The Rope Around The High Priest’s Ankle- Myth’s That’ll Preach

This is the second entry in a three-part series deconstructing popular illustrations that pastors give their congregations, all of which might sound good or spiritual, but do not correspond to history or reality. The purpose is to build your discernment when people say bibley things, and not let evangelical historical sound bites lead you to repeat them.

There is a commonly told story in Christendom that is usually told to make a point about the holiness of God. Pastors would say that once a year on the day of Atonement, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies in the temple to make sacrifices.  It was said that he would wear bells on his person, and would have a rope tied around his ankle. The idea is that if he had failed to purify himself and had even the slightest amount of sin left in him, or he did the sacrifice incorrectly, that God would strike him dead. If God did strike him dead, then the bells would stop tinkling and the other priests would pull his corpse out from behind the curtain with the rope.

It sounds like a nice story, except for one thing- It is a pure and utter fabrication. You can search the Bible, the Second Temple Jewish literature [the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha] the writings of Josephus, the Mishnah and Gemara, and the Midrashic commentaries of the rabbis, and nowhere in there will you find such an idea. So what is the origin for this oft attested myth? It would seem that the first traceable reference to this custom is in the Zohar, a thirteenth century mystical Jewish commentary on the Torah written by Moses de Leon. The Zohar is the basic text of Kaballah, the practice of Jewish mysticism.

Here’s the reference: “Rabbi Yitzchak said, A chain was tied to the feet of the High Priest, when he entered THE HOLY OF HOLIES, so that if he dies there they will take him out, SINCE IT IS FORBIDDEN TO ENTER THERE… Then there is joy among the higher and lower beings. If not, they were all in sorrow and all knew that their prayer was not accepted.”
Zohar Vol. 16 Emor, Section 34. Yom Kippur, Par. 251.

Nothing about the book should lend us to believe that this is a reliable and historical reality. This is not what we might call a legitimate source for deriving the truth about prehistoric Jewish customs, Furthermore, Leviticus 16 makes it clear that bells were not to even be worn in the Holy of Holies, only The Holy Place. For this reason, when the High priest enterd the Holy of Holies, he washed and wore special linen garments, not the ephod with bells. If there are no bells, there is no need for a rope.

As it were, there is no written reference to this “rope” before 1250 AD. It is not biblical, historical, or even particularly ancient. If you want to teach about the rope around the ankle of the High Priest, you must do so with the awareness that such a practice was never referred to in any ancient source and that the first mention of it is in a mystical text written 2600 years after Leviticus 16 and a thousand  years after the  Temple was destroyed.

[Contributed by Dustin Germain]

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