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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Priests And Levites

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PRIESTS AND LEVITES . The method here adopted as on the whole the most satisfactory is first to give some account of the highly organized hierarchical system of the Second Temple, as we know it from the Priestly Code, and, taking this as a standard, next to trace its history up to this point, and, lastly, follow its subsequent developments.

I. The Hierarchy of the Second Temple. The chief authority for the religious institutions of the early period of the Second Temple is the document known as the Priestly Code (P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ), which was composed probably shortly after, or partly during, the Exile, and reached very nearly its present form in the time of Nehemiah. It comprised the whole of Leviticus and the ritual portions of Numbers, all the regulations connected with the Tabernacle in Exodus, together with certain narrative portions especially connected with religious institutions the Sabbath, circumcision, and the like and statistical statements throughout the Hexateuch. According to P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , the Jewish hierarchy was threefold, including high priest, priest, and Levite, distinguished by different functions and different privileges.

A. The high priest

1 . His consecration

The high priest, who is the eldest son of his predecessor in the office, is consecrated by an elaborate ritual consisting of washing, solemn vesting in his robes, anointing by pouring oil on the head, and several sacrificial rites, among them the sprinkling with blood and the anointing with oil of different parts of the body. The sacrificial ceremonies lasted for seven days (Exodus 29:1-46 , Leviticus 8:1-36 ).

2. The distinctive vestments of the high priest, in addition to those worn by all priests (B. 2 ), were the robe of blue, which was woven without seam, had a hole for the head, and was said to have reached down to the knees; the ephod of curiously wronght embroidered work; the breastplate, also of embroidered work, which was attached to the ephod, and contained originally the Urim and Thummim (II. B. 4); the turban with the crown or plate engraved ‘Holy to Jahweh’ ( Exodus 28:36 ).

3. The special duties of the high priest included the offering of a daily meal-offering ( Leviticus 6:19-20 , where the words ‘in the day when he is anointed’ are probably a later interpolation). He had also to perform the ceremonial sprinklings in the case of sin-offerings for the whole people ( Leviticus 4:13-21 ). But by far the most important ceremonies were those connected with the great Day of Atonement, on which day alone he, and he alone, attired merely in the linen garb of the priest, entered the ‘Holy of Holies’ and sprinkled the mercy seat with the blood of a bullock as a sin-offering for himself, and that of a goat as a sin-offering for the people ( Leviticus 16:1-34 ).

B. Priests . 1. Their consecration . The priests who belonged to the family of Aaron were consecrated by special ceremonies like those of the high priest, but less elaborate ( Exodus 29:1-46 , Leviticus 8:1-36 ). These did not, however, include, in later times at any rate, anointing, the high priest being called by way of distinction ‘the anointed priest’ ( Leviticus 4:1-35 passim , cf. Psalms 133:2 ). At most the anointing of priests meant sprinkling the different parts of the body with the holy oil as well as with the blood ( Exodus 29:21 , Leviticus 8:30 ).

2. All priests were required to wear, during their ministrations only, special vestments . These were ‘linen’ breeches, coats of checker-work, girdles and head-tires ( Exodus 28:42 ; Exodus 29:3 ; Exodus 29:9 , Leviticus 8:13 ).

3. The work of the priests consisted in ( a ) offering up all sacrifices. This included especially collecting the blood and sprinkling the altar with it; washing the inwards and legs, making the fire, placing the pieces of the burnt-offering upon it and burning them, doing the same to the ‘memorials’ of other offerings, and the removal of ashes. They did not, except usually in the case of public sacrifices, themselves kill the victim ( Leviticus 1:1-17 ; Leviticus 2:1-16 ; Leviticus 3:1-17 ; Leviticus 4:1-35 ; Leviticus 5:1-19 ; Leviticus 6:1-30 ). ( b ) They were required to give decisions, after examination, about suspected leprosy, plague, and mouldin garments and houses, and to perform the required rites ( Leviticus 13:1-59 ; Leviticus 14:1-57 ). ( c ) It was also their duty to blow the trumpets, whether as the alarm of war or at the new moon, especially that of the 7th month, and at the set feasts ( Numbers 10:10 , Leviticus 23:24 ; cf. Psalms 81:3 ) and on the Day of Atonement of the Jubilee year ( Leviticus 25:9 ). The words used in different passages suggest the probability that the instruments employed were originally horns, for which silver trumpets were afterwards substituted.

