Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Women who served at the entrance of the tent of meeting

Excerpt of “The Daughters of Zelophehad” who are at the entrance of the tent of meeting (Num. 27:1-11).
From Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us (1897) by Charles Foster (Wikimedia)

In two verses in the Hebrew Bible, there is a brief mention of women who served at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The focus of these two verses is not the women but the women’s mirrors, in Exodus 38:8, and the despicable behaviour of the priests Hophni and Phinehas, in 1 Samuel 2:22.

[Bezalel] made the bronze basin and its stand from the bronze mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting (Exod. 38:8 CSB).

. . . [Eli] heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they were sleeping with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting (1 Sam. 2:22 CSB).

What can we know about these women? Did their service involve religious rituals? What is the significance of their mirrors? And what do we know about the space that is referred to as “the entrance of the tent of meeting”?

Two Tents of Meeting

Two structures are called “the tent of meeting” in the Hebrew Bible. The first was a tent that Moses erected in the desert outside of the Israelite camp (Exod. 33:7-11). In this tent, Moses (and Joshua) met with God. The second was a larger, more lavish, tent known as the Tabernacle. This tent was located in the middle of the Israelite camp during their desert wanderings. Around the time of events recorded at the beginning of 1 Samuel, the Tabernacle was located at Shiloh (1 Sam. 1:3; 2:14). The Israelites came to this Tabernacle to make vows, to offer sacrifices, and for other reasons.

The women mentioned in Exodus 38:8 and 1 Samuel 2:22 appear to have served at the entrance of both tents. It seems an earlier group of women was set apart for service at Moses’ tent of meeting in the Sinai desert and a later group served at the Tabernacle when it was located in Shiloh. Plus there was probably a succession of women serving at the Tabernacle in the intervening hundreds of years, women who are not mentioned in the Bible.

The Women’s Service

Many have tried to minimise the service of these women. Some have even claimed that the women mentioned in 1 Samuel 2:22 were prostitutes. This is despite the fact that there is nothing in the biblical text to indicate the women were in any way culpable for the scandalous behaviour of Hophni and Phinehas. Moreover, Eli regarded his sons’ actions as sinning against the LORD (1 Sam. 2:25). This may indicate that the women were dedicated to the LORD.

The attendance of these women at the entrance of the tent of meeting seems to be a given and their roles are not elaborated on, but the Hebrew verb tsaba that is used in both Exodus 38:8 and 1 Samuel 2:22 indicates that these women were involved in some kind of ministry that was comparable to that of some Levites; the verb tsaba is also used for Levites and their service in Numbers 4:23 and 8:24.[1]

This verb tsaba is not a common word. While it is occasionally used in the Hebrew Bible in the context of priestly duties, it is more often used in the context of warfare. Susan Ackerman writes that “the repeated use of the root ṣ-b-’ [tsaba] of the women stationed at the entry, given its military resonances, can easily suggest guardianship.”[2] Ackerman further suggests that “by associating the women with the two sons of Eli, this may suggest a pair of ṣōbĕ’ôt [participle of tsaba] women flanking the entrance to the tent of meeting.”[3]

Whatever the case, tsaba is not a word that refers to ordinary or everyday activity. It should be pointed out, however, that priestly service could range from exalted acts of worship to mundane tasks of maintenance, cleaning, and carrying.

Who were these serving women?

Healthy men from the tribe of Levi were especially dedicated to priestly service, and the serving women may have been related to these men, but we know that non-Levites could also serve in the Tabernacle. According to 1 Samuel 1:1, Samuel was from the tribe of Ephraim, yet he ministered within the heart of the Tabernacle and even slept close to the Ark of the Covenant (1 Sam. 3:3) He seems to have served as a Nazarite rather than as a Levite (1 Sam. 1:11).[4] Perhaps the serving women had been dedicated for ministry by their parents in the same way that Hannah had dedicated Samuel (1 Sam. 1:28; 2:11, 18).

Jephthah’s daughter may have had been dedicated to such service. While most scholars believe that Jephthah fulfilled his vow by killing his daughter, another plausible scenario is that he fulfilled his vow by dedicating her to God’s service (Judg. 11:30-31). This second scenario has credence as the girl mourns for two months because she will always be a virgin; she does not weep because her father is going to kill her (Judg. 11:37-39).

