Among my own complicated background, I know there to be strong elements of the tribe of Levi. Despite their comparative neglect in many who read the scriptures, the tribe of Levi held a variety of functions within the nation of Israel. The sons of Aaron were priests and counselors and royal advisers. The Levites as a whole were at various times holy warriors, gatekeepers, cooks, musicians, songwriters, singers, treasurers, teachers of God’s law, judges, and manual laborers, and even a few prophets are known to come from their midst (like Jeremiah and Samuel). In examining my own odd and varied interests, I find that my own roles over the course of my life so far and my God-given talents generally fall within the sphere of the domain of the tribe of the Levi, something that I do not consider accidental in light of my own heritage. The book of Leviticus is of course named for the tribe of Levi, as the priests of Aaron were a small group of that larger tribe, and the concerns of the priests and Levites also form a major part of the book of 1st and 2nd Chronicles, books that most people neglect, which means that those places that speak the most about the Levites, or about the record of godly service of that tribe to which I belong, are largely unknown even by those who claim to seek the scriptures as their guide. Even though we are no longer under the old covenant and there has been a change in the priesthood from the order of Aaron to the order of Melchizedek, I still feel that the actions of the Levites legitimize my own personal involvement in the service of the congregation of God in the roles that my godly ancestors once held in the temple and tabernacle establishment. It is largely for this personal reason that I have studied the tribe of Levi and their actions so assiduously. By understanding the tribe of Levi better, I better understand myself and the deep currents that run through my own personal and family background.
There are two chapters in the Torah where a famous biblical personage gives a prophetic commentary on the tribes of Israel based on the historical behavior of that person/tribe. The more famous one occurs in Genesis 49, where Jacob on his deathbed pronounces a divinely inspired blessing on his twelve sons and comments on their destiny at the times of the end. However, Moses himself at the end of his long life of service to God’s people also pronounced a divinely inspired blessing on the twelve tribes just before they entered the promised land, and in looking at the legacy of Levi I would like to comment a little bit on the connection between these two blessings and what they mean in light of how the tribe of Levi distinguished themselves during the time of the wilderness, when their service and devotion to God earned them a blessing that helped to counteract the curse. This is not intended as a full examination of the tribe of Levi, merely a brief examination of how God turned an original curse into a blessing, and how both the curse and the blessing of the tribe of Levi continue to affect my own life as a member of this tribe.
The first time we see the tribe of Levi in action is in Genesis 34:25-31: “Now it came to pass on the third day, when they [the men of Shechem] were in pain, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and came boldly upon the city and killed all the males.” After the rape of Dinah , two of Dinah’s full brothers, Simeon and Levi, used the sign of circumcision, which was supposed to make one a part of the covenant between Abraham and God as a sign of obedience, as a weapon to execute cruel vengeance for a rape. This act was a betrayal of a covenant agreement, an act of considerable treachery that was justified in the minds of the two brothers as a defense of the stolen honor of their sister that included the violence of killing her fiance and many of her friends with whom she had sought company out of her loneliness in the family of Jacob.
These actions did not reflect well on the character of either Simeon or Levi, who did not accept Jacob’s rebuke and received a rather unpleasant “blessing” as a result of their treacherous and violent behavior in Genesis 49:5-7: “Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments are cruelty are in their dwelling place. Let not my soul enter their council; let not my honor be united to their assembly; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they hamstrung an ox. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” This is not a pleasant blessing, and in fact Jacob has nothing good to say about either Simeon or Levi based on their own conduct, which was more the behavior of hillbillies in a blood feud than anything remotely civilized or moral in nature. Let us note, though, the qualities discussed of both Simeon and Levi in Jacob’s “blessing” of these two tribes: cruel, fierce, angry, self-willed, divided, scattered, disunited. I have myself lived to see these curses in my own house and in my own life. I am a fierce and self-willed person who has to struggle against my anger as does the rest of my passionate and wrathful family. I come from a deeply divided family and household, scattered abroad the face of the earth, far from home and hearth, with a deep difficulty in feeling belongingness at all. The curse on Levi was over 3500 years ago (perhaps even 4000 years ago) and it still lives in my own life for this son of Levi. I mourn when I reflect on the sorrow and heartbreak and frustration that have resulted from that longstanding curse.
But during the course of the wilderness travails of the people of Israel, that curse became a blessing for the tribe of Levi (though not, we should note, for their brother Simeon). In large part this is due to the obedience of the tribe of Levi to God in the course of the wilderness experience, though this obedience was not unmixed. The faithfulness of Moses, Eleazar, and Phineas (as well as the sons of Korah) is balanced out to some extent by the unsteadiness of Aaron and Miriam and the treachery and rebellion of Nadab and Abihu and Korah. Nonetheless, compared to the outright treachery in the rest of the nation of Israel, only a few more scattered figures (like Caleb and Joshua and a few others) are seen in a positive light at this time at all, and so the faithfulness of Levi was a blessing. Particularly notable is the attitude of the tribe of Levi during some of the major incidents of rebellion. For example, it was the tribe of Levi whose faithful devotion to God at the Golden Calf incident that led to their later blessing by being given access to serve in the tabernacle and to teach the law of God to Israel, blessing which sprang from their behavior in Exodus 32:25-29: “Now when Moses saw that the people were unrestrained (for Aaron had not restrained them, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the entrance of the camp, and said, “Whoever is on the Eternal’s side–come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, “Thus says the Eternal God of Israel: ‘Let every man put his sword on his side, and go in and out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’ ” So the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Then Moses said, “Consecrate yourselves today to the Eternal, that He may bestow on you a blessing this day; for every man has opposed his son and his brother.””
