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 Julius Wellhausen’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 (Gen 49) gives no hint of its being a priestly tribe. According to Baudissin, the more probable conclusion is that Levi was at first a tribal name and afterward gained a secondary connotation as the official name of the priests who were chosen from this tribe.

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 (Num 18:2, 4). On the basis of this etymology and interpretation, it is claimed that the Levites were either foreigners who joined Israel in the time of the Exodus or Heb. attendants escorting the Ark or assigned to a local sanctuary. These views do not sufficiently credit the Biblical evidence that Levi was one of the original tribes, which appears repeatedly in the records (Gen 34:25-30; 49:5; Deut 33:8ff.); it does not take into account the well-known literary device of paronomasia.

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.

Semitic priesthood.

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 Exodus 20-23 where the Mosaic legislation is being set forth for the first time. It has been suggested that a priest is implied even from earliest times in matters not related to sacrifice, such as the administration of justice (Exod 22:7ff.). Such a function of the priesthood, however, is not made explicit until a later time. The historical account places the origin of Israel’s priesthood in Mosaic times in connection with ministry in the Tabernacle where the Ark was kept, relates the priesthood to the kin of Moses, and specifically connects the sacerdotal office with Aaron and his family (Exod 25-40).

However, some non-Levites performed priestly functions on occasion: the son of Micah an Ephraimite (Judg 17:5); David’s sons (2 Sam 8:18); Gideon (Judg 6:26); and Manoah of Dan (Judg 13:19).

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 (Exod 19:6; cf. Lev 11:44ff.; Num 15:40). The covenant of God was mediated through the priesthood. In Biblical theology the concepts of priesthood and covenant are closely related. Because of the covenant at Sinai, Israel was meant to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5, 6; cf. Isa 61:6). God’s holy character was to be reflected in the life of Israel (Lev 11:44ff.; Num 15:40). The fact that God vested priestly functions in one tribe did not release the rest of the nation from their original obligation.

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 (Exod 28:38; Lev 10:7; Num 18:1). The priesthood mediated the covenant of God with Israel (Mal 2:4ff.; cf. Num 18:19; Jer 33:20-26).

In early Israel, an important function of the priests was to discover the will of God by means of the ephod (1 Sam 23:6-12). They were constantly occupied with instruction in the law (Mal 2). Of course, their duties always included offering of sacrifices. Early priests were guardians of the sanctuary and interpreters of the oracle (1 Sam 14:18). Instructions in the law belonged to the priests (Hos 4:1-10). The priest acted as judge, a consequence of his imparting answers to legal questions (Exod 33:7-11).

Threefold division of hierarchy

Consecration of priests

History and development

Traditional view

General observation.

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 (Num 3:5ff.). The Levites consisted of three groups: Gershonites, Kohathites, and Merarites, with specific duties for each group (3:14-18). When Korah and his followers rebelled against the authority of Aaron (Num 16), he and his followers were destroyed and the priesthood of Aaron was signally confirmed.

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. The Pentateuch explicitly relates the sanctuary, the sacrificial system, and the priestly class with divine revelation through Moses. In patriarchal times, the head of each household exercised the priestly function of sacrifice. In fact, God Himself initiated the concept of priesthood at the time of the fall of Adam (Gen 3:21). It has been suggested that inquiry at an oracle (25:22) and giving of tithes (28:22) imply a sanctuary with an officiating priest, but this may be overloading the facts with an unwarranted conclusion.

Mosaic age.

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” (Exod 19:22), and a reading of “elders” (so Aquila’s VS) is uncalled for. Wellhausen claimed on the basis of Exodus 33:7-11 that Joshua had charge of the Ark. A careful examination of the passage reveals Joshua was an attendant at the special tent of meeting that Moses pitched outside the camp, a temporary arrangement. Joshua was an Ephraimite and was never considered a priest (Josh 3:3ff.) from whom he is distinguished, nor did he ever perform priestly duties. The Pentateuchal books firmly lodge the priesthood in the tribe of Levi, in the house of Aaron by direction of God through Moses.

