II Chronicles 29 is about the reign of righteous King Hezekiah, particularly his attempts to repair the Temple and re-establish Temple worship.
II Chronicles 29:34 states: “But the priests were too few, so that they could not flay all the burnt offerings: wherefore their brethren the Levites did help them, till the work was ended, and until the other priests had sanctified themselves: for the Levites were more upright in heart to sanctify themselves than the priests” (KJV).
Here are some thoughts:
1. David Rothstein in The Jewish Study Bible states that “The author treats the Levites preferentially” in this verse. After all, here the Levites were, filling a need, diligently sanctifying themselves and helping the priests do what many of the priests had disqualified themselves from doing by not sanctifying themselves. In discussing the ideology of I-II Chronicles, R.H. Pfeiffer in the Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary states that the Chronicler actually gives the Levites a higher status than the Priestly Code does. He notes, for example, that Numbers 4:15-20 and 18:3 says that the Levites would die if they touched holy objects, whereas I Chronicles 9:28 and 23:28 present the Levites as in charge of the holy objects. Pfeiffer also observes that Levites in I-II Chronicles are teachers, judges, scribes, and prophets. Is II Chronicles 29:34 yet another example of the Chronicler’s love for the Levites?
I have a slight critique of some of these arguments, or, at least, I think that certain things need to be pointed out to balance them out. First of all, overall, the Chronicler still does elevate the Aaronide priests above the Levites. In II Chronicles 29:16, we read that only the priests could enter the house of the LORD to purify it. I am not saying that Rothstein, Pfeiffer, or those agreeing with them have said otherwise, but I just want to point that out. Second, the Chronicler does not provide a consistently positive picture of the Levites. II Chronicles 24:5 depicts the Levites as not acting hastily in response to King Joash’s command to collect taxes for the repair of the Temple. Maybe that does not overthrow Rothstein’s point that the Chronicler has a preference for the Levites, though. Perhaps, according to the Chronicler, the priests and the Levites were both slow to follow God, but the Levites were quicker to repent and to correct their behavior. Does a positive portrayal necessarily entail depicting a person as always doing right, or can it include presenting a person who repents and learns from his or her mistakes?
I was initially skeptical about Pfeiffer’s argument that the Chronicler contradicts the Priestly Code on whether the Levites could handle the holy objects. After all, I reasoned, the Book of Numbers does not say that the Levites are to have nothing to do with the holy objects. The Levites in Numbers are the people who transport them, but they have to cover the holy objects and cannot touch them directly, lest they die. As I look at I Chronicles 9:28 and 23:28, however, I can see that Pfeiffer may have a point. I Chronicles 23:28 says that the Levites purify the holy things. That might be difficult for them to do, if they cannot touch them. Difficult, but not impossible. Perhaps they could pick up the holy object with a rag when trying to wash it to avoid touching it.
2. I read a variety of ideas about why the priests were so slow to purify themselves. Some ideas are more prone to give the priests the benefit of a doubt than other ideas. Some positive ideas are:
—-There were not too many priests because they disqualified themselves by being idolatrous, so a number of priests were demoted to being Levites. That explains the dearth of priests. Yet, these priests-turned-Levites repented of their idolatry and were enthusiastic to contribute their services to Hezekiah’s reform (Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary).
—-There were a lot of offerings, as II Chronicles 29:35 seems to indicate. No wonder there were not enough priests to flay them (Keil-Delitzsch)!
—-The priests, Levites, and God-fearing in Judah had previously lived under wicked kings, who hated the proper worship of the LORD, so these God-fearing people had to disguise themselves and could only sanctify themselves gradually; thus, many of them were not ready and sanctified by the time that Hezekiah came on the scene and rapidly inaugurated his reform (Rashi).
—-King Hezekiah’s predecessor, King Ahaz, had taken away the duties of the priests and Levites. Thus, Hezekiah had to reconsecrate older priests and commission younger priests. The reform was proceeding rapidly, though, so a lot of priests were not ready and sanctified (Nelson Study Bible).
More negative explanations of the priests’ failure to sanctify themselves include the following:
—-The priests did not believe that Hezekiah was serious about reform, so they failed to sanctify themselves (Artscroll).
—-Many priests were still tied to Ahaz’s idolatrous policies. The priest Uriah, for example, had promoted King Ahaz’s Syrian-style altar, according to II Kings 16:16 (Artscroll).
In my opinion, there is some validity to the positive interpretations of the priests’ slowness to sanctify themselves, for Hezekiah’s reform probably was rapid, and there may have been some inertia on the part of the priests; plus, there were a lot of sacrifices. At the same time, II Chronicles 29:34 does say that the Levites were more upright in heart than the priests, so the Chronicler does appear to interpret the priests’ failure negatively. Maybe the priests were still tied to idolatry, or perhaps they were simply negligent or indifferent, when they should have been enthusiastic and diligent about serving the LORD.
3. In II Chronicles 29:34, the priests are flaying the sacrifices, and the Levites are helping them out. More than one commentator notes, however, that Leviticus 1:5-6 does not say that the priests or the Levites are to flay the skin of the sacrifice; rather, the worshiper bringing the sacrifice is responsible for that task. Some interpret Leviticus 1:5-6 to say that the priests flay the sacrifice, but that does not seem to me to be the case when I read Leviticus 1:4-6. What it appears to me to say is that the worshiper puts his hand over the animal that will make atonement for him, kills the animal, and flays it, whereas the Aaronide priests put the pieces of the animal on the altar and burn it.
Why would the priests and the Levites feel responsible for flaying the sacrifices in II Chronicles 29:34? Were they aware of another set of rules than what is in Leviticus 1? Interestingly, II Chronicles 30:17-18 depicts the Levites killing the Passover offering for the Northern Israelites, even though Exodus 12:3-6, 21 and Deuteronomy 16:5-6 mandate that the worshipers are to kill their own Passover sacrifice. The reason given there is that the Northern Israelite worshipers had not sanctified themselves. Perhaps that accounts for what we see in II Chronicles 29:34. Hezekiah’s religious reform was a rapid change, and thus many Judahites failed to get on the ball and to purify themselves on time. As a result, they could not flay their own sacrifices, and the priests (at least the purified ones) and the Levites did so for them.