In the long discussion concerning women’s ordination, I heard something which pricked my attention: a comparison between this debate and Korah’s Rebellion in Numbers 16. What intrigued me about this idea, aside from the disturbing ideas and logical fallacies, was the correlation drawn between priests and the modern pastor. The question that must be asked is whether or not this correlation is justified. Are pastors essentially modern day priests?
Let’s be honest: when we read something in the Bible, for the most part we all interpret it through a modern lens. Thus when we come across a particular item we don’t have today, like a temple, our natural instinct is to correlate it with something we know, like a church. Therefore we think of temples like churches, even if that might paint a highly inaccurate picture (hint: it does).
Ideally of course we would like to interpret the Bible on its own terms and in its own culture. Unfortunately there is little to be done about this; we can only interpret based on what we know and frankly we know very little about the world of the Bible. Even archaeologists such as myself who have made it our life’s work to understand the world of the Bible will freely admit we don’t know much. So we view the Bible through the modern lens; it’s not a bad thing necessarily, more of a reality. Often these misinterpretations are harmless but they can also lead to very dangerous and inaccurate theologies.
In case I haven’t tipped my hand enough already, priests and pastors aren’t the same thing. Frankly, they’re not really even close. This is a problem when it comes to attempting to use priests as an argument against women’s ordination.
First, what was a priest? In short, the priest was the mediator between the worshipper and the deity. This mediation worked both ways. On the one hand, the priest took the concerns and requests of the worshipper before the god; on the other, they communicated the will of their particular god to the people. In a way, priests acted like divine cell phones between normal people and the deities who ruled the cosmos.
This communication was done via specific cultic rituals for which the priests were responsible. It should be noted priests were different than prophets, who in theory received special visions and messages from the gods. Priests instead received their information from the gods through meticulously studied omens and signs. Perhaps the most common way to discern the thoughts of the gods was through casting lots, essentially like tossing dice or flipping a coin. The Greek Iliad and the Ugaritic Aqhatu Epic both mention priests reading birds for signs. Some of the earliest “scientific” texts were essentially omen guidebooks for reading the will of the gods. From Mesopotamia, a clay liver model was found with notes written on it telling what certain parts mean. In case you were wondering, the art of reading body parts for omens is called extispicy and was widely practiced all over the ancient world.
Perhaps my favorite form of omen-reading is something called teratology or monstrous births. Essentially if some kind of deformed animal was born, it had some kind of special meaning. Things like, “If its (lamb) nose is like the ‘nose’ of a bird, the gods will destroy this land” or “If it has no spleen, the king will not obtain offspring” and stuff like that. I mean, exactly that; those are direct quotes from an Ugaritic teratology text. There are about fifty of those things in the text, covering everything from no left ears to no nostrils to no “middle part of the right leg.” There are all kinds of prediction from these, good things like the king beating his enemies (predicted by a missing left ear) or bad things like, well, the gods destroying the land.
For the most part, Yahweh seemed to prefer to communicate his will through either prophets or his law. Think of Deuteronomy 6 where Yahweh commands his people to repeat the law until they see it in their sleep. For most answers of what Yahweh wanted, people simply needed to know the law. In other cases, when Yahweh had a specific message for his people, he would send a prophet.
However, when the people needed specific guidance, usually a yes or no answer, they went to the priests to consult Yahweh. The priests didn’t practice extispicy or teratology but they did do a form of casting lots: the Urim and Thummim. The Urim and Thummim were two stones the high priest had on his priestly garments. Exactly how they worked is unclear, whether it was like flipping a coin or spinning a bottle or a light shining on one or the other. Regardless, the priests used this to consult Yahweh for yes (Urim) or no answers (Thummim). Most often when the Bible talks about Yahweh telling someone whether or not to do something, this is what is meant. See the story of David rescuing Keilah for example.
Another odd sort of divination the Israelite priests performed was the test of an unfaithful wife in Numbers 5. It’s one of the weirder laws in the Old Testament but the basic principle is if you think your wife is cheating on you but can’t prove it, take her to the priest and he’ll administer a test to see if she is or isn’t. The test depends on Yahweh’s will being revealed in the test.
