The Meaning of Degel and the Elusive History of the Levites
Parashat Bemidbar (“in the wilderness of [Sinai]“) opens the fourth book of the Torah, which bears this name, reflecting the overall theme of the book: the wilderness period and the long march following the exodus from Egypt. The English name Numbers derives from the Latin Numeri (Greek Arithmoi), referring to the dominant theme of the census and the census totals recorded in several places in the book (chs. 1-4, 26). This name has a parallel in rabbinic literature as well; in Mishnah Yômā’ (7:1), for example, the Rabbis refer to the book as hômeš happeqqudîm “the ‘one-fifth book’ of the census totals.” Thus, the English name of the book reflects an ancient Jewish tradition.
The Parashah can be divided into two sections: Chapters 1-2 record a census of the Israelites by tribes, outlining the deployment of the Israelite camp in preparation for the march. This census intentionally omits the dedicated tribe of Levi, whose internal organization and special functions are detailed in the second part of the parashah (and completed in Parashat Naso’).
The Meaning of Degel
The literary setting of the census is the description of the Israelite camp in the desert. In this camp, the tribes are arranged in a quadrangle around the Tabernacle, with three tribes camped in each direction (north, south, east and west). Each tribe is described as being encamped al diglo. What does this phrase mean?
Degel is often translated as “banner, standard,” based on the assumption that insignias often connote the unit that bears them. This is how Hebrew šēbet and matteh, both of which mean “staff, scepter,” came to mean “tribe.” On this basis, the refrain: אִישׁ עַֽל־מַחֲנֵהוּ וְאִישׁ עַל־דִּגְלוֹ would mean: “each [tribe] with its own camp, and each under its own banner.”
The use of the word equivalent to degel in languages related to Hebrew suggests otherwise. The related Aramaic term diglā’ designates a unit composed of soldiers and their families, a kind of military colony. This term is known from the Aramaic legal papyri of the Jewish military colony at Elephantine in Egypt under Persian administration during the late 6ththroughout most of the 5th century BCE. It has also turned up elsewhere in Egypt, and on potsherds from Arad in the Negeb of the same period. The Persians employed Aramaic as alingua franca, and that many Judeans of the period spoke Aramaic. This is where Hebrew degel originated.
The meaning “banner” for Hebrew degel is actually unknown in Biblical Hebrew, although it came into use over time. Song of Songs 2:4: wediglô ‘ālâi ’ahabāh does not mean “and his banner of love is over me,” but rather: “and his gaze upon me is one of love,” expressing the verb dāgal “to see, oversee.” The best known form of this infrequent verb in Biblical Hebrew is migdāl ( > midgāl ) “watch tower,” which recalls, once again in Song of Songs 6:4,10, the form nidgālôt (> midgālôt) “watch towers.” Forms of the verb dagālu “to see” are well known in Akkadian, often as madgaltu “watch tower.” The most precise translation of Hebrew degel would be: “a unit overseen by the watch tower.”
A Persian Period Military Camp
This meaning of the root d-g-l provides the background for Number 2: A Priestly editor imagined the Israelite camp as a quadrangle, with the Tent of Meeting at its center, tended by the Levites. The twelve tribes were arrayed on all four sides, with three tribes on each side. Each group of three tribes constituted a mahaneh “camp,” a conventional term for a military corps.
This editor lived and worked during the Persian period, and for greater clarity, further identified each camp as a degel commanded by a nāśî’ “chieftain.” The term degel is a “historical indicator,” and illustrates how Israelite, then Jewish authors and editors internalized features of the larger culture, in this case a model of Persian para-military deployment. How else would the Israelites of the Exodus have been organized?
The Elusive History of the Levites
Biblical sources offer widely divergent depictions of the Levites, and it is very difficult to reconstruct their history. It is unclear, for example, how the Levites became a 13th tribe, as they are identified in Numbers, though certain biblical texts suggest a possible direction and provide important clues.
Many biblical narratives depict Levites as individuals with special skills, who may come from any family or tribe; in these texts, Hebrew Lēwî is a professional title, like kōhēn “priest,” and not a marker of tribal affiliation. It may derive from the Hebrew verb lawah “to accompany, encircle,” reflecting tasks performed by the Levites, but this derivation is far from certain. Judges 17-18 recounts the adventures of a migratory Levite from a clan of the tribe of Judah, an affiliation noted repeatedly. He had found a paying job far from home in the Ephraimite hills with a local important person who operated a cult-site and needed a priest.
Subsequently, the tribe of Dan passed through the same town on its way north, and persuaded the Levite to join them and become priest of the entire tribe. This Levite is identified as a skilled person, who was appointed to practice his skills, first by the local man and then by the tribe of Dan. We are not told how a person trained to become a Levite, and are never told there that this Levite was from the tribe of Levi; in fact, Judges 17:7 says explicitly that he was from the tribe of Judah!
Three factors overlap in the formation of skilled groups like the Levites: locale, craft, and family. Families lived in close proximity over generations, so that esoteric arts were often passed on from parent to child and kept in the family, although some recruitment was probably undertaken. Over time, guilds were formed, until one tribe, or part of a tribe gained overall control. One would conclude as much from Moses’ parting blessing, addressed to the eponymic Levi (Deuteronomy 33:8-11).
8 And of Levi he said: Let Your Thummim and Urim be with Your faithful one, whom You tested at Massah, challenged at the waters of Meribah; 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. 10 They shall teach Your laws to Jacob and Your instructions to Israel. They shall offer You incense to savorand whole-offerings on Your altar. 11 Bless, O Lord, his substance, and favor his undertakings. Smite the loins of his foes; let his enemies rise no more.
This poetic passage represents the tribe of Levi as cultic personnel who offer sacrifices, pursue oracular functions, and instruct Israelites in God’s laws—all behaviors eventually associated with kohanim. Their entitlements are a reward for their loyalty to the God of Israel at critical moments. This recalls the episode of the so-called Golden Calf (Exodus 32), when the Levites, alone of all the tribes, placed loyalty to the Covenant above loyalty to their closest relatives.
This depiction of the early Levites as the main group responsible for maintaining the ancient cult, including offering sacrifices, contrasts strongly with their depiction in our parasha, where they are minor cultic functionaries, subservient to the kohanim. Thus, between their origin and our parasha, which as noted above, derives from the Persian period, their role has changed radically—they have been demoted.
In enumerating their assigned tasks, Numbers 3-4, make no mention of Levites offering sacrifice. To the contrary, the Bible stressed time and again that the Levites are to “serve, assist” (the Hebrew verb šērēt) the kohamin by maintaining the Tent of Meeting, an activity known as mišmeret , but they do not officiate. We do not know how and why they were demoted, but the change in their position relative to other texts is one of many issues that point to the Bible as a dynamic, developing religious system, with Priestly texts, such as those found in our parasha, as one of the latest manifestations of biblical religion.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
May 20, 2014
August 3, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Rabbi Baruch A. Levine is Emeritus Skirball Professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Brandeis University and his M.H.L. and ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Levine is the author of the two volume Anchor Bible commentary on Numbers and the JPS commentary on Leviticus.
Essays on Related Topics: