Selection of the Levites

Selection of the Levites

Bemidbar 3

Interactive Learning Module

Levites / Mechon HaMikdash

1. Introduction

  • לגרסה בעברית של יחידת לימוד זו, לחצו כאן.‏
  • Bemidbar 3 speaks of the appointment of the Levites to cultic service and their replacing of the firstborns. However, the verses explain neither why the firstborns were rejected nor why specifically the Levites were chosen in their stead.
  • This module will explore how commentators throughout the generations have understood this replacement.
  • An in depth analysis of the issue can be found at Selection of the Priests and Levites. As you use this module, you are invited to compare your own analysis with the analysis found there.

2. Biblical Parallels

  • Our chapter is one of several which discuss the selection of the Priests and Levites.
  • To see the other, press here to access the "מקבילות במקרא" (Biblical Parallels) section in the Mikraot Gedolot on our verses. This learning aid provides a list of hyperlinks to other places in Tanakh where our topic is discussed. Clicking on each will display the source in a pop-up window. [If you do not see the Biblical Parallels section, make sure to check it in the Gear dialog.]
  • Click on the links to Shemot 28:1, Devarim 10:8, and Shemuel I 2:27-28.
  • What do each of these sources and their context imply about when and why the tribe of Levi was appointed?

3. Collecting Information

  • The various verses offer seemingly conflicting data.
  • Shemot 28 suggests that Aharon (and perhaps also his entire tribe) was chosen before the sin of the Golden Calf as part of the command to construct the Tabernacle, while Devarim 10 implies that the selection took place only after the sin.
  • Shemuel I 2, on the other hand, might indicate that the rise to prominence took place much earlier, while the nation was still in Egypt!
  • In addition to the seeming contradiction, none of the verses offer a reason for the selection of Levi.
  • Does Tanakh provide us with any information about the actions of either the class of firstborns or the Tribe of Levi which might help us?

4. Concordance: בְּכוֹר

  • Let's click on the word "בְּכוֹר" in our verse to access the One-Click Concordance and explore the roles played by firstborns throughout Tanakh.
  • Many of the verses speak of specific individuals, but scan the list for verses which discuss the group as a whole. In what capacity do firstborns appear before our unit?
  • When and why were they consecrated to Hashem? What form did this sanctification take?
  • Do any of the verses point to an offense or any other factor which could account for the rejection of the firstborns?
  • Now, from the list of related entries (ערכים קשורים) found on the right side of the screen, click on "בְּכוֹרָה". [Alternatively, type: בכורה into the input bar at the top of the screen, choose the noun form, and press display.]
  • What do these verses suggest about the rights and privileges of firstborns?

5. Concordance: לֵוִי

  • Our quick scan reveals several points: As mentioned in Bemidbar 3, the firstborns were consecrated to Hashem after the Plague of the Firstborn, but the nature and ramifications of this sanctification are unknown. Already beforehand, though, firstborn status was coveted, and firstborns maintained certain privileges even after their replacement by the Levites, such as a double portion of inheritance.
  • Let's now turn to the Levites. What do we know about the tribe? In the input bar at the top of the screen, type: לוי and choose "name" from the drop-down menu.
  • What actions were taken by Levi and his descendants before their appointment that might shed light on why they were selected?

6. Early Selection: Patriarchal Period

  • Levites appear in three contexts before our chapter: Levi's avenging of Dina's rape in Shekhem, the lineage of Moshe and Aharon, and the Levites' zealousness for Hashem in the story of the sin of the Golden Calf.
  • Might any of these account for their appointment? Let's see what various commentators suggest.
  • We'll begin with one of the earliest sources to discuss the topic, the second century BCE work, Jubilees. Press here to access it from the library.
  • Scan Chapter 30:17-29. For English, press the "E" in the top right corner of the source.
  • According to Jubilees, when was the tribe of Levi chosen for cultic service? Why? [For more on Jubilees' reading of the story of Shekhem, see Sin and Slaughter of Shekhem.]

7. Early Selection: In Egypt

  • Let's compare this reading to the position of Shemot Rabbah. In the input bar at the top of the library, type: Shemot Rabbah 3:17 and press "Show" (or, press here).
  • According to the Midrash, when were the Priests and Levites chosen? What might have prompted this choice?
  • Which of the Biblical verses seen earlier might support the opinion that the tribe of Levi was chosen even before the Exodus? How might Jubilees and Shemot Rabbah explain Shemot 28:1 or Devarim 10:8?
  • According to this approach, did the firstborns ever play a cultic role? What, then, was the import of their being sanctified to Hashem? What would it mean for the Levites to redeem them?

8. Appointed with the Command to Build the Mishkan

  • Let's return to the Mikraot Gedolot, this time to Shemot 28:1, to see an alternative approach to our question.
  • Click on the "Show Additional Commentators" button at the bottom of the verse so that Ralbag's commentary will appear. Let's look at his "Toalot", starting from the second paragraph, "והתועלת המגיע בהיות הכהנים ממשפחה מיוחדת".
  • According to Ralbag, why was the Tribe of Levi as a whole, and the family of Aharon in particular, chosen to serve?