4 . The priests were supported ( a ) partly by the tithe of the tithe which they received from the Levites ( Numbers 18:26 ); ( b ) partly by the first-fruits and firstlings, including the redemption money for men and unclean beasts ( Numbers 18:12-18 , Leviticus 7:30-34 ); ( c ) partly by sacrificial dues of various kinds. The latter included (1) practically the whole of private meal-offerings, whether flour or cakes, sin-offerings and guilt-offerings ( Numbers 18:9 , Leviticus 5:16 ; Leviticus 10:16-20 ). These were regarded as ‘most holy,’ and might be eaten only by the priest and his sons as a sacrificial act in the Temple precincts ( Leviticus 6:16 ; Leviticus 6:26 ; Leviticus 7:8 , Numbers 18:10 ). (2) Of peace-offerings the breast and the thigh, which might be eaten by any of the priest’s family, the sacrificial act consisting in their first being ‘waved’ or ‘heaved’ respectively ( Numbers 18:11 , Leviticus 7:30-34 ). (3) The skin of the burnt-offerings ( Leviticus 7:8 ). (4) The shewbread and several special offerings, as that of the leper, etc. ( Leviticus 24:9 , Mark 2:26 , Leviticus 14:1-57 etc.). The language suggests that these dues were in some cases fresh enactments (see esp. Leviticus 10:18-20 , Numbers 18:18 ). The tendency to increase the dues of the priests was the natural consequence of the increase of work arising out of the continually greater complication of religious ceremonies.

C. Levites

1. Dedication . The Levites were also dedicated to their work by special ceremonies. They were sprinkled with water, their bodies shaved, and their clothes washed. Then they were solemnly presented to God, the high priest laying his hands on them, and were required to present two bullocks, one as a burnt-offering, the other as a sin-offering ( Numbers 8:5-22 ). The ceremonies signified the solemn offering up of the Levites to God as a wave-offering ( Numbers 8:13 ; Numbers 8:15 b). This is said to have been as a substitute for the firstborn of the Israelites, who by right belonged to God ( Numbers 3:9-13 ).

2. The age at which they entered upon their office varied at different times between 30, 25, and 20 ( Numbers 4:3 ; Numbers 8:24 , 1 Chronicles 23:3 ; 1 Chronicles 23:24 ; 1 Chronicles 23:27 ). Probably it was twice reduced because of the increasing difficulty in procuring Levites to do the work.

3. Work . The Levites were said to have been given as a gift ( nĕthûnîm ) to Aaron and his sons. In other words, they were to be regarded as the servants of the priests. This included especially the work of fetching and carrying, as they were believed to have carried the Tabernacle and its furniture in the Wilderness. Beyond this belonged to them the work of ‘keeping the charge,’ i.e. protecting and keeping clean the vessels and the furniture. In short, they were required to do everything connected with the service which was not by law required of the priests themselves ( Numbers 18:2-7 ; Numbers 3:5-39 ).

4. The Levites were supported from the tithe, which was in the first instance paid to them ( Numbers 18:21-24 ).

D. Levitical and priestly cities . According to Numbers 35:1-8 , there were assigned to the Levites in different parts of Palestine 48 cities with suburbs and surrounding pasture land to about 500 yards distance. In the description of the division of the land under Joshua 13:1-33 of these, in the territories of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin, are given to the priests ( Joshua 21:1-45 ; see also 1 Chronicles 6:54-81 , where, however, the text is very corrupt). No trace of any such arrangement is to be found in Ezekiel’s ideal sanctuary, according to which the priests and Levites have their possessions in the ‘oblation’ or sacred ground, which included the sanctuary ( Ezekiel 48:9-14 ). This provision of cities and land in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] appears to be in direct contradiction to the oft-repeated statement that the Levites had no portion in the land because Jahweh was their portion ( Deuteronomy 10:9 , Numbers 18:20 ; Numbers 26:62 etc.) a statement explained as meaning in practice that they were to depend for their support upon their tithes and priestly dues, which were all regarded as offerings to Jahweh ( Deuteronomy 18:2 , Numbers 18:8-32 , Leviticus 27:30 ).

This assignation of priestly cities must therefore be regarded as a sort of historical theory, which grew partly out of some sort of provision, in land and houses in and about Jerusalem, having been actually made in the period of the Second Temple for the priests and other officers (Nehemiah 11:3 ; Nehemiah 11:21 , 1 Chronicles 9:2 ), partly because the cities so assigned in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] were many of them ancient sanctuaries, where priests and Levites would have been located in early times. At some of the larger sanctuaries there may have been several priests, as, according to an early tradition, there were at Nob ( 1 Samuel 21:1-15 ). Though too great a reliance should not be placed on the editorial note in Jeremiah 1:1 , it is quite possible that several of the priests of Jerusalem may have lived together at Anathoth, which was only 2 1 / 2 miles from Jerusalem, and the home of Abiathar ( 1 Kings 2:26 ), and so given rise to the tradition that it was a priestly city.

E. Genealogical theory of the hierarchy . P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ’s theory of the origin of the hierarchy was as follows: The Levites were one of the 12 tribes of Israel, descended from Levi , one of Jacob’s sons. They were set apart by Jahweh for Himself in lieu of the firstborn of the Israelites, when He slew the firstborn of the Egyptians ( Numbers 3:12 ; Numbers 8:17 ; Numbers 8:19 ). All the ‘sons’ of Aaron a descendant of Levi ( Exodus 6:14-20 ) were priests ( Leviticus 1:5 etc.). The high priesthood descended in one line by primogeniture. Nadab and Ahihu, Aaron’s eldest sons, having perished, it passed to Eleazar, the next in age ( Numbers 20:22-29 , Exodus 6:23 ). That Eleazar’s son Phinehas succeeded him is perhaps implied in Numbers 25:11 , and certainly is so in Judges 20:28 in a document closely allied in its present form to P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . The rest of the made descendants of Levi were Levites, divided into the three great families of Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. The family of Kohath , as being that to which both Aaron and Moses belonged, had the most honourable work. They had charge of the sacred furniture and vessels the ark, altars, candlestick, and table, while the other families divided between them the charge of the different parts of the building ( Numbers 3:21-39 ).

