The Jewish Priesthood, Godís Everlasting Covenant to Israel
by Patrick Young, Ph.D.


ABSTRACT

According to Jewish tradition, only males from the direct line of Aaron could serve as priests in the holy temple of God. Biblical teaching confirms this custom was followed from the first tabernacle, the temple of Solomon, through the Jewish exile in Babylon, and continued to the destruction of the Herodís temple by Titus in 70 AD. These priests, called Cohanim (sometimes spelled Kohanim), were all patriarchal descendents of Aaron and given the charge by God to exercise the holy rituals of temple worship and to keep their bloodline pure.

Several Orthodox Jewish teachings also say that a new temple will be built at some future date. Following tradition, the temple would also require a high priest serving from the genealogy of Aaron. While the title of Cohanim continues to exist today, the idea of Aaronís lineage persisting after 3000 years has invited widespread skepticism because the concept could not be scientifically proven.

Recent DNA analysis has confirmed a specific genetic marker which is only present in the Cohanim. This discovery attaches scientific credibility to the idea that all Cohanim are the patriarchal descendents of Mosesí brother Aaron. Certain tribes from Africa who claim to have Jewish roots were also confirmed to have the Cohen genetic signature.


INTRODUCTION

According to the book of Genesis, God chose to separate one man from the remainder of creation and give him the title of father of the Hebrew race. This man, Abraham was a descendent of Noah through his son Shem (Genesis 12:1-3, KJV) (Figure 1).

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Abraham became the father of Isaac through his wife Sarah and the father of Ishmael through Sarahís handmaiden Hagar (Genesis 16, KJV) (Figure 1). Even though Ishmael was the eldest son of Abraham, he was born of a handmaiden and thus was not in line to receive the blessings of the firstborn. This title was given to Isaac because he was firstborn of Sarah, Abrahamís wife (Genesis 17:15-19, KJV).

Isaac was the father of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:24-26, KJV) (Figure 1). Esau was the eldest son and destined to receive the firstborn blessings. However, Esau traded his birthright for "bread and a pottage of lentiles" and thus the firstborn blessing was given to Jacob (Genesis 25:27-34, KJV).

Jacob eventually became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel through his two wives Rachel and Leah and their handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah (Genesis 35:16-26, KJV) (Figure 1). The sons of Jacob eventually became known as Israelites because later in life, Jacob was given the name of Israel by God (Genesis 32, KJV).


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When the Israelites were in bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt, God sent them a deliverer from the tribe of Levi named Moses (Exodus 3, KJV) (Figure 2). Moses commanded Pharaoh to free the Israelites from bondage and through a series of God sponsored plagues and curses, Pharaoh finally relented (Exodus 11, KJV).

Pharaohís final downfall was when God decided to place a curse on the first born children of all Egyptians and Israelites. However, God told Moses to inform the Israelites that no harm would come to them and the death angel would passover if they took a sacrificial lamb and ate it for dinner and then smear the lambís blood on the posts at the entranceway of each household (Exodus 12, KJV).

After Godís judgment on the firstborn, Pharaoh allowed all the Israelites to leave Egypt. God then instructed Moses to tell the Israelites that since He saved the firstborn from the death angel, all firstborn of Israel now belonged to Him. The Israelites were also commanded to celebrate the feast of Passover every year as a remembrance of what God did for them (Exodus 12:14-20, KJV).

After the Israelites were freed from bondage, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. While they were in the wilderness, God decided to trade the firstborn males of Israel for the Levite tribe and commanded Moses to complete the arrangement with the Israelites equitably. Because there were more firstborn male Israelites than Levites, God commanded Moses to redeem five shekels from every Israelite male that could not be traded for a Levite. The money was then given to Aaron and his sons (Numbers 3:40-51, KJV).

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a tabernacle was built to initiate the sacrifices and rituals for the Jewish people. These sacrifices were led by Mosesí brother Aaron, the first anointed high priest. These initial sacrifices were performed for all 12 tribes of Israel and continued until Solomonís Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar.

Due to their exile in Babylon and the Diaspora of 70 AD, only three or the original twelve castes of Jews remain today: the Cohanim, the Levites, and the Israelis1. Today they are primarily found in the two largest and separate Jewish communities called Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews2. Each of these communities have their own priestly order of Cohanim who are charged with implementing the ceremonies of the Jewish faith.

It has always been an issue for discussion whether todayís priestly Cohanim were actual descendents of Aaron. Due to scientific advances in DNA analysis, the existence of this genetic marker can now be investigated and the results will be shown below.

