No Dictionary Entry for Levites
International Standard Bible EncyclopediaPRIESTS AND LEVITES
(kohen, "priest"; nothing is definitely known as to the origin of the word; Lewi, "Levite," on which see LEVI):
I. DIFFERENT VIEWS OF THE HISTORY
1. The Old View
2. The Graf-Wellhausen View
3. Mediating Views
4. An Alternative View
II. THE DATA OF THE PRIESTLY CODE (P) IN THE PENTATEUCH
1. The Levites
2. Aaron and His Sons
III. THE OTHER PORTIONS OF THE PENTATEUCH
IV. FROM MOSES TO MALACHI
1. The Sources Other than Ezekiel
(1) The Custody of the Ark
(2) On Its Return from the Philistines
(3) In Abinadab's House
V. EZRA, NEHEMIAH, CHRONICLES
1. Estimates of the Chronicler
2. His Data
VI. LEGAL PROVISIONS
In some Minaean inscriptions found at El-`Ola, dating back about 1200-800 B.C. (Hommel in Hilprecht, Explorations in Bible Lands, 719), certain "priests and priestesses of the god Wadd are designated by the term lawi, feminine lawi`at" (op. cit., 749). It is not known whether this is due to Israelite influence.
I. Different Views of the History.
1. The Old View:
There are great divergences of opinion among modern writers as to the true course of history and the dating of the different documents. It will therefore be best to sketch these views in rough outline, and then give the evidence of the various authorities, together with the reasons that in each case arise naturally from the consideration of that evidence.
The old belief was that the whole of the Pentateuchal laws were the work of Moses, that the account of the subsequent history given in the Books of Chronicles was correct, that Ezekiel's vision, if taken literally, could not be reconciled with the other known facts and was inexplicable, and that in the case of all other discrepancies harmonistic explanations should be adopted.
2. The Graf-Wellhausen View:
The modern critical school have traversed every one of these doctrines. The Chronicler is declared to be in constant and irreconcilable conflict with the older authorities, harmonistic explanations are uniformly rejected, the Pentateuch is denied to Moses and split up into a variety of sources of different ages, and Ezekiel gains a place of honor as representing a stage in a continuous and normal development. The subject is thus inextricably linked with the Pentateuchal problem, and reference must be made to the article PENTATEUCH for an explanation of the supposed documents and a consideration of the analysis with its nomenclature. On the other hand the present article and the article SANCTUARY (which see) explain and discuss the most widely held theory of the historical development into which the history of the supposed Pentateuchal sources has been fitted.
The dominant theory is that of Wellhausen. According to this, "Levite" was originally a term denoting professional skill, and the early Levites were not members of the tribe of Levi, but professional priests. Anybody could sacrifice. "For a simple altar no priest was required, but only for a house which contained a sacred image; this demanded watching and attendance" (Wellhausen, Prolegomena, 130). The whole Levitical Law was unknown and the distinction between priests and Levites unheard of. There were a few great sanctuaries and one influential priesthood, that of Shiloh (afterward at Nob). With the monarchy the priesthood became more important. The royal priests at Jerusalem grew in consequence and influence until they overshadowed all the others. Deuteronomy recognized the equal priestly right of all Levites, and Josiah's reformation placed the sons of Zadok, who were the priests of Jerusalem and not descendants of Aaron, in a position of decisive superiority. Then Ezekiel drew a new and previously unknown distinction between "the priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok" who are "keepers of the charge of the altar," and the other Levites who were made "keepers of the charge of the house" as a punishment for having ministered in the high places. The Priestly Code takes up this distinction and represents it as being of Mosaic origin, making of the sons of Zadok "sons of Aaron." "In this way arose as an illegal consequence of Josiah's reformation, the distinction between priests and Levites. With Ezekiel this distinction is still an innovation requiring justification and sanction; with the Priestly Code it is a `statute forever,' although even yet not absolutely undisputed, as appears from the priestly version of the story of Korah's company. For all Judaism subsequent to Ezra, and so for Christian tradition, the Priestly Code in this matter also has been authoritative. Instead of the Deuteronomic formula `the priests the Levites,' we henceforward have `the priests and the Levites,' particularly in Chronicles" (op. cit., 147). From that time onward the priests and Levites are two sharply distinguished classes. It is an essential part of this theory that the Chronicler meant his work to be taken as literal history, correctly representing the true meaning of the completed law.