If Jephthah’s daughter is an example of a young woman dedicated to the LORD, her story may indicate that the women who served at the tents were virgins . . . or would have been if not for Eli’s wicked sons. In other parts of the Hebrew Bible we learn that women could be singers and musicians involved in temple service (e.g., Ezra 2:65: Neh. 7:67; cf. 2 Chron. 35:25). It’s possible the women who served at the two tents were involved in singing and music, but they are not described as such.

Exodus 38:8 mirrors at the entrance to the tent of meeting or tabernacle

An ancient bronze mirror, Egypt, 800-100 BCE
Wellcome Images L0065470
Credit: Science Museum, LondonCC BY

The Mirrors

In Exodus 38:8 we learn that the women had mirrors made of bronze or copper. (Most mirrors in the Ancient Near East were made of metal that had been highly polished so the surface became reflective.) Were their mirrors used for some ritual purpose? Perhaps the mirrors were used to make sure that the cleansing rituals of the priests and Levites had been fully carried out and that the men had clean faces and feet (Exod. 30:17-21).[5]

The Hebrew word for mirror occurs only once in the Bible, in Exodus 38:8. However, it wasn’t just the Israelite women who used mirrors in a religious context. In her paper on “Serving Women and Their Mirrors,” Janet Everhart gives examples from throughout the ancient world, examples which span over several millennia, that show mirrors were used by priestly women in religious rituals.[6]

Another intriguing piece of information is that the Egyptian word ankh means both “mirror” and “life.” After having spent hundreds of years in Egypt, the Israelites would have known this word and its dual meanings. Did the mirrors somehow represent life? Were they used to ward off deathly evil? Unfortunately, the only piece of information we are told is that the mirrors were either molten down or beaten into shape to become the washbasin and its stand, prominent pieces of Tabernacle furniture.[7] By washing in this basin, however, the priests avoided death and lived (Exod. 30:17-21).

E.L. Greenstein compares the women’s mirrors in Exodus 38:8 with the censers of the Levites who were involved in Korah’s rebellion. After the rebellion, these censers were melted down and the metal was used to plate the altar as “a reminder for the Israelites that no unauthorized person outside the lineage of Aaron should approach to offer incense before the Lord and become like Korah and his followers” (Num. 16:40 CSB).

Greenstein suggests,

The mirrors were confiscated from the women who served at the entrance as a penalty for some infraction of the cultic rules. The women’s transgression would continue to serve as a monitory measure every time anyone looked at the bronze washing basin.[8]

While these ideas are interesting, the Bible simply does not tell us what the mirrors were used for and why they are significantly singled out for mention in the making of the priest’s washbasin. Furthermore, we are not told that the women were guilty of any misconduct.

The Entrance of the Tent of Meeting

The entrance, or doorway, of the two tents was not just a thoroughfare that was passed through quickly. Many activities, including ritual activity, took place at the entrance.[9] It was a public space and a holy space.

In Exodus chapter 29, for example, the entrance to the tent of meeting is mentioned four times. It is here that Aaron and his sons were brought to be ordained as priests. They were washed, dressed, and anointed there, sacrifices were made there, and Aaron and his sons ate there (cf. Exod. 40:12-14). At the conclusion of this ceremony, God said,

This will be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance to the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet you to speak with you. I will also meet with the Israelites there, and that place will be consecrated by my glory (Exod. 29:42-43 CSB).

The entrance to the tent of meeting is referred to many more times in the first few books of the Hebrew Bible.

~ The altar of burnt offerings, where the priest made their animal sacrifices, was positioned at the entrance of the tent of meeting (Exod. 40:29; Lev. 1:1ff; 3:1-2; 4:4, 7, 18, etc).
~ On occasion, the entire Israelite community was summoned to gather there (e.g., Lev. 8:1-4; Num. 10:3).
~ On the eighth day after being cured of a bodily discharge, the healed man or woman was to take two turtledoves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting as offerings (Lev. 15:1-33). Hygiene and cleanliness are linked to Tabernacle, and the penalty of not being clean is death (e.g., Lev. 15:31; Exod. 30:17-21).
~ The entrance is mentioned three times in Numbers 6, a chapter describing the rituals surrounding the Nazarite vow.
~ In Numbers 12:5ff, God appeared at the entrance as a pillar of cloud and reprimanded Aaron and Miriam. In Deuteronomy 31:14-15, God again appeared there as a pillar of cloud and spoke to Moses, along with Joshua. Furthermore, during the days of Moses, the protective pillar of cloud remained at the entrance whenever Moses went inside (Exod. 33:9-10).
~ The testing of the Levites who rebelled with Korah took place there in front of all the Israelites (Num. 16:16ff).
~ It was a place to mourn publicly (Num. 25:6).
~Zelophelad’s five daughters “stood before Moses, the priest Eleazar, the leaders, and the entire community at the entrance to the tent of meeting” when they brought their case about inheritance (see Num. 27:1-11).
~ Hannah prayed and made her vow to God in this space, observed by Eli who was sitting by the doorpost at the entrance (1 Sam. 1:9-10).
~ The priest Eleazar, Joshua, and tribal leaders were at the entrance when they divided up the land of Canaan among the Israelite tribes (Josh. 19:51).

