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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Priests and Levites according to the Chronicler

1 and 2 Chronicles may be dated perhaps to the latter part of the fourth century BCE (Japhet 1993: 25–8), and represents a systematic attempt to present and order Israel's political and religious life in accordance with the Torah of Moses as the author understood it. When explicitly named, and this is not often, Moses appears in Chronicles specifically in relation to priestly and Levitical concerns. First, King David's transfer of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem is performed by the Levites, ‘as Moses commanded’ (1 Chr. 15:15), a clear indication that the author assumes as authoritative texts like Deut. 10: 8, which reports the separation of Levi as a tribe to carry the ark of the covenant (cf. Deut. 31: 9). The ark contains the two tables of the commandments ‘which Moses put there at Horeb’ (2 Chr. 5: 10), a matter also related at Deut. 10: 2, 5. Secondly, the Chronicler reminds his readers of the tent of YHWH and the altar of burnt offering which Moses constructed in the desert (1 Chr. 21: 29): in King David's day, he informs them, these were at the high place in Gibeon, a point reiterated with regard to the tent (now called the tent of meeting) and the altar at 2 Chr. 1: 3–6 in words recalling Exod. 29:10; 31: 2, 7, 9. Thirdly, and in many respects most important, 1 Chr. 23: 13–14 notes the genealogy of Moses: his brother was Aaron the Levite (again, cf. Exod. 6: 16–20), who had been separated to be sanctified as most holy along with his sons, to burn incense before and minister to YHWH, and to bless in his name, while Moses and his sons are named among the tribe of Levi. In other words, both Moses and Aaron the first high priest are members of the same tribe of Levi which provides the singers, door-keepers, and other Temple assistants who are also named Levites (1 Chr. 23: 3–6). This last passage also speaks of 6,000 Levites as ‘officers and judges’ (2 Chr. 23: 4), their relationship to Moses being underscored by the remainder of the Chronicler's direct references to Moses, which speak of him as one whom God charged with ‘statutes and judgements’ (1 Chr. 22: 13; cf. 2 Chr. 25: 4). For the Levites, in the Chronicler's model of Israel's constitution, also function as teachers of Torah and judges (2 Chr. 17: 8–9; 19: 8–11). ‘The commandment of Moses’ about Sabbath, new moons, and the three pilgrimage festivals (2 Chr. 8: 13); and the two references to the Torah of Moses (2 Chr. 23: 18; 30:16) once more make explicit commandments relating to the Temple service, and serve to show how closely Moses is associated in the writer's mind with these same things.

The Chronicler's work, however, takes the form of a history which concerns itself chiefly, though not exclusively, with the days of the kings David, Solomon, and the monarchy of Judah. Those days differed from the time of Moses, and the writer was not unaware of the fact. For example, the Levites might well have carried the ark and the tent of meeting while Israel was unsettled or had no Temple; but once they had deposited that ark and the vessels housed in the tent in Solomon's Temple (2 Chr. 5: 4 ff.), what was there for them to do? According to 1 Chr. 23: 26–32, David addressed this issue directly. Henceforth, they were to act as Temple guards, being responsible for purity; to prepare the bread of the presence and meal offerings for the priests; and to sing. These three different duties were the responsibility of three separate groups within the Levite tribe, including now door-keepers and singers; but not one of these duties is ordered by the priestly legislation in the Pentateuch, ‘the law of Moses’, which the writer is otherwise so keen to invoke with his insistence on the relationship between Moses and the details of divine worship.

