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.