Levites: A Transjordanian Tribe of Priests
The Levites are a unique tribe. In some texts, they are a natural unit of בני ישראל “the children of Israel.” Levi is the third son of Jacob/Israel; he appears in Jacob’s final testament to his sons (Gen 49) and in Moses’ final words to the Israelites (Deut 33). The Levites are also one of the twelve tribes included in the ceremony of the blessing on the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal (Deut 27:11–13).
At the same time, most biblical texts do not list Levi as one of the twelve tribes. Instead, these lists reach the number twelve by excluding Levi and dividing the Joseph tribes into Ephraim and Manasseh. Twice, when Moses takes a census of the people (Num 1–2, 26:1–51), he counts the Levites separately from the other tribes (Num 3:14–39; 26:57–62), following YHWH’s explicit command to Moses:
במדבר א:מט אַךְ אֶת מַטֵּה לֵוִי לֹא תִפְקֹד וְאֶת רֹאשָׁם לֹא תִשָּׂא בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 1:49 Do not on any account enroll the tribe of Levi or take a census of them with the Israelites.
Later the Torah explains:
במדבר כו:סב ...כִּי לֹא הָתְפָּקְדוּ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי לֹא נִתַּן לָהֶם נַחֲלָה בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 26:62 …They were not part of the regular enrollment of the Israelites, since no share was assigned to them among the Israelites.
Instead of the Levites inheriting land as a single tribal allotment, Numbers 35:1–8 requires the Israelites to assign the Levites special cities of their own, inside their territories, and this is carried out in the book of Joshua (ch. 21).
Just Priestly Attendants?
In Numbers, the Levites are chosen to be attendants in the Tabernacle, assisting the Aaronide priests.
במדבר יח:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל אַהֲרֹן אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ וּבֵית אָבִיךָ אִתָּךְ תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת עֲוֹן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת עֲוֹן כְּהֻנַּתְכֶם. יח:ב וְגַם אֶת אַחֶיךָ מַטֵּה לֵוִי שֵׁבֶט אָבִיךָ הַקְרֵב אִתָּךְ וְיִלָּווּ עָלֶיךָ וִישָׁרְתוּךָ וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל הָעֵדֻת.
Num 18:1 YHWH said to Aaron: You and your sons and the ancestral house under your charge shall bear any guilt connected with the sanctuary; you and your sons alone shall bear any guilt connected with your priesthood. 18:2 You shall also associate with yourself your kinsmen the tribe of Levi, your ancestral tribe, to be attached to you and to minister to you, while you and your sons under your charge are before the Tent of the Pact.
Each group has its own responsibilities—the priesthood offers sacrifices, and the Levites carry the Tabernacle and its accoutrements and guard it from outsiders; each also receives its own maintenance gifts—the priests receive portions of the sacrifices (Exod 29:27–28; Lev 7:14, 32–34, 10:14–15; Num 5:9, 18:8–20) while the Levites receive the tithe (Num 18:21–24).
This description is only found in the Priestly text of the Torah and late Second Temple texts (see appendix), and contradicts virtually every other biblical text that speaks about Levites. For one, several biblical texts speak about an entirely different class of people as temple attendants, the Gibeonites (Josh 9:23, 27) and/or the Netinim (Ezra 8:20; Neh 11:21). More significantly, other accounts consistently describe the Levites as performing priestly functions.
Levites as Priests and Levitical Priests
The Deuteronomic law collection consistently refers to הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם “Levitical priests” or הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי לֵוִי “priests, son of Levi.” For example:
דברים כא:ה וְנִגְּשׁוּ הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי לֵוִי כִּי בָם בָּחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְשָׁרְתוֹ וּלְבָרֵךְ בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה וְעַל פִּיהֶם יִהְיֶה כָּל רִיב וְכָל נָגַע.
Deut 21:5 The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for YHWH your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of YHWH, and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling.
Indeed, nowhere does Deuteronomy describe priests as בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן “descendants of Aaron.” In Deuteronomy, any Levite can serve as a priest, as YHWH established at Horeb, though not all of them necessarily have a position at a worship site.