Let us note that the behavior of Levi in the Dinah incident and in the Golden calf incident are not that different on the face of it. In both cases the actions taken are violent and fierce and hostile. In one case, though, that violence was done for personal reasons and vengeance and against a covenant and in the second case that violence was done in answering the call of God through Moses for judgment against the wicked. Holy war on behalf of God’s covenant led to blessing, while personal vendettas on behalf of an overinflated and overly delicate sense of personal and family honor is cursed. In one case ferocity is praised and blessed, and in the other it is rebuked and cursed, demonstrating that it is not the zeal and passion and ferocity of the tribe of Levi that is evil in itself, but rather that the means and ends of that passion and ferocity must be in accordance with the ways and the will of God. The same ferocity that led to the curse of division for the tribe of Levi can be a force for good, but the nature of that ferocity has to change to a passion for godliness and a zeal for obedience to God’s ways.
When we next see the tribe of Levi (in this case the sons of Korah) in action as a group, we see that this lack of cohesion within their nuclear family served again to the glory of God, which does not appear to be accidental. Korah, of course, led a rebellion along with some Reubenites Dathan and Abiru, and while the families of the two Reubenites rebelled together and died together, Korah did not draw any of his own sons to rebellion because they would obey God rather than their own father. In ordinary circumstances, of course, honor for parents and regard for one’s blood relatives is a command of God, but for whatever reason the divisiveness of the tribe of Levi was used by God for His glory in what would have otherwise been questionable or perhaps even disobedient behavior in different circumstances. In the same way I sadly muse on the divided state of my own fractious family and wonder how God has or will use it for His own purposes, despite the stress and strain it has produced on all of us, who really do want to get along but find communication of those longings and the practical working out of peaceful relations to be beyond our limited competence in such matters. We are true sons and daughters of Levi after all.
Even the way in which Phineas, the son of Eleazar, managed to ensure himself the succession of the high priesthood was done in a way that was typically Levite, as it reads in Numbers 25:6-13: “And indeed, one of the children of Israel came and presented to his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel who were weeping at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Now when Phineas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose from amon the congregation and took a javelin in his hand, and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her body. So the plague was stopped among the children of Israel. And those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand. Then the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: “Phineas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the children of Israel, because he was zealous with My zeal among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My zeal. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; and it shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God and made atonement for the children of Israel.'”” Ironically enough, Phineas speared a rebellious Simeonite, and received a covenant of peace for his ferocious zeal, and a promise of priesthood for him and his descendants because of his act of godly judgment against a flagrant evildoer. Such ironies seem to abound with the tribe of Levi, though.
While the anger of Simeon and Levi were not that distinguishable at the beginning of their tribal existence as two ferocious brothers, it does appear that by the time of the Exodus generations later there was a difference of spirit between these two tribes. While Simeon seemed to glory in fractious and clannish violence that is still seen and recognized today in some parts of the world (the Appalachian mountains and Scottish highlands spring readily to mind), Levi’s similarly fierce anger had in many of its people been turned to the ways of God rather than personal vendettas. And that difference is the difference between cursing and blessing, however small it may seem to us. God can use a fierce anger and a passionate zeal if that anger is against injustice and evil and if that zeal is for God’s ways, and what would otherwise be intensely destructive can become an exceedingly good and blessed quality in the right circumstances. And it is through the godly behavior of Levi in showing their passionate zeal for godliness that led the curse of their divisiveness and lack of cohesion into an incredible blessing that is sadly often forgotten because it is not often read.
We find this blessing in Deuteronomy 33:8-11: “And of Levi he said: “Let Your Thummim and Your Urim be with Your holy one, whom You tested at Massah, and with whom You contended at the waters of Meribah, who says of his father and mother, ‘I have not seen them’; nor did he acknowledge his brothers, or know his own children; for they have observed Your word and kept Your covenant. They shall teach Jacob Your judgments, and Israel Your law. They shall put incense before You, and a whole burnt sacrifice on Your altar. Bless his substance, Eternal, and accept the work of his hands; strike the loins of those who rise against him, and of those who hate him, that they rise not again.”
This is a rather fierce blessing well suited to my fierce people. The division of Levi was used not to their shame, but to their benefit to scatter them among Israel as teachers of God’s laws. Lacking the cohesion that tribal and family politics normally give (and my family certainly lacks cohesion, no one can deny that), their scattering served to provide all Israel with a base of zealous and godly people whose passion for God’s ways and God’s covenant and law far exceeded the strength of their family ties. For their zeal and loyalty to God’s covenant (a far cry from the treachery of Levi to the covenant made with the people of Shechem so long before), Moses asks that the work of the hands of Levi be accepted, and that their service to the people of God be honored, and that God would strike down those who hate and rise up against Levi.
Reading these words fills me with a personal sense of bittersweetness knowing the divided state of my own family, which I deeply lament, and also knowing that the same zeal for God’s covenant that coursed through the veins of godly Levites like Phineas and Moses also courses through my own veins. Perhaps just as God used the curse of scattering for the people of Levi for the good of teaching all Israel God’s ways, and using the lack of cohesion among that tribe to help cohere Israel as a whole to Himself, perhaps the same can be said in my own house. Perhaps my scattering far from home may serve to help God cohere the body of Christ in some small way, so that my own private division may serve to the greater unity of the people of God, and that my zeal for God’s ways and the fierce works of my own hands may lead to a blessing for God’s people and reflect the just ways of our Heavenly Father rather than merely my own private warfare. May it be that my own struggles and longings may serve a greater good and the will and plan of My Heavenly Father, for then these struggles and this division and conflict will not be in vain.