From these verses and others, we can see that the entrance to the Tabernacle was an important and sacred space for the Israelites and was accessible to both men and women. And it was a space where God sometimes appeared in the pillar of cloud. It is in this space that the serving women ministered, either serving God or his people or both.

Conclusion

The serving women are mentioned in passing in the Bible and we don’t know what they did, but it is unjust to think they were only involved in menial tasks such as sweeping floors. One doesn’t need expensive copper mirrors to sweep floors. And the Hebrew verb used to describe their activity suggests something more significant.

These women, who may have been dedicated to the LORD, are never referred to as priestesses—this is unlike other women who served in other cults of the Ancient Near East that we have some information about. And yet the Bible reveals that the women referred to in Exodus 38:8 and 1 Samuel 2:22 served at the sacred place known as the entrance to the tent of meeting; they would have been acquainted with God’s divine presence. Nevertheless, who these women were and what they did remains a mystery


Footnotes

[1] The verb tsaba occurs twice in Exodus 38:8, as a feminine plural participle and as a third person plural verb; it occurs once in 1 Samuel 2:22.

[2] Susan Ackerman, “Mirrors, Drums and Trees,” in Congress Volume Helsinki 2010, ed. Martti Nissinen (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 537-567, 553.

[3] Ackerman, “Mirrors, Drums and Trees,” 553.

[4] 1 Samuel 1:1 tells us that Samuel’s father Elkanah was a Zuphite and that his ancestor Zuph was an Ephraimite, that is, he was from the tribe of Ephraim. Nothing in 1 Samuel indicates that Elkanah and Samuel were from the tribe of Levi. (1 Samuel was written in the 600s BCE.) However, a different genealogy is given for Elkanah and Samuel in 1 Chronicles 6 that traces their lineage back to Kohath, one of the sons of Levi (1 Chron. 6:26-27). (1 Chronicles was written about 300 years after 1 Samuel, in around the 300s BCE.)

[5] For example, one Jewish scholar writes that the mirrors “were made for the priests who would come to wash their hands and feet from the washstand. They would look in the mirrors to see if they had any spot or stain on their vestments.” See Magriso Yitzchol, The Torah Anthology, vol. 10, trans. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (New York: Maznaim, 1998), 242-46.

[6] Janet S. Everhart, “Serving Women and Their Mirrors: A Feminist Reading of Exodus 38:8b,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 (2004), 44-54, 50.

[7] The washbasin, or laver, was very large and it would have taken a large number of mirrors to make the basin. This may indicate there were many women who had served over many years at the entrance of the tent of meeting.

[8] E.L. Greenstein, “Recovering ‘the Women Who Served at the Entrance,’” Studies in Historical Geography and Biblical Historiography, Presented to Zecharia Kallai, edited by Gershon Galil and Moshe Weinfeld (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 165-173, 172.
Unlike Greenstein, I see no reason to infer that the (speculated) cultic transgression was sexual in nature.

[9] The opulent and colourful entrance to the Tabernacle is described in Exodus 26:36-37.

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Further Reading

A Copper Laver Made from Women’s Mirrors by Dr Rachel Adelman

Related Articles

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Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Many women leaders in the Bible had this one thing in common
Huldah’s Public Prophetic Ministry
Did Miriam the prophetess only minister to women?
Gendered Roles and Gendered Activities in the Old Testament

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22 thoughts on “Women who served at the entrance of the tent of meeting

  1. Thank you for this post. The purity of women who came to worship was very important. Maybe they helped women with Nidah (purifying). The Cohens and Levites couldn’t examine the women to make sure they are not menstruating or had stopped bleeding after childbirth. Maybe the mirrors were used to look under the women’s clothes to make sure they were pure.

    In modern Mikva there are women who are there to help the women who have come to be purified. So it makes sense that was part of what the serving women did.

