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

Early Traditions

(a) Priestly Families, Levites, and Consecrated Sons

Two narratives in particular stand out from Israel's pre-monarchical traditions, which may reflect two separate, but related settings in which priests operated. The first has an ‘official’ character: we hear of a shrine at Shiloh, where Eli and his sons served. Since the ark was there, Israel owed particular allegiance to this shrine (1 Sam. 1: 3; 3: 1–3). The narrative speaks of it as if it were both a ‘tent’ (1 Sam. 2: 22) and a house (1 Sam. 3: 15), and constructions like the tent-shrine discovered in the 1970s at Timna suggest some historical basis for this description, and hint at its antiquity (Manor 1992: 555–6). The shrine appears to be well established, with widely understood sacrificial procedures in place, but Eli's sons flouted these, and were correspondingly condemned by a prophet (1 Sam. 2: 12–17, 27–36). Eli as ‘priest’ was evidently responsible for teaching his sons, and their failure to obey traditional rulings about the mode and manner of sacrifice is regarded as a serious failure on his part. To this shrine, pilgrims resorted annually (1 Sam. 1: 3), and its priest issued responses in YHWH's name to worshippers' petitions (1 Sam. 1: 17). The future prophet Samuel as a child was vowed, no doubt like others, to YHWH's service at this shrine (1 Sam. 1: 27–8), and it was there that he received oracles whose messages would affect the whole of Israel (1 Sam. 3: 11–21). Samuel is never styled ‘priest’; but he offered sacrifice (1 Sam. 10: 8), a parade example of sacrificial activity on the part of non-priests, which is often encountered in Israel's traditions of her early days as a settled community (e.g. Judg. 6: 19–24, 26; 11: 31(!); 13: 19), and which never ceased completely in the sense that non-priests were able to slaughter their Passover sacrifices (though not manipulate the blood and fat) until the very last days of the Temple (Philo, QE 1: 10). Samuel's sacrificial activity, his activity as a judge (1 Sam. 7: 15–17), and his close association with a widely respected YHWH shrine at Shiloh, led later generations to regard him as a Levite, the Chronicler providing him with a Levitical genealogy (1 Chr. 6: 28, EV). The Chronicler may not, however, be so far off the mark if the term ‘Levite’ originally signified a profession or status (see below, p. 344), ‘one dedicated to the service’ of the deity, for Samuel is apparently placed in such a state by his mother (1 Sam. 1: 28).

The second narrative is more ‘popular’, and initially private in tone. Judg. 17 tells of one, Micah from Ephraim, who had a ‘house of god(s)’ replete with ephod and teraphim: the ephod appears here as a means of discovering the divine will, as also probably at 1 Sam. 14: 3; 23: 6, 9; 30: 7, although the same term can be used of a priestly vestment in these early traditions (1 Sam 2: 28; 22: 18; 2 Sam. 6: 14). This man consecrated one of his sons as priest: subsequent events show that one of the main functions of this establishment was the discovery of the divine will on particular occasions (Judg. 18: 5; ephod and teraphim as divinatory media were still consulted in the days of Hosea towards the end of the eighth century, Hos. 3: 4). A young man from Bethelehem of Judah, but described as a Levite, was seeking to reside there as a gēr (Judg. 17: 7–9): this recalls Deuteronomy's designation of one class of Levite who ‘dwells within your gates’ as a resident alien. Micah welcomed him and, in return for a stipend, urged him to become his ‘father and priest’ (Judg. 17: 10). To this, the Levite agreed, becoming like one of Micah's sons; so Micah ‘consecrated the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in Micah's house’ (Judg. 17: 11–12). Micah's comment on all this is revealing: since he now has a Levite as priest, he presumes that YHWH will be good to him (Judg. 17: 13). Others, like Micah's own son, may serve as priests in this early period; but the Levites apparently have a recognized, tried and tested good relationship with YHWH. Fortunate is the man who can employ one: Micah certainly had money (Judg. 17: 2–24), and evidently regarded his shrine as a sound investment. Later, the tribe of Dan on its northward migration was also to recognize the value of this shrine as an establishment for determining the divine will. Micah's Levitical priest gave them an oracle (Judg. 18: 3–6), and they persuaded him to take the ephod and teraphim and to join them as their ‘father and priest’ (Judg. 18: 14–21). So they founded their city of Dan, setting up there a shrine with Moses' grandson as priest (Judg. 18: 30–1). The tradition has been handed down to us replete with editorial warnings: this shrine was opposed to the (genuine) shrine at Shiloh (Judg. 18: 31); it was idolatrous (18: 30), and founded in bloodshed, a matter directly associated with Micah's priest (18: 27). Later tradents were to obscure the name of Moses, writing it as Manasseh (MT Judg. 18: 30).

