The tribe of Levi was one of the twelve tribes of Israel who descended from the twelve sons of Jacob.
The special gemstone of the Levites was the emerald. In the Breastplate of Judgment, this appeared third in the first row of tribal gemstones. (Exodus 28:17 )
The Bible gives no information on the tribal standards. The Midrash alleges that the colors of the Levites were red, white, and black, and that the pattern of the standard was a set of alternating vertical black and white stripes on a red field. The Midrash also suggests that the Levites used a replica of the Breastplate of Judgment as their special symbol.
In the beginning of the wandering of Israel through the wilderness, after the Exodus of Israel, the firstborn sons of every tribe shared in the sacerdotal duty in honor of God, whether as regards Passover or any other required sacrifice.
But within a year of the Exodus, Moses climed Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, plus the instructions for the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the other furnishings, coverings, hangings, and structural elements of the Tabernacle. While Moses was away on the mountain (for forty days and nights), the people strayed from their faith and prevailed on Moses' brother Aaron to fashion an abominable object: the Golden Calf. One day later, Moses came down from the mountain. When he saw what the Israelites had done, he threw down the Tablets of Law containing the Ten Commandments and broke them. He then melted down the Golden Calf, ground it to dust, scattered the dust into a nearby body of water and forced the Israelites to drink from it. Then he demanded to know from Aaron how he could have allowed such a thing to happen (not only the fashioning of the calf but also the spectacle of the people getting completely out of control). Aaron attempted to excuse himself by saying that the calf fashioned itself from a pot of molten gold.
When Moses heard that, his anger knew no bounds. He asked all who were on God's side to rally to him, and the Levites were the only ones so to rally. He then ordered them to decimate the Israelite camp. Three thousand summary executions took place that day.
Thereafter the Levites and only the Levites were entrusted with the sacerdotal duty. This duty included:
- The High Priesthood. The original High Priest of Israel was Aaron. After he died, his son Eleazar succeeded him. Thereafter, except for an isolated episode, the High Priesthood was passed down through the line of Eleazar, though on one occasion an Ithamarite claimed the High Priesthood.
- The setup, takedown, and transport of the Tabernacle.
- The specific sacerdotal duties connected with the Tabernacle.
In later years the Levites would serve the Temple of Jerusalem after Solomon built it. They served as priests, musicians, and gatekeepers of the tabernacle/temple, among other jobs that would contribute to this purpose.
Encampment and Marching Order
The Levites, uniquely among the tribes, would encamp on three sides of the Tabernacle, directly abutting its courtyard fence. The Kohathites would encamp to the south, the Gershonites to the west, and the Merarites to the north.
When the Israelites struck camp, the Levites would march in a thin rank between the second and third major tribal ranks. Two ranks of three tribes each would march ahead of them, and two ranks of three tribes each would march behind them. (The tribe of Joseph was actually split into the two half-tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim.)
The procedure for striking camp was, briefly, as follows: First the priests would prepare the Tabernacle furnishings (the Ark of the Covenant, the Brass Altar, the Altar of Incense, the Table of Showbread, and the Lampstand) for transport. This was a delicate duty, because any person who touched any of these items out-of-turn or in the wrong manner, especially the Ark, would die instantly. Then the Kohathites would set out first, carrying these furnishings by their gold-overlain acacia-wood poles.
Next, the Gershonites would take down all the hangings, coverings, and cords, and march out after the Kohathites, carrying these items.
Finally the Merarites would break down the Tabernacle structure and set out last of all, carrying the boards, crossbars, sockets, columns, and other structural elements.
In return for their service, the remaining tribes of Israel were expected to pay a tithe that would go to the tribe of Levi.
Distribution in the Promised Land
In the Promised Land, the Levites were given grazing and growing rights in the environs of forty-eight designated cities distributed more-or-less equally among the other tribal territories. (Joshua 21 ) But when Jeroboam I began his revolt and set up the rival Kingdom of Israel, all the Levites defected to the Kingdom of Judah. The only exceptions were the illegal priestly line of Jonathan, the first "priests" to the Danites. Those "priests" remained until the final conquest of Dan by Tiglath-pileser III.
Moses and his brother Aaron were Levites. So was their sister Miriam, who gained a reputation as a prophetess. John the Baptist was also a Levite. Sadly, not all the Levites have been renowned for their good deeds. Korah, Moses' cousin, made a mutiny against Moses. (Numbers 16 ) Another Levite, whose name is unrecorded, caused a civil war in Israel after he sent his concubine out to be violated and murdered. (Judges 19 )
In the famous Cecil B. DeMille motion picture The Ten Commandments, the actor Charlton Heston, portraying Moses, appears in the second half of the film wearing a red robe with black and white stripes, similar to the Levite tribal standard as described in the Midrash.
There is probably no Scriptural warrant for the Levites marching in the center of the first rank during the actual Exodus, as this film portrays. This, of course, was not the Levites' eventual place in the marching order.