The Levites and the Kohens: The Patriarchal High Priests of Judaism
The Levites are members of the Hebrew tribe of Levi. They, and their tribe, are named after Levi, the third son of Jacob, and Leah. In the past, the Levites were entrusted with religious responsibilities at the Temple of Jerusalem. They were selected for the job, partly due to their lineage, and partly due to an incident that occurred shortly after the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. A subset of the Levites, the Kohanim (or Kohens), served as the priests of the Tabernacle. Normally, the Levites assisted and cooperated with the Kohanim in a range of religious duties. After the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, the role and responsibilities of the Levites were greatly reduced. Nevertheless, many Jews today still identify themselves as Levites, which is often revealed in their surnames.
The Origins Of The Levites: Patriarchal Lineage
According to the Book of Genesis , Levi was the third son of the Jacob, one of the Patriarchs (narrowly defined as Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac's son Jacob, also named Israel, the ancestors of the Israelites) and his first wife, Leah. The Book of Genesis also recounts the story of how Levi, along with his brother Simeon, avenged the rape of their sister, Dinah.
In this tale, a prince of Shechem, raped Dinah, as he desired to marry her. Levi and Simeon allowed the prince to marry their sister, on the condition that all the male residents of Shechem were circumcised. The prince consented, unaware that it was actually a ruse by the two men. Thus, after the Shechemites were circumcised, Levi and Simeon attacked them, slaughtering all the males, and rescued Dinah. Jacob was not too happy with what his sons had done. He criticized them, and later even cursed them.
Levi is recorded to have had three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. Kohath, in turn, had four sons: Izhar, Amram, Heron, and Uzziel. One of them, Amram, married Jochebed, whom he already had blood relations with prior to the marriage. This relationship, however, is unclear. Some sources state that Jochebed was Amram’s cousin, others, the cousin of Kohath, and yet others, a daughter of Levi. In any event, Amram and Jochebed were the parents of Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. Thus, in a way, the connection between the Levites and the family of Moses and Aaron, allows the former to justify the religious responsibilities that were given to them.
In addition, the Levites are supposed to have received these responsibilities as a reward for their loyalty. When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt , Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from God. As Moses was away for 40 days and 40 nights, the Israelites were worried that he would not return, and asked Aaron to make a god for them.
Therefore, Aaron collected gold ornaments from the Israelites, melted them down, and fashioned a golden calf. When Moses returned, he broke the tablets of the law, burnt the idol in a fire, ground it into a powder, mixed it with water, and forced those who were still faithful to God to drink it. The tribe of Levi is recorded as the only Israelites who did not worship the idol. Therefore, when Moses decided to purge the Israelites of the unfaithful, the Levites rallied to him, and 3000 were slaughtered by them.
Moses smashing the Ten Commandments’ tablets after finding his people were worshipping an idol. The Levites assisted in killing the worshippers of the idol before moving on to Canaan. (Rembrandt / Public domain )
The Levites Split Again Over Certain Elite Privileges
The killing of the idol worshippers was considered to be a sign of the Levites’ loyalty, and hence they were entrusted with priestly duties. Nevertheless, as time went by, not all the Levites toed the line, and a story in the Book of Numbers is a reminder of the fate that awaits those Levites who dared to question or rebel against the system.
In this tale, a group of Levites began questioning the exclusive rights given to Aaron’s descendants, the Kohanim (more about them in a moment), to attend the altar of the Tabernacle. The leader of these Levites, a Kohathite by the name of Korah, confronted Moses and Aaron, questioning their rationale for setting themselves apart from the rest of the Israelites. He argued that since God is with each member of the Israelite community all of them should be considered as holy.
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Whilst the view of Korah and his supporters may be regarded as progressive by a modern observer, it was perhaps not the best of ideas at that point in time. For their audacity in questioning the system, Korah and his supporters were punished. According to the Book of Numbers, it was God himself who punished the rebellious Levites, by causing the ground to open, and the earth to swallow Korah, his followers, their households, and their properties. The rest of the Levites who remained loyal to Moses and Aaron, on the other hand, continued to receive God’s blessings.
The Book of Numbers also provides information about the responsibilities of the Levites. They were responsible for carrying the Tabernacle, and to keep guard around the sanctuary so as to prevent any unauthorized person from trespassing. The Levites could only perform these functions after reaching the age of 30.
The role of the Levites was expanded following the establishment of the Temple of Jerusalem . Whilst they still served as guards, the Levites were also given the duty of singing psalms during temple services, undertook construction and maintenance works for the temple, served as teachers and judges, and maintained “cities of refuge” in Biblical times. The last of these warrants some additional information.
Fleeing to a city of refuge in Canaan. These cities were administered by the Levites. (Illustrators of Charles Foster, The Story of the Bible, Philadelphia: A.J. Homan Co., 1884. / Public domain )
The Levites’ Story After Entering The Land Of Canaan
After the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, each tribe received an allotment of land. Only the Levites were excluded from this land distribution. Instead, they were given the task of maintaining “cities of refuge.” These were places where individuals who committed manslaughter could go to obtain shelter from the family of their victims, who may desire to seek revenge. One explanation for this arrangement is that the Levites were to serve as priests and teachers at local shrines throughout the newly acquired land until a central temple, i.e., the Temple of Jerusalem, was created. Another explanation is that this dispersal was Jacob’s curse being fulfilled.
The most important job of the Levites, however, was to assist the Kohanim in their priestly duties at the Temple of Jerusalem. Incidentally, an important centralizing reform was instituted by Josiah, a king of Judah who lived towards the end of the 6 th century BC. Josiah’s reform sought to bring the Levites, who performed their duties at local shrines, to Jerusalem, where they would serve at the temple. Although Josiah’s reform was short-lived, it became the basic standard of Jewish tradition following their return from Babylonian exile. The Levites were no longer local priests, but assistants of the official priesthood.