Precisely because of these editorial warnings, the story is valuable, and points to a period in Israelite society when well-to-do individuals could secure the services of Levites, recognized as having a special affinity with YHWH worship: these Levites appear to have wandered about seeking employment, the individual who comes to Micah clearly not being designated as being of the tribe of Levi. Had he, and others, opted for the status or profession of Levite, because he had inherited no land or property (being a third or fourth son of his father?) and was seeking some respectable means of support? (Stager 1985). Another suggestive editorial note in this narrative insists that these things took place when there was no king in Israel (Judg. 17: 6; 18: 1; cf. 19: 1, also involving a Levite), a formula of some importance for the final compiler of Judges who repeats it as the very last verse of the book, adding, so that no one should mistake its implication, that ‘every man did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judg. 21: 25). This implies that, with the advent of the monarchy, some kind of order might have been imposed on a religious world which had hitherto been unorganized, or even disorganized. Whatever the status of this editorial note, it alerts us to the profound effects which monarchy would, in the course of time, exercise on priests, Levites, and sanctuaries (Rooke 2000; Gunneweg 1965).

The Deuteronomistic Historian, through narratives like the story of Micah and the Shiloh shrine, effectively produced a ‘theoretical model’ of how worship in Israel and the offices of priests and Levites might have operated before the monarchy; and it is difficult to ‘get behind’ this official history without a certain amount of discussion of types of religion represented in Israel's early traditions (cf. Miller 2000: 46–105). For example, we may ask whether Micah's shrine represents a type of ‘popular religion’, or ‘family religion’, widespread and outside the control of Jerusalem priests, and thus regarded by ‘official religion’ as irregular and ultimately dangerous? Or was Micah's establishment of his shrine with a Levitical priest an attempt by a man of substance to bring order to a society which was religiously fragmented, even dysfunctional? Or was his enterprise an exercise in personal power politics? All these things may be considered; but the Historian seems most concerned to point us to the shrine at Dan, with its Mosaic priesthood, a fact which it does not choose to conceal, and which must have carried with it a considerable cachet. Is there a homiletic purpose in the story, an illustration, perhaps, of corruptio optimi pessima?

Traditions of Israel's pre-monarchic days, then, present a diverse picture of priests from established families guarding objects acknowledged as sacred to YHWH (ark, lamp, bread of the presence, and ephod: 1 Sam. 3: 3; 21: 4–6; 23: 9; 30: 7), associated with well-known sanctuaries like Shiloh, where there was a tent and house of YHWH, commanding more than local allegiance. Other shrines, like Micah's, may have been served by priests appointed ad hoc like Micah's son, although the appearance of an itinerant Levite is presented as in no way abnormal, and indeed a bonus for Micah's project. This Levite, it should be noticed, had still to be consecrated as priest.

What is lacking in these early traditions of Israel's priesthood should also be noticed. The priests and Levites are not centred on vast Temple complexes, often associated with powerful rulers, as in Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria: the ark and its associated objects appear modest, humble, and rural—not even ‘provincial’—and Micah's sanctuary has a ‘do-it-yourself’ air about it until it is shifted to Dan. It would seem that any man might qualify as a priest in a local shrine, though certain established families were regarded as peculiarly suited to the service of YHWH. Eli's was one of these; and Levites, if they can be persuaded to act accordingly, make the most desirable priests. Why this might be, so we must now investigate.

(b) Etymologies

One prominent and conventional means of attempting to acquire knowledge of priests and Levites in earliest times has been recourse to etymology. In truth, its results are somewhat disappointing, being often uncertain, and sometimes quite conjectural. None the less, there is knowledge to be gleaned; and the major etymological theories may be briefly summarized, without any attempt at an exhaustive treatment, as follows.

