Priests and Levites by Jaeyoung Jeon

Levites and priests are the two classes of temple personnel that served in Jerusalem’s temple. However, the Hebrew Bible reflects not only harmonious cooperation but also tensions and conflicts between them.

What is the difference between the priests and Levites?

Levites were members of a tribe that were said to be descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah. During the monarchic period, all male Levites had the right to be priests, and they were generally regarded as more legitimate than the non-Levitical priests (e.g., 1Kgs 12:31; Judg 17:13). However, when King Josiah destroyed the local sanctuaries in Judah and gathered the priests to Jerusalem, they were not allowed to serve at the altar (2Kgs 23:8-9); the priests of the Jerusalem temple maintained this right exclusively. This is often thought to be the origin of the division within the priestly class between priests and second-tier temple personnel, Levites. Scholars often argue that this situation is reflected in Ezek 44:10-15: according to the passage, only sons of Zadok (the priest of Jerusalem during the time of David and Solomon) hold the right to serve at the altar, while the Levites are deprived of it. 

This division within priestly circles was gradually strengthened and perpetuated in the practices of the second temple of Jerusalem. The priests held exclusive rights for service at the sacrificial altar and in the outer and inner sanctum of the temple; the Levites took responsibilities of nonpriestly tasks like singing, guarding the temple, and other subsidiary work (Num 3-4; 1Chr 23-26). During the Persian period (late sixth–late fourth centuries BCE), extensive genealogies were developed to help explain the social structure. Both the priests and the Levites were included in the genealogy of the tribe of Levi. The priests were incorporated into the line of Aaron and Zadok (e.g., 1Chr 6:1-15); the Levites were included in the pedigrees of the other tribal members (1Chr 6). The temple guards and singers were not counted among the Levites (e.g., Ezra 2:40-42, Ezra 2:70) until probably the middle of the Persian period (1Chr 6; ca. mid-fifth century BCE).

What was the relationship between the Levites and priests?

The Hebrew Bible often reflects tensions between the Levites and priests. The Pentateuchal texts, which were likely written by priestly scribes, elevate the sons of Aaron over other Levites in a strict hierarchical order (e.g., Lev 1-16; Num 3-4). The order is further strengthened by later writings such as the story of Korah (Num 16), which harshly blames the Levites for seeking priesthood (the story is usually thought to have been written by a priestly scribe during the Persian period). Similarly, the aforementioned Ezek 44 denounces the Levites for idolatry.

The voice of the Levites is heard countering this polemic particularly in the books of Chronicles, which are often thought to have been written by or in favor of the Levites during the fifth-fourth centuries BCE. While maintaining the functional division between the priests and Levites, Chronicles describes the honorable status and roles of the Levites given by King David. The Levites’ tasks, such as temple liturgy and security (1Chr 15-16), are described in more detail and significance than priestly duties (e.g., 2Chr 29). Some of the singers are highly esteemed as prophets (e.g., 2Chr 20:14). The Levites are temple treasurers (1Chr 26:20-28) and control the order of the temple service (1Chr 24:6). They are even involved in the sacrificial service (e.g., 2Chr 29:34; 2Chr 35:11), which is unimaginable in the priests’ writings (Lev 1-9). They also share with priests the right to bless people (2Chr 30:27). Furthermore, outside the temple, the Levites are appointed as administrators and officers (1Chr 23), judges (1Chr 26:29), warriors watching over both sides of the Jordan River (1Chr 26:30-32), court scribes (1Chr 24:6), and teachers of the people (2Chr 17:8). In Chronicles, therefore, the Levites control not only the temple but also the kingdom and are no longer second in rank but equivalent to, if not better than, the priests.

Conversely, priests are depicted ambivalently in Chronicles. They preserve the rights and duties given to them by Moses’s law (in Exodus–Numbers; see, e.g., 1Chr 23), but the scope of their responsibility is quite limited. For instance, kings, rather than high priests, initiate festive sacrifices and purify the temple (e.g., 1Chr 16:1; 2Chr 29:5). Further, Chronicles makes clear that the Levites can be holier than priests (2Chr 29:34) and blames the priests for the destruction of Jerusalem (2Chr 36:14). 

Chronicles is ideological rather than historical, retrojecting ideal roles and statuses of the Levites back to the monarchic period. The book challenges the hierarchical and priest-centered cult envisioned in the priests’ writings and promotes an egalitarian cultic system in favor of the Levites and the people. This sharp contrast between the priests’ writings and the Levites’ (or pro-Levite) writing (Chronicles) reflects an ideological and also possibly social conflict and struggle between them.

Jaeyoung Jeon , "Priests and Levites", n.p. [cited 2 Dec 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/main-articles/priests-and-levites

Contributors

Jeon-Jaeyoung

Jaeyoung Jeon
SNSF senior researcher , University of Lausanne

Jaeyoung Jeon is currently a SNSF senior researcher at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. He attained his PhD in Hebrew Bible from Tel Aviv University and MA at the Hebrew University. He is author of the books The Call of Moses and the Exodus Story: A Redactional-Critical Study in Exodus 3-4 and 5-13 (Mohr Siebeck, 2013) and From the Reed Sea to Kadesh: A Redaction-Critical and Socio-historical Study of the Pentateuchal Wilderness Narrative (Mohr Siebeck [forthcoming]) and coeditor (with Louis Jonker) of Chronicles and the Priestly Literature: Literary-Historical and Ideological Relationships between Chronicles, Ezekiel, and the Pentateuch(de Gruyter, forthcoming).

The Hebrew Bible reflects cooperation as well as tension between the Levites and priests in the Second Temple of Jerusalem

Did you know…?