We find this view in other First Temple period sources. For instance, in the story of Micah’s idol, the Danites meet הַנַעַר הַלֵּוִי “the Levite lad” in the house of Micah (Judg 18:3), and when they ask him what he is doing there:
שופטים יח:ד וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם כָּזֹה וְכָזֶה עָשָׂה לִי מִיכָה וַיִּשְׂכְּרֵנִי וָאֱהִי לוֹ לְכֹהֵן.
Judg 18:4 He replied, “Thus and thus Micah did for me—he hired me and I became his priest.”
They then ask him to inquire of YHWH on their behalf, and later they steal all the cultic equipment from Micah’s house and ask the Levite to come be the priest for their new city:
שופטים יח:יט ...וְלֵךְ עִמָּנוּ וֶהְיֵה לָנוּ לְאָב וּלְכֹהֵן הֲטוֹב הֱיוֹתְךָ כֹהֵן לְבֵית אִישׁ אֶחָד אוֹ הֱיוֹתְךָ כֹהֵן לְשֵׁבֶט וּלְמִשְׁפָּחָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.
Judg 18:19 …Come with us and be our father and priest. Would you rather be priest to one man’s household or be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel?
Thus, pre-exilic texts present the Levites as priests of YHWH who could potentially be hired anywhere.
A Levite who had not secured a position at a specific worship site, however, would have been economically at risk. This explains why Deuteronomy includes Levites among the people to whom Israelites must give charity:
דברים יד:כז וְהַלֵּוִי אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ לֹא תַעַזְבֶנּוּ כִּי אֵין לוֹ חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה עִמָּךְ.
Deut 14:27 Do not neglect the Levite in your community, for he has no hereditary portion as you have.
A Levite with no land and no steady income of gifts from serving at an altar was vulnerable in the same way as the widow or the stranger.
In the hundreds of years that the Levites lived among the Israelites and served at local altars, they did not all become part of established priestly houses, nor did they assimilate into the tribes where they lived. How did the Levites reach their curious position in Israelite society: ideal priests who lacked territory and were economically vulnerable?
The Levites and Their Territory
Originally, the Levites were a tribe with their own territory, part of the subgroup which included the first four sons of Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Julius Wellhausen argued that these four tribes were an early unit, settled on the two sides of the Dead Sea. We know that Simeon and Judah settled to the west and Reuben to the east. Levi’s territory, I would argue, was also in the east.
Moses, the great Levite ancestor figure, is buried in the Transjordanian mishor, in the region of Mount Nebo (Deut 34). Just as Rachel’s tomb can be found in the territory of Benjamin (1 Sam 10:2), Joseph’s in the territory of Manasseh (Josh 24:32), and Joshua’s in the territory of Ephraim (Josh 24:30), so too Moses’ tomb would have been located in the territory of Levi.
The Levites Lose their Territory
If Levi once occupied the area around Nebo, by the time the first tribal divisions texts are written, this was no longer the case. In the earliest descriptions we have, Reuben occupies this territory (Num 32:38).
While we have no text that describes a battle between Reuben and Levi, it is conspicuous that the early, pre-Priestly account of Israelite rebellion against Moses’ authority features Reubenites as the ring leaders: Datan and Abiram (Num 16). This story may be based on a memory of an ancient conflict between these tribes. If so, from the perspective of land, the Reubenites won.
Soon after this, however, the Gadites expanded their territorial holdings and took the land from the Reubenites. This is reflected in the blessing of Gad at the end of Deuteronomy:
דברים לג:כ בָּרוּךְ מַרְחִיב גָּד כְּלָבִיא שָׁכֵן וְטָרַף זְרוֹעַ אַף קָדְקֹד. לג:כא וַיַּרְא רֵאשִׁית לוֹ כִּי שָׁם חֶלְקַת מְחֹקֵק סָפוּן וַיֵּתֵא רָאשֵׁי עָם צִדְקַת יְ־הוָה עָשָׂה וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 33:20 Blessed be He who enlarges Gad! Poised is he like a lion to tear off arm and scalp. 33:21 He chose for himself the best, for there is the paneled plot of the lawgiver, and he gathered the heads of the people. He executed YHWH’s righteousness and His decisions for Israel.
