levites Summary and Overview
levites in Smith's Bible Dictionary
(descendants of Levi). Sometimes the name extends to the whole tribe, the priests included, #Ex 6:25; Le 25:32; Nu 35:2; Jos 21:3,41| etc; sometimes only to those members of the tribe who were not priests, and as distinguished from them. Sometimes again it is added as an epithet of the smaller portion of the tribe, and we read of "the priests the Levites." #Jos 3:3; Eze 44:15| The history of the tribe and of the functions attached to its several orders is essential to any right apprehension of the history of Israel as a people. It will fall naturally into four great periods:-- I. The time of the exodus. --There is no trace of the consecrated character of the Levites till the institution of a hereditary priesthood in the family of Aaron, during the first withdrawal of Moses to the solitude of Sinai. #Ex 24:1| The next extension of the idea of the priesthood grew out of the terrible crisis of Exod 32. The tribe stood forth separate and apart, recognizing even in this stern work the spiritual as higher than the natural. From this time they occupied a distinct position. The tribe of Levi was to take the place of that earlier priesthood of the first-born as representatives of the holiness of the people. At the time of their first consecration there were 22,000 of them, almost exactly the number of the first-born males in the whole nation. As the tabernacle was the sign of the presence among the people of their unseen King, so the Levites were, among the other tribes of Israel, as the royal guard that waited exclusively on him. It was obviously essential for their work as the bearers and guardians of the sacred tent that there should be a fixed assignment of duties; and now accordingly we meet with the first outlines of the organization which afterward became permanent. The division of the tribe into the three sections that traced their descent from the sons of Levi formed the groundwork of it. The work which they all had to do required a man's full strength, and therefore, though twenty was the starting-point for military service, Numb 1, they were not to enter on their active service till they were thirty. #Nu 4:23,30,35| At fifty they were to be free from all duties but those of superintendence. #Nu 8:25,26| (1) The Kohathites, as nearest of kin to the priests, held from the first the highest offices. They were to bear all the vessels of the sanctuary, the ark itself included. #Nu 3:31; 4:15; De 31:35| (2) the Gershonites had to carry the tent-hangings and curtains. #Nu 4:22-26| (3) The heavier burden of the boards, bars and pillars of the tabernacle fell on the sons of Merari. The Levites were to have no territorial possessions. In place of them they were to receive from the others the tithes of the produce of the land, from which they, in their turn, offered a tithe to the priests, as a recognition of their higher consecration. #Nu 18:21,24,26; Ne 10:37| Distinctness and diffusion were both to be secured by the assignment to the whole tribe of forty-eight cities, with an outlying "suburb," #Nu 35:2| of meadowland for the pasturage of their flocks and herds. The reverence of the people for them was to be heightened by the selection of six of these as cities of refuge. Through the whole land the Levites were to take the place of the old household priests, sharing in all festivals and rejoicings. #De 12:19; 14:26,27; 26:11| Every third year they were to have an additional share in the produce of the land. #De 14:28; 26:12| To "the priests the Levites" was to belong the office of preserving, transcribing and interpreting the law. #De 17:9-12; 31:26| II. The period of the judges. --The successor of Moses, though belonging to another tribe, did all that could be done to make the duty above named a reality. The submission of the Gibeonites enabled him to relieve the tribe-divisions of Gershon and Merari of the most burdensome of their duties. The conquered Hivites became "hewers of wood and drawers of water" for the house of Jehovah and for the congregation. #Jos 9:27| As soon as the conquerors had advanced far enough to proceed to a partition of the country, the forty-eight cities were assigned to them. III. The monarchy. --When David's