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Priests and Levites

Levites are the descendants of Levi, one of the Tribes Of Israel, the Children Of Jacob (Genesis 29:34). The term is generally used, from the perspective of The Bible, to identify the part of the tribe that was set apart for the secondary duties of the sanctuary service (1 Kings 8:4, Ezra 2:70), as assistants to the priests, who were also Levites. Although all priests were Levites, not all Levites were priests.

The Tabernacle Prior to the Exodus, when the Israelites escaped the slavery of the Pharaoh of Egypt (see Who Was The Exodus Pharaoh?), the ancient way of worship was yet observed, with the firstborn son of each household inheriting the priest's office. That was changed at Sinai (see Wilderness Journey) when a hereditary priesthood from the family of Aaron was established (Exodus 28:1).

The Levites were formally set apart after the now-infamous incident with the golden calf idol that the Israelites made while Moses was away receiving The Ten Commandments from The Lord (Exodus chapter 32). The Levites did not take part in the idolatry, and actually killed 3,000 of those who were running wild, as ordered by Moses (Exodus 32:25-29).

After the incident was over, Moses said of the Levites, "Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of The Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day." (Exodus 32:29). The Levites were natural allies of Moses because Moses himself was of the tribe of Levi (Exodus 2:1-2,10).

Levi had 3 sons - Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. From those branches of the family, the Levites were organized into 3 levels of service:

  • The first level was composed of Aaron and his offspring, who were descended from Levi's son Kohath. They formed the priesthood.

  • The second level was made up of all of the other descendants of Kohath who were not descendants of Aaron. They were in charge of the most sacred parts of the Tabernacle (Numbers 3:27-32, 4:4-15, 7:9).

  • The third level consisted of all of the descendants of Gershon and Merari, who were given lesser duties (Numbers 3:21-26,33-37).

The Levites served at the Tabernacle from age 30 to 50 (Numbers 4:3,23,30). They were not counted for military service in the armies of Israel, but were set apart for service to God (Numbers 1:45-50, 2:33, 26:62).

Levites had custody of The Tabernacle (as illustrated above, see also What Happened To The Tabernacle?) (Numbers 1:51, 18:22-24). The Gershonites camped on the west of the Tabernacle (Numbers 3:23), the Kohathites on the south (Numbers 3:29), the Merarites on the north (Numbers 3:35), and the priests on the east (Numbers 3:38).

The Tabernacle
With their consecration to The Lord's service, the Levites were allotted no territorial inheritance of their own at the Division Of The Land; God was their inheritance (Numbers 18:20, 26:62, Deuteronomy 10:9). Once established in the Promised Land, they were supported, in the agricultural economy of the time, by the tithes of the produce of the land paid to The Lord by the other tribes.

The Levites were assigned towns to live in from the inheritance of the other tribes - forty-eight cities, thirteen of which were for the priests along with their other inhabitants (Numbers 35:2-5). Nine of these cities were in Judah, three in Naphtali, and four in each of the other tribes (Joshua chapter 21). Six of the Levitical cities were designated as Cities Of Refuge.

Fact Finder: Was John The Baptist a Levite, a descendant of the priestly line of Aaron?
Luke 1:5,57-60
See also Elizabeth

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This Week's Bible Quiz

Who was Jesus Christ speaking to?

1. "I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness." (Matthew 3:14-15 RSV)

2. "Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'" (Matthew 4:7 RSV)

3. "but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, "Lord, save me." Jesus immediately reached out His hand and caught him, saying to him, "O man of little faith, why did you doubt?" (Matthew 14:30-31 RSV)

4. "He answered them, "And why do you transgress the Commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?" (Matthew 15:3 RSV)

5. "He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you make it a den of robbers." (Matthew 21:13)

6. "Jesus said to him, "Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." (Matthew 26:34 RSV)

7. "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." (Matthew 26:63-64 RSV)

8. "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" (Matthew 27:46 RSV)

9. "And He said to them, "How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father's house?" (Luke 2:49 RSV)

10. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16 RSV)

For the answers to this February 5 2002 quiz, see the Bible Quiz Answers Page

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