From BiblePortal Wikipedia

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary [1]

The Levites were the servants, or ministers, in the Israelite religious system. They were descended from the third son of Jacob and formed one of the tribes of Israel ( Genesis 29:31-34; see Levi ). The Levites were divided into three sections that corresponded to the three families descended from Levi’s three sons, Gershon, Kohath and Merari ( Exodus 6:16;  Numbers 3:14-20). God appointed them to their privileged religious service as a reward for their zeal against idolatry ( Exodus 32:26-29;  Deuteronomy 33:8-10).

Although the Levites had general duties in the tabernacle and temple ceremonies, only those of one family within the tribe, the family of Aaron, were priests ( Exodus 6:16-25;  Exodus 29:9). Priests alone carried out the blood rituals of the sacrifices, and priests alone entered the inner shrine of the tabernacle (or later the temple) ( Numbers 3:5-10; see Priest ).

Duties concerning the tabernacle

After helping to construct the tabernacle ( Exodus 38:21), the Levites had the duty of setting up, taking down, maintaining and transporting the tabernacle on the journey to Canaan ( Numbers 1:50-51). The Gershon group looked after the curtains and other hangings, and had two wagons to carry their load ( Numbers 3:21-26;  Numbers 7:7). The Merari group had care of all the timber and metal parts, and had four wagons to carry their load ( Numbers 3:33-37;  Numbers 7:8). The Kohath group looked after the sacred furniture, most of which they carried on shoulder poles ( Numbers 3:27-32;  Numbers 7:9;  1 Chronicles 15:14-15).

On the journey the Levites travelled in the centre of the procession ( Numbers 2:17). When a camp was set up, they camped immediately around the tabernacle ( Numbers 1:52-53;  Numbers 3:23;  Numbers 3:29;  Numbers 3:35;  Numbers 3:38).

Representatives of the people

Since God had saved the Israelites’ firstborn through the Passover judgment, all their firstborn belonged in a special sense to God. For the service of the tabernacle, however, God used the Levites instead of the firstborn ( Numbers 3:11-13;  Numbers 3:40-51).

In a dedication ceremony involving cleansing rituals and sacrificial offerings, Moses and Aaron presented the Levites to God for his service ( Numbers 8:5-13). God then gave the Levites back to Aaron to help him and the other priests in their work ( Numbers 8:14-19). Leaders of the people also took part in the ceremony, to indicate symbolically that the Levites were the people’s representatives ( Numbers 8:9-10).

Levites began their service at the age of thirty, though this was apparently preceded by a training period of five years. They ceased their main duties at the age of fifty, but could still help in various ways ( Numbers 4:3;  Numbers 8:23-26). Having no time to earn a living as others, the Levites received their income in the form of tithes offered by the people ( Numbers 18:21-28; see Tithes ).

Although Levi had no tribal area of its own, Joshua gave the Levites cities in each of the other tribes. The number of cities in each tribe was in proportion to the size of the tribe ( Numbers 35:1-8;  Joshua 21:1-3). There were forty-eight Levitical cities and these were divided among four groups – the priestly Kohathites (Aaron was a Kohathite;  Exodus 6:16-20), the non-priestly Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites. The cities for the priestly group were all within easy reach of Jerusalem, where the temple was later built ( Joshua 21:4-8). Among the forty-eight cities were six cities of refuge (Joshua 20; see City Of Refuge ).

Temple service

In arranging the functions for priests and Levites in Israel’s temple services, David divided the Levitical singers and musicians into the usual three family groups. The respective leaders were Heman, Asaph and Ethan (Jeduthan), all of whom are mentioned as writers of psalms ( 1 Chronicles 6:1;  1 Chronicles 6:31-48;  1 Chronicles 15:16-22;  2 Chronicles 5:12; Psalms 73; Psalms 74; Psalms 75; Psalms 76; Psalms 77; Psalms 78; Psalms 79; Psalms 80; Psalms 81; Psalms 82; Psalms 83; Psalms 88; Psalms 89).

Other duties of Levites included cleaning the temple ( 1 Chronicles 23:28), helping the priests in the temple rituals ( 1 Chronicles 23:28-32), serving as temple guards ( 1 Chronicles 9:17-27) and looking after the furniture, food and spices used in the ceremonies ( 1 Chronicles 9:28-32). Some of the Levites served as judges and officials of various kinds ( 1 Chronicles 23:4;  1 Chronicles 26:20).

