Bible History Online
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
PRIESTS AND LEVITES
(kohen, "priest"; nothing is definitely known as to the origin of the word; Lewi, "Levite," on which see LEVI):
I. DIFFERENT VIEWS OF THE HISTORY
1. The Old View
2. The Graf-Wellhausen View
3. Mediating Views
4. An Alternative View
II. THE DATA OF THE PRIESTLY CODE (P) IN THE PENTATEUCH
1. The Levites
2. Aaron and His Sons
III. THE OTHER PORTIONS OF THE PENTATEUCH
IV. FROM MOSES TO MALACHI
1. The Sources Other than Ezekiel
(1) The Custody of the Ark
(2) On Its Return from the Philistines
(3) In Abinadab's House
V. EZRA, NEHEMIAH, CHRONICLES
1. Estimates of the Chronicler
2. His Data
VI. LEGAL PROVISIONS
In some Minaean inscriptions found at El-`Ola, dating back about 1200-800 BC (Hommel in Hilprecht, Explorations in Bible Lands, 719), certain "priests and priestesses of the god Wadd are designated by the term lawi, feminine lawi`at" (op. cit., 749). It is not known whether this is due to Israelite influence.
I. Different Views of the History.
1. The Old View:
There are great divergences of opinion among modern writers as to the true course of history and the dating of the different documents. It will therefore be best to sketch these views in rough outline, and then give the evidence of the various authorities, together with the reasons that in each case arise naturally from the consideration of that evidence.
The old belief was that the whole of the Pentateuchal laws were the work of Moses, that the account of the subsequent history given in the Books of Chronicles was correct, that Ezekiel's vision, if taken literally, could not be reconciled with the other known facts and was inexplicable, and that in the case of all other discrepancies harmonistic explanations should be adopted.
2. The Graf-Wellhausen View:
The modern critical school have traversed every one of these doctrines. The Chronicler is declared to be in constant and irreconcilable conflict with the older authorities, harmonistic explanations are uniformly rejected, the Pentateuch is denied to Moses and split up into a variety of sources of different ages, and Ezekiel gains a place of honor as representing a stage in a continuous and normal development. The subject is thus inextricably linked with the Pentateuchal problem, and reference must be made to the article PENTATEUCH for an explanation of the supposed documents and a consideration of the analysis with its nomenclature. On the other hand the present article and the article SANCTUARY (which see) explain and discuss the most widely held theory of the historical development into which the history of the supposed Pentateuchal sources has been fitted.
The dominant theory is that of Wellhausen. According to this, "Levite" was originally a term denoting professional skill, and the early Levites were not members of the tribe of Levi, but professional priests. Anybody could sacrifice. "For a simple altar no priest was required, but only for a house which contained a sacred image; this demanded watching and attendance" (Wellhausen, Prolegomena, 130). The whole Levitical Law was unknown and the distinction between priests and Levites unheard of. There were a few great sanctuaries and one influential priesthood, that of Shiloh (afterward at Nob). With the monarchy the priesthood became more important. The royal priests at Jerusalem grew in consequence and influence until they overshadowed all the others. Deuteronomy recognized the equal priestly right of all Levites, and Josiah's reformation placed the sons of Zadok, who were the priests of Jerusalem and not descendants of Aaron, in a position of decisive superiority. Then Ezek drew a new and previously unknown distinction between "the priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok" who are "keepers of the charge of the altar," and the other Levites who were made "keepers of the charge of the house" as a punishment for having ministered in the high places. The Priestly Code takes up this distinction and represents it as being of Mosaic origin, making of the sons of Zadok "sons of Aaron." "In this way arose as an illegal consequence of Josiah's reformation, the distinction between priests and Levites. With Ezekiel this distinction is still an innovation requiring justification and sanction; with the Priestly Code it is a `statute forever,' although even yet not absolutely undisputed, as appears from the priestly version of the story of Korah's company. For all Judaism subsequent to Ezra, and so for Christian tradition, the Priestly Code in this matter also has been authoritative. Instead of the Deuteronomic formula `the priests the Levites,' we henceforward have `the priests and the Levites,' particularly in Chronicles" (op. cit., 147). From that time onward the priests and Levites are two sharply distinguished classes. It is an essential part of this theory that the Chronicler meant his work to be taken as literal history, correctly representing the true meaning of the completed law.
3. Mediating Views:
There have been various attempts to construct less thoroughgoing theories on the same data. As a rule, these views accept in some form the documentary theory of the Pentateuch and seek to modify the Wellhausen theory in two directions, either by attributing earlier dates to one or more of the Pentateuchal documents--especially to the Priestly Code--or else by assigning more weight to some of the statements of Chronicles (interpreted literally). Sometimes both these tendencies are combined. None of these views has met with any great measure of success in the attempt to make headway against the dominant Wellhausen theory, and it will be seen later that all alike make shipwreck on certain portions of the evidence.
