When one reads the census of those who returned with Zerubbabel from the Babylonian captivity, one finds a very curious truth: not a lot of Levites returned. While Ezra 2:26-39 shows that 4,289 priests returned to Jerusalem, only 341 Levites returned with them, despite the fact that the priests were a small portion of the tribe of Levi as a whole. Furthermore, the Levites are not listed as being sons of Kohath (the Sons of Korah), Merari, or Gershon, but are rather listed by their job description as musicians (considered the Sons of Asaph, even though some of them may have been Sons of Korah, descended from Heman the Ezrahite ) or gatekeepers (among them sons of Shallum the Korahite ).
The Presence of The Sons of Korah Among The Returnees
Before addressing the mystery of why so few Levites returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity, it is worthwhile to at least demonstrate that some Sons of Korah were among them. It is also worthwhile to point out that there are slight differences between the listing in Ezra 2 about the returnees and the register in Nehemiah 7, though the differences may be a “before” and “after” account, given that the Nehemiah register shows a slightly higher number (perhaps indicating additional travelers picked up along the way or births within the party).
At any rate, the numbers are pitiful for the returning Levites as a whole. Ezra 2:41-42 gives the following amounts for the Levite musicians and gatekeepers: “The singers: the sons of Asaph, one hundred and twenty-eight. The sons of the gatekeepers: the sons of Shallum, the sons of Ater, the sons of Talmon, the sons of Akkub, the sons of Hatita, and the sons of Shobai, one hundred and thirty-nine in all.” The numbers in Nehemiah 7:44-45 are not much better: “The singers: the sons of Asaph, one hundred and forty-eight. The gatekeepers: the sons of Shallum, the sons of Ater, the sons of Talmon, the sons of Akkub, the sons of Hatita, the sons of Shobai, one hundred and thirty eight.”
How can we figure that there were sons of Korah among these believers returning from exile? We know through two means. The first is that some of them were gatekeepers and sons of Shallum the Korahite, though we do not know exactly how many of the Levites who returned were Sons of Korah, at least some of them were. Additionally, we can at least guess that among the sons of Korah who returned, at least some of them were from Elkanah’s family.
We can gather this because of Ezra 2:26, which says: “The people of Ramah and Geba, six hundred and twenty-one” of whom returned from the Babylonian captivity. Nehemiah 7:30 states that “the men of Ramah and Geba, six-hundred and twenty-one.” Here both accounts give precisely the same number of people who returned from Elkanah’s hometown of Ramah. We may at least guess that some of those may have been Sons of Korah. We do know that these returnees from the sons of Korah were resettled, after the captivity, from 1 Chronicles 9:16, which states that Berechiah the son of Asa, the son of Elkanah [presumably a Korahite] lived in the village of the Netophathites along with the descendents of Jeduthan (a musician, author of Psalm 89, and a descendent of Merari), while the remaining branches of the Levites lived in Jerusalem.
Accounting For The Absence of Levites
Nonetheless, the strong presence of priests and the nearly absolute absence of Levites from the children of Judah who returned from the Babylonian captivity requires some attempt at explanation. There appear to be at least two potential solutions which account for the disparity. In order to be fair to the Levites themselves, it is probably the case that the disparity results from a combination between the two reasons.
For one, it would appear given the locations of the returnees to Jerusalem that few of the cities from which the exiles were taken into the Babylonian Captivity were the cities given to the Sons of Korah. For example, there is no listing of returnees from the cities of Shechem or Tanaach, only of Ramah among the cities known to inhabited (in part) by the Sons of Korah . Presumably this means that the Sons of Korah were largely exiled in the Assyrian captivity and therefore were not around in particularly large numbers to return with Zerubbabel .
Additionally, this disparity in the number of Priests and Levites found in Judah would be suggested by the religious policies of Israel. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, from the time of Jeroboam the son of Nebat onward, set up a corrupt priesthood at Dan and Bethel (with golden calf worship) where the priesthood was not limited to the lawful priests among the Sons of Aaron (see 1 Kings 12:25-33). As all Israelite kings followed this system of worship–and not one of whom restored the genuine biblical religion–it can be assumed that a substantial portion of the priests who wished to keep their privileged position within the religious practice of Israel moved to the temple establishment in Jerusalem. Levites, having a less privileged position, would be less likely to leave what might have been positions of honor and respect in cities of refuge and other Levitical cities. Presumably the Sons of Korah, among the chief inhabitants of the cities of Ephraim and Manasseh, would have felt less pressure to move if they retained positions of respect after the division of the kingdom.
The differential status between priests and Levites (whose duties were less prestigious and more menial) would also account for the second reason why so comparatively few Levites returned from the Babylonian captivity. While the priests would likely find a restoration of the temple worship and its priestly hierarchy very appealing, Levites who did manual labor, served as backup singers and musicians for the priests, and whose duties were less pleasant (guarding Jerusalem from Sabbath-breakers , for example, and risking their safety to protect the temple treasury for the priests ), would presumably have felt considerable disrespect from priests over the generations and therefore considerably less interest in leaving comfortable jobs and lives in order to be second-class citizens in a rebuilt Jerusalem. The failure of the priestly hierarchy to respect the Levites and ensure that the Levitical office was a high-respect and high-status position appears to have led directly to a lack of willing Levites to return to their ancestral positions in the rebuilt Jerusalem.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm among the vast majority of Levites to return from the Babylonian captivity to rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple worship system, at least some Sons of Korah are known to have returned to fulfill their ancestral duties. We can be thankful that there was a small minority of Sons of Korah willing to do the work that God had assigned for them from generation to generation in service to their brethren, despite the low status of their positions and the often corrupt hierarchy-minded priests who ran the show in the Temple system of worship. The Sons of Korah who did return to Jerusalem continued the noble history of godly service established throughout the generations and recorded in scripture, and we ought to be thankful that at least some of them overcame their sensitivity to social slights to perform their assigned tasks of teaching and defending God’s law even under less than ideal circumstances of priestly godliness. We therefore ought to profit from their positive example and seek to ensure that servants of God do not face the same low status and dishonorable serving conditions among the contemporary Church of God.