When David found that there were too many Levites for the amount of work available, he divided them into twenty-four groups according to their family descent. The groups served in rotation one week every six months, though all groups were on duty for the annual festivals (thereby making up the remaining four weeks of the year) ( 1 Chronicles 23:1-24;  1 Chronicles 24:18-19;  1 Chronicles 25:9-31;  1 Chronicles 26:1;  1 Chronicles 26:12).

Errors, reforms and developments

Over the following centuries, the nation and many of its kings frequently fell into idolatry. Priests and Levites usually played an important part in the reforms that godly kings carried out ( 2 Chronicles 17:7-9;  2 Chronicles 19:8-11;  2 Chronicles 29:1-16;  2 Chronicles 30:21-22;  2 Chronicles 34:8-13), though at times they were slow to respond to the king’s directions ( 2 Chronicles 24:4-13). A feature of some of the reforms was the organization of temple duties for priests and Levites according to David’s original plan ( 2 Chronicles 29:25-30;  2 Chronicles 31:2-19;  2 Chronicles 35:1-15).

When, after seventy years captivity in Babylon, the Jews were released, many Levites were among those who returned to Jerusalem ( Ezra 2:40-42). They supervised the reconstruction of the temple and participated in ceremonies connected with the building’s beginning and completion ( Ezra 3:8-11;  Ezra 6:16). At first they were properly organized for religious service ( Ezra 6:18), but later they were neglected by those who should have supported them with their tithes. Nehemiah corrected this problem by organizing an orderly system of tithing ( Nehemiah 10:37;  Nehemiah 11:3;  Nehemiah 12:27;  Nehemiah 12:47).

Another result of Nehemiah’s reforms was increased activity in teaching the law. The Levites helped the priests and scribes in this work ( Nehemiah 8:7-9), but the good work of these early leaders was not maintained by those of later generations. The result was the development of that form of Jewish religion known in New Testament times as Judaism (see Scribe ; Synagogue ). Nevertheless, people of New Testament times still saw Levites as a class of people distinct from both the priests and the scribes ( Luke 10:25;  Luke 10:31-32;  John 1:19;  Acts 4:36).

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology [2]

Pentateuch . The Hebrew word for Levite ( lew" ) indicates a descendant of Levi, the son of Jacob and Leah ( Genesis 29:34 ). There were three family clans within the tribe of Levi—Gershon, Kohath, and Meraribut it was only Kohath who supplied the Aaronic priests. Subsequent to the induction of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood, the entire tribe of Levi was "set apart" following the golden calf incident ( Exodus 32:26-29 ). They were blessed and chosen because their actions signified their loyalty to the covenant. Thus, the prophecy of Jacob that Levi's descendants would be scattered throughout Israel ( Genesis 49:5-7 ) was fulfilled, not as a curse but as a blessing ( Exodus 32:29;  Deuteronomy 33:8-9 ). Their zeal for the Lord caused the male Levites (except for Aaron's family, who were already designated as priests) to be set apart as caretakers of the tabernacle and as aides to the priests ( Numbers 1:47-53 ). Each clan in the tribe now had specific duties related to the tabernacle ( Numbers 3:14-18 ). Because this appointment came about due to their actions and was not based on their relationship with Aaron or his family, it was "providentially coincidental" that it was the tribe that contained the priests. Because of this a progression can be demonstrated in terms of separation and responsibilities from nation to tribe (Levi) to priesthood.

The Levites' "set apart" status is demonstrated by their taking the place of the firstborn, who by right belonged to God ( Numbers 3:41 ). Another indication of Levi's distinction is found in  Numbers 1:47-54 , where God instructs Moses not to number the Levites with the other tribes. The Levites were set apart but their status must still be seen as significantly different from that of the priests (even though all priests were Levites too). As aides, not officiating priests, theirs is an intermediate status between the people in general and that of the priesthood (i.e., the priests were made holy, the Levites were made clean; the priests were anointed and washed, the Levites were sprinkled; the priests were given new garments, the Levites washed theirs; blood was applied to the priests, but was waved over the Levites). The Levites were explicitly permitted to go near the Tent of Meeting, and this special privilege more than any other duty distinguished them from ordinary Israelites ( Numbers 8:19;  16:9-10 ).

Part of the support of the Levites was to come from the tithe they were to be allotted of the income of the other tribes ( Numbers 18:20-25 ). Since the reception of this tithe was dependent on the faithfulness of all the people, the financial position of the Levite was unpredictable. The Levites are therefore included in the legislation, along with the aliens, fatherless, and widows, as those whom the people must remember to care for ( Deuteronomy 12:19;  14:27-29 ).

