The installation of priests at Emar and in Israel (Exodus 29)

Cuneiform tablets dating to the fourteenth century B.C. detail the rituals for installing the storm god’s high priestess in Emar, a Bronze Aga city in Syria. When a former high priestess died, the daughter of a local family was chosen by lot to replace her. This young woman was anointed with sacred oil and, on the next day, followed festive singers and sacrificial animals to the storm god’s temple. At the entrance to the temple courtyard her head was shaved and all of the dry city’s numerous gods reconsecrated.

Following her actual installation on the third day, the newly initiated high priestess participated in a ritual procession to sacred sites throughout Emar, receiving in the process gold Jewelry, a sacred headdress, aromatics and an abundance of food items. Storm god-related sacrifices and feasts continued for a total of seven days, culminating in the presentation of the high priestess as a bride to the storm god.

In a similar way, new priests of Israel were anointed with oil and received sacred garments to wear. Accompanied by multiple sacrifices, the consecration ceremony for each new Israelite priest and of the altar also took place during a seven-day period.

Significant differences nevertheless existed between the two cultures priestly installation rituals. Whereas the storm god’s newly installed high priestess was shaved at the temple entrance, the novise Biblical priests were ceremonially washed at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And, unlike the Emar rituals, the Biblical instructions expressly forbade any recognition of other deities.

The most notable difference between the two traditions, however, was the hereitary nature of the Biblical priesthood. Rather than selecting successive priest by lot, the God of Israel personally designated that Aaron and his male descendants were to represent Him perpetually as priests. Although ancient Israel in many ways shared with surrounding nations a common cultural milieu, its unique priestly rituals and laws marked the Israelites as a distinctive, special people – the chosen, covenantal people of the Creator God!

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