(i) Priest

The main biblical Hebrew word for ‘priest’ is khn, a West Semitic word represented also in Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Nabataean with the same meaning. Despite frequent occurrences in Ugaritic texts, we learn from those sources next to nothing about the duties, functions, or ministry of the priest. A ‘chief of priests’, rb khnm, is known; and details of which portions of sacrificial victims belong to priests are sometimes given; but beyond this little is said. Similarly, in Phoenician and Aramaic inscriptions, the term khn appears, but without explication. Biblical Hebrew uses khn alone to speak of priests of YHWH, and also uses it to describe priests of other deities (e.g. Gen. 41: 45; 1 Sam. 5: 5; 2 Kgs. 10: 19; 11: 18; Jer. 48: 7; 49: 3). It thus seems to be a general West Semitic word for ‘priest’. 2 Kgs. 23: 5 uses another word, kmr, to describe non-YHWH priests: a cognate term is found in Aramaic, texts from Mari, and the Amarna Letters; but no light is shed from these documents on what the kmr did, his powers, or his precise place in the cult. The Arabic kāhin should also be noted: the word refers to a soothsayer, but was in early times apparently associated with the offices of sâdin (sanctuary guardian) and hâjib (door-keeper), eventually coming to refer to an exclusively mantic and non-priestly function (Cody 1969: 14–25).

Accordingly, three significant etymologies have been proposed for Hebrew khn:

  • 1. Akkadian kânu in the š-stem, ‘incline before’, such that a khn would be one who pays homage to the deity.

  • 2. Hebrew kwn, ‘stand’, indicating khn as one who stands or serves the deity.

  • 3. Syriac khn, ‘be a priest’, with secondary meaning ‘be prosperous’, such as to bring ‘abundance’, khnwt'.

All have reference to some aspect of priestly service; and the most probable of them may well be the third (Cody 1969: 26–9).

(ii) Levite

Proposed etymologies of the word ‘Levite’ are sometimes involved in the question of whether the word is indicative of a profession or function (see above, p. 341). Three main proposals have dominated research.

(1) Levite derives from Hebrew lwh I, ‘to join’. The Bible itself explains the name Levi by means of this stem (Leah's third son: see Gen. 29: 34). It is apparently in mind at Num. 18: 2, 4, 6 (the Levites are to join Aaron). Although dismissed by Cody (1969: 29–30) as lacking solid support, it has proved attractive to some scholars, including Baudissin (1889: 74: Levites were originally military protectors of the ark and its deity); Budde (1912: 45–7, 137: Levites were joined to Moses as his supporters, as in Exod. 32: 25–9, where, however, the stem is not used to define Levites); and Dhorme (1937: 226–7: Levites were associated with the shrine of the deity).

(2) It derives from lwh II, ‘to borrow’ (qal), ‘to lend’ (hiphil). Minean texts from el-Ulā, biblical Dedan in Arabia, record the forms lw' (masc.) and lw't (fem.), initially defined as ‘priest’ and ‘priestess’: some suggested that these terms illuminated Hebrew ‘Levite’ (e.g. Hölscher 1925: 2160). But the words mean ‘one pledged for a debt or vow’ (Grimme 1924): this may be helpful, and Pedersen (1926: 3–4; 1940: 680), Albright (1956: 204), and Nielsen (1955: 266) have drawn on it to suggest an understanding of Levite as one pledged, dedicated, or given away for the service of the sanctuary or the deity. The Minean texts offer little: de Vaux (1961) argued convincingly that they might well have been influenced by the Hebrew term lwh, since Jews had been resident from early times in the region of Dedan.

(3) Levi derives from lwh III, ‘to turn, twist’, a form associated in biblical Hebrew with Leviathan, the ‘twisting serpent’. The most prominent exponent of this etymology was Mowinckel, cited by Rowley (1948: 8), who suggested that Levites turned and twisted in ecstatic ritual dancing at shrines. Others saw them as representatives of worship of YHWH in the form of a snake cult, adducing the bronze serpent of Num. 21: 8, offered a cult as Nehushtan and destroyed by Hezekiah (2 Kgs. 18: 4); the snake miracle performed by Moses (Exod. 4: 3; and ‘serpent’ names among Levites (e.g. šwpym in 1 Chr. 26: 16).

While the third of these has generally been found unconvincing, the first, and especially the second, permit an interpretation of ‘Levite’ as signifying originally a religious profession or occupation. This must be balanced against the use of Levi as a personal name, possibly meaning a client, adherent, or worshipper of God (Weippert 1971: 43). It should be clear, however, that whatever the root meaning of the term ‘Levite’, the expression came quite early in Israel's traditions to be employed for personnel engaged in a number of duties and ritual actions depending on their circumstances and times—a ‘catch-all term’, perhaps, which might even be used at times quite generally to speak of one officiating in some capacity in the formal service of YHWH.

(c) Levi a Secular Tribe?