kingdom was established, there came a fuller organization of the whole tribe. Their position in relation to the priesthood was once again definitely recognized. In the worship of the tabernacle under David, as afterward in that of the temple, the Levites were the gatekeepers, vergers, sacristans, choristers, of the central sanctuary of the nation. They were, in the language of #1Ch 23:24-32| to which we may refer as almost the locus classicus on this subject, "to wait on the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of Jehovah, in the courts, and the chambers, and the purifying of all holy things." They were, besides this, "to stand every morning to thank and praise Jehovah, and likewise at even." They were, lastly, "to offer" --i.e. to assist the priest in offering-- "all burnt sacrifices to Jehovah in the sabbaths and on the set feasts." They lived for the greater part of the year in their own cities, and came up at fixed periods to take their turn of work. #1Ch 25:1 ... 26:1| ... The educational work which the Levites received for their peculiar duties, no less than their connection, more or less intimate, with the schools of the prophets, would tend to make them the teachers of the others, the transcribers and interpreters of the law, the chroniclers of the times in which they lived. (Thus they became to the Israelites what ministers and teachers are to the people now, and this teaching and training the people in morality and religion was no doubt one of the chief reasons why they were set apart by God from the people, and yet among the people. --ED.) The revolt of the ten tribes, and the policy pursued by Jeroboam, who wished to make the priests the creatures and instruments of the king, and to establish a provincial and divided worship, caused them to leave the cities assigned to them in the territory of Israel, and gather round the metropolis of Judah. #2Ch 11:13,14| In the kingdom of Judah they were, from this time forward, a powerful body, politically as well as ecclesiastically. IV. After the captivity. --During the period that followed the captivity of the Levites contributed to the formation of the so-called Great Synagogue. They, with the priests, formed the majority of the permanent Sanhedrin, and as such had a large share in the administration of justice even in capital cases. They appear but seldom in the history of the New Testament.
levites in Schaff's Bible Dictionary
LE'VITES . In analogy with the names of the other tribes of Israel, the term should mean all the descendants of Levi, the whole tribe of Levi, and in this sense it is used in Num 35:2; Josh 21:3, 1 Chr 4:41; Ex 6:25; Lev 25:32, etc. As, however, the "sons of Aaron" were separated from the rest of the descendants of Levi and consecrated priests, the term came to denote a distinction within the tribe itself; and the Levites comprised only those descendants of Levi who were not "sons of Aaron" -- that is, priests. 1 Kgs 8:4; Ezr 2:70; John 1:19, etc. Sometimes, also, the term was used as an epithet -- "the priests the Levites," Josh 3:3; Deut 17:18 -- but its general acceptance was, and is, that of the second sense here given. No allusion is made in Genesis to the consecrated character of the Levites. It was given on the occasion of the making of the golden calf by the Israelites while encamped about Mount Sinai. Ex 32:25-29. When Moses came down from the mountain and discovered the idol, he cried out: "Who is on the Lord's side? let him come unto me." The Levites immediately gathered around him, and in reward of their faithfulness on this occasion they were selected as the special servants of the Lord and the ministers of his sanctuary. Deut 10:8-9; Deut 18:1-2; Deut 33:8-11. Their number was at this time 22,000, and corresponded nearly to that of the first-born males of the whole people. Since the day when the first-born of Egypt were slain, while those of Israel were spared, all first-born males of Israel belonged to the Lord. They numbered 22,273, and in their place, as the special inheritance of Jehovah, the Levites were now substituted, the 273 surplus being redeemed at five shekels each, Num 3:45-51, which was the fixed ransom for a victim vowed in sacrifice. Num 18:16; Lev 27:6. Thus the Levites