II. OT evidence for the evolution of the hierarchy. There is reason to believe that the hierarchical system of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] was not handed down in its completeness from primitive times, but was of gradual growth.

A. The Book of the Covenant

1. Status of the local priests . The earliest document bearing at all fully on the subject is the ‘Book of the Covenant’ ( Exodus 21:1-36 ; Exodus 22:1-31 ; Exodus 23:1-33 ), to which we should add Exodus 20:1-26 ; Exodus 24:1-18 . The priests of the several sanctuaries, of which many are contemplated (exo Exodus 20:24 b), are called Elohim (RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘God,’ AV [Note: Authorized Version.] usually ‘the judges’), probably in the sense that they were God’s representatives, and that their decision, often probably determined by the sacred lot, was regarded as the expression of God’s will. We may compare Psalms 82:6 ‘I said, Ye are gods’ a reference undoubtedly to this passage, made to show how unworthy the judges of a later time were of their sacred office.

2 . Their work , etc. These local priests were required to superintend the ancient primitive ceremony connected with the retention of a slave after 6 years’ service ( Exodus 21:6 ), decide suits, impose fines and the like ( Exodus 21:22 , Exodus 22:9 ; Exodus 22:9 ). To ‘revile’ them was a crime ( Exodus 22:28 , where the order of phrases suggests that they were of more consequence than the ‘rulers’). No mention is made of any distinctive dress, even where one might certainly have expected it (cf. Exodus 20:26 with Exodus 28:42 , from which we may gather that the linen breeches were the addition of a later, probably post-exilic, date). Nor is anything said of their being an hereditary guild. But silence on this latter point does not prove that they were not. In laws what is customary is often taken for granted.

B. The First Book of Samuel

1 . Temple of Shiloh . With the Book of the Covenant we may compare I Samuel, which points in many ways to the state of society and religion assumed by the former. Here we find several local sanctuaries. One of the most important of them, at the time when the book opens, is the ‘temple’ of Shiloh.

The words ‘tent of meeting’ in 1 Samuel 2:22 are a very late insertion not found even in LXX [Note: Septuagint.] . It depends upon a later tradition that the Tabernacle was set up in Shiloh ( Joshua 18:1-28 ; Joshua 19:51 [P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ]).

In this temple was the ark, and the infant Samuel slept inside the sanctuary to protect it (1 Samuel 3:3 ). The priest Eli seems to have had a large influence and to have exercised a jurisdiction over at least the whole tribe of Ephraim. In 1 Samuel 2:29 in a document probably at earliest only a little before Josiah’s reign he is spoken of in a way which implies that he held a unique position among the tribes of Israel. The further statement in 1 Samuel 4:19 , that he judged Israel 40 years, is a still later editorial insertion connecting 1Samuel with Judges (see Judges 15:20 ; Judges 16:31 etc.).

2. Position of Samuel . When Shiloh had been destroyed by the Philistines, Samuel came to be a still more powerful priest, being, according to 1 Samuel 7:10 ; 1 Samuel 7:17 , connected, both as priest and ruler, with several local sanctuaries Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, and Ramah. But even these were comprised within a very small circle. It is curious that, according to 1 Samuel 9:6 part of one of the earliest sources of the book, Saul did not appear, at the time of searching for his father’s asses, to have even heard of Samuel’s existence. It is also significant that in 1 Samuel 2:26 Eli uses Elohim as in the Book of the Covenant, showing that, in his time at any rate, there were other priests exercising jurisdiction at their several sanctuaries.

3. Absence of regular religious organization . 1Samuel points to great liberty of action on the part of the priests, or, at least, of Samuel himself. His movements do not seem to imply any regularly organized sacrificial system. Except for new moons and yearly feasts of perhaps more than one kind ( 1Sa 1:3 ; 1 Samuel 20:5-6 ; 1 Samuel 20:29 ), to which we should probably add sabbaths (cf. 2 Kings 4:23 ), there seem to have been no regular feast days. The priest appoints and invites whom he chooses to the sacrificial meal ( 1 Samuel 9:23-24 ), and on one occasion takes with him the animal for sacrifice ( 1 Samuel 16:2-5 ).

