The Levites and the priests (2 Chronicles 24)

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The descendants of Simeon and Levi appear to have lost their right to a separate inheritance because of their treachery at Shechem (Genesis 34:30, 49:5-7). The Simeonites, absorbed into Judah, all but disappeared from history, but Levi emerged as the priestly tribe. The Levites did not receive an allotment of the promised land but were said to have the Lord as their inheritance (Deuteronomy 18:1-2).

The elevation of Levi to the status of priestly tribe is often explained by the golden calf incident. God had claimed all of Israel’s firstborn to serve as priests (Exodus 12:29-30). But in the aftermath of the golden calf episode the Levites’ faithfulness and zeal for the purity of the priesthood led to their divine election to service in place of Israel’s firstborn (Exodus 32:26-29, Numbers 3:11-13, 41).

Yet 1 Samuel 2:27-28 indicates that the Levites had functioned in a priestly role already in Egypt. This premise appears to be supported by other texts:

  • In Exodus 4:14 Aaron is called “the Levite” – a more official designation than the more typical “son of Levi”.
  • Exodus 28-29 describes the priestly vestments and consecration of Aaron and his sons with no explanation as to why they were to hold this office, suggesting that everyone already knew Aaron was a priest.
  • At the beginning of the golden calf episode (Exodus 32:1-3) the people turned to Aaron to preform a priestly act – the creation and consecration of an image.
  • In the rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron led by Korah (a Levite), Dathan and Abiram, both sides acknowledged that the sanctuary prerogatives belonged to the Levites (Numbers 16-17).

The Bible distinguishes between priest and Levites in terms of function. The duties of the Levites were theoretically apportioned according to the descendants of Levi’s three sons (Numbers 3:15-17):

  • The Gershonites were entrusted with the tabernacle curtains, coverings and cords (Numbers 3:21-26).
  • The Kohathites were to care for the sanctuary vessels, including the ark, table, lampstand and altars once they had been prepared by the priests (Numbers 3:27-32).
  • The Merarites were responsible for the outer structures of the tabernacle enclosure (Numbers 3:33-37).

The Levites in general, then, were commissioned of the sanctuary. They were specifically commanded to encamp around the tabernacle, guarding it from ritual pollution and defending it from those who might have approached the sacred precinct while ritually unclean (Numbers 1:50-53).

The duties of the priestly descendants of Aaron consisted of the actual performance of the temple liturgy:

  • Only Aaron’s sons could minister at the altar of the Lord, offering incense and sacrifices there (Deuteronomy 33:10).
  • The priests represented Israel before the Lord (Leviticus 1:1-9) and were alone empowered to bless the people (Numbers 6:23-27).
  • Priests accompanied the people during war, sounding trumpets and bearing sacred vessels (Numbers 10:9, 31:6).
  • Priests were entrusted with teaching and interpreting the laws given by Moses (Leviticus 10:11, cf. Malachi 2:7).
  • A further distinction of holiness was made with regard to the high priest. He alone could enter the Most Holy Place to make atonement for the nation once each year, symbolically bearing the sins of Israel (Leviticus 16).

Deuteronomy, in using the term “the priests, who are Levites” (literarily “the priest, the Levites” e.g. Deuteronomy 17:9, 18), appears to regard all Levites as priests. In contrast, in much of Exodus – Numbers only Aaronites are referred to as priests, with other Levites viewed as minor clergy. The most plausible solution is that Exodus – Numbers are primarily concerned with the central sanctuary. By contrast, Deuteronomy envisioned the dispersal of the Levites to shrines scattered across Israel, where all would serve as priests. Only when the Levites came to the central shrine did they serve in a subordinate role.


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