3. Mediating Views:
There have been various attempts to construct less thoroughgoing theories on the same data. As a rule, these views accept in some form the documentary theory of the Pentateuch and seek to modify the Wellhausen theory in two directions, either by attributing earlier dates to one or more of the Pentateuchal documents-especially to the Priestly Code-or else by assigning more weight to some of the statements of Chronicles (interpreted literally). Sometimes both these tendencies are combined. None of these views has met with any great measure of success in the attempt to make headway against the dominant Wellhausen theory, and it will be seen later that all alike make shipwreck on certain portions of the evidence.
4. An Alternative View:
The independent investigations on which the present article is based have led the writer to a view that diverges in important particulars from any of these, and it is necessary to state it briefly before proceeding to the evidence. In one respect it differs from all the rival schemes, not merely in result, but also in method, for it takes account of versional evidence as to the state of the texts. Subject to this it accepts the Mosaic authenticity of all the Pentateuchal legislation and the clear and consentient testimony of the Law and the Prophets (i.e. of the two earlier and more authoritative portions of the Hebrew Canon), while regarding Chronicles as representing a later interpretation, not merely of the history, but also of the legal provisions. In outline the story of the priesthood is then as follows: Moses consecrated Aaron and his sons as the priests of the desert tabernacle. He purified the rest of the tribe of Levi as a body of sacred porters for the period of wanderings, but in the legislation of Numbers he made no provision whatever for their performing any duties after the sanctuary obtained a permanent location. At the same time he gave a body of priestly teaching requiring for its administration in settled conditions a numerous and scattered body of priests, such as the house of Aaron alone could not have provided immediately after the entry into Canaan. To meet this, Deuteronomy-the last legislative work of Moses-contains provisions enlarging the rights and duties of the Levites and conferring on them a priestly position. The earlier distinction was thus largely obliterated, though the high-priestly dignity remained in the house of Aaron till the time of Solomon, when it was transferred from the house of Eli to that of Zadok, who, according to Ezekiel's testimony, was a Levite (but see below, IV, 1). So matters remained till the exile, when Ezekiel put forward a scheme which together with many ideal elements proposed reforms to insure the better application of the Mosaic principle of the distinction between holy and profane to greatly altered circumstances. Taking his inspiration from the wilderness legislation, he instituted a fresh division in the tribe of Levi, giving to the sons of Zadok a position similar to that once held by the sons of Aaron, and degrading all other Levites from the priesthood conferred on them by Deuteronomy to a lower rank. The duties now assigned to this class of "keepers of the charge of the house" were never even contemplated by Moses, but Ezekiel applies to them the old phrases of the Pentateuch which he invests with a new significance. As a result of his influence, the distinction between priests and Levites makes its appearance in post-exilic times, though it had been unknown to all the writers of the second division of the Hebrew Canon. At the same time a meaning was read into the provisions of the Law which their original author could not have contemplated, and it was this interpretation which is presented (at any rate to some extent) in Chronicles, and has given us the current tradition. Many of the Chronicler's statements are, however, not meant to be taken literally, and could not have been so taken by his original public.
