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

Deuteronomy

The duties of priests as outlined by D appear much the same as those described in later times. They officiate at sacrifices (21: 5>), being sustained by the customary priestly dues (since they have no land of their own) and the first-fruits (21: 5; 18: 1–5). They act as judges, especially in difficult cases (17: 8–13; 19: 17; cf. 21: 1–9), and refusal to accept their verdict in judgement is punishable by death (17: 12). They are entirely responsible for supervising and making decisions in matters of skin disease (24: 8–9). They pronounce blessings in YHWH's name, and disseminate knowledge of Torah (17: 18; 31: 9–11). Problems arise, not so much in respect of their duties, as regarding the terminology used to speak of them.

D in its final form legislates for a single sanctuary (12: 5) at which all sacrifice is to be offered; and some of its legislation appears to involve the accommodation of traditional religious customs to this requirement. Since Wellhausen (1973: 76–82), D has been associated with Josiah's reform (621 BCE) and its abolition of provincial sanctuaries, leaving the priests of those shrines without revenue and livelihood: these ‘Levites’ are thus specially provided for in carefully drafted legislation (18: 6–8). The term ‘Levite’, however, is used quite precisely by D, as Gunneweg has shown (1965: 126–31). Thus the phrase ‘the Levite who is within your gates’ (12: 12, 18, 19; 14: 27–9; 16: 11) describes a class of person regularly associated with resident aliens, orphans, and widows, having no land or means of support. He may take part in the great festivals, and is to receive tithes of the third year: in short, the community of Israel is to provide for his needs. At the single sanctuary itself, we hear of the tribe of Levi whom YHWH has separated to stand before him, to minister to him, and to bless in his name (10: 18; 18: 5). If any Levite comes from any of the ‘gates’ in Israel where he is resident, and goes to the one sanctuary, he is to be accorded all the privileges of Levites already ministering there (18: 6–8).

Then we hear of ‘the priests, the Levites’ (hakkōhanîm hallewiyyîm), a frequent and somewhat ambiguous phrase which may suggest that some Levites are priests, while others are not; or that some priests are drawn from Levitical families, while others are not; or that we have to deal with ‘Levitical priests’ in a sense possibly suggested by 18: 1: namely, that the whole tribe of Levi is a priestly tribe. This last Gunneweg prefers for D; but he notes that, even if this is so, it does not mean that from the beginning all Levites were priests, or that all priests were Levites. In its present setting, 18: 1 offers a preamble to the ruling that all Levites may serve in the one sanctuary, and it is most naturally understood in the light of this ruling. Thus it would seem that for Deuteronomy the whole tribe is separated to serve the Lord (cf. 10: 8). How this worked out in practice, however, is not entirely clear.

Recent research on the word khn in Deuteronomy supplies a similarly complex picture (Tuell 1992: 124–32). Several verses speak of hkhn, ‘the priest’ (e.g. 10: 6; 17: 12; 26: 3), who appears to hold special rank. Though the expression ‘head/chief/high priest’ is not used, the legislator is aware of Aaron's position, and of the fact that his son acted as ‘the priest’ when Aaron died (10: 6). Deuteronomy, therefore, may be aware of a ‘chief priest’ without recourse to that terminology. The Deuteronomistic Historian similarly speaks of ‘the priest’ at 2 Kgs. 11: 9–10 (Jehoiada), 16: 10–11 (Urijah); 22: 10, 12, 14 (Hilkiah) who evidently held a senior post within the Jerusalem Temple and had direct dealings with the king in respect of Temple organization and finances. Within the Deuteronomistic History, Tuell also notes groups within the priesthood: ‘the elders of the priests’ (2 Kgs. 19: 2) who act as the king's representatives to a prophet; and ‘the guardians of the threshold’ (2 Kgs. 12: 10; 22: 4; 23: 4, 25: 18) who are named along with ‘priests of the second order’ (23: 4) and ‘the head priest’ and ‘the second priest’ (25: 18). All this suggests, first, that in the Jerusalem Temple under the later monarchy there were several groups of priests, some of higher rank than others; and secondly, that Deuteronomy itself was aware of a situation outside Jerusalem in the ‘provinces’ where organization of priests had also been complex. In other words, a close reading of Deuteronomy strongly suggests that different ranks and offices within the priestly society were known to the legislator.

Given this, it is possible, and indeed likely in practical terms, that different groups of officials ‘specialized’ in different aspects of sanctuary worship, ritual, and procedure, some devoting themselves to the details of animal sacrifice, others to the precise composition of cereal and incense offerings, others to duties involving the security of the shrine. Care of sacred vessels and other dedicated property might well have been the duty of yet other groups. Deuteronomy's language, and the terminology used by the Deuteronomistic History, indicate a more complex organization than has sometimes been perceived. The division of duties envisaged by the priestly writings, where priests and groups of Levites have specific duties allotted to them, may not, therefore be lacking in Deuteronomy, though the latter uses different language to describe the situation, and eschews the technical terminology of the priestly class to define it.

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