Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano

Chapter Fifteen
Women and Priesthood in the Bible

[p.167]If priesthood is a component of the gospel, if it is essential to sanctification, spiritual growth, and spiritual gifts, and if the Book of Mormon mandates spiritual equality for all people, then what justifies the continued disenfranchisement of women from the priesthood?

Perhaps the chief argument is that women have been excluded from priesthood roles as a matter of tradition and a time-honored interpretation of scripture. In our view, this interpretation is deficient. It ignores certain textual complexities which suggest that at certain critical religious junctures, during dispensations of great spirit and knowledge—such as the time of Sarah and Abraham, or Jesus and the Marys, or Emma and Joseph Smith—women have been involved and even included in the priesthood.

In the first part of this chapter, we wish to examine a number of priesthood concepts embedded in the stories of Genesis—that strange book so full of familiar tales, which when read are full of unfamiliar and at times curious details. In doing this we will also draw upon Joseph Smith’s revisions of Genesis and his statements interpreting these stories. Our purpose is to focus upon the involvement of the matriarchs in the transmittal of priesthood rights, authority, and power. In the final section of this chapter, we discuss New Testament evidence suggesting that in early Christianity women functioned in priesthood roles. In the following chapter we will treat Joseph Smith’s views on women’s right to priesthood. In doing this, we do not assume that there existed from Old Testament times down to Joseph Smith a true and consistent theology of priesthood that completely supports either our view or anyone else’s view of what priesthood should be. But we do think that within the Judeo-Christian-Mormon tradition there are texts that contradict the view that women should be or always have been spiritually [p.168]disenfranchised. More importantly, we think these texts can serve as sources of empowerment for those women who wish to maintain allegiance to this tradition.


Genesis presents us with the story of Abraham and Sarah. At age ninety Abram is visited by God, and God makes a covenant with him, changes his name to Abraham, makes Abraham a “father of many nations,” and gives him Canaan as an everlasting inheritance. What is a little unexpected about the story is that God makes a distinct and separate covenant with Sarai. Her name is changed to Sarah (“princess”), signifying that she will become a mother of nations and that “kings of people shall be of her” (Gen. 17:16). The parallel suggests that God bestowed upon her blessings equivalent to Abraham’s.

The first and perhaps most important question raised by these events is: What was the meaning of the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah?

The answer according to Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation of Genesis 14 is that God covenanted or promised to bestow upon them a priesthood. That Sarah also obtained a promise of priesthood is implied by the fact that she is designated a mother of kings. In her day kings often claimed descent from a god or goddess and ruled by virtue of their priestly inheritance. To be a mother of kings was in essence to be a priestess with power to confer upon her children the legacy of priesthood.

It is easy to miss the involvement of the matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel—with the priesthood if we read these stories with the patriarchal prejudice inherent in our religious training. But even with this bias, we usually become aware of certain angularities, certain curious statements or odd juxtapositions of ideas in the texts, which we are likely to pass over as merely irrelevant peculiarities or as errors in the text. If we were to pause on these portions, perhaps certain questions would present themselves to us.

For example: If Abraham had received the covenant and blessing of priesthood, wouldn’t all of his sons be heirs of the priesthood? Why did the heir have to be Sarah’s child as well? Abraham himself suggested as much when he says to God: “O that Ishmael might live before thee!” (Gen. 17:18).

[p.169]The answer, we think, is that Ishmael though Abraham’s son was not Sarah’s son. God had not made his covenant with Abraham alone. Sarah too had to be considered. The chosen seed, those who were to inherit the right to the priesthood, were to be her seed as well as his. But the story suggests something even more revolutionary than this. It suggests that in the culture of Abraham and Sarah, the right to the priesthood was not passed down through the father but through the mother. This hypothesis explains to some extent why the Book of Genesis seems overstocked with stories of courtship and marriage and is so preoccupied with assuring us that Isaac and Jacob in particular married the right women. The evidence, we think, is sufficient to justify this hypothesis.

Let us turn first to the stories of Sarah and her suitors: Pharaoh, the king of Egypt; Abimelech, the king of Gerar; and Yahweh, the king of heaven.

