Levi/Levy (//, Hebrew: לֵּוִי; Standard Levy Tiberian Lēwî ; "joining") was, according to the Book of Genesis, the third son of Jacob and Leah, and the founder of the Israelite Tribe of Levi (the levites). Certain religious and political functions were reserved for the Levites, and the early sources of the Torah—the Jahwist and Elohist—appear to treat the term Levi as just being a word meaning priest; scholars therefore suspect that "levi" was originally a general term for a priest, and had no connection to ancestry, and that it was only later, for example in the priestly source and Blessing of Moses, that the existence of a tribe named Levi became assumed, in order to explain the origin of the priestly caste.
The Torah suggests that the name of Levi refers to Leah's hope for Jacob to join with her, implying a derivation from yillaweh, meaning he will join, which translates as Llave the key to the union of the upper and lower realms of holiness, but Biblical scholars have proposed quite different origins of the name. Scholars suspect that it simply means priest, either as a loan word from the Minaean lawi'u, meaning priest, or by referring to those people who were joined to the ark of the covenant. Another possibility is that the Levites originated as migrants, and that the name Levites indicates their joining with either the Israelites in general, or the earlier Israelite priesthood in particular.
The family of Levi
In the Book of Genesis, Levi is described as having fathered three sons—Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. A similar genealogy is given in the Book of Exodus, where it is added that among Kohath's sons was one—Amram—who married a woman named Jochebed, who was closely related to his father, and they were the biological parents of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam; though some Greek and Latin manuscripts of the Torah state that Jochebed was Amram's father's cousin, the masoretic text states that she was his father's sister, and the Septuagint mentions that she was one of his father's sisters. The masoretic text's version of Levi's genealogy thus implies (but doesn't state) that Levi also had a daughter (Jochebed), and the Septuagint implies further daughters. The names of Levi's sons, and possible daughter, are interpreted in classical rabbinical literature as being reflections on their future destiny. In some apocryphal texts such as the Testament of Levi, and the Book of Jubilees, Levi's wife, his children's mother, is named as Milkah, a daughter of Aram.
Scholars attribute the genealogy to the Book of Generations, a document originating from a similar religiopolitical group and date to the priestly source. According to some Biblical scholars, the Torah's genealogy for Levi's descendants, is actually an aetiological myth reflecting the fact that there were four different groups among the levites - the Gershonites, Kohathites, Merarites, and Aaronids; Aaron—the eponymous ancestor of the Aaronids—couldn't be portrayed as a brother to Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, as the narrative about the birth of Moses (brother of Aaron), which textual scholars attribute to the earlier Elohist source, mentions only that both his parents were Levites (without identifying their names). Some Biblical scholars suspect that the Elohist account offers both matrilinial and patrilinial descent from Levites in order to magnify the religious credentials of Moses.
In post-Torah tradition
In accordance with his role as founder of the Levites, Levi is referred to as being particularly pious. The Blessing of Moses, which textual scholars attribute to period just before the deuteronomist, speaks about Levi via an allegorical comparison to Moses himself, which hagaddah take to support the characterisation of Levi (and his progeny) as being by far the greatest of his brothers in respect to piety. The apocryphal Prayer of Asenath, which textual scholars believe dates from some time after the first century AD (scholarship in regards to the dating is currently quite contentious, with dates ranging from near the first century, to the fourth or fifth centuries), describes Levi as a prophet and saint, able to forecast the future, understand heavenly writings (astrology? weather trends?), and someone who admonishes the people to be forgiving, as well as in awe of God. The Book of Malachi argues that the Levites were chosen by Yahweh to be the priests, because Levi was always accurate, having never lied, specified only the true religious regulations, was reverent, revered Yahweh, was in awe of the Tetragrammaton, upheld peace, was a model of good morality, and turned many people from sin.
In the Testament of Levi, Levi is described as having had two visions. The first vision covered eschatological issues, portraying the seven heavens, the Jewish Messiah, and Judgement Day. The second vision portrays seven angels bringing Levi seven insignia signifying priesthood, prophecy, and judgement; in the vision, after the angels anoint Levi, and initiate him as a priest, they tell him of the future of his descendants, mentioning Moses, the Aaronid priesthood, and a time when there would be priest-kings; this latter point was of particular interest to the Maccabean period of John Hyrcanus, who was both a high priest, and warrior-king, though according to textual scholars this is to be expected, since the Testament of Levi was written during Maccabean rule, between 153BC and 107BC, and closer to the latter date. The Book of Jubilees similarly has Isaac telling Levi of the future of his descendants, again predicting priesthood, prophets, and political power, and additionally describes Jacob as entrusting Levi with the secrets of the ancients, so that they would be known only to the Levites; however, like the Testament of Levi, the Book of Jubilees is regarded as a Maccabean document by scholars.
Also, the Book of Jubilees says that Levi was born "in the new moon of the first month" which means that he was born on the 1st of Nissan.
Levi and the "Blessing of Jacob"
Levi and Simeon destroy the city of Shechem in revenge for the rape of Dinah, seizing the wealth of the city, and killing the men; the narrative also mentions that the brothers had earlier misled the denizens of Shechem, by consenting to Dinah's rapist marrying her, and when Jacob hears about the destruction of Shechem by Simeon and Levi, he castigates them for it. In the Blessing of Jacob, Jacob is described as imposing a curse on the Levites, by which they would be scattered, in punishment for Levi's actions in Shechem; textual scholars date the Blessing of Jacob to a period between just one and two centuries prior to the Babylonian captivity, and some Biblical scholars regard this curse, and Dinah herself as an aetiological postdiction to explain the fates of the tribe of Simeon and the Levites, the simpler explanation of the Levites' scattered nature being that the priesthood was originally open to any tribe, but gradually became seen as a distinct tribe itself (the Levites).
- Peake's commentary on the Bible
- Jewish Encyclopedia
- Genesis 46:11
- Exodus 6:16-20
- New American Bible, footnote to Exodus 6:20
- Numbers Rabbah 3:12
- Jubilees 34:20
- Testament of Levi 11
- Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote The Bible?
- Exodus 2:1-2
- Deuteronomy 33:8-10
- Malachi 2:4-6
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Jubilees 31:12-17
- Jubilees 45:16
- Genesis 34
- Genesis 34:30-31
- Genesis 49:-7
- Richard Elliott Friedman, Who wrote the Bible?
- “The Tribe: The Cohen-Levi Family Heritage” (cohen-levi.org)