corner graphic

Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

Le´vites, the descendants of Levi, through his sons Gershon, Kohath and Merari, whose descendants formed so many sub-tribes or great families of the general body. In a narrower sense the term Levites designates the great body of the tribe employed in the subordinate offices of the hierarchy, to distinguish them from that one family of their body—the family of Aaron—in which the priestly functions were vested.

While the Israelites were encamped before Mount Sinai, the tribe of Levi, to which Moses and Aaron belonged, was, by special ordinance from the Lord, set specially apart for sacerdotal services, in the place of the first-born of the different tribes and families to whom such functions, according to ancient usage, belonged; and which indeed had already been set apart as holy, in commemoration of the first-born of the Israelites having been spared when the first-born of the Egyptians were destroyed (; ; Exodus 13). When it was determined to set apart a single tribe of Levi for this service, the numbers of the first-born in Israel and of the tribe selected were respectively taken, when it was found that the former amounted to 22,273, and the latter to 22,000. Those of the first-born beyond the number of the Levites were then redeemed at the rate of five shekels, or 12s. 6d. each, and the money assigned to the priests. At the same time the cattle which the Levites then happened to possess were considered as equivalent to all the firstlings of the cattle which the Israelites had; and, accordingly, the firstlings were not required to be brought, as in subsequent years, to the altar and to the priesthood ().

In the wilderness the office of the Levites was to carry the Tabernacle and its utensils and furniture from place to place, after they had been packed up by the priests (). In this service each of the three Levitical families had its separate department; the Gershonites carried the hangings and cords of the Tabernacle, for which they were allowed two wains, each drawn by four oxen (; ; ). The Kohathites carried the ark, the table of shew-bread, the candlestick, the two altars, and such of the hangings as belonged to the sanctuary; for this they had no wains or oxen, the whole being carried upon their shoulders (; ; ); the Merarites had charge of the substantial parts of the Tabernacle—the boards, pillars, bars, bases, etc., and also all the ordinary vessels of service, for which they were allowed four wains and eight oxen (; ; ). In this manner they proceeded in all their journeys; and when they settled in a place, and had erected the Tabernacle, the different families pitched their tents around it in the following manner: the Gershonites behind it on the west (), the Kohathites on the south (), the Merarites on the north (), and the priests on the east (). They all assisted Aaron and his sons in taking care of, and attending on, the Tabernacle, when it was pitched; but they were allowed to take no part in the services of the altar ().

This was the nature of their service in the desert; but when they entered the land of Canaan, and the tabernacle ceased to be migratory, the range of their service was considerably altered. While part attended at the tabernacle, the rest were distributed through the country in the several cities which were allotted to them. These cities are commonly reckoned forty-eight; but thirteen of them were reserved for the priests, so that only thirty-five belonged to the Levites. The names of these cities, and the tribes in which they were situated, are given in ; . Of the forty-eight cities six were cities of refuge for the unintentional homicide, of which one, Hebron, was a priestly city (; ).

In the time of David, when the number of the priests and Levites had much increased, a third and very important alteration was effected, as much, or more, with reference to the Temple, for which he made every possible preparation, as for the existing service at the Tabernacle. While the priests were divided into twenty-four courses, that they might attend the Temple in rotation weekly, and only officiate about two weeks in the year, the Levites were also divided into twenty-four courses. In the book of Chronicles we have four times twenty-four courses of Levites mentioned, but all their employments are not distinctly stated (; ; ; ). The most conspicuous classification is that of twenty-four courses of porters and servitors, and twenty-four of musicians. The office of the porters was to open and shut the doors and gates of the Temple-courts, at which they also attended throughout the day to prevent the entrance of any harmful or unclean person or thing (). They had also the charge of the treasure-chambers in their respective wards; for we find four of the chief porters holding this trust in , and their names and the articles in their charge are given in ; .

Besides acting as porters and servants during the day, we learn that they were also the guards of the Temple. Without entering into specific details, it may be remarked that the whole number of guards to the Temple at night is stated to have been twenty four, of whom three were priests. These are described as having been under an overseer called 'the man of the mountain of the house.' He went his rounds to see that the guards were at their posts: if he found any one seated who should have been standing, he said, 'Peace be unto thee;' but if he found any one asleep, he struck him, and sometimes set fire to his clothes.

