Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Levite. Often a priest, or an assistant associated with the priests. Perhaps in early O.T. times, all priests were Levites. After the exile, and in N.T. times, Levites seem to have been helpers in the temple. Ex. 38:21; Josh. 3:3; 1 Kings 8:4; 1 Chron. 16:4; 2 Chron. 5:12; Isa. 66:21; Luke 10:32; John 1:19.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Levites, generally, those belonging to the tribe of Levi, although this may not be the original meaning of the term. In some passages, Levite seems to be a description rather than a tribal name. A Levite is mentioned who was a Judahite (Judg. 17:7) and who appears as a kind of priest (Judg. 17:13); we may compare the designation of Aaron as ‘the Levite’ and a spokesman for God (Exod. 4:14-16). The term may be from the Hebrew root meaning ‘to join’ (Num. 18:2, 4), denoting originally a group whose members were particularly closely attached to God (Num. 3:12; 8:16). The Levites’ zeal for God’s cause is stressed in Exod. 32:25-28 (cf. Deut. 33:9), which tells how they were ordained for it (Exod. 32:29). Perhaps, then, Levites and the tribe of Levi were once two different groups, but, when the tribe disappeared, the Levites were confused with them because of the similarity of the name.

In any case, wherever the Levites appear they are solely priests, whose function was not only to sacrifice but also to transmit and administer the divine law (Deut. 17:18; 33:10). In Deuteronomy, they comprise the whole priesthood and live in various towns in the country, perhaps in special levitical cities (Josh. 21:1-42). Because of its demand for the centralization of worship, Deuteronomy makes provision for the Levites to come to the central sanctuary and to join the priesthood there (Deut. 18:6-8). However, it would seem that the Jerusalem authorities would not accept them as true priests and they were reduced to a subordinate position in the cultic staff (2 Kings 23:8-9). This was because the country Levites were considered to have become tainted with Canaanite idolatry, for which they are condemned in Ezek. 44:10-14, where the priesthood is confined to the sons of Zadok, the Jerusalem hierarchy, and the Levites are demoted to Temple servants, looking after the Temple, maintaining order in it, acting as doorkeepers, and being responsible for slaying the sacrificial animals. Here for the first time we meet the clear division between priests and Levites that became normative after the Exile (late sixth century b.c. on) and that, in the postexilic priestly tradition, was attributed to the time of Moses (Num. 18:2-6).

Postexilic developments, however, greatly increased the role of the Levites and restored much of their former importance. Both they and the priests proper were now given a common descent from Levi, and the levitical order came to include all the Temple personnel other than the priests. Our fullest information about the Levites at this period comes from 1 and 2 Chronicles, which emphasize their high position and the importance of their duties, sometimes even over against the priests (2 Chron. 29:34). They alone may carry the Ark, the Temple’s holiest object (1 Chron. 15:11-15). In addition, they provided the music for the services (1 Chron. 16:4-37), and two collections of psalms in the Psalter are attributed to groups into which the Levites were divided, Asaph (Pss. 50, 70-83) and Korah (Pss. 42-49). They retained their ancient functions of administering the law (1 Chron. 23:4; 2 Chron. 19:8-11) and of teaching it to the people (2 Chron. 17:7-9; 35:3); many of the speeches in 1 and 2 Chronicles may reflect the form of contemporary levitical sermons. The Levites retained their high status until the end of the Temple (a.d. 70), as Luke 10:32 indicates.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
Top of page