There have also been other "dispersed tribes" which follow ancient Jewish traditions who have attempted to claim a lineage to Israeli ancestry. A black African clan named the "Lemba" and the "Bene Israel" from India have submitted to DNA analysis and their results are also shown below.


DISCUSSION

THE LEVITICAL LINE

Levi, one of twelve sons Abraham, had three sons and named them Gershon, Kohath, Merari (Figure 2). Moses and Aaron were also descended from the tribe of Levi through Amram and Kohath (Figure 2).

When the Lord anointed Aaronís line to the priesthood, he also presented the tribe of Levi to Aaron3. The Levites were commanded to provide Aaron assistance in carrying out the priestly duties4. This included the assignments of taking care of all the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting and fulfilling the obligations of the Israelites by doing the work of the tabernacle.

God said, "I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether man or animal." (Numbers 3:12-13 KJV)

The Gershonites were responsible for the care of the tabernacle and tent, its coverings, the curtain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, the curtains of the courtyard, the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard surrounding the tabernacle and altar, and the ropesóand everything related to their use (Numbers 3:25-26, KJV).

The Kohath clan were responsible for the care of the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the article of the sanctuary used in ministering, the curtain, and everything related to their use (Numbers 3:31-32, KJV).

The Merari clan was responsible for the frames of the tabernacle, its crossbars, posts, bases, all itsí equipment and everything related to their use, as well as the posts of the surrounding courtyard with their bases, tent pegs and ropes (Numbers 3:36-37, KJV).

THE PRIESTLY ORDER OF COHANIM

When the Israelites were in the wilderness, God told Moses to have his brother Aaron, and Aaronís four sons brought before him so they may serve as priests to the people. God anointed Aaron and his sons so that the priests could only come from Aaronís lineage. According to Jewish tradition, Aaronís family name was HaCohen and the high priest was named the Cohen Gadol5. And God said, "Appoint Aaron and his sons to serve as priest; anyone else who approaches the sanctuary must be put to death." (Numbers 3:10, KJV)

There were thirteen Cohen Gadolís from the time of Aaronís anointing in the wilderness to the completion of Davidís temple by King Solomon6. Zadok was the first Cohen Gadol in Davidís temple7. All future priests (eighteen in all) were from the direct line of Zadok up to the destruction of Solomonís temple and the Jewish exile in Babylon. The high priest at the time of this exile was Josadek8.

After 70 years of Jewish exile in Babylon, Cyrus, King of Persia, gave a decree to allow the Jews to go back to their land and rebuild their temple. Joshua the son of Josadek was chosen to serve as high priest in the new temple. Summarily, Jewish history accounts for 83 Cohen Gadols from the time of Aaronís anointing to the destruction of Herodís temple by Titus in 70 AD9.

The Jewish Torah states that there is no way to be promoted into the priesthood. The Jewish priesthood is only passed down from father to son10. Jewish tradition also says this priesthood will be everlasting. Exodus 29:9 (KJV) speaks of the "Priesthood as a statute forever." Exodus 40:15 (KJV) says, " it shall be for them an appointment to an everlasting Priesthood throughout their generations."

Numbers 25:13 (KJV) says "it shall be to him and to his descendants after him a covenant of everlasting Priesthood." The priesthood of Cohanim is one of many everlasting covenants made to the Jewish people by God. This idea is one of the foundational premises behind the Jewish belief that a future temple must be built.

THE COHANIM GENETIC MARKER

Since the Cohanim priestly order is transferred only through males, the confirmation of their bloodline is believed to rest in the Y-chromosome11. Y-chromosome DNA analysis has proven useful in constructing patrilineal genealogies in the past because (1) the Y-chromosome is transferred from the father to son essentially unchanged and (2) most of the genetic material is noncoding12. However, small changes (called polymorphisms) can occur, but since most are noncoding, the mutation is less likely to be life threatening13. Identifying different combinations of these polymorphismís that are inherited together (haplotypes) is the first step in this type of analysis14. When these haplotypes are interpreted properly, a patriarchal genetic roadmap can be developed providing information that reconstructs a human history passed down from father to son for several generations15.

The DNA code is the genetic instruction guidebook to sustain life and to reproduce16. These genetic directions are contained in base sequences as four letter commands from the biochemicals A (adenine), T (thymine), C (cytosine) and G (guanine). The genetic coding data generated by these base sequences are stored as an information library in the chromosome portion of the DNA double helix17.

Genetic marker experiments regularly capitalize on insertions or deletions into the DNA at specific locations of the chromosome (Indels)18. Y-chromosome alu polymorphism (YAP) insertions / deletions are the most common Indels used in population genetics histories19 because many are unlikely to have arisen more than once20.


