A Kingdom of Priests: Ancestry and Merit in Ancient Judaism

A Kingdom of Priests: Ancestry and Merit in Ancient Judaism

A Kingdom of Priests: Ancestry and Merit in Ancient Judaism

A Kingdom of Priests: Ancestry and Merit in Ancient Judaism


According to the account in the Book of Exodus, God addresses the children of Israel as they stand before Mt. Sinai with the words, "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (19:6). The sentence, Martha Himmelfarb observes, is paradoxical, for priests are by definition a minority, yet the meaning in context is clear: the entire people is holy. The words also point to some significant tensions in the biblical understanding of the people of Israel. If the entire people is holy, why does it need priests? If membership in both people and priesthood is a matter not of merit but of birth, how can either the people or its priests hope to be holy? How can one reconcile the distance between the honor due the priest and the actual behavior of some who filled the role? What can the people do to make itself truly a kingdom of priests?

Himmelfarb argues that these questions become central in Second Temple Judaism. She considers a range of texts from this period, including the Book of Watchers, the Book of Jubilees, legal documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, and the Book of Revelation of the New Testament, and goes on to explore rabbinic Judaism's emphasis on descent as the primary criterion for inclusion among the chosen people of Israel--a position, she contends, that took on new force in reaction to early Christian disparagement of the idea that mere descent from Abraham was sufficient for salvation.


This book takes its title from God’s promise to the children of Israel as they stand before Mt. Sinai: “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all people … you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5–6). While the phrase itself does not receive a great deal of attention in the literature of the Second Temple, I hope to show that the idea it expresses and the tensions it hints at are of central importance to Jews during that period.

The promise that Israel will be “a kingdom of priests” reflects a milieu in which priests hold an honored position. The Israelites, like other peoples of the ancient Near East, entrusted priests with the delicate task of mediating between humanity and the divine through the sacrifices they offered in the temple. The rituals priests performed were understood to keep the cosmos functioning properly; if the priests failed at their duties, the consequences would be dire. Priests are by definition a minority; indeed the Torah limits priesthood to a single family or tribe. Clearly “a kingdom of priests” was not meant to advocate that all Israelites serve as priests in the temple, sacrificing and eating consecrated food. Rather, as the context suggests, the phrase serves to emphasize the holiness of all Israelites.

The idea of Israel as a holy people is of course a central biblical theme. But the notion that all Israelites are equally holy, as “a kingdom of priests” implies, is more problematic. After all, if all Israelites are equally holy, why bother with priests in the first place? The tension between the holiness of the whole people and the existence of priests receives dramatic expression in the story of the rebellion of Korah during the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 16–17). Korah is a Levite, a member of the tribe that had been singled out for a special role in the cult. His rebellion grows out of his unwillingness to accept the more exalted priestly status that one particular family of Levites, Aaron and his sons, has claimed. Korah rejects not the institution of priesthood but particular arrangements for it that exclude him and most of the rest of the tribe of Levi. Thus, as the narrative now stands, its main point is to . . .

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