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The Tribe of Levi

Biblical Data

The tribe of Levi was descended from the patriarch Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah (Gen. xxix. 34). Levi shared in Simeon’s treachery toward the men of Shechem (Gen. xxxiv. 25-30), in consequence of which, it was thought, his descendants were scattered in Israel (Gen. xlix. 5-7). At the time of the descent into Egypt there were only three sons of Levi (Gen. xlvi. 11); these had become at the time of the Exodus a numerous tribe, which then was chosen for the priesthood and the service of the sanctuary (Ex. vi. 16 et seq.; Num. i. 49-54, iii. 6 et seq.). According to Leviticus and Numbers a wide distinction existed at this time between the house of Aaron, which constituted the priesthood, and the remainder of the Levites, to whom the more menial duties of the religious service were assigned (comp. Num. xvi. 8-11, and Levites)


Cities of Levites

In the blessing of Moses, Levi is mentioned only in connection with priestly functions (Deut. xxxiii. 8-11). At the settlement the Levites are said to have received no definite domain (Josh. xiii. 14), but scattered cities were assigned them in territory belonging to other tribes. From the portion of Simeon and Judah they received Hebron, Libnah, Jattir, Eshtemoa, Holon, Debir, Ain, Juttah, and Beth-shemesh; in the territory of Benjamin their cities were Gibeon, Geba, Anathoth, and Almon; from Ephraim they took Shechem, Gezer, Kibzaim, and Beth-horon; from Dan, Eltekeh, Gibbethon, Aijalon, and Gath-rimmon (comp. I Chron. vi. 69, where two of these cities are ascribed to Ephraim and two are not mentioned); from the tribe of Manasseh, Tanach, Gath-rimmon, Golan, and Beeshterah; from Issachar, Kishon, Dabareh, Jarmuth, and En-gannim; from Asher, Mishal, Abdon, Helkath, and Rehob; from Naphtali, Kedesh, Hammoth-dor, and Kartan; from Zebulun, Jokneam, Kartah, Dimnah, and Nahalal; from Reuben, Bezer, Jahazah, Kedemoth, and Mephaath; and from Gad, Ramoth in Gilead, Mahanaim, Heshbon, and Jazer (Josh. xxi. 11-39; comp. I Chron. vi. 55-81). When these cities are compared with those said to have been left to the other tribes, one is impressed with the fact that, if the Levites received all these, together with their suburbs, they must have had a better and more commanding inheritance than had any of their brethren.


In Early Sources

In striking contrast with this splendid inheritance attributed to the Levites by Joshua and the Chronicler is the non-appearance of the Levites in any important rôle during the period of the Judges. They are not mentioned in the Song of Deborah, nor do they appear elsewhere in Judges until the appendix, where two individual Levites are mentioned (comp. Judges xvii. 7, xviii. 30, and xix. 1). Under David and Solomon, according to the accounts in Samuel and Kings, the Levites exercised the priestly functions, though not to the exclusion of others from such functions. For example, Samuel, an Ephraimite (I Sam. ix. 13), and the sons of David (II Sam. viii. 18) offered sacrifices. From this time to the Exile the Levitical priests held much the same position as they held in the time of Solomon. They exercised their priestly functions, but were by no means, except in rare instances, the dominating influence. In the post-exilic period, as Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah show, they became it dominant element in the Jewish community.


Critical View

The problem presented by the Biblical data is this: What is the relation of the clan mentioned in such passages as Gen. xlix. 5-7 to the priests of a later time? In seeking a solution of this problem it should be noted that in J, the oldest source, the patriarch Levi merited his father’s curse, in consequence of which the tribe was divided and scattered (comp. Gen. xxxiv. 30, 31). In narrating a crisis in the life of Moses the same writer mentions the “sons of Levi” (Ex. xxxii. 26-28), but in such a way that the phrase may refer either to the descendants of the patriarch or to men who possessed the qualities of a “levi.” Later, a narrative that is ascribed to J by some critics (e.g., Moore, in “S. B. O. T.”) tells how a Levite of Beth-lehemjudah became a priest at the shrine at Dan (Judges xvii. 9, xviii. 30). This representation of J would seem to mean that misfortune overtook a clan known as that of Levi, that its members became scattered, and that they were held in such high esteem as priests that they gradually appropriated the priestly offices.

In the Source E

E has almost nothing to say of Levites. According to him, apparently, Moses and Aaron were of one of the tribes of Joseph, and he uses “Levite” to describe not the member of a clan, but a man especially eligible to the priesthood, distinctly stating that one such man belonged to the clan Judah (Judges xvii. 7; comp. “S. B. O. T.”). If the patriarch Levi was mentioned in this source, the passage in question has not been transmitted. E, apparently, knew no such patriarch, and supposed that a priest might come from any tribe and that he received the designation “Levite” for other reasons than those of descent.