    1. That’s an interesting possibility, Linda.
      Can you point me to the Bible passage that outlines the cleanliness of people bringing sacrifices?

      1. Leviticus 15: 19-33, 18:19, 20: 18 are the ones I found. In the long passage it discusses that she must be able to give the priest her sacrifice. If she is still not clean she can’t do this.

        1. Thanks, Linda. Leviticus 15 is especially relevant and I’ve added a note about it in the list of things that happened at the entrance of the tent of meeting.

  2. This is very interesting, Marg. I have preached about these women, and a chapter in my book Catalysts discusses this issue too. Not much is said about them and as I wrote about them in the days before Google answered so many questions, I spent a number of years waiting to understand the issues surrounding them. This is very interesting. thanks.

    1. Unfortunately, they are still a bit of a mystery.

  3. LONG ago when the male bias in church was worse than it is now, I was told that women could not be ushers, Wish I had know about this verse then! But, knowing those men, they probably would have spun it into those women being promiscuous , and that having women in the doorway would make the church look like a house of ill-repute. (Men can’t seem to stop making the women on the Bible into prostitutes, can they?) What a shame that the tasks of these women were not listed.

    1. Yes, I read a few disappointing older commentaries which suggest the women had loose morals and their job was mainly sweeping floors.

      However, many of the jobs of male Levites that are listed in the Bible are fairly mundane, like clearing away the ash after burnt sacrifices and carrying parts of the Tabernacle when Israel was on the move.

    2. The role of “usher” is extended from that of deacon or (more often) subdeacon. As well as overseeing the orderliness of service, the role of the usher/subdeacon was to see that people who were not believers (what we now call “seekers” or, more accurately, the catechumen) were to leave before the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist/Communion and then were to guard the doors so that no unbelievers or animals (in the days when goats roamed the streets!) could wander in.

      At that time, the Holy Kiss was still in general practice, and men and women sat apart, and only deaconesses/subdeaconesses served on the women’s side. Often, there were two separate doors, and it would be quite necessary for a woman to guard the woman’s door. It would be inappropriate for a man to do it.

      The Orthodox Ethiopian church still retains deaconesses for the women’s side of the room.

      Deaconesses also always got women ready for baptism (this was wildly inappropriate for men to do), and they ministered to sick women in the congregation (bathing the sick was a frequent role that the church took on in this time before hospitals). The widows on the roll often or even usually had the role of deaconess after the earliest days, and it seems like these widow-deaconesses quickly supplanted the more general deaconesses of any age, and then there were requirements of perpetual chastity placed on the deaconesses in many places, so they basically fused into the orders of nuns, which was really not their early role.

      Clarity on the widows on the rolls: They were required to be elderly and chaste because they were presenting themselves as the deserving poor. The church congregation’s role was not to feed and house single women until they found a man to support them. It was to provide charity for those who really needed it. Someone using the largess of the congregation to fund her husband-hunting obviously is an abuse of charity. In return for the support, the widows would do what they were physically able for the needs of the church. The first widows absolutely WERE NOT deacons, though, because you had the appointment of seven men who were the first deacons (their role was a deacon role) to oversee the distribution of the bread in Acts to those very same widows. If they were deacons, then they could have made a board of widows. Obviously, a lot of the widows would be too frail to do a great deal of anything.

      Background on the Holy Kiss: it was once mixed-gender, but this immediately caused problems of misbehavior, and so sex-segregation like the Jews had already been using became the rule.

      1. Hi Gen,

        This is interesting, but I can’t see what ushers, deacons, widows, holy kisses, customs in the Eastern Orthodox Church, or Jewish sex-segregation has to do with the Israelite women who, thousands of years earlier, served at the entrance of the tent of meeting.

  4. It seems that the women were attendants of those who were changing clothes and being washed is the most plausible solution; but in reading your article and the passages their role does seem holy and/or consecrated ; set apart for the lord and by the lord because of Eli’s rebuke to his sons. He says their behavior is a sin against God as opposed to a sin against man. This implies that the women and their service were a part of the temple and therefore their relations with Eli’s sons were viewed in Eli’s eyes as the sons sinning against God. Also I appreciate knowing that the Hebrew root word has a double meaning of ‘life’ because back in Ex 30 when Moses was commanded to make basins There is a repetition in God’s words that if they didn’t wash ‘surely they will die’ – an echo back to the creation story. So when the mirrors of life were transformed into cleansing basins… it brings the symbolism a bit deeper.

