#220. Are the Levites allowed to touch the holy objects of the Tabernacle OR not? (Deut 18:1-8; 1 Sam 6:13-19; 2 Sam 6:6-7, etc. vs Num 4:1-19)


Nowhere is the agenda, and polemic, of the Aaronid priestly guild and its text, the Priestly source, more apparent than in its treatment and depiction of its rivals, the Levites. In this text, mainly Exodus 35–Numbers 10, our Aaronid writer has Yahweh proclaim on numerous occasions that:

  • no non-Aaronid Levite can be a priest, only an Aaronid can (#152)
  • no non-Aaronid Levite can eat of Yahweh’s sacrifices, only Aaronids can (#177)
  • no non-Aaronid Levite can eat of the tithes, only Aaronids can (#214)
  • no non-Aaronid Levite can be judge, only an Aaronid can (#153-154)
  • no non-Aaronid Levite can approach Yahweh’s Tabernacle on penalty of death (Num 3:10, 38; 4:15; 18:3)
  • no non-Aaronid Levite can burn incense to/for Yahweh on penalty of death (Num 17:5)
  • no non-Aaronid Levite can touch any of the Tabernacle’s holy sacra—the Alter, Ark, Table, Menorah, the Tabernacle frame itself—or even view the shrine on penalty of death (Num 4:15, 19, 20)
  • and all non-Aaronid Levites are subordinated to the Aaronids; they are given to the Aaronids, and they are to minister to the Aaronids (Num 3:6-9; 18:2-3)

All of the above “divine” decrees against non-Aaronid Levites, not surprisingly found in a text written by Aaronids!—each have their contradictory “divine” proclamation found in Levite written texts now also redacted together by later editors in this anthology of texts we call, misappropriately, “the Book.” In the books of Deuteronomy and Samuel predominately, Yahweh is presented as proclaiming a pan-Levite priesthood wherein all Levites can enjoy the privileges which “Yahweh” only grants, on penalty of death, to Aaronid Levites in the Priestly source above. Even though the pro-Aaronid priestly source was written a century or two after the pro-pan-Levite book of Deuteronomy, as a polemical attack on the Levites and their pro-pan-Levite text, in the redacted Torah as we now have it is the pro-Aaronid Yahweh that we meet first (Ex-Lev-Num) and then 40 years later a pro-pan-Levite Yahweh who negates everything he decreed earlier at Sinai in the now narratively earlier Priestly text!

Additionally, in early contradictions in the book of Exodus, I tried to highlight this polemic against the Levites by indicating where, and why, the Aaronid priestly writer rewrote the Moses of his earlier sources—the Yahwist and Elohist—and depicted him in less than flattering terms, or subordinated him to Aaron. This too was part and parcel to the Aaronid agenda. Since the Levites traced their lineage back to Moses, and the Aaronids back to Aaron, it was only natural, or polemically suitable, that the Aaronid priests who rewrote these earlier traditions presented, wherever possible, an Aaron who superseded Moses. We saw, for example, how the Priestly writer rewrote his earlier source:

  • by changing Moses’ staff to Aaron’s staff for a number of the signs (#91)
  • by changing the earlier tradition’s Moses’ “heavy mouth and tongue” to “uncircumcised of lips” (#93)
  • by having Aaron perform the sign for the Israelites when the older tradition had Yahweh command Moses to do this (#88)
  • by upgrading Aaron’s status from Moses’ brother Levite to older brother (#95)
  • by rewriting the commission scene: where the older tradition has Moses fail to convey Yahweh’s message, the Priestly writer has Aaron succeed (#97-98)
  • by changing Moses striking the Nile with his rod to Aaron striking the Nile with his own rod (#105)
  • by emphatically stating that only Aaron and his sons, not Moses, can perform Yahweh’s sacrifices and enter the Tent of Meeting (#149, #166)

Putting Moses in his place, i.e., subordinating him to Aaron, was equally subordinating all non-Aaronid Levites to the Aaronid priests.

