Who are the Levites?
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.