4. An Alternative View:
The independent investigations on which the present article is based have led the writer to a view that diverges in important particulars from any of these, and it is necessary to state it briefly before proceeding to the evidence. In one respect it differs from all the rival schemes, not merely in result, but also in method, for it takes account of versional evidence as to the state of the texts. Subject to this it accepts the Mosaic authenticity of all the Pentateuchal legislation and the clear and consentient testimony of the Law and the Prophets (i.e. of the two earlier and more authoritative portions of the Hebrew Canon), while regarding Chronicles as representing a later interpretation, not merely of the history, but also of the legal provisions. In outline the story of the priesthood is then as follows: Moses consecrated Aaron and his sons as the priests of the desert tabernacle. He purified the rest of the tribe of Levi as a body of sacred porters for the period of wanderings, but in the legislation of Numbers he made no provision whatever for their performing any duties after the sanctuary obtained a permanent location. At the same time he gave a body of priestly teaching requiring for its administration in settled conditions a numerous and scattered body of priests, such as the house of Aaron alone could not have provided immediately after the entry into Canaan. To meet this, Deuteronomy--the last legislative work of Moses--contains provisions enlarging the rights and duties of the Levites and conferring on them a priestly position. The earlier distinction was thus largely obliterated, though the high-priestly dignity remained in the house of Aaron till the time of Solomon, when it was transferred from the house of Eli to that of Zadok, who, according to Ezekiel's testimony, was a Levite (but see below, IV, 1). So matters remained till the exile, when Ezekiel put forward a scheme which together with many ideal elements proposed reforms to insure the better application of the Mosaic principle of the distinction between holy and profane to greatly altered circumstances. Taking his inspiration from the wilderness legislation, he instituted a fresh division in the tribe of Levi, giving to the sons of Zadok a position similar to that once held by the sons of Aaron, and degrading all other Levites from the priesthood conferred on them by Dt to a lower rank. The duties now assigned to this class of "keepers of the charge of the house" were never even contemplated by Moses, but Ezekiel applies to them the old phrases of the Pentateuch which he invests with a new significance. As a result of his influence, the distinction between priests and Levites makes its appearance in post-exilic times, though it had been unknown to all the writers of the second division of the Hebrew Canon. At the same time a meaning was read into the provisions of the Law which their original author could not have contemplated, and it was this interpretation which is presented (at any rate to some extent) in Chronicles, and has given us the current tradition. Many of the Chronicler's statements are, however, not meant to be taken literally, and could not have been so taken by his original public.
II. The Data of the Priestly Code (P) in the Pentateuch.
1. The Levites:
To arrive at an objective conclusion it is necessary, in the first instance, to examine the facts without such bias as any view put forward by any other author, ancient or modern, sacred or profane, might impart. Every legislator is entitled to be judged on his own language, and where he has, so to speak, made his own dictionary, we are compelled to read his meaning into the terms used. The very first of the material references to the Levites drives this truth home. "But appoint thou the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all the furniture thereof" (Nu 1:50). It is necessary to consider whether such expressions are to be read in a wide or a narrow sense. We learn from Nu 18:3 that death would be the result of a Levite's touching any of these vessels, and it therefore appears that these words are meant to be construed narrowly. "They shall bear the tabernacle, and all the furniture thereof; and they shall minister unto it," are the next words (1:50); but yet we read later of the Kohathites who were to bear it that "they shall not touch the sanctuary, lest they die" (4:15). This shows that the service in question is strictly limited to a service of porterage after the articles have been wrapped up by Aaron and his sons. By no possibility could it include such a task as cleaning the vessels. It is then further directed that the Levites are to take down and set up the dwelling and camp round about it. All these are desert services and desert services only. Then we read that "the Levites shall keep the charge of the tabernacle (dwelling) of the testimony. This concludes the first material passage (Nu 1:50-53). The other passages of Nu only amplify these directions; they never change them. But some phrases are used which must be more particularly considered.
(1) Technical Phrases.
We hear that the Levites are "to serve the service of the tent of meeting," and this looks as if it might refer to some general duties, but the context and the kindred passages always forbid this interpretation. Nu 7:5 ff is an admirable instance. Six wagons are there assigned to the Levites for this service, two to the Gershonites and four to the Merarites. "But unto the sons of Kohath he gave none, because the service of the sanctuary belonged unto them; they bare it upon their shoulders." Here service is transport and nothing else. Again we read of the charge of the Levites in the tent of meeting, e.g. 4:25 f. If we look to see what this was, we find that it consisted of transporting portions of the tent that had been packed up. The "in" of English Versions of the Bible does not represent the meaning of the Hebrew fairly; for the context makes it clear that the legislator means "in respect to." "But they shall not go in to see the sanctuary even for a moment, lest they die" (4:20). In English idiom we cannot speak of the transport of portions of a dismantled tent as service in that tent. One other expression requires notice, the phrase "keep the charge" which is distinguished in 8:26 from "doing service." The exact meaning cannot be determined. It appears to denote something kindred to service, but of a less exacting nature, perhaps the camping round the tent and the guardianship of the articles on the march. We shall see hereafter by comparison with other books that in P it does not bear the same meaning as elsewhere.