This poem, which should be dated to 9th century B.C.E., notes that Gad is now in control of the area where Moses, “the lawgiver,” is buried. Given that Levi’s territory passed first to Reuben and then to Gad, what happened to the Levites themselves? The answer is connected to the status of Nebo.
The Origin of this Levitical Status
The area of Nebo was not only the burial place of Moses, but, as we know from the Mesha inscription, it housed a YHWH Temple. As the importance of this temple was likely tied up with the identity if its patron saint, Moses, who was buried either in it or alongside it, the Levites were able to remain in their territory not as sovereigns, but as priests serving the Nebo temple.
This is supported by the poem noted above, which appears to be a hieros logos or “sacred founding legend” for the temple at Moses’ gravesite. The section of the blessing Levi explains why the Levites were chosen as its priests:
דברים לג:ח וּלְלֵוִי אָמַר תֻּמֶּיךָ וְאוּרֶיךָ לְאִישׁ חֲסִידֶךָ אֲשֶׁר נִסִּיתוֹ בְּמַסָּה תְּרִיבֵהוּ עַל מֵי מְרִיבָה. לג:ט הָאֹמֵר לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ לֹא רְאִיתִיו וְאֶת אֶחָיו לֹא הִכִּיר וְאֶת (בנו) [בָּנָיו] לֹא יָדָע כִּי שָׁמְרוּ אִמְרָתֶךָ וּבְרִיתְךָ יִנְצֹרוּ.
Deut 33:8 And of Levi he said: Let your Tummim and Urim be with your faithful one, whom you tested at Massah, challenged at the waters of Meribah; 33:9 Who said of his father and mother, “I consider them not.” His brothers he disregarded, ignored his own children. Your precepts alone they observed, and kept Your covenant.
According to this, the reward YHWH grants the Levites for the loyalty they showed at Masah u-Meribah is that they should be given control of the holy objects, the Urim ve-Tummim, with which the Levites will be able to communicate with YHWH and provide the people with oracles. The text continues:
דברים לג:י יוֹרוּ מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לְיַעֲקֹב וְתוֹרָתְךָ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל יָשִׂימוּ קְטוֹרָה בְּאַפֶּךָ וְכָלִיל עַל מִזְבְּחֶךָ. לג:יא בָּרֵךְ יְ־הוָה חֵילוֹ וּפֹעַל יָדָיו תִּרְצֶה מְחַץ מָתְנַיִם קָמָיו וּמְשַׂנְאָיו מִן יְקוּמוּן.
Deut 33:10 They shall teach your laws to Jacob and your instructions to Israel. They shall place incense before your nostrils and whole-offerings on your altar. 33:11 Bless, O YHWH, his substance, and favor his undertakings. Smite the loins of his foes; let his enemies rise no more.
Here the text adds two further features of the Levites’ place in Israelite society: They teach YHWH’s laws and they offer sacrifices. In short, the Levites are to act as Israel’s priests, communicating God’s laws and oracles, and offering sacrifices on their behalf.
Defenders of YHWH
An alternative version of the tradition reflected in this blessing appears as part of the Golden Calf story in Exodus 32. When Moses comes down from the mountain, having learned of the sin of the Golden Calf, he calls out to ask who is with him on the side of YHWH, וַיֵּאָסְפוּ אֵלָיו כָּל בְּנֵי לֵוִי “and all the Levites gathered to him” (Exod 32:26) Moses then instructs them to strike down all the sinners, and they do so, leaving 3,000 Israelites dead.
שמות לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מִלְאוּ יֶדְכֶם הַיּוֹם לַי־הוָה כִּי אִישׁ בִּבְנוֹ וּבְאָחִיו וְלָתֵת עֲלֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה.
Exod 32:29 And Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves to YHWH this day—for each of you has been against son and brother—that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.”
In this story, the Levites are granted their status as a gift from Moses after showing their loyalty to YHWH in battle.