In Deuteronomy, with a view to entering the land, the Levites were given an additional duty since their tabernacle transport obligations would be diminished. It was now the important duty of the Levites and the levitical priests, who would live throughout the land, to instruct the people in the law ( Deuteronomy 33:10 ).

Preexilic Historical Books . At the conquest the Levites received no tribal inheritance but were given forty-eight cities with their pastures ( Joshua 21:1-42 ). This along with the tithe was to be their means of support as they pursued their work as aides to the priests and helpers at the sanctuary. This lack of land inheritance is to be understood by the statement that "the priestly service of the Lord is their inheritance" ( Joshua 18:7 ).

During the temple period, with the ark permanently in Jerusalem and in view of their numbers, the Levites were given additional responsibilities as officials, judges, gatekeepers, and musicians, all of which assisted the priests ( 1 Chronicles 23:4-5 ). They also continued to serve as teachers and administrators of the law. That function was not always carried out well; hence the need for specific times of teaching ( 2 Chronicles 17:7-9;  35:3 ).

Postexilic Historical Books . While 4,289 priests (approximately one-tenth of the entire returning number of exiles) returned from captivity with Zerubbabel, only 341Levites, singers, and gatekeepers are recorded as returning ( Ezra 2:36-58 ). Ezra succeeded in persuading only thirty-eight Levites to return with him ( Ezra 8:15-19 ). The fact that many of the menial tasks of temple service were the responsibility of the Levites and that the temple first had to be rebuilt and when it was, it was not as glorious as Solomon's temple ( Ezra 3:12 ), may have affected the willingness of the Levites to return. Some of the Levites became involved, however, in the interpretation and teaching of the law ( Nehemiah 8:7-8 ) and in the leading of the people in worship ( Nehemiah 9:4-5;  12:8-9,27-47 ).

Prophets . Though rarely referred to in the prophets, and even then usually in the context of priests who are Levites, the Levites as distinct from the Zadokite priests are mentioned in  Ezekiel 44:11 . The future acquisition and redistribution of the land would include a specific area in which the Levites could live ( Ezekiel 45:5 ).

The New Testament . The term "Levite(s)" is only used three times in the New Testament. They were still a distinct class connected to the temple in Jerusalem along with the priests ( John 1:19 ). As teachers of the law, the Levites, together with the priests, were probably sent with this role in mind, to question John the Baptist. It is possible that many scribes were Levites. In the parable of the good Samaritan both a priest and Levite are mentioned, though not in a commendable manner ( Luke 10:31-32 ). Barnabas is referred to as a Levite ( Acts 4:36 ).

In summary, though the conclusions of the majority of modern critical scholars concerning the identity and purpose of the Levites (and priests) are in sharp contrast to the view presented here, the Scriptures clearly indicate that the Levites should be seen as a tribe that was below the priestly group of Aaronic priests but still distinct from other Israelites. They were "set apart, " handled the sacred articles of the tabernacle, served as substitutes for the firstborn who belonged to God, taught the law of God, served as judges, enhanced the worship at the temple in music, and guarded the treasures and moneys associated with the temple, but did not serve as mediators of the covenant. Their significant contribution was that they made it possible for the people to worship and fulfill their obligations to God. Along with the honor that the Levites had in their unique appointment, there was the need for their total dedication to the work of the Lord, not that of pursuing material gain, and the necessity to look to him to supply some of their needs through the people. It was a life of sacrifice and service with their service to the Lord being their valuable inheritance that they could pass on to the next generation. They did not always value their function and inheritance, as evidenced after the exile.

Stephen J. Bramer

See also Offerings And Sacrifices; Priesthood Priest

Bibliography . O. T. Allis, Baker's Dictionary of Theology, pp. 321-22; W. C. Kaiser, TWOT, 1:1093-94; G. Smith, Holman Bible Dictionary, s.v. "Levites."

Easton's Bible Dictionary [3]

 Exodus 6:25 Leviticus 25:32 Numbers 35:2 Joshua 21:3,41 1 Kings 8:4 Ezra 2:70

When the Israelites left Egypt, the ancient manner of worship was still observed by them, the eldest son of each house inheriting the priest's office. At Sinai the first change in this ancient practice was made. A hereditary priesthood in the family of Aaron was then instituted ( Exodus 28:1 ). But it was not till that terrible scene in connection with the sin of the golden calf that the tribe of Levi stood apart and began to occupy a distinct position ( Exodus 32 ). The religious primogeniture was then conferred on this tribe, which henceforth was devoted to the service of the sanctuary ( Numbers 3:11-13 ). They were selected for this purpose because of their zeal for the glory of God ( Exodus 32:26 ), and because, as the tribe to which Moses and Aaron belonged, they would naturally stand by the lawgiver in his work.