The Chronicler's model for addressing these matters, however, indeed derives from the Pentateuch, and from the book of Joshua. According to Exod. 25: 9, 40, God ordered Moses to make the desert sanctuary and its appurtenances according to a pattern (tabnît). The Chronicler informs us that David also had such a tabnît, which he handed over to Solomon; but this included details not only of the Temple's construction and furnishings (1 Chr. 28: 11–12), but also of ‘the courses of the priests and the Levites, and for all the work of the service of the house of YHWH’ (1 Chr. 28: 13). This pattern David was made to understand in writing from YHWH (1 Chr. 28: 19), such that the king's disposition of the priestly and Levitical functions has the force of divine law. The significance of this becomes clearer when we note how the Chronicler has deliberately modelled David's handing over of authority to Solomon on the transfer of Moses' authority to Joshua (cf. 1 Chr. 28: 20 with Josh. 1: 5–6). Solomon stands in relation to David as Joshua stood in relation to Moses: both men inaugurate new phases in Israel's life which require the application of the Torah of Moses in new circumstances: namely, settled existence after a period of wandering, on the one hand, and a permanent fixed shrine in place of a mobile tent, on the other.

Students of the Chronicler's work agree that the times in which the author was working determined much of what he wrote. In particular, his account of the priests, Levites, and the Temple service very likely reflect the practical arrangements and concerns of his own day, and certainly address practices which the Chronicler believed to be proper. Writing at a time when Israel had no king, his history none the less makes much of the relationship between the kings of the house of David and high priest, priests, and Levites; and the heavy emphasis which he places on the formal organization of the priests and Levites and their service by King David in person (1 Chr. 23–8). The following picture emerges.

(a) The High Priest

At the head of the hierarchy stands the chief priest, Amariah (2 Chr. 19:11; 24:11; 26: 20; 31: 10), an office whose existence is attested in writings dated to the earliest days of the Second Temple (Hag. 1:1, 12, 14; 2: 2, 4; Zech. 3: 1; 6: 11, hakkōhēn haggādôl), whose exemplar is Zadok. Although the Chronicler does not style him ‘chief priest’ explicitly, he reports that Zadok was anointed as priest at the same time as Solomon was made king ‘for the second time’ (1 Chr. 29: 22). Here, he is consecrated like Aaron according to the Priestly legislation in the Pentateuch (which does not call Aaron ‘high priest’), as an individual priest anointed to high office specifically to sanctify him (see Lev. 8: 12). The timing of Zadok's anointing is highly significant for the Chronicler: while David reigned, Zadok officiated along with his fellow priests ‘at the tent of YHWH in the high place that was at Gibeon’, offering the Tamid according to that same priestly law (see Exod. 29: 38–41; Num. 28: 3–8) which sanctioned his anointing (1 Chr. 16: 39–40). With Solomon's accession, the collapsible tent is replaced by the permanent Temple, which is to have a priest consecrated like Aaron. Zadok thus links the old and the new orders of things; and his anointing at the beginning of Solomon's reign suggests that it is now that the Chronicler views the priestly law (enshrined in the Torah of Moses) as becoming fully effective.

To reinforce the central role of Zadok, the Chronicler provided him with a genealogy presenting him as a direct descendant of Aaron through his son Eleazar and grandson Phineas (1 Chr. 5: 27–41; EVV 6: 1–15), and numbering among his own descendants those specifically called ‘chief priest’ (e.g. Amariah, 1 Chr. 5: 37; EVV. 6:11, and 2 Chr. 19:11), ending with that celebrated Zadokite, Jehozadak, who was to be the first high priest of the Second Temple which the Chronicler himself knew (Hag. 1: 1; Zech. 3; Ezek. 3: 2). Since Wellhausen's days, most scholars have regarded this genealogy as an artificial construct on the Chronicler's part, designed specifically to integrate Zadok into the lineage of Aaron: the text of this genealogy is not without difficulties (Japhet 1993: 149–53), and its relationship to earlier source material about Zadok is highly problematic. Thus, 2 Sam. 8: 17 names him, without preamble, as son of Ahitub along with Ahimelech son of Abiathar (as does 1 Chr. 18: 16). But 1 Sam. 22: 20 states that Abiathar was the son of Ahimelech, who in turn was son of Ahitub; and Abiathar is again recorded as son of Ahimelech at 1 Sam. 23: 6; 30: 7. Other references to Ahitub name him as the father, not of Zadok, but of Ahijah (1 Sam. 14: 3) and Ahimelech (1 Sam. 22: 9, 11, and 20, as above).

