Extract 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, source: 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 and to offer sacrifices.

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. Samuel, for example, was from the tribe of Ephraim. He was not from the priestly tribe of Levi, yet he ministered within the heart of the Tabernacle and even slept close to the Ark of the Covenant (1 Sam. 3:3). 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).

Perhaps Jephthah’s daughter 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 singers, but they are not described as such.

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

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).[4]

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.[5]

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 melted down in order to become part of the washbasin and its stand, prominent pieces of Tabernacle furniture. 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.[6]

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.[7] 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 every other cult 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. Still, much about these women 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] 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.

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

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

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


Further Reading

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

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