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LEVITES

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Originally appearing in Volume V16, Page 515 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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LEVITES, or sons of Levi (son of Jacob by Leah), a sacred by Moses. The two classes are supposed to have been founded caste in ancient Israel, the guardians of the temple service at separately (Exod. xxviii., cf. xxix. 9; Num. iii. 6-1o), and so far Jerusalem.' from any degradation being attached to the rank and file of the 1. Place in Ritual.—In the developed hierarchical system the Levites, their position is naturally an honourable one compared ministers of the sanctuary are divided into distinct grades. with that of the mass of non-Levitical worshippers (see Num. All are "Levites " by descent, and are thus correlated in the i. 50-53), and they are taken by Yahweh as a surrogate genealogical and other lists, but the true priesthood is confined for the male first-born of Israel (iii. 11-13). They are inferior to the sons of Aaron, while the mass of the Levites are subordinate only to the Aaronites to whom they are " joined " (xviii. 2, a play servants who are not entitled to approach the altar or to perform on the name Levi) as assistants. Various adjustments and any strictly priestly function. All access to the Deity is restricted modifications still continue, and a number of scattered details to the one priesthood and to the one sanctuary at Jerusalem; may indicate that internal rivalries made themselves felt. But the worshipping subject is the nation of Israel as a unity,. and the the different steps can hardly be recovered clearly, although the function of worship is discharged on its behalf by divinely chosen fact that the priesthood was extended beyond the Zadokites to priests. The ordinary individual may not intrude under penalty families of the dispossessed priests points to some compromise of death; only those of Levitical origin may perform service, (1 Chron. xxiv.). Further, it is subsequently found that certain and they are essentially the servants and hereditary serfs of the classes of temple servants, the singers and porters, who had once Aaronite priests (see Num. xviii.). But such a scheme finds no been outside the Levitical gilds, became absorbed as the term place in the monarchy; it presupposes a hierocracy under which " Levite " was widened, and this change is formally expressed by the priesthood increased its rights by claiming the privileges the genealogies which ascribe to Levi, the common " ancestor " which past kings had enjoyed; it is the outcome of a complicated of them all, the singers and even certain families whose heathenish development in Old Testament religion in the light of which it is and foreign names show that they were once merely servants to be followed (see HEBREW RELIGION). of the temple.' First (a), in the earlier biblical writings which describe the state 2. Significance of the Development.—Although the legal basis of affairs under the Hebrew monarchy there is not this funda- for the final stage is found in the legislation of the time of Moses mental distinction among the Levites, and, although a list of (latter part of the second millennium B.c.), it is in reality scarcely Aaronite high-priests is preserved in a late source, internal earlier than the 5th century B.C., and the Jewish theory finds details and the evidence of the historical books render its value analogies when developments of the Levitical service are referred extremely doubtful (1 Chron. vi. 3-15, 49-53). In Jerusalem to David (1 Chron. xv. seq., xxiii. sqq.), Hezekiah (2 Chron. xxix.) itself the subordinate officers of the temple were not members and Josiah (xxxv.)—contrast the history in the earlier books of of a holy gild, but of the royal body-guard, or bond-slaves who Samuel and Kings—or when the still later book of Jubilees had access to the sacred courts, and might even be uncircumcised (xxxii.) places the rise of the Levitical priesthood in the patriarchal foreigners (Josh. ix. 27; 1 Kings xiv. 28; 2 Kings xi.; cf. Zeph. period. The traditional theory of the Mosaic origin of the i. 8 seq.; Zech. xiv. 21). Moreover, ordinary individuals might elaborate Levitical legislation cannot be maintained save by serve as priests (1 Sam. ii. 1I, 18, vii. 1; see 2 Sam. viii. 18, the most arbitrary and inconsequential treatment of the evidence deliberately altered in I Chron. xviii. 17) ; however, every Levite and by an entire indifference to the historical spirit; and, was a priest, or at least qualified to become one (Deut. x. 8, although numerous points of detail still remain very obscure, the xviii. 