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 (Deut 12:17-19; 14:22, 29; 26:12). It is laid down that a tenth of the produce of the land was to go to the Levites for their support (Num 18:21-24). The sin offerings and trespass offerings belonged to the priests along with an annual tax of half a shekel for each male Israelite for the support of the sanctuary. A tenth of the tithes collected by the Levites went to the priests. Cities with pasture lands were assigned to the Levites with a designated number of these cities for the priests.

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 (Deut 18:6-8; 21:5; 24:8; 33:8). All the writers of the second division of the Heb. canon had this understanding of the matter. All knew of the validity of a Levitical priesthood; nowhere do they mention exclusive Aaronic rights.

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 Joshua 21, and the account of the rebellion of Korah, showing that the provisions of the postexilic law were already recognized. The critical rebuttal is that at the time of Israel’s settlement in the land Joshua 21 could not have been implemented, because the majority of cities listed were not occupied by Israel until long afterward, or, if occupied, were not inhabited by Levites. The evidence of the rebellion of Korah is discounted on the basis that the record of the incident is of composite origin. Subjective reasoning does not yield readily at any time to objective evidence.

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 (2 Kings 23:4; 25:18). The keepers of the threshold (25:18), standing in rank next to the head priest and the second priest, must have been higher than doorkeepers. In the time of Joash (12:10), they are seen as guards of the entrance to the inner court of the altar of burnt offering. They also collected the people’s gifts to the Temple (22:4). Theirs was a preexilic priestly office, because it is not mentioned in later times.

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 2 Samuel 15:24 and 1 Kings 8:3f.; 12:31, which are summarily dismissed as later interpolations.

After the Exile, references are made to Temple servants, the Nethinim (“those given,” Ezra 2:54ff.), who were given by David and the princes for the ministry of the Levites or the Temple (8:20). Postexilic Temple singers and doorkeepers were evidently descendants of those who had served in the same capacity in the preexilic Temple (Ezra 2:41f.; Neh 7:44f.).

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. 2 Kings 23 has a threefold distinction between the priests outside Jerusalem: the kĕmārîm were deposed (v. 5), for they were idolatrous priests; the priests from cities of Judah were gathered by Josiah (v. 8); the priests of the high places were not permitted to approach the altar in Jerusalem, but were allowed to remain where they resided and find their sustenance there (v. 9).

In Ezekiel.

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 (Ezek 1:3). In his Temple of the future, only the Levite priests, the sons of Zadok, are to enjoy priestly privileges (43:19): to offer sacrifices and approach the table of showbread, because in Israel’s time of apostasy these did not go into idolatry. Those priests who took part in Israel’s departure into idolatry would not be allowed to minister in the office of priest or approach the holy things, but would be occupied with less sacred duties (44:6ff.; 46:24). Ezekiel speaks neither of a priest nor a king in the future commonwealth, but of a prince with certain priestly privileges. In Ezekiel’s Temple there is no sacred ark to which a priest might draw near, for God inhabits the Temple.

It is undeniable that Ezekiel inaugurated certain reforms in his portrayal of the future, as he was instructed by divine revelation. Ezekiel 22:26 reveals an acquaintance with Leviticus 10 and other passages in the so-called PC. How is Ezekiel’s vision of the future in chs. 40-48 to be understood? One view has held that it is impossible to reconcile Ezekiel with PC. Wellhausen according to his view dated Ezekiel before P (priestly source of the Pentateuch) and claimed Ezekiel introduced the distinction between priests and Levites for the first time. The third position is that Ezekiel knew P and built from it a new division among the Levites, in which the sons of Zadok held a position similar to that of the sons of Aaron in the wilderness (44:6-16). This view appears to have the most to commend it.

Critical position

General observation.