The suspicion arises from these texts that Zadok's ancestry may have been fabricated to provide an originally rootless Zadok with a respectable ancestry; and it is reinforced if suggestions that Zadok was originally a non-Israelite priest incorporated by David into his new Jerusalem politico-religious establishment have any force. The best known of these suggestions (cf. Rowley 1950) posits Zadok as priest of 'El 'elyon in pre-Davidic Jerusalem, the form of his name recalling Adonizedek, king of Jerusalem (Josh. 10: 1, 3) and, most significantly, Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of 'El 'elyon (Gen. 14: 18). This suggestion, however, lacks evidence to sustain it, and was systematically criticized by F. M. Cross (1973: 209–15), who also took issue with Wellhausen's doubts about the genealogy of Zadok as son of Ahitub noted in 1 Sam. 8: 17, by showing how the MT of that verse is the product of textual corruption. He notes that there were most likely two different priests named Ahitub, one the grandfather of Abiathar (see above, 1 Sam. 22: 20), the other the father of Zadok; and it is clear that Abiathar was descended from Eli, the priest of Shiloh (1 Sam. 14: 3; 22: 20), whereas Zadok was of a different family, being most probably the ‘faithful priest’ predicted in the prophecy of 1 Sam. 2: 35–6 as the replacement for Eli's sinful house. Cross also goes some way to resolving the problem of 2 Sam. 8: 17, arguing that originally it spoke of Zadok the son of Ahitub and Abiathar the son of Abimelech. The most serious difficulty in the verse is not Zadok's ancestry, but the presentation of Ahimelech as Abiathar's father, and Cross provides a reasonable explanation for the present confusion. In any event, Cross has shown that Zadok's Aaronite ancestry can no longer simply be dismissed as a fiction; and the status accorded him by the Chronicler becomes easier to understand.

The Chronicler sees succeeding high priests as central to the administration of justice, in company with the king, the other priests, and the Levites. King Jehoshaphat's appointment of judges in the cities of Judah (2 Chr. 19: 4–11) goes hand in hand with his establishment of the Levites and the priests and the head of fathers' houses in Jerusalem as a high court for difficult cases of the kind envisaged by Deut. 17: 8–13, although the latter speaks of ‘the priests the Levites’ in this setting (Deut. 17: 9) and makes no mention of heads of fathers' houses. This may reflect the makeup (actual, or ideal) of the court in the Chronicler's own time (Japhet 1993: 776–9); and certainly the naming of the Levites as a distinct group is typical of the Chronicler. Japhet notes that the court is charged with making the correct distinctions between different kinds of written law (2 Chr. 19: 10). Amariah, ‘the chief priest’, is to be over all these judges, says Jehoshaphat, ‘in all matters of the LORD’, while Zebadiah, the ruler of the house of Judah, presides over ‘all the king's matters’, and the Levites act as officers (2 Chr. 19: 11).

The high priest's officer (2 Chr. 24: 11), along with the scribe of King Joash, was responsible for emptying the box containing the sanctuary tax ‘that Moses the servant of God’ ordained in the desert (2 Chr. 24: 9, 11). The money raised was used for repairs to the Temple, both king and high priest being intimately involved in the work. Yet the high priest might, in certain circumstances, pass judgement on the king. Azariah discerned that King Uzziah, having illegally offered incense in the Temple, had contracted skin disease (‘leprosy’), which remained with him until he died, requiring him to live apart from others (2 Chr. 26: 16–21). The priests alone, according to Lev. 13: 1–46, may declare such a person to be unclean or clean; indeed, as we shall see presently, this is one of the most important functions of the priestly office as detailed by Pentateuchal law. In this instance, the authority of the high priest took precedence over that of the king.

