Priests and Levites
PRIESTS AND LEVITES. Although the terms “priest” and “Levite” occur hundreds of times in the OT and the NT, much divergence of opinion exists among scholars as to the identity, function, and development of the individuals so designated. The subject of priests and Levites is inseparably bound up with certain basic presuppositions and conclusions of the critical school with which’s name is associated. Ultimately, the matter has farreaching ramifications for the history, worship, and religion of Israel.
It is contended that לֵוִי, H4290, (Levi, Levite) was first an official name for a priest and then later came to be attached to a tribe. The difficulty is that the history gives no sure support to this view, and, furthermore, it is hard to conceive of a supposed tribal name having come from an official name. The picture of the tribe of Levi (
The Heb. word for Levite indicates a descendant of Levi, son of Jacob and Leah. The force may be that the tribe of Levi is to be joined or attached to Aaron (
To recapitulate, the cognate Arab. term kâhin designated a seer or soothsayer. At one time it was held that this was the original meaning of the Heb. word. Now evidence is available to show that the loan word in transfer came to have another meaning. Thus the Heb. word came from the verb כָּהַן, H3912, with the same sense as (kûn), “to stand.” The priest, then, would be the one who stands before God to minister. Actually, כֹּהֵן, H3913, ἱερεύς, G2636, and sacerdos are equivalent terms. Priesthood is to be generally found throughout the world. Henry P. Smith (HERE, X, 308) maintains that the Levite was a priest considered as part of the personnel of a sanctuary, whereas the priest (kōhēn) was the same individual when ministering as the interpreter of an oracle. His conclusion is, then, that the Levite was the one qualified to minister in divine things; the priest was the officiant at a sanctuary. As seen above, such distinctions cannot be substantiated from etymology or usage of the terms.
Priesthood in general.
In the pagan countries surrounding Israel, such as Egypt and Babylon, priesthood was closely connected with magic and superstition. Numerous examples are available to illustrate the firm tie between the priesthood and the occult in ancient religions.
In this area, students of the subject have drawn heavily on parallels from the Arab religion in its pagan forms. This procedure is legitimate (so the work of W. Robertson Smith), but care must be exercised in drawing one-for-one parallels with conditions in Israel. The priesthood in Israel takes into account another dimension in the religious world, that of supernatural revelation.
Israel’s priesthood (the Levites).
The prevalent mood in OT criticism assigns the most priestly portions of the OT to the latest dates. Priests are not mentioned at all in
However, some non-Levites performed priestly functions on occasion: the son of Micah an Ephraimite (
Significance of Levitical priesthood
In Israel, the priesthood represented the nation’s relationship with God. The original intention in the Mosaic covenant was for the entire nation to be a kingdom of priests (
The Levites served in a representative character for the whole nation in the matter of the honor, privilege, and obligation of priesthood. When the priests ministered, they did so as the representatives of the people. It was a practical necessity that the corporate obligation of the covenant people should be carried out by priestly representatives. Furthermore, the priests in their separated condition symbolized the purity and holiness God required. They were a visible reminder of God’s righteous requirements. Moreover, as substitutes for the people they maintained the nation’s covenant relationship with God intact. The primary function of the Levitical priesthood, therefore, was to maintain and assure, as well as reestablish, the holiness of the chosen people of God (
In early Israel, an important function of the priests was to discover the will of God by means of the ephod (
Threefold division of hierarchy
Consecration of priests
History and development
Because Aaron was a Levite, the Heb. priesthood resided in the Levites exclusively. All authorized priests were Levites. After the induction of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood, the whole tribe of Levi was set apart, as substitutes for the first-born, to minister in the service of the sanctuary (
The traditional position of the priesthood is uncomplicated. In this view, the three ranks of the hierarchy are high priest, priests, and Levites; they originate with Moses in the wilderness, and the system is operative through the postexilic period, thus spanning the whole history of Israel. In short, all the pentateuchal laws came from God through Moses; the record of the later history given in Chronicles was accurate; the vision of Ezekiel, if interpreted literally, could not be reconciled with known facts, hence needed further explanation, and in cases of discrepancies in the records, harmonizations were to be accepted.