The notion that once there may have been a ‘secular’ tribe of Levi which had no connection with priesthood and sanctuaries is based on Gen. 49: 5–7; Gen. 34; and lists of Israelite tribes which include Levi along with others which have no association with priesthood. In the first of these texts, Levi and Simeon are described by their father Jacob as brothers: their cruelty on some unspecified occasion in the past merited his curse that they be ‘scattered in Israel’ (Gen. 49: 7). Simeon seems to have merged with Judah (Josh. 19: 1), and Levi with other tribes (Jos. 21: 1–7). The second text possibly alludes to the past actions of Simeon and Levi condemned in the first: Gen. 34 makes them responsible for a massacre at Shechem, which their father deplored (Gen. 34: 30).

Levi also appears as a son of Leah high up in tribal lists at Gen. 29: 31–30: 24; 35: 23–6; 46: 8–25; 49: 3–27; Exod. 1: 2–4; Deut. 27: 12–13; 33: 6–25, along with other tribes who do not perform sacred duties. In other lists, however, Levi's name is conspicuously absent, his place being taken by other tribal groups: see e.g. Num. 1: 5–15, 20–43; 2: 3–31; 7: 12–83; 10: 14–28; 13: 4–15; 26: 5–51; Josh. 13–19; 21: 4–7, 9–39. Was there once, then, a secular tribe of Levi which for some reason ceased to exist? And if there had been, how might it have related to the ‘priestly’ Levites associated with the service of YHWH? First, it should be noted that no information about territory occupied by a (hypothetical) secular tribe of Levi survives in Israel's traditional history. Levi does not feature in the military action described in Judg. 5; and the traditional records are unanimous in asserting that Levi occupied no land. There is, in addition, no compelling reason to interpret Gen. 49: 5–7 in light of Gen. 34, or vice versa: the former could refer to an incident quite unrelated to a massacre at Shechem. As for the tribal lists, it is far from clear what historical value attaches to them. Indeed, they may be largely artificial; and it is remarkable that Levi's name is absent mainly from lists occurring in the book of Numbers and those which follow it. The former contains the detailed arrangements for Levi's separation from the rest of Israel and dedication to the work of the sanctuary. The evidence is not sufficiently strong to support the theory of the one-time existence of a secular Levi tribe, which disappeared or ceased to exist (why? when?), only to be revived (how? why? when?), or to have its name reused for a tribe involved in sacred activities. From the outset, Levites seem to have been a group within Israel particularly dedicated to the formal worship of YHWH.

Such a conclusion is supported by Deut. 33: 8–11. Though difficult to date precisely, the language and poetic structure of this vignette suggest that it belongs among Israel's early traditions (Fenton 2004: 405–6), setting forth a widely held and influential description of Levitical privileges and responsibilities as part of Moses' last words to Israel. Levi is numbered among other tribes, but as a priestly society whose world is portrayed in some detail. This world is characterized by:

  • a. Levitical responsibility for Urim and Thummim, the mysterious means of determining the divine will, whose later history has been briefly noted (Deut. 33: 8);

  • b. zealous attachment to YHWH, for whose sake Levites are prepared to go to extreme lengths (33: 9);

  • c. the duty of teaching to Israel YHWH's mišpaṭ and tôrāh (33: 10);

  • d. the privilege of offering incense and whole burnt offerings (kālîl) on the altar of YHWH (33: 120); and

  • e. the expectation that Levi will encounter enemies and opposition (33: 11).

A source dating in all probability from early Second Temple times, the prophetic book of Malachi (early fifth century BCE), threatens the contemporary priests with punishment for their failures, invoking a divine covenant with Levi himself, a matter otherwise not mentioned in the Bible. Yet the terms of this covenant recall in some measure Deut. 33: 8–11, since Levi is offered life and peace in return for his reverence and devotion to YHWH and because of his fear of YHWH's name. Levi had ‘the law of truth’ in his mouth; he had walked with YHWH and had turned away from iniquity. The priests' duties consist first in the preservation of knowledge; people should seek Torah from a priest, because he is a ‘messenger’ (mal'āk) of YHWH of Hosts (Mal. 2: 6–7). Malachi had already given grounds for the divine threat directed towards the priests: they had breached the laws of purity, had offered beasts unfit for sacrifice upon the altar of YHWH, and had profaned that altar (Mal. 1: 6–14). Possibly the prophet envisaged these priests as having reneged on the terms of the blessing granted to them in Deut. 33: 8–11, or one similar to it.

Malachi's oracles from the period of the Second Temple, and Deut. 33: 8–11, which may be one of the oldest notes about the priesthood available to us, address differing situations in Israel's life; but they enable us to some degree to trace the broad continuity of priestly and Levitical duties. And while the question of who should serve as priest, and where they might serve, were at times matters of intense debate, there seems never to have been much doubt about what a priest of YHWH should do.

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