Who were Levites in the Bible? - Levitical Priests
This brief study explains who were the Levites and the priests in the Bible. This study is important since it is not always immediately obvious who these individuals were. We will examine and explain their family heritage, establishment, duties and support of both the priests and Levites.
Family Heritage of the Priests and Levites
Both the priests and Levites were and are descendants of Levi who was a son of Jacob. Our starting point is Genesis 46:8-11 where we are told that the patriarch Jacob was the father of Levi and the sons of Levi were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.
Now these are the names of the sons of Israel, Jacob and his sons, who went to Egypt: . . . The sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. Genesis 46:8, 11 (NASB)
Then in Exodus 6:16-20 we are told that Levi had three sons: Gershon and Kohath and Merari. It is also important to notice that Kohath was the father of Amram who was the father of Aaron and Moses.
These are the names of the sons of Levi according to their generations: Gershon and Kohath and Merari; and the length of Levi’s life was one hundred and thirty-seven years. The sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei, according to their families. The sons of Kohath: Amram and Izhar and Hebron and Uzziel; and the length of Kohath’s life was one hundred and thirty-three years. The sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites according to their generations. Amram married his father’s sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses; and the length of Amram’s life was one hundred and thirty-seven years. Exodus 6:16-20 (NASB)
1 Chronicles 6:1-3 states that Miriam was also a child of Amram.
The sons of Levi were Gershon, Kohath and Merari. The sons of Kohath were Amram, Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel. 3 The children of Amram were Aaron, Moses and Miriam . . . 1 Chronicles 6:1-3 (NASB)
Therefore, the family heritage was Jacob to Levi, Levi to Kohath, Kohath to Amram and then Amram to Aaron, Moses and Miriam. Thus, Aaron, Moses and Miriam were descendants of the tribe of Levi.
Some quick points about Aaron, Moses and Miriam are as follows. The study “What is the relationship of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam?” reveals that the birth order was Aaron, Miriam and then Moses. Exodus 15:20 indicates that Miriam was the sister of Aaron. Exodus 4:14 also states that Moses was a brother of Aaron and Numbers 26:59 says that Aaron, Moses and Miriam were brothers and sisters.
Establishment of the Priesthood
After Israel had been almost four hundred years in Egypt (Genesis 15:13; Exodus 12:40-41; Acts 7:6; Galatians 3:16-17), Aaron, Miriam and Moses were born. The book of Exodus records the plagues that God inflicted on the Egyptians through Moses (Exodus 7-13), the exodus out of Egypt (Exodus 14-15), the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19-20) and the introduction of the Mosaic laws (Exodus 21-24) and establishment of the priests and Levites (Exodus 21-40).
While Exodus 19:6 records God’s statement that the nation of Israel would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, this does not mean that there was not a formal class of priests. While priests were first mentioned in Exodus 19:22, 24, the priesthood that God desired is established in Exodus 28:1. Aaron became the high priest for the nation of Israel (Exodus 28:1, 41; 30:30; 31:10; 38:21; Numbers 3:6; Psalm 99:6) and his sons would succeed him (Exodus 29:4, 9, 44; 30:30). Note that Exodus 29:9 states that the priesthood of Aaron and his sons will be perpetual.
Duties of the Priests and Levites
Now who are the Levitical priests? This is an important question since 1 Chronicles 23:2 refers to the priest and Levites.
And he gathered together all the leaders of Israel with the priests and the Levites. 1 Chronicles 23:2 (NASB)
We have already discovered that Aaron and his sons, descendants of Levi are the priests. What are their duties? They are given in Leviticus 8-10 and Numbers 3:1-3. Numbers 3:3 describes these priests as the “anointed priests.” They will perform the sacrifices. That is, the anointed priests were and are descendants of Aaron.
The rest of the tribe of Levi are the Levites. Their duties are described in Numbers 1:47-54 and Numbers 3:23-4:49.
“Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, nor shall you take their census among the sons of Israel. But you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings and over all that belongs to it. They shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it; they shall also camp around the tabernacle. So when the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle encamps, the Levites shall set it up. But the layman who comes near shall be put to death. The sons of Israel shall camp, each man by his own camp, and each man by his own standard, according to their armies. But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there will be no wrath on the congregation of the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall keep charge of the tabernacle of the testimony.” Thus the sons of Israel did; according to all which the LORD had commanded Moses, so they did. Numbers 1:49-54 (NASB)
Numbers 3:23-4:49 provides greater details. The Levites who were descendants of Gershon had responsibilities for the coverings of the tabernacle and tent, the hangings in the court and the screen on the door (Numbers 3:23-26). Numbers 4:21-28 provides more details. They camped on the westward side of the tabernacle.
Numbers 3:29-32 gives us the duties of the descendants of Kohath. These Levites had responsibility for the furnishings of the tabernacle. Numbers 4:1-20 provide more details. They camped on the southward side of the tabernacle.
Lastly, the descendants of Merari had responsibility for the wooden framework or structure of the tabernacle and court and all its fastenings and gear (Numbers 3:35-37). Numbers 4:29-49 provide more details. They camped on the northward side of the tabernacle.
All Levites employed in ministry and service had to be between the ages of twenty-five and fifty (Leviticus 8:24-26). That is, an anointed priest or Levite had to retire at the age of fifty years. In summary, all priests were Levites from the tribe of Levi, but not all Levites were anointed priests, descendants of Aaron and his sons.
And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the people of Israel, to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.” Numbers 8:19 (NASB)
Support of the Priests and Levites
All the Levites, including the anointed priests, were supported through the tithe of the people (Leviticus 27:30-33; Numbers 18:21, 24-28). Special cities were designated for the Levites for their dwelling (Leviticus 25:32). The Levites were not to be numbered with Israel (Numbers 2:33). God took care of His priests and their helpers, the Levites.
After the death and resurrection of Christ, the Levitical priesthood was abolished. That is the message of Hebrews 9-10. Christ’s death and resurrection instituted a new covenant described in Luke 22:20 and Hebrews 8:7-13; 9:1-28. The Mosaic ceremonial law of sacrifices and priesthood no longer exists, because Jesus Christ has replaced it as our Merciful and Faithful High Priest.
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. Hebrews 2:17 (NASB)
Hebrews 7:11, 24-25 teaches us that Christ, as High Priest, was and is superior to Aaron, the high priest (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Suggested Links:What is the difference between chief priests and high priests?
What is the relationship of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam?