Portion of the Week: Levites as Second Fiddle

Parashat Bamidbar: Do the Levites have a unique status, or must they always be in the priests’ shadow?

An illustration of a tabernacle from the 1897 book 'Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us.'
Wikimedia Commons

As a member of the Tribe of Levi, I sometimes ponder the nature of the Levites’ intermediate ritual status. On one hand, they have the privilege of being called up to the Torah before most of their fellow Jews from Israel’s other tribes – only the Kohanim, descendants of the priests, recite the blessing over the Torah before them. On the other hand, those same priests, members of the aristocratic branch of the Tribe of Levi, are not only are first in line to be called up, but later in the service, the run-of-the-mill Levites must wash their hands before the latter majestically ascend the dais, lift their arms and bless the congregation.

Do the Levites have a unique status, or must they always be in the priests’ shadow? Apparently, this problem has troubled the Levites at least since the time of Korah, who objects to Aaron the priest’s ritual status and demands equality before God. Moses, himself a member of the Tribe of Levi, reminds Korah that those privileged to serve God in the sanctuary cannot complain about those whose status is slightly higher: “Is it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them; and that he hath brought thee near, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee? And will ye seek the priesthood also?” (Numbers 16:9-10).

Although Parashat Korah will be read only a few weeks from now, these problems first arise in Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20), which, when referring to the Levites’ status, perhaps alludes to the reason why a Levite will later challenge the priests, who are members of his own tribe. At the beginning of this week’s reading, God commands Moses and Aaron to conduct a census prior to the journey from Sinai to Canaan: “Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls” (Num. 1:2). The Tribe of Levi, however, is not counted in this census: “Howbeit the tribe of Levi thou shalt not number, neither shalt thou take the sum of them among the children of Israel” (Num. 1:49).

Later in this week’s portion, the Levites are counted separately, in the framework of an exchange with another privileged group: the firstborn, who were originally chosen to serve God in the sanctuary: “For all the first-born are mine: on the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast, mine they shall be: I am the Lord” (Num. 3:13). Saved from the plague of the firstborn that God brought upon Egypt, Israel’s firstborn do indeed belong to him – and yet he decides to take the Levites into his service instead. Specifically, God commands Moses to count both groups: Since the firstborn outnumber the Levites, the “extra” firstborn must be redeemed with money. The firstborn’s special connection to the sanctuary is thus nullified; the Levites are sanctified instead.

The Levites’ exceptional status is also reflected in the order of the tribes as they journey to Canaan. In the Israelite camp, the tribes are organized in keeping with the four points of the compass around the Portable Tabernacle, with three tribes lined up in each direction in a fixed order. However, Levi, as the 13th tribe (Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s sons, are considered separate tribes), is not part of this arrangement. Rather, the Levites comprise the first circle – or, rather, the first square – surrounding the Tabernacle: “They shall bear the tabernacle, and all the furniture thereof; and they shall minister unto it, and shall encamp round about the tabernacle” (Num. 1:50).

In such a wandering camp, security arrangements for the tabernacle are hard to enforce, and there is a fear that unauthorized persons might come too close to the sanctuary: “And when the tabernacle setteth forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; and the common man that draweth nigh shall be put to death” (Num. 1:51). The Levites must not only protect the sanctuary from the people but must protect the people from the sanctuary. They constitute a human barrier between the people and the sanctuary, thus preventing God’s wrath from being aroused: “And the children of Israel shall pitch their tents, every man with his own camp…. But the Levites shall pitch round about the tabernacle of the testimony, that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel; and the Levites shall keep the charge of the tabernacle of the testimony” (Num. 1:52-53).

The fact that the sanctuary not only requires protection but also itself constitutes a danger becomes apparent from God’s words regarding the Kohathites, the Levite family responsible for caring for the Tabernacle’s ritual objects. God warns Aaron and his sons to cover these items before the Kohathites handle them because of this danger: “Cut ye not off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites from among the Levites … that they may live, and not die, when they approach unto the most holy things … but they shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered, lest they die” (Num. 4:18-20). Korah, by the way, belongs to that family.

This warning exemplifies the complex relationship between ordinary and “chosen” Levites – that is, the priests. Elsewhere in Parashat Bamidbar, the Levites are described not as God’s servants but as the priests’ servants. God commands Moses: “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him … And thou shalt give the Levites unto Aaron and to his sons; they are wholly given unto him from the children of Israel” (Num. 3:6-9).

Thus, according to these verses, the Levites are not taken by God in place of the firstborn of the Children of Israel, but are actually handed over to the priests by the Children of Israel, as per God’s orders. There is an unclear boundary between belonging to God and belonging to his servants, and a contrast between the glory and majesty of those privileged to approach the sacred space and the dullness of those in the second circle; the latter serve the inner circle but must remain outside the sacred space.

The Levites enjoy neither Israel’s security nor the prestige of the priests. Replacing Israel’s firstborn in the sanctuary, the Levites expose themselves to the danger entailed in contact with the sacred, and must bear the burden (metaphorically and literally) of the sanctuary and its implements – yet they themselves may not come into direct contact with the sacred space, and are even prohibited from gazing upon the objects they bear. Thus, they are sometimes perceived not as God’s servants, but as his servants’ servants. Perhaps that is why the individual who challenges the priests, as will be seen in the future, is Korah the Levite.