9. All in the Family

  • Ralbag appears to suggest that the entire tribe of Levi was chosen to serve at the time of the command to construct the Tabernacle, as they were the most spiritually suited for the task.
  • Why does he think that it was necessary to keep the cultic service in the hands of one family rather than allowing individuals from many families to serve?
  • What other benefits might there be in keeping the cultic service confined to one family line? What does R"Y Bekhor Shor suggest in his comments on Devarim 10:8?
  • Based on what we learned about the inheritance rights of firstborns, why might firstborns have been a particularly poor choice to serve in the Mikdash? [See the last few lines of R"Y Bekhor Shor's commentary on Bemidbar 3:13.]
  • Finally, how might Ralbag explain the verses of Devarim 10:8 or Shemuel I 2:27-28?

10. After the Sin of the Calf

  • Let's now turn to one final position, which is probably the most well-known approach to our question, namely, that the Tribe of Levi was chosen in the aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf.
  • Let's read Rashi's comments on Devarim 10:8. According to Rashi, by what act did the Levites merit their position?
  • If one assumes that until this point the firstborns had served as priests, why might they have now been rejected? [See the last line of Ibn Ezra's second commentary to Shemot 32:29.]

11. Questioning this Approach

  • Despite the popularity of this approach, it must contend with two major questions, one conceptual and one textual.
  • Though it is easy to see how the actions of the Levites as a whole merited them a lofty position, how is one to understand why Aharon would be elevated for his role? Were not his actions by the Golden Calf blameworthy rather than meritorious?
  • Second, how would this position explain Shemot 28, whose placement seems to imply that Aharon was chosen already before the sin of the Golden Calf in Shemot 32? How does Rashi on Shemot 31:18 deal with this issue?

12. Excursus: אין מוקדם ומאוחר

  • Rashi suggests that the chapters in Shemot are not in chronological order and that the commands regarding the Tabernacle were first given only after the sin of the Golden Calf. Rashi, however, does not explain the reason for the achronology, sufficing with quoting the well-known principle, "אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה".
  • Let's take a moment to explore this concept and how it is used by various commentators.
  • Highlight the three words "אין מוקדם ומאוחר" in Rashi and, from the drop-down menu, choose: "Search" (or, press here).
  • Scan the first ten results to get a sense of how Rashi applies the principle. [Click on the link on top of each search result to see the full comment.]

13. אין מוקדם ומאוחר

  • Let's compare Rashi's application of the principle to that of Ramban. In the menu of results on the right side of the screen, press on the plus sign next to the words "מפרשי המקרא" to expand and see search results for individual commentators. Click on Ramban to scroll to those results (beginning at #61).
  • Scan a few of the entries. How often does Ramban quote the principle only to reject it? When he does accept it, does he provide an explanation for the achronology?
  • Returning to our story, how can we explain why Torah might have opted to record the events achronologically, first recounting the command to construct the Tabernacle and only afterwards telling the story of the Golden Calf? [For discussion, see Sin of the Golden Calf.]

14. Models of Service

  • The rejection of the firstborns and selection of the Levites raises important questions regarding the optimal model of cultic service.
  • Earlier we saw that Ralbag and R"Y Bekhor Shor speak of the advantages of keeping the service confined to one family or tribe. What, though, are the disadvantages of this model?
  • What might have been the benefits of a system in which one individual from each household merited to serve?
  • In Bemidbar 16:3, Korach complains: "כִּי כׇל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם י"י וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל י"י". What model of service might he be advocating?
  • What would be the advantages or disadvantages of an egalitarian system with no hierarchy at all? [For further discussion of some of these issues, see Seforno and Hoil Moshe in Purpose of the Mishkan and Korach's Rebellion.]

15. Summary

  • In trying to determine when and why the Tribe of Levi was designated to become Priests and Levites, commentators must contend with conflicting verses, leading to a variety of approaches.
  • On one end of the spectrum, Jubilees posits that, already in the Patriarchal period, Yaakov elevated Levi above the other tribes, promising his descendants both positions as a reward for Levi's actions in Shekhem. As such, it is possible that the firstborns might have never played any cultic role at all.
  • A second position focuses on the description of the choosing of Aharon in Shemot 28, setting his and his entire tribe's selection prior to the story of the Golden Calf. Ralbag points to the need to consolidate service in one tribe rather than in the hands of multiple individuals, and suggests that the Levites were more innately suited to serving Hashem than others.
  • Finally, Rashi, based on the verses in Devarim, dates the elevation of both Priests and Levites to the aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf. The firstborns who had served a cultic role until that point played an active role in the sin and were thus rejected, while the Levites' loyalty to Hashem merited them reward.

16. Additional Reading