From BiblePortal Wikipedia

Fausset's Bible Dictionary [1]

The men of Levi, the sacerdotal tribe, all ministers, out of whom the priests were taken, namely, Aaron's family. Levi's wild zeal against the defiler of Dinah was the forerunner of the Levites' zeal against impure idolaters. The antiquity and genuineness of Genesis are marked by the absence of all notice of Levi's subsequent greatness as the priest tribe. The genealogy ( Genesis 46:11) goes no further down than Levi's three sons; these too are named in their order of birth, not giving Kohath the prominence which his family had subsequently, He has four clans in  Exodus 6:16-25, Gershon and Merari but two each. Amram, Aaron, and Moses belonged to his stock ( Exodus 4:14). The firstborn "young men" of Israel were the priests to offer sacrifices ( Exodus 24:5) before the law, representing the priestly nation ( Exodus 19:6;  Exodus 19:22;  Exodus 19:24). (See Levi on the Levites' promotion to be the priestly tribe for their zeal in the Lord's cause.)

Levi became "an Israel within an Israel," the witness and guard of the truth. Substituted for the firstborn males of all Israel whom Jehovah claimed as His when He saved Israel from the stroke on Egypt's firstborn; the Levites, 22,000; the firstborn males, 22,273; the odd 273 above were to be redeemed at five shekels each ( Numbers 3:45-51), the fixed price for redeeming a victim vowed in sacrifice ( Numbers 18:16;  Leviticus 27:6). The Levites' cattle were taken for the firstlings of Israel's cattle (compare  Exodus 13:12-13). The Levites marching from Sinai round the tabernacle were the heavenly King's royal guard; none else was to approach it on pain of death ( Numbers 1:51;  Numbers 18:22;  Numbers 4:3-30).

The priests occupied the eastern side of the tabernacle, inside Judah the leading camp; the Kohathites the southern side, inside Reuben; the Gershonites the western side, inside Ephraim; the Merarites the northern, inside Daniel The aggregate of Gershonites ( Numbers 3:22), Kohathites ( Numbers 3:28), and Merarites ( Numbers 3:34), is 22,300; but in the redemption 300 are deducted (probably the firstborn in Levi within the year that had elapsed since the command was issued,  Numbers 3:40-43), and 22,000 taken as substituted for Israel's male firstborn. Levi in this census was the fewest tribe in numbers, but in the other tribes servants not pure Israelites were enumerated, whereas in Levi only pure Israelites. The number of Israel's firstborn males (22,273) compared with the male adults (603,550) is disproportionately small, the proportion being usually one in four.

But the law of  Exodus 13:1-2, dedicated those alone who should be firstborn thenceforward (compare Exodus 2; Exodus 11-12;  Numbers 3:13;  Numbers 8:17), for the duties of the firstborn referred to a ritual yet to be revealed, and the firstborn of cattle must mean those thereafter firstborn. Thus the proportion of firstborn sons in one year born of 2,000,000 of men is so large as can be explained only by the divine blessing, and the sudden development which the Exodus gave to the nation. The Levites stood midway between the people and the priesthood, which culminated in the high priest. They could not sacrifice, burn incense, or see the "holy things" until covered ( Numbers 4:15). Yet they came nearer than the people, and they alone struck the tent in marching, carried its parts, and pitched it again. Their work needed matured strength; so their service began not until 30 years old (with a previous probationary period of five years:  Numbers 8:24), whereas military service began at 20. At 50 their service ceased ( Numbers 8:25-26).

So, of 8,600 Kohathites, 2,750 were on duty, of 7,500 Gershonites 2,630, of 6,200 Merarites 3,200 (Numbers 4). The Kohathites held the highest office and bore the ark (except on solemn occasions when the priests bore it:  Joshua 3:3;  Joshua 3:15) and vessels, after the priest had covered them ( Numbers 4:15). The Gershonites bore the tent hangings and curtains; the Merarites the tabernacle boards, bars, and pillars; the Kohathites under Eleazar bore the vessels on their shoulders ( Numbers 7:9); the Gershonites and Merarites under Ithamar ( Numbers 4:28;  Numbers 4:33), because of their weighty charge, were allowed oxen and wagons. The Levites were Jehovah's and Israel's  1 Chronicles 9:2; the Levites' subordinates) and "joined" (as Levi means) to the priests ( Numbers 3:9;  Numbers 8:19;  Numbers 18:2;  Numbers 18:4;  Numbers 18:6).

The Levites were purified for service with bathing, shaving, washing clothes, imposition of Israel' s hands, waving them as a wave offering to Jehovah (compare our gospel "living sacrifice,"  Romans 12:1) toward the four points of the compass, in token of entire consecration of all their powers; the Levite then laid hands on one bullock offered for a sin offering and another for a burnt offering. Korah's rebellion through seeking the priesthood was followed by a fresh defining of the Levites' office (Numbers 16;  Numbers 18:1-7). The Levites received a tithe or tenth of all produce, animal and vegetable, of which they had to pay the priests a tithe ( Numbers 18:20-32). A second tithe the Israelites used for the tabernacle feasts and free will offerings, and of this second tithe the Levites should receive a share ( Deuteronomy 14:23;  Deuteronomy 14:27), especially when ministering ( Deuteronomy 18:7-8).

