1902 Encyclopedia > Levites


LEVITES (____), or sons of Levi Ç)7. are defined according to the usual methods of Hebrew genealogical history as the descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob by Leah (Gen. xxix. 34). But in Hebrew genealogies we are not necessarily entitled to look upon the eponymus of a tribe as more than an ideal personality, and, without entering into the large question how far the patriarchal history may be held to furnish exceptions to this rule, it may be observed that the only narrative in which, on a literal interpretation, Levi appears as a person (Gen. xxxiv.) bears internal evidence of the intention of the author to delineate under the form of personification events in the history of the tribes of Levi and Simeon which must have taken place after the sojourn of Israel in Egypt. The same events are alluded to in Gen. xlix. 5-7, where Simeon and Levi are plainly spoken of as communities with a communal assembly ('pnp). They were allied tribes or brothers ; their onslaught on the Shechemites was condemned by the rest of Israel ; it took place before the Hebrews had passed from pastoral to settled life (ver. 5, " instruments of violence are their shepherds' staves ") ; and its results were disastrous to the actors, when their cause was disavowed by their brethren. The Bnê Hamoi regained possession of Shechem, as we know from Judges ix., and both the assailing tribes were scattered through Israel, and failed to secure an independent territorial position. The details of this curious portion of the earliest Hebrew history must remain obscure ; the narrative in Gen. xxxiv. does not really place them in so clear a light as the briefer reference in Gen. xlix. ; for the former chapter has been recast and largely added to by a late writer, who looks upon the action of the brethren in the light of the priestly legislation, and judges it much more favourably than is done in Gen. xlix. In post-canonical Judaism the favourable view of the zeal of Levi and Simeon becomes still more dominant (Judith ix. 2 sq.. ; B. Jubil., chap. xxx. ; and especially Theodotus, ap. Polyhistor, in Midler's Frag-menta, iii. 217 sq.), and the curse of Jacob on the ferocity of his sons is quite forgotten. In the oldest history, however, the treachery of Levi and Simeon towards a com-munity which had received the right of connubium with Israel is represented as a crime, which imperilled the posi-tion of the Hebrews and was fatal to the future of the tribes directly involved.

But while the Levites were scattered throughout Israel their name does not disappear from the roll of the tribes. In the Blessing of Moses (Deut. xxxiii.), where Simeon is passed over, Levi still appears, not as a territorial tribe but as the collective name for the priesthood. The priesthood meant is that of the northern kingdom under the dynasty of Jehu, to which the chapter in question belongs; and in fact we know that the priests of the important northern sanctuary of Dan traced their origin to a Levite (Jud. xvii. 9), Jonathan the son of Gershom, the son of Moses (Jud. xviii. 30). That the Judrean priesthood were also known as Levites in the later times of the kingdom appears from the book of Deuteromony, especially from x. 8 sq., xviii. 1 sq. ; and we learn from Ezek. xliv. 10 sq. that the Judfean Levites were not confined to the service of the temple, but included the priests of the local high places abolished by Josiah. Alike in Judah and in the north the priestly prerogative of Levi was traced back to the days of Moses (Deut. x. 8, xxxiii. 8); but in later times at least the Judaean priesthood did not acknowledge the Levitical status of their northern colleagues (1 Kings xii. 31). It must, however, be observed that the prophets Amos and Hosea never speak of the northern priesthood as illegitimate, and Hosea iv. certainly implies the opposite. Presumably it was only after the fall of Samaria, and the introduction of large foreign elements into the population of the north, that the southern priests began to disavow the ministers of the sanctuaries of Samaria, most of whom can no longer have been representatives of the old priesthood as it existed before the northern captivity (2 Kings xvii. 28, comp. Amos vii. 17, Jud. xviii. 30, 2 Kings xxiii. 20, in contrast with verses 8 sq.).