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Hammer, M.F., et al. conducted an experiment examining a large number of Jewish subjects searching for a common set of genetic markers (or haplotypes) 21. Their experimental results noted the distinct absence of a YAP haplotype insertion into the genetic code of the Cohanim that was present in all other Israelites tested22 (Figure 3).

Thomas, M.G. et al. then conducted an experiment to determine the presence of a YAP insertion that was less prevalent in the general Jewish population23. If the Cohanim have succeeded in preserving their bloodline, they should have a higher frequency of common haplotypes in their Y-chromosomes than the Jewish citizenry as a whole24. Initial results have shown that although genetic haplotypes appear to be quite diverse in the Jewish community, there is a single haplotype that is remarkably frequent in the Cohanim25(Figure 4). This single haplotype (Cohen modal haplotype) was then tested on the Cohanim from both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities. The Cohen haplotype was strikingly prevalent and similar in both communities, which strongly suggests a common origin26. Mutational analysis also indicates that this common ancestor lived about 3000 years ago when Jewish tradition believes Aaron was anointed to the priesthood27.


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The Lemba are a black race of people from northern Africa who claim their ancestors came from Israel. While they do practice a curious number of Jewish rituals (such as dietary laws), their assertions in the past have been rejected. Several Lemba males were tested for the Cohanim modal haplotype in a recent study28. Results indicate that ~50% of the male Lemba leaders contain the Cohen gene29. Approximately 10% of the male Lemba general population carry the Cohanim gene, which is similar to the Jewish community as a whole30,31.

DNA analysis was also done on Jewish subjects who identified themselves as descended from the tribe of Levi. Results showed a very diverse series of haplotypes that would suggest the Levi tribe of today was not descended from a single common ancestor32.

The conclusion that the Cohanim have a single common ancestor is not without some controversy. Zoossmann-Diskin states, "The suggestion that the Cohen modal haplotype is a signature haplotype for the ancient Hebrew population is not supported by the data."33 However, one of the leaders in the Cohanim study, Professor Karl Skorecki was quoted as saying that Zoossman-Diskin repeatedly attacked my findings until four years ago, but we have not heard from him since. He presented an article to Nature, but when we were asked by the editor to explain, our arguments were accepted, and the Zoossmann-Diskin article was not published34.

THE FUTURE

Orthodox Jewish law teaches that a third temple will be rebuilt and the high priest must be from the line of Aaron. Many students of Bible prophecy also believe this is an end time event spoken of in the book of Ezekiel.

In the twenty-fifth year of the Jewish exile in Babylon, Ezekiel wrote in vivid detail about the building of a Jewish temple. Ezekiel also stated that the high priest must come from the "Sonís of Zadok" (Ezekiel 40:46, KJV). Ezekiel was obviously not literally writing about Solomonís temple because it was previously destroyed and plundered by King Nebuchadnezzar. He could have been speaking of the second temple (to be built by Ezra and Nehemiah), or Herodís temple because the dimensions of the temple in Ezekielís vision are not the same.

Scholars have debated whether the temple spoken of in Ezekiel should be interpreted literally or figuratively. The advocates of allegorical interpretation (Amillennial) see this temple as a symbolic picture of the Church. However, Ezekielís description of this temple does not remotely resemble any definition of the New Testament Church. Moreover, they also neglect to reveal the reason for so much detail about the temple or why this passage should be symbolized in the first place35.

The literal advocates (Premillennial) have suggested this temple is to be built during the millennial kingdom when Christ will reign with his people36. The quandaries that Amillennialists voice with this theory are the identification of the Cohen priesthood and blood sacrifices appear to be expected in the temple. Obviously a 1000-year reign, with Satan chained, and the presence of Christ with the veil lifted from his people questions the need for any sin atonement via blood sacrifices. Several scholars have attempted to address the blood sacrifice dilemma37,38,39,40 but this question continues to be one of vigorous debate. Conversely, since the Cohen bloodline can now be determined, the temple priesthood issue is moot.

Many Premillennial adherents further believe that a tribulation temple will be built before the Second Coming of Christ41. A tribulation temple appears to be required for literal scriptural fulfillment of the anti-Christ to defile the holy place spoken of in the book of Thessalonians42. Since there is an active group in Israel routinely attempting to lay a cornerstone on temple mount, the possibility of a tribulation temple is very real today43.

Realistically, anyone can build a temple out of bricks and mortar and say it has some prophetic significance. Scholars can argue whether a temple will be built in the tribulation, millennium or both. Debates can rage about how animal sacrifices can occur during the millennium. However, asserting that the high priest of this temple must originate from the lineage of the "Sons of Zadok" after over three thousand years of Jewish exile, dispersion, and intermarriage is a prophecy difficult to refute and much in line with the realm of miracles.

