Skip to main content
Select Source:


Levites (lē´vīts), a religious caste among the ancient Hebrews, descended from Jacob's son Levi and figuring prominently in the Bible. There were three divisions of Levites—Kohathites, Merarites, and Gershonites. Loyal to Moses during the Golden Calf incident, they were rewarded with special religious privileges. The Levites replaced the firstborn, who devoutly served God for having been saved at the Passover. They alone of the tribes received no allotment of land; instead they received revenues from certain cities, and each city had its quota of Levites to support. With the unification of worship at Jerusalem, the Levites became temple servants with hereditary assignments, and later were teachers of the Law. The Book of Leviticus is named for them.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Levites." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 20 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Levites." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (February 20, 2019).

"Levites." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.


Levites Clan of religious officials in ancient Israel. It is possible that they once constituted one of the 12 tribes of Israel mentioned in the Old Testament, descended in this case from Levi, the third son of Jacob by his first wife Leah. After the building of the Temple of Jerusalem, Levites performed the lesser religious services. By the time of Jesus Christ, the Levites ran the entire Temple organization with the sole exception of the actual priesthood.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Levites." World Encyclopedia. . 20 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Levites." World Encyclopedia. . (February 20, 2019).

"Levites." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.



Members of an Israelite tribe set aside for the service of the Lord. In the development of this institution over several centuries, there were many changes as evidenced by the divergent picture of the Levites in various Biblical traditions.

Origin of the Name. Many scholars agree that the word Levi (Heb. lēwî ) was not a personal name but designated primarily a functional class, the sons of Levi (b enē lēwî ), with Levi probably only their quasi-fictitious eponymous ancestor. If the word is derived from the Hebrew root lwh, it could come from either of two meanings: (1) "to associate with, to be attached to," a meaning suggested by the word play at Levi's birth (Gn 29.34) and by the phrase, "they will be associated" (w eyillāwû ) with aaron, used in Nm 18.2, 4; or (2) "to be given over as a pledge, to be consecrated," a meaning found in Minaean inscriptions, from the root lw', used for persons consecrated to a divinity. Some scholars (e.g., R. De Vaux Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. J. McHugh (New York 1961) 358359, 369370), however, favor an origin in a personal name (perhaps a short form of Levi-El, attached to God), and Levite as primarily a nomen gentilitium, a descendent of Levi.

Early Secular History. The treacherous attack of Levi and Simeon on Shechem (Gn 34.131) and their later condemnation by Jacob (49.57) are seen by many as ancient tradition concerning these two tribes in central Palestine before the conquest under Joshua. According to this theory, elements of these tribes met with some disaster in the area of Shechem and were forced southward. Simeon eventually lost its identity within the tribe of Judah, while the tribe of Levi, after the sojourn in Egypt, won a new lease on life by assuming the priestly functions of all the tribes. That the tribe of Levi had a secular history can hardly be doubted, since Levi is included on an equal footing with the other tribes in ancient lists, e.g., Gn 46.827. It is also quite certain that Levite elements were in Egypt, for this tribe has many names of Egyptian origin, including that of moses. Although in Jacob's Oracles there is no mention of any priesthood in the oracle on Simeon and Levi (Gn 49.57), there is no reason to reject the Biblical connection between the secular and priestly tribe of Levi.

Levites as a Priestly Tribe. It is difficult to untangle the Biblical traditions of the Levitical priesthood. That the Levites were set aside for the service of the sanctuary at an early date is clear, but when this happened and how it was related to Aaron's priesthood are problems. As late as the early monarchy, the Levites did not have exclusive control of priestly functions, for non-Levitical priests existed, e.g., the son of the Ephraimite Micah (Jgs 17.5), the Ephraimite Samuel (1 Sm 1.120; 7.9), and David's sons (2 Sm 8.18). Micah, however, preferred a Levite priest when he was able to engage the services of one (Jgs 17.713).

Tradition ascribes the origin of the Levitical priesthood to Moses. Because of their part in carrying out the command of Moses to kill the idolaters of the golden calf, the Levites were "dedicated to the Lord" (Ex 32.2729). In Moses' Oracles a relatively long oracle is given to Levi as the tribe that is entrusted with priestly functions: the use of the Urim and Thummim, the teaching of the law, and the offering of sacrifice (Dt 33.811). In both of these passages the Levites are detached from family ties. They are no longer a secular tribe to be counted with the others (Nm 1.4749); they have no share in Israel (Dt 18.12). In Canaan they are allotted no territory (Jos 13.14, 33) but are given instead the Levitical cities (Nm 35.18; Jos 21).

Granted a preconquest Levitical priesthood, when did the distinction between priestly and nonpriestly Levites arise? It is still the common opinion that the Book of deuteronomy insists on the same priestly rights for all the Levites. If there is any distinction, it is based on circumstances; the Levites at the central sanctuary function and receive their stipend (Dt 18.15), while those living elsewhere do not function, unless they visit the central shrine (18.68), and therefore depend on the charity of the people (14.2729). Probably the Levites who were able to act as priests at the many local shrines after

the conquest found themselves at a growing disadvantage: first by the official sanctuary at Jerusalem with its Zadokite clergy, and then by the centralization of cult under Ezekiel and Josiah. Later the distinction became not only a fact but also law.

Later Functions of Levites. In the idealized restoration of Ezekiel there are the priest sons of Zadok who serve the altar and the Levites who serve the Temple (Ez 44.1031). The Pentateuchal priestly writers make a clear division between Aaron and his sons, the priests, on the one hand, and the Levites "given" to serve Aaron, on the other (Nm 16.118.24). This division probably reflects the end of a long process: the final supremacy of the Aaronic claim over the Levites. The difference can be seen in Deuteronomy (Dt 10.8), where the Levites carry the ark, and in the priestly writers (Nm 4.15), where the Levites approach the ark only after it has been veiled by the priests.

With the return of the exiles under ezra and nehe miah, there are distinct families of priests, Levites, singers, doorkeepers, and Temple servants or oblates (Ezr2.3658); but it was not until later, in the additions to the work of the Biblical chronicler, that the singers and doorkeepers were incorporated into the Levites and traced back to the three sons of Levi in rather artificial genealogies (1 Chr 6.1822). The oblates, or Nathinim (Heb. n et înîm, given), who were originally slaves or foreigners employed in the pre-exilic Temple, gradually disappeared after the Exile; and the Levites took over their function. The Levites had other important functions, acting as clerks, judges (1 Chr 23.4), and teachers (Neh8.79; 2 Chr 17.89).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 132630. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 358371, 388394, 544545. g. hÖlscher, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al., 12.2 (1925) 21552208. a. lefÈvre, Dictionnaire de la Bible supplement, ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris 1928) 5:389397. d. r. jones, j. hastings, and j. a. selbia, eds., Dictionary of the Bible (New York 1963) 793797. h. h. rowley, "Early Levite History and the Question of the Exodus," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 3 (1944) 7378. g. e. wright, "The Levites in Deuteronomy," Vetus Testamentum 4 (1954) 325330. j. a. emerton, "Priests and Levites in Deuteronomy," ibid. 12 (1962) 129138.

