The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity

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Mark Leuchter
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this book, Mark Leuchter examines the complex development of the Levites within ancient Israel, as reflected in the literature of the Hebrew Bible. While there have been numerous scholarly reconstructions of the rise and shifts of those claiming the title of “Levite,” Leuchter brings together textual evidence, insights from cultural memory studies and social scientific models, and archaeological data in a unique composite approach to how this group creates and defends its important claim to serving as a “boundary marker” in providing a definition for belonging to the entity known as “Israel.” The book incorporates content from three articles and two essays, expanding those original discussions and connecting research threads into a coherent analysis of a complicated and sweeping concept that runs across the Hebrew Bible.

After an introduction, the book itself proceeds chronologically (in Leuchter’s view) from the earliest layers of the Hebrew Bible in the thirteenth/twelfth century BCE down to the fourth century BCE in the Persian period, before its final concluding chapter. Developments of the Levitical tradition during the Hellenistic and early Rabbinic periods are briefly discussed as subsequent trajectories in that conclusion.

The introduction contains several brief sections that recount key scholarly insights and reconstructions of the origin and development of the Levites: sociology (tribe or caste), relationship to the Israelite monarchy, the Exodus tradition and Yahwism, the Levitical genealogies, social science and cultural memory studies, and the complexity of historical reconstruction. Leuchter’s overview concisely and accurately engages the questions that have driven research into the Levites, sorting through numerous interpretative issues and quandaries. Near the end of his introduction, he offers this proposal: “The emergence of the Levites is intimately connected to Israel’s own ethnographic, political, sociological, and ritual mythologies” (24). Such stories about the Levites have been recast by the biblical writers “in light of subsequent events” that place the Levites themselves at the key moments in which Israel’s own identity is being negotiated. As a result, claims Leuchter, the Levites become the arbiters of how the boundaries are drawn between those included and excluded from “Israel” itself (25). From my perspective, there is much data within the Hebrew Bible itself to support his claim, which Leuchter unpacks in the chapters that follow.

Chapter 1 discusses the origins of the Levites in the context of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1250-1150 BCE), particularly in light of the Exodus traditions and Israel’s rise in the land of the Canaan, especially in its agrarian context. Of special note is Leuchter’s discussion of the relationship between the Canaanite god El and the depiction of YHWH, which is an important argument in the historical development of Israel’s understanding of God (51-57).

Chapter 2 explores the figure of Moses as a key persona in the history of the development of Israel’s priesthood and how the Levites become connected with this authoritative voice. As Israel settled into its land, the Levitical claim to the priesthood reinforced its role as the unifier of various ancient traditions and ideologies. 

Chapter 3 extends this association from Moses to the rise of the Israelite monarchy, under both Saul and David. The figure of Abiathar provides Leuchter with a test case for shifts in Levitical prominence and the ongoing tension that would last for centuries between the Levites and the monarchies of both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel.

Chapter 4 examines the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32), the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) and the critique of the prophet Hosea in the eighth century BCE. Leuchter contends with the common scholarly view that the episode in Exodus 32 is a product of the southern kingdom’s rejection of a northern Israelite sanctuary. Rather, he views this as an older tradition that has been coopted by the Levites and used now as a negative example for contemporary political and religious institutions. These traditions will form the basis for the development of the Deuteronomist tradition, which has been heavily influenced and even created by the Levites (154).

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the creation of the book of Deuteronomy and editing of the book of Jeremiah by Levites. Leuchter argues, correctly I believe, that Deuteronomy is the product of a “Levitical scribal circle of northern origin residing in Judah” (160). Leuchter also proffers that Deuteronomy is an attempt to “make the textualized voice of YHWH accessible throughout the land” extending such availability beyond the priestly elite. While the Deuteronomistic connection with Jeremiah has long been recognized, Leuchter develops a persuasive argument that Levitical scribes associated with the family of Shaphan are responsible for the application of Deuteronomy’s principles to the context of Jeremiah’s prophetic words. These Levitical scribes are now the ones able to interpret correctly, in the view of the book, the divine words that have been received.

Chapter 7 provides an overview to the work of the Levites in the production of Ezra-Nehemiah and the editing of both the Torah and the Book of the Twelve. Leuchter claims that these Levites in this period bridge connections among the sapiential tradition, the prophetic writings, and the authority required to promulgate texts in the Persian period. Leuchter does an excellent job summarizing each of these issues and providing examples that illustrate his insights into the ongoing and pervasive work of such Levitical scribes in this formative period.

The book’s conclusion begins with brief discussions of Levitical involvement in the book of Psalms and book of Chronicles before turning to an overview of Levitical textual composition and redaction in the Hellenistic period and early Rabbinic period. As such, this chapter is not a summative conclusion, which is missing from the volume. In my opinion, the book would benefit from having one, both retrospectively and looking to future research in this intriguing area of study.


Leuchter’s treatment of the rise and influence of the Levites on the literature of the Hebrew Bible provides a compelling argument for understanding a complex and centuries-long textual production of a wide range of biblical texts. The ability to be concise without avoiding such difficulties of interpretation is commendable. Scholars working on the Levites and those working on textual production of the Hebrew Bible will both benefit from the insights provided by Leuchter’s reasoned and nuanced analysis.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Schweitzer is Academic Dean and Professor at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Leuchter is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism in the Department of Religion at Temple University.



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