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 (Gen 14:18), Egyp. priests (41:45), and Jethro the Midianite priest (Exod 2:16; 3:1; 18:1). General references to priests before the law are found in Exodus 19:22, 24, which seem to imply a Heb. priesthood before Moses. Moreover, Exodus 32:25-29 (assigned to P) indicates the Levites were given the priesthood for their faithfulness in carrying out the wrath of God after the sin of the golden calf.

At first the priest was concerned both with sacrifice and with direction in the affairs of life. In Deuteronomy 33 (dated to late 10th or early 8th cent. b.c.), the teaching function of the priest is prominent (v. 10). It was done through the Urim and Thummim (v. 8) and by reference to the legal code. He was teacher and administrator of legal precedent and justice (Deut 17:8-9; 21:5).

Under the monarchy.

Three other references to priests apart from the Levitical order are: (1) David’s sons (2 Sam 8:18); (2) Ira the Jairite as a priest to David (2 Sam 20:26); (3) Zabud the son of Nathan as priest of Solomon (1 Kings 4:5). The difficulty is that Zadok and Abiathar, regular priests, were ministering as well during the reigns of David and Solomon. A solution has been suggested by understanding these men to be friends of the king with the courtesy title of priest.

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 (Deut 33:11). Though dependent on the monarchy, they enjoyed an increasing influence (cf. Jehoiada, 2 Kings 11:4ff.).

Under Josiah (Deuteronomy).

Whereas Ezekiel restricts certain priestly duties to the house of Zadok (44:13-15 with 1 Chron 6:3-8), Deuteronomy shows that all Levites were considered priests; cf. “the priests the Levites,” or the “Levitical priests” (Deut 18:1). The conditions of the priesthood at the end of the monarchy are said to be “unquestionably portrayed” in Deuteronomy. Since Deuteronomy does not aim particularly to present the divine service, its author does not give a complete picture of the existent priestly relations, the gaps of which cannot be filled in with certainty.

In Ezekiel.

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 (44:10, 15ff.). However, Abba (IDB, III, 883) feels that Ezekiel is referring to one specific act of national (?) apostasy of which no Zadokite priests of Jerusalem were guilty, i.e., the idolatry inaugurated by Jeroboam I of the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12:28-32). One might ask whether all non-Zadokite Levites were involved in this apostasy. The data are not at hand to answer the question definitely.

It is clear that Ezekiel laid down two regulations (Ezek 44:6-16): (1) only consecrated persons could enter the Temple; and (2) the family of Zadok was to enjoy special privileges among the consecrated persons. The discussion later will deal with the subject of the priesthood in P, but here it may be well to state some considerations relative to Ezekiel and P. Ezekiel 44:9-14 required of Levites, services as gatekeepers, slaying of burnt offerings and sacrifices for the people, and the performance of certain duties in the house of God. P says nothing of gatekeeping or slaying of burnt offering and sacrifice (the duty of the offerer himself, Lev 1:3). A Levite would have courted death if he had entered the places where Ezekiel expected him to serve. Notice also the Chronicler’s position (1 Chron 23:28, 31). According to P, an approach to the altar by a Levite would have meant death to themselves and the priests (Num 18:3). The conclusion is inescapable that the Levites in P are not a projection of the Levites of the Second Temple or any age after Moses back into the wilderness age. Levites are sacred porters in P. The views of Ezekiel (and of the Chronicler) do not coincide with those of P.

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 (Lev 17-26), the oldest part of P, speaks only of the priests or the priest with no attempt to define their descent, and no mention of Levites or other sanctuary personnel. To arrive at this position one must emend texts like Leviticus 6:7; 25:32-34. The Law of Holiness had minute laws regarding the purity of the priests (21:1ff.) and the high priest (21:10ff.).

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 (Exod 28:11; 40:12ff.). Of Aaron’s sons, Eleazar is given the covenant of an eternal priesthood because of the godly zeal of Phinehas, son of Eleazar (Num 25:12f.). For the execution of the duties of their office, a special priestly attire was prescribed (Exod 28:40ff.).

