The high priest and the rope
- The notes in my New Living Translation Study Bible for Ex. 28:31-35 make the claim that, "Jewish tradition tells us that the priest had a cord
tied to his ankle so that if he died in the Holy Place, his body could
be dragged out." Cool beans, eh? Actually, it's not beans, it's
baloney. You won't find that alleged factoid anywhere in the Bible or
other ancient Jewish sources.
This yarn seems to have entered Christian circles via John Gill, a prominent British Baptist theologian who lived from 1697-1771. In the years 1746-1748, Gill published a three volume
commentary on the New Testament called An Exposition of the New
Testament. When he came to Hebrews 9:7, Gill stated, "The Jews say that a cord or thong was bound to the feet of the high priest when he went
into the holy of holies, that if he died there, the rest might be able
to draw him out."
However, as already
stated, that claim cannot be found in the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls,
the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Philo, Josephus, the Mishnah, or the
In point of fact, the only Jewish source in which this claim can be found comes from the Zohar (Volume 15, Acharei Mot, Section
32:198 [http://www.zohar.com/zohar.php?vol=32&sec=1150]). The text says, "A knot of rope of gold hangs from his leg,
from fear perhaps that he would die in the holy of holies, and they
would need to pull him out with this rope."
What is the Zohar? A
collection of writings by the 13th century Spanish Jew and mystic Moses de Leon
which form part of the occult Kabbalah, a late Medieval Jewish system of mysticism, gnosticism, and magic. I'd hardly call this a reliable source of ancient Jewish customs.
It is interesting (and disturbing) to see how "easily" a highly
questionable claim can make its way into "mainstream" sources and be
repeated as fact. Notice the slight evolution of the claim too. The
Zohar mentions the priest's leg and connects the procedure to the holy
of holies. Gill has a cord bound to the feet (plural), and doesn't
mention the source of his information, making the blanket claim that "the Jews say". The NLT is even more
generic--"Jewish tradition"--cord tied to an ankle, and the room is the
Holy Place rather than Holy of Holies.
The above is but one example of how an esoteric and highly questionable tid-bit can be picked up without attribution by a generally respected theologian and uncritically repeated until it
enters the realm of established truth. Perhaps this is a lesson in
caution not to repeat every "neat" thing we hear without first checking its veracity as carefully as possible.
I am reminded of something the late President Reagan used to say when negotiating a nuclear arms treaty with the former Soviet Union: "Trust but verify."
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