In the twelfth chapter of Genesis, we are told that Abraham and Sarah journey to Egypt where Abraham tells the emissaries of the Pharaoh’s court that Sarah is his sister. This is only half-true. Sarah was really his half sister as well as his wife. This strange detail—that Abraham and Sarah had different mothers but the same father—is important. It provides evidence that their native culture was a matrilineal one, where children of the same father but different mothers could marry. But what meaning could this have in light of the stories of Sarah and her royal suitors, who pursue her as a great prize even when she is old? We think the answer lies in understanding the ritual of the sacred marriage, the hieros gamos. During this period in this locale, it was not uncommon for a king to seek a ritual marriage with a priestess in order to imitate the divine union of the god and the goddess. Such a marriage was looked upon as a sacred ordinance guaranteeing peace, fertility, and prosperity to the kingdom. Both Pharaoh’s and Abimelech’s interest in Sarah, considering her age, is more plausible in terms of this custom. Both Pharaoh and Abimelech are presented as Sarah’s suitors—suggesting not only that Sarah had great beauty but also that kings sought her for the priestly inheritance she could confer on her posterity.

These three stories suggest that Sarah was the priestess whose marriage to the king would bring about the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage which rejuvenates the kingdom. She is sought after by earthly kings for this reason.

[p.170]Focusing on our current concerns about priesthood, the stories of Sarah and her suitors suggest that she and not Abraham was the vessel through which the rights of the priesthood were transmitted. This is further suggested by the portrayal in Genesis of Abraham’s concern that Isaac marry a woman of the right family. To insure this Abraham sends his servant, Eleazar, back to his and Sarah’s ancestral home (Gen. 24:2).

Abraham’s brother is Nahor. Nahor married Milcah, and they had a son named Bethuel. Bethuel is Abraham’s nephew, and Bethuel’s daughter is Rebekah. One of the peculiar details about this story is that Rebekah is announced not merely as the daughter of Bethuel but as Rebekah, “the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor” (Gen. 24:24, 47). The text focuses on Rebekah’s lineage through her mother. This focus is evidence that the story was not originally patrilocal and patrilineal but matrilocal and matrilineal, implying that Rebekah’s inheritance comes to her from her grandmother.

After Rebekah meets and converses with Abraham’s servant for the first time, the story says: “the damsel ran and told them of her mother’s house” (Gen. 24:28). In a matrilocal culture one’s house is the house of one’s mother not one’s father. Moreover, the negotiations for the marriage of Rebekah and Isaac are carried on with Rebekah’s brother not her father (vv. 29-49). This is so even though her father is mentioned as joining in the negotiations in a secondary way (v. 50). In a matrilineal society the brother would hold this more favored position, because he would be an heir of his mother, even though he might not be able to pass on the inheritance unless he married an heiress. Also after Rebekah accepts the marriage proposal, Abraham honors with gifts not Rebekah’s father but her mother and brother (v. 53). Finally we have Abraham’s concern that Rebekah agree to leave home and live with Isaac (vv. 5-6). This would not be a concern in a patrilocal culture, where that was expected, only in a matrilocal culture, where the norm is for the man to leave his home and live in the house of his bride’s mother. Moreover, when Rebekah arrives in Canaan, she sets up residence in Sarah’s tent, suggesting that she is being ensconced in the deceased Sarah’s place as her rightful heir (v. 63).

This evidence is fortified in the story of Esau and Jacob. Rebekah, like Sarah before her, is concerned about the right wife for her sons, both of whom are rightful heirs to the priesthood. But in this story, to Rebekah’s displeasure, Esau marries into the wrong family [p.171](Gen. 26:34-35), while Jacob, in keeping with Rebekah’s wishes, returns to the ancestral home and marries two of his mother’s nieces (28:5-7). Then we are told the peculiar story of Rachel and her family’s idols (31:34-35). Rachel considers these idols her inheritance and sits on them so that her father cannot find them. She takes them with her when she departs for Canaan with Leah and Jacob. Argument has been made that this story signifies that Rachel—as the youngest daughter—and not Leah was the rightful heiress of the priestly inheritance. It has also been suggested by some scholars that these idols were not worshipped but were holy objects, like the Urim and Thummim, used for divination (Teubal).

These stories show that the right to the priesthood, considered an essential prerequisite to the receipt and exercise of priestly authority, was passed on in matrilineal succession, possibly by right of ultimo-genitor—through the youngest female—and that Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel were heiresses of this right. Thus those males who received the priesthood had first to acquire the rights to it from their mothers.

Later in the time of Moses, a patrilineal priesthood right was conferred on the house of Levi and the sons of Aaron. But the existence of such a right was not necessarily exclusive. It could have existed side by side with the matrilineal right.