Not in Possession of Gezer

P, the latest of the sources in the Pentateuch, distinctly connects the tribe of Levi with the priesthood, bridging all the gaps with extensive genealogies, dividing the various services of the sanctuary among the different descendants of the patriarch, and assigning to each class of descendants its respective cities in Canaan (Josh. xxi.). Of these three representations, P’s can not be correct. The whole tenor of the history in Judges and Samuel contradicts P’s assertion that the Levites received all these cities at the time of the conquest, as well as his view that the religious office was, in any exclusive sense, in the hands of the Levites. Gezer, for example, was not in Israel’s possession until thetime of Solomon (I Kings ix. 16). Recent exploration has shown it to have been the site of a great temple of Astarte (“Pal. Explor. Fund, Quarterly Statement,” Jan., 1903, pp. 23 et seq.). This temple, too, was on the level of the pre-exilic Israelitish city, and may have been used by the Hebrews of the period. Other Levitical cities in the list, like Kadesh in Naphtali, Ashtaroth in Bashan, and Hebron, can be proved to have been old shrines which in the pre-exilic period were still in use. If the information contained in the sources known were more complete, it probably could be shown that P’s whole system of Levitical cities is a postexilic explanation of the fact that important sanctuaries had existed at these points in pre-exilic times, and that they had thus become the centers where Levites resided in large numbers.

P’s whole conception is, therefore, untrustworthy. Recent critics are divided in opinion, some believing, with J, that there was actually a tribe of Levi, which became scattered and gradually absorbed the priestly office, others adopting the apparent view of E that “levi” was a general term for a priest, and then supposing that the existence of the clan Levi was assumed in order to explain the origin of the priestly class. Lagarde (“Orientalia,” ii. 20; “Mittheilungen,” i. 54), Baudissin (“Priesterthum,” p. 72), and Budde (“Religion of Israel to the Exile,” pp. 80 et seq.) may be cited as critics who have advocated this latter view. If Hommel and Sayce were consistent, they might be placed in the same class, for if the term came from contact with the Minæan Jethro, as they believe, it would not be found in Israel before the time of Moses. This inference, however, they do not draw. The former view (which has been called the view of J), that there was an actual tribe of Levi, has the support of Wellhausen (“History of Israel,” pp. 141-147; “Prolegomena zur Gesch. Israels,” 5th ed., pp. 137-145), Stade (“Gesch.” i. 152-157), Dillmann (“Commentary on Genesis,” ii. 458; “Alttestamentliche Theologie,” pp. 128 et seq.), Nowack (“Lehrbuch der Hebräischen Archäologie,” ii. 92 et seq.), Cornill (“Hist. of Israel,” p. 46), Marti (in Kayser’s “Alttestamentliche Theologie,” 3d ed., pp. 72, 95 et seq.), Guthe (“Gesch. des Volkes Israel,” pp. 21-47 et seq.), and Holzinger (“Genesis,” in Marti’s “K. H. C.” p. 257).

It is probable that there was an old clan which was overtaken by misfortune and scattered. Sayce points out (“Patriarchal Palestine,” p. 239) that the “Lui-el” of the list of Rameses III. is parallel to “Joseph-el” and “Jacob-el” of Thothmes III.’s list, and so may point to a habitat of the tribe of Levi. It is quite possible that the priestly order originated quite independently of this tribe, however, and afterward was erroneously identified with it. In the present state of knowledge it is impossible to tell whether the view of J or of E more nearly represents the truth.


Origin of Name

The tribe of Levi Icon - FmtwtodayThe origin of the name “Levi” has been quite variously explained. (1) In Gen. xxix. 34, J regards it as from the stem (“to join”), and explains it by Leah’s hope that her husband would now be joined to her. (2) Lagarde (l.c.) derives it from the same stem, but explains it as referring to Egyptians who, like Moses, attached themselves to the Israelites when they left Egypt. (3) Baudissin (l.c.) derives it in the same way, but refers it to those who were attached to, or accompanied, the ark. (4) Budde (l.c.) gives it the same derivation, but applies it to those who attached themselves to Moses in some great religious crisis. (5) Hommel (“Aufsätze und Abhandlungen,” i. 30; “Süd-Arabische Chrestomathie,” p. 127; “Ancient Hebrew Tradition,” pp. 278 et seq.) derives it from the Minäan “lawi’u” (= “priest”); with this Mordtmann (“Beiträge zur Minäischen Epigraphik,” p. 43) and Sayce (“Early Hist. of the Hebrews,” p. 80) agree. (6) Wellhausen (“Prolegomena,” 5th ed., p. 141) suggests that it is a gentilic name formed from the name of Levi’s mother, Leah; in this opinion Stade (“Gesch.” i. 152), Gray (“Hebrew Proper Names,” p. 96), Nöldeke (hesitatingly; in “Z. D. M. G.” xl. 167), Gunkel (“Genesis,” p. 301), and Luther (Stade’s “Zeitschrift,” xxi. 54) concur. (7) Jastrow (“Jour. Bib. Lit.” xi. 120 et seq.) connects “Levi” with “Laba” of the El-Amarna tablets. “Laba” he connects with the word (“lion”), thus making Levi the “lion” tribe. (8) Skipwith (in “J. Q. R.” xi. 264) connects “Levi” with “leviathan,” making it refer to the coils of the serpent. This variety of opinion illustrates and emphasizes the present uncertainty concerning the origin and existence of the tribe, which results from the scanty evidence.

You can also see: Where the Levitical Priesthood began and the Role of the Levites



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