Priesthood in pre-Mosaic times.
In early Heb. times as in the time before Abraham (both prediluvian and postdiluvian), there was no special priestly class.
As previously stated, the fullfledged priestly system in Israel began with Moses. This does not mean that priestly functions of sacrifices and gifts to God were lacking, because, as shown above, fathers of households cared for these important matters. In light of this, it is unnecessary to be embarrassed by the mention of “priests” (
A portion of the sacrifice was given the priest as revenue by the offering Israelite, and the skin of the slain animal was his. In Deuteronomy it is stated that at the sanctuary, the priest shared in the firstfruits and the tithe. Every third year the tithe was to be distributed to the poor, among whom the Levites were listed (
The Levites were given additional duties in place of their transport obligations, and they were the necessary personnel to implement the legislation when Israel was scattered over the land of Canaan (
The traditional position has held to a Mosaic division of the priesthood into priests and Levites. It cannot find that in the Pentateuch there is evidence of a reading back of later conditions into the wilderness age. Further, it can find no ground for the contention that, if the hierarchical system was actually ancient and Mosaic, it is incomprehensible that traces of it would be completely absent in the days of the monarchy. It is claimed that Ezekiel’s demotion of the non-Zadokite Levites was indicated as a new provision, an arrangement strange if the priestly ranks were a matter of ancient days. The traditional view cannot accept the concept that there is no indisputable evidence available for the presence of a distinction between priests and Levites in the Heb. lit. of the pre-exilic period. By way of refutation, it is pointed out by conservative scholars that there is a list of Levitical cities in
Moses to Malachi.
From David to the Exile.
Reference is made to a Zephaniah, along with the head priest Seraiah, as kōhēn mĭshnĕh (kōhēn hămĭshnĕh), lit., “priest of the repetition,” prob. the representative or second in rank to the chief priest (
The critical claim is made that the presence of a class of sanctuary personnel, different from the priests or lower in rank, called Levites, cannot be proved for the period of the monarchy, and this in spite of such passages as
After the Exile, references are made to Temple servants, the Nethinim (“those given,”
The Deuteronomic regulations in behalf of the Levites were not completely implemented in Josiah’s reform. There is no indication of a wholesale influx of non-Jerusalemite Levites into Jerusalem and their participation in the ministry there.
Ezekiel set forth a body of laws during the Exile for the future theocracy. Because of the prominence he gave to the Zadokites, it is held that he was also of this family (
It is undeniable that Ezekiel inaugurated certain reforms in his portrayal of the future, as he was instructed by divine revelation.
OT scholars claim that the history of the priesthood in Israel is highly complex. It is asserted that in spite of the unanimous Heb. tradition concerning the Mosaic origin of the Levitical priesthood, evidence appears in even the older records that the priesthood was not exclusively Levitical in the early period. It only came to be so restricted by the close of the 7th cent. b.c. with a further narrowing during the subsequent two centuries to a special group within the Levites. However, the Priestly Code (PC) includes a distinction between priests and Levites from the beginning.
A few great sanctuaries existed with one prominent priesthood at Shiloh and later at Nob. The priesthood became more influential with the monarchy, the royal priests at Jerusalem in time overshadowing all others. Deuteronomy gave equal priestly privilege to all Levites. Josiah’s reform put the sons of Zadok, who were priests at Jerusalem and not descendants of Aaron, in a superior position. Later, Ezekiel made a new distinction between the priests, the Levites, the sons of Zadok in charge of the altar, and other Levites who were assigned as keepers of the charge of the house, because they had officiated at idolatrous high places. PC accepted this distinction and claimed for it Mosaic origin, representing the sons of Zadok as sons of Aaron. This situation became normative, and the formula “the priests and the Levites,” esp. in Chronicles, was customary. From that time priests and Levites were two well-defined classes.
Priesthood in the earliest period.
The only priests mentioned in Genesis and Exodus before the giving of the law of Moses were foreign priests: Melchizedek (
At first the priest was concerned both with sacrifice and with direction in the affairs of life. In
Under the monarchy.