We have thus seen that one division of the Levites was employed as porters during the day, and another as guards during the night; a third division served as musicians. A catalogue of these is given in , according to their employments; and another, according to their courses, in . We shall have to speak of Music under that head, and need only here state that on grand occasions, when a full band was formed, the family of Heman sung in the middle (), the family of Asaph on the right hand (), and the family of Ethan on the left. The ordinary place for the musicians, vocal and instrumental, was at the east end of the court of the priests, between the court of Israel and the altar.

It seems that the singers could never be under twelve, because that number was particularly mentioned at their first appointment (); but there was no objection to any larger number. The young sons of the Levites were, on such occasions only, allowed to enter the court of the priests with their fathers, that their small voices might relieve the deep bass of the men: and for this authority was supposed to be found in .

The Levites were not at liberty to exercise any properly sacerdotal functions; but on extraordinary occasions they were permitted to assist in preparing the sacrifices, without, however, in any way concerning themselves with the blood (; ; ).

In the Levites are described as commencing their actual service at thirty years of age; but in , twenty-five is the age mentioned; and in , and , twenty. The reason of these apparent discrepancies is, that from twenty-five to thirty they were in the state of probationers, doing some things, but excluded from others (Aben Ezra, on Numbers 8). At thirty they became qualified for every part of the Levitical service. This was under the Tabernacle; but when the Temple was built, and bodily strength was less required, the age was reduced to twenty. After fifty they were no longer called upon to serve as a matter of obligation; but they might attend if they thought proper, and perform any usual service which was not considered burthensome. Thus, in the wilderness, they ceased at that age to carry any part of the burdens when the ark and Tabernacle were removed ().

When the Levitical body was first set apart for its sacred duties, the existing members were consecrated in the manner particularly described in ; . They, and in them their descendants, were thus inducted into their particular office; and, in later times, when any one became of age, it was sufficient for his admission to prove that he belonged to a Levitical family, and, probably, to offer some trifling sacrifice. It does not appear that the Levites, when at home, had any particular dress to distinguish them from their countrymen; nor is there any positive evidence that they had any distinctive garb, even when on actual service at the tabernacle or temple. Josephus relates that only six years before the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, the Levites were allowed by Agrippa to wear a linen tunic, like the priests—an innovation with which the latter were highly displeased. This shows that the dress of the Levites, even when on duty, had not previously been in any respect similar to that of the priests.

The subsistence of the Levites was provided for in a peculiar manner. It consisted, first, of a compensation for the abandonment of their right to one-twelfth of the land of Canaan; and, secondly, of a remuneration for their services in their official capacity as devoted to the services of the sanctuary. The territorial compensation lay in the 48 cities which were granted to the whole tribe, including the priests. These cities were scattered among the different tribes, as centers of instruction, and had 1000 square cubits, equal to above 305 English acres, attached to each of them, to serve for gardens, vineyards, and pasturage. It is obvious, however, that this alone could not have been an adequate compensation for the loss of one twelfth of the soil, seeing that the produce of 305 acres could not in any case have sufficed for the wants of the inhabitants of these cities. The further provision, therefore, which was made for them must be regarded as partly in compensation for their sacrifice of territory, although we are disposed to look upon it as primarily intended as a remuneration for the dedication of their services to the public. This provision consisted of the tithe, or tenth of the produce of the grounds allotted to the other tribes. The simplest view of this payment is to regard it, first, as the produce of about as much land as the Levites would have been entitled to if placed on the same footing with regard to territory as the other tribes; and also as the produce of so much more land, which the other tribes enjoyed in consequence of its not having been assigned to the tribe of Levi. In giving the produce of this land to the Levites the Israelites were therefore to be regarded as simply releasing them from the cares of agriculture, to enable them to devote themselves to the service of the sanctuary. The land which produced the tithe was just so much land held by the other tribes in their behalf; and the labor of cultivating this land was the salary paid to the Levites for their official services. The tenth was paid to the whole tribe of Levi; but as the Levites had to give out of this one-tenth to the priests, their own allowance was only nine-tenths of the tenth. A more particular account of tithes belongs to another head [TITHE]. The Levites had also a certain interest in the 'second tithe,' being the portion which, after the first tithe had been paid, the cultivator set apart for hospitable feasts, which were held at the place of the sanctuary in two out of three years, but in the third year at home. This interest, however, extended no further than that the offerer was particularly enjoined to invite the priests and Levites to such feasts.

