By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Jacob, Men in the Old Testament

  • Levi is the third son of Jacob and his first wife, Leah.
  • The name Levi is drawn from the verb “to join”, expressing Leah’s hope that her husband would now be drawn to her. She says, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne to him three sons.”
  • Levi is also the progenitor of the Tribe of Levi that becomes known as the Levites.
  • Because the Levites are the priests, some scholars think “Levi” means priest. They also argue that the Levites are first, and the Tribe of Levi is invented to explain the origin of the priestly class.
  • Needless to say, scholars are still debating the origin of the name.
  • Levi is included among the “sons of Jacob” who were “indignant and very angry” upon hearing that Shechem “defiled” their sister, Dinah.
  • He and Simeon go to the city on the third day after all the males have been circumcised and kill them while they are still incapacitated.
  • Jacob says to them, “You have brought ruin on me by making me a foul odor among the inhabitants of the world…”
  • Jacob is worried that the neighbors will retaliate.
  • They defend their actions saying, “Should our sister be treated like a prostitute?”
  • He is also with his brothers when they sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites.
  • Levi has three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, though there are various spellings of their names throughout the Bible.
  • The Levitical priesthood comes through these three sons.
  • Levi and his three sons travel with Jacob and the whole clan to Egypt.
  • In Jacob’s final blessing to his sons on his deathbed, in Genesis 49, he finally condemns the actions of Simeon and Levi in Shechem, saying: “their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed by their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.” (5-7)
  • In the Apocryphal writings, there is a document known as the Testament of Levi.
  • In it, Levi speaks about this incident and claims that he and Simeon are greatly opposed to the idea of having the Hivites circumcised because they are not Israelites. (At least that is one possible translation of the verses in question.)
  • If that is the case, then Levi is cast as a radical believer, one who desperately wants to maintain the purity of the tribe at all costs. He continues by saying that he is given a vision that instructs him to destroy Hamor and Shechem.
  • He claims that he and Simeon do that, and only that. It is the other brothers who renege on the agreement and kill all the men and sack the town.
  • Needless to say, his version makes the tribe of Levi well-suited to head up the radical nature of the priesthood.
  • The Book of Jubilees affirms this by stating, “the seed of Levi was chosen for the priesthood, and to be Levites, that they might minister before the Lord,… and that Levi and his sons may be blessed for ever; for he was zealous to execute righteousness and judgment and vengeance on all those who arose against Israel.”
  • The story continues in the Book of Jubilees with Jacob going to visit Isaac and Rebekah. He takes Levi and Judah with him.
  • The spirit of prophecy comes to Isaac, and he blesses Levi, saying, “May God….cause you and your seed, from among all flesh, to approach Him to serve in His sanctuary…”
  • While they are still at Bethel, Levi has a dream in which he is ordained and made “the priest of the Most High God, him and his sons forever; and he awoke and blessed the Lord.”
  • Biblically speaking, the choosing of the tribe of Levi for the priesthood happens during the time of Moses and the Golden Calf incident.
  • After coming down from the mountain, Moses (a descendant of Levi), challenges the people: “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” Members of the Levite tribe are the first to respond.
  • Then the Levites get an unexpected assignment. They are to kill those who do not commit themselves to the Lord. It says that about three thousand were killed that day.
  • The Levites are rewarded for their role in the slaughter. They are “set apart and blessed” according to the text.
  • This is what inaugurates the tribe of Levi to be Levites.
  • Thereafter, they are the champions for Yahweh, thereby earning the leadership role of the priestly order.
  • When the census is taken, the tribe of Levi is exempt. Their job is to care for the tabernacle of the covenant and everything associated with it, not to fight.
  • They also set up the tabernacle, take it down, and camp around it, standing guard over it to maintain its holiness.
  • When they reach Canaan and land is allocated to the tribes, the Levites receive cities, “because the Lord God of Israel is their inheritance.”
  • The other tribes pay them tithes.
  • Levi, then, becomes the ancestor of the holy priesthood, but the Levites always have to depend on the other tribes for sustenance.

Bible Characters