We rely on the support of readers like you. Please consider supporting TheTorah.com.

Donate

Stay updated with the latest scholarship

You have been successfully subscribed
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Mark Leuchter

(

2017

)

.

Who Were the Levites?

.

TheTorah.com

.

https://thetorah.com/article/who-were-the-levites

APA e-journal

Mark Leuchter

,

,

,

"

Who Were the Levites?

"

TheTorah.com

(

2017

)

.

https://thetorah.com/article/who-were-the-levites

Edit article

Series

Symposium

Who Were the Levites?

The Torah describes the Levites as a landless Israelite tribe who inherited their position by responding to the call of their most illustrious member, Moses, to take vengeance against sinning Israelites, but this account masks a more complicated historical process.[1]

Print
Share

Print
Share
Who Were the Levites?

Priests and Levites at the altar. Publisher: Museon

The Tribe of Levi in the Canonized Torah

When reading the Torah as a single narrative of Israel’s distant origins, the Levites appear alongside the other Israelite tribes who leave Egypt and wander in the wilderness with Moses before their return to the Promised Land of Canaan. Like those other tribes, they descend from one the sons of Jacob – Levi – described in the book of Genesis (Gen 29:34). Unlike those other tribes, however, they are destined to have no permanent tribal territory once Israel crosses the Jordan and enters Canaan (Num 18:20-21; Deut 10:9; 18:1). Instead, they are set aside as God’s “portion,” dedicated to ritual service and sacral duties throughout Israel’s tribal holdings, and especially at the Tabernacle (P’s precursor of the Jerusalem temple). 

Why the Levites were Chosen 

According to the biblical narrative, God chose the Levites to be cultic officials during the wilderness period. The exact reason for this is unclear. Deuteronomy states that the choice was made at Mount Horeb, seemingly after the Golden Calf incident:

דברים י:ח בָּעֵת הַהִוא הִבְדִּיל יְ-הוָה אֶת שֵׁבֶט הַלֵּוִי לָשֵׂאת אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ-הוָה לַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה לְשָׁרְתוֹ וּלְבָרֵךְ בִּשְׁמוֹ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. י:ט עַל כֵּן לֹא הָיָה לְלֵוִי חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה עִם אֶחָיו יְ-הוָה הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לוֹ.
Deut 10:8 At that time YHWH set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark of YHWH’s Covenant, to stand in attendance upon YHWH, and to bless in His name, as is still the case.10:9 That is why the Levites have received no hereditary portion along with their kinsmen: YHWH is their portion, as YHWH your God spoke concerning them (NJPS with adjustments).

The connection between the choice of Levites and Mount Horeb may also be implied in—and perhaps built upon—the story of the sin of the Golden Calf as told in Exodus 32, according to which the Levites were the one group to answer Moses’ call of vengeance against the worshipers of the calf, and were, consequently, told by Moses consecrate themselves to God (v. 29).

Another group of texts, found in Numbers 3 and 8, views the choice of the Levites as transpiring later in the wilderness period, and states that the Levites were chosen to replace the firstborn, whom God had originally envisioned as cultic functionaries. They do not, however, offer a reason for this change.

Projecting the Development of the Levites into the Ancient Past

Most critical scholars see the Torah’s explanations as attempts to explain the origin of a reality with which the authors were familiar – landless Levites as cultic functionaries. The biblical text is projecting the origin of this reality back into the formative period of the ancestors, the exodus and the wilderness. The Bible also, however, contains very ancient memories and details that recall the social function of Levites in Ancient Israel, and their emergence as a group of (quasi-)priests. Scholars have offered various different views of how these ancient memories might be used to reconstruct the historical origin on the Levites.

A Tribe that Lost Its Land

One proposal for explaining the origins of Levites is that the Levites originated as a normal, lay tribe, but their inability to maintain a territorial foothold led to their dispersal throughout the other tribes, finding a living and social position through becoming cultic specialists.[2]

The episode in Judges 17, in which a local chieftain employs a wandering Levite as his personal sanctuary attendant, has been used to support this position. But this episode already takes for granted that a Levite is a cultic professional, and it says nothing about Levites once having had land.