[o. bucher]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Levites." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 20 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Levites." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (February 20, 2019).

"Levites." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.



LEVITES . [This entry discusses the role of the leviyyim ("Levites") and kohanim ("priests") in Israelite religion and in Judaism. ]

The origin of the Levites remains obscure despite considerable scholarly attention. Without contemporary documentation of the sort available on the larger societies of the ancient Near East, scholars must rely largely on the Hebrew Bible and later Jewish sources for information, making it difficult to trace the early development of this priestly group. What is known is that religious life in antiquity, from an institutional point of view, always required special places of worship with priests who were trained to perform cultic rites, make oracular inquiry, record temple business, and instruct worshipers on religious matters. Like the scribe, the priest had a set of skills unknown to most other members of society, and the need for skilled personnel generated a system of "schools" attached to temples and other cult centers to recruit, support, and educate priests. In ancient societies three factors interact: training and skill, family and clan, and place of residence. The family provided an ideal setting for teaching priestly skills and retaining exclusive control over them. In Israel, as elsewhere, families and clans tended to concentrate in certain locales, where their members lived in proximity to each other. Clans were not strictly ancestral, contrary to the impression made by certain biblical texts, and it was not uncommon to admit an outsider to learn the skills practiced by the clan, and eventually to grant clan membership as well.

Some biblical traditions regard the Levites as one of the original twelve tribes, whose members were collectively consecrated to cult service; other less systematic but perhaps more authentic biblical evidence regards them as a professional group, whose members came from various tribes and clans. Initially, priestly groups may have formed along professional lines, subsequently developing into clans and even larger units. Biblical writers probably began to regard the Levites as a tribe only after the interaction of training, locale, and family affiliation had progressed to a considerable degree. Biblical historiography has shown a strong tendency toward fitting social groups into neat, genealogical categories, which may account for the traditional identity of the Levites as a tribe.

Of the professional titles and terms used in Hebrew sources to designate priests of different types, the most common is kohen (pl. kohanim ), cognates of which are found in the Ugaritic, Aramaic, Phoenician, and Arabic languages. The term komer ("priest"), with cognates in Akkadian, the el-Amarna dialect, and again Aramaic, is used in Hebrew scriptures only for pagan priests, and then rarely (2 Kgs. 23:5, Hos. 10:5, Zep. 1:4).

There is no feminine form for kohen because there was no role for women in the official Yahvistic cult of Israel. And yet there is a term for priestess, qedeshah, which literally means a (female) "consecrated person." (The masculine equivalent, qadesh, also occurs.) Based upon biblical evidence, these terms would be considered solely derogatory (e.g., Dt. 23:18, Hos. 4:14). However, in Ugaritic, qadishuma is an administrative term for priests and in Akkadian, qadishtu designates a priestess class widely known in the Old Babylonian period. Thus, biblical usage of qedeshah and qadesh as terms of derision to designate improper or pagan priests is more a matter of attitude than of nomenclature. The terms kohen, komer, and qadesh/qedeshah are professional titles.

A bigger problem arises in defining the term levi (Levite). A number of etymologies have been posed along professional lines, ranging from the notion of "carrying, bearing," to camping "around" the sanctuary. Poor documentation aside, what these etymologies are actually positing is more logical than linguistic, reflecting known cultic functions, such as carrying cultic artifacts, guarding temples, and so on. If the term derives from a single verbal root, it is not presently established and any definition must be according to context and usage.

Early History in Biblical Tradition

The earliest biblical reference to a levi is probably to be found in Judges 1718. Micah, a man who lived somewhere in the Ephraimite hills before there was a monarchy in Israel, built a temple and installed in it several cult objects. He appointed one of his sons as priest. About that time, "a young man from Bethlehem, from the clan of Judah, who was a levi" (Jgs. 17:7), arrived at Micah's residence while en route to seek his fortune in northern Israel. After conversing with him, Micah invited him to live in his household and serve as priest in his temple; more precisely, to be a father (av ) and priest (kohen ). Micah offered him ten shekels of silver a year, clothing, and room and board. The levi accepted, and Micah was assured that God would grant him good fortune now that he had a levi of his own.

Chapter 18 opens with the tribe of Dan, then living in the southern plain, seeking territory elsewhere because of pressure from the Philistines. The Danites sent spies to northern Israel, where they stopped at Micah's home, and the levi assured them that God was with them. They later found suitable land in upper Galilee, and when the entire tribe began its migration northward, they once again stopped at Micah's home. The spies informed the others that valuable cult objects were to be found in the local temple, and they persuaded the young levi to abandon Micah and serve as priest for their tribe. The Danites stole Micah's cult objects, including a statue, an efod (a vestment with pockets, containing lots used in oracular divination), and terafim (statuettes that probably served as family gods). Then they proceeded to Laish, took it without an attack, and renamed it Dan, and thus the cult of Dan was established.

The story has all the earmarks of authenticity precisely because it does not conform to traditional notions about Yahvistic religion. The levi was of the clan of Judah and from Bethlehem. But it was his profession, as distinct from clan affiliation, that was valued all over the country, affording him a certain degree of mobility. He was appointed av and kohen, the former a term sometimes used to designate a "teacher" or "master," quite apart from its use in a familial sense.

From this story it could be concluded that a levi was a mobile professional who might have come from any tribe or clan, employed by a family or at a temple or other cult site, supported by them and serving at their pleasure. In contrast to other members of clans, who normally tended agricultural lands, a levi could move about. This portrait, probably more accurate for the early period of Israelite settlement than for the later, sheds light on the question of origins, and corrects the traditional and less historical picture found in biblical priestly literature.

Hebrew scriptures tell little about the status of Micah himself except that he owned a temple, which indicates that he was a local leader. Leading residents of towns built temples, appointing members of their own families as priests. Some biblical historians claim that in the early Israelite period the head of the clan or household was the priest, an image that seems to fit the patriarchs of Israel, who built altars and endowed cults.