(2) Other Legal Provisions.
The Levites were to act under the orders of Aaron and his sons, who were to assign to each man his individual functions (Nu 3; 4, etc.). They were to undergo a special rite of purification (Nu 8), but not of consecration. They were taken in place of the firstborn (Nu 3). The age for beginning service is given in Nu 4 as 30 years, but in Nu 8:24 as 25 years, if the text is sound. The age for ceasing to serve was 50. In many passages the versions suggest that a good many phrases are textually doubtful, and it is probable that when a critical text of the Pentateuch is formed on scientific principles, a good many superfluous expressions will be found not to be original; but there is no reason to suppose that any real difference in the meaning of the passages would be revealed by such a text.
The story of Korah is easily misunderstood. It appears from Nu 16:3 that his real object was to put himself on an equality with Moses and Aaron, and this is the "priesthood" referred to in 16:10. Nu 18 reinforces the earlier passages. It is noteworthy as showing that in the conception of the legislator the Levites were not to come near the vessels or the altar (18:3). The penalty is death for both Levites and priests.
(3) Contrast with Ezekiel and Chronicles.
The impression as to the meaning of P which may be gathered from an examination of its statements is powerfully reinforced when they are tested by reference to Ezekiel and Chronicles, Ezek 44:9-14 seems to demand of the Levites some service as gatekeepers, the slaying of burnt offering and sacrifice for the people and a keeping of "the charge of the house, for all the service thereof," which in the light of 44:7 f appears to mean in his terminology, not a service of transport, but an entry into the house and the performance of certain duties there. The Priestly Code (P), on the contrary, knows nothing of gatekeepers, regards the slaying of the burnt offering and sacrifice as the duty of the individual sacrificant (Lev 1; 3), and--if, as Wellhausen thinks, it refers to the temple--it would have visited with death a Levite who was present in the places in which Ezekiel requires him to minister. Similarly with the Chronicler. For instance, he the Levites being `for the service of the .... in the courts and over the chambers, and over the cleansing of every holy thing' (1 Ch 23:28), but P knows nothing of any chambers, would not have allowed the Levites to touch (much less clean) many of the holy things, and regarded service simply as porterage. In 1 Ch 23:31 the Levites are to offer burnt offerings on certain occasions; in P their approach to the altar would have meant death both to themselves and the priests (Nu 18:3). Other instances will be found in PS, 238 f.
(4) What the Foregoing Proves.
In view of these facts it is impossible to hold that the Levites in P represent a projection of the Levites of the second temple or any post-Mosaic age into the desert period. To P they are a body of sacred porters. The temple of course could not be carried about, and it cannot be held that in this respect the legislation mirrors later circumstances. "Secondly, the net result of such a scheme would be to create a body of Levites for use during the period of wanderings and never thereafter. As soon as the desert age was over the whole tribe would find their occupation gone. How can we conceive that any legislator deliberately sat down and invented such a scheme centuries after the epoch to which it relates, well knowing that in so far as his scheme purported to be a narrative of events it was fictitious from beginning to end, and in so far as it might be regarded as a legislation applicable to his own or any future day, there was not a line in it that could conceivably be put into practice? If any theorist can be conceived as acting in this way, how are we to suppose that his work would meet with acceptance? .... Thirdly, P neither embodies the views of Ezekiel nor finds an accurate reflection in Chronicles. The facts are such as to enable us to say definitely that P is not in line with them. It is impossible to assume that he appointed the death penalty for certain acts if performed by Levites because he really wished the Levites to perform those acts" (PS, 241 f).
2. Aaron and His Sons:
Priests and Levites also speaks of Aaron the priest and the sons of Aaron the priest. It is doubtful whether the expression "the sons of Aaron the priests," which occurs frequently in the Massoretic Text, is ever original; the Massoretic expression is nowhere supported by all the authorities. "The phrase `Aaron the high priest' is entirely unknown to Priests and Levites. Where the high priest's name is given the only qualifying apposition possible in his usage is `the priest.' " Aaron and his sons, unlike the Levites, were consecrated, not merely purified.
