I used to ask myself that question, and I believe that many others probably still do. We believe that our current temple ordinances as revealed by the prophet Joseph Smith are as old as the human race, and were first revealed to Adam, the Ancient of Days ((TPJS, 237)). So why don’t we read more about temple practices similar to our own today in the Old Testament? It can get very confusing trying to compare our modern-day temple ordinances to those of Moses in the Tabernacle, or Solomon’s temple, or even Herod’s temple at the time of Christ. And our critics also love to point out the dissimilarity.
The ordinances just aren’t the same. We might initially think that it is because of the sacredness of the temple that it was kept from being written about much by the ancient patriarchs. But this is not the case. Many details are given about the Tabernacle of Moses in the first books of the Bible. While there are still some similitudes in the structure of the temples, the priestly clothing, and even in the rites, if the ordinances were the same or very similar as we have them today we would find many more allusions to them. But they just aren’t there.
So where are they? The reason we don’t find them is in large part due to the fact that for the majority of the Old Testament times Israel was living under the lesser Aaronic priesthood, with its accompanying ordinances, and not the higher priesthood of Melchizedek, with its accompanying ordinances.
A reader of yesterday’s post on the apocryphal Testament of Levi commented that “I don’t always know what to make of these parallels… Clearly, Levitical temple practices were not identical to modern LDS ones. Yet, there are correlations.”
You are right that the temple practices of the Levites, during the Mosaic law as we read from the Bible, were not like modern LDS ones. In fact they were quite different. The reason is because at that point Israel was living under the lesser priesthood, the Aaronic, and not the Melchizedek. Therefore, the ordinances that they performed were only pertaining to the lesser priesthood, and were outward and pertained to carnal commandments. This apostasy lasted 1200-1300 years, until the time of Christ, and is why we don’t see much of the higher ordinances in the Old Testament. Dr. Skinner points out, “Apostasy is really a function of the lack of authorized temples and associated priesthood ordinances as much as anything else” ((Andrew Skinner, Temple Worship, 125)). The Old Testament writers begin with Moses and end 500 years or so before the time of Christ, precisely during the time when the House of Israel was solely under the administration of the Aaronic (and Levitical) Priesthood.
But as Dr. Andrew Skinner teaches, “the ordinances practiced by the patriarchs from Adam to Moses were administered under the authority and power of the Melchizedek Priesthood” ((ibid., 123)). That means that before the time of Moses and the exodus, the ordinances of the gospel were much more like those we have today (except they also practiced animal sacrifice). Skinner informs us, “possessing the Melchizedek Priesthood, Abraham could participate in every temple ordinance available to us living today, including the sealing ordinance, which he did (D&C 132:37)” ((ibid., 122)). From the temple we know that Adam also participated in all the ordinances of the gospel, including the ones we know today. We might also infer that the other ancient patriarchs Enoch, Melchizedek, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, and his twelve sons also participated in the higher ordinances of the gospel under the Melchizedek priesthood, the same as we have today.
Levi and his sons would have had all the ordinances of the temple we have today, including washings, anointings, investitures, ascension rites, coronations, etc., which is in line with the Testament of Levi that I analyzed in the post yesterday. The Testament of Levi is attributed to be from Levi, and even if that is not the case, the ordinances and rites that the author describes could easily be attributed to the time period of Levi, since at that time they had the higher priesthood and the higher ordinances of the gospel. That is a plausible reason for the many similarities and parallels that we see in that apocryphal work, and others, which correlate strongly with our current temple worship.
It was not until the time of Moses, the exodus, the golden calf, Moses going up the mountain again to bring down the lesser law, and the institution of the lesser priesthood that the ordinances changed dramatically from what we have today. It was at this time that the Levites practiced the lesser ordinances as we read about them in the Bible. Skinner notes, “The Joseph Smith Translation of Exodus 34:1 states that in addition to taking away the higher priesthood, the Lord took away his ‘holy order, and the ordinances thereof.’ Practically speaking, this means that the Mosaic Tabernacle, Solomon’s Temple, and the later Temple of Herod did not administer the full range of the priesthood ordinances (including sealings performed by Melchizedek Priesthood officiators) to Israel as a whole” ((ibid., 124)). For many years, only the prophet was allowed to hold the Melchizedek Priesthood, and among those certain individuals likely received all the ordinances associated with the higher priesthood. But Israel at large, for a long time, did not participate in them.
Christ brought back, or restored, the higher priesthood of Melchizedek, the higher law, and the higher ordinances of that priesthood. The church was again as it was before the time of Moses, minus animal sacrifices after Christ’s death, and also like it is today with a fulness of the gospel. There are actually many more allusions in the New Testament to practices which closely parallel our modern-day temple experience than in the Old Testament (see this excellent list of sacred secrecy in the New Testament, and these hints at sacred ordinances). In the last verses of Luke, Christ gives the promise of an endowment to his disciples if they wait for it in Jerusalem, after which they rush back to Jerusalem and wait in the temple (Luke 24:49-53). Christ was bringing the higher ordinances back to Israel, and later opened them up for the world (the Gentiles) to participate in.
Unfortunately, the world lost the priesthood altogether and its associated ordinances shortly after the time of Christ, and there ensued another Great Apostasy. This time all priesthood and ordinances were taken from the earth, and the people knew not where to find the Lord. Amos prophesied this day:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord:And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it. (Amos 8:11)
Many centuries later a prophet was called once again, Joseph Smith, to restore the higher priesthood of Melchizedek (and the Aaronic), the higher law, and the higher ordinances of that priesthood to us today.