An early story about the training of a priest is preserved in 1 Samuel 13. Samuel, a cult prophet, officiated at sacrifices but also spoke with the authority of a prophet who communicated God's word to the people. Before his birth, he was dedicated to temple service by his mother, pledged as a nazir ("Nazirite") to serve all his life in the temple at Shiloh. This form of cultic devotion, which parents might perform for a variety of reasons, was one of the ways of recruiting priests. With Samuel the motive given was the gratitude of his one-time barren mother, but in reality economic deprivation often prompted parents to seek security for their sons in the priesthood. 1 Samuel 2:36 intimates as much in predicting that the sinful priests of the House of Eli would beg to be accepted in a priestly group just to have bread to eat.

It was Eli, the chief priest of Shiloh, to whom young Samuel was brought by his mother. Samuel's prophetic role is anticipated by a divine theophany whose message Eli does not fail to comprehend. Samuel is taught the priestly arts by Eli, whose own sons were greedy and improper in the conduct of the sacrificial cult. Here is seen an instance in which an outsider rose to prominence at a major temple, while the family that had controlled the priesthood lost power. The hereditary succession did not always work and one adopted into the priesthood might assume leadership if he had superior gifts. In 1 Chronicles 6:13, the name of Samuel is inserted in a Levitical genealogy. At that late period, it would have been inconceivable that a legitimate priest and leader of the people such as Samuel would not have been the descendant of a Levitical clan.

The story of the Canaanite king of Salem, Melchizedek, characterized as "a priest of El, the most high," adds yet another dimension to the status of priests in early Israel. In Genesis 14 (by all accounts an early biblical text), Melchizedek greets the patriarch Abram (later Abraham) after a victorious battle fought against foreign kings. He blesses Abram in the name of his own god, El ʿElyon. Here the king of a Canaanite city-state serves as a priest, showing the priestly office to be a corollary of civil status.

Little else is known about priests, generally, in the premonarchic period. Quite coincidentally, Judges 19:1 reports that the man whose concubine was raped and murdered in Gibeah of Benjamin was a levi living in the Ephraimite hills. That he had originally taken a concubine from Bethlehem suggests that he, like Micah's levi, may also have been from Bethlehem.

Curiously, the term levi most often appears in north Israelite literature. Indeed, it may be a north Israelite term for "priest," which would explain its general absence from Judahite sources and its occurrence in Deuteronomy, a book essentially northern in origin.

Monarchic period

The biblical narratives about Saul, the first king of Israel, reveal two aspects of the role of priests during the early monarchy. Saul employed an elderly professional priest, a descendant of Eli, from Shiloh (it having since been destroyed by the Philistines), who made oracular inquiry for Saul and the Israelite forces using the efod (1 Sm. 14). There is also the recurring theme of Saul's own involvement in priestly functions. At one point, Saul officiated at a sacrifice when, after seven days of waiting, Samuel failed to arrive (1 Sm. 13). Although Samuel was enraged over what Saul had done, it was probably in accordance with contemporary custom: Kings often assumed sacral roles.

David also employed professional priests, appointing and dismissing them at will. The first priest he encountered was Ahimelech, priest of Nobthe town of priests (1 Sm. 21). Ahimelech sided with David against Saul, offering him and his band comfort and aid. Saul eventually murdered the priests of Nob, but one escaped, Abiathar, Ahimelech's son (1 Sm. 22:20f.), who joined David's forces and regularly undertook oracular inquiry for David (1 Sm. 23:10f., 30:7f.). Later, David had two priests with him, Ahimelech and Zadok, whose origins are not revealed (2 Sm. 8:17, 15:24). These two lines of priests continued to serve David throughout his career until a priest of the Abiathar line sided with David's son, Adonijah, in an attempt to claim the succession and this line of priests was rejected (1 Kgs. 1:7, 1:19). Solomon banished the priest to his hometown, and henceforth only the line of Zadok served the Judahite royal house (1 Kgs. 2:35). The list preserved in 1 Kings 4:25, which still mentions Abiathar, is apparently a later source, showing how literary tradition often ignores historical sequence.

In priestly families, as in many royal lines, sons were named after their grandfathers, a method known as "papponymy," so that names like Zadok reappear in subsequent generations (Ez. 40:46).

The narratives of David and Solomon reveal how certain priestly families were appointed under the monarchy and were expected to be loyal to their royal sponsors. At one point David used the priest Zadok to spy for him and to report on Absalom's activities (2 Sm. 15:26f.).

Considerable information is found in the Bible about priestly families during the period of the Judahite and northern Israelite monarchies, but there is hardly any mention of Levites. 1 Kings 12:31 states that Jeroboam I did a wicked thing by appointing non-Levitical priests to officiate at his heterodox temples, but this statement occurs in a later insertion into the text. For the most part, Samuel and Kings know nothing about a tribe of Levi.

The reference to Nob as a town of priests introduces the factor of locale. The law of Leviticus 25:3234 provides tax exemptions for Levitical towns, justifying such exemptions by the fact that the Levites had no territory of their own. The same justification underlies the provisions in Numbers 35:18. Both are late texts.

The lists of Joshua 21 and 2 Chronicles 6 present a different problem because they specifically name forty-eight Levitical towns, most of which have been located. Benjamin Mazar argues that these lists ultimately reflect the situation under the united monarchy of the tenth century bce. According to Mazar, these towns were first established by David and Solomon as part of a system of royal outposts, especially in newly conquered territories.

Aside from the fact that these lists show signs of lateness, there is some difficulty in ascertaining whether the sites listed were actually settled by Israelites in the tenth century bce. Recent archaeological surveys in Israel show a different pattern of early settlement. Then too Mazar must rest his case on the traditions of Chronicles, to the effect that Levites specifically were involved with David and Solomon. Given the generally biased character of Chronicles, these traditions may not reflect an earlier reality. In any event, the concentration of Levites in certain locales is logical in the earlier periods of biblical history, as is the existence of certain towns of asylum, often located where priests lived (Nm. 35:9f.).

Deuteronomy, essentially derived from the northern Israelite kingdom of the eighth century bce, refers to all priests as Levites. Its classic designation is "the Levitical priests, the entire tribe [Heb., shevet ] of Levi" (Dt. 18:1). Clearly, in the north Levites were regarded as having a tribal identity: All legitimate priests were Levites, and all Levites were priests.

