Priests Levites

Who were the priests and Levites?

The Levites were a tribe of Israel, and men from their tribe, of a certain age, assumed the role of priest in the nation. 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 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.

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.

Mediating Views

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 Dt 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.

The Levites

To arrive at an objective conclusion it is necessary, in the first instance, to examine the facts without such bias as any view put forward by any other author, ancient or modern, sacred or profane, might impart. Every legislator is entitled to be judged on his own language, and where he has, so to speak, made his own dictionary, we are compelled to read his meaning into the terms used.

The very first of the material references to the Levites drives this truth home. "But appoint thou the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all the furniture thereof" (Numbers 1:50 ). It is necessary to consider whether such expressions are to be read in a wide or a narrow sense. We learn from Numbers 18:3 that death would be the result of a Levite's touching any of these vessels, and it therefore appears that these words are meant to be construed narrowly. "They shall bear the tabernacle, and all the furniture thereof; and they shall minister unto it," are the next words ( Numbers 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" (Numbers 4:15 ).

This shows that the service in question is strictly limited to a service of porterage after the articles have been wrapped up by Aaron and his sons. By no possibility could it include such a task as cleaning the vessels. It is then further directed that the Levites are to take down and set up the dwelling and camp round about it. All these are desert services and desert services only. Then we read that "the Levites shall keep the charge of the tabernacle (dwelling) of the testimony. This concludes the first material passage ( Numbers 1:50-53 ). The other passages of Nu only amplify these directions; they never change them. But some phrases are used which must be more particularly considered.

Other Legal Provisions

The Levites were to act under the orders of Aaron and his sons, who were to assign to each man his individual functions (Numbers 3 ; 4 , etc.). They were to undergo a special rite of purification (Numbers 8 ), but not of consecration. They were taken in place of the firstborn (Numbers 3 ). The age for beginning service is given in Numbers 4 as 30 years, but in Numbers 8:24 as 25 years, if the text is sound. The age for ceasing to serve was 50. In many passages the versions suggest that a good many phrases are textually doubtful, and it is probable that when a critical text of the Pentateuch is formed on scientific principles, a good many superfluous expressions will be found not to be original; but there is no reason to suppose that any real difference in the meaning of the passages would be revealed by such a text.

The story of Korah is easily misunderstood. It appears from Numbers 16:3 that his real object was to put himself on an equality with Moses and Aaron, and this is the "priesthood" referred to in Numbers 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 (Numbers 18:3 ). The penalty is death for both Levites and priests.

Contrast with Ezekiel and Chronicles

The impression as to the meaning of P which may be gathered from an examination of its statements is powerfully reinforced when they are tested by reference to Ezekiel and Chronicles, Ezekiel 44:9-14 seems to demand of the Levites some service as gatekeepers, the slaying of burnt offering and sacrifice for the people and a keeping of "the charge of the house, for all the service thereof," which in the light of Ezekiel 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 (Lev 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' ( 1 Chronicles 23:28 ), but P knows nothing of any chambers, would not have allowed the Levites to touch (much less clean) many of the holy things, and regarded service simply as porterage. In 1 Chronicles 23:31 the Levites are to offer burnt offerings on certain occasions; in P their approach to the altar would have meant death both to themselves and the priests ( Numbers 18:3 ). Other instances will be found in PS , 238 f.

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).

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 ‛A aron the high priest' is entirely unknown to Priests and Levites. Where the high priest's name is given the only qualifying apposition possible in his usage is 'the priest.' " Aaron and his sons, unlike the Levites, were consecrated, not merely purified.

At this point two features only of the legislation need be noticed: the inadequacy of the staff to post-conquest conditions and the signs of date. For example, the leprosy laws (Leviticus 13 f) postulate the presence of priests to inspect and isolate the patient. "Remembering that on the critical theory P assumes the capital at Jerusalem as self-evident, we must ask how such provisions were to work after the conquest.

During the desert period nothing could have been simpler, but what was to happen when the Israelites dwelt all over Canaan from Beersheba to Dan?" ( PS , 246). The difficulty is immensely increased if we postulate an exilic or post-exilic date, when the Jewish center of gravity was in Babylonia and there were large colonies in Egypt and elsewhere. And "What are we to say when we read of leprous garments (Leviticus 13:47 ff)? 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 Lev 14?

Could they conceivably have been meant to apply to such circumstances?" ( PS , 247). The case is no better with the law of leprous houses, which is expressed to apply to the post-conquest period (Leviticus 4:33 -53). The notification to the priest and his inspections require a priesthood scattered all over the country, i.e. a body far more numerous than the house of Aaron at the date of the conquest. Such instances could easily be multiplied from the legislation; one more only will be cited on account of its importance to the history of the priesthood. According to Leviticus, the individual sacrificant is to kill the victims and flay the burnt offerings.

