The Kohathites were one of the three main divisions among the Levites in Biblical times, the other two being the Gershonites and the Merarites. The Bible claims that the Kohathites were all descended from the eponymous Kohath, a son of Levi, although some biblical scholars regard this as a postdictional metaphor providing an aetiology of the connectedness of the clan to others in the Israelite confederation. Although the Aaronids are described as part of the Kohathites, the text strongly differentiates between the Aaronids and the other Kohathites.
The Bible ascribes a specific religious function to the Kohathites, namely care of the vessels and objects within the sanctuary - the Ark of the Covenant, Menorah, Table of Shewbread, etc. This differentiation of religious activity between the Kohathites and other Levites, even the Aaronids, is found only in the Priestly Code, and not in passages that textual scholars attribute to other authors.
According to the Book of Joshua, rather than possessing a continuous territory, the Kohathites possessed several cities scattered throughout the geographic region in the Kingdom of Israel south of the Jezreel Valley, and in the region north of the Galilee, the latter being an extremely large distance apart from the former:
- in the territory of Ephraim: Shechem, Gezer, Kibzaim, and Beth-horon
- in the western part of the territory of Manasseh: Taanach, Gat Rimon
- in the territory of Dan: Eltekeh, Gibbethon, Aijalon, and Gath-rimmon
The narrative in Joshua argues that the territory was taken by the Levites right after Joshua's conquest of Canaan, but some scholars believe this cannot be correct, as it is contradicted not only by archaeological evidence, but also by narratives in the Book of Judges, Books of Samuel, and Books of Kings; Gezer, for example, is portrayed in the narrative of the Book of Kings as only coming into the possession of the Levites during the reign of Solomon, and archaeological excavation of the site has shown that shortly prior to the Babylonian captivity it was still the site of a large temple to the Canaanite deity Astarte. However, a close reading of the book of Judges reveals that the Canaanite peoples conquered by the invading Israelite tribes were often not completely subdued. The disputed territory is sometimes assigned to an individual or tribe before any conquest was undertaken (e.g., Caleb's inheritance in Joshua 14). A major theme of the book of Judges is that the disorder portrayed in the book is a direct consequence of Israel lacking the will to finish the job of conquest, allowing their enemies to dwell in their midst. While the conclusion of many modern biblical scholars is that the whole system of Levite cities, in the Torah and deuteronomic history, is an attempt to explain the fact that important early sanctuaries existed at these locations, and thus were places where members of the priesthood naturally came to reside in large numbers, this view is not universally accepted. Some scholars believe that the priesthood was originally open to any tribe, but gradually became seen as a distinct tribe to themselves - the Levites.
- Numbers 3:21
- Peake's Commentary on the Bible
- Jewish Encyclopedia
- Numbers 3:31-32
- Peake's Commentary on the Bible
- Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
- Joshua 21:20-26
- Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed
- 1 Kings 9:16
- "Palestine Exploration Fund, Quarterly Statement, January 1903"
- Peake's Commentary on the bible