In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. (luke 1:5)
In the first few verses of the book of Luke, we are told about the genealogy of John the Baptist: His father was from the division of Abijah and his mother from the daughters of Aaron. What does Luke tell us here? and why is this important?
Indeed, for the Jewish readers in the time of Luke, and Jews were the majority of people reading this text in the first century AD, that genealogy was very important and told a lot about the identity of John.
We will start with the conclusion: The parents of John the Baptist were of very dignified priest families.
Now, all is left is to explain this, and we go directly to the Bible.
Tribe of Levi in the wilderness and in Canaan
When the sons of Israel wandered in the wilderness, they belonged to twelve different tribes. One of those tribes was Levi. Tribe of Levi is unique and has a special duty:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 6 “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him. 7 And they shall attend to his needs and the needs of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of meeting, to do the work of the tabernacle. (Numbers 3:5-7)
In the wilderness, The lord instructed Moses, when conquering Canaan, to spare cities for the Levites in the lands of the other tribes. They shall not have their own inheritance but rather will live among the other tribes:
And the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho, saying: 2 “Command the children of Israel that they give the Levites cities to dwell in from the inheritance of their possession, and you shall also give the Levites common-land around the cities. (Numbers 31:1-2)
In the book of Joshua we learn that there were 48 cities given to the Levites. To name a few: Hebron, Gezer and Shechem.
Three families from the tribe of Levi and their roles
The most common surname among Jews today is “Cohen“. Jewish men, sons of Cohen families, are not allowed to marry divorced women (Yes! in Israel today, by law. See Leviticus 21:7). On the bright side, Cohen’s are the ones who come to the stage in the synagogue to bless the “Priestly Blessing” (Birkat Kohanim. also known as Aaronic blessing).
The Jewish surname “Levi” is also very common. But they do not share the same rights and obligations like the “Cohen’s”
The above leads us to the understanding that Cohen (a priest) and Levi are not the same. There is some hierarchy in the tribe of Levi.
In the wilderness, we learn about three families in the tribe of Levi: Gershon, Kohath and Merari.
The sons of Levi were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. (Genesis 46:11)
Aaron, who is the first priest of Israel (Priest in Hebrew – Kohen כֹּהֵן) came from the family of Kohath.
Aaron married Elisheba, the daughter of Amminadab, the sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. (Exodus 6:23)
In I Chronicles 23-26, the Bible describes in details all the different occupations and roles that the Levites and Kohanim used to have.
The Kohanim were working very hard in the temple with the sacrifices and worshiping with musical instruments. The Levites that were not Kohanim were helping them in the service and by keeping the order in the temple.
But later on, among the Kohanim we see different roles and responsibilities.
Zadok the first high priest
So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered judgment and justice to all his people. 16 Joab the son of Zeruiah was over the army; Jehoshaphat the son of Ahilud was recorder; 17 Zadok the son of Ahitub and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar were the priests. (II Samuel, 8:15-17)
So there are many Kohanim, but Zadok and Ahitub got a special position.
There let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anoint him king over Israel; and blow the horn, and say, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ (I Kings 1:34)
In the time of Solomon, Zadok is nominated to be the priest who can anoint the new king. We see here the beginning of what will become later “High Priest” – a priest with a special status.
What we read above was regarding the first temple. During the second temple, a whole new social status emerged:
The Sadducees (Zedukim in Hebrew), were the group of priests that were responsible for the work in the Second temple. The name “Zedukim” might very probably be derived from “Zadok“, the first High Priest. They were considered the spiritual leaders of Judea until the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in 30 AD.
We do not know a lot about them. most of what we know is what other people wrote about them, because after the destruction of the second temple, as they lost their position in the temple, they became irrelevant as spiritual leaders.
One interesting fact that the new testament teaches about the Sadducees that is not known from any other source is that, in contrast to the Pharisees, they did not believe in the resurrection:
Then some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him; and they asked Him… (Mark 12:18)
Now these are the divisions of the sons of Aaron… …the eighth to Abijah (I Chronicles 24, 1,10)
The work in the temple was very hard – people come with their sacrifices and they need to be served all the time. In order to help in this work, they move to work in shifts.
Zadok and David divided the work of the Kohanim between 24 men. All descendants of the family of Aaron – Kohath. Those are the priestly divisions or priestly shifts. David and Zadok made the choice by lot. The eighth lot fell to Abijah.
Looking back to where we started, “a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah“. This tells that not only Zacharias is a priest, but he is a direct descendent of one of the 24 divisions from the time of King David.
“he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” The wife was from the family of Aaron – the family of the Kohanim. And she was called after Aaron’s wife – Elisheba. (Elizabeth is Elisheba in Hebrew).