At this point two features only of the legislation need be noticed: the inadequacy of the staff to post-conquest conditions and the signs of date. For example, the leprosy laws (Lev 13 f) postulate the presence of priests to inspect and isolate the patient. "Remembering that on the critical theory P assumes the capital at Jerusalem as self-evident, we must ask how such provisions were to work after the conquest. During the desert period nothing could have been simpler, but what was to happen when the Israelites dwelt all over Canaan from Beersheba to Dan?" (PS, 246). The difficulty is immensely increased if we postulate an exilic or post-exilic date, when the Jewish center of gravity was in Babylonia and there were large colonies in Egypt and elsewhere. And "What are we to say when we read of leprous garments (Lev 13:47 ff)? Was a man to make the pilgrimage from Babylonia to Jerusalem to consult a priest about a doubtful garment? And what about the leper's offerings in Lev 14? Could they conceivably have been meant to apply to such circumstances?" (PS, 247). The case is no better with the law of leprous houses, which is expressed to apply to the post-conquest period (Lev 4:33-53). The notification to the priest and his inspections require a priesthood scattered all over the country, i.e. a body far more numerous than the house of Aaron at the date of the conquest. Such instances could easily be multiplied from the legislation; one more only will be cited on account of its importance to the history of the priesthood. According to Leviticus, the individual sacrificant is to kill the victims and flay the burnt offerings. How could such procedure be applied to such sacrifices as those of Solomon (1 Ki 8:63)? With the growth of luxury the sacrifices would necessarily become too large for such a ritual, and the wealthy would grow in refinement and object to performing such tasks personally. This suggests the reason for later abuses and for the modifications of Ezekiel and the representations of the Chronicler.
Result of the Evidence.
Thus, the evidence of P is unfavorable alike to the Wellhausen and the mediating views. The indications of date are consistently Mosaic, and it seems impossible to fit the laws into the framework of any other age without reading them in a sense that the legislator can be shown not to have contemplated. On the other hand P is a torso. It provides a large body of Levites who would have nothing to do after the conquest, and a corpus of legislation that could not have been administered in settled conditions by the house of Aaron alone.
III. The Other Portions of the Pentateuch.
In Ex 19:22,24 we read of priests, but a note has come down to us that in the first of those verses Aquila had "elders," not "priests," and this appears to be the correct reading in both places, as is shown by the prominence of the elders in the early part of the chapter. In Hebrew the words differ by only two letters. It is said by Wellhausen that in Ex 33:7-11 (E) Joshua has charge of the ark. This rests on a mistranslation of Ex 33:7, which should be rendered (correcting English Versions of the Bible), `And Moses used to take a (or the) tent and pitch it for himself without the camp.' It is inconceivable that Moses should have taken the tent of the ark and removed it to a distance from the camp for his private use, leaving the ark bared and unguarded. Moreover, if he had done so, Joshua could not have been in charge of the ark, seeing that he was in this tent while the ark (ex hypothesi) remained in the camp. Nor had the ark yet been constructed. Nor was Joshua in fact a priest or the guardian of the ark in E: (1) in the Book of Joshua E knows of priests who carry the ark and are quite distinct from Joshua (3 ff); (2) in Dt 31:14 (E) Joshua is not resident in the tent of meeting; (3) in E, Aaron and Eleazar are priests (Dt 10:6), and the Levitical priesthood is the only one recognized (Dt 33:10); (4) there is no hint anywhere of Joshua's discharging any priestly duty whatsoever. The whole case rests on his presence in the tent in Ex 33:7-11, and, as shown in the article PENTATEUCH (which see), this passage should stand after Ex 13:22.
Then it is said that in Ex 4:14; Jdg 17:7, "Levite" denotes profession, not ancestry. In the latter passage the youth whom Micah made a priest was of Levitical descent, being the grandson of Moses (Jdg 17:13), and the case rests on the phrase, "of the family of Judah." Neither of the Septuagintal translations had this text (Field, Hexapla, at the place), which therefore cannot be supported, since it cannot be suggested that Moses belonged to the tribe of Judah. As to Ex 4:14, the phrase "Aaron thy brother the Levite" is merely an adaptation of the more usual, "Aaron, son of Amram, the Levite," rendered necessary by the fact that his brother Moses is the person addressed. The Wellhausen theory here is shown to be untenable in PS, 250 and RE3, XI, 418.
Ex 32:26-29 foreshadows the sacred character of Levi, and Dt 10:6 (E) knows the hereditary Aaronic priesthood. In D the most important passage is Dt 18:6-8. In 18:7 three Septuagintal manuscripts omit the words "the Levites," and if this be a gloss, the whole historic sense of the passage is changed. It now contains an enactment that any Levite coming to the religious capital may minister there "as all his brethren do, who stand there," etc., i.e. like the descendants of Aaron. "The Levites" will then be the explanation of a glossator who was imbued with the latest post-exilic ideas, and thought that "his brethren" must mean those of his fellow-Levites who were not descended from Aaron. The passage is supplemented by 21:5, giving to the Levites judicial rights, and 24:8 assigning to them the duty of teaching the leprosy regulations. Together with 33:10 (E), `they shall teach thy judgments to Jacob and thy law to Israel: they shall put incense in thy nostrils and whole burnt-offering on thine altar,' these passages complete the provisions of P in giving to the Levites an occupation in place of their transport duties, and providing the necessary staff for administering the legislation when the Israelites were no longer massed together in a single camp, but scattered over the country. We shall see in the next section that this view of the meaning of the Law was taken by every writer of the second part of the Canon who touches on the subject. Everywhere we are confronted with the legitimacy of a Levitical priesthood; nowhere is there any mention of an exclusive Aaronic right. Smaller points which cannot be discussed here are examined in PS. It only remains to notice that these provisions fully explain the frequent Deuteronomic locution, "the priests the Levites." One other remark must be made. Though it is not expressly stated, we may assume that consecration would be necessary in the case of any Levite acting on the provisions of Dt 18:6-8, and was not mentioned because in Hebrew antiquity it went without saying that every priest must be consecrated (compare Jdg 17).