From what Deuteronomy says about Levites elsewhere one notes that the tribe of Levi was not like other tribes. Levites lived throughout the land (Dt. 14:26f.) and had no territory of their own, relying on cultic service for support (Dt. 18:6f.). The concern in Deuteronomy with the Levitical priests stems from its doctrine, expressed in chapters 12 and 16, that sacrifice is proper only at one central temple in a town to be selected by God. The habitation patterns of the Levites had corresponded to the decentralized pattern of worship at local and regional centers. Tithes and votaries remitted at these centers henceforth were to be collected only at a central temple. Once Deuteronomy legislated against the customary, decentralized pattern, provision had to be made for those Levitical priests who had served throughout the land. They therefore were granted the right to be maintained at the central Temple in Jerusalem, and assigned to cultic duties there.

The "Tribe of Levi"

Current scholarship is only able to explain the traditions concerning a tribal origin for the Levites in broad, sociological terms. The biblical record of twelve tribes, into which that set of traditions fits, is questionable historically. The number twelve is maintained quite artificially in various tribal lists that sometimes include a tribe named Levi, sometimes not.

Apart from the genealogical recasting of the early Israelites, so characteristic of Priestly literature, the tradition of a tribe named Levi occurs in two poetic passages. In Genesis 49, Levi, the eponym of one of Jacob's sons, is the head of a tribe like all the others. Nothing is said about any cultic function associated with Levi, but there is the telling threat to disperse Levi throughout the Land of Israel, suggesting what came to be the real situation of the Levites.

In Deuteronomy 33, the Levites are a tribe, but a tribe of priests. This same chapter, verses 8 through 11, contains an oblique reference to the incident of the golden calf, recounted first in Exodus 32:2629, and again in Deuteronomy 9:16f. Of all the Israelites, the Levites alone rallied to Moses' side. For their loyalty to God they were rewarded by being granted the Israelite priesthood. The cult of Yahveh was threatened when the golden calf, an allusion to the calves installed by Jeroboam I at Dan and Bethel, became the object of worship (1 Kgs. 12:29f.). The Levites are not characterized as a tribe, but rather as a group bound by the commitment to a proper Yahvistic cult that superseded their various tribal affiliations.

The reference to a tribe of Levi in Genesis 49 is less readily explained. Some historians have suggested that Genesis 49 is a very ancient passage that proves the early existence of a tribe called Levi. This is doubtful, because the incident of Shechem, recounted in Genesis 35, may be a late story of priestly origin.

Priests and Levites

The distinction between priest and Levite, basic to certain Priestly traditions, may have first emerged during the Babylonian exile. In Ezekiel 44:9f., the prophet, in his vision of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, favored the priestly line of Zadok exclusively. The Levites who had turned away from Yahveh (when, is not clear) were no longer to officiate at the cult, but were demoted (as it were) to supporting tasks in maintaining the Temple. In effect, the Levites were to take over tasks formerly performed by foreign workmen (or, perhaps, foreign Temple slaves), whose presence in the Temple was condemned by Ezekiel.

This is the first indication outside of the Priestly texts of the Torah of a differentiation between Levitical priests and ordinary Levites, laying the groundwork for the postexilic system wherein priests were considered superior to Levites. Most biblical historians have explained this distinction as a consequence of Josiah's edict (c. 622). Josiah had closed down the local bamot ("high places") and summoned the priests serving them to Jerusalem (2 Kgs. 23). The reconstruction that Ezekiel's heterodox Levites were, in fact, these priests is logical but still only conjecture.

Classes of priests, with differentiated functions, were characteristic of Near Eastern temples, and undoubtedly applied to the Temple in Jerusalem at one time or another. Conceivably, the poem of Genesis 49 served to explain the demotion of the Levites, which is attributed to some outrageous act.

Postexilic references to priests and Levites appear in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, a pattern continuing through and even subsequent to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ce. In Kings, as in Jeremiah with its strong historical orientation, priests are in charge of the First Temple, before the exile. Recent archaeological discoveries have added to information on the succession of high priests from the eve of the exile through to the Hellenistic and Roman periods. By correlating postexilic writings with the works of Josephus Flavius and apocryphal books such as 1 Esdras, Frank Moore Cross (1975) uses the Aramaic Samaria papyri of the fourth century bce to propose an uninterrupted succession of high priests. From Jehozadak, who served on the eve of the Babylonian exile, Cross moves forward to Simeon I, born in 320. Based on the custom of "papponymy," Cross traces the priestly names.

High-born priestly families, such as those recorded in the lists of returning exiles in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7, owned estates outside of Jerusalem and probably derived their income from sources other than mere priestly emoluments. It can be logically assumed that of all the Jewish exiles in Babylonia, priestly families may have been particularly motivated to return to the Holy Land. By contrast, the Levites seem a deprived group in the early postexilic period. Ezekiel's differentiation between Zadokite priests and Levites may, in the last analysis, reflect the different economic standing of priestly families.

Thus far the history and formation of priestly groups in Israel have been discussed, but scripture highlights Priestly traditions on the origin and character of the priesthood that cannot be regarded historically, certainly not in detail. It would be fruitful to attempt a synthesis of history and tradition, both subjects for the historian but each requiring different methods in studying the past.

The Priestly traditions trace the origin of the priesthood, as well as the origin of the Yahvistic cult, to the time of Moses, prior to the settlement of Canaan. When the reader first encounters Aaron in the earliest traditions of Exodus (in the source known as JE, which combines Judean and north Israelite texts), he is Moses' brother certainly, but serves as a spokesman and emissary, and not as a priest. In Exodus 2:1f., Moses is affiliated with a Levitical family, and 4:14 refers to Aaron as "your brother, the levi, " but these references are the work of the Priestly editors. The identification of Moses and Aaron as Levites was part of the overall Priestly historiography, linking the cult and the priesthood to the Sinai theophanies.

The consecration and investiture of Aaron and his sons as priests are themes woven into the Tabernacle texts of Exodus 24:1231:18 and 3540, and into Numbers, especially 110:28, and 26, as well as in the descriptions of the investiture of Aaron and his sons in Leviticus 810. G. B. Gray (1971) regarded Moses as a priest, primarily on the basis of Psalm 99:6. It is preferable, however, to interpret the Priestly traditions of the Torah as a mirror image of reality: Moses, like other leaders and like the Judahite and northern Israelite kings, is portrayed as a priest maker, not a priest. He oversees the transfer of priestly authority to Eleazar, Aaron's son, before Aaron's death (Nm. 20:22f.); Moses never actually performs cultic functions, apart from the investiture of the first priests. As for Psalm 99, it is actually a late, postexilic composition and it endorses the Aaronic priesthood.

