The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children

By James L. Kugel | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
HOW LEVI CAME TO BE A PRIEST

In ancient Israel, the tribe of Levi was deemed to have a special connection with the service of God. Numerous biblical texts speak of the Levites as the priestly tribe and attribute to them certain special functions connected with the worship of God. But why exactly had the Levites been selected for such honors, and how did their selection come about? Several biblical narratives appear to have been designed in order to answer this question. Thus, the selection of the Levites is at one point connected with their zealousness following the Golden Calf incident (Exod. 32:25–29), while elsewhere God's choice of the Levites seems to follow from the Levite Aaron's having served as a priest (see Deut. 10:8) or, possibly, to be the result of Moses' words in his final blessing of that tribe before his death (Deut. 33:8–10). Needless to say, all these passages locate the selection of the Levites for their priestly role sometime during the lifetime of Moses, who lived three generations after the tribe's founder, Levi.

It is a striking fact that, despite this biblical evidence, some early postbiblical texts assert that the choice of the Levites went back earlier, to the time of Jacob's son Levi himself. Indeed, they assert not only that Levi had been informed that his descendants would become the priestly tribe but that he himself had been anointed and functioned as a priest during his own lifetime, offering sacrifices to God. This idea is to be found in three ancient texts: (1) the book of Jubilees, composed in the second century B.C.E.; (2) an ancient text called the Aramaic Levi Document (ALD), of uncertain

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