Three other references to priests apart from the Levitical order are: (1) David’s sons (
A general observation for this period would be that with the multiplication of sanctuaries and the forming of the priests throughout the land into one well-defined class, priests and Levites became equivalent terms. Their common traditions of law and ritual were then traced to Moses (
Under Josiah (Deuteronomy).
Whereas Ezekiel restricts certain priestly duties to the house of Zadok (
In no area of the subject of priests and Levites do the traditional and critical positions diverge more than at this point. It is undeniable that the Exile marked for Israel a great dividing boundary between two eras. In the latter part of the 7th cent. b.c., the priesthood was limited to the Levites. By then all priests were Levites. With postexilic times there came a restriction of the priesthood to a special part of the Levites, i.e., those of Aaronic descent. Ezekiel is transitional between preexilic and postexilic conditions, supplying, it is commonly claimed, the bridge between the organization of the worship of the 7th cent. b.c. and that of the second Temple.
Some scholars identify the non-Zadokite Levites with the priests of the high places which Josiah had proscribed. It is held that the priests of the surrounding country, although admitted to the Temple personnel by Josiah, nevertheless, were barred by the Jerusalem priests from access to the altar. On the other hand, it could be that Josiah did not demote all the priests of the provinces but only those who had committed idolatry at the high places; it is of these that Ezekiel spoke in his new regulations for the future. The prophet never intimated wholesale degradation of the Levites, but only those who were guilty of participation in idolatry.
It is not conclusive that Ezekiel had in mind Levites (apart from those of the Judean local sanctuaries) other than those who were faithful and unfaithful in times of Israel’s national apostasy, a condition by no means restricted to Josiah’s reign (
It is clear that Ezekiel laid down two regulations (
Priesthood in PC.
It may be well at the outset of the discussion to fix the date of the priestly writing, or PC. There are those (so Baudissin) who feel that there is more than one date for PC, because there are different strata in the material. It is suggested that there is so great an affinity between Ezekiel’s data and PC that one must be dependent on the other. Ezekiel is said to be prior, for he was the first to introduce the distinction between priests and Levites. Baudissin feels there are enough regulations distinctive to P so that he favors the priority of P. In the final analysis, it is conceded there is hardly a possibility of a certain date for the various strata of P and hence for P as a whole. Contrary to the view of the majority of modern critics, he chooses the position that P is prior to Ezekiel and prob. even antedates Josiah’s reform.
Actually, the scope of the book of the law that was recognized under Ezra is not known with certainty, but it prob. should be understood as the whole Pentateuch. In these books, P has more to say about laws relating to the priesthood than any of the sources. Its collection of laws deals mainly with ritual.
It is claimed that only the work of a redactor has molded P into a harmonious whole. The Law of Holiness (
According to P, priesthood originated in Israel in Moses’ time, when the authorized place of sacrifice was set up in the tent of meeting by divine command. Only Aaron and his sons were installed as priests (
In P, the ritual duties of the priests were manifold. Sacrifices and offering incense were their exclusive prerogatives (
Aaron and his sons were consecrated to office by special ceremonies (
In P, the Aaronite priests are a particular family of the tribe of Levi. Only in isolated cases is the term “Levites” applied to all of that tribe including the Aaronites (
The ceremony for the installation of the priests is given (
The only reference to serving women in P is in
P speaks of Aaron the priest and his sons; unlike the Levites, Aaron and his sons were consecrated to office, not merely cleansed. Two items of the legislation demand attention: the inadequacy of the personnel for postconquest conditions and the indications of date. Laws like those in
In the restoration period.
In the second Temple there were three orders in the hierarchy—the high priest, priest, and Levite. Each had their own privileges and responsibilities. The precise relationship of priests and Levites, as well as their origin and development, is the core of the problem with which this section deals. The traditional position, as shown, is that the priestly system was inaugurated by Moses in the wilderness under divine authority and continued essentially unaltered throughout Israel’s history. The Graf-Wellhausen view is that all is clearly a postexilic institution, whose origin is uncertain but its development is discernible in several well-defined steps. This approach is now admitted to be an oversimplification of the difficulty. Numerous attacks have been directed against it, but no alternative view has gained a wide following.