Aaron the priest, as opposed to Aaron the person, is nowhere mentioned in Deuteronomy. A Priestly addendum in Deuteronomy 32:50 speaks of his death, and Deuteronomy 9:20f. merely retells the episode of the golden calf. Even in that episode, with its cultic context, Aaron functions as leader of the people. The Aaronic priesthood is never referred to in the historical books of the BibleJudges, Samuel, Kings except in a few interpolated passages (such as Jgs. 20:28).

It is in Chronicles, however, that Aaronic genealogies are presented in detail, much in the spirit of the Priestly writings of the Torah (1 Chr. 56, 2324, etc.). In this fourth-century bce recasting of early Israelite history, Aaronic priests are projected into the preexilic period of the Judahite monarchy, as though to compensate for their absence in Samuel and Kings. Julius Wellhausen (1957) was logical in concluding that the Priestly Torah traditions originated in the period of Chronicles, but it would be more precise to place them somewhat earlier in the postexilic period, the fifth century bce.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles present a dual situation: on the one hand, the Aaronic tradition, and on the other, evidence of a more historical character on the history of the priesthood. In 1 Chronicles 5:2741 Aaron and his sons launch the priestly line, but then the narrative returns to historical reality, listing known priestly families. In 1 Chronicles 6:127 the names are entirely different, and generally match those in Numbers. Thus even within Chronicles a distinction must be drawn between history and tradition. The same is true in Ezra and Nehemiah.

This and other information confirms the unreliability of the Aaronic genealogy, while at the same time confirming the postexilic books as the repository of historical information, as well as tradition.

Yehoshuʿa Ben Sira, a sage very much in the priestly tradition, writing in the late third or early second century bce, endorses the Aaronic line (Ben Sira 50). Ellis Rivkin (1976) conjectures that beginning in the time of Ezra, around the mid-fifth century, a group of priests claimed descent from Aaron, and it was this group who promulgated the tradition of the Aaronic priesthood continued by Ben Sira.

The Torah also preserves Priestly traditions on the consecration of the Levites. In Numbers 810 the description of Levitical devotion parallels that of priestly investiture in Leviticus 810. The tasks of the Levites are set forth in Numbers 34 according to clans.

In the Priestly tradition, priests and Levites shared a common descent. All priests were of the tribe of Levi, but not all Levites were priests. Nehemiah 10 has the population registered in a stratified way: priests, Levites, and the people at large.


The internal organization of the Israelite priesthood probably changed little over the centuries, from the inception of the monarchies to the destruction of the Second Temple. A priest was usually in charge of a temple/cult center, and he was referred to simply as ha-kohen ("the priest") or as the priest of a particular locality or temple. The chief priest of Jerusalem in the near-exilic period was called kohen ha-roʾsh ("the head priest," Jer. 19:1), and the second in charge kohen ha-mishneh ("the deputy head"). The title ha-kohen ha-gadol ("the high priest") that occurs in several passages in Kings (2 Kgs. 22:10, 23:3f.) is probably a later designation based on the characterization of the head priest in the Holiness Code (Lv. 21:10) as ha-kohen ha-gadol me-ehav ("the priest who is higher than his kinsmen"). From the fifth-century bce Jewish mercenary community at Elephantine comes the Aramaic counterpart, khnʾ rbʾ ("the high priest"), and it is entirely possible that the Hebrew ha-kohen ha-gadol is a translation from the Aramaic. The Torah includes the epithet ha-kohen ha-mashiah, "the anointed priest" (Lv. 4, 6), reflecting a Priestly tradition that has only Aaron receiving unctions, not his sons (Lv. 8:12). The rabbinic tradition has the additional title ha-segan, or segan ha-kohanim ("the director of the priests"); the term segan is a cognate of the Akkadian shaknu ("govern"). This terminology reflects the widely attested practice of applying political and administrative nomenclature to cultic offices (Yomaʾ 3.9, 4.1; Tam. 7.3). In 2 Kings 19:2 is found the designation ziqnei ha-kohanim ("the elders of the priests"), perhaps the "curia" of the priesthood. In rabbinic literature, apprentice priests were called pirhei ke-hunah ("the budding flowers of the priesthood," Yomaʾ 1.7, Tam. 1.1). Certain postexilic sources refer to sarei ha-kohanim ("the leaders of the priests," Ezr. 8:24) who had a role in governing the people.

The Mishnah (Tam. 3.1) mentions ha-memunneh ("the appointed priest"), who served either as an "officer of the day," or was in charge of a specific bureau or set of rites. In short, the priesthood of the Temples of Jerusalem was organized along royal, administrative lines.

From early times priests likely were assigned to Temple duty for one-week periods. Nehemiah is said to have instituted these mishmarot (Neh. 13:20; cf. 1 Chr. 7:6) and indications are that this was the arrangement in the Jerusalem Temple during the monarchy. In 2 Kings 11:5f., groups of priests are designated as baʾei ha-shabbat ("going on duty on that Sabbath") and yotsʾei ha-shabbat ("going off duty on that Sabbath"), suggesting weekly tours of duty for the priests.

Support Systems

While on duty, priests lived in the Temple complex, apart from their families; this arrangement helped ensure a state of purity.

Priests were supported by levies and donations, and enjoyed the privilege of partaking of sacred meals; their families also benefitted from Temple support. There is evidence, however, that as time went on, prominent priestly families amassed independent wealth and owned large estates.


The skills required for the priestly functions (see below) were learned from masters and based on written "instructions" (or manuals) called torot (sg. torah ). The term torah, which has enjoyed wide applications in the Jewish tradition, derives from the priestly context: It is the priest who knows the torah, as is indicated in many biblical characterizations of the priesthood (Jer. 18:18, Ez. 7:26, Hg. 2:11). In the Priestly laws of the Pentateuch captions such as zoʾt ha-torah ("this is the instruction," Nm. 19:2) and zoʾt torat ("this is the instruction for," Lv. 6:2) introduce guides for purification and sacrifices.

The Mishnah describes how priests were guided or directed step by step in the celebration of cultic rites. In ancient Egypt, officiating priests were actually followed around by a "lector priest" who held before him a tablet with precise instructions that he read aloud to the officiant. Failure to carry out the specific instructions could render the rite ineffective, disqualify the priest, and in severe cases defile the sanctuary.