In the most developed form of the hierarchical system the ministers of the sanctuary are divided into two grades. All are regarded as Levites by descent, but the mass of the Levites are mere subordinate ministers not entitled to approach the altar or perform any strictly priestly function, and the true priesthood is confined to the descendants of Aaron. In the documents which reveal to us the actual state of the priesthood in the northern and southern kingdoms before the exile, there is no trace of this distinction. Every Levite is a priest, or at least is qualified to become such (Deut. x. 8. xviii. 7). The subordinate and menial offices of the tabernacle are not assigned to members of a holy guild ; in Jerusalem at least they were mainly discharged by members of the royal body-guard (the Cardans and footmen, 2 Kings xi. 4, Heb.), or by bond slaves, the ancestors of the later Nethinim,—in either case by men who might even be uncircumcised foreigners (Ezek. xliv. 7 sq.). A Levitical priest was a legitimate priest; when the author of 1 Kings xii. 31 wishes to represent Jeroboam's priests as illegal he contents himself with saying that they were not taken from the sons of Levi. The first historical trace of a modification of this state of things is found in connexion with the suppression of the local high places by Josiah, when their priests were brought to Jerusalem and received their support from the temple offerings, but were not permitted to minister at the altar (2 Kings xxiii. 9). The priests of the temple, the sons of Zadok, were not prepared to concede to their provincial brethren all the privileges which Deut. xviii. had proposed in compensation for the loss of their local ministry. Ezekiel, after the fall of the temple, in planning a scheme of ritual for the new temple, raises this practical exclusion from the altar to the rank of a principle. In the new temple the Levites who had ministered before the local altars shall be punished by exclusion from proper priestly work, and shall fill the subordinate offices of the sanctuary in place of the foreigners who had hitherto occupied them, but shall not be permitted to pollute Jehovah's house in future by their presence (Ezek. xliv. 7 sq.). After the exile this principle was actually carried out; priests and Levites are distinguished in the list of the Jews who returned under the decree of Cyrus (Ezra ii. ; Neh. vii.); but the former, that is, the descendants of the pre-exilic priests of the royal temple, greatly outnumber the Levites or descend-ants of the priests of the high places. At this time other classes of temple servants, the singers, the porters, the Nethinim or slaves of the sanctuary, and the children of Solomon's slaves, whose hereditary service would, on Eastern principles, give them a pre-eminence over other slaves of the sanctuary, are also still distinguished from the Levites ; but these distinctions lost their significance when the word Levite itself came to mean a subordinate minister. In the time of Nehemiah, Levites and singers, Levites and porters, are very much run into one (Neh. xi., xii., xiii.), and ultimately the absorption of the other classes of subordinate ministers into the hereditary guild of Levites is formally expressed in the shape of genealogies, deriving the singers, and even families whose heathenish and foreign names show them to have originally belonged to the Nethinim, from the ancient stock of Levi.

The new hierarchical system found its legal basis in the Pentateuch, or rather in the so-called priestly legislation, first publicly accepted as an integral part of the Torah under Ezra and Nehemiah. Here the exclusion of the Levites from all share in the proper priesthood of the sons of Aaron is precisely formulated (Num. iii. sq.); their service is regulated from the point of view that they are essentially the servants and hereditary serfs of the priests (iii. 9), while, on the other hand, they are recognized as possessing a higher grade of holiness than the mass of the people, and are endowed with the tithes, of which in turn they pay a tithe to the priests (Num. xviii. 21 sq.). These regulations as to tithes were enforced by Nehemiah; but the subordinate position of the Levites was hardly consistent with their permanent enjoyment of revenues of such importance, and we learn from the Talmud that they were finally transferred to the priests. Another provision of the law, viz., the assignation to the Levites of certain cities with a definite measure of inalienable pasture ground (Num. xxxv. ; Lev. xxv. 34), was apparently never put in force after the exile.