II. The Data of the Priestly Code (P) in the Pentateuch.
1. The Levites:
To arrive at an objective conclusion it is necessary, in the first instance, to examine the facts without such bias as any view put forward by any other author, ancient or modern, sacred or profane, might impart. Every legislator is entitled to be judged on his own language, and where he has, so to speak, made his own dictionary, we are compelled to read his meaning into the terms used. The very first of the material references to the Levites drives this truth home. "But appoint thou the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all the furniture thereof" (Numbers 1:50). It is necessary to consider whether such expressions are to be read in a wide or a narrow sense. We learn from Numbers 18:3 that death would be the result of a Levite's touching any of these vessels, and it therefore appears that these words are meant to be construed narrowly. "They shall bear the tabernacle, and all the furniture thereof; and they shall minister unto it," are the next words (1:50); but yet we read later of the Kohathites who were to bear it that "they shall not touch the sanctuary, lest they die" (4:15). This shows that the service in question is strictly limited to a service of porterage after the articles have been wrapped up by Aaron and his sons. By no possibility could it include such a task as cleaning the vessels. It is then further directed that the Levites are to take down and set up the dwelling and camp round about it. All these are desert services and desert services only. Then we read that "the Levites shall keep the charge of the tabernacle (dwelling) of the testimony. This concludes the first material passage (Numbers 1:50-53). The other passages of Numbers only amplify these directions; they never change them. But some phrases are used which must be more particularly considered.
(1) Technical Phrases.
We hear that the Levites are "to serve the service of the tent of meeting," and this looks as if it might refer to some general duties, but the context and the kindred passages always forbid this interpretation. Numbers 7:5 ff; is an admirable instance. Six wagons are there assigned to the Levites for this service, two to the Gershonites and four to the Merarites. "But unto the sons of Kohath he gave none, because the service of the sanctuary belonged unto them; they bare it upon their shoulders." Here service is transport and nothing else. Again we read of the charge of the Levites in the tent of meeting, e.g. 4:25 f. If we look to see what this was, we find that it consisted of transporting portions of the tent that had been packed up. The "in" of English Versions of the Bible does not represent the meaning of the Hebrew fairly; for the context makes it clear that the legislator means "in respect to." "But they shall not go in to see the sanctuary even for a moment, lest they die" (4:20). In English idiom we cannot speak of the transport of portions of a dismantled tent as service in that tent. One other expression requires notice, the phrase "keep the charge" which is distinguished in 8:26 from "doing service." The exact meaning cannot be determined. It appears to denote something kindred to service, but of a less exacting nature, perhaps the camping round the tent and the guardianship of the articles on the march. We shall see hereafter by comparison with other books that in P it does not bear the same meaning as elsewhere.
(2) Other Legal Provisions.
The Levites were to act under the orders of Aaron and his sons, who were to assign to each man his individual functions (Numbers 3; Numbers 4, etc.). They were to undergo a special rite of purification (Numbers 8), but not of consecration. They were taken in place of the firstborn (Numbers 3). The age for beginning service is given in Numbers 4 as 30 years, but in Numbers 8:24 as 25 years, if the text is sound. The age for ceasing to serve was 50. In many passages the versions suggest that a good many phrases are textually doubtful, and it is probable that when a critical text of the Pentateuch is formed on scientific principles, a good many superfluous expressions will be found not to be original; but there is no reason to suppose that any real difference in the meaning of the passages would be revealed by such a text.
The story of Korah is easily misunderstood. It appears from Numbers 16:3 that his real object was to put himself on an equality with Moses and Aaron, and this is the "priesthood" referred to in 16:10. Numbers 18 reinforces the earlier passages. It is noteworthy as showing that in the conception of the legislator the Levites were not to come near the vessels or the altar (18:3). The penalty is death for both Levites and priests.
(3) Contrast with Ezekiel and Chronicles.
The impression as to the meaning of P which may be gathered from an examination of its statements is powerfully reinforced when they are tested by reference to Ezekiel and Chronicles, Ezekiel 44:9-14 seems to demand of the Levites some service as gatekeepers, the slaying of burnt offering and sacrifice for the people and a keeping of "the charge of the house, for all the service thereof," which in the light of 44:7 appears to mean in his terminology, not a service of transport, but an entry into the house and the performance of certain duties there. The Priestly Code (P), on the contrary, knows nothing of gatekeepers, regards the slaying of the burnt offering and sacrifice as the duty of the individual sacrificant (Leviticus 1; Leviticus 3), and-if, as Wellhausen thinks, it refers to the temple-it would have visited with death a Levite who was present in the places in which Ezekiel requires him to minister. Similarly with the Chronicler. For instance, he the Levites being `for the service of the.... in the courts and over the chambers, and over the cleansing of every holy thing' (1 Chronicles 23:28), but P knows nothing of any chambers, would not have allowed the Levites to touch (much less clean) many of the holy things, and regarded service simply as porterage. In 1 Chronicles 23:31 the Levites are to offer burnt offerings on certain occasions; in P their approach to the altar would have meant death both to themselves and the priests (Numbers 18:3). Other instances will be found in PS, 238 f.