In addition to their roles as skilled professionals, priests were consecrated persons. The Torah preserves detailed descriptions of the procedures followed in consecration (Lv. 810, Ex. 2829), including prophylactic rites (involving the use of blood and oil), ablutions, and investitureall accompanied by purification or expiatory sacrifices. Once consecrated, the priest officiated for the first time and partook of expiatory sacrifice.

The priestly vestments are described in Exodus 28 and are referred to in Leviticus 8 and 16. The high priest (Aaron was the first) wore distinctive garb; linen was used extensively, as was dyed cloth, and both were embroidered with gold. The high priest wore an efod decorated with twelve gemstones symbolizing the tribes of Israel, a breastpiece on which were sewn the binary oracles Urim and Tummim (two small stones), a headdress, diadem, robes, and pantaloons. These vestments were worn only while officiating, or when present in a sacred precinct.

Ezekiel's vision of the restored Temple (44:15f.) includes more information on priestly vestments as well as grooming: Wool was to be avoided, and priests were to crop their hair but refrain from shaving their head. They probably officiated barefoot.

The priesthood was bound by a rigid law of purity. First were fitness requirements for officiating priests, who had to be free of blemishes, as were the sacrifices. Priests at all times were to avoid impurity, and as necessary would undergo purification in order to be readmitted to the Temple and allowed to officiate once again. The most severe impurity was contact with dead human bodies. According to their law, priests were forbidden to attend burials, which removed the cult of the dead from the priesthood's functions. An ordinary priest was permitted to attend the burial of his most immediate, consanguineous relatives, but even that was denied the high priest. Purity involved marriage law as well. A priest was forbidden to marry a divorced woman, because adultery was originally the basis of divorce; similarly unfit (at least in later law) was a woman who had committed harlotry, or whose fathers had been pronounced unfit for the priesthood. An improper wife would disqualify a priest's son from cultic service. A priest could only marry an Israelite, and the high priest only a virgin.

All of these regulations originate in the Priestly laws of the Pentateuch and were expanded and variously applied by the rabbinic authorities of a later age. How early they applied is not certain, but they were in force during the early postexilic period. In late Second Temple times, priestly families kept marriage records and were presumed to adhere to a stricter code. Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 mention priests who had been declared impure, and removed from the priesthood on that account, an obvious reference to violations of the priestly marriage code.

Sacrificial and cultic functions

The primary responsibility of the priest was to officiate at sacrificial worship; quite possibly, others than priests may have officiated at certain periods in biblical history. As stated earlier, the priestly laws of the Pentateuch include the torot ("instructions") for this function, spelled out in detail. Apart from actually officiating, priests were undoubtedly responsible for sacrificial matériel mixing spices and incense, preparing flour for grain offerings, and preparing proper oils for various purposes, including lighting of the menorah ("candelabra") and the like. According to the later pattern, Levites attended to certain of the preparations, but actual slaughtering of sacrificial animals was a priestly function.

The function of the priest as officiant was indispensable to the efficacy of the sacrificial cult, and priests were required to partake of sacrifices in sacred meals. Certain sacrifices were not valid if the priest failed to partake of them. The priests invoked God's blessing of the people on certain occasions; Numbers 6:2426 preserves the text of the benediction. "May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May He cause the light of His countenance to shine over you, and may He be gracious to you. May the Lord lift His face toward you and grant you peace." The benediction was usually pronounced at the end of the sacrifice, when the priest emerged from the Temple and its inner courtyard to face the people. This blessing is one of the rare instances of recitation in the priestly laws of the Torah, which otherwise fails to preserve the many formulas employed by priests in the Israelite cult.

In addition to sacrificial matériel, priests were clearly responsible for maintaining the purity of the Temple and of all cultic utensils, vestments, and such. The Torah's priestly laws assign some of these "maintenance" tasks (mishmeret ) to the Levites, but they usually required priestly supervision.

Oracular functions

Again, some of the earliest biblical references to priests are in connection with oracular activity. Micah and the Danites were served in this way by a young Levite, and the priests who accompanied Saul and David into battle provided similar service. Very likely the laws of Deuteronomy 20 are to be understood against the background of oracular inquiry. Before battle the Israelites were addressed by the priest, undoubtedly the high priest, who assured them that God would stand at the side of his people and grant them victory. The priest then stipulated certain deferrals and exemptions from military service, an act reminiscent of the ancient custom of "clearance" (in Akkadian, tebibtu ), known from the archives of Mari, a Syrian capital of the eighteenth century bce. Soldiers had to be "cleared" by checking to see if their obligations on the "home front" had been met. Presumably, the priest was asked whether the contemplated military venture had God's support. While priests provided such services most of the time, in some instances prophets advised kings in this way, as in 1 Kings 22, a reflection of the overlapping of priestly and prophetic functions.

Most forms of divination were expressly forbidden in official Israelite religion, but surprisingly the casting of lots was not. The best known form of this practice was using the Urim and Tummim. Comparative evidence suggests that the Urim and Tummim consisted of two somewhat flat stones similar to the puru ("lots") known in Mesopotamia. The Tummim, a term derived from tamam ("perfect, without blemish"; hence, "innocent, right"), probably indicated an affirmative response, or a response establishing innocence. It is therefore assumed that Urim was negative, establishing guilt, although its precise meaning remains unclear. Casting lots was intended to yield a response: Either the stones were similar to dice, each with affirmative and negative markings, or one was affirmative, the other negative.

The Urim and Tummim were kept by the priest in a pouch sewn into an embroidered cloth breastpiece. They are mentioned also in connection with the efod, a finely embroidered garment. In the depiction of the vestments of the high priest (Ex. 28, Lv. 8), the two stones were carried in a separate breastpiece, called hoshen, fastened to the efod, but it is quite obvious that they were an important part of the efod, the essential oracular vestment. The depiction of carved gemstones, symbolizing the tribes of Israel, further indicates the vestments' oracular function. The term hoshen ha-mishpat ("breastpiece of judgment," Ex. 28:15, Lv. 8:8) reflects the use of the Urim and Tummim in determining guilt and innocence, a process also indicated by the phrase mishpat ha-urim ("the judgment of the Urim," Nm. 27:21).

The casting of lots (goral ) by priests was not always directly associated with the Urim and Tummim, at least not explicitly. In the Yom Kippur ritual (Lv. 16), the high priest cast lots to determine which of two goats was to be designated the scapegoat and which the sin offering. Priestly traditions, found primarily in Numbers and Joshua, portray the division of the Promised Land among the tribes by casting lots (Nm. 26, 3336; Jos. 1721). Priests again conducted the proceedings.

Oracular inquiry is generally viewed as characteristic of the earlier period of Israelite history, fading out as time went on, an opinion not borne out, however, in the priestly writings that give prominence to oracular, priestly functions. Ezra (2:63) and Nehemiah (7:65) each include a curious statement about the disqualification of certain priestly families among the returning Judahite exiles that, unable to produce genealogical records, were denied the right to partake of sacrificial meals, "until a priest with Urim and Tummim should appear."

It would be erroneous to minimize the lasting importance of oracular inquiry in early religion, a function shared by priests and prophets. The term darash (to inquire) often connotes oracular inquiry in biblical Hebrew, perhaps more often than is generally realized. Other than the casting of lots, very little is known about the mechanics of oracular inquiry in Israelite Jewish religion.

Therapeutic functions

Leviticus 1315 prescribes a quasi-medical role for priests in the treatment of skin ailments that were considered contagious, and that in similar form appeared as blight on leather, cloth, and plaster-covered buildings and stones. Such a role was assigned to priests in other parts of the ancient Near East; Mesopotamian magical texts, for instance, speak of the activities of the ashipu ("magical practitioner") who combined magical and sacrificial activity with medical methods to heal the afflicted, often "purifying" them through exorcism. In Leviticus the priest orders quarantine, examines patients, shaves the hair of the afflicted, and diagnoses skin ailments on the basis of a set of given symptoms, observing the course of the disease. Along with these procedures, he conducts expiatory rites, involving the utilization of sacrificial blood in magic, as well as making sanctuary offerings. It is the priest who declares one either "impure" or "pure."

Such functions were akin to the instructional and juridical roles of the priest: All involved interpreting the contents of the priestly torot ("instructions"). As with oracular inquiry, these functions were probably shared by prophets and other "men of God."

Instructional and juridical functions

The cult role of the priest cast him in a sacred, somewhat detached light, for he officiated within sacred precincts from which the people at large were excluded. In contrast, the instructional and juridical functions of the priesthood, like the less known therapeutic ones just discussed, brought the priesthood into contact with the people. The same applies to its administrative role discussed later.

The instructional and juridical roles were, of course, closely interrelated. Ezekiel 44:2324 gives a fairly comprehensive definition of these priestly functions:

They [the Zadokite priests] shall declare to My people what is sacred and what is profane, and inform them what is pure and what is impure. In lawsuits, too, it is they who shall act as judges: they shall decide therein in accordance with My rules. They shall preserve My teachings and My laws regarding all My fixed occasions, and they shall maintain the sanctity of My Sabbaths.

Deuteronomy 17:8f. relates that a court was to be located in the central temple of the land where priests and magistrates could hear cases referred to them by local and regional courts. The high court of the Jews, the Sanhedrin, convened in the Temple complex and was composed largely of priests. The early Pharisees, members of a lay movement, eventually gained predominance in the courts, but not until after the destruction of Jerusalem's Second Temple.

The epitome of the instructional role of the priest is preserved in 2 Kings 17:24f. Foreigners settling in northern Israel (Samaria) following its annexation by the Assyrians in 722 suffered misfortunes, and they attributed their sad state to not knowing how to worship "the god of the land" properly. Sargon, the Assyrian king, sent back an Israelite priest who established residence in Bethel. "He went about instructing the people how they should worship Yahveh" (2 Kgs. 17:28). The verb horah is most often used to convey the instructional role of the priests, who answered the questions brought to them by the people and their leaders.

The early exilic prophecy of Haggai (Hg. 2:1113) contains an actual inquiry that, although it was rhetorical and symbolic in the prophetic context, is worded precisely; it is dated to 520:

Inquire of the priests torah ["instruction"] as follows: If a person should carry sacrificial flesh in a fold of his garment, and if this fold should touch bread, stew, wine or oil, or any other foodstuffs, would it [that foodstuff] become sacrificial? The priests responded by saying, "No!" Haggai continued: Should a person impure by reason of contact with a dead human body touch any of these materials, would it [that foodstuff] be rendered impure? The priests responded by saying, "It would become impure!"

An entire body of ancient Near Eastern literature of priestly texts has to do with the interpretation of dreams, often a function of the priest. Indeed, the instructional and juridical roles of the priesthood would be clearer if similar Israelite texts had survived.

Administrative and political functions

In addition to conducting the cult of worship, priests were responsible for the overall administration of the Temple and its affairs.

Temple business

The Temples of Jerusalem were hubs of activity: Worshipers often purchased sacrifices in the Temple bureaus; they remitted votary pledges (the so-called vows); they paid their dues (tithes to the Levites, and in later times priestly levies, the firstlings of the herd and flocks). In 2 Kings, chapters 12 and 22, one learns that Temple business was administered by the priests often in collaboration with agents of the king. In the postexilic recasting of these earlier accounts, such as in 2 Chronicles 24, priests and Levites are sent out to collect dues from the people, as well as voluntary contributions for the Temple.


Cult vessels had to be replaced and purified from time to time, as did the Temple. The Temple complex had to be kept in good repair, and priestly vestments fashioned. Temple maintenance meant not only repair but purification, and the priesthood was in charge of these activities.

In the postexilic period when Jerusalem and Judah were under foreign domination, the high priest and heads of other important priestly families often served as heads of the Jewish community, especially in conducting its relations with the imperial authorities. This political arrangement is referred to as "hierocracy," government by priests. Something of this atmosphere colors the Letter of Aristeas, which reports on delegations to the high priest of Jerusalem, and the writings of Josephus of the first century ce.

Throughout most of the period of the Second Temple the power of the priesthood was more than it had been in the preexilic period. In the wake of the Hasmonean Revolt (167164 ce) the priests assumed both political and spiritual power, a situation that lasted for about a century and correlated well with the imperial policy of various foreign rulers throughout their empires.

The political function of the priesthood is more specific during the postexilic period, although it is likely that, as in most societies, leading priests had exercised power and influence under Judahite and northern Israelite kings as well. Whereas such earlier historic books as Samuel and Kings are primarily concerned with the monarchy, and therefore say little about priestly power, it is the later Chronicles that create the myth of deep cooperation between the two establishmentsthe royal and the sacerdotalespecially during the reign of the "upright" Judahite kings.

In the postexilic period, Levites had specific functions distinct from priests. In Numbers 14, Levites are assigned the task of guarding the sanctuary, in addition to "bearing" its appurtenances, and other duties. They are encamped around it, barring entry to all unfit to approach the sacred precincts. This role coincides with the postexilic Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles concerning Levitical "gatekeepers" (Neh. 7:1, 1 Chr. 9:18). In the later literature Levites are also the Temple singers and musicians, a role further suggested by some of the captions in Psalms, attributing them to Levitical authors, members of musical guilds, and affiliates of the Levitical clans, such as "the sons of Korah."