As the priestly legislation carried its ordinances back into the time of Moses (see PENTATEUCH), SO the later developments of the Levitical service as they existed in the time of the Chronicler about the close of the 4th century B.C. are referred by that author to David (1 Chron. xv., xvi., xxiii.) or to Hezekiah (2 Chron. xxix.) and Josiah (2 Chron. xxxv.). The chief point is the development of the musical service of the temple, which has no place in the Pentateuch, but afterwards came to be of the first import-ance, as we see from the Psalter, and attracted the special attention of Greek observers (Theophrastus, ap. Porph., De Abstin., ii. 26).

While it is not difficult to trace the history of the Levites from the time of the Blessing of Moses and Deuteronomy downwards, the links connecting the priestly tribe with the earlier fortunes of the tribe of Levi are hardly to be determined with any certainty.

According to the traditional view the scheme of the Levitical legislation, with its double hierarchy of priests and Levites, is of Mosaic ordinance. But there are many proofs that in the Pen-tateuch, as we possess it, divergent ordinances, dating from very different ages, are all carried back by means of a legal convention to the time of the wilderness journey. And, if the complete hier-archical theory as it existed after the exile was really the work of Moses, it is inexplicable that all trace of it was so completely lost ! in the time of the monarchy, that Ezekiel speaks of the degradation | of the non-Zadokite Levites as a new thing and as a punishment for their share in the sin of the high places, and that no clear evidence | of the existence of a distinction between priests and Levites has i been found in any Hebrew writing demonstrably earlier than the | exile. It is indeed argued that the narrative of the rebellion of Koran,, and the list of Levitical cities in Josh. xxi., imply that the precepts of the post-exile law were practically recognized by Moses and Joshua; hut it is certain that the distribution spoken of in Josh. xxi. did not take place at the time of the conquest, because many of the cities named were either not occupied by the Hebrews till long afterwards, or, if conquered, were not held by Levites. The Levitical cities of Joshua are indeed largely identical with ancient holy cities (Hebron, Shechem, Mahanaim, &c); but in ancient Israel a holy city was one which possessed a noted sanctuary (often of Canaanite origin), not one the inhabitants of which belonged to the holy tribe. These sanctuaries had of course their local priest-hoods, which in the time of the monarchy were all called Levitical; and it is only in this sense, not in that of the priestly legislation, that a town like Shechem can ever have been Levitical. So again the narrative of Koran proves on critical examination to be of com-posite origin ; the parts of it which represent Korah as a common Levite in rebellion against the priesthood of Aaron belong to a late date, and the original form of the history knows nothing of the later hierarchical system.

