(lee' vitess) The lowest of the three orders in Israel's priesthood. In the earliest biblical records, sacrifices were offered by the chief of a tribe, the head of a family (Genesis 12:7-8;
Genesis 31:54) or possibly by a priest at a temple (Genesis 14:18). Originally, Israel's priests and Temple personnel were to be drawn from the firstborn of every family in Israel (Exodus 13:11-15). Later, God chose the tribe of Levi to carry out this responsibility for Israel (Numbers 3:11-13). The tribe of Levi was appointed because it was the only tribe that stood with Moses against the people who worshiped the golden calf (Exodus 32:25-29;
Deuteronomy 10:6-9). The Levites were not given a tribal inheritance in the Promised Land (God was their inheritance) but were placed in 48 Levitical cities throughout the land (Numbers 18:20;
Joshua 13:14,Joshua 13:33; See Levitical Cities. The tithe of the rest of the nation was used to provide for the needs of the Levites (Numbers 18:24-32). Since the Levites were dependent on the generosity of others, families were encouraged to invite the Levites (as well as widows, strangers, and orphans) to join them in their eating and their celebration of the joyous national feast (Deuteronomy 12:12,Deuteronomy 12:18;
Deuteronomy 16:11,Deuteronomy 16:14). These factors point to the total dedication of the Levites to the work of the Lord rather than the earthly concerns of making a good living.
The tribe of Levi included at least three separate families: Gershon, Kohath and Merari (with the families of Moses and Aaron being treated somewhat separately from the rest of the tribe of Gershon). During the wilderness journey they were in charge of taking the tabernacle down, transporting it, setting it up and conducting worship at the tent where God dwelt (Numbers 1:47-54;
Numbers 3:14-39). In some passages (Deuteronomy 17:9,Deuteronomy 17:18;
Deuteronomy 24:8), the terms priest and Levite (or Levitical priests) seem identical, but in
Exodus 28:1 and Levitcus 8–10 it is clear that only the family of Aaron fulfilled the priestly duties of offering sacrifices in the tabernacle. Because there appears to be a different way of handling the relationship between the priests and the Levites in these texts, interpreters differ in the way they understand the Levites. Although it is possible that the role of the Levites changed or that the distinction between the priests and Levites was not maintained in each period with equal strictness, the interpretation which maintains a general distinction between the priests and Levites seem to fit most texts.
The Levites were consecrated to God and given by God as a gift to Israel in order that they might perform the duties at the tabernacle (Exodus 29:1;
Leviticus 8:1). Their work made it possible for the people to come to the tabernacle and offer sacrifices for the atonement of sins. The Levites assisted the priests in their responsibilities (Numbers 3:5-9;
Numbers 16:9) by preparing grain offerings and the show bread, by purifying all the holy instruments used in the Temple, by singing praises to the Lord at the time of the morning and evening offerings, by assisting the priests with burnt offerings on sabbaths and feast days, and by being in charge of the Temple precinct and the chambers of the priests (1 Chronicles 6:31-48;
1 Chronicles 23:1-13,1 Chronicles 23:24-32;
1 Chronicles 25:1-6;
2 Chronicles 29:12-19). Because of their work, the holiness of the Temple was maintained; and the glory of the Lord dwelt among Israel. During David's reign, the Levites were integrated into the administration of the government, including the keeping of the gates, judges, craftsmen, musicians, and overseers of the royal treasury (1 Chronicles 9:22-28;
1 Chronicles 23-26) In Jehoshaphat's time the Levites were involved with teaching the people the word of God (2 Chronicles 17:7-9). This responsibility probably continued into the postexilic period of Ezra (Nehemiah 8:9-12).