The earliest notice we have of the numbers of the Levites occurs at their first separation in the desert, when there were 22,300, of a month old and upwards; of whom 8580 were fit for service, or between the ages of 30 and 50 (; ; ; ; ). Thirty-eight years after, just before the Israelites entered Canaan, they had increased to 23,000, not one of whom had been born at the time of the former enumeration (; ). About 460 years after the entry into Canaan (B.C. 1015) they were again numbered by David, a little before his death, and were found to have increased to 38,000 men fit for Levitical service—of whom 24,000 were 'set over the work of the Lord,' 6000 were officers and judges, 4000 were porters, and 4000 were musicians (). If the same proportion then existed between those come of age and those a month old which existed when the tribe departed from Egypt, the entire number of the Levitical body, in the time of David, must have been 96,433.

After the revolt of the ten tribes, those of the Levites who resided in the territories of those tribes, having resisted the request of Jeroboam to transfer their services to his idolatrous establishments at Dan and Bethel, were obliged to abandon their possessions and join their brethren in Judah and Benjamin (; ); and this concentration of the Levitical body in the kingdom of Judah must have had an important influence upon its condition and history. That kingdom thus actually consisted of three tribes—Judah, Benjamin, and Levi—of which one was devoted to sacerdotal uses. This altered position of the Levites—after they had been deprived of most of their cities, and the tithes from ten of the tribes were cut off—presents a subject for much interesting investigation, into which we cannot enter. Their means must have been much reduced; for it cannot be supposed that Judah and Benjamin alone were able, even if willing, to undertake the support of the whole Levitical body on the same scale as when the dues of all Israel flowed into its treasuries. In the subsequent history of Judah the Levites appear less frequently than might have been expected. The chief public measure in which they were engaged was the restoration of the house of David in the person of young Joash (); which may be regarded as mainly the work of the Levitical body, including the priests.

Under the edict of Cyrus, only 341 Levites, according to Ezra (), or 350, according to Nehemiah (), returned with Zerubbabel to Jerusalem. This is less surprising than might at first sight appear; for if, before the captivity, the great body of them had been in straitened circumstances and without fixed possessions in Judah, it was only consistent with human prudence that those who had, in all probability, comfortably settled themselves in Babylon, should not be anxious to return in such numbers to Palestine as were likely to produce similar effects. A few more are mentioned in . Those who did return seem to have had no very correct notion of their obligations and duties; for there were many who formed matrimonial alliances with the idolaters of the land, and thereby corrupted both their morals and genealogies. But they were prevailed upon to reform this abuse; and, as a token of obedience, signed the national covenant with Nehemiah, and abode at Jerusalem to influence others by their authority and example (; ).

The Levites are not mentioned in the Apocryphal books, and very slightly in the New Testament (; ; ); but the 'scribes' and the 'lawyers,' so often named in the Gospels, are usually supposed to have belonged to them.

It would be taking a very narrow view of the duties of the Levitical body if we regarded them as limited to their services at the sanctuary. On the contrary, we see in their establishment a provision for the religious and moral instruction of the great body of the people, which no ancient lawgiver except Moses ever thought of attending to. But that this was one principal object for which a twelfth of the population—the tribe of Levi—was set apart, is clearly intimated in : 'They shall teach Jacob thy judgments and Israel thy law; they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt sacrifice upon thine altar.' They were to read the volume of the law publicly every seventh year at the Feast of Tabernacles (). 'This public and solemn periodical instruction,' observes Dean Graves (Lectures, p. 170), 'though eminently useful, was certainly not the entire of their duty; they were bound from the spirit of this ordinance to take care that at all times the aged should be improved and the children instructed in the knowledge and fear of God, the adoration of his majesty, and the observance of his law; and for this purpose the peculiar situation and privileges of the tribe of Levi, as regulated by the divine appointment, admirably fitted them.'





Copyright Statement
Public Domain.

Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Levites'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

Search for…
Enter query in the box:
Choose a letter to browse:
A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M 
N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  Y  Z 

Prev Entry
Next Entry
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology