A Kingdom of Priests

A Kingdom of Priests: Ancestry and Merit in Ancient Judaism

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 280
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    A Kingdom of Priests
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0227-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    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,¹ 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...

  4. Chapter 1 Priest and Scribe: Ancestry and Professional Skill in the Book of the Watchers, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, and Aramaic Levi
    (pp. 11-52)

    Of all the institutions of the period of the monarchy, the temple proved the longest lived. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 b.c.e., but by 515 a new temple had replaced it, and the Judean priesthood was restored, more or less, to its old tasks.¹ Monarchy and prophecy, or at least prophecy in the style of the prophets who gave their names to biblical books, did not prove as resilient. No Davidic king ever again reigned in Jerusalem.² While prophecy flourished during the period of the exile (Ezekiel; 2 Isaiah), the beginning of the return (Zechariah...

  5. Chapter 2 Jubilees’ Kingdom of Priests
    (pp. 53-84)

    The Book of Jubilees draws on the Book of the Watchers and Aramaic Levi, and like the Book of the Watchers and the Wisdom of ben Sira, it is concerned with the tension between ancestry and merit. But unlike those earlier works, its anxieties focus not on the priesthood but on the people of Israel as a whole. Of all the works of the Second Temple period, Jubilees tries hardest to show that the people of Israel is indeed a kingdom of priests, a phrase it echoes twice (jub. 16:18, 33:20). Its effort has both a narrative and a legal...

  6. Chapter 3 Priesthood and Purity Laws: The Temple Scroll and the Damascus Document
    (pp. 85-114)

    In this chapter I focus on two legal works found at Qumran, the Temple Scroll¹ and 4QD,² the material from the Damascus Document discovered in Cave 4, that develop the purity laws of the Torah to make them more intricate and more demanding. Unlike the Book of jubilees, neither text ever calls the people of Israel a kingdom of priests, but I shall argue here that both of these texts constitute evidence for an understanding of the people of Israel as a priestly people or at least for the hope that all Jews could be made more like priests. The...

  7. Chapter 4 Priesthood and Sectarianism: The Rule of the Community, the Damascus Document, and the Book of Revelation
    (pp. 115-142)

    Before the Babylonian exile our sources show little interest in defining membership in the people of Israel. It must have seemed obvious that with a few exceptions those who lived within the boundaries of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were Israelites. After the exile matters were quite different. To begin with, geography was no longer as relevant as it had been. Most of the Judean exiles chose to remain in Babylonia even after the Persians offered them the opportunity to return to their homeland, and there was by now a significant Jewish presence in Egypt, which grew and flourished...

  8. Chapter 5 Priesthood and Allegory: Philo and Alexandrian Judaism
    (pp. 143-159)

    With the exception of John of Patmos, the authors of the texts I have considered so far lived in the land of Israel and wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic. The temple stood in easy reach, and its cult was familiar. In this chapter I turn to Philo of Alexandria, the great philosophical exegete of the Torah. Alexandria was one of the cultural centers of the Greco-Roman world, and like its other residents, Philo spoke and wrote Greek.

    Alexandria at the turn of the era was home to a well-established Jewish population of considerable size, and Philo came from one of...

  9. Chapter 6 “The Children of Abraham Your Friend”: The End of Priesthood, the Rise of Christianity, and the Neutralization of Jewish Sectarianism
    (pp. 160-186)

    In the summer of the year 70, four years after the beginning of the Jewish revolt against Rome, four Roman legions were massed outside Jerusalem, where the rebels had gathered for their last stand. The commander of the legions was the future emperor Titus; he had recently replaced his father, Vespasian, who had been acclaimed emperor by the legions in the east and was now on his way to Rome to assert his claim to the office. The most important building in Jerusalem, symbolically and strategically, was the temple, yet Josephus reports that Titus had determined to spare it against...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 187-236)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 237-254)
  12. Index
    (pp. 255-268)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 269-270)