came to occupy in the Hebrew theocracy a position midway between the priests and the people. They were not allowed to offer sacrifice, to burn incense, to see the "holy things" until covered. Num 4:5, etc., but they marched nearer the ark than the people, they carried the sacred tent in parts, they pitched it again at halting-stations, etc. For service they were purified by bathing, shaving, etc., and consecrated by the imposition of hands. The duties of their office during the wanderings in the wilderness were minutely described. They consisted of three great families, the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites, of which the first carried the sacred vessels, the second the hangings and curtains of the tabernacle, and the third the boards and pillars. They also kept the book of the Law, Deut 17:8-12, and served as judges, etc. Forty-eight cities, with one thousand cubits of the country surrounding, were appropriated for the residence and maintenance of the Levites. These cities, of which thirteen were allotted to the priests and six were cities of refuge, were selected by lot, and lay scattered all over the country in the following way: in Judah and Simeon: Hebron or Kirjath-arba, Libnah, Jattir, Eshtemoa, Holon or Hilen, Debir, Ain or Ashan, Juttah, Beth-shemesh; in Benjamin: Gibeon, Geba, Anathoth, Almon or Alemeth; in Ephraim: Shechem, Gezer, Kibzaim or Jokmeam, Beth-horon; in Dan: Eltekeh, Gibbethon, Aijalon, Gath-rimmon; in Manasseh: Taanach or Aner, Gath-rimmon or Bileam, Golan, Beeshterah or Ashtaroth; in Issachar: Kishon or Kedesh, Dabareh or Daberath, Jarmuth or Ramoth, En-gannim or Anem; in Asher: Mishal or Mashal, Abdon, Helkath or Hukok, Rehob; in Naphtali: Kedesh, Hammoth-dor or Hammon, Kartan or Kirjathaim; in Zebulun: Jokneam, Kartah, Dimnah, Nahalal or Rimmon, and Tabor; in Reuben: Bezer, Jahazah or Jahzah, Kedemoth, Mephaath; in Gad: Ramoth, Mahanaim, Heshbon, and Jazer. Besides these cities, with adjacent districts, the Levites received a tithe of all produce, animal and vegetable, but of this they paid a tithe to the priests. Num 18:20-32. Another tithe they received every third year, and special provision was made for them during the term they administered in the sanctuary. In the time of David their number had increased to 38,000, of which 24,000 were set apart for the ordinary services, 6000 for the teaching of the Law and the administration of justice, 4000 as porters, and 4000 as musicians. They were divided into courses, and came up from their cities to the sanctuary in regular rotation. 1 Chr 23:24 1 Chr 24:20-31; 1 Chr 24:25-26. When the separation took place between the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah, all the Levites gathered to Judah, 2 Chr 11:13-15, and they continued to play a conspicuous part in the destinies of this kingdom, under Jehoshaphat, 2 Chr 19:8-11; 2 Chr 20:14-28; Joash, 2 Chr 23:1-8; Hezekiah, 2 Chr 29:3-36; 2 Chr 30:21-22; 2 Chr 31:2-4; under Josiah. 2 Chr 34:12; 2 Chr 35:3-18, etc. After the Captivity, however, only a small number of them returned, Ezr 2:36-42; Ezr 3:10; Neh 6:18, but in the new organization they assumed their old positions. They settled in the villages near Jerusalem, received their old tithes, etc. Neh 10:37-39; Neh 12:29. In the N.T. they occur as representatives of a formal worship destitute of love. Luke 10:32. The distinction of Levite is still maintained among the Jews. LEVIT'ICUS is the name of the third book of the Pentateuch, derived from its contents. Only the chapters 8-10 are history; the rest treats of the Levitical services -- namely, chs. 1-7, the laws of offerings; 8-10, the consecration of Aaron and his family; 11-15, the laws concerning that which is clean and that which is unclean; 16, the atonement as the sum-total of all means of grace; 17-20, the separation of Israel from heathendom in food, marriage, etc.; 21, 22, the holiness of priests and offerings; 23, 24, the holiness of convocations, Sabbaths; 25, on redemption; 26, on repentance; 27, on vows. The authenticity and integrity of this book are generally admitted, and the doubts which have been raised concerning its Mosaic authorship by some modern critics regard only minor points or passages. See Law and Pentateuch.