4 . Dress of the primitive priests . In 1 Samuel 2:18-19 the two parts of the dress of Samuel, the ephod and the robe, are, in name at any rate, what afterwards belonged to the peculiar dress of the high priest ( Exodus 28:6-12 ; Exodus 28:31-35 ). But the robe is also the common name for the upper garment, and is used of that worn by Jonathan and Saul ( 1 Samuel 18:4 ; 1 Samuel 24:4 ). Of the use of the ephod by the priests of this date there is abundant evidence. It was essentially the priestly garment of primitive times, and is especially connected with ascertaining the will of God by means of the sacred lots, Urim and Thummim, which was the peculiar province, and one of the most important functions, of the priest ( 1Sa 14:13 ; 1 Samuel 22:18 ; 1 Samuel 23:6 ; 1 Samuel 23:9 ; 1 Samuel 30:7 ). The Urim is expressly mentioned in 1 Samuel 28:6 , and the Urim and Thummim were both originally in the text of 1 Samuel 14:41-42 , as a comparison with the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] and Vulgate shows.

5. The priests’ means of support . According to 1 Samuel 2:1-36 from a relatively old document the priests had no fixed dues; but the passage seems to suggest that then, or at least in the writer’s day, what had been voluntary gifts were passing into customary claims which were liable to abuse. The chief ground of complaint was the wrong committed not so much against the sacrificer as against God, to whom was due the fat of the inwards, which should first be burnt ( 1 Samuel 2:16 ).

6. A colony of priests . In addition to the priests of the local sanctuaries, we find in 1 Samuel 21:1-15 ; 1 Samuel 22:1-23 an account of a settlement of priests at Nob under Ahimelech, all of whom except Abiathar his son were put to death by Doeg at Saul’s command. This settlement may have originated in the troubles brought about by the Philistines.

7 . Priests not regarded as Levitical . There is nothing in the Books of Samuel which affords a sufficient reason for connecting the priesthood of this period directly with a tribe of Levi, the mention of the ‘Levites’ in 1 Samuel 6:16 and 2 Samuel 15:24 being clearly a very late interpolation which assumes the liturgical arrangements of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . Had these been in vogue at the time, we should certainly have found some reference to them in 2 Samuel 6:1-23 such as we find abundantly in the parallel in 1 Chronicles 15:1-29 , where 1 Chronicles 15:2 suggests that the death of Uzzah was a punishment for other than Levites having carried the ark.

C. Judges 17:1-13 ; Judges 18:1-31 ; Judges 19:1-30 ; Judges 20:1-48 ; Judges 21:1-25 (a document which, though revised by a priestly writer, belongs to rather the earlier part of the monarchy and speaks of a still earlier condition of things) confirms in many ways the Books of Samuel. It speaks of different sanctuaries Mizpah (Judges 20:1 ) and Bethel ( Judges 20:18 ; Judges 20:26 ), besides Shiloh, which is a place of comparatively small importance, yet marked, as in 1 Samuel., by a yearly religious festival of a somewhat secular character with 1 Samuel 1:3 ; 1 Samuel 1:13-15 ; 1 Samuel 1:21 ). The ‘Levite’ who is priest to Micah is actually of the tribe of Judah ( Judges 17:7 ). There is mention of an ephod and a suit of apparel for the priest; but it is uncertain whether the ephod refers to the priest’s dress or, as apparently in Judges 8:27 , to some kind of image.

D. 1 and 2Kings (original documents) up to Josiah’s reform . There were two circumstances which tended to diminish the prestige of the local priests. 1 . The establishment of the monarchy , by which many, if not all, of the secular functions of the priests had passed into the hands of the king or his deputies. Of these one of the most important was the practice of jurisdiction (see esp. 2Sa 12:1-31 ; 2 Samuel 14:1-20 ; 2 Samuel 15:2-4 , 1Ki 3:9 ; 1 Kings 3:16-28 ; cf. also Deuteronomy 16:18 ). It is also true that, sooner or later, the idea of the king as God’s earthly representative was substituted for that of the priest.

2. Of even greater importance was the building of the great Temple at Jerusalem by Solomon . From the very first it made for the centralization of worship, though not of course intended originally to be the one single lawful sanctuary which it afterwards became. The local sanctuaries (‘high places’) were still tolerated ( 1 Kings 15:14 ; 1 Kings 22:48 etc.), but would tend more and more to sink into insignificance beside this splendid building. This was especially the case in the Southern Kingdom. In the North the local sanctuary worship had more vitality, but it was largely maintained and also debased for political reasons ( 1 Kings 12:26-29 ). The calves of Jeroboam were probably Canaanitish, though he probably meant them as symbols, not rivals, of Jahweh. The cult of the ‘high places’ seems gradually to have relapsed into familiar and popular types of Semitic worship; and in the books of the early prophets Amos and Hosea it is not always easy to distinguish between heathenism and a heathenish worship of Jahweh.

With the decline of the local sanctuary the status of the priest gradually declined, till it reached the low level implied in Judges 17:1-13 ; Judges 18:1-31 ; Judges 19:1-30 , and in Deuteronomy.

