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The Levites were the servants, or ministers, in the Israelite religious system. They were descended from the third son of Jacob and formed one of the tribes of Israel (Genesis 29:31-34; see LEVI). The Levites were divided into three sections that corresponded to the three families descended from Levi’s three sons, Gershon, Kohath and Merari (Exodus 6:16; Numbers 3:14-20). God appointed them to their privileged religious service as a reward for their zeal against idolatry (Exodus 32:26-29; Deuteronomy 33:8-10).

Although the Levites had general duties in the tabernacle and temple ceremonies, only those of one family within the tribe, the family of Aaron, were priests (Exodus 6:16-25; Exodus 29:9). Priests alone carried out the blood rituals of the sacrifices, and priests alone entered the inner shrine of the tabernacle (or later the temple) (Numbers 3:5-10; see PRIEST).

Duties concerning the tabernacle

After helping to construct the tabernacle (Exodus 38:21), the Levites had the duty of setting up, taking down, maintaining and transporting the tabernacle on the journey to Canaan (Numbers 1:50-51). The Gershon group looked after the curtains and other hangings, and had two wagons to carry their load (Numbers 3:21-26; Numbers 7:7). The Merari group had care of all the timber and metal parts, and had four wagons to carry their load (Numbers 3:33-37; Numbers 7:8). The Kohath group looked after the sacred furniture, most of which they carried on shoulder poles (Numbers 3:27-32; Numbers 7:9; 1 Chronicles 15:14-15).

On the journey the Levites travelled in the centre of the procession (Numbers 2:17). When a camp was set up, they camped immediately around the tabernacle (Numbers 1:52-53; Numbers 3:23; Numbers 3:29; Numbers 3:35; Numbers 3:38).

Representatives of the people

Since God had saved the Israelites’ firstborn through the Passover judgment, all their firstborn belonged in a special sense to God. For the service of the tabernacle, however, God used the Levites instead of the firstborn (Numbers 3:11-13; Numbers 3:40-51).

In a dedication ceremony involving cleansing rituals and sacrificial offerings, Moses and Aaron presented the Levites to God for his service (Numbers 8:5-13). God then gave the Levites back to Aaron to help him and the other priests in their work (Numbers 8:14-19). Leaders of the people also took part in the ceremony, to indicate symbolically that the Levites were the people’s representatives (Numbers 8:9-10).

Levites began their service at the age of thirty, though this was apparently preceded by a training period of five years. They ceased their main duties at the age of fifty, but could still help in various ways (Numbers 4:3; Numbers 8:23-26). Having no time to earn a living as others, the Levites received their income in the form of tithes offered by the people (Numbers 18:21-28; see TITHES).

Although Levi had no tribal area of its own, Joshua gave the Levites cities in each of the other tribes. The number of cities in each tribe was in proportion to the size of the tribe (Numbers 35:1-8; Joshua 21:1-3). There were forty-eight Levitical cities and these were divided among four groups – the priestly Kohathites (Aaron was a Kohathite; Exodus 6:16-20), the non-priestly Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites. The cities for the priestly group were all within easy reach of Jerusalem, where the temple was later built (Joshua 21:4-8). Among the forty-eight cities were six cities of refuge (Joshua 20; see CITY OF REFUGE).

Temple service

In arranging the functions for priests and Levites in Israel’s temple services, David divided the Levitical singers and musicians into the usual three family groups. The respective leaders were Heman, Asaph and Ethan (Jeduthan), all of whom are mentioned as writers of psalms (1 Chronicles 6:1; 1 Chronicles 6:31-48; 1 Chronicles 15:16-22; 2 Chronicles 5:12; Psalms 73; Psalms 74; Psalms 75; Psalms 76; Psalms 77; Psalms 78; Psalms 79; Psalms 80; Psalms 81; Psalms 82; Psalms 83; Psalms 88; Psalms 89).

Other duties of Levites included cleaning the temple (1 Chronicles 23:28), helping the priests in the temple rituals (1 Chronicles 23:28-32), serving as temple guards (1 Chronicles 9:17-27) and looking after the furniture, food and spices used in the ceremonies (1 Chronicles 9:28-32). Some of the Levites served as judges and officials of various kinds (1 Chronicles 23:4; 1 Chronicles 26:20).

When David found that there were too many Levites for the amount of work available, he divided them into twenty-four groups according to their family descent. The groups served in rotation one week every six months, though all groups were on duty for the annual festivals (thereby making up the remaining four weeks of the year) (1 Chronicles 23:1-24; 1 Chronicles 24:18-19; 1 Chronicles 25:9-31; 1 Chronicles 26:1; 1 Chronicles 26:12).

Errors, reforms and developments

Over the following centuries, the nation and many of its kings frequently fell into idolatry. Priests and Levites usually played an important part in the reforms that godly kings carried out (2 Chronicles 17:7-9; 2 Chronicles 19:8-11; 2 Chronicles 29:1-16; 2 Chronicles 30:21-22; 2 Chronicles 34:8-13), though at times they were slow to respond to the king’s directions (2 Chronicles 24:4-13). A feature of some of the reforms was the organization of temple duties for priests and Levites according to David’s original plan (2 Chronicles 29:25-30; 2 Chronicles 31:2-19; 2 Chronicles 35:1-15).

When, after seventy years captivity in Babylon, the Jews were released, many Levites were among those who returned to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:40-42). They supervised the reconstruction of the temple and participated in ceremonies connected with the building’s beginning and completion (Ezra 3:8-11; Ezra 6:16). At first they were properly organized for religious service (Ezra 6:18), but later they were neglected by those who should have supported them with their tithes. Nehemiah corrected this problem by organizing an orderly system of tithing (Nehemiah 10:37; Nehemiah 11:3; Nehemiah 12:27; Nehemiah 12:47).

Another result of Nehemiah’s reforms was increased activity in teaching the law. The Levites helped the priests and scribes in this work (Nehemiah 8:7-9), but the good work of these early leaders was not maintained by those of later generations. The result was the development of that form of Jewish religion known in New Testament times as Judaism (see SCRIBE; SYNAGOGUE). Nevertheless, people of New Testament times still saw Levites as a class of people distinct from both the priests and the scribes (Luke 10:25; Luke 10:31-32; John 1:19; Acts 4:36).

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Levite'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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