In the postexilic books of the OT, a clear picture is said to be given of the priesthood of the restoration Temple. There is the same threefold hierarchy with distinct ranks, duties, and privileges. The position of the high priest is one of great power. The nation that lost its monarchy became a hierocracy. Much of the honor that had belonged formerly to the king now was accorded the priest. The material influence of the priesthood was greater than ever before. The Temple was the visible center of national life with the passing of the monarchy. The priests were the only national leaders. When the high priest stood at the altar in his sumptuous apparel, pouring out the libation accompanied by the blowing of the trumpets, with the singers lifting their voices and the people falling prostrate in prayer until he came down and lifted his hands in blessing, the Jews under the foreign yoke forgot momentarily their oppression and had their hopes of deliverance rekindled (
The power of the high priesthood was so great that it became the object of unprincipled men in the Gr. period (
The chief duties of the priests were the care of the sanctuary vessels and the sacrifices at the altar (
The priest was to symbolize at all times purity and sanctity. He was to be free of all physical defects (
The Levites were provided for by the tithe, which was their due (
In reconstructing the conditions of that time, these elements have been presented as certain: (1) there were priests ministering in the ruined Temple at Jerusalem during the Exile. This is implied from the record of eighty men of Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria who brought offerings to the Temple (
It appears quite probable that the postexilic priesthood was expanded to include all Aaronites, because (1) the worship at Jerusalem during the Exile was maintained by non-Zadokite priests; and (2) conditions at Jerusalem were known to the exiles in Babylon, since the reference in
There is a definite change in emphasis in the duties of the priesthood in the restored Jewish society. One of the priest’s chief duties is no longer considered to be moral teaching; he is now almost entirely occupied with ceremonial matters (
The Wellhausen school has considered the high priest as a solely postexilic personality. Since Ezekiel makes no reference to a high priest, the conclusion has been advanced that he knew of no such office, and the position was absent before the Exile.
In the Persian period (Ezra).
The chief priest, with the political leader removed from the leadership of the nation, became the dominant personality among the people in the Pers. era. In Ezra’s day, one in seven of the restored exiles was a priest. Ezra and Nehemiah everywhere distinguished between Levites and priests, the former to be understood as the descendants of non-Jerusalemite priests of the high places. The new priestly system is said to have had its basis in the priestly legislation recognized as part of the law under Ezra and Nehemiah. Here is found the exclusion of the Levites from all part in the proper priesthood of the sons of Aaron (
From Ezra to Chronicles.
After the recognition of the Pentateuch under Ezra, the sanctuary personnel were regulated according to PC. It is claimed that the Chronicler read back the conditions of his own time into earlier periods, as though these conditions had existed from David’s age on. The Chronicler is denied sources at his disposal when he dealt with the condition of the priesthood in preexilic times. He tended to exalt the Levites even more than the priests. It has been suggested that he may have belonged to the Levites himself. He wrote of twenty-four divisions of priests, which he carried back to David’s days (
The Chronicler’s account of the earlier history of the priests and Levites does not agree with older sources. Many modern scholars feel his views were influenced by conditions of his time that he read back into an earlier period. It cannot validly be denied, however, that he could have used sources not known elsewhere. It is held also that he did not expect his writing to be taken as history, and his contemporaries so regarded it. How can this be proved? Explanations of the statements of the Chronicler are: (1) he had before him a source in which the Levites were completely unknown; (2) he invented freely; and (3) he set forth valid preexilic information. In the light of recent research (see Albright and Welch) that has shown the reliability of the Chronicler as a historian, the last named option is the only secure and tenable one.
Malachi calls the covenant with the priests the covenant with Levi or with the Levites (
After the OT.