The chief priest Azariah ‘of the house of Zadok’ (2 Chr. 31: 10) passed favourable judgement on Hezekiah's command that the people pay the priestly dues, the tithe, and the first-fruits of agricultural produce (see Num. 18: 2–24), honey (not mentioned in the Pentateuch), and the tithe of cattle and sheep (Lev. 27: 32–3). The king's concern for priestly dues required administrators, who, under the auspices of king and high priest, stored the tithes and offerings, the Levites playing a key role in the distribution of these oblations (2 Chr. 12 ff.). Quite what this tells us about the practices of the Chronicler's own day is unclear: governors appointed by the Persians may have represented the ‘king’ in the business of priestly and Levitical dues, as Nehemiah is reported to have done (Neh. 13: 10–14), to allow the Temple personnel sufficient economic security to devote themselves to the service and their other duties (cf. 2 Chr. 31: 10). What is evident is that the Chronicler asserted the importance of the priestly dues, envisaged an efficient method for their collection, and allotted to the high priest a key role in the process.

(b) The Priests

According to the Chronicler, priests are descendants of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi, and of his two sons Eleazar and Ithamar: they were organized into twenty-four courses, or divisions. This information is given in 1 Chr. 24: 1–19, where the heads of the priestly courses of David's times are noted without genealogical trees connecting them to Aaron himself. Both Eleazar and Ithamar are named in the Pentateuch (see e.g. Num. 20: 25–9; Deut. 10: 6 for Eleazar; Exod. 38: 21; both men named together at Exod. 6: 23; 28: 1). 2 Chr. 13: 10 calls them ‘priests, the sons of Aaron’ who minister (mešāretǐm) to YHWH. This is explained in detail: they offer whole burnt offerings and incense each morning and evening, set the arrangement of the bread (of the presence) upon the pure table; set in order the menorah each evening, and blow the trumpets of the terûāh (2 Chr. 13: 11–12). They alone, that is to say, legitimately have access to the holy place of the Temple where the altar of incense, the candlestick, and the bread of the presence are placed (see e.g. Exod. 40: 22–8). The Pentateuch records that the incense belongs to the class of most holy things (Exod. 30: 34–6), as does the bread of the presence (Lev. 24: 5–9); and the sons of Aaron alone may sound the trumpets (Num. 10: 1–10). All this is contrasted with the bogus cult set up by Jeroboam I, who had ‘driven out the priests of YHWH, the sons of Aaron and the Levites’, installing priests in the manner of other nations by consecrating anyone who turns up with the consecration offering of an ox and seven rams (2 Chr. 13: 9). The sons of Aaron alone are sanctified (hamme quddāšîm) to burn incense (2 Chr. 26: 18); they alone offer the purification offerings for the kingdom, the sanctuary, and for Judah at Hezekiah's command (2 Chr. 29: 21), and apply the sacrificial blood to the altar (2 Chr. 29: 22), as they did in the case of the victims slaughtered at Hezekiah's and Josiah's Passover celebrations (2 Chr. 30: 16; 35: 11). Hezekiah's purification offerings include seven he-goats: these the priests slaughtered as a purification offering ‘to make atonement for all Israel’ (2 Chr. 29: 24).

The proper condition of priests performing their ministry is a state of holiness: along with the Levites, they sanctified themselves to bring up the ark to Jerusalem (1 Chr. 15: 14; cf. 2 Chr. 5: 11) and to offer the Passover sacrifice (2 Chr. 30: 24); if not in a sanctified state, they could not minister at the altar (2 Chr. 29: 34; 30: 3). This relationship of the priests to the sphere of the holy is perhaps the most fundamental of their aspects for the Chronicler, who speaks of them standing in their place (2 Chr. 35: 10), standing in their place according to the statute (2 Chr. 20: 16) as they applied the blood of sacrifice to the altar. This is most marked at Solomon's inauguration of the Temple service, where the priests stood at their posts performing their ministry and sounding trumpets, with the Levites making music (2 Chr. 7: 6); all these priests were sanctified (2 Chr. 5: 11).