Descendants of Moses
Elsewhere, the connection of Levites to Moses is made genealogically. In the Micah story, the priesthood in Dan is said to descend from Moses:
שופטים יח:ל וַיָּקִימוּ לָהֶם בְּנֵי דָן אֶת הַפָּסֶל וִיהוֹנָתָן בֶּן גֵּרְשֹׁם בֶּן מְנַשֶּׁה הוּא וּבָנָיו הָיוּ כֹהֲנִים לְשֵׁבֶט הַדָּנִי עַד יוֹם גְּלוֹת הָאָרֶץ.
Judg 18:30 The Danites set up the sculptured image for themselves; and Jonathan son of Gershom son of (Manasseh) [Moses], and his descendants, served as priests to the Danite tribe until the land went into exile.
The Hebrew text as we have it now adds a nun into the name of Moses, turning it into Manasseh, but the Masoretic scribes put this nun into superscript to inform the reader that it isn’t original. Clearly, it was added to avoid stating explicitly that Jonathan, this Levite of questionable character, was Moses’ grandson, but the attempt is half-hearted. The name of Jonathan’s father, Gershom, makes the point clear. Moreover, this correction is absent in many LXX manuscripts, and it is ignored in the Latin Vulgate. While the story is meant to lampoon this worship site, it is clear that part of Jonathan’s bona fides as a Levite is his descent from the greatest of all Levite ancestors, Moses.
A Transjordanian Tribe
Over time, Levite becomes synonymous with priesthood. But serving in one temple was not enough work for one tribe. Thus, after Levi lost control of their territory, many Levites began to wander into the territory of other Israelite tribes.
With their reputations as the tribe of Moses, teachers of YHWH’s laws, and diviners of YHWH’s plans, they were the perfect group to choose for service in local shrines. This is likely how Levites ended up as far away as Dan, and probably other places as well. Nevertheless, unlike in Nebo and the Transjordan, their natural home as priests, in Cisjordan, the Levites had to find places that would take them in.
Their situation took a turn for the worse in the 9th century B.C.E., when King Mesha of Moab conquered the Mishor and destroyed the YHWH Temple in Nebo. Mesha described this conquest in his stele:
ויאמר לי כמש לך אחז את נבה על ישראל. ואהלך בללה ואלתחם בה מבקע השחרת עד הצהרם ואחזה, ואהרג כלה, שבעת אלפן גברן וגרן וגברת וגרת ורחמת כי לעשתר כמש החרמתה. ואקח משם א[ת כ]לי י־הוה ואסחבהם לפני כמש.
And Kemosh (=the Moabite god) said to me: “Go take Nebo from Israel!” And I went in the night and I fought against it from the break of dawn until noon, and I took it and I killed everyone, seven thousand men and boys and women and girls and servant girls, for I had put it to the ban for Ashtar-Kemosh. And I took the [ves]sels of YHWH from there and hauled them before the face of Kemosh.
Having lost their main temple, a new wave of Levites probably entered the Cisjordanian territory during this period, looking for holy sites where they could ply their trade. This wave may have inspired the laws we eventually find in Deuteronomy requiring Israelites to take care of unemployed Levites living in their territory.
In the early 8th century, Kings Joash and Jeroboam II of Israel recaptured the Mishor. In this period, it seems to have again been part of Reuben and not Gad (and certainly not Levi). We do not know whether the temple was reestablished at this time, but even if it was, soon thereafter (734–732 B.C.E.), King Tiglath-pilesar III of Assyria, conquered and destroyed Israelite Transjordan, marking the permanent end of Israelite domination of this region.
Any surviving Levites would have fled to the Cisjordan at this point, and after the destruction of the rest of Israel in 722 B.C.E., to Judah, joining their brother Levites either as priests in local worship sites, controlled by other priestly families, or as landless objects of charity.
The Decline of the Levites
By the Second Temple period, the Priestly authors gave the Levites a role as attendants in the Jerusalem Temple, and included a required Israelite tithe as their stipend; this was the final rung on the centuries-long decline of this tribe.
In the pre-monarchic period, they were a landholding tribe, with an ancestor figure and a temple of great importance. After that, they became a landless tribe but still with a temple, then a landless and temple-less tribe, looking for work as local priests. This development put them in competition with other Priestly families with different ancestors, such as the Aaronites and the Zadokites, so the Levites were eventually forced to accept a status as priestly attendants.
