I received the following question:

Genesis 41:50. And to Joseph were born two sons before the years of famine came, whom Asenath, the daughter of Poti-Pherah priest of On, bore to him.

What did the priests do who were priests before the Levites were separated as priests?

Well, regarding that verse in particular, it is hard to say if this particular priest was a priest of the Lord or not. He is called the priest of “On,” a city in Lower Egypt. This city was generally known for being the center of sun worship. Remember, Pharaoh gave Joseph this woman. It may well be that he considered them both of the religious “caste.” Joseph certainly would have told her about a very different kind of God than the sun. I suppose it could be that he was a priest of the true God. Certainly, Joseph would have had some influence over Egypt regarding that, but that would have been more in the years following his marriage.

As for priests before the Levites in general, remember that animal sacrifices went all the way back to Cain and Abel. A priest is a mediator between God and the people. Whatever else they did, they definitely were responsible for teaching the people about the LORD, and for performing sacrifices and offerings. Moses’ father-in-law was a priest of the true God.

It would appear that the firstborn of every family was a priest for his family in Israel before the Levites were appointed instead. This might have been true in other nations as well, before the knowledge of the LORD was lost. In the case of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, he seems to have been chosen as the priest of a whole region or nation of the Midianites.