levites in Fausset's Bible Dictionary
The men of Levi, the sacerdotal tribe, all ministers, out of whom the priests were taken, namely, Aaron's family. Levi's wild zeal against the defiler of Dinah was the forerunner of the Levites' zeal against impure idolaters. The antiquity and genuineness of Genesis are marked by the absence of all notice of Levi's subsequent greatness as the priest tribe. The genealogy (Genesis 46:11) goes no further down than Levi's three sons; these too are named in their order of birth, not giving Kohath the prominence which his family had subsequently, He has four clans in Exodus 6:16-25, Gershon and Merari but two each. Amram, Aaron, and Moses belonged to his stock (Exodus 4:14). The firstborn "young men" of Israel were the priests to offer sacrifices (Exodus 24:5) before the law, representing the priestly nation (Exodus 19:6; Exodus 19:22; Exodus 19:24). frontLEVI on the Levites' promotion to be the priestly tribe for their zeal in the Lord's cause.) Levi became "an Israel within an Israel," the witness and guard of the truth. Substituted for the firstborn males of all Israel whom Jehovah claimed as His when He saved Israel from the stroke on Egypt's firstborn; the Levites, 22,000; the firstborn males, 22,273; the odd 273 above were to be redeemed at five shekels each (Numbers 3:45-51), the fixed price for redeeming a victim vowed in sacrifice (Numbers 18:16; Leviticus 27:6). The Levites' cattle were taken for the firstlings of Israel's cattle (compare Exodus 13:12-13). The Levites marching from Sinai round the tabernacle were the heavenly King's royal guard; none else was to approach it on pain of death (Numbers 1:51; Numbers 18:22; Numbers 4:3-30). The priests occupied the eastern side of the tabernacle, inside Judah the leading camp; the Kohathites the southern side, inside Reuben; the Gershonites the western side, inside Ephraim; the Merarites the northern, inside Daniel The aggregate of Gershonites (Numbers 3:22), Kohathites (Numbers 3:28), and Merarites (Numbers 3:34), is 22,300; but in the redemption 300 are deducted (probably the firstborn in Levi within the year that had elapsed since the command was issued, Numbers 3:40-43), and 22,000 taken as substituted for Israel's male firstborn. Levi in this census was the fewest tribe in numbers, but in the other tribes servants not pure Israelites were enumerated, whereas in Levi only pure Israelites. The number of Israel's firstborn males (22,273) compared with the male adults (603,550) is disproportionately small, the proportion being usually one in four. But the law of Exodus 13:1-2, dedicated those alone who should be firstborn thenceforward (compare Exodus 2; Exodus 11-12; Numbers 3:13; Numbers 8:17), for the duties of the firstborn referred to a ritual yet to be revealed, and the firstborn of cattle must mean those thereafter firstborn. Thus the proportion of firstborn sons in one year born of 2,000,000 of men is so large as can be explained only by the divine blessing, and the sudden development which the Exodus gave to the nation. The Levites stood midway between the people and the priesthood, which culminated in the high priest. They could not sacrifice, burn incense, or see the "holy things" until covered (Numbers 4:15). Yet they came nearer than the people, and they alone struck the tent in marching, carried its parts, and pitched it again. Their work needed matured strength; so their service began not until 30 years old (with a previous probationary period of five years: Numbers 8:24), whereas military service began at 20. At 50 their service ceased (Numbers 8:25-26). So, of 8,600 Kohathites, 2,750 were on duty, of 7,500 Gershonites 2,630, of 6,200 Merarites 3,200 (Numbers 4). The Kohathites held the highest office and bore the ark (except on solemn occasions when the priests bore it: Joshua 3:3; Joshua 3:15) and vessels, after the priest had covered them (Numbers 4:15). The Gershonites bore the tent hangings and curtains; the Merarites the tabernacle boards, bars, and pillars; the Kohathites under Eleazar bore the vessels on their shoulders (Numbers 7:9); the Gershonites and Merarites under Ithamar (Numbers 4:28; Numbers 4:33), because of their weighty