    1. Terese, that is so interesting about God’s words about death in Exodus 30:17-21 and the washbasin made from the mirrors!

      I do think the women were dedicated to God. Eli’s words add weight to that idea. 🙂

      I don’t want to dismiss the idea that the women functioned as sentries, though. Susan Ackerman shows that there were a lot of shrines in the Ancient Near East that were guarded by a pair of female figures.

      1. I do not want to dismiss the sentry idea either- after all, there is so much meaning to the word, ‘ezer/azer’ that echoes back to the prefall Eve figure and there are examples of women who function as the: surrounder, protecter, provider, aid, etc. Without due diligence, my assumption is that these are women given a role of equal protection of the temple- a equal to responsibilities assigned to men.

        1. I agree, Terese.

          Your comments have been very helpful and I’ve tweaked my article accordingly.

  5. Dear Margaret,
    A related topic, have you looked into the meanings of Miriam’s leprosy? A brief search online gave one reason to be her authority. Culturally, I’m wondering at the similarities of Miriam and the women who served at the entrance. Miriam’s story has always bothered me because I’ve always heard it explained as she was usurping authority or she was jealous or she had a critical spirit.
    I’m so glad and grateful for the writing you do and the care you use.

    1. Hi Laura,

      Even though Miriam is the only one afflicted with leprosy—if Aaron had contracted leprosy he would not have been able to continue his work as high priest, both Miriam and Aaron are guilty of exactly the same thing. They were both whingeing about Moses and his new bride.

      I don’t think Aaron and Miriam wanted to usurp Moses and his leadership (cf. Micah 6:4) but they did see themselves as having similar abilities as their brother. Their dissatisfaction with their own level or scope of ministry seems to have started with their dissatisfaction with Moses’ new wife. (Craig Keener suggests she was a kandake, a princess, of Kush.)

      “Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because of the Cushite woman he married (for he had married a Cushite woman). They said, ‘Does the Lord speak only through Moses? Does he not also speak through us?’” (Numbers 12:1-2 CSB).

      Both Aaron and Miriam were jealous and were being critical, but Miriam seems to be the one who gets the blame and is disparaged by some commentators and Bible teachers. This is not fair, especially as the text shows that Miriam was treated with respect and with loving care by her brothers and the Israelite community. Aaron was equally at fault.

  6. Que buen articulo, genial! Marg. No ayudas muchisimo.

    1. Gracias, Olga.

  7. All the talk above about tasks that are mundane and yet holy makes me think of the role that altar servers play in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. When I was an altargirl, most of what I did was a kind of glorified fetching/carrying. Yet what I did was closely connected with the Eucharist, was performed in the sanctuary and as such it was considered sacred and it was a great privilege to be doing it, so I was vested accordingly in an alb or in a cassock and surplice. I would get the incense going and swing it about at the appropriate time, trim and light and snuff the candles, carry the candles about, hold the liturgical books, ceremonially wash the priest’s hands, fetch the wine/bread/water, receive the food/money offerings from the ushers and place them before the altar, ring the bells or elevate the candles as the priest elevated the bread/wine during the Eucharist. I’d make sure the altar frontal was the correct liturgical colour for the season, count the number of people present and check we had enough wafers, etc.
    All of this is stuff that you could teach just about anyone to do (which is why altar servers have often been children), but nevertheless it is considered to be A REALLY BIG DEAL. So much of a big deal that you will find plenty of forums online where old-fashioned Roman Catholic men are whinging about how it’s terrible that the Pope allowed girls to serve in the sanctuary in this way, because it’s such a holy ministry to be involved in, and it is so closely linked with priestly ministry, and even if they are allowed to do it, they should wear different vestments to the boys and certainly grown women shouldn’t be allowed to do it because they look too much like priests etc etc etc.
    Anyway, I just thought that was a helpful analogy to show that regardless of what tasks these women had to perform, if it was connected with the priestly goings-on in any way (which it surely must’ve been), that in itself makes what they were doing sacred and therefore A BIG DEAL.

    1. I loved reading your comment, liturgist. It is very helpful. I think what the women and the other Levites were doing was probably mostly mundane as well as being sacred and a big deal too.

  8. Why is the stand made from the bronze mirrors of the women?

    1. That’s an excellent question, but I don’t really know the answer to it.

      My assumption is that they needed bronze and the mirrors were a handy source. Lots of metal was being melted down and turned into various objects for the Tabernacle, so other sources may have been running out. I mention a different idea of E.L. Greenstein in the article.

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