In P, the ritual duties of the priests were manifold. Sacrifices and offering incense were their exclusive prerogatives (Lev 1:5, 11, 15; Num 16:40) along with care of the showbread (Lev 24:8) and lampstand (Exod 27:20, 21). Their charge was to preserve the distinction between clean and unclean, sacred and profane, and to teach Israel the statutes of the Lord (Lev 10:10f.).

Aaron and his sons were consecrated to office by special ceremonies (Exod 29; Lev 8). Ministering Aaronites had to be free of physical defects (Lev 21:16ff.). The priests were to be zealous to maintain personal Levitical cleanness (22:2ff.).

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 (Exod 6:25; Lev 25:32f.; Num 35:1ff.); the usual reference is to non-Aaronite Levites alone. The tribe as a whole is viewed as consecrated to God as a compensation for the first-born male in Israel who belonged to God (Num 3:12f.). The Levites ministered to the priests. They were in charge (that is, the Kohathites) of the transportation and setting up of the Tabernacle on the march (1:51; 18:4, 22). It is not stated what the Levites were to do after the sanctuary was set up, nor what their service was to be once Israel came into settled life in the land of promise. It may be that they performed certain services between the congregation and the priests.

The ceremony for the installation of the priests is given (8:5ff.). They were exempt from military service (1:49; 2:33). They were responsible for sins connected with their services, and had to expiate them (18:23). The narrative of Numbers 16 is said to reveal the opposition encountered by making a distinction between priests and Levites.

The only reference to serving women in P is in Exodus 38:8, but nothing is indicated of the nature of their service.

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 Leviticus 13 and 14 demand desert conditions, not those of Canaan. Indications of date constantly point to the Mosaic age and fit no other. On the other hand, P is decidedly anomalous. It calls for a large number of Levites who would be inactive after entrance into Canaan, and a body of laws that could not be applied in settled conditions by the descendants of Aaron alone.

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 (Ecclus 50).

The power of the high priesthood was so great that it became the object of unprincipled men in the Gr. period (2 Macc 4:7-10, 18-20, 23-26, 33-35). In Maccabean times, the high priesthood recovered its former prestige under the brief rule of the Hasmonean dynasty.

The chief duties of the priests were the care of the sanctuary vessels and the sacrifices at the altar (Num 18:5, 7). The priest was also to instruct in the law of God (Mal 2:6, 7). He was the final authority in all matters of the law. In postexilic times this function of ethical teaching came into the hands of the scribes, whereas ministry at the religious ceremonies was in the sphere of priestly instruction (Hag 2:10-13).

The priest was to symbolize at all times purity and sanctity. He was to be free of all physical defects (Lev 21:16ff.); he was consecrated by cleansing rites (Exod 29:1ff.; Lev 8:5ff.); he was to wash before he ministered at the altar or in the sanctuary (Exod 30:19ff.; 40:31ff.); and he was to wear robes of white linen (39:27-29). He was not permitted contact with the dead except for a near-blood relation; he was forbidden to show signs of mourning; he was not allowed to marry an impure or divorced woman. Burning was the penalty for a priest’s daughter who had fallen into prostitution (Lev 21:1-9). Any transgression of priestly purity had to be cleansed by the high priest and all the priests together (Num 18:1).

The Levites were provided for by the tithe, which was their due (Lev 27:32, 33; Num 18:21, 24ff.), but a tenth of it had to be given to the priests (Num 18:26-28).

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 (Jer 41:4ff.), as well as the priests referred to in Lamentations 1:4. (2) Aaronic priests from Abiathar, removed from office by Solomon, lived at Anathoth about two m. N of Jerusalem and Jeremiah lived in Judah (Jer 39:11-14; 40:2-6). (3) Aaronic priests from Ithamar, of whom Abiathar came, are spoken of along with the Zadokites in the lists of the returned exiles (Ezra 8:2). (4) As already stated, in postexilic lit. the priests were indicated as the house or the sons, of Aaron.