The prophet Ezekiel also speaks of a significant change in the general Levite responsibilities for the temple of the future. While Ezekiel was explicit in saying that the priestly duties would be filled by descendents from the Levitical line of the "Sons of Zadok", duties of the other Levites will be restricted to just guarding and maintaining the temple44. God justifies the Levite exclusion from traditional priestly ministry because of past idolatry with Israel when the nation was split into the northern and southern kingdoms (Ezekiel 44:10). Their demotion by God appears to be confirmed by the DNA analysis concluding that todayís Levites are genetically diverse and have not preserved their original tribal bloodline45.


CONCLUSIONS

It now has been demonstrated that the priestly order of Cohanim has a common genetic marker that is characteristic of only 10% of the general Jewish population and nonexistent in gentiles. While this is not direct confirmation that the Cohanim specifically descended from Aaron, it does demonstrate a separation and preservation of this priestly group that has persisted over 3000 years. It is fascinating that the Bible predicted the existence of this priestly line in the past and foretells the lineage is expected to persist today because of Godís everlasting covenant with his people.

The actual prophetic timeline for a third temple to be rebuilt is a debatable argument. However, an absolute requirement for this temple to fulfil Ezekielís prophecy is that the high priest must be from the "Sonís of Zadok." If this unbroken genetic line does not exist, there is no amount of hand waving that can overcome the literal statements in Ezekielís passage. DNA sequencing has now provided the genetic information that demonstrates the existence of this unbroken line.

Although no position is taken in this article on the validity of either a Premillennial or Amillennial endtime view, the existence of the Cohanim is a significant discovery, which is pertinent to these different Christian beliefs. One of the central principles (although there are others) that Amillennialists will argue against a literal interpretation of the endtime events written in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Revelation, and Daniel has to do with the priests serving in the tribulation and / or millennial temple. Due to the exiles, Diaspora, and intermingling of the various Jewish tribes, the Amillennial argument is founded on the premise that there was no scientific means to genetically distinguish a Cohen from anyone else. Without a high priest from Aaronís line, there can be no sacrifices in the new temple and no anti-Christ to defile it. The DNA data presented here demonstrates that the Cohen genetic line thrives today and is equipped to fulfill the priestly needs of any future temple.