Lineal priesthood rights are recognized in Mormon scripture. Doctrine and Covenants 86:8 states: “Therefore, thus saith the Lord unto you, with whom the priesthood hath continued through the lineage of your fathers—for ye are lawful heirs, according to the flesh, and have been hid from the world with Christ in God—therefore your life and the priesthood have remained, and must needs remain through you and your lineage until the restoration of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy prophets since the world began.” Mormon scripture says nothing of a matrilineal priesthood except perhaps allegorically in Section 113, verse 7, which contains an answer to a question about the meaning of the phrase in Isaiah, “Put on thy strength, O Zion.” According to this section, “to put on her strength is to put on the authority of the priesthood, which she, Zion, has a right to by lineage; also to return to that power which she had lost.” Also the Mormon teaching that the Melchizedek priesthood is “without father, without mother” (Heb. 7:3) suggests the existence of a priesthood which belongs to or is derived from the mother as well as one that is derived from the father. In the Old Testament the inheritance of priesthood rights was a [p.172]prerequisite to further priestly dignities, whose transmittal was by appointment, blessing, or ordination. This is illustrated in the story of the birthright conflict between Rebekah’s twins, Esau and Jacob. As they grew Isaac favored his elder son, while Rebekah favored her younger. This implies that the family was divided on the succession issue. Was it patrilineal and primogenitive and therefore did it point to Esau? Or was it matrilineal and ultimogenitive and therefore did it point to Jacob? God confirms the matrilineal concept. The story makes it clear that Rebekah and Jacob stole nothing. They were claiming their due. The text takes pains to tell us that while her sons were yet in utero, Rebekah was told by God that the younger should rule over the elder (Gen. 25:23). We are informed that later Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil soup (vv. 31-32). Then comes the story of how Jacob dresses in skins to trick the blind Isaac into believing he is blessing his hairy son Esau, when it is Jacob in disguise (27:1-29). After Isaac learns he has been tricked, he does not curse Rebekah or Jacob (v. 37).

The point is that Rebekah, though quite certain of her position on the succession issue, does not deny, disparage, or denigrate Isaac’s right to confer the priesthood by blessing upon one of her sons. In fact this blessing or ordination is so important that Rebekah is willing to deceive her husband and put herself and her younger son at odds with Esau in order to insure that Jacob gets it (Gen. 27:41-44). For her the inheritance alone is not sufficient.

Thus Jacob was blessed as Isaac (Gen. 25:11) and Abraham had been (14:19). Joseph Smith’s version of Genesis contains a passage implying that the blessings given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were in fact ordinations to the priesthood order: “And now Melchizedek… lifted up his voice and blessed Abram, being the high priest. … and gave unto him riches, and honor, and lands for an everlasting possession” (JST Gen. 14:33-34, 36-37, 40). Abraham as an heir of the priesthood was blessed (that is ordained) to the priestly order by Melchizedek. Joseph Smith explained that “Abraham says to Melchizedek, I believe all that thou hast taught me concerning the priesthood and the coming of the Son of Man; so Melchizedek ordained Abraham and sent him away. Abraham rejoiced, saying, Now I have a priesthood” (TPJS, 322-23). In the Pearl of Great Price, the same story is told: Abraham, an “heir” because he had inherited the priesthood right, becomes a “rightful” heir by virtue of his ordination by Melchizedek (Abr. 1:2). But what is usually overlooked in these stories is the fact that Rebekah [p.173]too is presented as the recipient of such a blessing or ordination. Genesis 24:60 states: “And they [her mother and her brother; cf. v. 55] blessed Rebekah, and said unto her. … be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.” This is virtually the same language used to report God’s blessing to Sarah (Gen. 17:15-16). Moreover in Mormonism “seed” is a code word for priesthood (Abr. 2:11).

However, there is little other evidence of the ordination of women in these stories. Elsewhere in the Old Testament certain women, Miriam, Deborah, Noadiah, and Huldah, are presented as prophetesses (Ex. 15:20-21; Judg. 4:1-10; Neh. 6:10-14; 2 Kings 22; 2 Chron. 34). In ancient times, of course, there was no clear link between the calling of a prophet or prophetess and priesthood ordination. But the modern church teaches that the ancient prophets held priesthood. There is nothing in the scripture to suggest that prophetesses should not also be considered priesthood figures.