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 Ezra 8:2 of non-Zadokite and Zadokite priests would appear to evidence some accord arrived at among the exiles before their return to Pal. Under the decree of Cyrus IV, 289 priests returned with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:36-39; Neh 7:39-42), an unlikely condition that they all would be descended from exiled Zadokites. A few returning Levites (only seventy-four) could point to the fact that all of Aaronite descent had been admitted to the priesthood.

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 (Lev 10:10, 11; Hag 2:10-13). Malachi complained that the priests are remiss in giving moral instruction (Mal 2:7, 8). The Urim and Thummim are no longer available (Ezra 2:63). When Ezra presented the law, the Levites instructed the people (Neh 8:7), and the teaching prerogative appears to have been carried on more by the Levites than by the priests in the second Temple.

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. Haggai 1:1 is taken generally as the first mention of a high priest and Joshua as the first incumbent of the office, all previous references to this position being considered later interpolations. The detailed material on Aaron in P is said to be a projection backward by the priestly author of a high priesthood known in postexilic times. The inclination now among scholars is to regard this view as an inadequate and oversimplified treatment of the Biblical material. A reconsideration of the evidence has been long overdue.

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 (Num 3). They were actually the servants of the priests (3:9), but on a higher plane than the rest of the people. The position has been taken that the provision of the cities for the Levites never took place after the Exile (Lev 25:34; Num 35), because it was irreconcilable with the prohibition against the Levites’ holding property (Num 18:20; 26:62).

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 (1 Chron 24:7ff.). According to rabbinic tradition, the twenty-four divisions (known to Josephus in his time) existed from the time of the Exile. Baudissin denied the correctness of this position, because he did not find the enumeration of all twenty-four in one list (Ezra 8:2; 10:18-22; Neh 7:39ff.; or 12:1-7). The position of the high priest showed no important change since Ezra’s day. The Chronicler (PC) recognized the Aaronite priests, those of Eleazar’s line and Ithamar’s (2 Chron 24:3ff.). This equalizing of the two groups (according to PC and confirmed by Ezra in Ezra 8:2) became permanent.

In Chronicles.

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.

In Malachi.

Malachi calls the covenant with the priests the covenant with Levi or with the Levites (2:4, 8), a terminology that does not tally with that of the PC, hence some claim it appears to point to a date before the publication of the PC.

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.

Mediating view.

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.

Alternate position.

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 (Exod 4:14). Thus it had become a professional term. Gradually all priests were viewed as Levites by adoption although not by descent.

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 (Hag 1:1, 12, 14; 2:2, 4) does not fit any theory that the office was an innovation between Ezekiel (572 b.c.) and the second return (520 b.c.). All appearances point to an established institution. The argument that Ezekiel mentioned no high priest is liable to all the weaknesses of an argument from silence. He did not mention a king, but no one argues that kings did not exist in Israel to this time.

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 Deuteronomy 18, which differentiates between the provision for the ministering priest at the sanctuary (vv. 3-5) and that for the Levite from the surrounding areas in company with the ministering Levites (vv. 6-8). Deuteronomy 18:1 does not consider “the Levitical priests” as all the tribe of Levi. It is a characteristic elaboration of a statement by adding a phrase that broadens its meaning (cf. Deut 12:7, 12, 18; 15:11).

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 Deuteronomy 14:3-20 (cf. Lev 11:2-23). Finally, there is no proof of any acquaintance of the PC with Deuteronomy. Thus the priority of the PC is strongly implied.

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 (Luke 1:18, 19).

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 Epistle to the Hebrews builds on the teaching of the effectual high priesthood of Christ. Ministry in the Church has replaced the ancient God-ordained hierarchy. See High Priest.


