(descendants of Levi), sometimes the name extends to the whole tribe, the priests included (Exodus 6:25; Leviticus 25:32; Numbers 35:2; Joshua 21:3, 41, etc), sometimes only to those members of the tribe who were not priests, and as distinguished from them. Sometimes again it is added as an epithet of the smaller portion of the tribe, and we read of “the priests the Levites” (Joshua 3:3; Ezekiel 44:15). The history of the tribe and of the functions attached to its several orders is essential to any right apprehension of the history of Israel as a people. It will fall naturally into four great periods:
I. The time of the exodus — There is no trace of the consecrated character of the Levites till the institution of a hereditary priesthood in the family of Aaron, during the first withdrawal of Moses to the solitude of Sinai (Exodus 24:1). The next extension of the idea of the priesthood grew out of the terrible crisis of Exodus 32. The tribe stood forth separate and apart, recognizing even in this stern work the spiritual as higher than the natural. From this time they occupied a distinct position. The tribe of Levi was to take the place of that earlier priesthood of the firstborn as representatives of the holiness of the people. At the time of their first consecration there were 22,000 of them, almost exactly the number of the firstborn males in the whole nation. As the tabernacle was the sign of the presence among the people of their unseen King, so the Levites were, among the other tribes of Israel, as the royal guard that waited exclusively on him. It was obviously essential for their work as the bearers and guardians of the sacred tent that there should be a fixed assignment of duties, and now accordingly we meet with the first outlines of the organization which afterward became permanent. The division of the tribe into the three sections that traced their descent from the sons of Levi formed the groundwork of it. The work which they all had to do required a man’s full strength, and therefore, though twenty was the starting-point for military service (Numbers 1), they were not to enter on their active service till they were thirty (Numbers 4:23, 30, 35). At fifty they were to be free from all duties but those of superintendence (Numbers 8:25-26). (1) The Kohathites, as nearest of kin to the priests, held from the first the highest offices. They were to bear all the vessels of the sanctuary, the ark itself included (Numbers 3:31; 4:15). (2) the Gershonites had to carry the tent-hangings and curtains (Numbers 4:22-26). (3) The heavier burden of the boards, bars and pillars of the tabernacle fell on the sons of Merari. The Levites were to have no territorial possessions. In place of them they were to receive from the others the tithes of the produce of the land, from which they, in their turn, offered a tithe to the priests, as a recognition of their higher consecration (Numbers 18:21, 24, 26; Nehemiah 10:37). Distinctness and diffusion were both to be secured by the assignment to the whole tribe of forty-eight cities, with an outlying “suburb” (Numbers 35:2), of meadowland for the pasturage of their flocks and herds. The reverence of the people for them was to be heightened by the selection of six of these as cities of refuge. Through the whole land the Levites were to take the place of the old household priests, sharing in all festivals and rejoicings. (Deuteronomy 12:19; 14:26-27; 26:11) Every third year they were to have an additional share in the produce of the land. (Deuteronomy 14:28; 26:12) To “the priests the Levites” was to belong the office of preserving, transcribing and interpreting the law. (Deuteronomy 17:9-12; 31:26)
II. The period of the judges — The successor of Moses, though belonging to another tribe, did all that could be done to make the duty above named a reality. The submission of the Gibeonites enabled him to relieve the tribe-divisions of Gershon and Merari of the most burdensome of their duties. The conquered Hivites became “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the house of Jehovah and for the congregation (Joshua 9:27). As soon as the conquerors had advanced far enough to proceed to a partition of the country, the forty-eight cities were assigned to them.
III. The monarchy — When David’s kingdom was established, there came a fuller organization of the whole tribe. Their position in relation to the priesthood was once again definitely recognized. In the worship of the tabernacle under David, as afterward in that of the temple, the Levites were the gatekeepers, vergers, sacristans, choristers, of the central sanctuary of the nation. They were, in the language of 1 Chronicles 23:24-32, to which we may refer as almost the locus classicus on this subject, “to wait on the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of Jehovah, in the courts, and the chambers, and the purifying of all holy things.” They were, besides this, “to stand every morning to thank and praise Jehovah, and likewise at even.” They were, lastly, “to offer”—i.e. to assist the priest in offering—”all burnt sacrifices to Jehovah in the sabbaths and on the set feasts.” They lived for the greater part of the year in their own cities and came up at fixed periods to take their turn of work (1 Chronicles 25:1; 1 Chronicles 26:1). The educational work which the Levites received for their peculiar duties, no less than their connection, more or less intimate, with the schools of the prophets, would tend to make them the teachers of the others, the transcribers and interpreters of the law, the chroniclers of the times in which they lived. (Thus they became to the Israelites what ministers and teachers are to the people now, and this teaching and training the people in morality and religion was no doubt one of the chief reasons why they were set apart by God from the people, and yet among the people.–ED.) The revolt of the ten tribes, and the policy pursued by Jeroboam, who wished to make the priests the creatures and instruments of the king, and to establish a provincial and divided worship, caused them to leave the cities assigned to them in the territory of Israel, and gather round the metropolis of Judah (2 Chronicles 11:13-14). In the kingdom of Judah they were, from this time forward, a powerful body, politically as well as ecclesiastically.
IV. After the captivity — During the period that followed the captivity of the Levites contributed to the formation of the so-called Great Synagogue. They, with the priests, formed the majority of the permanent Sanhedrin, and as such had a large share in the administration of justice even in capital cases. They appear but seldom in the history of the New Testament.
Smith's Bible Names Dictionary (1866).