Who Was the Tabernacle High Priest?

God Appointed the High Priest to Preside Over the Desert Tabernacle

Sketch of high priests of the tabernacle.

Illustrators of the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The high priest was the man appointed by God to oversee the tabernacle in the wilderness, a position of sacred responsibility.

God chose Aaron, brother of Moses, to be his first high priest, and Aaron's sons to be priests to assist him. Aaron was from the tribe of Levi, one of the 12 sons of Jacob. The Levites were put in charge of the tabernacle and later, the temple in Jerusalem.

In worship at the tabernacle, the high priest was set apart from all other men. He wore special garments made from yarn that matched the colors of the gate and veil, symbolic of God's majesty and power. In addition, he wore an ephod, an intricate vest that held two onyx stones on each shoulder. Each stone was engraved with the names of six of the tribes of Israel. He also wore a breastplate holding 12 precious stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. A pocket in the breastplate held the Urim and Thummim, mysterious objects used to determine God's will.

The garments were completed with a robe, tunic, sash, and a turban or hat. On the front of the turban was a golden plate engraved with the words "holy to the Lord."

Duties of the High Priest in the Tabernacle

When Aaron made sacrifices in the tabernacle, he acted as the representative of the people of Israel. God spelled out the duties of the high priest in painstaking detail. To drive home the seriousness of sin and the need for atonement, God threatened the high priest with death if the rituals were not carried out exactly as commanded.

Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to make amends for the people's sins. Entry to this most sacred place was restricted to the high priest and allowed only on one day out of the year. It was separated from the other chamber in the tent of meeting by a colorful veil. 

Inside the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant. This is where the high priest acted as the mediator between the people and God, who was present in a cloud and pillar of fire on the mercy seat of the Ark. The high priest had bells on the hem of his robe, so the other priests would know he had died if the bells went silent.

The High Priest and Jesus Christ

Of all the elements of the wilderness tabernacle, the office of high priest was one of the strongest promises of the coming Savior, Jesus Christ. While the tabernacle high priest was the mediator of the Old Covenant, Jesus became the high priest and mediator of the New Covenant, interceding for humanity with God.

Christ's role as high priest is spelled out in the book of Hebrews 4:14 to 10:18. As the sinless son of God, he is uniquely qualified to be the mediator and yet has compassion with human sin:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15, NIV)

Jesus' priesthood is superior to that of Aaron because, through his resurrection, Christ has an eternal priesthood:

For it is declared, You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 7:17, NIV)

Melchizedek was the priest and king of Salem, to whom Abraham gave tithes (Hebrews 7:2). Because Scripture does not record Melchizedek's death, Hebrews says he "remains a priest forever."

Even though the offerings made at the desert tabernacle were sufficient to cover sin, their effect was only temporary. The sacrifices had to be repeated. In contrast, Christ's substitutionary death on the cross was a once-for-all event. Because of his perfection, Jesus was the final sacrifice for sin and the ideal, eternal high priest.

Ironically, two high priests, Caiaphas and his father-in-law Annas, were key figures in the trial and condemnation of Jesus, whose sacrifice made the earthly office of high priest no longer necessary.

Bible References

The title "high priest" is mentioned 74 times throughout the Bible, but the occurrences of alternative terms number more than 400 times.

Also Known As

Priest, chief priest, anointed priest, priest who is chief among his brethren.


Various. "Hebrews." The Holy Bible, New International Version, Biblica Inc, 1973.

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Zavada, Jack. "Who Was the Tabernacle High Priest?" Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, learnreligions.com/high-priest-700109. Zavada, Jack. (2021, December 6). Who Was the Tabernacle High Priest? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/high-priest-700109 Zavada, Jack. "Who Was the Tabernacle High Priest?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/high-priest-700109 (accessed June 8, 2023).