E. Deuteronomy

1 . Levites . In Dt. (first published in all probability in Josiah’s reign) we find the terms ‘priests’ and ‘Levites’ rather curiously used. The latter occurs frequently, but when used alone it is always as of a class deserving of pity. The Levite is frequently ranged with the slave, the widow, and the fatherless ( Deuteronomy 12:12 ; Deuteronomy 12:18 ; Deuteronomy 16:11 ; Deuteronomy 16:14 ). The descriptive phrase ‘that is within thy gates’ means in the towns generally as distinct from Jerusalem, as we see from Deuteronomy 12:15 , Deuteronomy 16:5 , where the local sanctuaries are contrasted with the one permissible sanctuary. The Levites were certainly the priests of these local sanctuaries. The poverty of the Levites is also testified by Judges 17:1-13 ; Judges 18:1-31 ; Judges 19:1-30 , in which we find more than one case of Levites wandering about in search of a living.

2 . Effect of abolishing local sanctuaries . Deuteronomy 18:3-8 suggests that Levites might desire to go up to Jerusalem and perform priestly functions and receive support, and orders that they should be allowed to do both, and be treated in these respects on an equality with the priests at Jerusalem. When we realize that the ideal of Dt. was the one only sanctuary, it becomes evident that the case contemplated was one which would naturally arise when the local sanctuaries were abolished, as in fact they were by Josiah.

3 . ‘ The priests the Levites .’ On the other hand, the priests of Jerusalem are generally called distinctively, it would seem, ‘the priests the Levites’; occasionally ‘priests’ only, when the context makes it clear that the priests of Jerusalem are meant, as in Deuteronomy 18:8 , Deuteronomy 19:17 .

4. The dues of these priests , including the Levites who joined them, were the shoulder, the two cheeks, and the maw, and the first-fruits of field and garden produce. They did not include, as in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , the thigh or the firstlings. The tithes were not given by right to the priests or Levites, but the latter shared in the family feast at the one sanctuary, at which they were solemnly eaten as a sacrificial act. The same was the case with the firstlings, vows, and freewill offerings ( Deuteronomy 18:1-8 , Deuteronomy 12:17-19 ). One sees in these arrangements very clearly the system which was elaborated in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , and a development from what is implied in 1 Samuel 2:1-36 .

5. Levitical theory variously explained . Not only are the priests of the local sanctuaries and those of Jerusalem both called ‘Levites’ in Dt.; but the name is distinctly understood as that of a tribe to which both belonged ( Deuteronomy 18:1 ; Deuteronomy 18:7 ). The traditional explanation accepted by Dt. of the exceptional position of the tribe, was that it was a reward for having slain a large number of rebellious apostates, probably on the occasion of the golden calf (cf. Deuteronomy 10:8 ; Deuteronomy 10:8 with Exodus 32:28-29 . [There are some critical difficulties in both passages concerning the connexion of the incident with the context]). This does not very well accord with P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , which, as said above, connects the separation of the tribe with the dedication of the firstborn and the last of the plagues, and that of the priests, or the high priest especially, with the action of Phinehas at Baal-peor ( Numbers 3:11-13 ; Numbers 25:13 ). What is, however, probably an older tradition than either, while recognizing the Levites as a tribe, explains their being scattered in Israel as a punishment for an act of cruelty in conjunction with the Simeonites towards the Shechemites ( Genesis 49:5-7 ). It is quite impossible to say what elements of truth may underlie these traditions. But if the word ‘Levite’ was originally merely official, such a united act on the part of a body of priests seems improbable; and the stories may have arisen as different ways of accounting for their dispersion. But the belief that the priests all belonged to one tribe proves at any rate that at the time when Dt. was written, and probably long before, the priesthood had become a hereditary and isolated guild. That is to say, every priest was the son of a priest, and his sons became priests. The cursing of Levi in Jacob’s blessing, so conspicuously contrasted with the glorification of Joseph ( i.e. Ephraim and Manasseh), perhaps shows that the writer, evidently of the Northern Kingdom, despised the priestly office.

F. Reforms of Josiah as they concerned the Levites . When Josiah abolished the local sanctuaries, the difficulty about the priests contemplated by Dt. seems to have arisen in fact. But it was not solved altogether in the way directed. Probably the priests of Jerusalem resented the presence of the local priests at their altar, and certainly their services could hardly have been required. In fact the language of Dt. almost suggests that the main purpose was to secure means of support (18:8). This purpose was at any rate secured by Josiah. They were to receive allowances of food with the priests of Jerusalem, but were not allowed to perform priestly functions ( 2 Kings 23:9 ). It is to be noticed that the writer treats them with respect, calling them priests, and speaking of the priests of Jerusalem as brethren.

G. Ezekiel’s ideal sanctuary

1 . His direction concerning the Levites . In his ideal sanctuary Ezekiel makes a marked distinction between the ‘Levites that went far from me, when Israel went astray,’ and the ‘priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok ,’ who had faithfully ‘kept the charge of my sanctuary’ ( Ezekiel 44:10 ; Ezekiel 44:15 ). The Levites are here charged with apostasy and idolatry, in reference, no doubt, to the sin of Jeroboam, which Ezekiel so regarded. He directs that as a punishment they should be forbidden the office of priest, and be allowed to do only the servile work of the sanctuary, such as the oversight of the gates, slaying of victims work that had hitherto been done, so Ezekiel complains, by uncircumcised aliens ( Ezekiel 44:5-10 ). There can be little doubt that Ezekiel here gives the clue to the way in which the ‘Levites’ in the later sense of the term arose. The descendants of the priests, turned out from their local sanctuaries and not allowed to do the regular work of the priests, became a sort of inferior order, to do the menial service of the Second Temple.