(4) What the Foregoing Proves.
In view of these facts it is impossible to hold that the Levites in P represent a projection of the Levites of the second temple or any post-Mosaic age into the desert period. To P they are a body of sacred porters. The temple of course could not be carried about, and it cannot be held that in this respect the legislation mirrors later circumstances. "Secondly, the net result of such a scheme would be to create a body of Levites for use during the period of wanderings and never thereafter. As soon as the desert age was over the whole tribe would find their occupation gone. How can we conceive that any legislator deliberately sat down and invented such a scheme centuries after the epoch to which it relates, well knowing that in so far as his scheme purported to be a narrative of events it was fictitious from beginning to end, and in so far as it might be regarded as a legislation applicable to his own or any future day, there was not a line in it that could conceivably be put into practice? If any theorist can be conceived as acting in this way, how are we to suppose that his work would meet with acceptance?.... Thirdly, P neither embodies the views of Ezekiel nor finds an accurate reflection in Chronicles. The facts are such as to enable us to say definitely that P is not in line with them. It is impossible to assume that he appointed the death penalty for certain acts if performed by Levites because he really wished the Levites to perform those acts" (PS, 241).
2. Aaron and His Sons:
Priests and Levites also speaks of Aaron the priest and the sons of Aaron the priest. It is doubtful whether the expression "the sons of Aaron the priests," which occurs frequently in the Massoretic Text, is ever original; the Massoretic expression is nowhere supported by all the authorities. "The phrase `Aaron the high priest' is entirely unknown to Priests and Levites. Where the high priest's name is given the only qualifying apposition possible in his usage is `the priest.' " Aaron and his sons, unlike the Levites, were consecrated, not merely purified.
At this point two features only of the legislation need be noticed: the inadequacy of the staff to post-conquest conditions and the signs of date. For example, the leprosy laws (Leviticus 13 f) postulate the presence of priests to inspect and isolate the patient. "Remembering that on the critical theory P assumes the capital at Jerusalem as self-evident, we must ask how such provisions were to work after the conquest. During the desert period nothing could have been simpler, but what was to happen when the Israelites dwelt all over Canaan from Beersheba to Dan?" (PS, 246). The difficulty is immensely increased if we postulate an exilic or post-exilic date, when the Jewish center of gravity was in Babylonia and there were large colonies in Egypt and elsewhere. And "What are we to say when we read of leprous garments (Leviticus 13:47)? Was a man to make the pilgrimage from Babylonia to Jerusalem to consult a priest about a doubtful garment? And what about the leper's offerings in Leviticus 14 ? Could they conceivably have been meant to apply to such circumstances?" (PS, 247). The case is no better with the law of leprous houses, which is expressed to apply to the post-conquest period (Leviticus 4:33-5:3). The notification to the priest and his inspections require a priesthood scattered all over the country, i.e. a body far more numerous than the house of Aaron at the date of the conquest. Such instances could easily be multiplied from the legislation; one more only will be cited on account of its importance to the history of the priesthood. According to Leviticus, the individual sacrificant is to kill the victims and flay the burnt offerings. How could such procedure be applied to such sacrifices as those of Solomon (1 Kings 8:63)? With the growth of luxury the sacrifices would necessarily become too large for such a ritual, and the wealthy would grow in refinement and object to performing such tasks personally. This suggests the reason for later abuses and for the modifications of Ezekiel and the representations of the Chronicler.
Result of the Evidence.
Thus, the evidence of P is unfavorable alike to the Wellhausen and the mediating views. The indications of date are consistently Mosaic, and it seems impossible to fit the laws into the framework of any other age without reading them in a sense that the legislator can be shown not to have contemplated. On the other hand P is a torso. It provides a large body of Levites who would have nothing to do after the conquest, and a corpus of legislation that could not have been administered in settled conditions by the house of Aaron alone.
III. The Other Portions of the Pentateuch.
In Exodus 19:22, 24 we read of priests, but a note has come down to us that in the first of those verses Aquila had "elders," not "priests," and this appears to be the correct reading in both places, as is shown by the prominence of the elders in the early part of the chapter. In Hebrew the words differ by only two letters. It is said by Wellhausen that in Exodus 33:7-11 (E) Joshua has charge of the ark. This rests on a mistranslation of Exodus 33:7, which should be rendered (correcting English Versions of the Bible), `And Moses used to take a (or the) tent and pitch it for himself without the camp.' It is inconceivable that Moses should have taken the tent of the ark and removed it to a distance from the camp for his private use, leaving the ark bared and unguarded. Moreover, if he had done so, Joshua could not have been in charge of the ark, seeing that he was in this tent while the ark (ex hypothesi) remained in the camp. Nor had the ark yet been constructed. Nor was Joshua in fact a priest or the guardian of the ark in E:
(1) in the Book of Joshua E knows of priests who carry the ark and are quite distinct from Joshua (3;);
(2) in Deuteronomy 31:14 (E) Joshua is not resident in the tent of meeting;
(3) in E, Aaron and Eleazar are priests (Deuteronomy 10:6), and the Levitical priesthood is the only one recognized (Deuteronomy 33:10);
(4) there is no hint anywhere of Joshua's discharging any priestly duty whatsoever.
The whole case rests on his presence in the tent in Exodus 33:7-11, and, as shown in the article PENTATEUCH (which see), this passage should stand after Exodus 13:22.
Then it is said that in Exodus 4:14 Judges 17:7, "Levite" denotes profession, not ancestry. In the latter passage the youth whom Micah made a priest was of Levitical descent, being the grandson of Moses (Judges 17:13), and the case rests on the phrase, "of the family of Judah." Neither of the Septuagintal translations had this text (Field, Hexapla, at the place), which therefore cannot be supported, since it cannot be suggested that Moses belonged to the tribe of Judah. As to Exodus 4:14, the phrase "Aaron thy brother the Levite" is merely an adaptation of the more usual, "Aaron, son of Amram, the Levite," rendered necessary by the fact that his brother Moses is the person addressed. The Wellhausen theory here is shown to be untenable in PS, 250 and RE3, XI, 418.
Exodus 32:26-29 foreshadows the sacred character of Levi, and Deuteronomy 10:6 (E) knows the hereditary Aaronic priesthood. In D the most important passage is Deuteronomy 18:6-8. In 18:7 three Septuagintal manuscripts omit the words "the Levites," and if this be a gloss, the whole historic sense of the passage is changed. It now contains an enactment that any Levite coming to the religious capital may minister there "as all his brethren do, who stand there," etc., i.e. like the descendants of Aaron. "The Levites" will then be the explanation of a glossator who was imbued with the latest post-exilic ideas, and thought that "his brethren" must mean those of his fellow-Levites who were not descended from Aaron. The passage is supplemented by 21:5, giving to the Levites judicial rights, and 24:8 assigning to them the duty of teaching the leprosy regulations. Together with 33:10 (E), `they shall teach thy judgments to Jacob and thy law to Israel: they shall put incense in thy nostrils and whole burnt-offering on thine altar,' these passages complete the provisions of P in giving to the Levites an occupation in place of their transport duties, and providing the necessary staff for administering the legislation when the Israelites were no longer massed together in a single camp, but scattered over the country. We shall see in the next section that this view of the meaning of the Law was taken by every writer of the second part of the Canon who touches on the subject. Everywhere we are confronted with the legitimacy of a Levitical priesthood; nowhere is there any mention of an exclusive Aaronic right. Smaller points which cannot be discussed here are examined in PS. It only remains to notice that these provisions fully explain the frequent Deuteronomic locution, "the priests the Levites." One other remark must be made. Though it is not expressly stated, we may assume that consecration would be necessary in the case of any Levite acting on the provisions of Deuteronomy 18:6-8, and was not mentioned because in Hebrew antiquity it went without saying that every priest must be consecrated (compare Judges 17).