7; Judges xvii. 5-13), and when the author of 1 Kings xii. 31, three leading stages in the Levitical institutions are now recogwishes to represent Jeroboam's priests as illegitimate, he does nized by nearly all independent scholars. These stages with a not say that they were not Aaronites, but that they were not of number of concomitant features confirm the literary hypothesis the sons of Levi. that biblical history is in the main due to two leading recensions, The next stage (b) is connected with the suppression of the the Deuteronomic and the Priestly (cf. [b] and [c] above), which local high-places or minor shrines in favour of a central sanctuary. have incorporated older sources.' If the hierarchical system as This involved the suppression of the Levitical priests in the 2 The words " beside that which cometh of the sale of his patricountry (cf. perhaps the allusion in Dent. xxi. 5); and the present mony " (lit. " his sellings according to the fathers ") are obscure; hook of Deuteronomy, in promulgating the reform, represents they seem to imply some additional source of income which the Levite the Levites as poor scattered " sojourners " and recommends enjoys at the central sanctuary. For the nethinim given ") and children of the slaves of them to the charity of the people (Dent. xii. 12, 18 seq., xiv. 27, Solomon " (whose hereditary service would give them a pre-eminence 29, xvi. I I, 14, xxvi. II sqq.). However, they are permitted to over the temple slaves), see art. NETHINIM, and Benzinger, Ency. congregate at " the place which Yahweh shall choose," where Bib. cols. 3397 sqq• they may perform the usual priestly duties together with their In defence of the traditional view, see S. I. Curtiss, The Levitical brethren who " stand there before Yahweh," and they are Priests (1877), with which his later attitude should be contrasted (see Primitive Semitic Religion To-day, pp. 14, 50, 133 seq., 171, 238 ' For the derivation of " Levi " see below § 4 end. sqq., 241 sqq.) ; W. L. Baxter, Sanctuary and Sacrifice (1895)-1 it existed in the post-exilic age was really the work of Moses, it is inexplicable that all trace of it was so completely lost that the degradation of the non-Zadokites in Ezekiel was a new feature and a punishment, whereas in the Mosaic law the ordinary Levites, on the traditional view, was already forbidden priestly rights under penalty of death. There is in fact no clear evidence of the existence of a distinction between priests and Levites in any Hebrew writing demonstrably earlier than the Deuteronomic stage, although, even as the Pentateuch contains ordinances which have been carried back by means of a "legal convention " to the days of Moses, writers have occasionally altered earlier records of the history to agree with later standpoints.' No argument in support of the traditional theory can be drawn from the account of Korah's revolt (Num. xvi, sqq., see § 3) or from the Levitical cities (Num. xxxv.; Josh. xxi.). Some of the latter were either not conquered by the Israelites until long after the invasion, or, if conquered, were not held by Levites; and names are wanting of places in which priests are actually known to have lived. Certainly the names are largely identical with ancient holy cities, which, however, are holy because they possessed noted shrines, not because the inhabitants were members of a holy tribe. Gezer and Taanach, for example, are said to have remained in the hands of Canaanites (Judges i. 27, 29; cf. I Kings ix. I6), and recent excavation has shown how far the cultus of these cities was removed from Mosaic religion and ritual and how long the grosser elements persisted.2 On the other hand, the sanctuaries obviously had always their local ministers, all of whom in time could be called Levitical, and it is only in this sense, not in that of the late priestly legislation, that a place like Shechem could ever have been included. Further, instead of holding cities and pasture-grounds, the Levites are sometimes described as scattered and divided (Gen. xlix. 7; Deut. xviii. 6), and though they may naturally possess property as private individuals, they alone of all the tribes of Israel possess no tribal inheritance (Num. xviii. 23, xxvi. 62; Deut. x. 9; Josh. xiv. 3). This fluctuation finds a parallel in the age at which the Levites were to serve; for neither has any reasonable explanation been found on the traditional view. Num. iv. 3 fixes the age at thirty, although in i. 3 it has been reduced to twenty; but in I Chron. xxiii. 3, David is said to have numbered them from the higher limit, whereas in vv. 24. 27 the lower figure is given on the authority of " the last words (or acts) of David." In Num. viii. 23-26, the age is given as twenty-five, but twenty became usual and recurs in Ezra iii. 8 and 2 Chron. xxxi. 17. There are, however, independent grounds for believing that I Chron. xxiii. 24, 27, 2 Chron. xxxi. 17 belong to later insertions and that Ezr. iii. 8 is relatively late. When, in accordance with the usual methods of Hebrew genealogical history, the Levites are defined as the descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob by Leah (Gen. xxix. 34), a literal interpretation is unnecessary, and the only narrative wherein Levi appears as a person evidently delineates under the form of personification events in the history of the Levites (Gen. xxxiv.).3 They take their place in Israel as the tribe set apart for sacred duties, and without entering into the large question how far the tribal schemes can be used for the earlier history A. van Hoonacker, Le Sacerdote levitique (1899) ; and J. Orr, Problem of the O.T. (1905). These and other apologetic writings have so far failed to produce any adequate alternative hypothesis, and while they argue for the traditional theory, later revision not being excluded, the modern critical view accepts late dates for the literary sources in their present form, and explicitly recognizes the presence of much that is ancient. Note the curious old tradition that Ezra wrote out the law which had been burnt (2 Esdr. xiv. 21 sqq.). ' For example, in i Kings viii. 4, there are many indications that the context has undergone considerable editing at a fairly late date. The Septuagint translators did not read the clause which speaks of " priests and Levites," and 2 Chron. v. 5 reads " the Levite priests," the phrase characteristic of the Deuteronomic identification of priestly and Levitical ministry. i Sam. vi. 15, too, brings in the Levites, hut the verse breaks the connexion between 14 and 16. For the present disorder in the text of 2 Sam. xv. 24, see the commentaries. 2 See Father H. Vincent, O.P., Canaan d'apres l'exploration recente (190i'), PP. 151, 20o sqq., 463 sq. 3 So Gen. sxxiv. 7, Hamor has wrought folly " in Israel " (cf. Judges xx. 6 and often), and in r. 30 " Jacob " is not a personal but a collective idea, for he says, " I am a few men," and the capture and destruction of a considerable city is in the nature of things the work of more than two individuals. In the allusion to Levi and Simeon in Gen. xlix. the two are spoken of as " brothers " with a communal assembly. See, for other examples of personification, GENEALOGY: Biblical. 3. The Traditions of the Levites.—In the " Blessing of Moses " (Deut. xxxiii. 8-11), Levi is a collective name for the priesthood, probably that of (north) Israel. He is the guardian of the sacred oracles, knowing no kin, and enjoying his privileges for proofs of fidelity at Massah and Meribah. That these places (in the district of Kadesh) were traditionally associated with the origin of the Levites is suggested by various Levitical stories, although: it is in a narrative now in a context pointing to Horeb or Sinai that the Levites are Israelites who for some cause (now lost) severed themselves from their people and took up a stand on behalf of Yahweh (Exod. xxxii.). Other evidence allows us to link together the Kenites, Calebites and Danites in a tradition of some movement into Palestine, evidently quite distinct from the great invasion of Israelite tribes which pre-dominates in the existing records. The priesthood of Dan certainly traced its origin to Moses (Judges xvi'. 9, xviii. 30) ; that of Shiloh claimed an equally high ancestry (I Sam. ii. 27 seq.).' Some tradition of a widespread movement appears to be ascribed to the age of Jehu, whose accession, promoted by the prophet Elisha, marks the end of the conflict between Yahweh and Baal. To a Rechabite (the clan is allied to the Kenites) is definitely ascribed a hand in Jehu's sanguinary measures, and, though little is told of the obviously momentous events, one writer clearly alludes to a bloody period when reforms were to be effected by the sword (r Kings xix. 17). Similarly the story of the original selection of the Levites in the wilderness mentions an uncompromising massacre of idolaters. Consequently, it is very noteworthy that popular tradition preserves the recollection of some attack by the " brothers " Levi and Simeon See E. Meyer, Israeliten is. ihre Nachbarstdmme, pp. 299 sqq. (passim) ; S. A. Cook, Ency. Bib. col. 1665 seq.; Grit. Notes on OT. History, pp. 84 sqq., 122-125. The second element of the name Abiathar is connected with Jether or Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, and even Ichabod (1 Sam. iv. 21) seems to be an intentional reshaping of Jochebed, which is elsewhere the name of the mother of Moses. Phinehas, Eli's son, becomes in later writings the name of a prominent Aaronite priest in the days of the exodus from Egypt. IS upon the famous holy city of Shechem to avenge their " sister " Dinah (Gen. xxxiv.), and that a detailed narrative tells of the bloodthirsty though pious Danites who sacked an Ephraimite shrine on their journey to a new home (Judges xvii. sq.). The older records utilized by the Deuteronomic and later compilers indicate some common tradition which has found expression in these varying forms. Different religious standpoints are represented in the biblical writings, and it is now important to observe that the prophecies of Hosea unmistakably show another attitude to the Israelite priesthood. The condemnation of Jehu's bloodshed (I-los. i. 4) gives another view of events in which both Elijah and Elisha were concerned, and the change is more vividly realized when it is found that even to Moses and Aaron, the traditional founders of Israelite religion and ritual, is ascribed an offence whereby they incurred Yahweh's wrath (Num. xx. 12, 24, xxvii. 14; Deut. ix. 2o, xxxii. 51). The sanctuaries of Shiloh and Dan lasted until the deportation of Israel (Judges xviii. 30 seq.), and some of their history is still preserved in the account of the late premonarchical age (12th–I ith centuries B.c.). Shiloh's priestly gild is condemned for its iniquity (I Sam. iii. I1-14), the sanctuary mysteriously disappears, and the priests are subsequently found at Nob outside Jerusalem (I Sam. xxi. seq.). All idea of historical perspective has been lost, since the fall of Shiloh was apparently a recent event at the close of the 7th century (Jer. vii. 12-15, xxvi. 6-9). But the tendency to ascribe the disasters of northern Israel to the priesthood (see esp. HOSEA) takes another form when an inserted prophecy revokes the privileges of the ancient and honourable family, foretells its over-throw, and announces the rise of a new faithful and everlasting priesthood, at whose hands the dispossessed survivors, reduced to poverty, would beg some priestly office to secure a livelihood (I Sam. ii. 27-36). The sequel to this phase is placed in the reign of Solomon, when David's old priest Abiathar, sole survivor of the priests of Shiloh, is expelled to Anathoth (near Jerusalem), and Zadok becomes the first chief priest contemporary with the foundation of the first temple (1 Kings ii. 27, 35). These situations cannot be severed from what is known elsewhere of the Deuteronomic teaching, of the reform ascribed to Josiah, or of the principle inculcated by Ezekiel (see § i [b]). The late specific tendency in favour of Jerusalem agrees with the Deuteronomic editor of Kings who condemns the sanctuaries of Dan and Bethel for calf-worship (I Kings xii. 28-31), and does not acknowledge the northern priesthood to be Levitical (1 Kings xii. 31, note the interpretation in 2 Chron. xi. 14, xiii. 9). It is from a similar standpoint that Aaron is condemned for the manufacture of the golden calf, and a compiler (not the original writer) finds its sequel In the election of the faithful Levites.' In the third great stage there is another change in the tone. The present (priestly) recension of Gen. xxxiv. has practically justified Levi and Simeon from its standpoint of opposition to intermarriage, and in spite of Jacob's curse (Gen. xlix. 5-7) later traditions continue to extol the slaughter of the Shechemites as a pious duty. Post-exilic revision has also hopelessly obscured the offence of Moses and Aaron, although there was already a tendency to place the blame upon the people (Deut. i. 37, iii. 26, iv. 21). When two-thirds of the priestly families are said to be Zadokites and one-third are of the families of Abiathar, some reconciliation, some adjustment of rivalries, is to be recognized (1 Chron. xxiv.). Again, in the composite story of Korah's revolt, one version reflects a contest between Aaronites and the other Levites who claimed the priesthood (Num. xvi. 8-11, 36-40), while another shows the supremacy of the Levites as a caste either over the rest of the people (? cf. the prayer, Deut. xxxiii. II), or, since the latter are under the leadership of Korah, later the eponym of a gild of singers, perhaps over the more subordinate ministers who once formed a separate class.' In the composite work Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah (dating after the post-exilic Levitical legislation) a peculiar interest is taken in the Levites, more particularly in the singers, and certain passages even reveal ' With this development in Israelite religion, observe that Judaean cult included the worship of a brazen serpent, the institution of which was ascribed to Moses, and that, according to the compiler of Kings, Hezekiah was the first to destroy it when he suppressed idolatrous worship in Judah (2 Kings xviii. 4). It may be added that the faithful Kenites (found in N. Palestine, Judges iv. II) appear in another light when threatened with captivity by Asshur (Num. xxiv. 22; cf. fall of Dan and Shiloh), and if their eponym is Cain (q.v.), the story of Cain and Abel serves, amid a variety of purposes, to condemn the murder of the settled agriculturist by the nomad, but curiously allows that any retaliation upon Cain shall be avenged (see below, note 5). i The name Korah itself is elsewhere Edomite (Gen. xxxvi. 