Priesthood and Masculinity

The theme of priesthood in the scriptures begins at the very beginning.  The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis draw heavily on the literature and traditions of the surrounding nations, though always with alteration, and in some cases even inversion, of the pagan themes found therein.  The most obvious example of this is the story of the flood, which existed in many forms in the Ancient Near East before Genesis was written, and so Genesis both corrects these accounts, and serves as an apologetic for the true God of scripture against the various Near Eastern deities.  This is also true of the story of the creation of Adam itself.  In the Ancient Near East, the various pagan cultures believed that by building temples, they drew down their god or gods from the heavens in order to meet with them and influence them to do as they desired.  These temple structures had two main patterns, based on where they believed their gods dwelt, either a mountain or a garden.  Pagan temples of this era took the form of man-made mountains (ziggurats) or man-made gardens.  The center piece of these temples was the image of the god, chiefly a piece of statuary.

The story of the creation of Adam in Genesis 2 represents a complete inversion of this story.  Rather than human beings building a temple to meet with and control God, God himself creates a garden as a place within which to create man and to dwell with him.  Rather than human beings creating an image of God, God creates man in his own image and places him within the garden to dwell there and, as it is usually translated, ‘cultivate the garden’.  It should be noted that the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is likewise related to this understanding.  The issue is not the height of the tower, but rather that humanity is attempting to build a ziggurat through which they will be able to meet with and use God on their own terms, something which God will not allow.

Adam’s task of cultivation, however, was not related to farming.  The food for man and woman in Eden is described as the fruit of the trees, not the produce of the land.  Having to work the land to produce food and subsist is portrayed as a result of the fall into sin (Gen 3:17-19).  Rather, this garden activity, because the garden is in fact a temple created by God himself, was priesthood.  Part of Adam’s role as priest in the garden was to protect the sanctity of that place, and this was a task in which he failed.  It was not the woman’s sin which led to the expulsion, but Adam’s, because the priestly duty had been assigned to him.  In the Ancient Near East, cherubim served the role of temple guardians, and so after the fall into sin, cherubim are assigned to take over Adam’s task of protecting paradise, now also having to protect it from the corrupted man and woman who can no longer worthily approach God.  For the remainder of the Old Testament, worship of God when it is seen (cf. Is 6) and encounters with God (even the giving of the Law, per Gal 3:19, Acts 7:53, Heb 2:2) take place through the mediation of angels.  The anaphora prayers of the Orthodox liturgies meditate upon the fact that through Christ’s atoning death, this direct ministry has been restored to human persons.  We see this reality portrayed in the gospel accounts of Christ’s death when the curtain, embroidered with guardian cherubim protecting the most holy place, is torn in two (Matt 27:51, Lk 23:45).

Until the giving of the Law, there is no separate class of ‘priests’ related to God.  Rather, as priesthood was given to the first man, Adam, we see fathers functioning in the priestly role.  Noah offers sacrifices on behalf of his family.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do likewise.  Job makes sin offerings for himself and for his children.  Moses’ father-in-law Jethro serves as a priest for his family.  Fatherhood, and through fatherhood authority in general, is seen to consist of priesthood.  The two are synonymous.  Melchizedek as a king, serves as a priest to all of those under his authority.  The sacrifices of the patriarchs were not only for their blood relatives, but also for their servants and hired laborers; all of those over whom they exercised any authority.  To be a man means to be a father, understood both spiritually and literally, and is to serve as a priest before God, interceding with him for those under his authority, and speaking, teaching, disciplining, and reconciling them to and for God.

When an order of priests emerges, the Aaronic priesthood, it emerges as a punishment upon Moses.  The call of Moses as a prophet, from the burning bush, is considerably longer than the calls of prophets later in scripture, including Exodus chapter 3 and most of chapter 4.  This is because Moses spends a good deal of time arguing with the Lord God and not desiring to return to Egypt and do as the Lord has commanded, pointing repeatedly to his own lack of speaking skill, not knowing what to say to the people or to Pharaoh, not knowing what to do if they don’t believe him, etc.  At the climax of this argument, we are told in the text that God’s anger burns hot against Moses, and it is then that he says that he will send Aaron beside him to do the talking for him (Ex 4:14).  Because of his recalcitrance, Moses has a measure of his authority taken away from him and given to Aaron.  Moses then proceeds to leave Midian in order to return to Egypt without taking Aaron with him.  The Lord meets him on the way, and we are told that the Lord is prepared to kill Moses.  This is resolved when Zipporah, Moses’ wife, takes matters into her own hands and circumcises their son (Ex 4:24-26).  Moses’ failure here is as a father and as a priest in regard to his own family, and the two are inseparable, and so it is precisely his priesthood which is taken away from him and given to Aaron.  This theme of fatherly failure as priestly failure continues throughout the Old Testament (cf. the sons of Eli in 1 Sam 2:12-36), and is the basis for what St. Paul says regarding the families of priests in the new covenant (1 Tim 3:4-5, Tit 1:6).