charge, were allowed oxen and wagons. The Levites were Jehovah's and Israel's 1 Chronicles 9:2; the Levites' subordinates) and "joined" (as Levi means) to the priests (Numbers 3:9; Numbers 8:19; Numbers 18:2; Numbers 18:4; Numbers 18:6). The Levites were purified for service with bathing, shaving, washing clothes, imposition of Israel' s hands, waving them as a wave offering to Jehovah (compare our gospel "living sacrifice," Romans 12:1) toward the four points of the compass, in token of entire consecration of all their powers; the Levite then laid hands on one bullock offered for a sin offering and another for a burnt offering. Korah's rebellion through seeking the priesthood was followed by a fresh defining of the Levites' office (Numbers 16; Numbers 18:1-7). The Levites received a tithe or tenth of all produce, animal and vegetable, of which they had to pay the priests a tithe (Numbers 18:20-32). A second tithe the Israelites used for the tabernacle feasts and free will offerings, and of this second tithe the Levites should receive a share (Deuteronomy 14:23; Deuteronomy 14:27), especially when ministering (Deuteronomy 18:7-8). Forty-eight cities were appointed them (four on the average from each tribe), including the six cities of refuge and (of suburbs, meadow for their cattle) 1,000 cubits out from the city walls, each of the four sides being 2,000 cubits long. (See GEZER.) The phrase "the Levite that is within thy gates" is appropriate (Deuteronomy 14:27), for the Levites' cities did not cease to belong to the tribes within which they lay. Thus Levites are occasionally spoken of as belonging to other tribes, namely, those within whose territory they resided (1 Deuteronomy 8:6; Judges 17:7; 1 Samuel 1:1). Elkanah a Levite is called an "Ephrathite," "Heman the Ezrahite," i.e. from Zerah of Judah (title Psalm 88; Psalm 89). "The priests the Levites" on the peculiar use of Levites without distinction from the priests) were to determine controversies and to preserve the law in the side of the ark, and in the seventh year at the feast of tabernacles read it before Israel, and pronounce the curses from Ebal (Deuteronomy 17:9-12; Deuteronomy 31:9-13; Deuteronomy 31:26; Deuteronomy 27:14). frontDEUTERONOMY.) The Hivite Gibeonites (Joshua 9:27) and the Nethinim relieved the Levites of their more burdensome duties subsequently. (See NETHINIM.) Micah's consecration of the homeless Levite as his household priest implies a relapse in dark times to the original household priesthood. It was a Korahlike usurpation on the part of the Levite (Judges 17). Samuel the Levite, adopted into the priesthood, revived the divine order. The Levites were among his schools of the prophets, whose training consisted in praise, prayer, and study of the law. Hence enlarged views of acceptable worship appear in the Levite Asaph's Psalm 50. The ark after its restoration from the Philistines was in charge of Abinadab in the hill, or Gibeah, or Kirjath Jearim (1 Samuel 7:1; 2 Samuel 6:3), probably an old Canaanite highplace sanctuary. David's words (1 Chronicles 15:2) imply that heretofore Levites had not been in charge of the ark, therefore that Abinadab was not a Levite possibly (?). "None ought. to carry the ark of God but the Levites, for them hath Jehovah chosen." Saul's assumption of sacrificing, his slaughter of the priests at Nob and of the serving Gibeonites, imply his self-willed impatience of the prominence of the priest tribe. Accordingly, at Hebron, 4,600 Levites joined David, besides 3,700 priests (1 Chronicles 12:26-27). He honoured them at his succession, and once even wore their robe (2 Samuel 6:14). The duties of the Levites are defined by him (1 Chronicles 23:24-32), "to wait on the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of Jehovah," etc., "and to stand every morning to thank and praise Jehovah, and likewise at even, and to offer (i.e. assist the priests in offering) all burnt sacrifices," etc. The Levites supplied "officers and judges" (1 Chronicles 26:30), "in all the business of the Lord and the service of the king." Korah's sons of the Levites, headed by Heman, played upon psalteries and harps (1 Chronicles 9:19; 1 Chronicles 9:32); the