Moreover, the theory doesn’t explain how the other tribes would have allowed these Levites to hold such cultic authority. Early Israelite religion was cultivated within family/clan contexts as can be seen both in biblical texts and in the archaeological record – so why would these clan leaders have relinquished their own religious power and simply handed it over to whichever Levites wandered into their territories?[3]

Levites as the Exodus Group: Egyptian Connection

Another approach suggests that the Levites were originally non-Israelites from Egypt who joined the indigenous and settled Israelite tribes. As landless sojourners, this group found their place working as cultic professionals throughout the territories of the Israelite tribes. Scholars fostering this theory point to the fact that so many of the important Levite figures identified in the Torah’s narrative have names with Egyptian etymologies (Moses, Aaron, Miriam; also Phinehas, Kehat, and Merari).

According to this theory, once the Levites began to serve as cultic professionals for the Israelites, they introduced their own story, that of the exodus from Egypt, as a national tale of origin among this larger population; perhaps they were even the ones to bring the worship of YHWH to this group.[4] 

This admittedly speculative suggestion has some attractive elements, nevertheless, when looking at the literary sources in conversation with archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, and social-scientific evidence, I believe a different option for the origins of the Levites recommends itself.

Levites as “Connected/Attached” to Local Cult Centers

An important clue to the origin of the Israelites is reflected in the meaning of the word “Levite” (Hebrew lewi), which comes from Hebrew root ל-ו-ה, meaning “connect” or “attach”; lewi literally means “one who is connected/attached.”[5] But connected or attached to what? I suggest that it means “attached to local cult centers.”

Both archaeology and anthropology suggest that population groups in early Israel settled around regional shrines or sanctuaries housing powerful priestly clans (whose numinous, saintly power was, in turn, probably rooted in success in battle).[6] Especially in the northern-central highlands of Canaan (the most densely populated area in early Israel), different communities were bound together by these sanctuaries and their priesthoods, sharing common festivals, sacrifices and mythological traditions.[7] 

The archaeological evidence places the early phases of this society in the late-13th through mid-11th centuries BCE; this was a time when the Egyptian empire lost much of its hold on the region, and smaller groups managed to claim their own land in the hill country and forge a new, independent economy and system of religion. Some of these communities were farmers while others were herdsmen, but all contended against the elements and the fairly sparse resources provided by the environment they attempted to settle.[8]

The sanctuary sites binding them together were places where resources could be redistributed, conflicts resolved, and covenants made. These sanctuary spaces became centers of ritual and economic stability for the surrounding populations during times of hardship.

Non-Tribal Levites and the Dedication of Sons

In many cultures around the world, eldest sons inherit the property and position of the father—this is called patrilineal primogeniture—and the other sons must find other ways of sustaining themselves. They sometimes joined the priesthood. The dedication of sons to priestly sanctuaries/clans is not uncommon in rural peasant economies;[9] these children are assimilated into the priestly clan at the site, trained in ritual function, and enculturated in their lore. In Europe, for instance, later sons of wealthy families would try to make their fortune as soldiers or become pastors, living off the funds of the community they served.

Although Israel does not appear to have used a primogeniture based inheritance system, firstborns were favored with a double portion of inheritance. Moreover, splitting territory into small pieces to accommodate all of a person’s sons could make the family insolvent. It thus seems likely that the Israelites would have done what many societies do, namely dedicating at least one son to “the priesthood.”  

This practice would have taken off during times of uncertainty and economic turmoil. Families would have adopted the practice of devoting their own sons to service at their local sanctuaries as a way to alleviate stress they faced if they could not sustain their families with their own crops or flocks.[10] Dedicating sons to the priesthood would have provided some relief for struggling families, allowing family resources to go further within the household, but also assuring that the son given over to priestly service would benefit from the security of the sanctuary, its priestly staff, and resources.[11]

Both archaeological and textual evidence in the biblical record points to frequent periods of economic strain in early Israel,[12] and the dedication of sons as “Levites” to the stable sanctuaries anchoring disparate communities became a fairly common agrarian practice. Over time, this practice became conventional such that even wealthier families would have felt the social responsibility to participate in this institution.

David’s Sons – Levites?