The Levitical order consisted of all the descendants of Levi's three sons, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari; whilst Aaron, Amram's son (Amram, son of Kohat), and his issue constituted the priestly order.

The age and qualification for Levitical service are specified in  Numbers 4:3,23,30,39,43,47 .

They were not included among the armies of Israel ( Numbers 1:47;  2:33;  26:62 ), but were reckoned by themselves. They were the special guardians of the tabernacle ( Numbers 1:51;  18:22-24 ). The Gershonites pitched their tents on the west of the tabernacle (3:23), the Kohathites on the south (3:29), the Merarites on the north (3:35), and the priests on the east (3:38). It was their duty to move the tent and carry the parts of the sacred structure from place to place. They were given to Aaron and his sons the priests to wait upon them and do work for them at the sanctuary services ( Numbers 8:19;  18:2-6 ).

As being wholly consecrated to the service of the Lord, they had no territorial possessions. Jehovah was their inheritance ( Numbers 18:20;  26:62;  Deuteronomy 10:9;  18:1,2 ), and for their support it was ordained that they should receive from the other tribes the tithes of the produce of the land. Forty-eight cities also were assigned to them, thirteen of which were for the priests "to dwell in", i.e., along with their other inhabitants. Along with their dwellings they had "suburbs", i.e., "commons", for their herds and flocks, and also fields and vineyards ( Numbers 35:2-5 ). Nine of these cities were in Judah, three in Naphtali, and four in each of the other tribes ( Joshua 21 ). Six of the Levitical cities were set apart as "cities of refuge" (q.v.). Thus the Levites were scattered among the tribes to keep alive among them the knowledge and service of God. (See Priest .)

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [4]

According to the view represented in the OT by the so-called ‘Priests’ Code,’ the Levites were originally the clan whose members were qualified for the priestly office. In the course of time a distinction arose, and the Levites became the principal attendants upon the priests, entrusted with minor sacerdotal duties but not competent to succeed to the full status. In the NT, outside the Gospels, the term occurs but once or twice. Barnabas of Cyprus, where there were numerous Jews and Christians ( 1 Maccabees 15:23,  Acts 11:19), was a landowner, though a Levite ( Acts 4:36), the old ordinance ( Numbers 18:24) against the possession of real estate having long before fallen into abeyance, and probably having never been meant to apply to land outside Palestine. In  Hebrews 7:11 the writer coins a word to enable him to write of ‘the Levitical priesthood,’ as though the hallowing of the tribe were concentrated in ‘the order of Aaron’ (so Westcott, ad loc. ), or with a view to indicating the provisional character of all parts of the earlier sacrificial service and not merely of its central acts. The priestly tribe with all its privileges passes away; and another-the royal tribe ( Hebrews 7:14)-yields Him who is able really to save, and to ‘save to the uttermost’ ( Hebrews 7:25). In later times an assumed parallel between the historical and the true Israel was pushed, until the relation of deacons to bishops and presbyters was based upon that of Levites to priests. The theory has proved useful since the days of Cyprian, and may conceivably have originated in some of the Ebionitic Christian communities of our period; but the functions of the two classes, Levites and deacons, were quite distinct, and any analogy between them is artificial and an afterthought.

R. W. Moss.

Webster's Dictionary [5]

(1): ( n.) One of the tribe or family of Levi; a descendant of Levi; esp., one subordinate to the priests (who were of the same tribe) and employed in various duties connected with the tabernacle first, and afterward the temple, such as the care of the building, bringing of wood and other necessaries for the sacrifices, the music of the services, etc.

(2): ( n.) A priest; - so called in contempt or ridicule.

King James Dictionary [6]

LE'VITE, n. from Levi, one the sons of Jacob.

One of the tribe or family of Levi a descendant of Levi more particularly, an officer in the Jewish church, who was employed in manual service, as in bringing wood and other necessaries for the sacrifices. The Levites also sung and played on instruments of music. They were subordinate to the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who was also of the family of Levi.

Wilson's Dictionary of Bible Types [7]

 Luke 10:32 (c) This sect may be taken as a picture of the lay workers of many churches who know almost nothing about soul winning, and care less. They are busy with the physical and social affairs of the church, but not the spiritual.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [8]

Bibliography Information McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Levite'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/l/levite.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.