In the time of the Maccabees, mention is made of higher and lower orders of priests, but hardly any reference is made to Levites. The tithe and other rights were withdrawn from the Levites, according to Josephus and the Talmud. Certain tithes and firstlings not indicated in the OT became part of the enlarged and expanded incomes of the priests and Levites. In later times, the duties of the priest were made more precise. The office of high priest underwent change. It was no longer for life and no longer hereditary. The rabbinical lit. speaks of the addition of a high priest’s substitute in case the high priest had contracted Levitical uncleanness that prevented his performance of the duties of his position. This was not a standing position of one person alone, because seven days before the Day of Atonement, “another priest” had to be set apart in case the high priest could not officiate (Mishna, Yoma 1:1). Duties multiplied over the years, and responsibilities had to be divided more widely.
Attempts less radical than the critical school have been made to explain the Biblical data. They try to modify the Wellhausen position by giving earlier dates to Pentateuchal material (esp. the PC) or by allowing more truth to some of the Chronicler’s statements. None of these attempts has met with striking success.
Robertson Smith feels it is impossible to assign the distinction of Levites and Aaronites to an early date. The priestly portions of the Pentateuch and Joshua cannot be employed for this early history. Probably the kin of Moses had certain hereditary rights in relation to the worship of the Lord. He believes that in time with the multiplication of sanctuaries, the name of Levite came to be extended to all priesthoods recognized by the political authorities (
The view of Wiener makes much of the versional evidence of the texts involved. It considers all Pentateuchal law as of Mosaic origin, accepts the harmonious witness of the law and the prophets, and regards Chronicles as representing a later interpretation of the history and the legal precepts. His reconstruction is this: Moses consecrated Aaron and his sons as priests of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. He set apart the rest of the tribe of Levi as a body of porters during the wanderings. In the laws of Numbers, he made no assignment of duties after the sanctuary was permanently located. Simultaneously, he gave a corpus of priestly teaching for administration in settled life that required a large and scattered group of priests to be furnished by the house of Aaron. To fulfill this need, Deuteronomy—Moses’ last legislative activity—enlarged the duties of the Levites and gave them priestly status. Earlier distinctions were largely eliminated, although the high priesthood was retained in the house of Aaron until Solomon’s reign when it passed from the house of Eli to that of Zadok, who, according to Ezekiel, was a Levite. These conditions remained until the Exile when Ezekiel suggested an arrangement with reforms to implement more effectively Moses’ principle of the distinction between holy and profane. He inaugurated a new division in the tribe of Levi, giving the sons of Zadok a position like that once held by the sons of Aaron and demoting all other Levites from the priesthood given them by Deuteronomy. The duties of the latter group were not included in the Mosaic legislation (“keepers of the charge of the house”). Because of Ezekiel’s influence, the distinction between priests and Levites came into existence in postexilic times, though unknown to all writers of the second part of the Heb. canon. A meaning was read into the Mosaic law never intended by the author, and this view is presented by the Chronicler, who is responsible for the prevailing tradition. Many of the Chronicler’s statements are not meant to be understood literally and were not so taken by his original readers. Both the mediating and alternate views are subject to some of the serious failings of the critical school.
The Graf-Wellhausen view of the history of the Levitical system has been under severe attack for the past fifty years, esp. by Scandinavian scholars. It is thus witnessing considerable modification. Working from the basis of the evolutionary view of history, Wellhausenists erred in oversimplifying the religious development in Israel. In these special areas, the Wellhausen view has been reexamined. The position that the high priesthood did not exist before the Exile is invalid. The position Haggai and Zechariah accord the high priest Joshua (
A cardinal position of the Wellhausen theory is that the distinction between priests and Levites, prominent in the PC, was not known before the Exile. It is axiomatic in this view that Deuteronomy does not distinguish between them. Nothing in the data precludes the presence of a Levitical order whose service was a subordinate one in the Temple, from which they seem to have been displaced by the foreigners. Because Ezekiel does not mention Levites other than the degraded priests, is no more proof they did not exist than that they were lacking half a cent. later because of the silence of Haggai and Zechariah. Another presupposition of this hypothesis is that in Deuteronomy, “priest” and “Levite” are synonymous. This is an unwarranted assumption. The distinction is not so clear as in the PC, but it is present, and indications are that the difference is assumed throughout Deuteronomy. In that book, the emphasis is on the tribe of Levi as separated for the sanctuary ministry to whom the priesthood was restricted, thus the usual phrase “the Levitical priests.” Priests are, nevertheless, distinguished from Levites. The distinction is unmistakable from the laws of