The Levite and his Concubine by Jan Victors ( Public Domain )
This official priesthood was held by the Kohanim, one of the four main divisions of the Levites, the other three being the Gershonites, the Kohathites, and the Merarites. It is clear that these three groups are named after the three sons of Levi, and the Levites in each group trace their lineage back to one of these three ancestors.
The Kohanim were an even more exclusive group, as their membership was restricted to males of direct patrilineal descent from Aaron. As the official priesthood, the Kohanim served at the Temple of Jerusalem. The Kohanim who occupied the lowest ranks of the hierarchy were divided into 24 groups, each taking their turn to serve at the temple.
Other members of the Kohanim managed the finances of the temple and carried out administrative duties there. At the top of this priestly hierarchy was the high priest. One of the most important jobs of the high priest was to enter the holy of holies once a year, i.e., on Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”) to offer sacrifice.
The high priest Jehoiada. Jehoiada’s rebellion, which resulted in the overthrow of Athaliah, was supported by the Levites. (Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) / Public domain )
The Privileges Of Being One Of The Levites
As elites, the Levites were accorded certain privileges. For instance, they received tithes of the local harvests and cattle, which supported them economically. Although their duties were religious in nature, the elite status of the Levites also made it possible for them to dabble in national politics.
This is seen on several occasions in the Hebrew Bible. As an example, the reign of Athaliah, a queen consort of Judah who lived during the 9 th century BC. Athaliah was a worshipper of Baal, which was a reason behind the revolt was orchestrated by Jehoiada, a priest / high priest. Jehoiada’s rebellion, which resulted in the overthrow of Athaliah, was supported by the Levites.
Although a lot of information about the Levites can be found in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament makes little mention of them. As a matter of fact, the Levites are mentioned only on three occasions. And these mentions do not actually provide much information about their role during Jesus’ time.
In 70 AD, the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans as a result of the Great Jewish Revolt. The destruction of the temple meant that the religious function of the Levites was greatly diminished. As a matter of fact, it was the rabbis who gradually took control of religious matters, and Rabbinic Judaism eventually became the mainstream form of Judaism.
An ancient list of Jewish names which likely includes more than a few Levities and Kohens. ( University of Pennsylvania Libraries )
How Jewish Last Names Refer The Levites
In spite of the diminished role of the Levites in the religious affairs of Judaism, having this status is something one could be proud of. This is visible, for instance, in Levite related surnames. Interestingly, whilst the majority of Jews did not use surnames until the modern period, many adopted a surname to indicate their supposed status as Levites.
The varieties of these surnames reflect the fact that the Jews were dispersed over a wide geographical area. For instance, “Levin” is a Russian variation of the surname, whereas “Levine,” “Lavine,” and “Lewin” are Polish ones. The Hebrew “Levi” and “Lévy” are common amongst the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, whilst “Leevi” is a Finnish variation. By the same token, surnames such as “Cohen,” “Kahn,” and “Cohn” are supposed to show that their users are Kohanim.
It has been pointed out, however, that the use of such surnames does not guarantee that a person is actually a Levite or a Kohen. This is due to the fact that in traditional Judaism, this status is determined by patrilineal descent. Therefore, a child whose biological father is a Levite is a Levite. Additionally, many Levites do not use such surnames.
The father of Orthodox Judaism, which views the Levites and Kohens in unique ways. (Josef Kriehuber (1800 -1876) / Public domain )
The Nuanced Differences Between The Levites and The Kohanim
Apart from the pride that one may derive from being a member of these priestly groups, the Levites and Kohanim today have certain duties and obligations, depending on the branch of Judaism they belong to.
For example, in Orthodox Judaism, the first aliyah (being called to the Torah before a general congregation) is customarily reserved for a Kohen, whilst the second is given to a Levite. This is meant to be a mark of honor for the Kohanim and Levites. When they are called to this position, the Hebrew words “HaKohen” and “HaLevi,” meaning “the Kohen” and “the Levite” respectively, are added to their names.
The Kohanim also have the responsibility of giving the congregation the Priestly Blessing. During the Diaspora, this was normally done only on holidays. In Israel, on the other hand, this is performed on a daily basis. In some congregations, the Kohen would be assisted by Levites, in particular with the washing of his hands before he recites the blessing.
The roles of the Kohanim and Levites are a little different in Conservative Judaism. Although the specialness of the Kohanim and Levites is recognized, the first and second aliyot are not necessarily given to a Kohen and a Levite. Additionally, rituals in which the Levites and Kohanim have a special role to play, for instance, the Priestly Blessing, are no longer practiced by many Conservative Jews.
Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism, for the most part, have gotten rid of all Biblical caste distinctions. In other words, there is no special status accorded to the Levites and Kohanim in these two branches of Judaism.
Lastly, it may be said that the different branches of Judaism also have divergent views regarding the future role of the Levites, which is closely linked to the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem. Many Orthodox Jews believe that the Third Temple will eventually be built in Jerusalem, which means that the Kohanim and Levites would resume their services there.
Some Orthodox Jews have even founded schools to train the Kohanim and Levites, so that they may perform their duties when the Third Temple is built. Amongst Conservative Jews, some believe in the rebuilding of the Temple, and in some special role reserved for the Levites. Nevertheless, they do not believe that the ancient sacrificial system, as practiced in Biblical times, would be used. Reconstructionist and Reform Jews, on the other hand, do not hope for a future physical temple, generally speaking, and hence see no special role for the Levites in the future.
Top image: The punishment of the Levites by Botticelli. Source: Sandro Botticelli, Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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