Forty-eight cities were appointed them (four on the average from each tribe), including the six cities of refuge and (of suburbs, meadow for their cattle) 1,000 cubits out from the city walls, each of the four sides being 2,000 cubits long. (See Gezer .) The phrase "the Levite that is within thy gates" is appropriate ( Deuteronomy 14:27), for the Levites' cities did not cease to belong to the tribes within which they lay. Thus Levites are occasionally spoken of as belonging to other tribes, namely, those within whose territory they resided (1  Deuteronomy 8:6;  Judges 17:7;  1 Samuel 1:1). Elkanah a Levite is called an "Ephrathite," "Heman the Ezrahite," i.e. from Zerah of Judah (title Psalm 88; Psalm 89). "The priests the Levites" on the peculiar use of Levites without distinction from the priests) were to determine controversies and to preserve the law in the side of the ark, and in the seventh year at the feast of tabernacles read it before Israel, and pronounce the curses from Ebal ( Deuteronomy 17:9-12;  Deuteronomy 31:9-13;  Deuteronomy 31:26;  Deuteronomy 27:14). (See Deuteronomy .)

The Hivite Gibeonites ( Joshua 9:27) and the Nethinim relieved the Levites of their more burdensome duties subsequently. (See Nethinim .) Micah's consecration of the homeless Levite as his household priest implies a relapse in dark times to the original household priesthood. It was a Korahlike usurpation on the part of the Levite (Judges 17). Samuel the Levite, adopted into the priesthood, revived the divine order. The Levites were among his schools of the prophets, whose training consisted in praise, prayer, and study of the law. Hence enlarged views of acceptable worship appear in the Levite Asaph's Psalm 50. The ark after its restoration from the Philistines was in charge of Abinadab in the hill, or Gibeah, or Kirjath Jearim ( 1 Samuel 7:1;  2 Samuel 6:3), probably an old Canaanite highplace sanctuary. David's words ( 1 Chronicles 15:2) imply that heretofore Levites had not been in charge of the ark, therefore that Abinadab was not a Levite possibly (?). "None ought. to carry the ark of God but the Levites, for them hath Jehovah chosen."

Saul's assumption of sacrificing, his slaughter of the priests at Nob and of the serving Gibeonites, imply his self-willed impatience of the prominence of the priest tribe. Accordingly, at Hebron, 4,600 Levites joined David, besides 3,700 priests ( 1 Chronicles 12:26-27). He honoured them at his succession, and once even wore their robe ( 2 Samuel 6:14). The duties of the Levites are defined by him ( 1 Chronicles 23:24-32), "to wait on the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of Jehovah," etc., "and to stand every morning to thank and praise Jehovah, and likewise at even, and to offer (i.e. assist the priests in offering) all burnt sacrifices," etc.

The Levites supplied "officers and judges" ( 1 Chronicles 26:30), "in all the business of the Lord and the service of the king." Korah's sons of the Levites, headed by Heman, played upon psalteries and harps ( 1 Chronicles 9:19;  1 Chronicles 9:32); the Kohathites prepared the shewbread every sabbath; the Gershonites were headed by Asaph's son in the temple choir ( 1 Chronicles 6:39;  1 Chronicles 6:44;  1 Chronicles 15:17), the Merarites by Ethan or Jeduthun. The heavier work being no longer needed of transporting the tabernacle, and psalmody being their chief duty, they entered service as early as the age of 20 ( 1 Chronicles 23:24-27). The Levites numbered 38,000 under David ( 1 Chronicles 23:3), of whom 4,000 formed the full choir; 288 in 24 divisions of 12 each were the skilled musicians ( 1 Chronicles 25:1-8). At the severance of Israel and Judah the Levites flocked from the apostate northern kingdom to Judah and Jerusalem, and strengthened the southern kingdom ( 2 Chronicles 11:13-14;  2 Chronicles 13:10-12).

The Levites proclaimed and taught the law, and judged controversies, with the priests and chiefs of Israel, in Jehoshaphat's reformation ( 2 Chronicles 19:8-11). They praised the Lord as singers before his army, and their beginning to sing was the signal of victory from the Lord over the Moabite and Ammonite invaders ( 2 Chronicles 20:19-22). They took an active part under Jehoiada in restoring Joash (2 Chronicles 33); and in Hezekiah's reformation were "more upright" or earnest than the priests ( 2 Chronicles 29:5-34;  2 Chronicles 30:15-22;  2 Chronicles 30:27). So under Josiah the Levites had as their characteristic designation that they "taught all Israel" ( 2 Chronicles 35:3-15). They served the Lord and Israel, standing in the holy place. The Levites acted as teachers and scribes of the law, and chroniclers of their times. Even the Levites fell into apostasy in the closing reigns of Judah ( Ezekiel 44:10-14;  Ezekiel 48:11).

Their number at the return from Babylon was small ( Ezra 2:36-42). They sang by course, praising Jehovah, at the founding and subsequent dedicating of the temple ( Ezra 3:10-11;  Ezra 6:18). None of the Levites joined Ezra at his gathering at the river Ahava ( Ezra 8:15;  Ezra 8:18-20). He induced 38 to join him, with 220 Nethinim. At the feast of tabernacles ( Nehemiah 8:7-8) they road and explained the law; their tithes were again secured to them ( Nehemiah 10:37-39), and they dwelt in villages round Jerusalem, and took their place at the dedication of the wall ( Nehemiah 12:27-30), and kept the gates to ensure the sanctification of the sabbath ( Nehemiah 12:22). They appear as unloving formalists in  Luke 10:32, and formed part of the deputation sent from Jerusalem to test John's credentials ( John 1:19).

Barnabas was a Levite ( Acts 4:36). They are among the sealed tribes (Revelation 7). Their name is still preserved in the Jewish Levy, as Cohen is "priest." Their firstborn are exempted from certain payments among the Jews, as in the redemption of the firstborn. A false judaizing analogy makes the Christian deacons answer to the Levites, the presbyters to the priests, and the bishops to the high priest. Their temple psalmody was the forerunner of our church music; and to them we probably owe the preservation of some of the Scriptures. It is the peculiarity of the Mosaic system, as distinguished from pagan systems, that the Levites, the ministers of religion, not merely performed religious rites, but without vows of celibacy, freely intermarrying with the other tribes, were dispersed among the nation to teach moral and religious truths to all, of whom they formed the twelfth part ( Deuteronomy 31:9-13).

Drawing their livelihood from the tithes and offerings, which would fail if God's law were slighted, they had every motive to maintain it. Thus they consolidated the union of the tribes by the strongest tie, religion. The wisdom of their appointment accords with the divine origin of the Jewish law. Jehovah praises Levites as to the past: "My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared Me and was afraid before My name ... The law of truth was in his mouth and iniquity was not found in his lips; he walked with Me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity." The Lord at His coming is to "purify the sons of Levi, so that they may again offer an offering of righteousness" ( Malachi 2:5-6;  Malachi 3:3; compare  Isaiah 66:21).

American Tract Society Bible Dictionary [2]

All the descendants of Levi may be comprised under this name,  Exodus 6:16,25   Joshua 3:3 , (see  Numbers 3:6-10   18:2-7 . God chose the Levites for the service of his tabernacle and temple, instead of the firstborn of all Israel, to whom such duties naturally belonged, and who were already sacred to God in memory of the great deliverance in Egypt.  Exodus 13:1-22   Numbers 3:12,13,39-51 . In the wilderness, the Levites took charge of the tabernacle and its contents; and conveyed it from place to place, each of the three families having a separate portion,  Numbers 1:51   4:1-49   1 Chronicles 15:2,27 . After the building of the temple they took charge of the gates, of the sacred vessels, of the preparation of the showbread and other offerings, and of the singing and instrumental music,  1 Chronicles 9:1-44   23:1-32   2 Chronicles 29:1-36 . They brought wood, water, etc., for the priests; aided them in preparing the sacrifices, and in collecting and disbursing the contributions of the people,  2 Chronicles 30:16,17   35:1 . They were also the temple guards,  Nehemiah 13:13,22; and the salutation and response in  Psalm 134:1-3 are thought by Bishop Lowth to have been their song in the night. But besides their services in the temple, they performed a very important part in teaching the people,   2 Chronicles 30:22   Nehemiah 8:7 , among whom they were scattered, binding the tribes together, and promoting virtue and piety. They studied the law, and were the ordinary judges of the country, but subordinate to the priests,  2 Chronicles 17:9   19:8-11 . God provided for the subsistence of the Levites, by giving to them the tithe of corn, fruit, and cattle; but they paid to the priests the tenth of their tithes; and as the Levites possessed no estates in land, the tithes which the priests received from them were considered as the first fruits which they were to offer to the Lord,  Numbers 18:21-32 . The payment of tithes to the Levites appears not to have been enforced, but depended on the goodwill of the people; hence the special charges laid on their brethren, not to forget them,  Deuteronomy 2:12,18,19 .

God assigned for the habitation of the Levites forty-eight cities, with fields, pastures, and gardens,  Numbers 35:1-34 . Of these, thirteen were given to the priests, all in the tribes near Jerusalem. Six of the Levitical cities were appointed as cities of refuge,  Joshua 20:1-21:45 . While the Levites were actually employed in the temple, they were supported out of the provisions kept in store there, and out of the daily offerings. The same privilege was granted to volunteers, drawn to Jerusalem by the fervor of their love to God's service,  Deuteronomy 12:18,19   18:6-8 . The consecration of Levites was without much ceremony. See  Numbers 8:5-22   2 Chronicles 29:34 .

The Levites wore no peculiar dress to distinguish them from other Israelites, till the time of Agrippa. His innovation in this matter is mentioned by Josephus, who remarked that the ancient customs of the country were never forsaken with impunity.

The Levites were divided into different classes: the Gershomites, Kohathites, and Merarites,  Numbers 3:17-20 . They were still further divided into courses, like the priests,  1 Chronicles 23:1-26:32 . At first, they entered in full on their public duties at thirty years of age,  Numbers 4:3   8:25; but David fixed the age for commencing at twenty years; and at fifty they were exempt,  1 Chronicles 23:24-27 . The different courses of porters, singers, guards, etc., were on duty in succession, one week at a time,  1 Chronicles 23:1-26:32   2 Chronicles 23:4,8   31:17   Ezra 3:8-12 . After the revolt of the ten tribes, a large portion of the Levites abandoned their cities in Israel, and dwelt in Judah,  2 Chronicles 11:12-14   13:9-11 . After the captivity, numbers of them returned from beyond the Euphrates to Judea,  Nehemiah 11:15-19   12:24-31 . In the New Testament they are not often mentioned,  Luke 10:32   John 1:19   Acts 4:36 . The "scribes" and "doctors," however, are supposed to have belonged chiefly to this class.