Even Wellhausen conceded that the position of the Levites is the most vulnerable part of the PC. Once it is granted that the distinction between priests and Levites did not begin with Ezekiel, but is preexilic, one of the basic props for the late date of the PC is demolished. It is agreed that the PC contains much early material, since many of its laws are of ancient origin. Increasingly in recent years, this fact has been seen, and it is now recognized as proper to use data from that source as evidence for practices of the early monarchy. Moreover, there are signs that the PC itself was in existence before the Exile. Its ties with Ezekiel appear to show an acquaintance by Ezekiel with the PC, rather than the reverse. The wide distribution of the Levitical cities in the PC reminds of conditions of preexilic days. If a separate order of Levites existed in preexilic times, then the sacrificial personnel of the PC belong to the old Temple rather than that of the restoration. Furthermore, there are indications that the PC is not only preexilic, but pre-Deuteronomic. Once it is seen that there is an implied distinction between priests and Levites in Deuteronomy, the significance of the ties between Deuteronomy and the priestly laws becomes apparent. The most striking case of an affinity between the two codes is in regard to clean and unclean animals in
Priests in LXX and NT
The Heb. noun for “priest” is tr. in the LXX by ἱερεύς, G2636, the usual Gr. word for “priest.” The same term is found without exception in the NT. LXX and the NT render לֵוִי, H4290, as Δευίτης or Δευείτης. The NT distinctly states that the different priestly divisions took their turns in service at the Temple as in OT days (
Influence of OT priesthood on Christian doctrine
Two vital elements were transmitted to the NT teaching: the doctrine of priestly mediation and the priestly hierarchy. The High Priest.builds on the teaching of the effectual high priesthood of Christ. Ministry in the Church has replaced the ancient God-ordained hierarchy. See
IDB, III, 876-889; HDB, IV, 67-97; HERE, X, 307-311; ISBE, IV, 2446-2452; EB, III, 2770-2776, 3837-3847; Jew Ency, X, 192-197; A. Edersheim, The Temple, Its Ministry and Services (1874), 38-78; E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People, II (1891), 224-305; J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the(1899), 123-174; J. Orr, The Problem of the (1926), 180-192, 315-326; A. C. Welch, The Work of the Chronicler (1939), (The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy); W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the (1942), 121-129, 150-152, 204, 205; G. C. Aalders, “ ,” A Short Introduction to the Pentateuch (1949), 66-71; T. F. Torrance, “Consecration and Ordination,” Scottish Journal of Theology, XI (1958), 225-252; “Samuel, the Ark, and the Priesthood,” C. A. Thomas, BS CXVIII (July, 1961), 259-263; “Priests and Levites in Deuteronomy; An Examination of Dr. G. E. Wright’s Theory,” J. A. Emerton, Vet Test XII (Apr., 1962), 129-138; “Some Remarks on the Lists of the Chief Priests of the Temple of Solomon,” H. J. Katzenstein, JBL LXXXI (Dec., 1962), 377-384; “’Ūrîm and Thummîm; What Were They?” E. Robertson, Vet Test, XIV (Jan., 1964), 67-74; “Priestly Document; Anti-Temple?” T. E. Fretheim, Vet Test (July, 1968), 313-329.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(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 BC (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 thewas 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 Eze 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 De 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" (
(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.
(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 (
The story of Korah is easily misunderstood. It appears from
(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,
(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 f).
2. Aaron and His Sons:
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 (
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.
(1) in theE knows of priests who carry the ark and are quite distinct from Joshua (3 ff);
(3) in E, Aaron and Eleazar are priests (
(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
Then it is said that in
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
The period of the early kings shows us kings blessing the people (e.g.
Textual criticism disposes of the supposed priesthood of certain non-Levitical persons. In
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) 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 (
It must be remembered that whatever may have happened during this period of great national confusion, the practice of all the rest of history, extending over some 600 or 700 years, is uniform and would far outweigh any irregularities during so short and troubled a period.