IV. From Moses to Malachi.
1. The Sources Other than Ezekiel:
Joshua adds but little to our information. In 18:7 the priesthood is called the inheritance of the Levites, and it is singular that the Wellhausen critics attribute this to a priestly redactor, though such a writer should ex hypothesi have been jealous to withhold the priesthood from the Levites. It is very interesting to find that in Joshua 3; Joshua 4, all the different critical documents speak in exactly the same terms of "the priests that bare the ark." The priestly writer ought, on the Wellhausen theory, to have said "the Levites." The expression "the priests the Levites" is found alternating with the expression "the priests." All this points to the construction put upon the provisions of the Law in the preceding section, and finds fresh confirmation in Judges, where we see Micah rejoicing at having a Levite as a priest (Judges 17:13), thus showing that the sacred character of the tribe was recognized in the earliest post-Mosaic times. The lay sacrifices in this and the following books are explained under SANCTUARY; SACRIFICE (which see).
The period of the early kings shows us kings blessing the people (e.g. 2 Samuel 6:18). It is claimed that this is the priestly blessing, but without evidence, and there seems no more reason to see special priestly rights here than in David's blessing his household (2 Samuel 6:20), or the frequent blessings of the Bible (e.g. Genesis passim, especially "in thee will Israel bless," Genesis 48:20), while in 1 Kings 8:55 ff; we actually have the words of the blessing delivered on one of those occasions by Solomon, and it is quite unlike the blessing of the priests (Numbers 6:22;).
Textual criticism disposes of the supposed priesthood of certain non-Levitical persons. In 2 Samuel 8:18 the Massoretic Text makes David's sons "priests," but this reading was unknown to the Septuagint, Symmachus, and Theodotion (Field, ad. loc.). The Septuagint has "aularches," i.e. chamberlains. That this represents a different Hebrew word is proved by the Septuagintal list of 3 Ki 2:46 (not extant in Hebrew), where we read that Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, was "over the aularchy and over the brick-making." It cannot be suggested that this represents an original Hebrew "over the priesthood and over the brick-making," and accordingly we must concede the existence of some secular court office which was rendered by this Greek phrase. Hitzig and Cheyne conjecture that tsokhenim should be read for kohanim. This word gives the sense required (see Isaiah 22:15) Revised Version margin "steward"). In 2 Samuel 20:26 we read that Ira, ha-ya'iri ("the Jairite"), was a priest, but the Syriac version supported by Lucian and 23:38 reads ha-yattiri ("the Jattirite"). Jattir was a priestly city. In 1 Kings 4:5 Nathan's son is described as `priest friend of the king,' but the Septuagint reads only "friend of the king" (compare especially 1 Chronicles 27:33 ff; 2 Samuel 15:32), and at another period Nathan's son held the kindred secular office of king's counselor (the Septuagint 3 Ki 2:46, a fact that is certainly unfavorable to the view that he ever held priestly office). There can therefore be no doubt that the word "priest," kohen has arisen through dittography of the preceding word nathan, Nathan.
Various dealings with the ark and the age of Samuel require notice. As a boy, Samuel himself is given into the service of Eli. It has been argued that he really officiated as a priest, though probably (if the Chronicler's data is rejected) not of the Levitical descent. The answer is to be found in his age. Weaning sometimes took place at as late an age as three, and accordingly, the boy may have been as much as four years old when he was taken to Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:24). His mother used to bring him a little cloak (1 Samuel 2:19) every year, and this notice also shows his extreme youth. In view of this, it cannot be seriously contended that he performed any priestly service. He must have been something like a page, and he performed some duties of a porter, opening the door-valves of the temple at Shiloh (1 Samuel 3:15).
(1) The Custody of the Ark
When the ark was captured by the Philistines, it was in the charge of priests. When David brought it to Jerusalem, it was again placed in priestly custody, but there is an interregnum of some 20 years (1 Samuel 7:2).
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COURSE OF PRIESTS AND LEVITES
See PRIESTS AND LEVITES.
See PRIESTS AND LEVITES.