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There is often confusion among Christians about the relationship between priests and Levites. Who were the priests? Who were the Levites? What role did they play in ancient Israel? What significance do they have for today’s Christian? This article will seek to answer these questions by putting the information in biblical context.

the levites

The Levites originated as the descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob by Leah (Gen. 29:34). Levi, along with Simeon, was responsible for the raid on the town of Shechem after the rape of Dinah (ch. 34, especially vv. 25–29). It is because of this action that Jacob condemned the tribes of Simeon and Levi. Those two tribes were to be divided and scattered in Israel (49:5–7). How that division and scattering were to occur had to wait for the appropriate point in Israel’s history. In the book of Genesis, there does not seem to be any expectation that the tribe of Levi would make a significant contribution to the future of Israel.

Yet the beginning of the book of Exodus points the reader in a different direction. In chapter 2, we learn that Moses and his brother Aaron were born in the clan of Kohath of the tribe of Levi (2:1–10; 4:14; 6:14–27). That distinction suggests that this tribe had some greater contribution to the life of Israel. It was not until the events surrounding the golden-calf episode, however, that it appeared what that contribution might be. “The sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses,” executing God’s judgment on the Israelite camp. As a result, the tribe of Levi received the blessing of ministering to the Lord (32:25–29). Even though Aaron was the one who led the people in their rebellion, the Levites’ response in the cause of the Lord provided the context for their appointment to divine service.

From that point, the tribe of Levi served as a substitute for the entire nation in fulfilling its calling to be a kingdom of priests (19:5–6). Specifically, the Levites were taken in place of the firstborn of Israel (Num. 3:9, 40–51). Their primary responsibility in the wilderness was to guard or protect the priests and the tabernacle. In the Israelite encampment, the clans of Levi—Kohath, Gershon, and Merari—camped around the tabernacle, between the tabernacle itself and the tribes of Israel. This positioning of the clans of Levi accomplished two things. First, it protected Israel from the holiness of God. Second, it prevented the Israelites from approaching too closely to the tabernacle, violating its holiness. Guarding the tabernacle also included tasks involved in moving the tabernacle. The duties for each of the clans of Levi (Kohath, Gershon, and Merari) are specified in Numbers 3–4.

The length of service for the Levites was twenty years. In Numbers 4, the census of the three clans of Levites included those from thirty years to fifty years of age. Numbers 8:24–25, however, says of the Levites: “From twenty-five years old and upward they shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service.” This five-year discrepancy may perhaps indicate that a Levite would serve a five-year apprenticeship before becoming fully qualified for the task.

In addition to performing the duties of the tabernacle, the Levites were responsible for the instruction of the people in the things of the Lord.

After the people moved into the land of promise, these responsibilities were minimized, since the tabernacle would rarely be moved. Thus, in addition to performing the duties of the tabernacle, the Levites were responsible for the instruction of the people in the things of the Lord (Deut. 33:10). For this reason, the Levites were assigned various cities throughout Israel. The Le­vites had no inheritance in the land, a point made repeatedly in the law of Moses (Num. 18:20–24; 26:62; Deut. 10:9; 12:12; 14:27). The requirement that cities were to be appointed for the Levites is mentioned in Numbers 35:1–8. The actual listing of those cities, scattered among the various tribes, is given in Joshua 21. In this dispersal, we see the fulfillment of Jacob’s pronouncement regarding the scattering of Levi among the tribes. Surprisingly, rather than the fulfillment’s being seen in judgment poured out on Levi, the scattering of Levi was a blessing for the entire nation.

