Priests in ancient Israel were considered descendants of the tribe of Levi, or, in a broad sense, Levites. Whether such a tribe ever existed is debated. To the tribe they are connected only by genealogies: some perhaps ancient, one at least the product of postexilic times, drawn up in order to legitimize the existing conditions and the privileges of the Zadokites (1 Chron. 5.30–34 and 6.35–38). For the word Levite no clear etymology has been found; the most suitable meaning is “devoted to the Lord.” Levites, then, are those who are given or have given themselves for the service of the Lord; this is their role in traditions of early Israel (Exod. 32.28; Deut. 33.8–11).
Although Levitical priests are the descendants of Aaron, the Zadokites claimed and eventually obtained the Levitical priesthood. Thus, in general biblical usage, the Levites are subordinate Temple officials, who never obtained full priesthood. They are prominent in later phases of biblical tradition, especially in Deuteronomy, P, and Chronicles. They were charged with the more menial tasks in the Temple cult. This secondary position seems to have started with King Josiah's reform; after the suppression of the country shrines, where it is often assumed (but is unproven) that they officiated and from which they drew their income, they were deprived of their powers and that income, thus reducing them to poverty. In Deuteronomy they are therefore often mentioned together with aliens, widows, and orphans. The Jerusalem priesthood, on the contrary, increased through the reform in power, dignity, and wealth, which they refused to share. Although Deuteronomy 18.1–8 had granted equal dignity and rights to all members of the tribe of Levi, the Jerusalem priesthood succeeded in nullifying this principle, limiting the Levites as priests of the high places (2 Kings 23.9). Such a division into an upper and a lower clergy was first codified in the reconstruction program of Ezekiel, where the Zadokites were granted the privileges of the Temple and the sacrifices (40.46; 44.10–14). This hierarchy is confirmed by P (see Num. 3; 18) and may explain why relatively few Levites returned from the exile.
As to the length of their service, we have contrasting information. According to an older stratum of P (Num. 4.3; see 1 Chron. 23.3), they started at thirty years of age and finished at fifty; according to a later stratum (Num. 8.23–26) they started at twenty‐five, while Ezra 3.8 (= 1 Esd. 5.56) and 1 Chronicles 23.24, 27 mention the twentieth year.
In Chronicles we find traces of a struggle by the Levites to obtain equal dignity with the Zadokites, which would have meant sharing in the sacrifices. This was not obtained, however, and the Levites had to content themselves with sharing in the liturgy only. The struggle between the two groups continued until the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), with the Levites trying to improve their position and the Zadokites trying to deprive them of the little they had, such as the revenues of the tithes.
See also Priests and High Priest.
J. A. Soggin