Everyone knows the Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel and were given duties in the service of the tabernacle (though only those of Aaron’s line were technically “priests”). However, not everyone is familiar with the origins of the Levites.
The Levites had a violent history. And what makes this interesting is that the violent nature of the Levites both (1) lost them land in Israel, and (2) gained them the priesthood. This is demonstrated in two episodes, that of Jacob’s son Levi in Genesis 34 and that of the tribe of Levi in Exodus 32.
First, Levi (and his brother Simeon) slaughtered an entire city following the rape of his sister Dinah, which lost the Levites land in Canaan (Genesis 34:25-31).
After Jacob and his sons settled in the city of Shechem (Genesis 33:18), a man named Shechem, son of Hamor, raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Genesis 34:1-2). Jacob’s sons then deceived Shechem and Hamor by saying that they required the men of the city to be circumcised for Dinah’s hand in marriage (Genesis 34:13-24). This provided an opportunity for Simeon and Levi to slaughter all the males, while all the brothers then plundered the city (Genesis 34:25-29).
Though we may sympathize with Levi and Simeon’s passion to protect their sister’s honor, Jacob was not pleased and feared backlash among their neighbors (Genesis 34:30-31). Thus when Jacob gave his blessing for his sons at the end of his life, he said this about Simeon and Levi:
Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
Let my soul come not into their council;
O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men,
and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
and scatter them in Israel (Genesis 49:5-7).
Both Simeon and Levi would be divided and scattered because of their violence. In fulfillment of this, the Simeonites obtained land within the territory of Judah (Joshua 19:1-9) and the Levites received no land (Joshua 13:14, 33; 14:3-4; 18:7). Instead, the Levites received 48 cities distributed throughout Israel among the other tribes (Numbers 18:23-24; 35:1-8; Joshua 21:1-45).
Second, the Levites slaughtered idolaters at Sinai following Israel’s worship of the Golden Calf, which gained them the priesthood (Exodus 32:25-29).
While Moses was receiving the law on Mount Sinai, the Israelites rebelled and made a Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-6). Moses interceded for Israel but made the Israelites drink the water with the ground up powder of the calf (Exodus 32:7-20). Moses then stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on Yahweh’s side? Come to me.” And the Levites, Moses’ own tribe, gathered around him (Exodus 32:26).
So Moses called for the Levites to slaughter their fellow Israelites—“Thus says Yahweh God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” And the Levites killed about 3,000 men (Exodus 32:27-28).
This episode recalls the violence of their ancestor Levi (Genesis 34:25-31). But here such righteous zeal brought the Levites blessing, as they were “ordained for the service of Yahweh” (32:29). This is the origin of the priesthood in Israel. The Levites were given the responsibility of the priesthood because of their zeal in defending God’s honor. Whereas God originally consecrated the firstborn sons of the Israelites (Exodus 13:11-15), now He chose the tribe of Levi to take that place in His service (Numbers 3:11-13, 41, 45).
God’s Redemption of Levi
So we see that the same violent nature that lost the Levites land also gained them the priesthood. Of course, there is a major difference—Levi acted foolishly by slaughtering foreigners in defense of his sister’s honor (Genesis 34), while the sons of Levi acted righteously by slaughtering Israelites in defense of God’s honor (Exodus 32).
In this way, we see God’s redemption of the line of Levi. While the Levites did not receive land as an inheritance in Canaan, this was also used for good. In fact, the biblical text (post-Jacob’s curse in Genesis 49) focuses on the positives of the Levites not having land. God turned Jacob’s apparent curse for the Levites’ good. Thus the Book of Joshua states that the Levites received no inheritance of land because Yahweh Himself and the “priesthood of Yahweh” were their inheritance (Joshua 13:14, 33; 18:7).
The people of Israel gave cities and pasturelands “out of their inheritance” for the Levites to dwell (Joshua 21:3), which between the three Levite clans (Kohathites, Gershonites, Merarites) came out to 48 cities (Joshua 21:41-42). This included the six cities of refuge (Joshua 21:13, 21 27, 32, 36, 38; cf. Numbers 35:6), as the Levites had a role in protecting manslaughterers who fled to the cities of refuge from their potential avengers.
Guards of the Tabernacle
Why were the Levites scattered all over Israel? This was probably for two reasons: (1) The Levites were scattered so they could instruct the Israelites in God’s Word (Deuteronomy 33:10; 2 Chronicles 17:7-9; 35:3; Nehemiah 8:7-9; Malachi 2:4-7); and (2) The Levites were scattered so they could guard the worship of Yahweh and serve as a warning to Israel in case of idolatry.
The role of Levites as “guards” is seen throughout the book of Numbers—“And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony” (Numbers 1:53). There are significant parallels in the language used for Adam’s duty in the Garden and the Levites’ duty in the tabernacle. Just as God put Adam in the Garden to “work and keep” it (Genesis 2:15), the Levites were told to “work” and “keep” the sanctuary of the tabernacle/temple (Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6). The Hebrew עבד, avad (“to work”) and שׁמר, shamar (“to keep”) can also be translated “serve/minister” and “guard,” respectively.
And Yahweh God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and guard it [לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ] (Genesis 2:15).
And they [the Levites] shall guard [וְשָׁמְר֗וּ] all the furnishings of the tent of meeting and guard [מִשְׁמֶ֖רֶת] the sons of Israel as they serve [לַעֲבֹ֖ד אֶת־עֲבֹדַ֥ת] the tabernacle (Numbers 3:8) (my translation).
The similar use of language suggests that the Garden of Eden was a temple of God and that Adam had a priestly role. Like Adam, the Levites were to guard God’s tabernacle/temple. Adam should have guarded the Garden from the intruder serpent, just as the Levites were to guard the tabernacle/temple from idolaters. However, it can also be said that the Levites had a role in guarding the worship of Yahweh throughout all of Israel.
An excellent example of a Levite guarding God’s worship is found in Numbers 25:6-8, where Phinehas (grandson of Aaron) stopped God’s plague by spearing an Israelite man and a Midianite woman in the “chamber” (קֻּבָּ֗ה, qubbah). (This could refer to part of the family tent or the tabernacle area. The latter is suggested by the context of the tent of meeting and the whole assembly in 25:6.) Either way, because of Phinehas’ zeal for the worship of Yahweh (recalling the Levites in Exodus 32), God gave him the “covenant of perpetual priesthood” (Numbers 25:13).
A Class of Warrior-Priests
The Levites were not just priests—they were warrior-priests. Their priestly origin is based in righteous violence. But God put the violent nature of the Levites to good use. Not only would the priests among them slaughter animals on a regular basis for sacrifice, but also all the Levites would guard the tabernacle/temple and the cities of refuge. Yahweh ordained and scattered the Levites throughout Israel in order to guard His worship.
All of this points to Christ, the true Warrior-Priest, who not only became a sacrifice for sin, but who guards God’s temple of worship (the new heavens and earth) from intruders, namely those who reject Christ in unbelief. At the final judgment Jesus will slaughter all who refused to worship Him (Revelation 19:11-21). Like the Levites scattered throughout Israel, the Lord Jesus should serve as a warning and lead us all to the proper worship of Yahweh.
Christ has also redeemed His people to be a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:19; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; cf. Exodus 19:6) and so join Him in reigning and guarding God’s glory and honor. Like the Levites, Yahweh Himself is our inheritance in this life and not the land of Canaan. And like the Levites, Christians have been scattered to proclaim God’s Word and guard His worship—until the day when Christ returns and welcomes all of us, the Levites included, into the new heavens and earth.
 Sometimes the Bible uses language that seems to identify the Levites as “priests” (e.g. Joshua 18:7). However, only Aaron and his descendants were priests, and only they offered sacrifices in the tabernacle (Exodus 28–29; Leviticus 8–10). The rest of the Levites assisted the priests (Numbers 3:5-9). This distinction is particularly clear in the story of Korah’s rebellion, as Korah was a Levite who coveted the role of the priests (Numbers 16:8-10). While there is a technical distinction between the priests and Levites, it is also useful to speak of all the Levites as “priests” because they all had a special role in guarding and serving at the tabernacle and later temple.
 “Whether a third aspect of the priest’s functions or whether a consequence of the first two, we must recognize the military duty of priests. Consistent with the functions of temple priests in surrounding religions, the Israelite priest guarded the tabernacle or temple of God through threat of arms. Any who transgressed the manifested holiness of God’s presence were to be slain (Numbers 1:53; cf. Exodus 32:25-28).” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (eds. Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman), p. 663.