The Chronicler also understood that priests have a duty to teach Torah: the absence of such a priest who is a teacher (môreh) is lamented in the days of King Asa: his absence means that there has been no tôrāh (2 Chr. 15: 3). A classic example of the priests acting in their capacity as teachers of tôrāh, giving authoritative decisions in matters of purity, may be found at Hag. 2: 10–14. This episode, dated to the earliest days of the Second Temple, demonstrates the manner in which specific questions would be put to priests, and the kind of clear-cut response that might be expected from them. Lack of such teaching, according to the Chronicler, was remedied in the days of Asa's son Jehoshaphat, who appointed princes and Levites to teach in the cities of Judah, and with them two priests, Elisha and Jehoram (2 Chr. 17: 7–9). But the numbers of princes and Levites outnumber the priests in this duty, indicating the Chronicler's emphasis on the Levites in the overall constitution of Israel.

(c) The Levites

In the Chronicler's scheme, descendants of the Patriarch Levi other than those descended from Aaron are called ‘Levites’, a word which he uses virtually as a technical term to describe personnel dedicated to work in the Temple which is not restricted to priests. His account of David's organization of them into twenty-four divisions corresponding to the twenty-four priestly courses gives some idea of their functions: of the 38,000 listed, 24,000 were set ‘to superintend the work of YHWH's house’; 6,000 were officers and judges; 4,000 were door-keepers; and 4,000 were musicians (1 Chr. 23: 3–5). This mixture of duties, in which work in the LORD's house holds first place, might suggest that he is systematizing what was, perhaps, a more complex reality; indeed, sources not far removed in time from the Chronicler's work speak of ‘the Levites, the singers, the door-keepers, Nethinim, and servants of this house of God’ (Ezra 7: 24; comparing also Neh. 10: 29; 7: 1; for date, see Williamson 1985: pp. xxxv–xxxvi) as if they were discrete, unrelated groups. The genealogical material for the Levites provided by the Chronicler is of great complexity; and it, too, might suggest that what were originally unrelated families and groups have been associated with one another only secondarily (1 Chr. 23: 6–24; 24: 20–30). Thus the three sons of Levi, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, and their descendants provide personnel for ‘the work of the service of the house of YHWH’ under the authority of the priests (1 Chr. 23: 6–32), while ‘the rest of the sons of Levi’ (1 Chr. 24: 20–31) are set in a list related to the former, but clearly differing from it. Are we here confronted with evidence of different elements within the Levite groups jockeying for position? Or has the Chronicler incorporated two different lists of Levites into his work in response to the sensibilities of different groups? Has he sought to supplement his first list with an updated second list? It is difficult to tell; and the situation is further complicated by the genealogies of the musicians who descend from Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun (2 Chr. 25), arranged in twenty-four groups in a way judged by almost all scholars to be artificial. Likewise, the activity of these Temple musicians the Chronicler describes (without further definition) as ‘prophecy’ (1 Chr. 25: 1, 2, 3, 5). This description is unprecedented, and at the very least suggests that the Chronicler is attempting to distinguish this group and to promote its interests. This is borne out by the prominence given to musicians at David's transfer of the ark to Jerusalem (1 Chr. 15: 16; 16: 7–37), at the inauguration of the Temple service (2 Chr. 5: 12–13), at the purification of the Temple in Hezekiah's time (2 Chr. 29: 25–6, 30), and at Josiah's Passover (2 Chr. 35: 15). The general effect of all this is to suggest that behind the ordered façade of the Chronicler's presentation of the Levites lies a history of disagreement between different groups of Temple ministers; and this impression will be confirmed as we proceed. Indeed, recent research on the place and function of the Levites in Ezra-Nehemiah suggests that re-positioning and rearrangements of the ‘pecking order’ between the various groups of Temple personnel continued far into the Second Temple period, and that surviving literary sources may represent several attempts to make peace between differing groups and to provide strategies for stability in administration of state and Temple (Schaper 2000: 269–302).

