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Priests and Levites


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.

  • Jeon-Jaeyoung

    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).