the priests

The priests were a subset of the tribe of Levi. They were from the family of Aaron of the clan of Kohath. This designation is made in Exodus 28:1 at the beginning of the description of the priestly garments. The priests’ responsibility was to carry out the sacrificial service in the tabernacle and later in the temple. The specifics of the sacrificial system are laid out in the opening chapters of Leviticus. Once David began preparations for the building of the temple, he also set out further specifications for the roles of the Levites and the priests (1 Chron. 23–24). Out of the Aaronic priests, one would serve as a high priest, overseeing the work of all the other priests. In addition, it was the high priest who had the privilege of entering the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement to make atonement for the sins of Israel. The appointment to high priest was for life, though this is not explicitly stated in the law. It is confirmed by implication in the laws regarding those who flee to cities of refuge after an accidental death. Numbers 35:25 makes this clear when it says, “He shall live in [the city of refuge] until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil.” Aaron was succeeded after his death by Eleazar (Num. 20:22–29). Eleazar was succeeded by Phinehas (Judg. 20:28). It is not clear from the record that this lifetime appointment as high priest continued. By the time of David and Solomon, both Abiathar and Zadok appear to have functioned in a high priestly role (2 Sam. 8:17; 15:24–29; 1 Kings 1:5–8).

the exile and after

The exile of Judah, accompanied by the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, brought an abrupt end to the Levitical and priestly service in the temple. After the exile, the temple was rebuilt and priests and Levites resumed their duties in the sacrificial system. Some of those who returned claimed to be of priestly descent but could not prove it (Ezra 2:61–63; Neh. 7:63–65). Interestingly, the passages say that these men were prohibited from partaking in the priestly portions “until a priest with Urim and Thummim should arise.” The Urim and Thummim had been part of the regalia of the high priest from the very beginning (Ex. 28:30; Lev. 8:8). As with the ark of the covenant, the biblical record does not tell us what became of these items. Thus, we don’t know why a priest with Urim and Thummim was not available in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Because of His sinlessness, He had no need to offer sacrifice for His own sins, and He Himself embodied the perfect sacrifice. He became both Priest and sacrifice.

After the exile, the priests became important public figures and the office of the high priest became a significant political office. Throughout the Persian period, the high priest apparently continued to come from the line of Zadok. In the Hellenistic period, however, there was a political fight for control of the office, a fight won by the Hasmonean line. The Hasmonean line rose to power in the wake of the Maccabean rebellion against the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the 170s BC. This line continued until the Roman era. After that point, the history of the priesthood becomes murky.

the priesthood and the new testament

In the New Testament, the Jerusalem priesthood appears in opposition to Jesus and His ministry, engineering His condemnation and crucifixion with the help of other groups. After Jesus’ ascension, the priesthood also opposed the preaching of the Apostles, as seen in Acts 4–5. But the Apostolic preaching was not without effect. Acts 6:7 says, “A great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”

After the exile, the increasing corruption of the priesthood made it clear that something fundamental was wrong with the institution. The author of Hebrews gives the reader the right perspective. The priesthood of Aaron and his descendants and those who followed them in the postexilic period represented a temporary institution. It was never intended to last forever. “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office” (Heb. 7:23). The priestly office of the Old Testament lacked permanence because it was occupied by impermanent people. For an adequate sacrifice and an adequate officiant, someone permanent was needed. That role could not be fulfilled by a descendant of Aaron. Instead, the model became the priesthood of Melchizedek, representing an eternal priest. That Priest is Jesus Christ. He alone is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (v. 26). Because of His sinlessness, He had no need to offer sacrifice for His own sins, and He Himself embodied the perfect sacrifice. He became both Priest and sacrifice. He is both Teacher and Shepherd. He fulfills what the Old Testament priests and Levites only pictured and promised.

As pictures and promises, the priests and Levites of the Old Testament embodied important principles. They made clear the necessity of substitutionary atonement. They made clear the need for an intercessor for the people. They made clear the need for a teacher to teach the people the ways of God. Being sinners, they did not always do that well. But God designed their offices in such a way as to point to One who would fulfill the offices perfectly. As we read the Old Testament, we can look for the images of Jesus that it gives us and rejoice in God’s faithful revelation of His plans and purposes.

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