Tribe of Levi
Position of the tribe
In the first year following the Exodus of Israel, Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Sinaitic Covenant (the Ten Commandments and other elements of the Mosaic law). When he descended from the mountain, he found that the Israelites had rebelled and adopted idolatry. Specifically, they had made a golden calf and were praying to it. Moses, in anger, broke the original tablets on which God had inscribed the Commandments. He then melted down the golden calf, scattered its dust into a nearby pond and forced the people to drink it.
In this episode, only one tribe stood by Moses. That tribe was his own tribe, the Levites. As a result, God commanded that the Jewish priesthood (the Aaronic priesthood) be reserved for the Levites. As part of this command, God relieved the other tribal leaders of certain sacerdotal responsibilities and entrusted these solely to the Levites. Thereafter the priesthood in general was often referred to in scripture as simply "the Levites".
Aaron was the first high priest, and all of the high priests of the Jews were direct descendants of Aaron. They alone were permitted to offer sacrifices, and only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.
The family of Aaron was part of the Kohathite clan, one of three clans named for the three sons of Levi. When the Israelites were camped, the Levites would camp on three sides of the tabernacle, the Kohathites to the south, the Gershonites to the west, and the Merarites to the north. When the Israelites marched, the Levites marched in a thin rank, with two ranks of three tribes in front of them and two ranks of three tribes behind. (Numbers 2:17 ) The Kohathites would march first, carrying the articles of furniture for the Tabernacle, including the ark of the covenant, but only after the priests had prepared them properly for transport. The Gershonites would march next, carrying the coverings and hangings for the Tabernacle and the courtyard. The Merarites would march last, carrying the boards, bars, pillars, and sockets for the Tabernacle and the courtyard. (Numbers 3-4 )
The Levites were not given a land inheritance in the Promised Land, as God was their inheritance. Instead they were given the right to graze cattle and grow crops in the surrounding zones of forty-eight cities scattered throughout the land. (Joshua 21 )
When Jeroboam I led his revolt and established the separate Kingdom of Israel, all the Levites in all the territories of the ten tribes of that kingdom fled to the Kingdom of Judah, with the exception of the illegal priestly line of Jonathan, established shortly after the death of Joshua.
Moses and his brother Aaron were Levites. So was their sister Miriam, who gained a reputation as a prophetess. John the Baptist was also a Levite. Sadly, not all the Levites have been renowned for their good deeds. Korah, Moses' cousin, made a mutiny against Moses. (Numbers 16 ) Another Levite, whose name is unrecorded, caused a civil war in Israel after he sent his concubine out to be violated and murdered. (Judges 19 )
- Eleazar (son of Aaron)
- Eliezer (son of Moses)
- Hebron (son of Kohath)
- Jonathan (son of Gershom)
- Mishael (son of Uzziel)
- Nadab (son of Aaron)