Why Are There No Israelite Priestesses?
Introduction: Women in Ancient Israelite Society
Before analyzing the absence of significant female Israelite cultic officials—the main topic of this essay—we should first try to understand women’s position in Israelite society more broadly. In her seminal book, Reading the Women of the Bible, Tikva Frymer-Kensky reviewed women’s status in the biblical stories, making use of the term “patriarchal society” to explain the social place and status of women as subordinate to male dominance. Recently, Carol Meyers has contested this approach based on archaeological findings pointing to life in rural areas, where the everyday life tasks of male and female were divided:
[S]enior women functioned as the COOs (Chief Operating Officers) of their households. They were hardly oppressed and powerless. Nor were they subordinate to male control in all aspects of household life. Rather, in subsistence households in traditional societies comparable to ancient Israel, when women and men both make significant economic contributions to household life, female–male relationships are marked by interdependence or mutual dependence.
In a recent article, Tracy Maria Lemos further questioned whether indeed within the concept of “patriarchal society of Israel” Israelite women were treated as “chattel”:
While Israelite society was governed by different hierarchies, and gender binaries were not always the most important set of oppositions, the extant evidence in my view leaves little doubt that wives were subordinate to husbands and daughters to fathers. In the case of wives, however, this subordination is not best understood in terms of ownership or a property relation. If Israelite texts themselves consider the status of wives to be different from the status of slaves, and if wives could not be purchased, sold, or devolved, it seems inaccurate to state that wives in ancient Israel were “merely chattel,” as scholars not infrequently do.
The Biblical Evidence
As Meyers notes, the Bible contains several stories of women with power over their households or in society:
- The mother of Micha (Judg 17) ruled her household;
- Abigail (1 Sam 25) took the initiative in saving her household from David’s wrath;
- Deborah was a judge (Judg 5);
- Joab found a “wise woman” in Teqoa (2Sam 14:2); Jeremiah (9:15) describes a female sage or “wise woman;”
- Huldah was a prophet (נביאה, 2 Kings 22:14), who was consulted by high state officials.
Thus, the earlier scholarly depiction of Israel as a patriarchal society can no longer be maintained. What we are then left with is a society in which women, while not equal to men in all capacities (women generally “belonged” to the male households of their fathers or husbands), could still have been powerful enough to be educated and became professionals able to lead the community and thus control and support the lives of others.
Israelite Women in the Cult
When we narrow our focus on women’s place in society to the question of cult, we are faced with a dearth of archaeological evidence and the necessity of basing our discussion entirely on the biblical records. Simply put, in the Bible, kohanim (priests) are men; there is no word for “priestess” (כהנת) or “Levitess” (לויה). In contrast, the Bible does have the category known as daughter of a priest (בת כהן; Lev 21:9, 22:12-13) who is not a female cultic professional, but rather a woman who is part of the household of a cultic professional.
We do read of the singers and drum players (musicians משררות Ezra 2:65), the women who worked in the temple (weavers of clothes [?] to the goddess Asherah, 2 Kings 23:7) and finally the women who were at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting (צובאות; Exod 38:8, 1Sam 2:22), but their precise role in the cult is not clear.
The Gender Duality of the Universe: Priestesses in Hittite Culture
The lack of priestesses is a particular Israelite phenomenon; it differs, for example, from the cultic functions of priestesses as recorded in Hittite texts. The Hittite texts were written several hundred years before the first Israelite records, and they may help highlight the absence of priestesses in the context of biblical theology, ideology, and beliefs.
The Hittites understood the universe in terms of male and female. The Hittite priest/priestess combination represented the duality inherent in the world – male and female, as did the royal couple, who were titled as priest and priestess to the gods, and who served male and female deities.
Hittite texts depict a cultic system administrated by the royal court and the king, throughout the country. The king and queen were the two most important functionaries, followed by princes and princesses, and so on down the line of the royal family. The royal priesthood would perform in the important old cult centers. In more peripheral areas, temple personnel were also under central royal rule, and had to vow loyalty to the king. As in the more significant, centrally located cites, in the periphery male and female cult personnel performed together.
Types of Female Positions in the Cult
We know a great deal about the role of women in the Hittite cult from the wide variety of texts preserved, including royal legal decrees for temple or cult center personnel to prescriptive rituals to (a large number of) cult inventories. As in Mesopotamian and North-Syrian cultures, Hittite priestesses were part of a large, multi-tiered cultic administrative system and thus appear with a number of different titles, representing different classes of priestesses, according to function and periods:
The main class of priestesses officiating in all Hittite temples, together with the main male priests was the priestess whose title was written in the logogramsMUNUSAMA.DINGIR and can be read in Hittite šiwanzanna (literally “Female mother goddess” or “divine mother”). Hittite queens as high priestesses also held this title.