Postexilic traditions also speak of Levites as "teachers, interpreters" (Ezr. 8:16, Neh. 8:7, 2 Chr. 35:3), thereby endorsing the ancient instructional role of priestly and Levitical groups as teachers. Levitical names have turned up at Arad, in the Negev, during the late preexilic period, thus affirming that such families were assigned to royal outposts where there were also temples.

Worship was never the end-all of religious life in biblical and later Jewish traditions, and prophets continually criticized the common belief that God was more desirous of praise than of obedience to his laws. The prophet Samuel put the matter as follows (1 Sm. 15:22): "Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as much as in obedience to the Lord's command?" And yet, it was through the institution of religion, as conducted by sanctified and trained priests, that the people of Israel were able to secure the presence of God, in sacred places and in celebration. No institution was more volatile, more subject to abuse and exploitation than the priesthood (except, perhaps, the monarchy and political leadership), and none was more indispensable to the expression of Israel's unique religion. Whereas the Hebrew scriptures and later Jewish literature never spared priests from criticism and rebuke and faithfully recorded their misdeeds from Aaron to Menelaus, the same tradition held forth the idea of the devout and learned priest:

True teaching was in his mouth,
Nothing perverse was on his lips.
He served Me with complete loyalty,
And held the many back from iniquity.
For the lips of a priest preserve knowledge,
And men seek instruction from his mouth.
For he is a messenger of the Lord of Hosts!
(Mal. 2:67)

See Also

Aaron; Biblical Temple; Dreams; Israelite Religion; Oracles; Priesthood, article on Jewish Priesthood; Prophecy, article on Biblical Prophecy; Purification; Tithes; Torah.


The higher critical point of view regarding the development of Israelite religion and its priestly institutions, according to which these are relatively late phenomena in biblical history, is best presented in Julius Wellhausen's Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, translated by J. Sutherland Black (1885; reprint, New York, 1957). In contrast, Yeezkel Kaufmann's The Religion of Israel, translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg (Chicago, 1960), offers a learned argument against the higher position, insisting on the greater antiquity of priestly institutions.

The best, and virtually the only, overall history of the Israelite priesthood is Aelred Cody's A History of Old TestamentPriesthood (Rome, 1969). G. B. Gray's Sacrifice in the Old Testament (1925), reissued with a prolegomena by myself (New York, 1971), devotes a section to the priesthood (pp. 179270), analyzing its character primarily on the basis of the biblical textual evidence, and that of postbiblical ancient sources.

Several recent encyclopedia articles summarize and assess scholarly research. They include: Menahem Haran's "Priests and Priesthood," in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1971); my own "Priests," and Ellis Rivkin's "Aaron, Aaronides," in Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume (Nashville, 1976).

New light is shed on the history of the high priesthood by Frank Moore Cross in his "A Reconstruction of the Judean Restoration," Journal of Biblical Literature 94 (1975): 418, drawing on the evidence of the Samaria Papyri of the fourth century bce. The religious and political roles of the postexilic priesthood, in particular, are discussed with considerable insight in Morton Smith's Palestinian Parties and Politics That Shaped the Old Testament (New York, 1971). The less explored functions and status of the Levites, as distinct from priests, are investigated, on the basis of biblical terminology, in Jacob Milgrom's Studies in Levitical Terminology, 2 vols. (Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif., 19701974). All of the above references provide extensive bibliographical infor-mation.

The reader will also want to consult ancient sources outside the Bible referred to in this article. The best available English translation of the Mishnah is Herbert Danby's Mishnah (Oxford, 1933). The writings of the ancient historian Josephus Flavius, translated by Henry St. J. Thackeray and Ralph Marcus, are available in volumes 15 and 7 of the "Loeb Classical Library" (Cambridge, Mass., 19501961). The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, 2 vols., edited by R. H. Charles (Oxford, 1913), includes such works as Ben Sira. Aristeas to Philocrates, or the Letter of Aristeas has been edited and translated by Moses Hadas (New York, 1951).

The discoveries at Arad, a Negev site principally excavated by the late Yohanan Aharoni, have been carefully summarized in the article by Zeʾev Herzog and others, "The Israelite Fortress at Arad," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Re search 254 (Spring 1984): 134. The inscriptions, originally published with a Hebrew commentary by Aharoni, have been translated by Judith Ben-Or and edited and revised by Anson F. Rainey as Arad Inscriptions (Jerusalem, 1981). These inscriptions and the information received from the excavations shed light on the functioning of Levitical priests at such royal outposts as Arad in the late preexilic period.

New Sources

Abegg, Martin G., Jr. "1QSb and the Elusive High Priest." Emanuel (2003): 316.

Broyde, Michael J. "A Mathematical Analysis of the Division of the Tribes and the Role of the Levites on Grizim and Aval in Deuteronomy 27." Tradition 27 (1992): 4857.

Dahmen, Ulrich. Leviten und Priester im Deuteronomium: literarkritische und redaktionsgeschichtliche Studien. Bonner biblische Beiträge, no. 110. Bodenheim, 1996.

Dequeker, Luc. "1 Chronicles 24 and the Royal Priesthood of the Hasmoneans." Oudtestamentische Studiën 24 (1986): 94106.

Haran, Menahem. Temples and Temple-service in Ancient Israel: An Inquiry into Biblical Cult Phenomena and the Historical Setting of the Priestly School. Winona Lake, Ind., 1985.

Leithart, Peter J. "Attendants of Yahweh's House: Priesthood in the Old Testament." JSOT 85 (1999): 324.

Millar, William R. Priesthood in Ancient Israel. Understanding Biblical Themes. St. Louis, Mo., 2001.

Nurmela, Risto. The Levites: Their Emergence as a Second-class Priesthood. South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism, no. 193. Atlanta, 1998.

O'Brien, Julia M. Priest and Levite in Malachi. Dissertation Series Society of Biblical Literature, no. 121. Atlanta, 1990.

Schaper, Joachim. Priester und Leviten im achämenidischen Juda: Studien zur Kultund Sozialgeschichte Israels in persischer Zeit. Forschuzum Alten Testament, no. 31. Tübingen, 2000.

Baruch A. Levine (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Levites." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 20 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Levites." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (February 20, 2019).

"Levites." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.