Kohathites prepared the shewbread every sabbath; the Gershonites were headed by Asaph's son in the temple choir (1 Chronicles 6:39; 1 Chronicles 6:44; 1 Chronicles 15:17), the Merarites by Ethan or Jeduthun. The heavier work being no longer needed of transporting the tabernacle, and psalmody being their chief duty, they entered service as early as the age of 20 (1 Chronicles 23:24-27). The Levites numbered 38,000 under David (1 Chronicles 23:3), of whom 4,000 formed the full choir; 288 in 24 divisions of 12 each were the skilled musicians (1 Chronicles 25:1-8). At the severance of Israel and Judah the Levites flocked from the apostate northern kingdom to Judah and Jerusalem, and strengthened the southern kingdom (2 Chronicles 11:13-14; 2 Chronicles 13:10-12). The Levites proclaimed and taught the law, and judged controversies, with the priests and chiefs of Israel, in Jehoshaphat's reformation (2 Chronicles 19:8-11). They praised the Lord as singers before his army, and their beginning to sing was the signal of victory from the Lord over the Moabite and Ammonite invaders (2 Chronicles 20:19-22). They took an active part under Jehoiada in restoring Joash (2 Chronicles 33); and in Hezekiah's reformation were "more upright" or earnest than the priests (2 Chronicles 29:5-34; 2 Chronicles 30:15-22; 2 Chronicles 30:27). So under Josiah the Levites had as their characteristic designation that they "taught all Israel" (2 Chronicles 35:3-15). They served the Lord and Israel, standing in the holy place. The Levites acted as teachers and scribes of the law, and chroniclers of their times. Even the Levites fell into apostasy in the closing reigns of Judah (Ezekiel 44:10-14; Ezekiel 48:11). Their number at the return from Babylon was small (Ezra 2:36-42). They sang by course, praising Jehovah, at the founding and subsequent dedicating of the temple (Ezra 3:10-11; Ezra 6:18). None of the Levites joined Ezra at his gathering at the river Ahava (Ezra 8:15; Ezra 8:18-20). He induced 38 to join him, with 220 Nethinim. At the feast of tabernacles (Nehemiah 8:7-8) they road and explained the law; their tithes were again secured to them (Nehemiah 10:37-39), and they dwelt in villages round Jerusalem, and took their place at the dedication of the wall (Nehemiah 12:27-30), and kept the gates to ensure the sanctification of the sabbath (Nehemiah 12:22). They appear as unloving formalists in Luke 10:32, and formed part of the deputation sent from Jerusalem to test John's credentials (John 1:19). Barnabas was a Levite (Acts 4:36). They are among the sealed tribes (Revelation 7). Their name is still preserved in the Jewish Levy, as Cohen is "priest." Their firstborn are exempted from certain payments among the Jews, as in the redemption of the firstborn. A false judaizing analogy makes the Christian deacons answer to the Levites, the presbyters to the priests, and the bishops to the high priest. Their temple psalmody was the forerunner of our church music; and to them we probably owe the preservation of some of the Scriptures. It is the peculiarity of the Mosaic system, as distinguished from pagan systems, that the Levites, the ministers of religion, not merely performed religious rites, but without vows of celibacy, freely intermarrying with the other tribes, were dispersed among the nation to teach moral and religious truths to all, of whom they formed the twelfth part (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). Drawing their livelihood from the tithes and offerings, which would fail if God's law were slighted, they had every motive to maintain it. Thus they consolidated the union of the tribes by the strongest tie, religion. The wisdom of their appointment accords with the divine origin of the Jewish law. Jehovah praises Levites as to the past: "My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared Me and was afraid before My name ... The law of truth was in his mouth and iniquity was not found in his lips; he walked with Me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity." The Lord at His coming is to "purify the sons of Levi, so that they may again offer an offering of righteousness" (Malachi 2:5-6; Malachi 3:3; compare Isaiah 66:21).