An Old Testament Justification for Priestly Celibacy

God ordered Moses to consecrate the Israelites “today and tomorrow,” and have them wash their garments, so that they would be prepared to see the Lord descend on Mount Sinai on the third day. Moses consecrated and instructed the people accordingly. He also told them to abstain from sexual intercourse (Exod. 19:10-15).

Why did God make the stipulation about sexual abstinence? Clearly, the Bible does not hold that there is something inherently sordid about sexual intercourse enacted according to God’s creative plan. On this point, we need only to recall the relevant passages from the two creation accounts (Gen. 1:27-28; 2:21-25), for which the biblical exaltation of the good wife (e.g., Prov. 31:10-31) and procreative fruitfulness (e.g., Ps. 128:3-4) serve as commentaries. That a husband and wife have had lawful sex would not, therefore, make them unworthy to stand in God’s presence after having purified themselves.

On the other hand, Moses’s call for sexual abstinence before the people’s meeting the Lord might allude to the “shame” connected with human sexuality since the fall (compare Gen. 2:25 and 3:7, 10). The ready surrender to the temptation toward profane sex is arguably the premier “Achilles’ heel” of fallen man. Moses therefore required the Israelites to exercise sexual self-restraint as a purifying, consecratory sacrifice, preparing them thus for the profoundly religious event of God’s self-manifestation at Sinai. As God is holy, so must they be holy.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

In a symbolic way, then, Moses sought to restore the people to a fitting state of “virginal” innocence—i.e., to the state that existed before human eyes were opened to rebellion against God (Gen. 3:7). Together with its consistent esteem for conjugal fruitfulness, the Old Testament seems to suggest here that the Israelites saw in virginity a certain purity that was consonant with sacredness (see also Lev. 21:13-15; Isa. 62:4-5).

Strange though it might seem to us, Israel also regarded her military battles as religious events. It was on God’s orders, after all, that Israel was marching to take possession of the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. And it was to God that Israel owed her military victories therein. Indeed, in the early days of the conquest, the Levitical priests sometimes carried the Ark of the Covenant—the place of God’s tangible presence among the Israelites—to the battle site itself (Josh. 6).

Even so, victory was contingent on the people’s fidelity to the Lord (1 Sam. 4:1-11). Israel therefore required a virginal purity in her relation to God in order to fulfill her mission and receive what he had promised. For this reason, Israel’s military ventures were preceded by ritual purification: the soldiers had to consecrate themselves to the Lord and his purposes.

We see evidence of this, for example, in one of David’s flights from Saul. David went alone to the priest Ahimelech at Nob (near Jerusalem), purportedly on a secret mission for the king. But he was really looking for something to eat. Since Ahimelech had only the holy bread on hand, he offered it to David, on condition that his retinue—which David pretended was waiting to meet him—had kept themselves from women. David replied that women were always forbidden him and his company when on a campaign. The priest gave him the bread, having determined that its recipients were fit to consume it (1 Sam. 21:1-6).

The same consecratory purification appears again in the account of David’s adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. In an effort to hide the fact that she became pregnant because of their sin, David recalled Uriah from battle and tried twice to induce him to go home and sleep with his wife. But Uriah, though a mercenary, was a loyal soldier who insisted on observing the religious obligation to continence during the military campaign in which he was taking part. Therefore, David arranged to have him die on the battlefield, taking Bathsheba to himself to preclude suspicion about her pregnancy (2 Sam. 11).

Based on the forgoing, we can reasonably conclude that for men fighting a holy war, obedience to the prescribed renunciation of sexual intercourse symbolized, in a physical way, each soldier’s desire to be wholly dedicated to God and his purposes. Given the sexual proclivities of fallen man, moreover, the soldiers undoubtedly understood that sexual continence truly contributed somehow to this special consecration—if in no other way than by promoting in them an exclusive focus on their divinely appointed mission, and a singular resolve to carry it out, so as to fulfill, on the people’s behalf, God’s designs for Israel. Their military successes helped reinforce both the people’s and their own sense of identity as God’s chosen ones, while also cultivating faith in the Lord of their history. At the same time, the observance of sexual continence cultivated, among the soldiers themselves, a unifying sense of fraternity and purpose. Uriah the Hittite is a great biblical exemplar of self-sacrificial solidarity with his comrades-in-arms (2 Sam. 11:11).