How could such procedure be applied to such sacrifices as those of Solomon ( 1 Kings 8:63 )? With the growth of luxury the sacrifices would necessarily become too large for such a ritual, and the wealthy would grow in refinement and object to performing such tasks personally. This suggests the reason for later abuses and for the modifications of Ezekiel and the representations of the Chronicler.

Result of the Evidence

Thus, the evidence of P is unfavorable alike to the Wellhausen and the mediating views. The indications of date are consistently Mosaic, and it seems impossible to fit the laws into the framework of any other age without reading them in a sense that the legislator can be shown not to have contemplated. On the other hand P is a torso. It provides a large body of Levites who would have nothing to do after the conquest, and a corpus of legislation that could not have been administered in settled conditions by the house of Aaron alone.

The Other Portions of the Pentateuch

In Exodus 19:22 , Exodus 19:24 we read of priests, but a note has come down to us that in the first of those verses Aquila had "elders," not "priests," and this appears to be the correct reading in both places, as is shown by the prominence of the elders in the early part of the chapter. In Hebrew the words differ by only two letters. It is said by Wellhausen that in Exodus 33:7-11 (E) Joshua has charge of the ark. This rests on a mistranslation of Exodus 33:7 , which should be rendered (correcting English Versions of the Bible), 'And Moses used to take a (or the) tent and pitch it for himself without the camp.'

It is inconceivable that Moses should have taken the tent of the ark and removed it to a distance from the camp for his private use, leaving the ark bared and unguarded. Moreover, if he had done so, Joshua could not have been in charge of the ark, seeing that he was in this tent while the ark ( ex hypothesi ) remained in the camp. Nor had the ark yet been constructed. Nor was Joshua in fact a priest or the guardian of the ark in E: (1) in the Book of Joshua E knows of priests who carry the ark and are quite distinct from Joshua (3 ff); (2) in Deuteronomy 31:14 (E) Joshua is not resident in the tent of meeting; (3) in E, Aaron and Eleazar are priests ( Deuteronomy 10:6 ), and the Levitical priesthood is the only one recognized (Deuteronomy 33:10 ); (4) there is no hint anywhere of Joshua's discharging any priestly duty whatsoever. The whole case rests on his presence in the tent in Exodus 33:7-11 , and, as shown in the article PENTATEUCH (which see), this passage should stand after Exodus 13:22 .

Then it is said that in Exodus 4:14 ; Judges 17:7 , "Levite" denotes profession, not ancestry. In the latter passage the youth whom Micah made a priest was of Levitical descent, being the grandson of Moses (Judges 17:13 ), and the case rests on the phrase, "of the family of Judah." Neither of the Septuagintal translations had this text (Field, Hexapla , at the place), which therefore cannot be supported, since it cannot be suggested that Moses belonged to the tribe of Judah. As to Exodus 4:14 , the phrase "Aaron thy brother the Levite" is merely an adaptation of the more usual, "Aaron, son of Amram, the Levite," rendered necessary by the fact that his brother Moses is the person addressed. The Wellhausen theory here is shown to be untenable in PS , 250 and RE3 , XI, 418.

Exodus 32:26-29 foreshadows the sacred character of Levi, and Deuteronomy 10:6 (E) knows the hereditary Aaronic priesthood. In D the most important passage is Deuteronomy 18:6-8 . In Deuteronomy 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 Deuteronomy 21:5 , giving to the Levites judicial rights, and Deuteronomy 24:8 assigning to them the duty of teaching the leprosy regulations. Together with Deuteronomy 33:10 (E), 'they shall teach thy judgments to Jacob and thy law to Israel: they shall put incense in thy nostrils and whole burnt-offering on thine altar,' these passages complete the provisions of P in giving to the Levites an occupation in place of their transport duties, and providing the necessary staff for administering the legislation when the Israelites were no longer massed together in a single camp, but scattered over the country.

We shall see in the next section that this view of the meaning of the Law was taken by every writer of the second part of the Canon who touches on the subject. Everywhere we are confronted with the legitimacy of a Levitical priesthood; nowhere is there any mention of an exclusive Aaronic right. Smaller points which cannot be discussed here are examined in PS . It only remains to notice that these provisions fully explain the frequent Deuteronomic locution, "the priests the Levites." One other remark must be made. Though it is not expressly stated, we may assume that consecration would be necessary in the case of any Levite acting on the provisions of Deuteronomy 18:6-8 , and was not mentioned because in Hebrew antiquity it went without saying that every priest must be consecrated (compare Judges 17:1-13 ).


International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).