An echo of this can be found in the list of David’s royal achievements preserved in 2 Samuel 8, a chapter probably drawn from an early monarchic royal inscription, which ends with the notice that David dedicated his sons to the priesthood (2 Sam 8:18):[13] 

 וּבְנֵי דָוִד כֹּהֲנִים הָיוּ.
And the sons of David served as priests.

This notice assumes that priestly status was not hereditary, and was more permeable and fluid, a hallmark of early Israelite social conditions. The notice may have been included in the chapter (or its inscriptional source) as a way of showing that David’s kingship was consistent with the sacral conventions of pre-monarchic Israel and the type of religious leadership characterizing that earlier period.

Whether David actually made his sons priests or whether this was just a bit of royal propaganda, this is clearly an early tradition since by the late biblical period, Levite-priestly tribal status was a matter of lineage and heritability.[14] A king might wield power, even cultic power, but he could not willy-nilly bestow priestly status upon his children in this later period. 

Samuel the Ephraimite Becomes a Levite

The best example of an Israelite from a non-priestly and non-Levitical family becoming a cultic functionary under the tutelage of a priest is the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 1—3.[15]The story is exceptional, since Samuel is a firstborn, but what it illustrates as possible in this culture is no less significant.

The events in these chapters take place at Shiloh, the most important sanctuary in the Israelite highlands before the rise of kingship. The story details how Samuel’s parents – both members of a lay household in a nearby region – come to dedicate their son to service at the sanctuary under the charge of its ruling priesthood. The story is explicit that Samuel comes from the tribe of Ephraim, even opening with his father’s lineage:

וַיְהִי אִישׁ אֶחָד מִן הָרָמָתַיִם צוֹפִים מֵהַר אֶפְרָיִם וּשְׁמוֹ אֶלְקָנָה בֶּן יְרֹחָם בֶּן אֱלִיהוּא בֶּן תֹּחוּ בֶן צוּף אֶפְרָתִי.
There was a man from Ramathaim of the Zuphites, in the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.

And yet, the story seems clear that he is being brought up to serve as a cultic functionary as he is described in priestly terms (1 Sam 2:18):

וּשְׁמוּאֵל מְשָׁרֵת אֶת פְּנֵי יְ-הוָה נַעַר חָגוּר אֵפוֹד בָּד.
Samuel was engaged in the service of YHWH as an attendant, girded with a linen ephod.

The purpose of the Samuel tradition appears to be to establish his priestly credentials as a successor to the Elide line (since this priestly family appears to have lost power after the destruction of the Shiloh sanctuary, alluded to in 1 Samuel 4). This is clearly how the narrative was understood in Jewish antiquity, for the Chronicler writing in the mid-4th century BCE felt the need to write Samuel and his family into the Levite genealogies (1 Chron 6:18-23) to avoid the glaring problem of a “non-levitical priest.” (Incidentally, nowhere in the story of Eli and Samuel is anyone described as being a “Levite.”) 

Nevertheless, 1 Samuel 1-3 does not attempt to present Samuel as having an actual priestly (or Levitical) lineage himself. Not only is his family lineage very clearly identified at the outset as distinct from that of Eli (1 Sam 1:1), the narrative notes that Samuel maintained close association with his biological family (1 Sam 1:24; 2:18-19), and even returns to live in his hometown later in life (1 Sam 7:17; 9:14, 18; cf. 2:11). 

Mushite Priests

The description of an Ephraimite boy (Samuel) being brought up by a priestly family (Eli) is more or less in line with the model that I am suggesting for early Levites, consisting of (later-born) Israelite sons dedicated to service of YHWH. I would further suggest that this existent body of cultic professionals were what scholars call the “Mushite priests” (from the Hebrew muši, “[ones from] Moshe/Moses” found in Exod 6:19; Num 3:19, 26:58 and elsewhere). This group, which seems to have controlled some of the major sanctuaries during the early Israelite period, housed priests who claimed descent from Moses – a legendary holy man remembered as somehow instrumental in the early break with Egypt.

If the “extra sons” dedicated by Israelite families trained under this elite group of Mushite priests, who held pride of place in a number of ancient Israelite sanctuaries, this would account for the special relationship between this group, which became known as Levites (those who were attached) and Moses. These Israelite sons would have been schooled in the lore of the Mushite priesthood and, in turn, help it spread among the Israelites. It is this relationship, between Moses and the Levites, that a number of biblical texts attempt to ground in the ancient past.

  • In the Golden Calf episode, the Levites rally around Moses and purge the community of sin, which moves Moses to consecrate them as a priestly group (Exod 32:29).
  • In the book of Deuteronomy, the Levites are the inheritors of Moses’ teaching and scribal authority, the trustees of his written torah, and the executors of his will (Deut 31:9-13; 24, 26).
  • The prophets Hosea and Jeremiah (both of whom have strong ties to the Levites) make important references to Moses (Hos 12:14; Jer 1:9; 15:1).

These passages all presuppose closeness between the Levites and the figure of Moses, and this may be traced to the enculturation of devotees who were assimilated into the priestly clans who claimed descent from Moses himself. Moses became not only a role model but a sort of patron saint, similar to the role that Confucius played in the growth of the Mandarin caste in China centuries after his lifetime.[16] 

Eli the Mushite Priest

The case of Samuel and Eli fits well with this suggestion. The eminent American biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross (1921-2012) made a strong case that the clan of Eli, the chief priest of Shiloh in these chapters, was Mushite in origin (based especially in a study of genealogies associated with the Elide line and the rhetorical features of oracles associated with them).[17] Samuel’s characterization in Moses-like terms points to the degree to which a dedicant left in the charge of a Mushite priestly family could adopt and intertwine himself within the ancestral traditions that continued to bestow holiness and power. In this regard, it is significant that Samuel is characterized in terms that recall traditions about Moses,[18] a characterization that left an impression on later writers in the biblical tradition, as seen in the following examples:

Jeremiah 15:1

וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֵלַי אִם יַעֲמֹד מֹשֶׁה וּשְׁמוּאֵל לְפָנַי אֵין נַפְשִׁי אֶל הָעָם הַזֶּה שַׁלַּח מֵעַל פָּנַי וְיֵצֵאוּ.
YHWH said to me, “Even if Moses and Samuel were to intercede with Me, I would not be won over to that people. Dismiss them from My presence, and let them go forth!”

Psalms 99:6

מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן בְּכֹהֲנָיו וּשְׁמוּאֵל בְּקֹרְאֵי שְׁמוֹ קֹרִאים אֶל יְ-הוָה וְהוּא יַעֲנֵם.
Moses and Aaron among His priests, Samuel, among those who call on His name — when they called to YHWH, He answered them.

In Early Tradition Moses Is Not a Levite

Over time, the “levitical” dedicated sons, who trained under the Mushite priests, adapted for themselves traditions about Moses and rituals cultivated by the Mushites and forged a new type of relationship between themselves as a group and the legendary holy man of the distant past (Moses). They eventually swallowed up this older group of Mushite priests into theirs and turned them all, including Moses, into Levites.[19] 

Within the book of Exodus in its current form, Moses is presented as born to a Levite family (Exod 2:1-10), but this is universally regarded as a late-monarchic period tradition (from the late 8th through mid 7th centuries BCE) that recasts the memory of Moses.[20] This new type of relationship resonates in the “Levite” verses in the Golden Calf episode in Exodus 32 (vv. 26-29).

By contrast, the verses in Exodus 32 about how the Levites answered Moses’ call and attacked the Israelites who sinned with the Golden Calf likely originated well before the late monarchic period.  

שמות לב:כו וַיַּעֲמֹד מֹשֶׁה בְּשַׁעַר הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיֹּאמֶר מִי לַי-הוָה אֵלָי וַיֵּאָסְפוּ אֵלָיו כָּל בְּנֵי לֵוִי. לב:כזוַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׂימוּ אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ עַל יְרֵכוֹ עִבְרוּ וָשׁוּבוּ מִשַּׁעַר לָשַׁעַר בַּמַּחֲנֶה וְהִרְגוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו וְאִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת קְרֹבוֹ. לב:כח וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְנֵי לֵוִי כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּפֹּל מִן הָעָם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא כִּשְׁלֹשֶׁת אַלְפֵי אִישׁ.
Exod 32:26 Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said: “whoever is on YHWH’s side, let him come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. 32:27 And he said unto them: “Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel: Put every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.” 32:28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.
לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מִלְאוּ יֶדְכֶם הַיּוֹם לַי-הוָה כִּי אִישׁ בִּבְנוֹ וּבְאָחִיו וְלָתֵת עֲלֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה.
32:29 And Moses said: “Consecrate yourselves today to YHWH, for every man has been against his son and against his brother; that He may also bestow upon you a blessing this day.”