IV. From Moses to Malachi.
1. The Sources Other than Ezekiel:
Joshua adds but little to our information. In 18:7 the priesthood is called the inheritance of the Levites, and it is singular that the Wellhausen critics attribute this to a priestly redactor, though such a writer should ex hypothesi have been jealous to withhold the priesthood from the Levites. It is very interesting to find that in Josh 3; 4, all the different critical documents speak in exactly the same terms of "the priests that bare the ark." The priestly writer ought, on the Wellhausen theory, to have said "the Levites." The expression "the priests the Levites" is found alternating with the expression "the priests." All this points to the construction put upon the provisions of the Law in the preceding section, and finds fresh confirmation in Judges, where we see Micah rejoicing at having a Levite as a priest (Jdg 17:13), thus showing that the sacred character of the tribe was recognized in the earliest post-Mosaic times. The lay sacrifices in this and the following books are explained under SANCTUARY; SACRIFICE (which see).
The period of the early kings shows us kings blessing the people (e.g. 2 Sam 6:18). It is claimed that this is the priestly blessing, but without evidence, and there seems no more reason to see special priestly rights here than in David's blessing his household (2 Sam 6:20), or the frequent blessings of the Bible (e.g. Genesis passim, especially "in thee will Israel bless," Gen 48:20), while in 1 Ki 8:55 ff we actually have the words of the blessing delivered on one of those occasions by Solomon, and it is quite unlike the blessing of the priests (Num 6:22 ff).
Textual criticism disposes of the supposed priesthood of certain non-Levitical persons. In 2 Sam 8:18 the Massoretic Text makes David's sons "priests," but this reading was unknown to the Septuagint, Symmachus, and Theodotion (Field, ad. loc.). The Septuagint has "aularches," i.e. chamberlains. That this represents a different Hebrew word is proved by the Septuagintal list of 3 Ki 2:46 (not extant in Hebrew), where we read that Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, was "over the aularchy and over the brick-making." It cannot be suggested that this represents an original Hebrew "over the priesthood and over the brick-making," and accordingly we must concede the existence of some secular court office which was rendered by this Greek phrase. Hitzig and Cheyne conjecture that tsokhenim should be read for kohanim. This word gives the sense required (see Isa 22:15) Revised Version margin "steward"). In 2 Sam 20:26 we read that Ira, ha-ya'iri ("the Jairite"), was a priest, but the Syriac version supported by Lucian and 23:38 reads ha-yattiri ("the Jattirite"). Jattir was a priestly city. In 1 Ki 4:5 Nathan's son is described as `priest friend of the king,' but the Septuagint reads only "friend of the king" (compare especially 1 Ch 27:33 f; 2 Sam 15:32), and at another period Nathan's son held the kindred secular office of king's counselor (the Septuagint 3 Ki 2:46, a fact that is certainly unfavorable to the view that he ever held priestly office). There can therefore be no doubt that the word "priest," kohen has arisen through dittography of the preceding word nathan, Nathan.
Various dealings with the ark and the age of Samuel require notice. As a boy, Samuel himself is given into the service of Eli. It has been argued that he really officiated as a priest, though probably (if the Chronicler's data is rejected) not of the Levitical descent. The answer is to be found in his age. Weaning sometimes took place at as late an age as three, and accordingly, the boy may have been as much as four years old when he was taken to Shiloh (1 Sam 1:24). His mother used to bring him a little cloak (1 Sam 2:19) every year, and this notice also shows his extreme youth. In view of this, it cannot be seriously contended that he performed any priestly service. He must have been something like a page, and he performed some duties of a porter, opening the door-valves of the temple at Shiloh (1 Sam 3:15).
(1) The Custody of the Ark
When the ark was captured by the Philistines, it was in the charge of priests. When David brought it to Jerusalem, it was again placed in priestly custody, but there is an interregnum of some 20 years (1 Sam 7:2).
It must be remembered that whatever may have happened during this period of great national confusion, the practice of all the rest of history, extending over some 600 or 700 years, is uniform and would far outweigh any irregularities during so short and troubled a period.