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [3]

LEVITES. —According to one line of tradition, the Levites were appointed to assist the priests ( Numbers 3:9;  Numbers 8:19;  Numbers 18:1-6), but were not themselves, like Aaron and his sons, to approach unto the most holy things ( Numbers 4:19); yet according to another representation the priesthood belonged to them as an inheritance ( Deuteronomy 33:8-11,  Joshua 18:7). Whatever may have been the origin and date of the distinction between priest and Levite, it existed in the post-exilic period, since it was recognized in NT times. The Levites are to be classed among the Temple officials, and to their office with its specific duties ( Numbers 1:50-51;  Numbers 3:8) they were formally set apart ( Numbers 8:6-7). Among their duties was the instruction of the people* [Note: Schürer, HJP ii. i. 306 ff.] ( Nehemiah 8:9,  2 Chronicles 30:22;  2 Chronicles 35:3) and ‘the killing of the passovers for every one that was not clean,’ as also the handing of the blood to the priests to be sprinkled by them according to the Law† [Note: Keim, Jesus of Nazara, v. 276.] ( 2 Chronicles 30:16-17).

The relation of assistantship which associated the Levites with the priests was similar to that which connected deacons with bishops in the Christian Church; and it is not improbable that that connexion was suggested by the arrangement of the functions of the Temple officers with which the Jewish converts to Christianity were familiar.‡ [Note: Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches, 52.]

In the Gospels there are only two places where the word ‘Levite’ is found. In the first of these, the parable of the Good Samaritan ( Luke 10:30-35), a priest and a Levite, representatives of the religion of Israel and at the same time examples of Jewish traditionalism, are unfavourably contrasted with a Samaritan, one of a people with whom the Jews had no dealings. The parable is the answer of Jesus to the lawyer who asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and it seems evident that the Levite, described by Jesus, when he looked on the wounded man and passed by on the other side, recognized that he was not a Jew, and therefore not a neighbour to be humanely treated according to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ ( Leviticus 19:18). The Levite, it may be concluded, accepted a Jewish traditional conception of ‘neighbour’ which excluded all those who were not of Israel. Clement of Alexandria wrote that Jesus, ‘on His interlocutor inquiring, “Who is my neighbour?” did not, in the same way with the Jews, specify the blood-relation, or the fellow-citizen, or the proselyte, or him that had been similarly circumcised, or the man who uses one and the same law.’§ [Note: Ante-Nicene Christian Library, xxii. 205.]

In the Fourth Gospel ( John 1:19) the distinction between priest and Levite is made by naming together the representatives of these classes, who were sent from Jerusalem to ask John the question, ‘Who art thou?’ The Levites, as teachers of the people, would be deemed qualified to judge of claims of Messiahship (so Hengstenberg and Godet, but see B. Weiss, ad loc. ); but it is significant that the mission to John of priests and Levites, who were officially connected with the Passover ceremonies, is recorded, and in it alone, in the Gospel which, according to the theory held by many critics, identifies Christ with the Paschal lamb. They were told by John that he was not the Christ; and immediately after the account of their interview with him there is the statement that he, seeing Jesus, said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’ ( John 1:29).

Literature.—Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. i. 223 ff., 265 ff.; Milman, Hist. of the Jews , ii. 408; Kautzsch, Lit. of the OT , 90, 117; Schultz, OT Theology , i. 337; K. Budde, Rel. of Israel to the Exile , 80; and the art. ‘Priests and Levites’ by Baudissin in Hastings’ DB. [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.]

J. Herkless.

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary [4]

Under this name may be comprised all the descendants of Levi; but it principally denotes those who were employed in the lowest ministries of the temple, by which they were distinguished from the priests, who, being descended from Aaron, were likewise of the race of Levi by Kohath, but were employed in higher offices. The Levites were descendants of Levi, by Gershom, Kohath, and Merari, excepting the family of Aaron; for the children of Moses had no part in the priesthood, and were only common Levites. God chose the Levites instead of the first-born of all Israel, for the service of his tabernacle and temple,  Numbers 3:6 , &c. They obeyed the priests in the ministrations of the temple, and brought to them wood, water, and other things necessary for the sacrifices. They sung and played on instruments, in the temple, &c; they studied the law, and were the ordinary judges of the country, but subordinate to the priests.

God provided for the subsistence of the Levites, by giving them the tithe of corn, fruit, and cattle; but they paid to the priests the tenth of their tithes; and as the Levites possessed no estates in the land, the tithes which the priests received from them were looked upon as the first-fruits which they were to offer to the Lord,  Numbers 18:21-24 . God assigned them for their habitations forty-eight cities, with fields, pastures, and gardens, Numbers 35. Of these thirteen were given to the priests, six of which were cities of refuge,  Joshua 20:7;  Joshua 21:19-20 , &c. While the Levites were actually employed in the temple, they were subsisted out of the provisions in store there, and out of the daily offerings there made; and if any Levite quitted the place of his abode, to serve the temple, even out of the time of his half-yearly or weekly waiting, he was received there, kept and provided for, in like manner as his other brethren, who were regularly in waiting,  Deuteronomy 18:6-8 . The consecration of Levites was without much ceremony. They wore no particular habit to distinguish them from the other Israelites, and God ordained nothing particularly for their mourning,  2 Chronicles 29:34 . The manner of their consecration may be seen in  Numbers 8:5-7 , &c.

Josephus says, that in the reign of Agrippa, king of the Jews, about A.D. 62, six years before the destruction of the temple by the Romans, the Levites desired permission from that prince to wear the linen tunic like the priests; and this was granted. This innovation was displeasing to the priests; and the Jewish historian remarks, that the ancient customs of the country were never forsaken with impunity. He adds, that Agrippa permitted likewise the families of the Levites, whose duty it was to guard the doors, and perform other troublesome offices, to learn to sing and play on instruments, that they might be qualified for the temple service as musicians. The Levites were divided into different classes: Gershonites, Kohathites, Merarites, and Aaronites or priests, Numbers 3, &c. The Gershonites, whose number was seven thousand five hundred, were employed in the marches through the wilderness in carrying the veils and curtains of the tabernacle; the Kohathites, whose number was eight thousand six hundred, in carrying the ark and sacred vessels of the tabernacle; the Merarites, whose number was six thousand two hundred, in carrying the several pieces of the tabernacle which could not be placed upon the chariots; and the Aaronites were the priests who served the sanctuary. When the Hebrews encamped in the wilderness, the Levites were placed around the tabernacle; Moses and Aaron at the east, Gershon at the west, Kohath at the south, and Merari at the north. Moses ordained that the Levites should not begin in the service of the tabernacle till they were five-and-twenty years of age,  Numbers 8:24-26; or, as he says elsewhere, from thirty to fifty years old,  Numbers 4:3 . But David, finding that they were no longer employed in these grosser offices of transporting the vessels of the tabernacle, appointed them to enter on service at the temple at twenty years of age. The priests and Levites waited by turns, weekly, in the temple. They began their weeks on one Sabbath day, and on the Sabbath day in the following week went out of waiting,  1 Chronicles 23:24;  2 Chronicles 21:17;  Ezra 3:8 . When an Israelite made a religious entertainment in the temple, God required that the Levites should be invited to it,  Deuteronomy 12:18-19 .

Holman Bible Dictionary [5]

 Genesis 12:7-8 Genesis 31:54 Genesis 14:18 Exodus 13:11-15 Numbers 3:11-13 Exodus 32:25-29 Deuteronomy 10:6-9 Numbers 18:20 Numbers 35:1-8 Joshua 13:14 13:33 Numbers 18:24-32 Deuteronomy 12:12 12:18 Deuteronomy 16:11 16:14

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 17:9, 17:18;  Deuteronomy 18:1;  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; 1Chronicles 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 ).

Gary Smith

Morrish Bible Dictionary [6]

The tribe that descended from Levi, son of Jacob. When Moses came down from the mount and saw the golden calf which the people had made, he asked, "Who is on the Lord's side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him." He bade them gird on their swords and slay every man his brother, his companion, and his neighbour. And there fell of the people that day about three thousand. Moses spoke of it as consecrating themselves to the Lord, every man upon his son, and upon his brother, that God might bestow a blessing upon them.  Exodus 32:26-29 .

The Levites were chosen by God as a redemption for all the firstborn of Israel, which God claimed for Himself. They thus became wholly His, and they were given to Aaron to minister in all that pertained to the service of the tabernacle, except the priesthood, which was restricted to Aaron and his descendants.  Numbers 3:5-51 .

Of the Levites there were three main branches: the GERSHONITES, the KOHATHITES, and the MERARITES. Moses and Aaron were descendants of Kohath. When the camp of Israel rested, this tribe surrounded the tabernacle. When it moved they had to carry its various parts and the sacred things belonging thereto. According to  Numbers 4:3 , etc., the Levites appear to have commenced their tabernacle service at the age of thirty; but in  Numbers 8:24-26 the age is given as twenty-five. It may be that they spent the first five years on probation, learning their duties. When Israel had settled in Canaan and the labour of carrying the tabernacle was over, they commenced their service at the age of twenty. They laboured till they were fifty years of age.   1 Chronicles 23:24-27 .

Before the Levites entered upon any service they were thoroughly cleansed and consecrated. The children of Israel put their hands upon them, and Aaron offered them "before the Lord for an offering of the children of Israel" that they might execute the service of the Lord. An atonement was made for them.  Numbers 8:5-26 .

The Levites had no inheritance in the land, and in order that they might be free to serve the Lord, tithes were given them.  Numbers 18:1-32 . Forty-eight cities were given to them as places to dwell in, and the suburbs thereof for their cattle. Six of these cities were to be Cities Of Refuge  Numbers 35:1-8 . The names of the cities are given in  Joshua 20:7-9;  Joshua 21:1-42 .