The most quoted passage of Old Testament scripture in the New Testament is Psalm 110.  This Psalm describes the enthronement of the Messianic king to rule in the midst of his enemies (v. 1-2).  This king, however, like Melchizedek, is also a priest (v. 4).  Much of the Epistle to the Hebrews is a meditation upon this Psalm, making clear that in the person of Jesus Christ, kingship and the priesthood are reconciled (Heb 2:17, 4:14-16).  Christ’s restored and perfect priesthood makes Aaron’s priesthood obsolete (Heb 7:11-28).  The priesthood of the New Covenant, therefore, is not a priesthood based in priesthood having been taken away from the rest of humanity.  The episcopacy and the presbyterate exercise fatherly authority within the Church, and therefore exercise Christ’s priesthood, because priesthood and fatherhood have been reunited as one.  This is why the Church herself can be described as a ‘royal priesthood’ (1 Pet 2:9).

What it means to be male is to be a father, spiritually and literally.  What it means to be a father is to be a priest.  Masculinity is priesthood.  To be male is to protect what is sacred and maintain it in purity, to intercede for himself, and for those under his authority before God, to teach, preach, correct, and reconcile them to and for God.  It is for this reason that St. Paul so easily describes the type of man who should be set aside to exercise a fatherly and therefore priestly role within the community of the church (1 Tim 3:1-2, Tit 1:5-6).  The idea of a female priest is, biblically speaking, like the idea of a married bachelor.  It is impossible.  Every male human person is called by Christ to serve as a priest in his family, his workplace, his community, and his church community.  He is called to this, and called away from those traits commonly associated with masculinity in our culture, such as dominance, aggression, and competitiveness which are results of the fall into sin (Gen 3:16).  When, as in the case of Zipporah, women feel the need to step into these roles, it is generally because men have failed to fulfill this most important calling.


  1. Thank you, Father. This is coming at a very timely part of my life, as I will soon become a father again and because gender roles are something that confuse me.

  2. Father Stephen, I do not argue with anything you say here, but I am left confused. If priesthood is equivalent to masculinity, then what about the royal priesthood of believers which St. Peter refers to? I’ve never heard the term used as exclusionary to women before.

    1. In our American culture, we tend to think primarily at the individual level. Even when we talk about groups, we think about collections of individuals. St. Peter refers to the Church as a ‘royal priesthood’ because of the role that the Church, as a community, plays with regards to the world. The Church is the protector of sacred things, the teacher of the nations, the reconciler of the world to God in Christ, etc. So his statement isn’t excluding women because he’s not speaking about individual men and women, but the role that the Church body plays in the world. This is one of St. Peter’s major themes in 1 Peter, the Church as a people sojourning within the world as Israel did in the wilderness. Part of this is that the Church now plays the role that Israel did in the Old Testament as a ‘light to the nations’.

  3. Greetings Father,

    Thank you for this wonderful explanation.

    One thing I am still wrapping my mind around is the “made in image-ness” of man and woman in the “pre-lapsarian” model. Specifically, what does it mean for the “priestly duty” to be assigned to Adam before the fall? Does this go back to the notion of tending to the garden and if so was Eve excluded from such activity? The reason I am asking is from the fact that St. John Chrysostom in his homilies on Genesis (Given in 386 A.D. (trans. by Charles Hill) and specifically near the beginning of sermon four) notes Eve’s “equality and dignity” with Adam and that it is through her disobedient act which now necessitates her submission to man. Consequently, I believed this to mean even an equality in “government” and “duty” (if that is the correct terminology) as well in the “prelapsarian” model. Thank you for your assistance in helping me understand this better!

    1. I think you’re taking a false step in regard to status and role. I’ll be talking more about this in next week’s post about womanhood and motherhood in scripture. St. John, obviously, is correct in regard to the power struggle between men and women coming into being through the Fall. But two people being equal in dignity does not imply that they are identical in form, role, and function. In last week’s post, I talked a bit about the Hebrew term ‘kenegdo’, meaning fitting or complimentary in describing the relationship between man and woman. It includes the ideas of both parallel, and opposite, such that the two fit together to form a single whole. Men and women are equally in the image of God, and equally participate in redemption. However, within the life of the community, they are called to different roles, and express those roles in different ways. Even in regard to authority, fatherhood and motherhood are not simply interchangeable concepts. Spiritual fatherhood is not superior to spiritual motherhood, but it is also not identical. So the thrust of this post is that fatherhood is priesthood, and therefore masculinity is priesthood. As I mentioned, more on the other component of this to come next week.

  4. This is an interesting topic given the buzz around gender identities and roles in today’s culture. I had also considered that the role of fathers and husbands is to imitate the role of priest or bishop within the household, but never found a good way to explain it biblically. So thank you for the post!

    However, I am curious about the insistence that men are called be both spiritual and physical fathers. What are we to think of those who cannot father physical children? Are they only half-male? And not all ascetics and monks are spiritual fathers. What are we to make of them? I remember reading sometime back that monastics are called the third gender because of their celibacy. Cannot recall where I saw this, but it seemed in contradiction to God creating them male and female. Are father and motherhood the totality of the genders or just one important aspect of them?

