When the priests of ancient Israel were prepared for sacrificial duty, they were anointed with oil and furnished with priestly garments. A turban and oil were placed on the priest’s head, the ephod and breastplate were draped over his shoulders, and blood went on his right thumbs and big toes. Pouring oil on the head was common practice (e.g., 1 Sam 10:1; Ps 23:5; Eccl 9:8), but thumbs and toes may seem like odd additions to the ritual. The rationale behind this practice reveals the relationship between the priests and the atoning work that they performed for their people.
In the description of clerical consecration, Exodus states, “You shall take the anointing oil and pour it on [the priest’s] head (ראשׁ; rosh) and anoint him” (29:7). After being dressed in the sacred garments, ram’s blood was to be placed on the “right ear (אזן; ozen)… and on the thumb (בהן; bohen) of their right hands, and on the big toe (בהן; bohen) of their right feet” (29:20; cf. Lev 8:23-24). Readers might assume that these actions have to do with the priests listening to God or walking in the commandments. However, the real rationale is related to the place of priestly sacrifice.
The altar of Israel (as with other altars in the ancient Near East) was constructed with four “horns” (קרנות; qaronot) on each of its four corners: “You shall make horns for it (קרנתיו; qarnotav) on its four corners, and its horns shall be of one piece with it” (Exodus 27:2). Just as the priests’ extremities (ears, toes, thumbs) were anointed with blood, so were the horns of the altar: “You shall take part of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar (קרנת המזבח; qarnot ha’mizbeach) with your finger, and the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar” (Exodus 29:12; cf. Lev 8:15; 9:9). The priest and the altar receive the same treatment, which conveys the idea that the priest himself was a kind of living, breathing altar. Scripture reveals the inextricable relationship between priest and altar: Israel’s priests were the intercessors for their people—without them, no sacrifices could be made on the altar. Likewise, without the altar, the priests would have no place to offer sacrifices. By being anointed with blood in the same way, both the priest and the altar were purged of sin and prepared for the work of sacrificial atonement.