In the time of David the Levites were set over 'the service of song;' others were door-keepers: some were singers and others played on various instruments.  1 Chronicles 6:31;  1 Chronicles 15:16,26 . In the days of Hezekiah after the temple had been cleansed, the Levites apparently helped to flay the sacrifices, being found "more upright in heart to sanctify themselves than the priests."  2 Chronicles 29:34 . At the Passover that followed, the Levites had the charge of killing the passover lambs for the people who were unclean.  2 Chronicles 30:17 . On the return from exile the Levites helped to explain the law to the people.  Nehemiah 8:7,8 . In the N.T. the Levites are mentioned only in  Luke 10:32;  John 1:19;  Acts 4:36 .

The Levites are typical of Christians, who are redeemed, cleansed, and consecrated to the service of the Lord, and have no inheritance on earth.

People's Dictionary of the Bible [7]

Levites ( Lç'Vîtes ). A term applied sometimes to all the descendants of Levi.  Numbers 35:2;  Joshua 21:3;  Joshua 21:41;  Exodus 6:25;  Leviticus 25:32, etc. But the "sons of Aaron" were separated from the rest of the descendants of Levi and consecrated priests; hence, after this the Levites comprised only those descendants of Levi who were not "sons of Aaron"—that is, priests.  1 Kings 8:4;  Ezra 2:70;  John 1:19, etc. Sometimes, also, the term was used to show from what tribe the priests came—"the priests the Levites."  Joshua 3:3;  Deuteronomy 17:18. The Levites numbered 22,000 in the wilderness, and took the place of the first-born, part of whom were redeemed at five shekels each,  Numbers 3:45-51, the fixed ransom for a victim vowed in sacrifice.  Numbers 18:16;  Leviticus 27:6. Thus the Levites came to occupy in the Hebrew theocracy a position midway between the priests and the people. They consisted of three great families, the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites, of which the first carried the sacred vessels, the second the hangings and curtains of the tabernacle, and the third the boards and pillars. They also kept the book of the Law,  Deuteronomy 17:8-12, and served as judges, etc. Forty-eight cities, with 1000 cubits of the country surrounding, were appropriated for the residence and maintenance of the Levites. Besides these cities, with adjacent districts, the Levites received a tithe of all produce, animal and vegetable, but of this they paid a tithe to the priests.  Numbers 18:20-32. Another tithe they received every third year, and special provision was made for them during the term they administered in the sanctuary. In the time of David their number had increased to 38,000, of which 24,000 were set apart for the ordinary services, 6000 for the teaching of the Law and the administration of justice, 4000 as porters, and 4000 as musicians. They were divided into courses, and came up from their cities to the sanctuary in regular rotation.  1 Chronicles 23:1-32;  1 Chronicles 24:20-31;  1 Chronicles 25:1-31;  1 Chronicles 26:1-32. When the separation took place between the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah, all the Levites gathered to Judah,  2 Chronicles 11:13-15, and they continued to play a conspicuous part in the destinies of this kingdom. After the captivity, however, only a small number of them returned,  Ezra 2:36-42;  Ezra 8:10;  Ezra 6:18; but in the new organization they assumed their old positions. They settled in the villages near Jerusalem, received their old tithes, etc.  Nehemiah 10:37-39;  Nehemiah 12:29. In the New Testament they occur as representatives of a formal worship destitute of love.  Luke 10:32. The distinction of Levite is still maintained among the Jews.

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [8]

LEVITES. See Levi, and Priests and Levites.

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature [9]

Le´vites, the descendants of Levi, through his sons Gershon, Kohath and Merari, whose descendants formed so many sub-tribes or great families of the general body. In a narrower sense the term Levites designates the great body of the tribe employed in the subordinate offices of the hierarchy, to distinguish them from that one family of their body—the family of Aaron—in which the priestly functions were vested.

While the Israelites were encamped before Mount Sinai, the tribe of Levi, to which Moses and Aaron belonged, was, by special ordinance from the Lord, set specially apart for sacerdotal services, in the place of the first-born of the different tribes and families to whom such functions, according to ancient usage, belonged; and which indeed had already been set apart as holy, in commemoration of the first-born of the Israelites having been spared when the first-born of the Egyptians were destroyed (;; Exodus 13). When it was determined to set apart a single tribe of Levi for this service, the numbers of the first-born in Israel and of the tribe selected were respectively taken, when it was found that the former amounted to 22,273, and the latter to 22,000. Those of the first-born beyond the number of the Levites were then redeemed at the rate of five shekels, or 12s. 6d. each, and the money assigned to the priests. At the same time the cattle which the Levites then happened to possess were considered as equivalent to all the firstlings of the cattle which the Israelites had; and, accordingly, the firstlings were not required to be brought, as in subsequent years, to the altar and to the priesthood .

In the wilderness the office of the Levites was to carry the Tabernacle and its utensils and furniture from place to place, after they had been packed up by the priests . In this service each of the three Levitical families had its separate department; the Gershonites carried the hangings and cords of the Tabernacle, for which they were allowed two wains, each drawn by four oxen (;; ). The Kohathites carried the ark, the table of shew-bread, the candlestick, the two altars, and such of the hangings as belonged to the sanctuary; for this they had no wains or oxen, the whole being carried upon their shoulders (;; ); the Merarites had charge of the substantial parts of the Tabernacle—the boards, pillars, bars, bases, etc., and also all the ordinary vessels of service, for which they were allowed four wains and eight oxen (;; ). In this manner they proceeded in all their journeys; and when they settled in a place, and had erected the Tabernacle, the different families pitched their tents around it in the following manner: the Gershonites behind it on the west , the Kohathites on the south , the Merarites on the north , and the priests on the east . They all assisted Aaron and his sons in taking care of, and attending on, the Tabernacle, when it was pitched; but they were allowed to take no part in the services of the altar .