More often however, priests worked human to god instead of the other way around. Just like divining the mind of the gods, appropriately expressing your requests required specific rituals. Do the wrong thing and instead of a rain storm one could end up with locusts. At least, that’s how the theory went. Getting the god to do what you want wasn’t as simple as yelling, “Hey Baal, can you do me a solid?” You needed to perform the proper rituals.
From Ugarit, for example, there are tablets describing sacrificial rituals and incantations. For example, there are sacrifices for national unity, Viagra-esque incantations, and wards against snakes and scorpion, amongst other things. Keep in mind, in the ancient world, everything had to do with the gods. So if you were going on a voyage, you sought the good will of the sea god. If you needed rain, you sought the good will of the storm god. If you needed a kid, you sought the good will of the fertility god or goddess. In Judah, hundreds of female pillar figurines have been found thought to be votive offerings for fertility; kind of like fertility voodoo.
These rituals were fairly complicated. One of my professors suggested the dozens of ritual texts found were essentially priestly cheat sheets. One even listed a bunch of gods which was initially thought to be a pantheon list until someone noticed a series of tick marks next to the divine names. It was actually a checklist.
As a result of the complexity, the priests were the only ones who possessed the knowledge of how to perform the proper rituals in order to keep the gods happy and correctly present your request to the deity. Thus you had to go through the priest to get what you wanted from the god. This was their job, to present your needs before the god and hopefully get them to do what you want.
In many ways, this was quite similar to what the Israelite priests did. They performed the cultic rituals of the tabernacle and temple, connecting the people with Yahweh. The priests officiated the festivals, performed the sacrifices, and collected the offerings to Yahweh. If someone needed forgiveness for sin, needed to make a thank offering, needed to make a festival sacrifice, or anything else to do with Yahweh, an Israelite had to go to the priests.
There were two main differences between Israelite priests and other priests. First, the Israelite priests were chosen from a specific family from a specific tribe whereas other priests were chosen by kings or older priests and could come from anyone, everywhere. Secondly, the Israelite law was focused on atonement for sin, not appeasing the gods, at least in theory.
But other than that, Israelite priests were no different than any other priest. While the idea of what the sacrifices were was different, the practical effects were the same. If you needed to connect with Yahweh, you had to go through the priests. Otherwise, you were out of luck.
Obviously this granted priests a lot of power. They controlled people’s access to the god. More than once, priests ended up gaining more power than kings. Once, an Egyptian pharaoh banned all gods but one, Aten, in order to curb the priests’ power. It only kind of worked as the pharaoh’s dynasty soon faded. Although it seemed to generally work well in Israel, the story of Eli’s sons is another cautionary tale of what happens when priests begin to abuse their power.
To summarize, priests were fundamentally facilitators of cultic rights and rituals. They were not necessarily educators or counselors for the people. Sometimes they were of course, but that wasn’t part of the job description either in Israel or anywhere else. The Israelite priests were facilitators of the Yahweh Cult (note: cult is an anthropological term, not a reference to validity; a cult can be true religion too) and not much more.
This is very different than modern day pastors (side note: there is no Biblical parallel to our pastor). First, we don’t really have cultic rituals unless you’re Catholic. We do have rituals, like baptism, communion, and marriage; but unlike the Israelites, these are not necessary for salvation and neither do they facilitate it. They aren’t cultic.
Secondly, as believers we can now approach God at any time and in anyway. We don’t need a priest to forgive us our sins or anything else like that. Instead we go through our High Priest Jesus Christ, not a pastor.
Pastors are caretakers, teachers, and guides, like shepherds. In fact the term “pastor” is related to the term “shepherd.” Nomadic people groups who rely on shepherding are called “pastoralists.” Priests are rarely called shepherds; interestingly enough, that epitaph is often applied to kings.
Priests and pastors have completely different roles. Pastors don’t do what priests did in the Old Testament and vice versa. Therefore trying to compare the two is faulty and can lead to dangerous theological ideas. Priests and pastors are nothing alike; we’re not Catholic.
Hopefully this sheds some light on the Bible and will help you read it differently. My purpose here is to shed light on the strange cultural and historical oddities in the Bible. If anyone out there has any questions about the Bible and its history, feel free to ask. I’d love to answer your questions if I can.