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Bible Dictionaries

Fausset's Bible Dictionary

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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). (See LEVI 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). (See DEUTERONOMY.)

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).

Bibliography Information
Fausset, Andrew R. Entry for 'Levites'. Fausset's Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​fbd/​l/levites.html. 1949.
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