LEVITES (lē'vīts). The name given to the descendants of Levi.
I. Their Origin: Levi was the third son of Jacob by Leah (Gen.29.34; Gen.35.22-Gen.35.26). The Genesis record gives no intimation regarding the later greatness of the tribe bearing Levi’s name. Such silence bears indirect testimony to the fact that the Genesis account, contrary to the theories of negative criticism, must have been written prior to the noble event that took place at Mount Sinai (Exod.32.25-Exod.32.29) that caused Levi’s descendants to receive special status in Israel. The Genesis record is thus free of any bias or hint of Levi’s future greatness as a tribe in Israel. Furthermore, if the Genesis account had been written after the event on Mount Sinai, as claimed by modern criticism, it is difficult to understand why the record of Levi’s notorious deed at Shechem (Gen.34.25-Gen.34.31) was still retained, especially if, as also claimed by modern criticism, the early “history” was written, subjectively, to reflect the later greatness of Israel. Let us remember also that Genesis closes with a curse on Levi for his participation in the crime at Shechem (Gen.49.5-Gen.49.7). This curse, pronounced by the dying Jacob, would be utterly inconsistent with the critical view that Genesis, written by multiple writers late in Israel’s history, reflects the national prestige of later times. The conservative view, accepting the Bible history as a record of real events, is free of such problems.
II. Their Appointment. Several discernible factors undoubtedly influenced the selection of Levi’s descendants for their special place in Israel’s religion. (1) The divine selection of Moses and Aaron, who were descendants of Kohath, one of Levi’s three sons (Exod.2.1-Exod.2.10; Exod.6.14-Exod.6.27; Num.26.59), obviously conferred on the Levites an honor that was recognized by the other tribes. (2) However, an event of transcending importance at Mount Sinai (Exod.32.25-Exod.32.29) gave to the Levites as a tribe their place of privilege and responsibility in God’s plan. The event just referred to transmuted the curse of Jacob’s prophecy (Gen.49.5-Gen.49.7) into the blessing of Moses’ prophecy (Deut.33.8-Deut.33.11). (3) Moreover, this choice was undoubtedly confirmed by a very similar event when an individual Levite, Phinehas by name, stayed the plague that was about to decimate the Israelites (Num.25.1-Num.25.13). Thus the true record of history shows how the curse on Levi the ancestor became, by the wonders of God’s providence, a blessing to his descendants.
III. Their Organization. A threefold organization is discernible: (1) The top echelon was occupied by Aaron and his sons; these alone were priests in the restricted sense. The priests belonged to the family of Kohath. (2) The middle echelon included all the other Kohathites who were not of Aaron’s family; to them were given certain privileges in carrying the most sacred parts of the tabernacle (Num.3.27-Num.3.32; Num.4.4-Num.4.15; Num.7.9). (3) The bottom echelon comprised all members of the families of Gershon and Merari; to them lesser duties were prescribed (Num.3.21-Num.3.26, Num.3.33-Num.3.37).
V. Post-Mosaic Changes. NT typology (cf. Heb.8.1-Heb.8.13-Heb.10.1-Heb.10.39) considers the Sinaitic legislation the standard form. The post-Sinaitic activity of the Levites may be succinctly summarized in the following way:
1. In the settlement in Canaan the Levites were necessarily relieved of some of their duties; the tabernacle no longer needed transportation. It is doubtful if the Levites ever fully occupied all the forty-eight cities assigned to them and the priests. The episode in Judg.17.7-Judg.17.13 does not, as maintained by critics, represent the earliest information concerning the priesthood.
3. In the disruption of the united kingdom many Levites from the northern kingdom sought political and religious asylum in Judah (2Chr.11.13-2Chr.11.16; 2Chr.13.9-2Chr.13.12; 2Chr.15.9); but some Levites were evidently involved in the apostasy of the northern kingdom (Ezek.44.10-Ezek.44.15). The Levites during this period were still considered teachers (2Chr.17.8ff.; 2Chr.19.8; cf. Deut.33.10).
4. The exilic period brings before us the symbolism of Ezekiel: only the true Levites, sons of Zadok, ministered in the temple (Ezek.43.19; Ezek.44.10-Ezek.44.16; Ezek.48.11-Ezek.48.12).
5. In the postexilic period Levites did not return from Babylon in the same proportion as the priests (Ezra.2.36-Ezra.2.42; Neh.7.39-Neh.7.45). Later, a special effort was required to get the Levites to return (Ezra.8.15-Ezra.8.19). They were still considered to be teachers (Ezra.8.15ff.) and musicians (Ezra.2.40-Ezra.2.41; Ezra.3.10ff.; Neh.7.43-Neh.7.44).
Priests and Levites