Again, unknown to billions of so-called “readers” of the Bible, this sort of polemical attack on one’s rival priestly guild by rewriting tradition and/or presenting your rival’s forefather, in this case Moses, as subordinated to your own forefather, Aaron, was exactly what ancient literature was all about. This is why scribes wrote: to legitimate through divine decree in some archaic remote past your guild’s “divine” right to rule, to have sole authority to rule, in this case as priests, and over and against your rivals! This is not literature written under “divine-inspiration” intended for readers living 3,000 years later in a radically different, and contradictory, geography, worldview, culture, belief system, political reality, etc, but rather literature that was inspired by specific human ideological agendas and aimed at specific rivalries in the author’s own ancient historical context. When it comes down to it, modern Christians ignorant of these things, are in reality the most abusive and dishonest “readers” of these ancient texts. Their beliefs have become much more important than recognizing and understanding the beliefs, ideologies, worldviews, etc of the Bible’s 60+ authors. A task that I have tried to stress here.

Well… back to our specific contradiction.

Numbers 4 outlines the specific tasks of the non-Aaronid Levites in ministering to the Tent of Meeting. They are responsible for carrying this portable 7.5 ton cultic construction (see #217) during the alleged 40 years in the wilderness. Carry? Indeed, but not, never, touch, on penalty of death from Yahweh! For we are told over and over again that Aaron and his sons, only, must enter the Tent of Meeting, dissemble its sacred equipment, and wrap the holy objects in several cloth coverings, and then attach the poles by which means the holy objects are to be transported. And then and only then are the Levites allowed to carry the objects (Num 4:5-15).

We are furthermore reminded that:

  • “the Kohathites (non-Aaronid Levites) shall arrive to do the transporting but may not come into contact with the Shrine, lest they die” (Num 4:15)
  • “This is how you [Aaron and sons] shall manage them [the Kohathites] so that they may remain alive and not risk death whenver they approach the Holy of Holies” (Num 4:19)

In the pro-pan-Levite books of Deuteronomy and Samuel, this pro-Aaronid propaganda, with its pro-Aaronid Yahweh, is violently negated. Indeed in the Priestly source all non-Aaronid Levites cannot touch, even gaze upon, Yahweh’s holy sacra and Shrine; but in the pro-Levitical source of Samuel for example, where all Levites are priests, it is the common folk—all non-Levite Israelites—who cannot touch nor gaze upon Yahweh’s holy objects on penalty of death.

I’ll end this post with an excerpt from a little book I’m working on titled Morals Don’t Come from God: For This I Know Because the Bible Tells Me So, and which opens with the passage in Samuel I have in mind here.

     There’s a story in 1 Samuel 6 that recounts how the ark of Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews, came back to Israel and was placed in the hands of Levite priests after having gone through the town of Beth-shemesh. Here is an excerpt from that story.

And the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping the wheat harvest in the valley, and they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it. And the cart [upon which the ark was placed] came into the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite and stood there, where there was a great stone. And they cleaved the wood of the cart and offered up the cows for a burnt-offering unto Yahweh. And the Levites took down the ark of Yahweh and the coffer that was with it, wherein the jewels of gold were, and put them on the great stone; and the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed sacrifices the same day unto Yahweh… Then Yahweh smote the men of Beth-shemesh because they had gazed upon the ark of Yahweh. He smote 50,070 men of the people, and the people mourned because Yahweh had smitten them with a great slaughter (1 Sam 6:13-15, 19).

What was supposed to be a joyous event, and which did in fact elicit praises and sacrifices to Yahweh, ended up being a calamity for the people of Beth-shemesh. Yahweh, their god, smote 50,070 of their men.

Our immediate question should not be why did Yahweh do this, as if a scribe were recording an historical event. But rather, why would an ancient scribe have presented Yahweh doing this? Why would he have even written such a story? What purpose could it possibly have served?

Similarly, 2 Samuel 6:6-7 recounts the story of how a commoner by the name of Uzzah reached out to save the ark of Yahweh from crashing to the ground by stopping its fall with his hand, since the oxen carrying the ark had stumbled. However, what should have been hailed as a pious act of saving Yahweh’s ark from being broken into bits upon the ground turned out to be something quite different. “And Yahweh’s anger was kindled against Uzzah and he smote him there and he died.”

What do Uzzah and the men of Beth-shemesh have in common that would have elicited such a response from their deity? Besides the fact that they both were either gazing upon the ark of Yahweh or touching the holy relic, even if to protect it from destruction, they were nevertheless non-Levites! And these stories, as well as countless other similar stories in the Bible, were written by elite priestly guilds, in this case the Levites.