5, 14, 18) and Calebite (t Chron. ii. 43). See Ency. Bib., s.v.some animus against the Aaronites (2 Chron. xxix. 34, xxx. 3), A Levite probably had a hand in the work, and this, with the evidence for the Levitical Psalms (see PSALMS), gives the caste an interesting place in the study of the transmission of the biblical records.' But the history of the Levites in the early post-exilic stage and onwards is a separate problem, and the work of criticism has not advanced sufficiently for a proper estimate of the various vicissitudes. However, the feeling which was aroused among the priests when some centuries later the singers obtained from Agrippa the privilege of wearing the priestly linen dress (Josephus, Ant. xx. 9. 6), at least enables one to appreciate more vividly the scantier hints of internal jealousies during the preceding years.' 4. Summary.—From the inevitable conclusion that there are three stages in the written sources for the Levitical institutions, the next step is the correlation of allied traditions on the basis of the genealogical evidence. But the problem of fitting these into the history of Israel still remains The assumption that the earlier sources for the pre-monarchical history, as incorporated by late compilers, are necessarily trustworthy confuses the inquiry (on Gen. xxxiv., see SIMEON), and even the probability of a reforming spirit in Jehu's age depends upon the internal criticism of the related records (see JEWS, §§ 11-14). The view that the Levites came from the south may be combined with the conviction that there Yahweh had his seat (cf. Deut. xxxiii. 2; Judges v. 4; Hab. iii. 3), but the latter is only one view, and the traditions of the patriarchs point to another belief (cf. also Gen. iv. 26). The two are reconciled when the God of the patriarchs reveals His name for the first time unto Moses (Exod. iii. 15, vi. 3). With these variations is involved the problem of the early history of the Israelites.' Moreover, the real Judaean tendency which associates the fall of Eli's priesthood at Shiloh with the rise of the Zadokites involves the literary problems of Deuteronomy, a composite work whose age is not certainly known, and of the twofold Deuteronomic redaction elsewhere, one phase of which is more distinctly Judaean and anti-Samaritan. There are vicissitudes and varying standpoints which point to a complicated literary history and require some historical back-ground, and, apart from actual changes in the history of the Levites, some allowance must be made for the real character of the circles where the diverse records originated or through which they passed. The key must be sought in the exilic and post-exilic age where, unfortunately, direct and decisive evidence is lacking. It is clear that the Zadokite priests were rendered legitimate by finding a place for their ancestor in the Levitical genealogies—through Phinehas (cf. Num. xxv. 12 seq.), and Aaron—there was a feeling that a legitimate priest must be an Aaronite, but the historical reason for this is uncertain (see R. H. Kennett, Journ. Theolog. Stud., 1905, pp. 161 sqq.). Hence, it is impossible at present to trace the earlier steps which led to the grand hierarchy of post-exilic Judaism. Even the name Levite itself is of uncertain origin. Though popularly connected with ldvdh, " be joined, attached," an ethnic from Leah has found some favour; the Assyrian li'u "powerful, wise," has also been suggested. The term has been more plausibly identified with t-v-' (fern. l-v-'-t), the name given in old Arabian inscriptions (e.g. at al-`Ola, south-east of Elath) to the priests and priestesses of the Arabian god Vadd (so especially Hommel, Anc. Heb. Trad., pp. 278 seq.). The date of the evidence, however, has not been fixed with unanimity, and this very 3 The musical service of the temple has no place in the Pentateuch, but was considerably developed under the second temple and attracted the special attention of Greek observers (Theophrastus, apud Porphyry, de Abstin. ii. 26) ; see on this subject, R. Kittel's Handkommentar on Chronicles, pp. 90 sqq. 4 Even the tithes enjoyed by the Levites (Num. xviii. 21 seq.) were finally transferred to the priests (so in the Talmud: see Yebamoth, fol. 86a, Carpzov, App. ad Godw. p. 624; Hottinger, De Dec. vi. 8, ix. 17). ' For some suggestive remarks on the relation between nomadism and the Levites, and their influence upon Israelite religion and literary tradition, see E. Meyer, Die Israeliten u. ihre Nachbarstdmme (1906), pp. 82-89, 138; on the problems of early Israelite history, see SIMEON (end), JEws, §§ 5, 8, and PALESTINE, History. attractive and suggestive view requires confirmation and independent support.
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