The idea that certain priesthood prerogatives are transmitted by enrobing in priestly clothing is also suggested in the foundational stories. In Genesis 3:21 God makes coats of skins for Adam and Eve. In the Mormon temple ceremony, initiates are told that these skins were the garments of the priesthood and confer special powers on those ceremonially clothed in them as part of the endowment. Genesis 9:28 contains the story of Ham, who is punished for seeing his father’s nakedness; in contrast Shem and Japeth cover him with a garment. Hugh Nibley suggests that this was the garment of the priesthood, which Ham had stolen from Noah (Gen. 10:27-32; Nibley 1978, 95). In the story of Esau and Jacob, Rebekah’s trick involved clothing Jacob in skins so that he would seem to the blind Isaac to be the elder Esau. We wonder if this story, like that of Noah and Ham, is a parable about the priestly garment. Perhaps Jacob obtained the garment of the priesthood and its attendant priestly rights, and Isaac is portrayed as confirming or ratifying the transmittal of these rights. Nothing more is mentioned about a garment until Genesis 37:3, when Jacob gives his son Joseph a coat of many colors. Nibley explained that this coat was in fact an ornamented coat—a replica of the ancient priesthood garment. If so then this passage implies that Jacob had conferred upon the son he loved above all others certain priesthood blessings by this act of investiture. There appears to be no reference in the stories to a woman other than Eve having received the garment of the priesthood.

However, the Mormon temple endowment ceremony, an oral [p.174]representation of the story of Adam and Eve, presents clear evidence that the garment of the priesthood with its attendant priestly rights and blessings is as much for women as for men. The ritual language of the ceremony attaches enormous significance to the garment and the other priestly robes.

Anointing, like investiture, is another mechanism of priesthood transmittal which appears throughout the Old and New Testaments—but not directly in the Genesis stories, where the word “anointing” is not used. However, in Genesis 28:18 Jacob dreamed of a ladder on which the angels of God ascended and descended, and in this same dream God appeared and promised to be with him always. When Jacob awoke, he was afraid and said: “How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it “(vv. 17-18). Later after God appeared Jacob again set up a pillar of stone, “and he poured a drink offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon” (35:14). This suggests that the anointings were in the nature of libations and not ordinations. Yet in both instances the pouring of oil is associated with a theophany, a covenant from God, and the outpouring of a divine blessing.

In other books of the Old Testament, anointings appear prominently as a means of consecrating objects such as the tabernacle and its furniture (Exod. 30:22), shields (2 Sam. 1:21; Is. 21:5), as well as prophets (1 Kings 19:16), priests (Ex. 28:41), and kings (Judg. 9:8; 2 Sam. 2:4; 1 Kings 1:34). Oil becomes so important as a result that it is made a crime to compound it (Ex. 30:32-33). The anointing makes the anointed one sacrosanct (ibid.; 1 Sam. 24:7). In Psalms the anointing becomes a metaphor for the bestowal of divine favor (Ps. 23:5, 92:10). It signifies the outpouring of God’s holy spirit (1 Sam. 10:1, 9, 16:13; Is. 61:1; and Zach. 4:12-14).

We have found no mention in these stories of the anointing of women. However, in the Mormon temple endowment the anointing is prominent not only in the initiatory ordinances but as the crowning blessing promised the initiates. Mormon ritual practice, more fully explored later, establishes the propriety of anointing women as priestesses.

The transmittal of the priesthood by an oath and covenant is common in the Genesis account. God promises the priesthood to an [p.175]individual and seals it with his oath, which God swears by himself, since there is nothing greater to swear by. This pattern was followed with Abraham, with Isaac (JST Gen. 26:3), and with Jacob (Gen. 28:4, 13-22; 32:24-32).

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews clarified the concept of the oath and covenant as follows: “[W]hen God made promise to Abraham, because he [God] could swear by no greater, he swear by himself, saying, surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And so, after he [Abraham] had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men verily swear by the greater; and an oath for confirmation is an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath. That by two immutable things [the oath and covenant], in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:13-18). Abraham, who had patiently endured his trials, received from God the priesthood by this oath and covenant.

Joseph Smith further clarified this concept in a number of revelations and statements. He taught, as we shall discuss at greater length in a subsequent chapter, that the oath and covenant confirms upon an individual “all that [the] Father hath” (D&C 84:38). Doctrine and Covenants 76, speaking of those individuals in the highest glory, states that they are “priests after the order of Melchizedek” (v. 57), and that the Father hath given them “all things” (v. 55). Section 132 confirms that both men and women are entitled to this blessing, for it says, speaking to men and women who receive the anointing to the fullness of the priesthood: “[They] shall come forth in the first resurrection … and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths; … and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods … to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fullness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever” (v. 19).