This was the nature of their service in the desert; but when they entered the land of Canaan, and the tabernacle ceased to be migratory, the range of their service was considerably altered. While part attended at the tabernacle, the rest were distributed through the country in the several cities which were allotted to them. These cities are commonly reckoned forty-eight; but thirteen of them were reserved for the priests, so that only thirty-five belonged to the Levites. The names of these cities, and the tribes in which they were situated, are given in; . Of the forty-eight cities six were cities of refuge for the unintentional homicide, of which one, Hebron, was a priestly city .

In the time of David, when the number of the priests and Levites had much increased, a third and very important alteration was effected, as much, or more, with reference to the Temple, for which he made every possible preparation, as for the existing service at the Tabernacle. While the priests were divided into twenty-four courses, that they might attend the Temple in rotation weekly, and only officiate about two weeks in the year, the Levites were also divided into twenty-four courses. In the book of Chronicles we have four times twenty-four courses of Levites mentioned, but all their employments are not distinctly stated . The most conspicuous classification is that of twenty-four courses of porters and servitors, and twenty-four of musicians. The office of the porters was to open and shut the doors and gates of the Temple-courts, at which they also attended throughout the day to prevent the entrance of any harmful or unclean person or thing . They had also the charge of the treasure-chambers in their respective wards; for we find four of the chief porters holding this trust in , and their names and the articles in their charge are given in; .

Besides acting as porters and servants during the day, we learn that they were also the guards of the Temple. Without entering into specific details, it may be remarked that the whole number of guards to the Temple at night is stated to have been twenty four, of whom three were priests. These are described as having been under an overseer called 'the man of the mountain of the house.' He went his rounds to see that the guards were at their posts: if he found any one seated who should have been standing, he said, 'Peace be unto thee;' but if he found any one asleep, he struck him, and sometimes set fire to his clothes.

We have thus seen that one division of the Levites was employed as porters during the day, and another as guards during the night; a third division served as musicians. A catalogue of these is given in , according to their employments; and another, according to their courses, in . We shall have to speak of Music under that head, and need only here state that on grand occasions, when a full band was formed, the family of Heman sung in the middle , the family of Asaph on the right hand , and the family of Ethan on the left. The ordinary place for the musicians, vocal and instrumental, was at the east end of the court of the priests, between the court of Israel and the altar.

It seems that the singers could never be under twelve, because that number was particularly mentioned at their first appointment but there was no objection to any larger number. The young sons of the Levites were, on such occasions only, allowed to enter the court of the priests with their fathers, that their small voices might relieve the deep bass of the men: and for this authority was supposed to be found in .

The Levites were not at liberty to exercise any properly sacerdotal functions; but on extraordinary occasions they were permitted to assist in preparing the sacrifices, without, however, in any way concerning themselves with the blood (;; ).

In the Levites are described as commencing their actual service at thirty years of age; but in , twenty-five is the age mentioned; and in , and , twenty. The reason of these apparent discrepancies is, that from twenty-five to thirty they were in the state of probationers, doing some things, but excluded from others (Aben Ezra, on Numbers 8). At thirty they became qualified for every part of the Levitical service. This was under the Tabernacle; but when the Temple was built, and bodily strength was less required, the age was reduced to twenty. After fifty they were no longer called upon to serve as a matter of obligation; but they might attend if they thought proper, and perform any usual service which was not considered burthensome. Thus, in the wilderness, they ceased at that age to carry any part of the burdens when the ark and Tabernacle were removed .

When the Levitical body was first set apart for its sacred duties, the existing members were consecrated in the manner particularly described in; . They, and in them their descendants, were thus inducted into their particular office; and, in later times, when any one became of age, it was sufficient for his admission to prove that he belonged to a Levitical family, and, probably, to offer some trifling sacrifice. It does not appear that the Levites, when at home, had any particular dress to distinguish them from their countrymen; nor is there any positive evidence that they had any distinctive garb, even when on actual service at the tabernacle or temple. Josephus relates that only six years before the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, the Levites were allowed by Agrippa to wear a linen tunic, like the priests—an innovation with which the latter were highly displeased. This shows that the dress of the Levites, even when on duty, had not previously been in any respect similar to that of the priests.

