Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Priests, Shamans and Prophets

Alice C. Linsley

Anthropological study of the Bible helps to clarify the roles of three ancient religious offices: priest, shaman and prophet.  This clarification is especially important today because there is confusion, even obfuscation, about these offices in the academic community. This is evidenced in the textbooks used to teach World Religions (a subject that I teach on the college level).

A widely used World Religions text mentions priests in three contexts, none of them representing the original context of that office. The first instance refers to the ordination of women as priests in the Anglican Church, an innovation which has caused division in that communion. As I was once an Episcopal priest, I understand this innovation and its dangers better than many who write on this topic.

The second reference is to Shinto priests, who are really shamans since they consult the spirits of the ancestors, often engaging serpents as their mediums. Such practices are explicitly forbidden to priests in the Bible.

The third reference is to pagan priests and priestesses of ancient Greece. Study of their practices reveal that they were not priests, but oracles or seers whose trances parallel the practice of shamans.

Priests and shamans have one thing in common: they act as intermediaries, but that is where their similarity ends.

Priests and Shamans Represent Distinct Worldviews

The priesthood is verifiably the oldest known religious institution and appears to have originated in the Nile region. It is quite distinct from the other ancient religious office, that of the shaman. Underlying shamanism is the belief that spirits cause imbalance and disharmony in the world. The shaman’s role is to determine which spirits are at work in a given situation and to find ways to appease the spirits. This may or may not involve animal sacrifice. Underlying the priesthood is belief in a single supreme Spirit to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. In this view, one Great Spirit (God) holds the world in balance and it is human actions that cause disharmony. The vast assortment of ancient laws governing priestly ceremonies, sacrifices, and cleansing rituals clarifies the role of the priest as one who offers animal sacrifice according to sacred law. The priest was forbidden to consult the spirits of the ancestors as shamans do in trance states.

Priests are intermediaries between the Creator and the community, not between the spirits and the community. Both offices are intermediary, but their worldviews are quite different. When sickness, sudden death, or a great calamity such as flooding or plague affects the community, the shaman investigates the cause and seeks to balance benevolent and malevolent energies. When the community served by the priest experiences hardship, deprivation and loss, the priest calls the people to repentance and seeks to restore the community to the peace of God.  In ancient times, this sometimes meant seeking out the offenders by using the binary system of divination represented by the Urim and Thummim. These represent numerous binary sets. The urim would have a number of associations which would be assigned the opposite meaning with the thummim. Using these tools involved more than yes-no questions. It involved deriving meaning from the directional poles, gender, numbers and reversals. The morehs or ancient prophets apparently used the same approach when rendering counsel such as that given to Abraham by the moreh at the Oak of Mamre (Gen. 12:6).

Priests and Prophets

Analysis of the genealogical data in the Bible indicates consanguine (blood) kinship between ruler-priests and prophets.  Examples are the sons of the ruler-priests Elkanah and Zacharias. Elkanah's son was Samuel who served in a monarchial role and was called a "prophet." Likely he was a cousin of Eli’s sons, who were priests (and rejected by God).  Zacharias’ son was John the Baptist, who was called a prophet.  He was of the ruler-priests lines.  He was the cousin of Jesus, who the Bible designates the “Great High Priest.”  All of these individuals were descendants of Abraham and his ancestors who were Horites. 

The Horite ruler-priest caste is the oldest known priesthood and it is logical to assume that it provides the pattern whereby we are to understand the origins of this religious office. As the ruler-priests lines intermarried exclusively (a trait of castes), there is a consanguine tie between the lines of the rulers listed in the Genesis genealogies. This is not generally understood, but it is critical to perceiving the blood kinship of the greatest biblical figures: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.

While there is not a single example of a woman serving as a priest in the Bible, women did serve as prophets.  Three were especially famous: Huldah, Deborah and Anna. All were of the ruler-priest lines, and Deborah was said to be a "judge," though none served as priests. Huldah’s fame was such that the King sent his wise men to consult her.  The Bible tells us that “all of Israel” came to consult Deborah at her tamar (date nut palm) between Bethel and Raamah. When Jesus was presented in the Temple, the priest Simeon and the prophetess Anna testified that He was the Promised One, the Son of God who would bring salvation to the people.  These descendants of Abraham’s Horite people lived in expectation of the Incarnate Son of God who would fulfill the promise made to their ancestors in Eden.  So it is that Simeon and Anna were able to discern rather quickly the identity of the son of Mary and Joseph. This is not to exclude the aspect of supernatural revelation, which was evidently a factor in their recognition of Jesus as the Savior.

Marrying That Christ Might be Born

The Horites originated as a caste of priests who were devoted to the veneration of Horus, who was called “son of Ra.” Ra was the name of their High God, the Creator. The veneration of Horus has been traced back to the oldest Kushite-Nubian temples and shrines of the Sudan. In light of this information, those who distain Christianity have claimed that it borrowed the Horus myth to lend importance to the Jesus myth. This explanation fails to take into account the blood ties of the Horites, a more logical explanation for the continuation of messianic expectation from the most ancient times in Kush to the time of Jesus and his followers.

Either Christians borrowed the Horus myth or Christianity emerges in an organic way from the belief system of Abraham and his Horite people. If we decide that Christians borrowed the Horus myth, we must explain why they should have selected this particular myth. I know of no other religions that prefigure Jesus Christ, the Son of God, other than the faith of Israel as it emerges out of the faith of Abraham's Horite people.

Kinship patterns are highly resistant to change. The kinship pattern of Abraham's people survived Egyptian and Babylonian captivity, and existed in Jesus’ time as evidenced by the prominence of ruler-priests (members of the Sanhedrin) such a Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. This unique kinship pattern continued to the time of Jesus and then stopped soon after His death and resurrection, as if the pattern had fulfilled its purpose. The ruler-priest caste disappeared as an institution in Israel when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He will receive an eternal kingdom from the Father. He is the Son of God, the fulfillment of the Edenic Promise of Genesis 3:15. He is able to conquer death and deliver sinners from the curse of death. This is the core of Christian belief. Surrounding this are attendant beliefs which logically follow. One is that to receive eternal life, we must acknowledge our need for mercy, forgiveness and salvation. Another is that God does this for us out of His boundless love. John wrote, "This is the revelation of God's love for us, that God sent his only Son into the world that we might have life through him." (1 John 4:9)

Related reading:  Who Were the Horites?; The Christ in Nilotic Mythology; The Genesis King Lists; The Prophetess Anna; Eden: A Well Watered Region; Shamanic Practice and the Priesthood


  1. Have you looked at the Jewish geneaology lists? I mean the lists that are from Babylon forward. They seem to have continued this pattern of cousin wives.

  2. Yes, Margaret, the cousin-wife pattern continues until the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. I can't confirm that it continued after that among the ruler-priests in Israel.


Your comments are welcome. Please stay on topic and provide examples to support your point.