2 . The appellation ‘ sons of Zadok ’ seems to imply that the priests in Jerusalem also were, at least in Ezekiel’s time, an hereditary guild. Zadok himself was the chief priest appointed by Solomon in the room of Abiathar, in consequence, no doubt, of his loyalty with reference to Adonijah ( 1 Kings 2:35 ). It is obvious that at first all the priests of Jerusalem could not have been ‘sons of Zadok,’ and it is extremely unlikely that their successors were all descended from him or any other one ancestor.

3 . Like the ‘Levites,’ the high priest seems to have emerged gradually. In the different small sanctuaries each priest probably occupied an independent position. As some of these grew in importance, the priest attached to them would obtain a relatively greater influence, or possibly a paramount influence, over a district or tribe, as in the cases of Eli and Samuel, whose power, however, a later tradition seems to have greatly magnified. When several priests were associated together, as exceptionally perhaps at Noh (see II. B. 6), and afterwards in Solomon’s Temple, some kind of leadership became necessary, without any necessary difference of religious functions. Such a leadership seems to have been held by Ahimelech ( 1 Samuel 21:1-15 ), Zadok ( 1 Kings 2:35 ), and Jehoiada ( 2 Kings 11:1-21 ). These were known as ‘the priest.’ Such is probably meant by ‘the priest that shall be in those days’ in Deuteronomy 26:3 .

In Ezekiel’s ideal sanctuary there is no distinction between priest and high priest, and the only special vestments sanctioned for the priests are the garments kept in the priests’ chambers, but no details are given as to their character or style (Ezekiel 42:14 ).

The earliest document in which the distinction appears is probably the almost contemporary ‘Code of Holiness’ (Leviticus 17:1-16 ; Leviticus 18:1-30 ; Leviticus 19:1-37 ; Leviticus 20:1-27 ; Leviticus 21:1-24 ; Leviticus 22:1-33 ; Leviticus 23:1-44 ; Leviticus 24:1-23 ; Leviticus 25:1-55 ; Leviticus 26:1-46 ). In Lev Leviticus 21:10 we find the curious phrase ‘he that is the high priest among his brethren’ (RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), which might be more exactly rendered, ‘the priest that is greater than his brethren’ an expression which would very well apply to one who did not hold a distinctly different office, as the high priest of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , but was rather primus inter pares . The directions concerning him deal entirely with ceremonial and social obligations, which were rather more exacting in his case than with other priests. For instance he might not marry a widow, or rend his garments as a sign of grief ( Leviticus 21:10-15 ). The allusions to a special unction (see Isaiah 1 , B. 1) and the high-priestly dress in 10 and 12 are almost certainly later interpolations.

III. Developments in the hierarchy after the Priestly Code.

1 . Relation of lower officers to Levites . The historical sketch just given shows clearly how, in many ways, the earlier arrangements paved the way for the hierarchical system of P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] . The later history points to new developments in the hierarchical system. The Books of Chronicles, and the parts of Ezra and Nehemiah which belong to them, point to a highly organized service in which singers, and players on musical instruments, porters (RV [Note: Revised Version.] sometimes ‘ doorkeepers ’), and Nethinim take a prominent place.

The Nethinim are always distinguished from the Levites, as in 1 Chronicles 9:2 ( Nehemiah 11:3 ), Ezra 2:43 ( Nehemiah 7:46 ). Both singers and porters are distinguished from the Levites in documents contemporary with Nehemiah and Ezra, but included among them by the Chronicler (cf. 1 Chronicles 9:14-34 ( Nehemiah 11:15-24 ) 15:16 24 etc. with Ezra 7:24 ; Ezra 10:23-24 , Nehemiah 7:1 ; Nehemiah 10:28 ). This shows that the ‘porters and singers’ came to be regarded as ‘Levites,’ and were believed to be descended from one tribe. Meanwhile the more menial work of the Levites passed into the hands of the Nethinim, who are said in a Chronicler’s note to have been given by David to the Levites just as in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] the Levites are said to have been given ( nĕthûnîm ) to the priests (cf. Ezra 8:20 with Numbers 18:16 ).