These are powerful stories and were undeniably written to convey a poignant, if indeed disturbing, message: that under no circumstances are non-Levites to touch, even gaze upon, Yahweh’s ark! Only the Levites were allowed this privilege. These are not historical narratives, but dramatized lessons crafted by elite priests who wrote to authenticate and legitimate their own social position, authority, and beliefs. Both the Beth-shemites and Uzzah function as literary foils to demonstrate that under no circumstances are non-Levites to minister to Yahweh’s cult, touch Yahweh’s sacred objects, or even gaze upon them. Only Levites could minister to the ark of Yahweh; all others no matter what the circumstances would be brutally struck down by Yahweh himself. That is the message behind these stories—stories created and written by Levite priests to legitimate Levite ideology by presenting Yahweh, their deity, as a spokesperson for their own views and beliefs.

In fact, this is how an ancient scribe or guild legitimated its views, authority, and even social position in the ancient world, especially when, as we shall see, rivalry priestly guilds and scribes wrote other texts that advocated different views and agendas. In other words, these stories exemplify what ancient literature is and how it was often used. Its “moral legislation”—that Yahweh will slaughter any non-Levite that touches, even gazes upon, his holy objects—is not some objective moral with a supernatural origin, but rather a carefully crafted lesson created by Levite scribes whose purpose was to endorse, legitimate, and safeguard their own authority and ideology, and often against the views and claims of rivalry groups, by using the deity as their spokesperson. No non-Levite would claim this Yahweh with this moral dictate as their god. Rather, it is the literary creation of Levite priests.

6 thoughts on “#220. Are the Levites allowed to touch the holy objects of the Tabernacle OR not? (Deut 18:1-8; 1 Sam 6:13-19; 2 Sam 6:6-7, etc. vs Num 4:1-19)

  1. Where does it say the levites were set apart the second year after coming from out egypt?its not in numbers 1:1 ,I can’t find it.

    1. Yes it is: “on the 1st day of the 2nd month in the 2nd year of their exodus from the land of Egypt. . .” (Num 1:1).

      This is from the pen of the Priestly source and the description of the encampment and 1st census then follows (Num 1-4). There are of course some chronological inconsistencies in the text. Numbers 9 for example is set on the 1st month of the 2nd year. See:
      Contradiction #170. Does the action from Exodus 40 to Numbers 7 take place on one day OR not?
      Contradiction #221. What transpires on the day Moses sets up and anoints the Tabernacle: Aaron and his sons are anointed as Yahweh’s priests and shut in the Tent of Meeting for a 7 day ordination OR Israel’s 12 chieftains present sacrificial offerings to Yahweh, 1 a day for the following 12 days?

      P’s pretty adamant about portraying the wildness generation as performing Passover and all other of Yahweh’s necessitated sacrifices. This was in fact a post-exilic debate among biblical scribes. See Contradiction #155. Does Yahweh command sacrifices during the wilderness period OR not?

      Furthermore, in this Aaronid-written body of literature (P), the Levites are not only set apart (which they also are in the pro-Levite text of Deuteronomy) but more so demoted to mere servants of the Aaronid priesthood (Num 3:5-10; 18:1-7)! This is contradictory to Deuteronomy’s position on the Levites and a contradiction I haven’t yet written up.

      This also contradicts Deuteronomy’s stance where Yahweh is used as a mouthpiece to legitimate all Levites as his priests. Note too that the Aaronid written text of Ezekiel also takes this pro-Aaronid—now uniquely the Zadokite line—and also demotes the Levites as mere servants of the Aaronids. See Contradiction #299. Does Yahweh make an eternal covenant with the Aaronid priesthood via Phinehas OR with the Levitical priesthood in general OR with only the Zadokite line OR with the Davidic line OR with Jesus Christ via Melchizedek?

      Note too that while this pro-Aaronid written body of literature forbids on penalty of death any non-Aaronid Levite from touching Yahweh’s holy objects, the Levite written text of Samuel (as does Deuteronomy) does the same thing in its stories about commoners touching Yahweh’s ark vis-a-vis the privilege of Levites, which according to this text only Levites (any and all) could do. See my Morals Don’t Come from God post.

  2. It appears that all Levites, not just the Aaronids, were priests in Malachi’s time, since he refers to the “covenant of Levi” (2:4, 8), and Yahweh’s messenger who will “purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (3:3), with no mention of Aaron.

