In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Levi/Levites

  • Introduction
  • Classic Studies
  • General Materials
  • Other Postbiblical Materials

Biblical Studies Levi/Levites
John R. Spencer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0240


The Hebrew Bible introduces Levi as one of the twelve sons of Jacob (Genesis 29:34), and hence the “father” of one of the tribes of ancient Israel. Because of Levi’s involvement with the killing of Shechemites (Genesis 34), he suffers the anger of Jacob (Genesis 49:5–7), and he and his family are “scattered” within Israel rather than allotted a specific tract of land. Later in the story, as presented in the Pentateuch, Levi and his family, the Levites, are not numbered with the other tribes (Numbers 1:17–46). Rather, they are set aside for special priestly activities (Numbers 1:47–53), to assist Aaron (Numbers 3:5–9), and to be consecrated to Yahweh (Numbers 3:11–13). Since the Levites have no land, they are allotted a tithe to sustain themselves while they work as priests (Numbers 18:21, 24). Furthermore, they are to receive a series of cities, referred to as “Levitical cities,” in which they are to live (Numbers 35:1–8). These cities are scattered throughout the remaining tribes (Joshua 21) (See Oxford Bibliographies in Biblical Studies article “Levitical Cities”). The relationship of Levi and the Levites, Aaron and the Aaronites (See Oxford Bibliographies in Biblical Studies article “Aaron”), and Moses is not consistent. In Numbers 16, descendants of Levi oppose Moses and Aaron. In contrast, in Exodus 32, the Levites join with Moses in opposing the activities of the people and Aaron; and in Deuteronomy 33:8–11, part of Moses’s blessing, Levi is set aside to handle the Urim and Thummim (sacred lots) and to teach the descendants of Jacob. This sets the stage for the ongoing changing, and often conflicting, relationship between the three priestly groups in the Hebrew Bible: Levites, Aaronites, and Zadokites. The nature of this relationship changes over time. It appears that early on the Levites were intimately associated with the cultic practices of ancient Israel. Later on, when a monarchy is formed, it is the Zadokites who become the prominent priestly group (2 Samuel 8:17; 1 Kings 1:38–40; 2:35). Finally in the postexilic period (after 586 BCE), the Aaronites are the dominant priestly group, with the Levites as subservient priests, singers at the sanctuary, and guardians of the temple precincts (1 Chronicles 23–24). In spite of the picture of subservience to the Aaronites, Levi, the eponymous ancestor of the Levites, remained the preeminent ancestor of all priests in the Second Temple period, including in pseudepigraphical and Dead Sea Scrolls materials.

Classic Studies

There are several classic writings that discuss Levi, his role as priest, and the priesthood of his supposed successors and rivals (Aaronites and Zadokites). These works provide an understanding of priesthood in general, and they sometimes look at the larger context of ancient Near Eastern priesthood to construct a picture of Israelite priesthood in that broader world. Wellhausen 1957 (first published 1878) was one of the first to take a serious look at the role of priests in ancient Israel in the context of Wellhausen’s classic history of ancient Israel. The next major work is Möhlenbrink 1934, which approaches the issues from a different perspective and challenges Wellhausen on several points. Greenberg 1950 is important because it is the first introduction of the ideas of Kaufmann to an English-speaking audience. Greenberg largely agrees with the arguments of Kaufmann. Gunneweg 1965, in German, is a major influence on the understanding of Levites and priests. A good broad overview in English of the role of Levi/Levites and priests is provided in Cody 1969. Another step in the understanding of Levi is the volume Sabourin 1973. Sabourin takes more of a “history of religions” look at Levi and priests as he compares the role of the priests of ancient Israel with those of other communities. From the same year, Cross 1973 seeks to make the case that the existence of Levitical priests are a very early tradition. Blenkinsopp 1995 places the discussion of Levites in the larger context of priests and of other important roles in ancient Israel. Blenkinsopp views the role of priests, along with sages and prophets, apart from Christian presuppositions about those roles.

  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Sage Priest Prophet. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995.

    Chapter 2 of this volume focuses on the priests in the Hebrew Bible. Blenkinsopp first wants to counter the negative image of Israelite priests in modern Christian scholarship. He goes on to trace the development of the priesthood and the roles of priests. Major sections deal with the relation of the Levites to other priestly groups and the Levites’ role in the Second Temple period.

  • Cody, Aelred. A History of Old Testament Priesthood. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969.

    A thorough review of the development of Israelite priesthood, similar coverage to Gunneweg 1965 but in English. Examines priesthood in the ancient Near East and studies the development of priests and priestly groups in ancient Israel. While the Deuteronomistic historian saw all priests as Levites, in the postexilic period there is tension between Aaronites and Zadokites, with Aaronites seen as true priests.

  • Cross, Frank M. “The Priestly Houses of Early Israel.” In Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. By Frank M. Cross, 195–215. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

    Rejects perspective of Wellhausen and argues that there were two priestly “houses” prior to the monarchy: Moses and the Levites (associated with the shrine at Dan); and Aaron and Zadok (at the shrine at Bethel). David tried to unify the priesthood by appointing a priest from each of the two factions.

  • Greenberg, Moshe. “A New Approach to the History of the Israelite Priesthood.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 70 (1950): 41–47.

    DOI: 10.2307/595432

    Contrary to Wellhausen, holds to an early origin of the Levites as a tribe and as priests. Dates all Priestly writings about Levites to the preexilic period. Aaron has priestly priority over Levi. [Review of part of Yehezkel Kaufmann, Toldot ha-emunah ha-Yiśreʼelit: mi-yeme ḳedem ʻad sof Bayit sheni. 4 vols. Tel Aviv: Mosad Byaliḳ, 1937–1956. Published in abridged form as The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile. Translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.]

  • Gunneweg, A. H. J. Leviten und Priester. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1965.

    A classic text on the study of priests and Levites (one of the priestly groups). It focuses on the difference between priests (i.e., Aaronites) and the Levites and is similar in coverage to Cody 1969.

  • Möhlenbrink, Kurt. “Die levitischen Überlieferungen des Alten Testaments.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 52 (1934): 184–231.

    DOI: 10.1515/zatw.1934.52.1.184

    Looks at four gattung (forms) of Levitical materials in the Bible: lists (genealogies), histories, ordinances, and poems. Notes that Aaron and Zadok are late additions to the genealogies, and that there are inconsistencies in the histories and ordinances. Thinks Levi of Genesis 49 is separate from Levitical priests.

  • Sabourin, Leopold. Priesthood: A Comparative Study. Studies in the History of Religions 25. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1973.

    A broad study of priesthood, from primitive societies to the time of Jesus. It includes Eastern, Greek, ancient Near Eastern, and Israelite religions. Levi and the Levitical priests are presented in this broader context. This comparative study advances the earlier presentations of Cody 1969 and Gunneweg 1965 by expanding the context in which the priesthood of the Hebrew Bible is discussed.

  • Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. New York: Meridian Books, 1957.

    This book (first published in 1878), is famous for its developmental understanding of ancient Israel and the articulation of the Documentary Hypothesis that sought to explain the multiple authorship of the Pentateuch. Chapter 4, “The Priests and the Levites,” focuses on the distinction between the Levites and the sons of Aaron. Wellhausen sees the priesthood as developing over time, culminating in in the postexilic period with the Levites as secondary priests to the Aaronites.

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