With the advent of Christianity, the emphasis on lineal priesthood rights was eclipsed or supplanted. The exclusivity of the Hebrew claim [p.176]to priesthood was swept away. Gentiles were given access to God’s priesthood covenant through Jesus Christ, the messenger of the covenant proclaimed as a light not only to Israel but to Gentiles, slaves, and women. The apostle Paul expressed this sentiment in one of the earliest Christian texts, Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Not only does Paul assert the essential spiritual equality mandated by the gospel, but he also promises all converts that by accepting Christ, they become Abraham’s seed and “heirs according to the promise.”

The inheritance promised to Christians is the inheritance promised to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. That inheritance is the priesthood. The priesthood, once obtained by lineal right, now becomes the legacy of all those with faith in Christ. Paul explains to the Galatians: “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law.? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he [Ishmael] who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he [Isaac] of the freewoman was by promise. … Now we [Christians] … as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then, he that was born after the flesh [the Jews] persecuted him that was born after the Spirit [the Christians]” (Gal. 4:21-23, 28-29). Christians, as heirs of the promise, are heirs of the priesthood.

Paul’s announcement that the gospel and its associated priesthood inheritance is available to all believers follows from the way Jesus treated disenfranchised peoples. In his treatment of women, he deviated significantly from the norms of his time and culture. He did this not only by dealing with them in a spirit of great equality but also by including them in his ministry at all the important junctures of his life—his birth, his preaching, his miracle working, his crucifixion, and his resurrection.

During this period Jewish men thanked God each day in their prayers that they had not been born women. And yet in his public preaching and parable telling, Jesus compared himself to women such as the baker woman who leavens the loaf (Luke 13:20-21) and the housewife who finds the lost coin (15:8-10). Jewish men of Christ’s time did not socialize with women and avoided contact with them, but Jesus initiated a conversation with a Samaritan women, announced to [p.177]her his messianic mission, and asked her to take his message to her townspeople. Menstruating women were considered unclean, yet Jesus not only allowed such a woman to touch him without rebuke but healed her and sent her away with a blessing. Women of this period were not allowed to preach or study scriptures, and yet Jesus discussed Torah with Mary. Jewish law did not accept women as legal witnesses, and yet Jesus made women the witnesses of his resurrection. Even more striking, Jesus selected women to hear first the report of his rising from the dead and to announce his resurrection to the male disciples. This is especially important when we consider that in the primitive church the primary qualification for the apostleship was to be a witness of the ministry, death, and resurrection of the Lord.

Following his death Christ’s egalitarian outlook toward women persisted in the early Christian church. For example, women were allowed to pray and prophesy in Christian meetings, something which was forbidden in Jewish worship (1 Cor. 11). Women also performed significant missionary work in the early church and were leaders of Christian households. In Luke and Acts the four daughters of Philip are referred to as prophetesses (Luke 2:22-38; Acts 21:9, 2:17). And in Romans 16, Priscilla, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis are all commended by Paul for their important work.

Moreover in Romans 16:7, we read the statement of Paul: “salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles. “Junia is the name of a woman. In spite of this fact, she is clearly included among the apostles of Paul’s day in this scripture. Furthermore, the New Testament contains evidence of women serving as church deacons. Again in Romans 16:1-2, the text mentions “Phoebe our sister who is a servant to the Church.” The Greek word for “servant” in this passage is diaconos, which means “deacon.” It is significant that the Greek stem for this word is masculine, signifying that the term is not simply a descriptive adjective (which would have had a feminine suffix, diacona) but is probably being used to refer to a church office. It appears from this text that the office of deacon was most likely more important than it is in the modern church, since Phoebe is also called a prostatis of many. The Greek word prostatis could be translated “patroness” and implies that Phoebe had some kind of authority over church members. Her leadership role is also suggested by Paul’s instructions that church members were to “assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you.”

[p.178]In sum, the Old and New Testaments indicate various ways the priesthood has been transmitted: by inheritance, through lineage or through adoption into the family of Christ by appointment or ordination; by investiture; by anointing; and by oath and covenant from God. The scriptures present some important evidence of the involvement of women with the priesthood from the earliest times, both as receivers and transmitters of priesthood authority, power, and blessing. Admittedly these scriptures are few and somewhat obscure. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are no scriptures which expressly prohibit women from the priesthood nor is there any statement suggesting that this privilege will forever be denied them.