Descendants of Levi, third son of Jacob by Leah. (Gen. 29:32-34) At times the term applies to the whole tribe, but usually it excludes the priestly family of Aaron (Josh. 14:3, 4; 21:1-3), and thus the expression “priests and Levites” is common. (1 Ki. 8:4; 1 Chron. 23:2; Ezra 1:5; John 1:19) Priestly duties were confined to the male members of Aaron’s family, with the Levites, the rest of the tribe, acting as their assistants. (Num. 3:3, 6-10) This arrangement began with the setting up of the tabernacle, as before this no particular family or tribe was assigned to offer the sacrifices.—Ex. 24:5.
TAKEN AS A RANSOM FOR FIRSTBORN
The Levites were chosen by Jehovah in place of all the firstborn of the other tribes. (Ex. 13:1, 2, 11-16; Num. 3:41) Counting from a month old upward, there were 22,000 Levite males who could be exchanged for the same number of firstborn males of the other tribes. The census taken in the wilderness of Sinai revealed that there were 22,273 firstborn sons in the other tribes. Therefore, God required that a ransom price of five shekels be given to Aaron and his sons for each of the 273 firstborn in excess of the Levites.—Num. 3:39, 43, 46-51.
The Levites were made up of three families from Levi’s sons Gershon (Gershom), Kohath and Merari. (Gen. 46:11; 1 Chron. 6:1) Each of these families was assigned a place near the tabernacle in the wilderness. The Kohathite family of Aaron camped in front of the tabernacle to the E. The other Kohathites camped on the S side, the Gershonites on the W and the Merarites on the N. (Num. 3:23, 29, 35, 38) Setting up, dismantling and carrying the tabernacle was the work of the Levites. When it was time to move, Aaron and his sons took down the curtain dividing the Holy from the Most Holy and covered the ark of the testimony, the altars and other sacred furniture and utensils. The Kohathites then carried these things. The Gershonites transported the tent cloths, coverings, screens and tent cords (evidently the cords of the tabernacle itself), and the Merarites took care of the panel frames, pillars, socket pedestals and tent pins and cords (cords of the courtyard surrounding the tabernacle).—Num. 1:50, 51; 3:25, 26, 30, 31, 36, 37; 4:4-33; 7:5-9.
The work of the Levites was highly organized under David, who appointed supervisors, officers, judges, gatekeepers and treasurers, as well as a vast number to assist the priests in the temple, the courtyards and the dining rooms in connection with the offerings, sacrifices, purification work, weighing, measuring, and various guard duties. Levite musicians were organized into twenty-four groups, similar to the priestly divisions, and served in rotation. Duties were determined by casting lots. In the case of the groups of gatekeepers, the particular gate assignment was chosen in the same way.—1 Chron. chaps. 23, 25, 26; 2 Chron. 35:3-5, 10.
In Moses’ day it was at thirty years of age that a Levite assumed his full duties, such as bearing the tabernacle and its articles when it was being moved. (Num. 4:46-49) Some duties could be performed from the age of twenty-five, but apparently not the laborious service, such as transporting the tabernacle. (Num. 8:24) In King David’s time the age was reduced to twenty years. David gave as the reason, that the tabernacle (now to be replaced by the temple) would no longer have to be carried about. Assignments of obligatory service terminated at the age of fifty years. (Num. 8:25, 26; 1 Chron. 23:24-26; see AGE.) The Levites needed to be well versed in the Law, often being called upon to read it in public and to teach it to the common people.—1 Chron. 15:27; 2 Chron. 5:12; 17:7-9; Neh. 8:7-9.
Maintenance of the Levites was mainly by tithes from the other tribes, a tenth of everything produced from the ground and the cattle being given them. The Levites, in turn, passed on a tenth of this to the priests. (Num. 18:25-29; 2 Chron. 31:4-8; Neh. 10:38, 39) Also, though the Levites were exempt from military service, they, along with the priests, shared some of the spoils of battle. (Num. 1:45-49; 31:25-31; see TITHE.) The Levites received no territorial allotment in Canaan, Jehovah being their share. (Num. 18:20) However, other tribes of Israel gave them a total of forty-eight cities scattered throughout the Promised Land.—Num. 35:1-8.
PROVIDED SUPPORTERS OF TRUE WORSHIP
The Levites supplied some notable examples of enthusiasm for true worship. This was evident in the golden-calf incident; and again when Levites moved out of Jeroboam’s territory following the split in the kingdom. (Ex. 32:26; 2 Chron. 11:13, 14) They were also zealous in their support of Kings Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah, Governors Zerubbabel and Nehemiah and the priest-scribe Ezra in their efforts to restore true worship in Israel. (2 Chron. 17:7-9; 29:12-17; 30:21, 22; 34:12, 13; also Ezra and Nehemiah) As a tribe, however, they did not support the Son of God in his work of restoration, but some individual Levites became Christians. (Acts 4:36, 37) Many of the Levite priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7) With the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 C.E., the family records of the Levites were lost or destroyed, bringing the Levitical system to an end. But, a “tribe of Levi” constitutes part of spiritual Israel.—Rev. 7:4, 7.
The name of the tribe is also the basis for the name of the Bible book “Leviticus.” This book deals extensively with the Levites and their duties.