  • Priests and Levites are two different classes of temple personnel.
  • During the Persian Period, priests were connected to the lineage of Aaron and Zadok; Levites were connected to the lineage of Levi.
  • Pentateuchal texts elevate priests while the books of Chronicles promote the Levites.

    A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

    The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

    The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

    Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

    Relating to the system of ritual slaughter and offering to a deity, often performed on an altar in a temple.

    a site with religious significance

    Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.

    1Kgs 12:31

    31 He also made houses[a] on high places and appointed priests from among all the people who were not Levites.

    Judg 17:13

    13 Then Micah said, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me because the Levite has become my priest.”

    2Kgs 23:8-9

    8He brought all the priests out of the towns of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had made offerings, from Geba to Beer-sheba; he broke down ... View more

    Ezek 44:10-15

    10 But the Levites who went far from me, going astray from me after their idols when Israel went astray, shall bear their punishment. 11 They shall be ministers ... View more

    Num 3-4

    The Sons of Aaron
    1This is the lineage of Aaron and Moses at the time when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.2These are the names of the sons of Aaron: N ... View more

    1Chr 23-26


    23 When David was old and full of days, he made his son Solomon king over Israel.
    2 David assembled all the leaders of Israel and the priests and the Levites.  ... View more

    1Chr 6:1-15

    Descendants of Levi
    1 The sons of Levi: Gershom, Kohath, and Merari.2The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel.3The children of Amram: Aaron, Moses, ... View more

    1Chr 6

    Descendants of Levi
    1 The sons of Levi: Gershom, Kohath, and Merari.2The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel.3The children of Amram: Aaron, Moses, ... View more

    Ezra 2:40-42

    40 The Levites: the descendants of Jeshua and Kadmiel, of the descendants of Hodaviah, seventy-four. 41 The singers: the descendants of Asaph, one hundred twent ... View more

    Ezra 2:70

    70 The priests, the Levites, and some of the people, as well as the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants, lived in their towns and all Israel in th ... View more

    1Chr 6

    Descendants of Levi
    1 The sons of Levi: Gershom, Kohath, and Merari.2The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel.3The children of Amram: Aaron, Moses, ... View more

    A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

    related to a system of religious worship

    migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

    Of or relating to systems of ideas and commitments, often social and political in nature.

    Worship of a diety or cultural value not associated with the one, true, God.

    The standardized collection of practices—ceremonies, readings, rituals, songs, and so forth—related to worship in a religious tradition.

    The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

    Num 3-4

    The Sons of Aaron
    1This is the lineage of Aaron and Moses at the time when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.2These are the names of the sons of Aaron: N ... View more

    Num 16

    Revolt of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram
    1Now Korah son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descenda ... View more

    Ezek 44

    The Closed Gate
    1Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut.2The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut ... View more

    1Chr 15-16

    Chapter 16

    2Chr 29

    29 Hezekiah began to reign when he was twenty-five years old; he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. 2 H ... View more

    2Chr 20:14

    14Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, in the middle ... View more

    1Chr 26:20-28

    20 And of the Levites, Ahijah had charge of the treasuries of the house of God and the treasuries of the dedicated gifts. 21 The sons of Ladan, the sons of the ... View more

    1Chr 24:6

    6The scribe Shemaiah son of Nethanel, a Levite, recorded them in the presence of the king, and the officers, and Zadok the priest, and Ahimelech son of Abiathar ... View more

    2Chr 29:34

    34But the priests were too few and could not skin all the burnt offerings, so, until other priests had sanctified themselves, their kindred, the Levites, helped ... View more

    2Chr 35:11

    11 They slaughtered the Passover lamb, and the priests dashed the blood that they received[a] from them, while the Levites did the skinning.

    Lev 1-9


    1 The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of l ... View more

    2Chr 30:27

    27 Then the priests and the Levites stood up and blessed the people, and their voice was heard; their prayer came to his holy dwelling in heaven.

    1Chr 23

    23 When David was old and full of days, he made his son Solomon king over Israel.
    2 David assembled all the leaders of Israel and the priests and the Levites. 3 ... View more

    1Chr 26:29

    29 Of the Izharites, Chenaniah and his sons were appointed to outside duties for Israel, as officers and judges.

    1Chr 26:30-32

    30 Of the Hebronites, Hashabiah and his brothers, one thousand seven hundred men of ability, had the oversight of Israel west of the Jordan for all the work of ... View more

    1Chr 24:6

    6The scribe Shemaiah son of Nethanel, a Levite, recorded them in the presence of the king, and the officers, and Zadok the priest, and Ahimelech son of Abiathar ... View more

    2Chr 17:8

    8With them were the Levites, Shemaiah, Nethaniah, Zebadiah, Asahel, Shemiramoth, Jehonathan, Adonijah, Tobijah, and Tob-adonijah; and with these Levites, the pr ... View more

    1Chr 23

    23 When David was old and full of days, he made his son Solomon king over Israel.
    2 David assembled all the leaders of Israel and the priests and the Levites. 3 ... View more

    1Chr 16:1

    The Ark Placed in the Tent
    16 They brought in the ark of God and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and they offered burnt offerings and offe ... View more

    2Chr 29:5

    5 He said to them, “Listen to me, Levites! Sanctify yourselves, and sanctify the house of the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and carry out the filth from the ... View more

    2Chr 29:34

    34But the priests were too few and could not skin all the burnt offerings, so, until other priests had sanctified themselves, their kindred, the Levites, helped ... View more

    2Chr 36:14

    14 All the leading priests and the people also were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations, and they polluted the house of the Lo ... View more

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