2. ( a ) Their history . The origin of the singers and porters is unknown. That they were both in existence in some form when Ezra began his work of reform is clear from Ezra 7:24 , where they as well as the Nethinim were exempted from taxation by a decree of Artaxerxes. What is apparently the first mention of them is in what is, on the face of it, a list of the families which returned from the Exile in Ezra 2:1-70 ( Nehemiah 7:6 ff.), in which the singers, porters, and Nethinim appear as separate classes. A closer examination, however, of the parallel passages makes it clear that the list in Nehemiah is not what was found in the archives, but the census made by himself. This is shown by the use of ‘Tirshatha,’ the official title of Nehemiah, in Nehemiah 7:65 , and the references to contemporary events in Nehemiah 7:64 ; Nehemiah 7:70 ; Nehemiah 7:73 . The Chronicler in Ezra 3:1-13 , after giving the list, continues the parallel context of Nehemiah, showing that here too he has taken the whole extract from the same source as in Nehemiah; Ezra 2:1-70 cannot, therefore, be cited as independent evidence for the early date of this list.

The porters might very naturally have arisen out of the necessity of defending the city and Temple from hostile attack (2 Chronicles 23:4 , Nehemiah 11:19 ). The complicated arrangements in 1 Chronicles 26:1-19 suggest that an original necessity had become a stately ceremonial.

The singers, or at any rate the musicians, of Nehemiah’s time appear to have belonged to one particular guild, that of Asaph ( Nehemiah 12:35 ; Nehemiah 12:45 ). The note in v. 45 is probably a later insertion of the Chronicler, who ascribed to David all the Temple institutions not already assigned to Moses in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] .

It appears from Nehemiah 7:1 that Nehemiah probably went a long way in re-organizing the work of Levites, singers and porters.

( b ) The Books of Chronicles and the Psalms as a whole point to a later development of the Temple offices. (1) New guilds connected with the names of Korah, Heman, and Jeduthun (or Ethan) were added. The guilds of Asaph and Korah, and perhaps Heman and Jeduthun, had each a psalm-book of their own, of which several were afterwards incorporated into the general Psalter (see Psalms 73:1-28 ; Psalms 74:1-23 ; Psalms 75:1-10 ; Psalms 76:1-12 ; Psalms 77:1-20 ; Psalms 78:1-72 ; Psalms 79:1-13 ; Psalms 80:1-19 ; Psalms 81:1-16 ; Psalms 82:1-8 ; Psalms 83:1-18 ; Psalms 84:1-12 ; Psalms 85:1-13 ; Psalms 87:1-7 ; Psalms 88:1-18 ; Psalms 89:1-52 , 1 Chronicles 15:16-22 ). On the other hand, in 1 Chronicles 9:19 , the Korahites , who were perhaps really of Levitical origin, are represented as doing the menial work, which had been that of the Levites, and yet are classed ( 1 Chronicles 9:33 ) under the general name of ‘singers.’ It is impossible to say which represents the earlier arrangement. (2) Another change in organization testified by the Chronicler is the division of priests and Levites (singers) into 24 ‘ courses ’ ( 1 Chronicles 24:1-19 ; 1 Chronicles 24:25 ). These were believed to have been arranged by David, but first appointed by Solomon ( 2 Chronicles 8:14 ). This meant that in later times the whole body of priests and ‘Levites’ was arranged in 24 guilds, each of which was believed to be a separate family. So the work could be conveniently arranged. Thus it became customary for each of the courses of priests to attend in turn to the public work of the Temple. Like much that came to be ascribed to David, the beginning of some arrangement of the kind was probably the work of Nehemiah ( Nehemiah 13:30-31 ).

3. Further development of Levitical theory . In the Books of Chronicles we find a considerable development of the Levitical theory of the hierarchy. (1) A Levitical origin is assigned to Samuel, Asaph, Heman, etc. ( 1 Chronicles 6:27-28 ; 1 Chronicles 6:33 ; 1 Chronicles 6:39 ; 1 Chronicles 6:44 ). (2) Zadok is held to be a descendant of Eleazar ( 1 Chronicles 6:4-12 ); Ahimelech (or Abimelech), Abiathar’s father or son, a descendant of Ithamar, Eleazar’s younger brother ( 1 Chronicles 24:3 ; 1 Chronicles 24:6 ; cf. 1 Samuel 22:20 , 2 Samuel 8:17 , 1 Chronicles 24:6 ). That Abiathar was a descendant of Eli, and Eli a descendant of Aaron, had already been implied by an editorial note in 1 Kings 2:27 , which explained Solomon’s supplanting Abiathar by Zadok as a fulfilment of the prophecy against the house of Eli ( 1 Samuel 2:27-36 ), whereas in all probability by the ‘faithful priest’ is meant Samuel. According to the Chronicler, what Solomon did was to restore the high priesthood from the line of Ithamar to that of Eleazar . The office had originally passed, according to the priestly tradition, from Eleazar to his son Phinehas ( Judges 20:28 ), but how or when it got into the line of Ithamar is nowhere explained. There is a tendency in the Chronicler to ignore the priesthood of Abiathar, even in David’s reign. In 1 Chronicles 16:39 Zadok is appointed priest when the ark is first brought to Jerusalem, and in 1 Chronicles 29:22 he is anointed together with Solomon shortly before David’s death.