As regards the conduct of the holy war itself, it seems hard to reconcile consecration to God in times of war, rectitude of purpose, and God’s leadership in battle with the seeming mercilessness of God’s placing the spoils of war—peoples, animals, and things—“under the ban,” that is, “under the curse of destruction.” This refers to the divine injunction requiring Israel to give some or all of the persons and things captured in battle over to God, either by their destruction, or by placement in the sanctuary (e.g., the gold and silver). The violation of the ban by even a single person was so serious an offense that it would cause the curse to boomerang on all of Israel, which would be considered guilty of disobedience to God. Unfaithful Israel would then be unable to withstand her enemies. To remove the curse from the people, the culprit responsible for violating the ban would need to be exposed and killed, and the ill-gotten gain, along with the culprit’s family, destroyed (Josh. 6:17-19; 7:1-26).

We must understand the brutality of the ban in terms of what Israel stood to lose in exchange for gaining the spoils of war. If she coveted and kept, rather than burned and destroyed, the silver and the golden idols of the peoples she dispossessed, she would succumb to greed and idolatry. Moses warned her, therefore, “You shall not bring an abominable thing into your house, and become accursed like it” (Deut. 7:26). He later added, “You shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them … as the LORD your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God” (Deut. 20:16-18). The danger that foreign women posed to the faith of Israel (e.g., Num. 25), and so their inclusion in the ban, was perhaps related to, and underscored by, the discipline of sexual continence during military campaigns.

The likelihood of Israel’s falling into greed, lust, idolatry, hypocrisy, and complacency was so great that nothing less than her exclusive covenantal relationship with the one true God was at stake. She was ever in danger of forfeiting her inheritance in the Promised Land, and of perishing like the other ungodly nations, unless God, in his mercy, willed to redeem her (e.g., Deut. 4:23-31; 8:11-20). The ban was meant to forestall these dangers. It was precisely because Saul disobeyed the terms of the ban in his war against the Amalekites, thus endangering the whole people, that God took the kingship away from him and gave it to David (1 Sam. 15).

Priestly Celibacy and Spiritual Warfare
How does the forgoing bear on the question of priestly celibacy and ministry under the New Covenant in Christ? As St. Paul tells us, “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against … the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (Eph. 6:12). In other words, we are each engaged in a winner-take-all war against inconceivably ruthless and implacable enemies—i.e., legions of invisible, fallen angels under the command of Satan. They are hell-bent on instigating our eternal damnation—on inciting us to sin—so that we forfeit our inheritance in the promised land of God’s kingdom.

Human wars, such as those recorded in the Old Testament, are not just symbols of this invisible, spiritual warfare: they are visible manifestations of it. Our surrender to sin at the urging of the evil spirits always causes division of some sort, and finally war, once our sins have reached a critical mass because too few of us are willing to repent, do penance, and amend our life by the grace of God. This means that war is a sure sign of widespread rebellion against God.

Taking our cue, then, from the radical nature of the Old Testament curse of destruction, we must engage in spiritual warfare by “placing under the ban” everyone and everything that could result in our separating ourselves eternally from God and his promises. If we do not, we ourselves will fall under the curse of the ban through sin. This is precisely the meaning of Jesus’s teaching that we should pluck out our eye or cut off our hand, and then throw it away, if it is a source of sin for us. Better that, than to be thrown, body and soul, into hell forever (Mark 9:43-48). Jesus is hyperbolically urging us to radically separate ourselves from sin, and from all that might incite us to sin, for our eternal salvation is at stake. Unlike the ban of old, however, we turn no one over to him for destruction, but only in the hope of his or her salvation.

The physical battles depicted in the Old Testament were all passing, as Israel sought to gain control of her earthly inheritance. The soldiers who fought to secure God’s promises, and who were in that sense mediating those promises, were therefore required to symbolize only temporarily, for the duration of the battle, their consecration to God by observing sexual continence. Their self-discipline also enabled these men to direct their attention and energy to the sole purpose of achieving victory in the name of the Lord.

But the same, malevolent spiritual beings hidden behind Israel’s battles remain always active. In our own day, the visible manifestations of their rebellious activity are myriad—all aimed at the degradation and destruction of human life itself. To engage in spiritual warfare as such—that is, to take up arms and fight against our powerful, invisible foes—we need soldiers who are spiritually equipped to lead the rest of us in this fierce and unrelenting battle, and who are consequently willing to consecrate themselves to God permanently, for this purpose alone. The incessant, zero-sum nature of this war requires faithfully celibate bishops and priests, whose indispensable mission is to act as mediators of the gospel truth and of the saving, sacramental gifts of grace that God the Father offers us in and through Jesus Christ, his eternal Son. By acting in persona Christi capitis, they are mediating to us no less than the promise of eternal life in Christ.