(2) On Its Return from the Philistines
The first difficulty arises on
(3) In Abinadab’s House
The second difficulty is made by
When David at the end of this period removed the ark, it was first taken in a cart. This proved fatal to Uzzah, and the ark was deposited in the house of Obededom the Gittite. The text of Samuel knows nothing of any guardianship of the ark by Obed-edom. Probably he took very good care not to go near it in view of Uzzah’s fate. Then it was transported to Jerusalem by bearers (
Aaron, not of Ithamar, if the passage is to be taken in its natural sense. On this view Zadok’s appointment could only have fulfilled the prophecy if it terminated the Aaronic succession. It would seem therefore that the high-priesthood was transferred to a family of non-Aaronic Levites. For the alternative view see Zadok.
The prophet’s speech in
Ezekiel is entirely in line with the other sources for this period, but he seeks to institute certain reforms. He writes, "Her priests have done violence to my law, and have profaned my holy things: they have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they caused men to discern between the unclean and the clean," etc. (
(2) Is theory of the late composition of P psychologically and morally probable? On this see Pentateuch and POT, 292-99.
(3) Is it the case that the earlier history attests the existence of institutions of P that are held by Wellhausen and his followers to be late--e.g. more national offerings than the critics allow? On this see EPC 200 ff, and passim; POT, 305-15, and passim; SBL and OP passim, and article PENTATEUCH.
(4) Does Ezekiel himself show acquaintance with P (e.g. in 22:26), or not? On this too see SBL, 96; PS, 281 f.
With regard to the non-mention of the high-priesthood and certain other institutions in Ezekiel’s vision, the natural explanation is that in the case of these the prophet did not desire to institute any changes. It is to be noted that Ezekiel does not codify and consolidate all existing law. On the contrary, he is rather supplementing and reforming. In his ideal temple the prince is to provide the statutory national offerings (45:17), i.e. those of
V. Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles.
Chronicles presents an account of the earlier history of the priests and Levites that in many respects does not tally with the older sources. Many modern writers think that the author’s views of the past were colored by the circumstances of his own day, and that he had a tendency to carry back later conditions to an earlier period. On the other hand it is impossible to deny fairly that he used some sources which have not been preserved to us elsewhere. Again, there is evidence to show that his work was not intended to be taken for history and would not have been so regarded by his contemporaries. Talmudical authorities held some such view as this. The historical value of his work has yet to be appraised in a more critical and impartial spirit than is exhibited in any of the current discussions. For the present purpose it is only possible to notice the effect of some of his statements, if interpreted literally. As there are passages where he has clearly substituted Levites for the less holy personages of the older sources (contrast e.g.
2. His Data:
Of these books no satisfactory account can be given in the present state of textual criticism and Biblical science generally. Some writers, e.g., hold that the Chronicler had before him a source to which the Levites were entirely unknown, others that he invented freely, others again that he reproduces trustworthy pre-exilic information. The student has only an assortment of theories from which to choose. The bedrock fact is that the statements of these books, if taken in their natural meaning, convey an entirely different impression from the statements of the earlier books construed similarly. Modern research has not yet been seriously addressed to the question whether all the statements were really intended to be interpreted as mere history.
VI. Legal Provisions.
The priests were subject to special laws designed to maintain their purity (
See Blessing. On their dues see SACRIFICE; TITHE; FIRSTLING; FIRST-FRUITS; LEVITICAL CITIES; AGRARIAN LAWS; see further CHEMARIM; NETHINIM; SOLOMON’s SERVANTS; SINGERS; DOORKEEPER; SERVING-WOMEN; JUDGE.
Wellhausen, Prolegomena, chapter iv, for the Graf-Wellhausen view; Wiener, Wiener, Pentateuchal Studies, 230-89, for the view taken above; S.I. Curtiss, Levitical Priests, for the conservative view. This writer afterward changed to the critical view. James Orr, POT; A. Van Hoonacker, Le sacerdoce levitique (important); W. Baudissin, article "Priests and Levites" in HDB, IV, for mediating views. The best account in English of the details of the priestly duties is contained in Baudissin’s article, where a further bibliography will be found.
Harold M. Wiener