REFERENCES

  1. M. F. Hammer, K. Skorecki, S. Selig, S. Blazer, B. Rappaport, R. Bradman, N. Bradman, P.J. Waburton, M. Ismajlowicz, "Y Chromosomes of Jewish priests", Nature, 1997, 385: 32-35.
  2. A. Nebel, B. Brinkmann, P. Majumder, M. Faerman, A. Oppenheim, "The Y chromosome pool of Jews as part of the genetic landscape of the middle east", American journal of human genetics, 2001, 69:1095-1112.
  3. W.C. Varner, Jacobsí Dozen : A prophetic look at the tribes of Israel, The Friends of Israel gospel ministry, (Bellmawer, New Jersey, 1987), 38.
  4. A.G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology: The missing link in systematic theology, Ariel Ministries, (Tustin, CA., 1996), 820.
  5. Y. Kleiman, "The DNA chain of tradition: The discovery of the cohen gene", Jewish Action, Winter, 1999, 5760.
  6. F. Josephus, The works of Josephus, Translated. by W. Whiston, Hendrickson publishers, (Peabody, MA., 1998), 20:10:1.
  7. Ibid., 10:8:6.
  8. Ibid., 20:10:1.
  9. Ibid., 20:10:1.
  10. D.M. Levey, The Tabernacle: Shadows of the Messiah, Friends of Israel gospel ministry, (Bellmawr, New Jersey, 1993), 153.
  11. Hammer, Skorecki, Selig, Blazer, Rappaport, Bradman, Bradman, Waburton, Ismajlowicz, "Y Chromosomes of Jewish priests", Nature, 1997, 384:32-35.
  12. Ibid
  13. M.A. Jobling, C. Tyler-Smith. "Fathers and sons: the Y chromosome and human evolution", Trends in Genetics, 1995, 11:449-456.
  14. P. A. Underhill, L. Jin, A.A. Lin, S.Q. Mehdi, T. Jenkins, D. Vollrath, R.W. Davis, L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, P.J. Oefner, "Detection of numerous Y chromosome biallelic polymporphisms by denaturing high-performance liquid chromatography", Genome Research,1997, 7: 996-1005.
  15. M.A. Jobling, "In the name of the father: surnames and genetics", Trends in Genetics, 2001, 17: 353-357.
  16. N.A. Campbell, Biology, Benjamin / Cummings Publishing, (Menlo Park, CA., 1996), 83.
  17. Ibid., 83.
  18. X. Gu, W-H. Li, "The size distribution of insertions and deletions in human and rodent pseudogenes suggests a logarithmic gap penalty of sequence alignment", Journal of Molecular Evolution, 1995, 40: 465-469.
  19. P.A. Underhill and C.C. Roseman, "The Case for an African Rather Than an Asian Origin of the Human Y-Chromosome YAP Insertion", Recent Advances in Human Biology, 2000, 8: 43-56.
  20. M.G. Thomas, T. Parfitt, D.A. Weiss, K.L. Skorecki, J.F. Wilson, M. le Roux, N. Bradman, D.B. Goldstein, "Y Chromosomes traveling south: the cohen modal haplotype and the origins of the Lemba-the black Jews of southern Africa", American Journal of Human Genetics, 2000, 66:674-686.
  21. Hammer, Skorecki, Selig, Blazer, Rappaport, Bradman, Bradman, Waburton, Ismajlowicz, "Y Chromosomes of Jewish priests", Nature, 1997, 385:32-35.
  22. Ibid
  23. M.G. Thomas, K. Skorecki, H. Ben-Ami, T. Parfitt, N. Bradman, D.B. Goldstein, "Origins of Old Testament priests", Nature 1998, 394: 138-140.
  24. J. Travis,"The priestsí chromosome? DNA analysis supports the biblical story of the Jewish priesthood", Science News, 1998, 154: 218.
  25. Thomas, Skorecki, Ben-Ami, Parfitt, Bradman, Goldstein, "Origins of Old Testament priests", Nature, 1998, 394: 138-140.
  26. M.F. Hammer, A.J. Redd, E.T. Wood, M.R. Bonner, H. Jarjanazi, T. Karafet, S. Santachiara-Benerecetti, A. Oppenheim, M.A. Jobling, H. Ostrer, B. Bonne-Tamir, "Jewish and middle eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes", Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2000, 97: 6769-6774.
  27. Travis, "The priestsí chromosome?", Science News, 1998, 154: 218.
  28. J. Lazarus, W. Elliman, J. Guenbaum-Fax, "At Israelsís doorstep in Africa", Hadassah Magazine, 2001, 82:5.
  29. Hammer, Redd, Wood, Bonner, Jarjanazi, Karafet, Santachiara-Benerecetti, Oppenheim, Jobling, Ostrer, Bonne-Tamir, "Jewish and middle eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes", Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2000, 97: 6769-6774.
  30. Ibid.
  31. K. Davies, Cracking the genome: Inside the race to unlock human DNA testing, The Free Press, (New York, NY., 2001), 182.
  32. Hammer, Skorecki, Selig, Blazer, Rappaport, Bradman, Bradman, Waburton, Ismajlowicz, "Y Chromosomes of Jewish priests", Nature, 1997, 385:32-35.
  33. A. Zoosman-Diskin, "Are todayís Jewish priests descended form the old ones?", HOMO: Journal of Comparative Human Biology Ė Zeitschrift fur vergleichende biologie des Menschen, 2000, 51: 2-3.(Urban and Fischer verlag):156-162.
  34. J. Seigel, "Genetic Kohanim descent claims disputed", The Jerusalem Post, February 28, 2001.
  35. J.F. Walvoord, Every prophecy of the Bible, Chariot Victor publishing, (Colorado Springs, CO., 1999), 198-199.
  36. J.D. Pentecost, Things to Come: A study in biblical eschatology, Zondervan publishing house, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1958), 512.
  37. Ibid., 517.
  38. H.M. Morris, The Revelation record, Tyndale House, (Wheaton, Ill.), 1983, 416.
  39. Walvoord, Every prophecy of the Bible, 202.
  40. P.L. Tan, The interpretation of prophecy, BMH Books, (Winona, Indiana, 1974), 293-298.
  41. Ibid., 320.
  42. Pentecost, Things to Come, 368.
  43. Morris, The Revelation record, 190.
  44. Pentecost, Things to Come, 521.
  45. Thomas, Skorecki, Ben-Ami, Parfitt, Bradman, Goldstein, "Origins of Old Testament Priests", Nature, 1998, 394: 138-140.

Patrick H. Young is a resident of Central Ohio. He has a Ph.D. in Chemistry and been employed in industry as a research chemist and materials scientist for over 17 years. He has a website at creationists.org/patrickyoung.html and his email address is patrickyoung@creationists.org.


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