers to defend God’s holiness (Ex. 32:25–29; Deut. 33:8–11). Such zeal for God’s holy dwelling is a defining characteristic of priests and Levites, and in the beginning, God assigns Adam to be guardian of the garden sanctuary.
Fourth, the rest of the Bible presents Adam as a priest. When Moses identifies Aaron and his sons as the chosen priests of Israel (Ex. 28–29), he makes multiple connections between the creation of the world (Gen. 1–2) and the fabrication of the tabernacle (Ex. 25–31). For instance, both passages are organized by seven divine words—that is, seven divine acts of creation formed the cosmos, and seven divine words organized the tabernacle.8 Thus, “the tabernacle is portrayed as a reconstruction of God’s good creation.”9 Similarly, the six days of creation, which led to the seventh day of “rest” (Gen. 2:1–3), prefigure the construction of the tabernacle and appointment of Aaron to stand at the altar, which is associated with Sabbath (Ex. 31:12–18).
Additionally, God designed the tabernacle to reflect the floral beauty of Eden, and the priestly garments to point back to Adam. As Moses wrote for a people whose worship centered on priests clothed in beauty and glory (Ex. 28:2), these glorious garments capture a vision of the Edenic priest (see Ezek. 28:11–14). Aaron’s priestly attire includes a golden crown (Ex. 29:6; 39:30), a golden ephod (Ex. 28:6–14), and onyx shoulder pieces with the names of the twelve tribes engraved on them (Ex. 28:9–11). Strikingly, gold and onyx are found in Eden (Gen. 2:12), making another connection between Aaron and Adam.10
In these ways, Moses demonstrates how the formation of the world is temple-like (cf. Ps. 104), and the fabrication of the tabernacle is creation-like. Accordingly, when Aaron is given access to the tabernacle, it is as if a new Adam has reentered God’s garden. Whereas the first priest compromised God’s command and failed in his priestly commission, God begins anew with Aaron to recover what Adam lost. Indeed, when we see the connections between Aaron and Adam, we begin to see how the original pattern of priesthood is meant to inform the rest of the Bible.
Last, Luke 3:38 bears witness to Adam’s priesthood. When Luke traces Jesus’s genealogy back to Adam, he calls Adam “the son of God.” The priestly significance of this title is associated with the way firstborn sons were set apart as priestly assistants. As Michael Morales observes, firstborn sons were consecrated to the Lord (see Ex. 13:2), and until Numbers 3:40–51 replaced firstborn sons with the Levites, the firstborn sons “were to serve in a lay-priestly role.”11 And part of this connection between sonship and priesthood goes back to Adam.
In all, when we read Genesis with the rest of the Pentateuch, we find considerable evidence for seeing Adam as a priest. And in the rest of the Bible, we continue to see how Adam’s priesthood echoes through redemptive history until it finds its climax in Jesus Christ.
- G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 81–121; T. Desmond Alexander, The City of God and the Goal of Creation, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 18–20.
- This does not deny Jesus’s words in John 4:21, “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” Rather, under the new covenant God’s worshipers do not worship in one place; they gather in every place (1 Cor. 1:2; cf. Mal. 1:11). But in every place, those worshipers come to Mount Zion (Heb. 12:22) when they assemble as God’s living temple, locally gathered by God’s Spirit.
- Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 75; Beale, “Adam as the First Priest in Eden as the Garden Temple,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 22, no. 2 (2018): 9–24.
- These children would also bear the image of God, communicated to them through their father (see Gen. 5:1–2).
- Beale, “Adam as the First Priest,” 10.
- Kenneth Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26, New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 1996), 52; see also Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 211–13.
- Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 69.
- See Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 24, 26; cf. 1:11, 28, 29 and Ex. 25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1, 12.
- See John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 298–99.
- For more on the relationship between Aaron and Adam, see Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 39–49.
- L. Michael Morales, “The Levitical Priesthood,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 23, no. 1 (2019): 8–12.