We are thus compelled to give up the idea of carrying back the distinction of Levites and Aaronites in the later sense to the time of Moses, and are excluded from using the priestly parts of the Pentateuch and Joshua as a source for the earliest history of the tribe. It still, however, remains certain that under the monarchy the priestly consecration of Levi was referred to the time of Moses, who was himself a member of the tribe, and in Deut. x. 8 the functions of Levi are specially connected with the Mosaic sanctuary of the ark. Now we know from 1 Sam. ii. 27 sq. that the priests of the ark in the period of the Judges claimed descent from the family of Moses ; and the case of Micah's Levite shows that a descendant of Moses was regarded as a peculiarly fit priest. Tiie whole evidence conspires to show that from the time of Moses downward his kin had a certain hereditary prerogative in connexion with the worship of Jehovah. In the earliest times the ritual of Jehovah's sanctuary had not attained such a development as to occupy a whole tribe ; but if, as appears probable, the mass of the tribe of Levi was almost annihilated in the first age after Moses, the name of Levite might very well continue to be known only in connexion with those of the tribe who traced kin with Moses or remained by the sanctuary. The multiplication of Hebrew holy places was effected partly by syncretism with the Canaanites, partly in other ways that had nothing to do with the Mosaic sanctuary, and so a variety of priestly guilds arose which certainly cannot have been all of Levitical descent. But, as the nation was consolidated and a uniform system of sacred law, referred to Moses as its originator, came to be administered all over the land, in the hands of the ministers of the greater sanctuaries, the various guilds must have been drawn together and have aimed at forming such a united body as we find described in Deut. xxxiii.; and this unity would find a natural expression in the extension of the name of Levites to all priesthoods recognized by the state. If this was the course ol things we can hardly suppose that the term came into large use til] the Israelites were consolidated under the monarchy, and in fact the integrity of the text in 1 Sam. vi. 15, 2 Sam. xv. 24, as well as 1 Kings viii. 4, is open to question. Up to the time of David and Jeroboam, as appears from the cases of Samuel, Zadok, Eleazai (1 Sam. vii. 1), and the sons of David (2 Sam. viii. 18), as well as from 1 Kings xii. 31, the priesthood was not essentially hereditary; but, like all occupations that required traditional know, ledge, it must have tended to become more and more so, so that all priests would appear as Levites by adoption if not by descent, ffellhausen (Gcsch., i. 139) has argued from Deut. xxxiii. 9 that the northern priesthood was notan hereditary guild, but involved the surrender of all family connexion ; the words, however, are more naturally understood as praise of the judicial impartiality which refused to be influenced by family ties. Our data are too scanty to clear up the details of this interesting piece of history ; but it can hardly be doubted that the development of a consolidated and hereditary priestly corporation in all the sanctuaries was closely bound up with the unification of the state and the absorption of tribal organization in the monarchy. The reaction of tribal feeling against the central government, of which there are many traces in the history of Ephraim, has perhaps its counterpart in the opposi-tion to the unified priesthood which is alluded to in Deut. xxxiii. 11.

There have been many attempts on the part of recent writers from the time of Vatke downwards to deny that Levi was one of the original tribes of Israel, but they all break down before the testi-mony of Gen. xlix. See especially Kuenen's refutation of the theory of Land, Theol. Tijdsch., 1872, p. 628 sq. ; and for the latest aspects of the whole subject Graf in Merx's Archiv, vol. i. (1869), "Zur Geschichte des Stammes Levi" ; Wellhansen, Gesch., i. p. 123 sq. ; Stade, Gesch. d. V. Israels, p. 152 sq. (W. B. S.)


According to Wellhausen's analysis (Jahrb. f. B. Theol., xxi. 435 sq.), the old narrative consisted of Gen. xxxiv. 3, 7*, 11, 12, 19, 25*, 26*, 30, 31, the asterisk denoting that only parts of the verses marked by it are ancient. The latest and most satisfactory discussion is that of Kuenen (Theol. Tijclsch., xiv. 257 sq.), in which the opposite view of Dillmann (Genesis, ad I.) is fully refuted.
It is generally agreed that Moses (ilCD) is the true reading. The

later Jews corrected the name to Manasseh by inserting tiie letter 3, but did not venture to do so except above the line (rifc^D), so that 'the reading of the archetype can still be restored.

See the details, and the proof that the later Levites included men whose actual ancestry belonged to other tribes, in Ewald's Geschichtc, iii. 380; Wellhausen, Geschichte, i. 152, 229; Graf in Merx's Archiv, i. 231.
See Mishna, Maaser Sheni, chap. v. end, and the Jerusalem Gemara (iii. 259 of Schwab's translation); Yebamoth, f. 86a; Carpzov, App. ad Godw., p. 624; and Hottingor, DeDec., vi. 8, ix. 17.

The recent defence of the traditional view by S. I. Curtiss (The Levitical Priests, 1877) still seeks such evidence in 1 Kings viii. 4. But there are many evidences that the text of this part of Kings has undergone considerable editing at a pretty late date. The LXX. translators did not read the clause which speaks of '(priests and Levites," and the Chronicler read " the Levite priests,"—the phrase characteristic of the Deuteronomie identification of priestly and Levitical ministry.
See the latest researches of Kuenen, Theol. Tijdsch., xii.
139 sq., where other recent discussions of the chapter are cited and examined.

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