Torah Portion of the Week: A Kingdom of Priests

Parashat Yitro describes a social contract that God initiates and which the Children of Israel willingly undertake.

Jethro and Moses, a watercolor circa 1896–1902, by James Tissot.
Wikimedia Commons

Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1–20:23) is the formative story, albeit not the only one, of the creation of biblical religion. It describes a social contract that God initiates and which the Children of Israel willingly undertake. God tells the nation, after freeing it from Egypt: “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6).

Scholars have shown that the biblical covenant between God and Israel is modeled after the literary and legal models of agreements between monarchs in the ancient Near East. In these agreements, the gods of both sides guarantee compliance with the pact, and threaten to punish anyone who violates it. We find this kind of accord in the Bible, as in that calling for disengagement of forces between Laban and Jacob: “And Laban said to Jacob: ‘Behold this heap, and behold the pillar, which I have set up betwixt me and thee. This heap be witness, and the pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap and this pillar unto me, for harm. The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us.’ And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac” (Genesis 31:51-53).

The innovation of the biblical covenant – seen in this week’s Torah reading and elsewhere – is God’s role in it: He is not a witness to the agreement, but a party to it. The covenant is not drawn up under God’s protection: The covenant is with the Almighty, who initiated it.

Powerful rulers in the ancient Near East turned to local monarchs, proposing patronage in exchange for their loyalty. These agreements included a preamble describing what the emperor had done for the monarch and the monarch’s ancestors. Similarly, God tells Israel, “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians.”

The transition to the second part of the proposal is signified by the words “Now therefore,” which imply a conclusion: Since God liberated them from bondage in Egypt, it is only fitting that Israel should enter into a covenant with him. The condition that is set, “if ye will hearken unto my voice indeed, and keep my covenant,” shows that there is also the option of refusal; the covenant is the result of free choice and is therefore binding.

Covenants in the ancient East, which served as the model for the biblical pact, were never egalitarian; they demanded exclusivity from one side only: The vassal-king had to pledge total loyalty to the emperor, who, by contrast, was free to find additional allies and thereby preserve his own declared self-interest. While God, like the human emperors, demands that Israel pledge him exclusive loyalty, he promises the nation a special status, unlike the emperors: “… then ye shall be mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.”

To fully appreciate the importance of this promise, we must compare it to polytheistic worldviews, according to which each nation has its own god who demands loyalty and protects it. Each nation has a priestly class that is responsible for the sacred rites and for mediation between the nation and its god, and whose members are considered holier than the rest of the nation.

However, God’s promise here is based on a different approach, which is monotheistic and according to which he is a universal, not a local, deity: “for all the earth is mine.” If each nation has a priestly class and if God is the deity of all humanity – then humanity must have a nation that can fulfill priestly functions. In relation to other peoples, Israel is humanity’s chosen priestly class: “a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.”

Priesthood and sanctity are connected to separateness and are always defined in terms of a contrast with those who are neither priests nor holy. If everything is equally holy, the concept of holiness loses its meaning. God’s proposal of turning the nation of Israel into “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” creates distinctiveness but also equality: While distinguishing Israel from other nations, it reduces internal class distinctions within Israel.

Apparently, the approach implicit in God’s words in Parashat Yitro was disputed even within the Torah itself. According to another tradition that appears in the Torah and is associated by scholars with priestly circles, within Israel there is a priestly cadre whose holiness exceeds that of the entire nation.

In Leviticus, the following is stated about the priests: “They shall be holy unto their God, and not profane the name of their God; for the offerings of the Lord made by fire, the bread of their God, they do offer; therefore they shall be holy” (Leviticus 21:6). This assertion explains the various prohibitions imposed in the realms of purity and marriage, which apply exclusively to the priests; most of the members of the nation are exempt from these interdictions, but the priests are expected to be holier than the rest of Israel.

One prohibition limited to the priestly class applies to consumption of the meat of a wild animal whose death was not the result of ritual slaughter: “That which dieth of itself, or is torn of beasts, he shall not eat to defile himself therewith” (Lev. 22:8).

In contrast with this priestly approach, Parashat Yitro presents a different concept, according to which the entire nation is “a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” This tradition applies the prohibition concerning the consumption of meat of an improperly slaughtered animal to the entire nation, and the same reason is given for it: “And ye shall be holy men unto me; therefore ye shall not eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field” (Exod. 22:30). We thus have a dispute within the Torah itself over whether all the members of the nation are equally holy or whether the priests are holier than others. This is not just a theological dispute; it also has practical implications for religious law.

According to Parashat Yitro, in founding the Israelite religion, God declares the entire people “a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation,” without making internal class distinctions. This approach is closely related to the idea that the religion in question is the product of a social contract. The covenant with God is not signed by an elite priestly stratum: His proposal is directed at the entire nation, which receives it affirmatively: “And all the people answered together, and said: ‘All that the Lord hath spoken we will do’” (Exod. 19:8).