In the texts, other officiating females are mentioned in different functions such as: A priestess titled MUNUSŠU.GI – “Old Woman” (probably “wise woman”), who uses ritual “magic” in her performance; Priestesses named katra-, who appear mainly in texts from a region called Kizzuwatna (in south east Anatolia); A female divinerMUNUSENSI – “a seer” (Hittite word unknown, and her activity too is not well recorded); Other females acting as singers, dancers as well as wives of priests officiating in the cult.
In most texts MUNUSAMA.DINGIR was named together with a (male) SANGA-priest or GUDU-priest. She was always described among other cult participants in the state festivals, and her cultic role was related to the activity of the king, queen, or prince. Some texts describe her as having a house (=household, husband) outside the temple, and one text mentions a priestess’ daughter, so it would seem she was married, like Hittite priests. This fact correlates with the Hittite queen who served the gods as an AMA.DINGIR-priestess and who was married and had children. Hittite texts reveal the power of queens in the political arena as well as in their direct involvement in administrating the cult asMUNUSAMA.DINGIR. 
“Father” and “Mother” in Hittite Culture
Hittite culture was family oriented, and although the male was considered the sole sovereign, it is quite clear that the female was powerful as well, outside of the realm of war and fighting, which was the prerogative of the king, and males in general.
The use of family authority is demonstrated in Hittite texts by the terms “Father and Mother” or “Mother and Father,” especially in texts relating to legal concepts. Similarly, in prayer, the king would call his divine masters, the Sun-god and the Storm-god: “you gods are my father and my mother.” They are both male gods, but referring to them as “father and mother” is meant to represent their legal authority upon the king.
Monotheistic Ideology and the Status of Females
Biblical “Idolatrous” Queens
The Bible depicts two powerful queens: Jezebel, the queen of Israel (1 Kings 16-21), and her daughter, Athaliah queen of Judah (2 Kings 11). These two queens as well as a queen-mother Ma’achah, mother of king Asa of Judah (1 Kings 15:13), are presented in the biblical texts as objectionable, mainly for their cultic role as supporters of worship to divine entities other than YHWH. The first two support the worship of the gods Ba‘al and Asherah, and the third places an image of the goddess Asherah in the temple in Jerusalem; the text depicts this as an abominable artifact (מפלצת). In the biblical context, these acts are presented as extraordinary examples of “pagan” fervor, but in reality they depict these royal women as similar to their Hittite counterparts.
Biblical authors and editors of the texts had a very clear agenda of YHWH as an exclusive deity—specifically, a male deity. Though there are attempts by scholars to show some feminine features of YHWH in the biblical texts, overall the language and grammatical forms used to refer to YHWH are masculine.
Removal of YHWH’s Wife: Asherah
Some scholars have suggested that women were excluded from temple cultic performance in the Hebrew Bible because their periods rendered them ritually impure. However, in Hittite society, where the menstrual state also rendered women ritually impure, women did function as priestesses, though they probably did not officiate during their menstrual period.
Hennie J. Marsman suggested that the reason women were pushed out as cultic functionaries in ancient Israel was the fear of “the danger priestesses could form a potential wives of the deity.” This suggestion is based on the fact that in the surrounding cultures, the priestesses played an important role as representors of the female deity in relation to the king.
In ancient Israel and Judah, the priestesses would likely have represented Asherah. This may fit with the biblical polemic against Asherah, known from archaeological texts as the consort of YHWH. As this female entity was removed, the female involvement in the cult too was gradually restricted, until women were totally excluded as significant cultic functionaries.
This hypothesis is supported by the biblical notice that Maachah was accused of Asherah worship, which to her would likely have been a natural part of YHWH worship. The biblical ideal of worship of YHWH alone, with no other Israelite gods or goddesses next to him, could have motivated the removal of the priestesses from cultic performance.
A Jerusalem Temple Development: An Alternative Explanation
Another explanation may be based on the development that Israelite cult went through during the second half of the first millennium. We could have expected females to officiate in Israelite temples, since they held other important roles in ancient Israel, such as prophetess and wise woman. The biblical rejection of women as priests could be connected to the Judean elites, and their establishment of the Jerusalem Temple as the only (royal) temple where animal sacrifices could be offered.
As part of this process, which began during the reign of Hezekiah and then Josiah (late 8th– 7th cent BCE) according to 2Kings, the Temple also appears to have restricted its priesthood to a specific family or set of families, who were understood as being part of the tribe Levi and descendants of Aaron. As descendants are traced through the male line, no room remained for leviot or kohanot.
The Erasure of Priestesses from Israelite/Judahite History and Cult
Thus, whether to erase any possibility of a position such as YHWH’s wife, or to help demote Asherah, or to solidify the Jerusalem priestly line, women were banned from the Israelite/Judahite cult. Even if women were involved in cultic activity (in village households and temples outside Jerusalem, as indicated by Meyers through archaeological evidence), they were removed as priestesses from the textual tradition of the Bible. Women in this role are only described outside of the Torah, and even there, such priestesses are presented in derogatory fashion, in sharp contrast to their ancient Near Eastern counterparts.
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June 14, 2016
January 21, 2021
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).
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