    It’s also interesting to see the portrayal of Levites in the book of Judges. From Judges 17, it appears that they were held in esteem, since although Micah had already appointed his son as a priest (17:5), he still sought a Levite to be his priest (vv: 7-13).

    1. I don’t think it’s that simple. The “covenant of Levi” could refer to almost any family of the priesthood: Levites in general, Aaronids, Zadokites. What is curious about this post-exilic text is that we know from other post-exilic texts (Priestly source, Chronicles, Ezra?) that the Aaronids were in control of the priesthood in the post-exilic period, and followed at some point by the Zadokites (Ez, DSS). So the possibility that this refers to Levites in general seems slim. Rather, I suspect—but haven’t done any reading here—that it’s a polemical attack on the Aaronids or Zadokites written by the Levites themselves, who would see these sects as perverting “the covenant of Levi” certainly as it was portrayed in Deuteronomy. But this is just a hunch at the moment.

  3. One way that the D author eliminates the idea of Levites as mere assistants to the Aaronids is by claiming that the Levites weren’t even commissioned until after Aaron died, in direct contradiction to Numbers 3-4!

    Deuteronomy 10:6-8

    6 (The Israelites journeyed from Beeroth-bene-jaakan to Moserah. There Aaron died, and there he was buried; his son Eleazar succeeded him as priest. 7From there they journeyed to Gudgodah, and from Gudgodah to Jotbathah, a land with flowing streams. 8AT THAT TIME YAHWEH SET APART THE TRIBE OF LEVI to carry the ark of the covenant of Yahweh, to stand before Yahweh to minister to him, and to bless in his name, to this day. 9Therefore Levi has no allotment or inheritance with his kindred; the Lord is his inheritance, as Yahweh your God promised him.)

    Not only does this contradict the P author regarding the purpose of the Levites, but it also creates an interesting chronological difficulty, since Numbers 33:38 says that Aaron died “in the fortieth year after the Israelites had come out of the land of Egypt,” yet Numbers 1:1 claims that the Levites were set apart in the second year after leaving Egypt. Ooops!

    1. John, I like the contradiction that you propose here—when were the Levites set apart? I’ll have to add it! Earlier in Exodus I discussed the appointment of the Levites in E’s Golden Calf narrative (Ex 32, #157) and how this appointment contradicted the appointment of the Aaronids happening on top of Sinai at the very same moment in the P literature that now surrounds E’s Golden Calf story (#152).

      What I find interesting in the passage from Deuteronomy above, is that the Deuteronomist, in renarrating the Golden Calf episode in Deut 9, completely disassociates the Levites’ appointment as priests from the Golden Calf story, where, in E, they are given the priesthood because they expiate the Golden Calf sin, i.e., they kill 3,000 Israelites!

      So let’s see if we got this straight:

      • in E, the Levites are chosen not only because they expiate the sin of the Golden Calf but also because Aaron is depicted as bringing the very sin upon the people (#160; cf. E’s polemic against Aaron in Num 12 too). So in E, the Levites are appointed priests at Horeb, and Aaron and his sons are certainly depicted as ineligible!
      • in D, our author disassociates these events from the appointment of the Levites, and rather has them appointed in the wilderness after Aaron’s death. And if I recall correctly this and 9:20 are the only places in D where Aaron is mentioned! D seems to be neutral towards Aaron, and I would further argue unaware of any Aaronid priesthood—in support of P following D.
      • in P, the Aaronids (Aaron and his sons) are appointed and anointed at Sinai as sole priests, and the Levites demoted (if D is indeed prior to P, which I take as the case; supported by Ez 44:10-11, where the Levites are also demoted) to being mere servants of the Aaronids, and these events happen at Sinai (Ex 40 & Lev 8 on 1/1/2, and Num 3-4 on 2/1/2, according to P’s chronology)—your contradiction: Deut 10:6-8 vs Num 4.
      • and in Ezekiel 44:15; 48:11 the sons of Zadok are awarded the priesthood (also in the Dead Sea Scrolls).

      What have we left out here? I’m fascinated by these priestly rivalries and how the literature of these various guilds relate to one another. Malachi is another post-exilic text that needs to be accounted for. There’s certainly a polemic and harsh criticism against the priests in Malachi, but it’s difficult to ascertain who is specifically being targeted, and who is doing the criticizing. I have not read anything on this yet. What’s your take on Malachi?

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