We are going to continue our look at the Levites and discuss the tribe and their functions. Num 3.1-51 and Num 4.1-49 give us a picture of what they were to do. They were in the wilderness and so the Levites were assigned certain functions concerning the Mishkan. In Num 3 there is a genealogy of the priests (kohanim) and Levites (Levi’im), and how the Levites were given as a gift to the kohanim. The Levi’im are numbered and what service they were to perform will be listed later in the chapter. The Levites were taken instead of the first-born (3.11) and numbered according to their families. The sons of Levi are Gershom, Kohath and Merari.
Chapter 4 of Numbers relates to the number of Levites that can do the service and at what age they can begin. Then what their particular duties are is given, and he begins with the Kohathites, then the sons of Gershom and then Merari. Now, let’s talk about a few things. It’s one thing when they are out in the wilderness, everyone is together. But what about after they cross the Jordan and they are scattered all over the country. How are they going to fulfill all of this ? You had a portable tent, then it would progress to buildings. As a result, assignments will change in the duties of the Levites.
Num 1.47-54 says that the tribe of Levi shall not be numbered for war nor shall a census be taken from among them. The Levites were appointed over the Mishkan and over all the furnishings. They were to carry the Mishkan and the furnishings, and they were to camp around it. The Levites were to take it down and set it up. Any Israelite who comes near to it will be put to death. The Levites were in charge of the Mishkan and furnishings. Num 18. 22-23 says that the sons of Israel shall not come near the Mishkan and only the Levites were to perform the service of what they were assigned to do throughout their generations. In Deut 18.6-8 it says that a Levite will come from wherever he resides in any of the towns he lives in and will serve in the name of the Lord.
Num 18.21 says that the tithe is given to the Levite in return for their service. They would then tithe from that to the kohanim. The rest would be distributed among the poor, the lame and the needy from among the sons of Israel.
When we come to the time of the Monarchy, the kings of Israel, the Levites will be divided into divisions by David, and this was before the Temple would be built. This was in preparation for when it began to function. In 1 Chr 23.26 it says that the Levites will no longer need to carry the Mishkan and all its furnishings and vessels. In 1 Chr 24 the kohanim and the Levi’im are divided into divisions. They would come in their assigned division at the same time as the priests (1 Chr 9.25). 1 Chr 25 describes how the musicians for the Temple are numbered and divided among the priestly courses. In 1 Chr 26 the divisions of the gatekeepers are determined among the Levites according to certain families. In addition, the Levites were in charge of the treasury. Their function will be basically the same as it was with the Mishkan, but it will be around a fixed Temple instead of a portable tent (2 Chr 23.2-11, 18-19).
As time went on, the people engaged in idolatry in the north and Jereboam made priests from among the people who were not Levites (1 Kings 12.31). As a result, the Levites began to migrate south who were loyal to the Lord (1 Kings 12.33; 2 Chr 11.13-17, 13.9-12). In 1 Chr 23.4-5, 28 it says that the Levites were in charge of overseeing the work that was to be done on the Temple. As time went on, a competition developed between the kohanim and certain rabbinical parties, and that would continue until the Temple was destroyed. As a result, the Levites will lose their platform and influence. This gave rise to the Rabbi’s and their rabbinical rulings. The Levites did not write books, but the rabbi’s did. This includes the Talmud and the Mishnah. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a different picture began to emerge about what was going on.
There are three names mentioned who had charge over the Levitical choir. Heman in 1 Chr 6.33, Asaph in 1 Chr 6.39 and Yeduthan in 1 Chr 25.3. At the time of Jehoshaphat, the duties of the Levites have changed (2 Chr 19.8-11) because they did not need to carry the Mishkan anymore. In Num 35 1-8 we have the Levitcal cities named where they would live among the tribes (Josh 21.1-45). They did not raise crops, but were shepherds and herders. The pasture lands will be used for the sacrificial animals. In the field called Migdal Eder (“tower of the flock”-Mic 4.8) where Yeshua was born there were shepherds, and these shepherds were raining animals destined to be sacrificed in the Temple. In Ezek 45.4-5 and 48.11-15 it says that the Levites will no longer be scattered in the land.
The duties of the Levites will not be the same as the kohanim. They had honored status in Jewish society at large, especially during the time of the Second Temple period (Luke 10.32; John 1.19). Ezra 2.40-42 says that they were small in number compared to the kohanim. This added to their importance in the eyes of the people. They had certain duties and they did not cross the line. There are instances in the Tanach where this was done, however.
In 2 Chr 29.1 we find that Hezekiah becomes king. They begin to have a revival and they need to rededicate the Temple. They find that the number of the priests were very few to carry out their duties, so the Levites helped them (2 Chr 29.34). Also, during the time of King Josiah, they were given special permission because of the circumstances to fulfill priestly duties, but this was not on their own initiative (2 Chr 35.1-18). In other words, 2 Chr 29, 30, 35 gives us a picture of the highest form of worship and what it is like.
In Part 3, we will pick up here and talk briefly about the Levites in the rabbinical writings (called “Aggadah”) and then move into the area where we will define the terms “Mishmarot, Ma’amadot and the Machlakot” and how this fits in to the duties of the Levites and the worship in the Temple. We will also explain why these terms are feminine Hebrew when they are talking about men who perform these duties.