Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
THE PRIESTLY OFFICE

THERE was no official priesthood in the time of the Patriarchs; acts of public worship (especially sacrifice, the central act) were performed by the head of the family ( Gn 22; 31: 54; 46: 1). The Patriarchs themselves, who were nomads, offered their sacrifices in the sanctuaries they visited, and the Book of Genesis never mentions priests except in reference to foreign nations, which were not nomadic (e.g. the Egyptian priests referred to in Gn 41: 45; 47: 22, and Melchisedech, the king-priest of Salem in Gn 14: 18). There are only two texts which imply the existence of a sanctuary served by regular attendants. Gn 25: 22 says that Rebecca went 'to consult Yahweh' about the twins, Esau and Jacob, whom she was soon to bear: the normal meaning of this expression is that she went to a holy place to ask for an oracle from a man of God. Secondly, in Gn 28: 22, Jacob promises to pay tithes to the sanctuary he had founded at Bethel--which implies that it was a sanctuary administered by a group of clergy (cf. Gn 14: 20); but this, too, is an act attributed to the founder of a sanctuary to justify a later custom (cf. Am 4: 4). The priesthood properly so called did not appear until the social organization of the community had developed considerably; then certain members of the community were entrusted with the special tasks of looking after the sanctuaries and of performing rites which were becoming ever more and more complicated.


1. The Name

The only name by which the Old Testament ever refers to priests of Yahweh is kohen; the same word is used for priests of foreign gods, whether Egyptian ( Gn 41: 45; 47: 22), Phoenician (2 K 10: 19; 11: 18), Philistine ( 1 S 5: 5; 6: 2), Moabite ( Jr 48: 7) or Ammonite ( Jr 49: 3). The word has the same form in both Hebrew and Phoenician, and is frequently found in Nabatean also. There is another noun, however, derived from the root kmr, which was used from about 2000 B.C. in the Assyrian colonies of Cappadocia, then in ancient Aramaic, and later on in the dialect of Palmyra and in Syriac. The corresponding Hebrew word, always in the plural kemarîm, occurs only three times in the Bible and always refers to priests of false gods ( 2 K 23: 5; Os 10: 5; So 1: 4).

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