These texts do not claim or allude to a lineage or tribal relationship between Moses and the Levites. He is not their ancestor or their chieftain, but the leader of a group bound together by the desire to defend YHWH’s name and his dominion over Israel.

The “Levites” Instructed to Slay Their Brothers and Sons 

A careful reading of Moses’ command shows that the Levites here cannot be a tribe. In v. 27, Moses states that these Levites must be willing to kill their brothers and their relatives; in v. 29, he states that they must be willing to kill their brothers and their sons. But if the Levites as a whole answered Moses’ call and did not worship the golden calf, then, by definition, neither did their brothers or sons! Thus, it seems clear that the author of this text is not picturing Levites as a tribe but as a class of people, likely, as I suggest, the later-born sons of all the Israelites who were dedicated to YHWH. If this group was to kill Israelite sinners, then within the boundaries of the tale, they may have, in fact, needed to kill their brothers and sons. 

In this story, Moses instructs the Levites to go “from gate to gate” throughout the community to purge those who have transgressed against YHWH (Exod 32:27). This is the only time we find the mention of gates in the wilderness encampment. The phrase “gate” is a description that befits a settled, sedentary society with walled cities and towns, not a nomadic group of tent dwellers. By using the term “gates,” the narrative reveals its origins in an Israelite culture already settled in the land – the tale has been transposed into the legendary past, but betrays itself with the use of language and imagery of a later era.  

The Levites at Massah-Meribah

Recently, Joel Baden has shown that these verses are not original to the Golden Calf story but most likely originated as part of an old version of the Massah-Meribah narrative in Exodus 17, a brief story of how the Israelites challenged the authority of Moses and YHWH during the wilderness wandering. 

When the major sources of the Pentateuch were edited, the “Levite” verses in the Massah-Meribah were dislodged from their original setting and redactionally placed in the Golden Calf tale.[21] This is fitting, since the Golden Calf tale had, by that time, emerged as a paradigmatic tale of apostasy and its consequences. But before the Pentateuch was shaped into the document we now possess, the Levites’ propensity for violence at Massah-Meribah presents them as the agents and militant executors of Moses’ legacy. Moses’ blessing of the Levities in Deut 33:8-11 shows that the original setting of the story was in Massah-Meribah, and not the Golden Calf:[22]

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.
33:8 And of Levi he said: Thy Thummim and Thy Urim be with Thy holy one, whom Thou didst prove at Massah, with whom Thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah; 33:9 Who said of his father, and of his mother: ‘I have not seen him’; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew he his own children; for they have observed Thy word, and keep Thy covenant.
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.
And of Levi he said:
Thy Thummim and Thy Urim be with Thy holy one,
whom Thou didst prove at Massah,
with whom Thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah;
Who said of his father, and of his mother:
‘I have not seen him’;
neither did he acknowledge his brethren,
nor knew he his own children;
for they have observed Thy word,
and keep Thy covenant. (v. 9)

Here, as in Exodus 32, the Levites were willing to kill their own brothers and sons. This is both a perfect overlap with the rhetoric in Exodus 32 as well as yet another indication that in these early texts Levites are not a tribe but a collection of unrelated individuals.

