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Ada Taggar-Cohen





Does God’s Property Belong to the Priesthood? Hittite Versus Biblical Law



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Ada Taggar-Cohen





Does God’s Property Belong to the Priesthood? Hittite Versus Biblical Law






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Does God’s Property Belong to the Priesthood? Hittite Versus Biblical Law

Leviticus allows priests and their families to enjoy the donations and sacrifices to YHWH. This differs from Hittite practice of forbidding priests access to holy objects outside of limited ritual contexts. What is the reason for the difference between these two priestly systems?


Does God’s Property Belong to the Priesthood? Hittite Versus Biblical Law

The candlesticks and altar of incense, (colorized) The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah. Wikimedia

Cherem: Items Devoted to God and the Temple

The term cherem appears four times in the Priestly or Holiness texts, all in a non-war context.[1] Three of these occurrences are in Leviticus 27, an appendix to the book of Leviticus, which focuses on donations to the Temple.[2]

1. An Unredeemed Field Becomes Cherem

The chapter opens with a person who vows (יַפְלִא נֶדֶר) the value (עֶרְכְּךָ) of his own person or some other person to YHWH (vv. 2–8). To calculate the value, the person’s age and gender must be factored in, since this is how a person would be evaluated if sold on the slave market.

The text continues by discussing sanctification (ק.ד.ש) donations of one’s animals, both pure and impure (vv. 9–13), one’s home (vv. 14–15), and one’s field (vv. 16–24). In this last case, the person is to redeem the field, and to pay its value to YHWH (plus a fifth), which is calculated based on its value minus the amount of years that passed since the previous jubilee (vv. 16–19). Then the text continues:

ויקרא כז:כ וְאִם לֹא יִגְאַל אֶת הַשָּׂדֶה וְאִם מָכַר אֶת הַשָּׂדֶה לְאִישׁ אַחֵר לֹא יִגָּאֵל עוֹד. ויקרא כז:כא וְהָיָה הַשָּׂדֶה בְּצֵאתוֹ בַיֹּבֵל קֹדֶשׁ לַי־הוָה כִּשְׂדֵה הַחֵרֶם לַכֹּהֵן תִּהְיֶה אֲחֻזָּתוֹ.
Lev 27:20 But if he does not redeem the land, and the land is sold to another, it shall no longer be redeemable: 27:21when it is released in the jubilee, the land shall be holy to YHWH, as land devoted;[3] it becomes the priest’s holding.

According to this, the land’s status as cherem is an automatic consequence of an unredeemed land donation to the Temple, a unique exception to the principle of land returning to its original owner on the jubilee. Notably, the land becomes the holding of the priests.

2 & 3. Cherem Donations

The other two references to cherem in this chapter concern objects declared to be cherem by their owners:

ויקרא כז:כח אַךְ כָּל חֵרֶם אֲשֶׁר יַחֲרִם אִישׁ לַי־הוָה מִכָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ מֵאָדָם וּבְהֵמָה וּמִשְּׂדֵה אֲחֻזָּתוֹ לֹא יִמָּכֵר וְלֹא יִגָּאֵל כָּל חֵרֶם קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הוּא לַי־הוָה.
Lev 27:28 But no devoted-thing that a man devotes to YHWH, of anything that he has, whether man or beast, or of his inherited field, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted-thing is most holy to YHWH.

Here we learn that unlike sanctification dedications, which can be sold or redeemed, devoting an object to YHWH (cherem) does not come with the option of redemption or sale; this goes for whether the devoted object is a person, animal, or field. The verse does not clarify what it means that the object is “most holy” but ostensibly it means that it can only be used for the Temple in perpetuity.

The text then continues with the problematic case of devoting a person:

ויקרא כז:כט כָּל חֵרֶם אֲשֶׁר יָחֳרַם מִן הָאָדָם לֹא יִפָּדֶה מוֹת יוּמָת.
Lev 27:29 No one devoted, who is to be devoted from mankind, shall be ransomed; that person shall surely be put to death.

Apparently, as the Temple authorities cannot determine how to use a person exclusively as holy to God, to be on the safe side, the person is executed.[4]

4. Cherem Is for Priests

The final mention of cherem in the priestly text appears in Numbers 18, in the context of laws about produce and animals that become part of the Temple’s consecrated objects for use by the priests:

במדבר יח:יד כָּל־חֵרֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל לְךָ יִהְיֶה.
Num 18:14 Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours.

This returns us to the point noted in the first example: devoting an object to YHWH, in the priestly, non-military, context, means making it part of the deity’s possessions. Such possessions are to be used by the priests.

The Possessions of Temples and Priesthood

The fact that items devoted to God can be used by the priesthood fits with other biblical laws that deal with holy items. First, not only did the priests receive specific portions of the shelamim (well-being) offerings, which are consumed by the Israelite who brings it,[5] but they were also entitled to eat the remains of other, holier sacrifices.[6] The priests were also given the “shewbread” to eat, after it was removed from YHWH’s table at the end of the week:

ויקרא כד:ז וְנָתַתָּ עַל הַמַּעֲרֶכֶת לְבֹנָה זַכָּה וְהָיְתָה לַלֶּחֶם לְאַזְכָּרָה אִשֶּׁה לַי־הוָה. כד:ח בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת יַעַרְכֶנּוּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה תָּמִיד מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּרִית עוֹלָם. כד:טוְהָיְתָה לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו וַאֲכָלֻהוּ בְּמָקוֹם קָדֹשׁ כִּי קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הוּא לוֹ מֵאִשֵּׁי יְ־הוָה חָק עוֹלָם.
Lev 24:7 With each row you shall place pure frankincense, which is to be a token offering for the bread, as a gift offering to YHWH. 24:8 He shall arrange them before YHWH regularly every sabbath day—it is a commitment for all time on the part of the Israelites. 24:9 They shall belong to Aaron and his sons, who shall eat them in the sacred precinct; for they are his as most holy things from YHWH’s gift offerings, a due for all time.[7]

The bread here is presented as an offering to YHWH, but the priests eat it. The priests also receive the bikkurim (first produce) bread (שתי הלחם), which is described as קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיוּ לַי־הוָה לַכֹּהֵן “they shall be holy to YHWH for the priest” (Lev 23:20), which blurs the boundaries significantly between what is God’s and what is the priests’.

In addition to this, priests receive regular maintenance donations called terumah. These are not viewed as secular “support payments” or taxes, but are considered holy objects,[8] the holdings of YHWH and his Temple, which are used to support the priests. The summary statement at the end of Numbers 18, at the end of a long list of what the priests are due from sacrifices and other holy donations, makes this explicit:

במדבר יח:יט כֹּל תְּרוּמֹת הַקֳּדָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר יָרִימוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַי־הוָה נָתַתִּי לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֹתֶיךָ אִתְּךָ לְחָק עוֹלָם בְּרִית מֶלַח עוֹלָם הִוא לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ.
Num 18:19 All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to YHWH I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. It is a covenant of salt forever before YHWH for you and for your offspring with you.

Here the holy items are given to YHWH who in turn gives them to the priests. The text continues by explaining that the priests and their families are to be supported through this donation system since they have no land or means of support of their own:[9]

במדבר יח:כ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל אַהֲרֹן בְּאַרְצָם לֹא תִנְחָל וְחֵלֶק לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּתוֹכָם אֲנִי חֶלְקְךָ וְנַחֲלָתְךָ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 18:20 And YHWH said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.”[10]

In sum, the priesthood gets the use of various sacrificial offerings, the terumah payments, and even Temple property devoted to YHWH as cherem. In fact, it is striking that the priests are not only allowed to use these devoted items, but the land is even described as their own property [11](אֲחֻזָּתֽוֹ). Their “living costs” were covered by the Israelites’ donations and sacrifices to the Temple and their god, and this included objects devoted to the Temple in oaths categorized under the legal term cherem.

Priests and Possessions in Hittite Temples

The treatment of a god’s property as the property of the priesthood differs markedly from what we see in other ancient Near Eastern sources, such as CTH (Catalogue of Hittite Texts) 264, a Hittite išḫiul-, i.e., a legal text for temple personnel binding two parties.[12] The text is a written agreement between the Hittite king who pronounces the text officially and the temple personnel who will take an oath to which the gods are witnesses, to fulfill the laws decreed in the text.

The format of this išḫiul- text is very similar in style to the laws of the Torah; it is written as apodictic commands in the second person—“you shall do/ you shall not do,”—and warns of capital punishment for violations.[13]

The texts instructing the priests indicate very clearly that the priests should eat part of the sacrificial offerings, but only inside the temple during the rituals; they were not to take the food and beverages out of the temple or take it for their families.

Thus, in a fragment describing a festival to the Storm-god of Zippalanda (KUB 44.14+11.30 iii 15’-22’):

CTH 635 The one bull and one ram of [the deity’s flock] which [where ascertained], he leads them back to the temple then, the SANGA-priest offers them, to the Storm-god of Zippalanda. The pure meat, cooked and raw, he sets in place. He breaks thick bread. He fills the rhytons … [ ] And he arranges the cups of the temple.

As we find in many Hittite rituals, the prescriptions here are for setting up the food on the altar before the god(s). Priests are not described as eating. Similarly, in CTH 264, the responsibility of the priests is to bring all the food before the deities—not to eat nor drink it:

6/1: 60-63 Keep up in the temple everything including bread, beer and wine. Let no one leave for himself the divine thick bread (or) the thin bread of the god.