Because priests and bishops must battle for the salvation of souls, their dedication to God, and to fulfilling their God-given mission, must be exclusive. For the exclusive aim of our invisible foes is to confound that mission. Given this, Catholic clergy require the extraordinary detachment from worldly concerns, and hence the single-minded focus, to which permanent sexual continence in the celibate state lends itself (cf. 1 Cor. 7:28, 32-33), and for the observance of which God’s grace does not fail to provide.

Marriage and the family require one kind of unconditional death to self, and priestly ministry another. The same man cannot die both ways at once. For the priest, it is crucial that marriage be “placed under the ban.” He must be detached from everyone and everything except Jesus Christ, lest he be tempted to compromise with the implacable foe, to the detriment of souls. At the same time, his fidelity to the celibate life provides an indispensable sign of resurrected life in Christ, and of the power of God’s grace.

And what of the priest shortage? Should we not beef up the ranks with married men? Let us conclude with two points concerning this issue.

On the Number of Vocations
First, God does not need numbers for their own sake. Out of thirty-two thousand men, God had Gideon select only three hundred—the most fearless and alert of the lot—to defeat a large and vastly superior army. This made it clear that the victory was God’s (Judg. 7:1-23).

Likewise, Jesus Christ is the head of the Church militant. If need be, he can lead the Church to victory over sin, death, and the devil with a small number of dedicated priests who are consecrated exclusively to him, and to the mission he has entrusted to them. Such exclusivity entails celibacy.

Joyfully embraced under grace, even today priestly celibacy signifies, and truly effects, a sacred purity that conforms and binds the priest more perfectly to Christ, to whom, and in whose service, he is free to give himself unconditionally. Priests of this stripe constitute a powerful band of brothers. Ever alert to the wiles of the devil, they counter them fearlessly and effectively, using the spiritual means God has given them to defend themselves and their people. In this way, shepherd and flock prevail, together, over the violent assaults of the infernal foe.

Second, there would be no shortage of men who would answer God’s call to become dedicated, celibate priests if the Church would just retrieve and emphasize, as well as train the men according to, the military analogy outlined above (see also Eph. 6:13-20). This would appeal to manly men, who are naturally inclined and willing, by God’s grace, to sacrifice themselves in an ultimate way to defend the Bride of Christ. Our best priests live by this understanding, which is at once martial and marital.

By contrast, the sissified Church “models” we are presented with these days—e.g., the politically correct Church, the silent-but-listening Church, the integrate-and-bless-mortal-sin Church, the made-to-order, or “synodal,” Church—can easily discourage a number of faithful and morally upright men from pursuing a call to the priesthood. Though they have the priestly vocation and would willingly direct their natural, protective (or fatherly) instinct toward fighting the good fight of faith (1 Tim. 6:12), rather than toward raising a family, they are legitimately concerned about being recalled from battle and “disarmed” by unfaithful bishops and priests having no interest whatsoever in entering the fray themselves. Instead, these latter are intent on introducing into the Church what God has placed irrevocably under the ban. They scheme to eviscerate God’s commandments and the natural law; to “welcome” divorced and “remarried” Catholics, unrepentant mortal sinners, and non-Catholics to Holy Communion; to recognize and bless sodomitic “unions”; to ordain women; and so on, ad nauseam.

In these enemies of the cross, the devil is having his day: “They glory in their shame, with their minds set on earthy things” (Phil. 3:19). Holding the form of religion, they deny the power of it (2 Tim. 3:5). It seems that “arrogance and reproach have now become strong; it is a time of ruin and furious anger” (1 Mac. 2:49).

Rather than getting discouraged, men considering the priesthood—and also every Christian soldier, regardless of state in life—can take heart in the parting exhortation of Mattathias, father of the Maccabean revolt: “Now, my children, show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our fathers…. None who put their trust in [the Lord] will lack strength” (1 Mac. 2:50, 61).

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites” painted by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).


  • Jeffrey Tranzillo

    Jeffrey Tranzillo earned his doctorate in theology at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of John Paul II on the Vulnerable (CUA Press, 2013). Some of his recent articles have appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and he posts others on his own website,

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...