And yet, when we read the blessing of Levi in Deuteronomy 33, we can hear the echoes of their former greatness, when their loyalty to YHWH brought them into military conflict with their fellow Israelites, and they were rewarded with YHWH’s priesthood in the Nebo temple, that was to stand by the tomb of their ancestor Moses.
Demotion of Levites
Scholars continue to debate how the Levites got demoted from priests to priestly attendants serving under the Aaronide priesthood.
Julius Wellhausen argued that was a result of the centralization of worship. At one point, different families of Levitical priests served in different holy sites, but when Josiah centralized worship, the only family that remained was the Aaronides of Jerusalem. As they refused to let any other priestly family join their ranks, the now unemployed Levites from other worship sites needed to strike a deal with the Jerusalem Temple, which they did by taking the lower role of attendants.
As many scholars have noted, this suggestion doesn’t fit the sources describing the early Second Temple period. According to Ezra 2:36–39 (=Neh 7:39–42), 4,289 priests from four different priestly families returned from exile, and three more families of “possible” priestly lineage on top of these (Ezra 2:61–63 [=Neh 7:62–64]). In contrast, only 74 Levites returned (Ezra 2:40 [=Neh 7:43]). The huge number of priests in comparison with that of the Levites makes little sense if Levites represented the priesthood of every holy place other than Jerusalem.
Moreover, the centralization of worship under Josiah took place only a few decades before the exile, which is hardly enough time for the creation of solid boundaries between priestly families and Levitical families. Finally, the description of the centralization process implies that only the actual priests who served in high places would be disqualified from active service (2 Kgs 23:9); the text says nothing about their descendants losing priestly status for all time.
Israelite Versus Judahite
A different theory, put forward separately by Aelred Cody and Menahem Haran, is that Levites were the priestly class of Israel in the north and kohanim (priests) were the priestly class of Judah in the south. According to this model, when Israel was destroyed by Assyria in 722 B.C.E., many Levites escaped south to Judah. They were not accepted into the ranks of the local priesthood, so they accepted a lesser role.
Support for this view can be found in the list of Levitical cities (Josh 21:1–40; 1 Chron 6:39–66), since the Aaronide priests received cities among the southern tribes of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin—i.e., the territory of the kingdom of Judah—while the rest of the Levites received cities elsewhere, in the north and east. But these texts are very late and artificial; they assume the perspective on priests and Levites found in the Priestly texts which, as already noted, contradict the First Temple period material about Levites.
In fact, non-Priestly material suggests that Levites lived throughout Greater Israel, in the north and the south. The priest who serves Micah is from Bethlehem (Judg 17:7), and is respected by the coastal Danites (Judg 18:3–4), who bring him and his descendants to live in the far north (Judg 18:30). The Levite protagonist of the concubine in Gibeah story in Ephraimite, though he travels back and forth to Judah (Judg 19:1). Moreover, according to Kings, the north made use of non-Levitical priests (1 Kgs 12:31), such that it is hard to say that the northern kingdom was the source of their status.
As for the Aaronides, nowhere in the Bible is Aaron tied to Jerusalem. Instead, Aaron is buried in the Transjordan on Mount Hor (Num 21:22–29, 33:38) or Moserah (Deut 10:6), and his son Eleazar and his grandson Phinehas are buried in the Ephraimite Hills (Josh 24:33). Moreover, the story of Aaron building the Golden Calf (Exod 32) is a polemic aimed at Jeroboam’s calves in Dan and Bethel (1 Kgs 12:26–30). And in war against Benjamin, Phinehas is serving as priest in Bethel (Judg 20:26–28). Thus, if anything, the Aaronides are tied to the north, not the south.
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Prof. Alexander Rofé is Professor (Emeritus) of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he held the Yitzhak Becker Chair in Jewish Studies and whence he received his Ph.D. in 1970. Among his many books are Angels in the Bible: Israelite Belief in Angels as Evidenced by Biblical Traditions (1979, reissued 2012), Prophetical Stories (1988), Introduction to the Composition of the Pentateuch(1999), and Deuteronomy: Issues and Interpretation (2002).
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