The main function of the Levites before the inauguration of the Temple is clear: they carry the ark (1 Chr. 15: 12–15, 26–9; 2 Chr. 5: 4) as the Pentateuch commands (Deut. 10: 8; 31: 9; Num. 4: 15). For this they need to be sanctified, like the priests (1 Chr. 15: 14): it is noteworthy that the Priestly legislation in the Pentateuch never uses the stem qdš with reference to Levites (Milgrom 1991: 519). The Levites are also ordered to sanctify themselves for Josiah's great Passover, in the course of which they also slaughter the victims (2 Chr. 35: 6; and cf. 2 Chr. 30: 16–17, where Levites slaughter the Pesah but the priests deal with the blood of the victims). Once the Temple was functioning, they were to serve from the age of 20 (1 Chr. 23: 24, 27; 2 Chr. 31: 17) as attendants on the priests, performing abōdāh, ‘physical labour’: this term never refers to ministerial service in respect of the Levites (Milgrom 1991: 7–8). They work in Temple courts and chambers, being responsible for purity arrangements; they prepare material for the bread of the presence and cereal offerings; and they stand to provide music for the morning and evening offerings (the Tamid; see also 2 Chr. 8: 14), and for sacrifices on Sabbath, new moon, and festivals (1 Chr. 23: 32). In short, they are to keep the mišmeret, the ‘charge’, of the tent, ‘charge’ of the holy place, and ‘charge’ of the sons of Aaron, ‘their brothers’ (1 Chr. 23: 33): this is precisely what is laid down for their duties in the Pentateuch (Num. 3: 5–9; 18: 2–7).

Although subordinate to the priests, the position of the Levites in Chronicles is far from menial: their music accompanying the sacrifices is seen as an essential part of the Temple service, and the priests are their ‘brothers’ (1 Chr. 23: 33). In legal matters, too, they play a decisive role: they are included in the composition of the Jerusalem high court established by Jehoshaphat (2 Chr. 19: 8) along with priests and heads of fathers' houses; and the same king sent them out into the cities of Judah to teach Torah (2 Chr. 17: 8–10), in which mission they outnumbered their priestly colleagues. Individual Levites act as prophets: Jahaziel, a singer of the Asaphite family, was seized by the spirit of YHWH and prophesied to Jehoshaphat, who prostrated himself, while the Levitical groups, the Kohathites and the Korahites, stood up to praise YHWH. While this phenomenon may represent the absorption into a formal Temple hierarchy of an older ‘cultic prophecy’ (Mowinckel 1967: 2, 56, 80–2, 85–99; Johnson 1962), it is equally likely that the association of the Levites with psalms, poetic compositions regarded as divinely inspired and uttered at most solemn moments (e.g. 1 Chr. 16: 7–36), and with Torah teaching, merited for them association with prophecy (Japhet 1993: 440–1).

(d) Concluding Observations

The Chronicler presents a relatively clear account of the origins and identity of the priests and the Levites, their separate duties and functions, and their status in the life of Israel as a nation under the authority of the Torah. There is a Zadokite high priest, who has a particular role in respect of the king, although not a great deal is said about him; it is the Levites in particular who loom large in the Chronicler's mind, and their relationship with the priests, the sons of Aaron, is carefully delineated. In general terms, the Chronicler attests to the situation of his own times, and some solid information about priests and Levites in late Persian/early Hellenistic times can be derived from him. But much in his work suggests that he speaks also of an ideal order of things. Thus, his subtlety in integrating contemporary practice with earlier Pentateuchal legislation; his provision of sometimes artificial genealogies to link together groups of Temple personnel who may once have been separate; his concern to associate Temple ministers with prophecy; and above all his sense that everything should be ordered according to a tabnit divinely revealed to David, speak of concerns beyond the contemporary, aspirations rather than actualities.

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