The Social roles of priests in the Bible

Generally when we consider the roles of clergymen in our society, we tend to consider them merely to be religious teachers. However, Leviticus demonstrates that the roles of priests in ancient Israel were far broader.

In the first half of Leviticus (chapters 1-14) Rituals and practices of the priests are described in great detail. The text is highly legalistic and describes a number of contingencies in which a particular situation can be modified. For example, in the case of many animal sacrifices, there is a contingency described if a person cannot afford to bring a sheep, ox, or goat. In these cases, the person seeking to make these offerings brings pigeons or doves. Some of the more central and commonplace sacrifices, have a third contingency described if a person cannot afford the birds. This is the case in the instance of ritual female uncleaness after childbirth. Most people would have children in this time period, regardless of social standing, thus a particular sacrifice is legally necessary for the deeply impoverished. This set of complications to sacrificial practice requires a priest to be an expert of economics, to determine which type of offerings a person should bring in their community.

The priest must be central to the economy also because of laws regarding theft, or economic mismanagement. In the case of either of these, a punative 20% charge was given to the guilty party. Although the text does not specifically state this, I would suspect that the priest would have to know the value of many things as economies in ancient times were more heavily based on goods than species such as gold or coins.

The Priest was also the doctor for his community. The Bible details many medical techniqes a priest is to follow in various situations. It is difficult to exactly determine what many of the diseases the priest is watching for other than lepracy in these passages, however, this is not surpising as germ theory is only 150 years old and most civilizations in antiquity believed in the miasma theory, in which disease spreads from particular objects or locations in the air. The priest was told to look for sores or other marks such as paling of the skin to determine if a person was unclean. This text clearly describes that many naturally occurring processes, such as baldness, are normal and are not unclean.

The perscriptions of the unclean, that is, those found to be diseased, are a form of public health and welfare law. Although ancient peoples did not know of the existence of bacteria and viruses, common human experiences would denote that cleanliness led to good health and that disease spread from person to person. Most of the cleansing rituals regarding disease include a bath and the washing of one’s clothes. These would naturally lead to an increased chance of recovery and it is given religious significance as it is the priest who performs these tasks.

The Priest, in his role as medical professional, was also a health inspector as well. In addition to treating people with illnesses, the priest was also to inspect “infections” of houses and clothing. The text calls these infections “Leperous diseases” in regards to cloth and building stones, but they also describe these spots of infection as green or red splotches. The priest is warned to observe whether these infections spread in houses or in clothing. My theory is that these splotches are in fact mold as mold is frequently red or green in color. In ancient times, even the walthy only had a few changes of clothing and thus wore the same clothes for long periods, thus making the clothes unbelievably dirty and septic by today’s standards. Modern sanitation did not exist in most parts of the anceint world, and architecture had not advanced far enough for large windows. Even if such architecture had existed, glass was either rare or nonexistent during the period and thus houses would be poorly ventilated and would not be much different from the inside of caves, which are frequently carpeted with molds and are highly unhealthy dwelling places. Thus the inspections of both house and clothing by the priests for this mold was a test for healthy living conditions and thereby promoted public health. The isolation of unclean people appears to serve a similar function. I suspect the diseaseases include leperacy but also include other things such as STDs (due to the sores in many cases as I doubt that all the different cases apply to a single diease)

The dietary laws also demonstrate the public health worker aspect of the priest’s duties, as they were required to know them. Most of the unclean animals are relatively unsafe to eat if not cooked properly. Although we consider pork to be relatively safe in the modern day, it is more likely to have parasites and dangerous bacteria in it than mutton or beef if not cooked properly. The same applies to most scavengers such as vultures, ravens, bats, and many of the birds the Hebrews are forbidden to eat. Most reptiles are also forbidden. Most reptiles also inherrently have salmanella bacteria also. Although the priests did not know this, they would have realized that eating reptiles often resulted in illness, thus the priestly source behind leviticus would have noted these animals as unclean. The same rule applies to the aquatic animals. Salmon are safe enough to eat raw without fear of illness, while doing the same is dangerous in the case of crabs or clams.

The priest, in all of his roles as religious leader, doctor, health inspector, and economic expert, is in many ways, like the civil servants of today. He does not pay for his place in the community but is sustained by the public as a whole. In the case of grain offerings for example, although a substantial ammount of grain is brought for the sacrifice, only a handful is actually burned in the ritual, the rest is reserved for the priest and his family. This is similar in the case of animal sacrifices, where the priest obtains most of the meat. Through this method, priests are ensured a constant and adequette supply of food.

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One Response to The Social roles of priests in the Bible

  1. This is a great post on an interpretation of the dietary laws of Leviticus as being established for the purposes of civic health. Mary Douglas seems to take umbrage at this idea, and says that we must find a consistent explanation for all of the Laws, or else none of them seem to make sense.

    So Zach has identified two longstanding debates about the dietary laws: do they serve the purposes of adaptivity, and is there any rationale to them at all? What do others think?

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