Let no one pour out beer (or) wine off the libation vessel. Hand all back to the god.

What the Priests May Eat

In contrast, a different festival fragment describes a ritual meal in honor of the god in the priest’s home, not in the temple (KUB 25.23 obv. i):

The next day the SANGA-priests celebrate in their house for the (mountain) Ḫaluwana a spring festival at the expense of their house. They consecrate one sheep. They put down meat, raw and cooked. (There are) thirty loaves of bread and three vessels of beer of the house of the SANGA-priest, and ten loaves of bread and one uppar-vessel of beer on the altar, twenty loaves of bread, two vessels of beer and a uppar of beer to provide for. They break thick bread. They fill the rhytons. They eat they drink. They provide for the cups.

Thus we see a sharp distinction between food for the gods in the temple, which the priests set up and leave, and ritual meals outside the temple, that the priests partake in as part of the celebration of the festival.

Regarding the treatment of the remains of the sacrificed food, however, there is a strict warning, which seems to allow some eating of the food, but by the priests alone:

6/2: 1-5 If on that day [you are able] to eat and dri[nk the remains], eat and drink it! If, however, you are not a[ble], eat and drink [it within] three days. The piantalla-bread, however, [do not give to your wiv]es, children or female or male slaves.

Beer and wine, you shall in no way [distribute] at the threshold of the gods.

Although the three-day rule is reminiscent of the Priestly rule for the shelamim offering (Lev 7:15–18), the eating in this Hittite example is symbolic, representing sharing the sacrifice with the gods. It does not serve the purpose of feeding the temple officiants; their family may not eat from the sacrifice, only the priests (male and female!).[14]

The final line reiterates the prohibition to drink outside a ritual context, likely because alcohol is expensive, and very tempting to drink. The fact that the priests were allowed to drink as part of the ritual distinguishes this from the priestly law in the Torah which forbids drinking during ritual service (Lev 10:9).

8:30-34 Furthermore: What silver, gold, garment(s) (or) utensils of bronze of the gods you hold, you (are) its guards. There is no silver, gold, garments or utensils of bronze of the gods (for you). Whatever (is) in the house of the gods (is) not (for you). Whatever (there is), it is only to the god. Be very much afraid! Silver (and) gold should not at all be for the Temple-Man.

Although priests may drink to the gods and eat from the sacrificed meat as part of the ritual, the temple personnel had no right to anything else that belonged to the temple, neither food nor implements (especially valuable paraphernalia made of silver and gold). Whatever had been donated to the temple was sacred and belonged to the divine world only, that is to the temple. The priesthood and temple personnel were not allowed to use it for their own benefit. This is the exact opposite of the Priestly cherem law analyzed above, where Temple property is conterminous with priestly property.

Moreover, priests are not to use the sacrifices brought to the temple for their regular consumption with their families. Instead, priests either grow their food themselves, or it is assigned to them by the palace. The Hittite priesthood owned land and property and had families as well as households that supported the temple and its activities. The priesthood was also responsible for the fields allocated to the villagers, as well as herds of cattle and sheep, in order to produce food for the gods.[15]

The Serious Offense of Using Temple Possessions

Thus, outside the ritual eating, there was no room for priests to take any of the holy food or sacred objects. This kind of use of temple possessions was a sin for which capital punishment was decreed by royal authority – if the culprit was caught – or by the divine authority if the culprit is not apprehended:

CTH 264 §7: 25–29 Watch out also for a man who whisks away your desired food from (before your) eyes![16]When afterwards it acts, the will of the gods (is) strong. It is not fast to seize, but once it seizes it never lets go. Be very much afraid (regarding) the soul of the gods.

The translations “will of the god” and “soul of the god” here stand for a Hittite word written either by the Sumerogram ZI or the Hittite word ištanza(n)-. This has several possible meanings according to the context, including “soul”, “will”, “desire”, “spirit”, “mind.”[17] I have chosen to translate this word in CTH 264 with the two English words “will” and “soul,” which point to an inner-wish of the deity(s). This specific “will” directly conveys the mood of the deity, his or her satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the actions done on its behalf.[18]

The deities must always be satisfied with the service they receive from their temple personnel including the priesthood. Part of this included serving as honest and loyal servants who do not steal from their masters, making any usage of holy objects outside very circumscribed ritual practices forbidden.[19]

How do we make sense of this sharp distinction in the conception of temple property as it relates to the priesthood between the Hittite and biblical texts?

