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Marc Madrigal

What did it mean to be a priest in the context of Ancient Egypt?

What did it mean to be a priest during the time of Moses? What ideas did the holiness of priests convey?

Mummy of an Egyptian Priest. Istanbul Archaeology Museum. / Photo: Marc Madrigal.

A mummy of a priest

In the Ancient Orient Section of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum lies a very interesting Mummy of an Egyptian priest. We know its a priest because its mummified together with its cat! Alongside the mummy one can see the canopic jars used to preserve the vital organs which were removed before the mummification process took place. Next to the mummy one can also see the box filled with Ushapti, statuettes of maidens or helpers meant to aid and serve the priest in the afterlife.

In the book of Exodus we read that God called the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and gave them a calling to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The word priest comes loaded with different meanings nowadays. But what did it mean to be a priest during the time of Moses? What was expected of a priest in Ancient Egypt for example? What ideas did the holiness of priests convey?


The priestly classes in Egypt

Many types of priests existed in ancient Egypt. The high priests were chosen by the pharaoh, they were considered the mediators between the people and their gods. It was a position that had political as well as religious authority

Just below the high priest was the lector priest knowns as the cheriheb. They would write and copy religious texts and instruct clergy as well give authoritative utterances in celebrations. The hour-priests were astronomers who kept the calendar, studied astrology and interpreted dreams.

The Sem priests were the embalmers who mummified corpses and recited the incantations that would guarantee eternal life to the deceased. The wab priests were responsible for the purification of the vessels and instruments used in ceremonies. They took care of the  temple complex and helped prepare for rituals and festivals. Depending on the gender of the deity they were serving, priests could be both male and female. Male priests were known as hem-netjer while female priests were known as hemet-netjer.

There is a little bit of a parallelism between the priestly classes of ancient Egypt and the priestly classes of ancient Israel, though not a full overlap. The role of the wab priests seems quite similar to that of the levites. The Israelite priests on the other hand seem to be a cross between the cherisheb an other priestly classes.

Besides the high priest, most priestly positions in Egypt were part-time duties. Most priests also had a lay life. While they were in service, priests were meant to live a holy life; that is, a life set apart for the god they were serving. They had to ritually purify themselves from the mundane. As such, they had to observe several purity laws like circumcision. They needed to bathe a number of times a day, they had to be completely shaven including eyebrows and eyelashes, they could only wear linen and they were prohibited from eating certain kinds of food, especially fish. Purity laws were a sign and testimony for the beholder that the person in question was no ordinary person, but a priest dedicated to the service of the deity.


Biblical significance

The call by God to the people of Israel sounds very revolutionary. While being a priest was a part time job and while holiness was only the responsibility of a certain few in Egypt. God proclaimed all the people of Israel as priests and required all to keep the laws of purification. God called all of the people to live a life set apart, dedicated to Him.

This is in essence what holiness Qadosh, means. Holiness is not sinlessness or moral perfection but holiness is the consecration of something or someone meant to be used for a divine purpose. It is that which leaves its worldly use and is set apart for divine use. Many objects in the tent of the tabernacle were considered holy not because of any inherent moral value but because they were consecrated and set apart for special use through the blood of a lamb. Likewise priests were made holy not because of their inner righteousness or moral qualities but because they were dedicated to service through the blood of a lamb.

Not just the priestly class, but all the people had the responsibility to live a life set apart. This meant that all Israelites had the responsibility to live a life if consecration; a style of life that reflected the values of Yahweh. The 613 laws in the Torah were meant to be kept not as an instrument of salvation. Israel had already been saved from their former life in Egypt. This was but a covenant to learn how to live and reflect the values for which Yahweh stood for. Many laws found in the torah, though puzzling to us modern readers, made perfect sense in their context to the original hearers. Many of the purification laws served as a way to set apart the Israelites from the Canaanites.

For example, according to Canaanite mythology, ‘El’ (the king of the pantheon) would eat goat meat boiled in milk in order to increase his virility. Canaanites would re-enact these scenes in their rituals. It would have been unthinkable for Israelites to claim they served Yahweh while participating in a similar meal (see, Ex. 23:19). Similarly, the Canaanite war goddess Astarte would consume her victim’s blood after victory. Its is highly possible that Canaanites also reenacted this in their celebrations. It would be thus unthinkable for a people dedicated to Yahweh to consume blood (see, Deut. 12:16, 23).

In the New Testament we have a similar train of thought. Peter quotes from the Old Testament in saying “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9). If this is the case, we must then live lives set apart, lives that reflect the values of Christ. As Paul says: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom 12:1-2)

For Paul leading a holy life of worship was not only being set apart in spirit but also in body. Does this mean that we Christians have to be careful with what we eat and drink? How we clothe ourselves? What music we listen to, etc? Yes! While we have to be fully aware that what we wear or what we listen do not grant us moral perfection or salvation whatsoever, our physical pursuits do in fact reflect the values of Yahweh or the values of the world.

In conclusion, holiness is not to be mixed with moral perfection or moral sufficiency. The idea of holiness in the Scriptures and in antiquity conveys that idea of consecrating your spirit and body in service to God.

The holy person is not the one that makes the least mistakes or is morally perfect. The holy person is the one that consecrates himself to the Lord, is sanctified by the blood of the lamb and submits to God both in body and spirit in order to be used by him as an instrument of His glory. A holy life of a priest aims to reflect Yahweh and his character, and worship Him. This is what it meant to be a priest in antiquity. This is what it means to be a priest today.

Marc Madrigal is a Board member in the Istanbul Protestant Church Foundation in Turkey.


Mark, Joshua J. "Clergy, Priests & Priestesses in Ancient Egypt." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 07 Mar 2017. Web. 11 Jun 2019.

Daily Life Of Priests And Priestesses In Ancient Egypt. April 5, 2018.




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