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 History of Israel (1899), 123-174; J. Orr, The Problem of the Old Testament (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 Religion of Israel (1942), 121-129, 150-152, 204, 205; G. C. Aalders, “Priests and Levites,” 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):


1. The Old View

2. The Graf-Wellhausen View

3. Mediating Views

4. An Alternative View


1. The Levites

2. Aaron and His Sons



1. The Sources Other than Ezekiel

(1) The Custody of the Ark

(2) On Its Return from the Philistines

(3) In Abinadab’s House

2. Ezekiel


1. Estimates of the Chronicler

2. His Data



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 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 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.

See Criticism.

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" (Nu 1:50). It is necessary to consider whether such expressions are to be read in a wide or a narrow sense. We learn from Nu 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 (Nu 1:50-53). The other passages of Nu 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. Nu 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 (Nu 3; 4, etc.). They were to undergo a special rite of purification (Nu 8), but not of consecration. They were taken in place of the firstborn (Nu 3). The age for beginning service is given in Nu 4 as 30 years, but in Nu 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 Nu 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. Nu 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, Eze 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 f 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 (Le 1; 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’ (1Ch 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 1Ch 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 (Nu 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 f).

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 (Le 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 (Le 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 Le 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 (Le 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 (1Ki 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 Ex 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 Ex 33:7-11 (E) Joshua has charge of the ark. This rests on a mistranslation of Ex 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 ff);

(2) in De 31:14 (E) Joshua is not resident in the tent of meeting;

(3) in E, Aaron and Eleazar are priests (De 10:6), and the Levitical priesthood is the only one recognized (De 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 Ex 33:7-11, and, as shown in the article PENTATEUCH (which see), this passage should stand after Ex 13:22.

Then it is said that in Ex 4:14; Jud 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 (Jud 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 Ex 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.

Ex 32:26-29 foreshadows the sacred character of Levi, and De 10:6 (E) knows the hereditary Aaronic priesthood. In D the most important passage is De 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 De 18:6-8, and was not mentioned because in Hebrew antiquity it went without saying that every priest must be consecrated (compare Jud 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 Jos 3; 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 (Jud 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. 2Sa 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 (2Sa 6:20), or the frequent blessings of the Bible (e.g. Genesis passim, especially "in thee will Israel bless," Ge 48:20), while in 1Ki 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 (Num 6:22 ff).

Textual criticism disposes of the supposed priesthood of certain non-Levitical persons. In 2Sa 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 Isa 22:15) Revised Version margin "steward"). In 2Sa 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 1Ki 4:5 Nathan’s son is described as `priest friend of the king,’ but the Septuagint reads only "friend of the king" (compare especially 1Ch 27:33 f; 2Sa 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 (1Sa 1:24). His mother used to bring him a little cloak (1Sa 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 (1Sa 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 (1Sa 7:2).

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 1Sa 6:14,15. In the second of these verses the Levites come up after the Beth-shemites have finished, and, in Wellhausen’s words, "proceed as if nothing had happened, lift the ark from the now-no-longer-existent cart, and set it upon the stone on which the sacrifice is already burning" (Prolegomena, 128). It is therefore suggest that 6:15 is a gloss. But there is difficulty in 6:14 which tells of the breaking up of the cart, etc., without explaining what happened to the ark. The trouble may be met by a slight transposition, thus: `14a and the cart came into the field, .... and stood there, and there was there a great stone: 15a and the Levites took down the ark, etc. and put them on the great stone: 14b and clave the wood of the cart,’ etc., followed by 15b. This makes perfect sense.

(3) In Abinadab’s House

The second difficulty is made by 1Sa 7:1, where we read that the ark was brought to the house of Abinadab `and Eleazar his son they sanctified to guard’ it. Its old abode, the house at Shiloh, had apparently been destroyed (Jer 7:12,14; 26:6,9). There it enjoyed considerable importance, for Poels is unquestionably right in identifying the Gibeah of God (1Sa 10:5) with the Gibeah (hill) of the ark. Thus, there was a high place there and a Philistine garrison (compare 1Sa 13:3, where Septuagint and Targum have "Gibeah"). There remains the difficulty caused by the guardianship of Eleazar. Poels may be right in reading we’eth bene’ El’azar, "and the sons of Eleazar," for we’eth ’El`azar beno, "and Eleazar his son"; but in the entire absence of information, alike as to Eleazar’s functions and as to his tribe, nothing definite can be said. The narratives of the slaughter among the Beth-shemites and the fate of Uzzah make it certain that Eleazar’s custody of the ark kept him at a respectful distance from it.