Hittite Royal Temples

All temples in the Hittite kingdom seem to have been under royal control.[20] The Hittite royalty considered its most important duty caring for the gods, and therefore the king maintained the temples, supported their building and renovations, as well as appointing the priesthood as part of the administration. The capital Ḫattuša controlled the assignment of the priesthood to different towns and areas of the kingdom. It also assigned land and villages to temples, and the appointment of priests as heads of those temples.[21]

The warnings to the Hittite temple personnel came from royal authority as the texts are legal instructions dictated by the king, who donated land and paraphernalia, as well as the sacrifices to the temples and the priesthood.[22]

A good example of this appears in the 8th century B.C.E. bilingual Luwian and Phoenician inscription of King Azatiwada which indicates that while building the fortress of Azatiwada, the ruler built a dwelling place for the god Ba‘al KRNTRYŠ to whom these sacrifices must be made:

And I built this city. And I gave it the name Azatiwadaya. I settled in it Ba’al KRNTRYŠ. Now all the river-land shall offer a sacrifice to him: a yearly sacrifice: an ox; and at the time (season) of ploughing: a sheep; and at the time (season) of reaping/harvesting: a sheep.[23]

This text shows that the king not only built the temple, but legislates what offerings should be brought, and when. This does not mean that the king invented laws out of whole cloth. Instead, the Hittite royal cult emphasized that the cult was practiced in the “Hittite manner” (KUB 5.6 iii 6 URUKÙ.BABBAR-aš iwar-). This manner promised the divine world special care, but also seemed to be implemented in a specific ritualistic way as seen in Hittite ritual texts. Nevertheless, it would seem that many of the specific requirements for a given temple, and its means of support were determined by the crown.

A Royal Temple versus a People’s Temple

Here is the crux of the difference between the Pentateuchal conception and that of the Hittite temples. A number of biblical texts outside the Pentateuch make it clear that Israelite and Judahite kings built temples, as was standard in the ancient Near East. Solomon builds Jerusalem, Jeroboam builds Dan and Beth-el, and the latter is even referred to as a מקדש מלך “temple of the king” (Amos 7:13). Similarly, various biblical stories discuss how a given king reforms (positive or negative) or renovate the temple, which shows that in Judah and Israel as well, kings control the temple.

Nevertheless, this is not how the Torah presents sacrificial law and practice. Instead, in the Torah the laws for the cult come from YHWH himself, via Moses. No “king” oversees the system, except for the mediator Moses, under whose name the laws appear.[24]

In short, the laws regarding the priesthood in the Bible are not presented as royal decrees but as divine decrees that favor the Aaronide priesthood.[25] As such, the system needs to be independent of royal whim and is thus designed to be self-supporting, with the Israelites providing the funding from their sacrifices and mandated gifts. That said, it is certain that, for the system to function (if it indeed did), the Priestly authors would have needed political support from a king or other royal power.[26]

This system would have made the Yahwistic priesthood a rich and privileged class in the kingdom, and actually related to the royals, even though they are not described as royalty. As a designated “covenant priesthood,” the priesthood of the Priestly text was an essential part of the administrative system of the Judaean kingdom.[27]

The Practical Nature of the Priestly Cherem System

The holy dedication system, of which cherem was an integral part, enabled the priesthood to survive in small temples where royal support would have been scant.[28] It may have originated in early times of tribal Israel, but was adapted to the system in Second Temple Jerusalem, supporting the royal privileged priesthood of Aaronide descent.

The priestly system created a strong distinction between sacred and profane. It elevated the priesthood into the status of sacred, and close to the divine. They are not to be harmed, as becomes clear by the terrible fear of the killing of the priesthood of Nob (1 Sam 22:17) expressed by the servants of Saul. The Hittite CTH 264 in contrast does not try to elevate the temple workers or the priests but rather to warn them to be honest, and take care of the temple worship.

Both texts, biblical and Hittite, dictate the rules by which the worship should be conducted in a legal way that says that if the rules are not to be fulfilled, the divine world (Hittite gods/YHWH) will seek punishment, which in worst cases will be the death of the culprit and his seed. While in the Hittite text the binding (išḫiul-) is with the king, and under divine oath, the biblical text sets the binding (covenant) between the god and the priesthood directly.


May 30, 2019


Last Updated

April 10, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Ada Taggar-Cohen is a professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern studies, and the Head of the Program of Jewish Studies, at the School of Theology of Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan. She earned her BA and MA degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the Bible and History of Israel departments, and her PhD from Ben Gurion University in the Negev, under the supervision of Prof. Victor A. Hurowitz (ז״ל) and Prof. Theo van den Hout of the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on Hittite priesthood and comparative studies of issues related to Hittite and ancient Israelite cultures. Her book Hittite Priesthood (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2006) is a comprehensive work on this topic. She has recently co-edited with Roy E. Gane a volume in memory of Jacob Milgrom, Current Issues in Priestly and Related Literature: The Legacy of Jacob Milgrom and Beyond (Resources for Biblical Study 82; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015).