04 May 2022

Levites: A tribe of priests.

If you’ve heard of “the 12 tribes of Israel,” I remind you ancient Israel had 13 tribes, not 12. Yet the bible regularly, consistently refers to the 12 tribes, because it’s referring to the tribes which had land, which had territory we could see on a map, designating their borders and landmass. One of the tribes had no such territory. Just cities—which were located without the boundaries of the other tribes. The tribe wasn’t on the map, so it wasn’t listed with the 12.

This tribe would be Levi, the descendants of Levi ben Israel, Jacob and Leah’s third son. He’s notorious for plotting with his elder brother Simeon to kill a Canaanite who raped their sister… and while they were at it, kill every last man in the rapist’s city. Ge 34 Jacob greatly disapproved of his homicidal sons, and as patriarch he could’ve totally punished them for it, but it seems he did nothing. The only thing he did was “bless” them by prophesying Simeon and Levi (really, their tribes) would be scattered.

Genesis 49.5-7 NKJV
5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers;
Instruments of cruelty are in their dwelling place.
6 Let not my soul enter their council;
Let not my honor be united to their assembly;
For in their anger they slew a man,
And in their self-will they hamstrung an ox.
7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce;
And their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
And scatter them in Israel.”

Bible doesn’t say anything about them hamstringing an ox, so I can’t speak to that. Maybe it was something they did while murdering Canaanites; maybe it was some sick ’n twisted fun they had as kids—some kids get off on torturing animals, and it’s no surprise when they grow up to be mass murderers. But that’s pure speculation.

In any event Simeon’s descendants, or tribe, were granted a territory which was wholly surrounded by Judah—and the Simeonites were eventually absorbed into that tribe. As for Levi’s descendants, the Levites (Hebrew לֵוִיִּי/Levyíy, or לֵוִי/Leví for short), they were granted cities, not territory.

Seems rather harsh to curse Levi’s descendants for their murdery ancestor. But in fact this wasn‘t a curse. The LORD did this to designate Levi’s tribe—yep, the entire tribe—as his priests.

Israel was God’s chosen people. Levites became the chosen of the chosen. They weren’t to become farmers (well, other than farming their own gardens), nor merchants, nor builders. Instead they were to worship God, maintain the worship sites, carry out God’s rituals, and otherwise help their fellow Israelis follow God. Priesthood, not land, was to be their birthright.

So whenever we find the word “Levite” in the bible, it’s considered a synonym for priest.

And of course Christianity has a parallel. Every Christian is likewise a priest.

How the Levites got their status.

More than likely the tribe of Levi was singled out, not because of Levi himself, but because of Levi’s grandson Moses ben Amram. Well, grandson if you translate “Jochebed bat Levi” literally—and we shouldn’t. While בַּת/bat usually gets translated “daughter,” it also means descendant. See, the Hebrews had been in Egypt a total of 430 years, Ex 12.40-41 starting with when the adult Levi moved to Egypt with his family. Let’s say Levi was 40 when he moved to Egypt (’cause he was older than Joseph, and Joseph was 30 when he took over Egypt, Ge 41.46 and it was at least seven more years before Levi moved to Egypt, so 40 is generous). Levi lived till he was 137 Ex 6.16 and let’s say he sired Jochebed in his very last year of life. Moses was 80 when he first spoke to Pharaoh, Ex 7.7 and led Israel out of Egypt probably within the year. So subtract Moses’s 80 years and Levi’s remaining 97 years: Jochebed would have to have birthed Moses at the unlikely age of 253. Stands to reason there are big gaps in her genealogy!

Moses’s siblings were also standouts: Aaron ben Amram his slightly-older brother, and Miriam bat Amram their sister. Ex 15.20 (She may have been the same sister who watched out for baby Moses when his mother floated him down the Nile; Ex 2.4 bible doesn’t say.) Aaron and Miriam were prophets, same as Moses. Aaron had been sent by the LORD to help Moses free Israel from Egypt, and while Moses ran the government, Aaron was tasked with running God’s temple (which, enroute to Canaan, was a tent at the time). So the children of Amram in particular were already in charge of God’s worship.

Moses’s tribe was his family, and stood by him where appropriate. Traditionally, Jews and Christians have figured the special designation of Levi as a priestly tribe was the result of Levi standing with Moses when he rebuked Israel for worshiping the gold calf.

Exodus 32.26 NKJV
…then Moses stood in the entrance of the camp, and said, “Whoever is on the LORD’s side—come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him.

Some scholars aren’t so sure about this: It was after all Aaron who made the gold calf. Ex 32.21-25 But the LORD previously designated Aaron and his descendants as priests. Ex 32.1-3 (Being priest was likely why the Hebrews went to Aaron in the first place to make ’em an idol.) In any case, God’s grace means major screwups aren’t always gonna get you fired. Acts of faith and courage are frequently gonna get disproportionately rewarded. The whole tribe of Levites stepped up when it counted, so God decided to bless their whole tribe in perpetuity.

Certain scholars like to imagine the Levites evolved independently of the rest of Israel. Kinda like they were a warrior tribe who gradually took over, became Israel’s leaders, and invented the stories of Moses, Aaron, and the Levites, in order to promote their claims of special status. Or different clans within the Levites (like the Aaronites, Zadokites, and Moses’s descendants the Mushites) fought for leadership, and composed different stories in order to slap down their competitors—like Moses and Aaron’s various mistakes, or the rebellions of the other Levite families Nu 16-18 —and these stories wound up in the bible. One theory why the Levites had no land was because the other Israelis overthrew and scattered ’em. Julius Wellhausen even claimed the Zadokites weren’t even Levites—that they overthrew the Levites, and turned ’em into temple servants.

Yeah, these theories don’t come from bible. They’re the product of scholars with fertile imaginations, who doubt the bible describes what actually happened. If the Hebrew religion was invented by humans, not the LORD, here’s some alternative theories as to how they did it. But there’s a fair amount of projection in these theories: If they invented the Hebrew religion, here’s how they’d have done it. Which involves more conquest and less humility. More conniving, and less the LORD’s miraculous acts.

Levite cities.

Rather than territory, the LORD instructed the Hebrews through Moses to set aside 48 cities for the Levites, which they later did by lot. Js 21.1-42, 1Ch 6.54-81 Of the cities, six were specifically sanctuary cities.

Levite cities were intentionally placed where it wasn’t so convenient to get to temple. This way the Levites were embedded in each of the other tribes, and available to better instruct them in God’s Law. Not that they did that great a job of it, considering how often Israel descended into sin.

Levites were given land outside their cities to pasture their animals, Nu 35.1-8 and were forbidden to sell it. Lv 25.34 They could sell land inside the cities, and unlike the rest of the Hebrews they were allowed to redeem it at any time, whereas everyone else had to redeem it within a year. Lv 25.32

The sanctuary cities (KJV “cities for refuge”) were places one could flee whenever they accidentally killed someone. Ordinarily a family member of the victim would come after a murderer to take revenge, but if you swore it was an accident, you could head to the nearest sanctuary city and get a fair trial there. Nu 35 You might have to live there if the family was particularly vengeful—for the rest of your life, or at least till the death of the head priest. Nu 35.25

Levites were divided into 24 divisions. Three times of year, different Levites from different families (like John the baptist’s father) would have to leave their cities, go to temple, and perform priestly duties for a week. Every male Levite from the ages of 25 to 50, Nu 8.24-25 who wasn’t ill or physically deformed, would participate. Jobs were decided by lot, so some days you’d have to do grunt work (i.e. mop up blood) and some days you’d do something significant (i.e. lead singing, lead prayers, burn incense, etc.).

Levites were likewise granted access to the community storehouses of various cities, in case they were short of food. These storehouses were to be stocked with the people’s tithes every third year. Dt 14.28-29 Levites were likewise to be granted some of that tithe to feast with every year, Dt 14.27 because as Moses pointed out, it’s not like they had land to grow crops.

So the Israelis were to care for their 13th tribe. And sometimes they did… and sometimes not, ’cause they didn’t adequately stock the storehouse. Ml 3.8-10 But they were to be compensated for their duties of worshiping the LORD, whether in temple or back home. The LORD, he told them, was their possession and inheritance Nu 18.20 —the land didn’t take care of them; he did.