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 (2Sa 6:13)--presumably of Levitical descent. No further irregularities are urged.

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 1Sa 2:27-36 is also important for the light it throws on the organization of the priesthood. The high priest has in his gift a number of priestly offices with pecuniary and other emoluments. This postulates a far more advanced hierarchy than that of Priest.

2. Ezekiel:

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. (Eze 22:26). If these words have any meaning they signify that he was acquainted with a law which followed the very words of Le 10 and other passages of the Priestly Code (P), and was intended to reach the people through the teaching of the priests. In Ezekiel 40-48, there is a vision of the future which stands in the closest relation to the Pentateuch. Three views have been held of this. The old view was that Ezekiel could not be reconciled with the Pentateuch at all, and that the difficulties presented were insoluble. Wellhausen and his followers maintain that the prophet is prior to the Priestly Code (P), and here introduces the distinction between priests and Levites for the first time. The third alternative is to hold that Ezekiel was familiar with P and drew from it the inspiration to make a fresh division among the Levites, giving the sons of Zadok a position similar to that occupied by the sons of Aaron in the wilderness period, and reenacting with slight modifications the legislation applicable to the sons of Aaron, this time applying it to the sons of Zadok. The crucial passage is 44:6-16, from which it clearly appears that in Solomon’s temple aliens had performed sundry tasks that should have been executed by more holy persons, and that Ezekiel proposes to degrade Levites who are not descended from Zadok to perform such tasks in the future as a punishment for their ministrations to idols in high places. Either of the two latter views would explain the close connection that evidently exists between the concluding chapters of Ezekiel and the Priestly Code (P), and, accordingly, in choosing between them, the reader must consider four main points: (1) Is P shown on the internal evidence to be early or late? Is it desert legislation, or is it accurately reflected in Chronicles? This point has already been discussed in part and is further treated in PENTATEUCH (which see).

(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 Nu 28; 29. Apparently the king had provided these earlier (2Ki 16:13). But in addition to these there had grown up a "king’s offering," and it is probably to this only that Eze 45:22 ff; 46:2-15 relate. In 46:13 Septuagint, Syriac, Vulgate, and some Hebrew manuscripts preserve the reading "he" for "thou."

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. 2Ki 11:4-12 with 2Ch 23:1-11), it may be that Levites have also been substituted by him for other persons in notices of which no other version has survived.

2. His Data:

In Ezr 2:40 the number of Levites who returned with Zerubbabel is given as 74, as against 973 priests (2:36), 128 singers (2:41), 139 children of the porters (2:42), 392 Nethinim and children of Solomon’s servants (2:58), and the figures are the same in Ne 7, except that there the singers number 148 (7:44) and the porters 138 (7:45). When Ezra went up, he was at first joined by no Levites (8:15), but subsequently gathered 38 Levites and 220 Nethinim (8:18-20). We get glimpses of the organization in Ne 12:44-47 and 13:10 ff. It appears that in this period genealogies were carefully scrutinized in the case of doubtful claims to priestly descent (Ezr 2:61 ff; Ne 7:63 ). In Ezr 6:19 ff the Levites are represented as killing the Passover.

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 (Le 21$ f; compare Eze 44). The rules aim at preventing defilement through mourning (save in the case of ordinary priests for a near relation) and at preventing those who were physically unfitted from performing certain functions, and those who were for any reason unclean from approaching the holy things. See further STRANGER AND SOJOURNER. They performed several semi-judicial functions (Nu 5:5 ff,11 ff, etc.; see Judge). They also blessed the people (Nu 6:22; compare De 10:8, etc.).



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