The subsistence of the Levites was provided for in a peculiar manner. It consisted, first, of a compensation for the abandonment of their right to one-twelfth of the land of Canaan; and, secondly, of a remuneration for their services in their official capacity as devoted to the services of the sanctuary. The territorial compensation lay in the 48 cities which were granted to the whole tribe, including the priests. These cities were scattered among the different tribes, as centers of instruction, and had 1000 square cubits, equal to above 305 English acres, attached to each of them, to serve for gardens, vineyards, and pasturage. It is obvious, however, that this alone could not have been an adequate compensation for the loss of one twelfth of the soil, seeing that the produce of 305 acres could not in any case have sufficed for the wants of the inhabitants of these cities. The further provision, therefore, which was made for them must be regarded as partly in compensation for their sacrifice of territory, although we are disposed to look upon it as primarily intended as a remuneration for the dedication of their services to the public. This provision consisted of the tithe, or tenth of the produce of the grounds allotted to the other tribes. The simplest view of this payment is to regard it, first, as the produce of about as much land as the Levites would have been entitled to if placed on the same footing with regard to territory as the other tribes; and also as the produce of so much more land, which the other tribes enjoyed in consequence of its not having been assigned to the tribe of Levi. In giving the produce of this land to the Levites the Israelites were therefore to be regarded as simply releasing them from the cares of agriculture, to enable them to devote themselves to the service of the sanctuary. The land which produced the tithe was just so much land held by the other tribes in their behalf; and the labor of cultivating this land was the salary paid to the Levites for their official services. The tenth was paid to the whole tribe of Levi; but as the Levites had to give out of this one-tenth to the priests, their own allowance was only nine-tenths of the tenth. A more particular account of tithes belongs to another head [TITHE]. The Levites had also a certain interest in the 'second tithe,' being the portion which, after the first tithe had been paid, the cultivator set apart for hospitable feasts, which were held at the place of the sanctuary in two out of three years, but in the third year at home. This interest, however, extended no further than that the offerer was particularly enjoined to invite the priests and Levites to such feasts.

The earliest notice we have of the numbers of the Levites occurs at their first separation in the desert, when there were 22,300, of a month old and upwards; of whom 8580 were fit for service, or between the ages of 30 and 50 (;;;; ). Thirty-eight years after, just before the Israelites entered Canaan, they had increased to 23,000, not one of whom had been born at the time of the former enumeration . About 460 years after the entry into Canaan (B.C. 1015) they were again numbered by David, a little before his death, and were found to have increased to 38,000 men fit for Levitical service—of whom 24,000 were 'set over the work of the Lord,' 6000 were officers and judges, 4000 were porters, and 4000 were musicians . If the same proportion then existed between those come of age and those a month old which existed when the tribe departed from Egypt, the entire number of the Levitical body, in the time of David, must have been 96,433.

After the revolt of the ten tribes, those of the Levites who resided in the territories of those tribes, having resisted the request of Jeroboam to transfer their services to his idolatrous establishments at Dan and Bethel, were obliged to abandon their possessions and join their brethren in Judah and Benjamin ; and this concentration of the Levitical body in the kingdom of Judah must have had an important influence upon its condition and history. That kingdom thus actually consisted of three tribes—Judah, Benjamin, and Levi—of which one was devoted to sacerdotal uses. This altered position of the Levites—after they had been deprived of most of their cities, and the tithes from ten of the tribes were cut off—presents a subject for much interesting investigation, into which we cannot enter. Their means must have been much reduced; for it cannot be supposed that Judah and Benjamin alone were able, even if willing, to undertake the support of the whole Levitical body on the same scale as when the dues of all Israel flowed into its treasuries. In the subsequent history of Judah the Levites appear less frequently than might have been expected. The chief public measure in which they were engaged was the restoration of the house of David in the person of young Joash which may be regarded as mainly the work of the Levitical body, including the priests.

Under the edict of Cyrus, only 341 Levites, according to Ezra , or 350, according to Nehemiah , returned with Zerubbabel to Jerusalem. This is less surprising than might at first sight appear; for if, before the captivity, the great body of them had been in straitened circumstances and without fixed possessions in Judah, it was only consistent with human prudence that those who had, in all probability, comfortably settled themselves in Babylon, should not be anxious to return in such numbers to Palestine as were likely to produce similar effects. A few more are mentioned in . Those who did return seem to have had no very correct notion of their obligations and duties; for there were many who formed matrimonial alliances with the idolaters of the land, and thereby corrupted both their morals and genealogies. But they were prevailed upon to reform this abuse; and, as a token of obedience, signed the national covenant with Nehemiah, and abode at Jerusalem to influence others by their authority and example .

The Levites are not mentioned in the Apocryphal books, and very slightly in the New Testament (;; ); but the 'scribes' and the 'lawyers,' so often named in the Gospels, are usually supposed to have belonged to them.

It would be taking a very narrow view of the duties of the Levitical body if we regarded them as limited to their services at the sanctuary. On the contrary, we see in their establishment a provision for the religious and moral instruction of the great body of the people, which no ancient lawgiver except Moses ever thought of attending to. But that this was one principal object for which a twelfth of the population—the tribe of Levi—was set apart, is clearly intimated in : 'They shall teach Jacob thy judgments and Israel thy law; they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt sacrifice upon thine altar.' They were to read the volume of the law publicly every seventh year at the Feast of Tabernacles . 'This public and solemn periodical instruction,' observes Dean Graves (Lectures, p. 170), 'though eminently useful, was certainly not the entire of their duty; they were bound from the spirit of this ordinance to take care that at all times the aged should be improved and the children instructed in the knowledge and fear of God, the adoration of his majesty, and the observance of his law; and for this purpose the peculiar situation and privileges of the tribe of Levi, as regulated by the divine appointment, admirably fitted them.'

The Nuttall Encyclopedia [10]

A body of men divided into courses, the servants of the priests in the worship of the Temple of Jerusalem; they were not permitted to enter the sanctuary or serve at the altar, their duties being limited to keeping watch over the Temple, slaying the victims, and making other preparations for the sacred services.