Son of Jacob and Leah, and one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Leah associates Levi with the verb “to join” (Gen. 29.34). Aside from his involvement with Simeon in the attack against Shechem (Gen. 34.25–26), Levi is best known for the sacerdotal functions of his descendants. The Levites play a prominent role in assisting Moses quell the golden calf rebellion (Exod 32.25–29). Whatever Aaron's ancestry, his sons, and not Levi's, dominate the Jerusalem cult from the time of Solomon (1 Kings 2.26–27) until the overthrow of Onias III by the Seleucids in 174 BCE.
Biblical sources depict the Levites as porters, carrying the ark (1 Sam. 6.15; 1 Kings 8.4) and the tabernacle (Num. 1.47–54). Given no inheritance of their own (Num. 18.23–24; Deut. 12.12–19; 14.28–29), the Levites were to reside in forty‐eight designated cities (Num 35.1–8; Josh. 21.1–8). Israelites were to support the Levites through tithes and offerings (Deut. 18.1–4).
Scholars disagree whether Levi was originally a secular tribe (Gen. 49.5–7) or whether the Levites were supposed to have secondary status. P prescribes a rigid division of duties for the descendants of Levi's sons, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Num. 4.1–33). Barred as priests, the Levites function under Aaronid supervision (Num. 3.10). Similarly, Ezekiel denounces the Levites and confirms their lesser status (44.4–14).
In contrast, Deuteronomy defines a priest as a levitical priest and accords Levites an equal share at the central shrine (18.6–8). In Deuteronomy Levites are judges (17.8–9), guardians of the torah scroll (17.18), and they assist in covenant renewal (27.9). In a postexilic context, Malachi predicts Levite renaissance, because of priestly corruption at the Jerusalem Temple (2.1–9; 3.3–4). Chronicles strikes a mediating position, depicting cooperation between the dominant Aaronids and the Levites and stressing levitical responsibilities as Temple singers, gatekeepers, and teachers of torah (1 Chron. 6.31–48; 9.22–27; 2 Chron. 17.7–9).
Many commentators see competition between the Levites and the Aaronids as the most plausible explanation for the different duties and kinds of status ascribed to these groups by biblical writers.
Gary N. Knoppers