    1. I think maybe I was unclear there. The point I was hoping to make was the opposite. Fatherhood encompasses both physical and spiritual fatherhood. So those who don’t have physical children still participate in fatherhood spiritually. I.e. it isn’t that physical fatherhood is ‘real’ fatherhood and spiritual fatherhood is by analogy. Both are equally real.

  5. Father Stephen,
    Thank you ever so much for your teachings! It is a great help when you explain passages, beginning in Genesis and tie in the Old with the New. The passage you referred to in Exodus, where God was going to kill Moses…that, like many others, I had to gloss over in the past, as I had no idea specifically why He sought to do that! I just didn’t see the connection between priesthood, fatherhood, Moses and Aaron. Even more, the significance of Zipporah’s reaction. Truly, I never saw the connection between the building of a temple in a garden by man to reach God, and the inversion of God being The builder in “the” garden in His reaching to us (I think of how He first loved us). Neither did I understand rightly the quoted passages in the NT about the angels being mediators. All this ties into God’s intention for man to take on the role of priesthood! Another helpful mention was how the Anaphora points to the restoration of the priesthood to man. A very excellent teaching, Father. Thank you.
    As a woman who has been single all my life (63 years, never married, no children, “straight” and not a nun!), I am very much looking forward to your follow-up post on womanhood and motherhood. As I sit here, I honestly can not think of anyone personally who is not a nun, or gay, who is 63 years old and fits that description. Without a doubt they are out there, but I think it’s a rarity. [growing up we had the dour images of “an old maid” or the or the odd ‘aunt so and so’ to be pitied] It was not by a firm decision on my part, but by many circumstances, and it has been an interesting journey. Sadly, I have not come across anyone in the Orthodox faith speaking about this particular situation. Rightfully, the main focus is on family. Of coarse we have the blessed Theotokos and all the female Saints and martyrs as an example. I treasure that. But I would like to see addressed its application in our world now, if not just for a matter of clarity, for those of us who are awkward in domestic matters (here, teaching comes to mind). Because sometimes it is hard to fit in, especially when it comes to socializing. My in/non-dependence (having no husband to share the burden, nor children to rear) reflects itself as prideful or vain….which to some extent is quite accurate! So in anticipation I await your next post!

    1. Paula, my godmother is also in her 60s, retired, never married, no kids, not gay, and not a nun – though she volunteers a lot at church!

      1. Oh very cool, Pamela!!! I tell you…it’s nice to know these things! There are a lot of good things in such a life…one of them is the opportunity to volunteer. Just this morning I read about St. Irene (OCA Lives of the Saints). It was a blessing to read her amazing story.
        Thanks Pamela!

  6. (from a “Paula” who’s patron saint is St. Irene of Thess.,
    May 5 :}

    Fr. DeYoung,
    I learned a lot from this post.
    However, as a relatively new convert to Orthodoxy, I cannot get clarity on why we address priests as “Father” whereas the NT admonishes us to “call no man father”. I hope I did not miss the issue, if addressed; I would appreciate your explanation of this.

    1. In Matthew 23, Christ is confronting and pronouncing judgment on the Pharisees and teachers of the Law in Jerusalem. This centers upon their hypocrisy, that though they are teaching the Law of God, which is a good and holy thing, they are not following themselves. Specifically, in v. 5-12, Christ points out that whatever good deeds the Pharisees might do, they do in order to gain praise and honor from other human persons, not from God. They love to be honored, and one way in which they love to be honored is to be called by various titles, such as Rabbi or Father. Christ concludes by pointing out that they seek to exalt themselves, and so they will be humbled by God, but his disciples ought to rather humble themselves, so that they can be exalted by God.

      On the other side of the coin, we see St. Paul say in 1 Cor 4:14-21 that the Corinthian believers are his children, and he is a father to them in the Gospel. He contrasts this with those who are puffed up with pride, and who wish to be their teachers. So, for St. Paul, spiritual fatherhood stands in contrast to the type of behavior on the part of the Pharisees that Christ critiques in Matt 23. For this reason, in my own practice, I make no effort to get those outside of the Church, with whom I do not share any spiritual relationship, to call me ‘Father’, or, for that matter, Reverend or any other title. Father, mother, brother, sister, and beloved children are all terms used in the Church to communicate the love and intimacy of God’s family.

  7. Father DeYoung, I commented on this blogpost a long time ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it!
    “Because of his recalcitrance, Moses has a measure of his authority taken away from him and given to Aaron.” I wonder if, instead of “a measure of his authority” being given only to Aaron, God also gave a measure of Moses’ authority to Zipporah, evinced in Exodus 4:25, thus dividing the priesthood between man and woman, signified by Aaron and Miriam.
    I understand that there is a great deal of ambiguity in the verses surrounding Zipporah both in chapter 4 and in chapter 18. Did she save her husband from deadly judgement?It would seem that between the Septuagint version of 4:25 “…and she went away from him;” and that of 18:2 “After Moses had sent away his wife…”, a rift might be implied indicated by Zipporah’s anger at Moses’ dereliction and Moses’ concomitant humiliation.

    Just a thought…
    Memrie Kimmel

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