This problem so bothered Rashi that he felt forced to explain it away by denying its plain meaning (Deut 33:9):

האומר לאביו ולאמו לא ראיתיו – כשחטאו בעגל ואמרתי מי לה’ אלי נאספו אלי כל בני לוי וצויתים להרוג את אבי אמו והוא מישראל או את אחיו מאמו או בן בתו וכן עשו.
“Who said of his father and his mother ‘I have not seen them’ – when they sinned with the calf and I said “whoever is for the Lord come to me,” all the sons of Levi gathered to me and I commanded them to kill their mothers’ fathers, who would be from a regular Israelite tribe, or his half-brother on his mother’s side, also a regular Israelite, or his daughter’s son, and thus they did.
וא”א לפרש אביו ממש ואחיו מאביו וכן בניו ממש שהרי לויים הם ומשבט לוי לא חטא אחד מהם שנאמר כל בני לוי.
But it is impossible to interpret it as “father” literally, or a full brother [i.e., also] on his father’s side literally, since these would be Levites themselves, and no one from the tribe of Levi participated in that sin, since it says “all the sons of Levi” [gathered to Moses].

The blessing continues with image of Levites offering sacrifices and incense, teaching YHWH’s Torah, and receiving a promise that YHWH will destroy their enemies:

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.
They shall teach Jacob Thine ordinances,
and Israel Thy law;
they shall put incense before Thee,
and whole burnt-offering upon Thine altar.  (v. 10)
Bless, YHWH, his substance,
and accept the work of his hands;
smite through the loins of them that rise up against him,
and of them that hate him, that they rise not again.

Levites and Sacral Violence

The legacy of sacral violence is strongly affirmed within the blessing’s verses, but this legacy is moderated by claims that the Levites also preserve the terms of YHWH’s covenant with Israel, engage in divine instruction, and carry out cultic duties (v. 10). These other modes of behavior stand in for the legacy of violence, ritualizing them into more sustainable types of priestly conduct that reinforce the mythology standing behind them. But this mantra also bears witness to the tensions involved in one’s taking up the Levite office, reminding the reader that a Levite must devote himself to his cause, even if this means harming the lineage groups to whom he once belonged (v. 9). 

Deuteronomy 33 is recognized as a relatively early text, composed before the Assyrian crisis of the late 8th century BCE that saw the end of the northern monarchy in 721 BCE and the flight of refugees (including the Levites) into the southern kingdom of Judah.[23] It would only be during this later period that the Levites would begin to tribalize, at which point traditions about a common “ancestor,” Levi, were incorporated into the traditions about Jacob and his sons.[24] 

Appendix

Firstborn Sons versus Later Sons

The Torah discusses the possibility of firstborn Israelite sons serving in the cult in (Exod 22:28)[25] According to the Torah’s timeline, this possibility lasted no more than a year. Numbers 3 and 8 describe a ceremony in which the Levites were switched for the firstborn, which took place in the second year of the wilderness wandering. However, the existence of the law and the many other passages that mention the need to redeem one’s firstborn son from such a dedication (Exod 34:20, Num 3:11-13, 8:17-18) strongly imply that in early Israelite religion, the sons were, in fact, dedicated to the service of YHWH in this manner.[26]

I would argue that the textual sources suggesting a tension between the firstborn and the Levites as cultic officiants preserve and transmit very old memories, in which firstborn sons probably held cultic duties in family contexts while younger siblings, given over to sanctuary service, took on comparable roles beyond the boundaries of the family or clan. This stark tension between home-based and sanctuary-based religious ritual, with brothers literally serving in opposing positions, represents the deep divide between family religion and national or state religion that existed in ancient Israel and Judah.[27]

Although home-based and sanctuary-based functionaries may have co-existed peacefully, the traditions describing how the Levites took the place of the firstborn reflect a competition, with the biblical scribes siding only with the state religion. The Bible avoids discussing home rituals other than the Pesach—Jeremiah’s negative description of the worship of the Queen of Heaven (7:18) being the exception that proves the rule—though archaeological and comparative evidence shows that it existed. The Torah’s depiction of the peaceful transition of cultic power from the firstborn to the Levites can be understood as an attempt to address the memory of the family religion hierarchy, and its (real or perceived) demise in a way that benefited the Temple functionaries.

Published

January 26, 2017

|

Last Updated

November 16, 2019

Footnotes

View Footnotes

Dr. Mark Leuchter is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism in the Department of Religion at Temple University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 2003. His research focuses on the history of the priesthood in ancient Israel and early Jewish scribal tradition.