(2) On Its Return from the Philistines
The first difficulty arises on 1 Sam 6:14,15. In the second of these verses the Levites come up after the Beth-shemites have finished, and, in Wellhausen's words, "proceed as if nothing had happened, lift the ark from the now-no-longer-existent cart, and set it upon the stone on which the sacrifice is already burning" (Prolegomena, 128). It is therefore suggest that 6:15 is a gloss. But there is difficulty in 6:14 which tells of the breaking up of the cart, etc., without explaining what happened to the ark. The trouble may be met by a slight transposition, thus: `14a and the cart came into the field, .... and stood there, and there was there a great stone: 15a and the Levites took down the ark, etc. and put them on the great stone: 14b and clave the wood of the cart,' etc., followed by 15b. This makes perfect sense.
(3) In Abinadab's House
The second difficulty is made by 1 Sam 7:1, where we read that the ark was brought to the house of Abinadab `and Eleazar his son they sanctified to guard' it. Its old abode, the house at Shiloh, had apparently been destroyed (Jer 7:12,14; 26:6,9). There it enjoyed considerable importance, for Poels is unquestionably right in identifying the Gibeah of God (1 Sam 10:5) with the Gibeah (hill) of the ark. Thus, there was a high place there and a Philistine garrison (compare 1 Sam 13:3, where Septuagint and Targum have "Gibeah"). There remains the difficulty caused by the guardianship of Eleazar. Poels may be right in reading we'eth bene' El'azar, "and the sons of Eleazar," for we'eth 'El`azar beno, "and Eleazar his son"; but in the entire absence of information, alike as to Eleazar's functions and as to his tribe, nothing definite can be said. The narratives of the slaughter among the Beth-shemites and the fate of Uzzah make it certain that Eleazar's custody of the ark kept him at a respectful distance from it.
When David at the end of this period removed the ark, it was first taken in a cart. This proved fatal to Uzzah, and the ark was deposited in the house of Obededom the Gittite. The text of Samuel knows nothing of any guardianship of the ark by Obed-edom. Probably he took very good care not to go near it in view of Uzzah's fate. Then it was transported to Jerusalem by bearers (2 Sam 6:13)--presumably of Levitical descent. No further irregularities are urged.
More important is the change of priesthood; 1 Sam 2:27-36 clearly threatens Eli, whose house had been chosen in Egypt, with a transference of the high-priesthood to another line. Careful comparison with 1 Ki 2:27 makes it certain that the prophecy was fulfilled when Zadok was placed by Solomon in the place of Abiathar. Who was Zadok? According to Chronicles (1 Ch 6:8,53; 24:3; 27:17) he was descended from Aaron through Eleazar, and this is accepted by Orr, Van Hoonacker and many others, who take Chronicles in a literal sense. According to Ezekiel he was a Levite (40:46, etc.). It is noteworthy that throughout the prophetical books we always hear of the Levitical priesthood, not the Aaronic (see especially 1 Ki 12:31; Jer 33:18-22; Mal 2), and the "father's house" of 1 Sam 2:27-36 that was chosen in Egypt could only be the house of
Aaron, not of Ithamar, if the passage is to be taken in its natural sense. On this view Zadok's appointment could only have fulfilled the prophecy if it terminated the Aaronic succession. It would seem therefore that the high-priesthood was transferred to a family of non-Aaronic Levites. For the alternative view see ZADOK.
The prophet's speech in 1 Sam 2:27-36 is also important for the light it throws on the organization of the priesthood. The high priest has in his gift a number of priestly offices with pecuniary and other emoluments. This postulates a far more advanced hierarchy than that of Priest.
The reference to "the priests and the Levites" in 1 Ki 8:4 was unknown to the Septuagint, but in other passages the Books of Kings show further advances in hierarchical organization. There is not merely the high priest--generally like Aaron in the Priestly Code (P) called "the priest," but sometimes the high priest--but also the second priest (2 Ki 25:18; Jer 52:24; 2 Ki 23:4, according to the Targum), three keepers of the threshold (ubi supra, and 2 Ki 12:10) and "elders of the priests" (2 Ki 19:2; Isa 37:2; perhaps also Jer 19:1). See also Jer 20:1 f; 29:26 for priestly organization and jurisdiction in the temple precincts. All this contrasts strikingly with the simplicity of the Pentateuchal organization.