4. Extra ecclesiastical work of the priests and Levites . The later books of the Bible make it likely that in the later period, at least from Nehemiah onwards, the priests and Levites engaged in other than sacrificial work, and especially in religious teaching (see 2 Chronicles 15:3 , where the Chronicler characteristically reads into the history the ideas of a later time, Malachi 2:7 , Nehemiah 8:4 ; Nehemiah 8:7 ). In 2 Chronicles 19:8-11 the work of administering justice is similarly referred to them. Thus the influence and also, to some extent, the work which in primitive times had been theirs, and had dwindled with the rise of king and prophet, seem to have returned to them, when these officers disappeared.

IV. Influence of the hierarchy on the religion of Israel at different periods. 1. In primitive times, when each local sanctuary was the centre of religious, and, to some extent, of social and political, life, we find the influence of the priests very considerable (see II. A.). They were the natural persons to consult in case of difficulty. With them grew up a religious and moral tradition. They became the earliest channels of Divine revelation, and handed down that Divine teaching or Instruction (the ‘law’ of our English Bibles, as in Isaiah 1:10 ).

2. It was probably out of the early priesthood that the prophetic office, as represented in the Books of Samuel, emerged. The prophet Samuel, who, according to tradition, combined the two offices, marks the transition between the spiritual influence of priest and prophet.

3. As the priestly power declined through loss of spiritual vigour, the prophetic influence became stronger, and we find the early prophets, in both the North and the South, but in the North especially, denouncing the unspiritual character of the priesthood, and the prevailing religious rites (see esp. Hosea 4:4-9 , Isaiah 1:10-17 ).

4. With the religious revival under Josiah and the publication of the early chapters of Dt. we may notice a temporary reaction, but one marked by a strong tendency to give religion a more spiritual tone. It is still the prophet who is to be the source of Divine revelation ( Deuteronomy 18:15 ), though even the words of a prophet are not necessarily infallible ( Deuteronomy 13:1-5 ). At about the same period Jeremiah denounces the popular valuation of a purely formal worship and an unworthy priesthood ( Deuteronomy 3:16 , Deuteronomy 5:31 , Deuteronomy 7:11 ).

5. The possibilities, however, of a spiritual worship and a holy priesthood were never lost sight of, and a fresh impetus to priestly ideas is given, at latest during the Exile, by the ‘Code of Holiness’ ( Leviticus 17:1-16 ; Leviticus 18:1-30 ; Leviticus 19:1-37 ; Leviticus 20:1-27 ; Leviticus 21:1-24 ; Leviticus 22:1-33 ; Leviticus 23:1-44 ; Leviticus 24:1-23 ; Leviticus 25:1-55 ; Leviticus 26:1-46 ) and the ideal sanctuary and priesthood sketched by Ezekiel ( Ezekiel 40:1-49 ; Ezekiel 41:1-26 ; Ezekiel 42:1-20 ; Ezekiel 43:1-27 ; Ezekiel 44:1-31 ; Ezekiel 45:1-25 ; Ezekiel 46:1-24 ; Ezekiel 47:1-23 ; Ezekiel 48:1-35 ).

6. With the first Return and the re-institution of Temple worship, the priesthood gained a fresh accession of power, all the greater as the secular power was under Persian rule. The contemporary prophets, Zech. and Haggai, not only insistently urge the importance of using every effort to re-build the Temple, but speak of Joshua the high priest as though on all but equal terms with Zerubbabel ( Haggai 1:14 ; Haggai 2:1-9 , Zechariah 3:1-10 ; Zechariah 4:11-14 ; Zechariah 6:9-15 ).

7 . The same priestly feelings influence Malachi, almost the contemporary of Nehemiah, who, while he attacks unmercifully the unworthy priests ( Nehemiah 1:6 to Nehemiah 2:9 ), is loud in denouncing those who robbed God by not paying tithes ( Nehemiah 3:16 ), and seeks for a religious ideal in a purified Levitical system ( Nehemiah 3:3-4 ).

8. The exaltation of the priesthood reached its climax in the person of Simon the Just, who restored the Temple, and re-built the city walls which had been demolished by Ptolemy. The people regarded him with supreme veneration. Sir 50:5-12 gives a most glowing description of the impression that he made as he officiated in his high-priestly vestments: ‘He was as the morning star in the midst of a cloud, and as the moon at full; as the sun shining upon the temple of the Most High, and as a rainbow giving light in the bright clouds,’ etc. etc.

9. In the Maccabæan period we find Simon II., the younger brother of Judas, actually ruling the people as high priest. Later on (b.c. 106) Judas (Aristobulus), according to Josephus, bore the title of ‘king,’ and the title actually appears on the coins of his brother Jannæus.

10. The close of this period, nevertheless, marks a decline, at any rate in the spiritual influence of the priesthood, and especially of the high priest. The latter office ceased to be hereditary, and was often bought and sold. A high priest could be deposed, and another appointed for political purposes. One reason for this decline was that religious interest tended in an increasing degree to be diverted to ethical and moral questions, as we see in the Wisdom literature of the age. Other causes or perhaps rather symptoms of the spirit of the time at a later period were the growth of the Jewish sects and t


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Priests And Levites'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/p/priests-and-levites.html. 1909.

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