Ezekiel is entirely in line with the other sources for this period, but he seeks to institute certain reforms. He writes, "Her priests have done violence to my law, and have profaned my holy things: they have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they caused men to discern between the unclean and the clean," etc. (Ezek 22:26). If these words have any meaning they signify that he was acquainted with a law which followed the very words of Lev 10 and other passages of the Priestly Code (P), and was intended to reach the people through the teaching of the priests. In Ezekiel 40 through 48, there is a vision of the future which stands in the closest relation to the Pentateuch. Three views have been held of this. The old view was that Ezekiel could not be reconciled with the Pentateuch at all, and that the difficulties presented were insoluble. Wellhausen and his followers maintain that the prophet is prior to the Priestly Code (P), and here introduces the distinction between priests and Levites for the first time. The third alternative is to hold that Ezekiel was familiar with P and drew from it the inspiration to make a fresh division among the Levites, giving the sons of Zadok a position similar to that occupied by the sons of Aaron in the wilderness period, and reenacting with slight modifications the legislation applicable to the sons of Aaron, this time applying it to the sons of Zadok. The crucial passage is 44:6-16, from which it clearly appears that in Solomon's temple aliens had performed sundry tasks that should have been executed by more holy persons, and that Ezekiel proposes to degrade Levites who are not descended from Zadok to perform such tasks in the future as a punishment for their ministrations to idols in high places. Either of the two latter views would explain the close connection that evidently exists between the concluding chapters of Ezekiel and the Priestly Code (P), and, accordingly, in choosing between them, the reader must consider four main points: (1) Is P shown on the internal evidence to be early or late? Is it desert legislation, or is it accurately reflected in Chronicles? This point has already been discussed in part and is further treated in PENTATEUCH (which see). (2) Is theory of the late composition of P psychologically and morally probable? On this see PENTATEUCH and POT, 292-99. (3) Is it the case that the earlier history attests the existence of institutions of P that are held by Wellhausen and his followers to be late--e.g. more national offerings than the critics allow? On this see EPC 200 ff, and passim; POT, 305-15, and passim; SBL and OP passim, and article PENTATEUCH. (4) Does Ezekiel himself show acquaintance with P (e.g. in 22:26), or not? On this too see SBL, 96; PS, 281 f.
With regard to the non-mention of the high-priesthood and certain other institutions in Ezekiel's vision, the natural explanation is that in the case of these the prophet did not desire to institute any changes. It is to be noted that Ezekiel does not codify and consolidate all existing law. On the contrary, he is rather supplementing and reforming. In his ideal temple the prince is to provide the statutory national offerings (45:17), i.e. those of Nu 28; 29. Apparently the king had provided these earlier (2 Ki 16:13). But in addition to these there had grown up a "king's offering," and it is probably to this only that Ezek 45:22 ff; 46:2-15 relate. In 46:13 Septuagint, Syriac, Vulgate, and some Hebrew manuscripts preserve the reading "he" for "thou."
V. Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles.
Whatever the course of the earlier history, there is general agreement that in these books a distinction between priests and Levites is established (see e.g. Neh 10:37 f (38 f); 12:1 f). We also find singers and porters (Neh 13:5, etc.), Nethinim and the sons of Solomon's servants (Ezr 7:7,24; 10:23 f; Neh 10:28 (29); 11:3, etc.). It must not be assumed that these classes were new. The story of the Gibeonites (Josh 9) gives us the origin of some of these grades, and the non-mention of them in many of the earlier books is easily explained by the character of those books. We know from such passages as Am 5:23 that there were musical services in far earlier times (compare Neh 12:42).
1. Estimates of the Chronicler:
Chronicles presents an account of the earlier history of the priests and Levites that in many respects does not tally with the older sources. Many modern writers think that the author's views of the past were colored by the circumstances of his own day, and that he had a tendency to carry back later conditions to an earlier period. On the other hand it is impossible to deny fairly that he used some sources which have not been preserved to us elsewhere. Again, there is evidence to show that his work was not intended to be taken for history and would not have been so regarded by his contemporaries. Talmudical authorities held some such view as this. The historical value of his work has yet to be appraised in a more critical and impartial spirit than is exhibited in any of the current discussions. For the present purpose it is only possible to notice the effect of some of his statements, if interpreted literally. As there are passages where he has clearly substituted Levites for the less holy personages of the older sources (contrast e.g. 2 Ki 11:4-12 with 2 Ch 23:1-11), it may be that Levites have also been substituted by him for other persons in notices of which no other version has survived.
2. His Data:
David and Solomon recognized the hierarchy. The former king instituted the musical services (1 Ch 6:3 ff; 16:4 ff; 25). The Levites were divided into courses (1 Ch 23:6) and were rendered liable to service from the age of twenty by his enactment (1 Ch 23:27). There were also 24 courses or divisions of priests, 16 of the sons of Eleazar and 8 of the sons of Ithamar (1 Ch 23:24). The courses were divided by lot. In Neh 12:1-7 we read of "chiefs of the priests," but these are only 22 in number, while 12:12-21 give us 21 in the time of Joiakim (12:26). But not much importance can be attached to such lists, as names could easily fall out in transmission. According to 1 Ch 9:26 the four chief porters were Levites, and Levites were also over the things baked in pans and the shewbread (9:31 f). This of course is not in accordance with the Law, but is found elsewhere in Chronicles. In 1 Ch 23 the Levites from 30 years old and upward number 38,000, of whom 24,000 oversee the work of the house of the Lord, 6,000 were officers and judges, 4,000 were doorkeepers and 4,000 were musicians. David altered the age of beginning service to 20, and an account of their functions is given in 1 Ch 23:27-32 (see, further, MUSIC). All these arrangements were confirmed and enforced by Solomon (2 Ch 8:14 ff). There is often uncertainty as to whether the Chronicler identifies priests and Levites in particular cases or not, e.g. in 2 Ch 30:27, "the priests the Levites" bless the people according to the ordinary text, but many authorities read "the priests and the Levites." Hezekiah appears to have undertaken some reorganization (2 Ch 29 through 31), but the details are not clear. Jehoshaphat established in Jerusalem a court composed partly of Levites and priests (19:8-11). Previously he had sent priests and Levites and others to teach the Law in Judah (2 Ch 17). In 2 Ch 29:34 it is clearly the duty of the priests to flay burnt offerings (contrast Lev 1). It is impossible to draw any consistent picture from the Chronicler because he gives different data for different periods; it is doubtful whether he meant his statements to be taken as historical, e.g. in 1 Ch 25 we find Levites whose names Giddalti (= "I have magnified"), etc., are really words forming part of a prayer, and it is difficult to believe that either the Chronicler or his public intended this chapter to be interpreted in any but a spiritual sense (see PS, 284-86).
In Ezr 2:40 the number of Levites who returned with Zerubbabel is given as 74, as against 973 priests (2:36), 128 singers (2:41), 139 children of the porters (2:42), 392 Nethinim and children of Solomon's servants (2:58), and the figures are the same in Neh 7, except that there the singers number 148 (7:44) and the porters 138 (7:45). When Ezra went up, he was at first joined by no Levites (8:15), but subsequently gathered 38 Levites and 220 Nethinim (8:18-20). We get glimpses of the organization in Neh 12:44-47 and 13:10 ff. It appears that in this period genealogies were carefully scrutinized in the case of doubtful claims to priestly descent (Ezr 2:61 ff; Neh 7:63 ff). In Ezr 6:19 ff the Levites are represented as killing the Passover.
Of these books no satisfactory account can be given in the present state of textual criticism and Biblical science generally. Some writers, e.g., hold that the Chronicler had before him a source to which the Levites were entirely unknown, others that he invented freely, others again that he reproduces trustworthy pre-exilic information. The student has only an assortment of theories from which to choose. The bedrock fact is that the statements of these books, if taken in their natural meaning, convey an entirely different impression from the statements of the earlier books construed similarly. Modern research has not yet been seriously addressed to the question whether all the statements were really intended to be interpreted as mere history.
VI. Legal Provisions.
Aaron and his sons underwent consecration to fit them for their duties. Ex 28 f prescribes their garments and consecration (see DRESS; BREASTPLATE; EPHOD; ROBE; COAT; MITRE; GIRDLE; URIM AND THUMMIM), and the account of the latter may be read in Lev 8 f. In individual sacrifices brought to the religious capital the priests performed the part of the ritual which related to the altar (sprinkling, burning, etc.) (Lev 1 through 4). See SACRIFICE. A principal function was the duty of teaching the people the law of God (Lev 10:11; 14:54-57; Dt 24:8; 33:10; compare Ezek 44:23; Hos 4:1-6; Hag 2:11 ff, and many passages in the Prophets).
The priests were subject to special laws designed to maintain their purity (Lev 21 f; compare Ezek 44). The rules aim at preventing defilement through mourning (save in the case of ordinary priests for a near relation) and at preventing those who were physically unfitted from performing certain functions, and those who were for any reason unclean from approaching the holy things. See further STRANGER AND SOJOURNER. They performed several semi-judicial functions (Nu 5:5 ff,11 ff, etc.; see JUDGE). They also blessed the people (Nu 6:22; compare Dt 10:8, etc.).
See BLESSING. On their dues see SACRIFICE; TITHE; FIRSTLING; FIRST-FRUITS; LEVITICAL CITIES; AGRARIAN LAWS; see further CHEMARIM; NETHINIM; SOLOMON'S SERVANTS; SINGERS; DOORKEEPER; SERVING-WOMEN; JUDGE.
Wellhausen, Prolegomena, chapter iv, for the Graf-Wellhausen view; Wiener, Wiener, Pentateuchal Studies, 230-89, for the view taken above; S.I. Curtiss, Levitical Priests, for the conservative view. This writer afterward changed to the critical view. James Orr, POT; A. Van Hoonacker, Le sacerdoce levitique (important); W. Baudissin, article "Priests and Levites" in HDB, IV, for mediating views. The best account in English of the details of the priestly duties is contained in Baudissin's article, where a further bibliography will be found.
Harold M. Wiener
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'PRIESTS AND LEVITES'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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