10 April, 2008
Prince Sechem approached Jacob. He had abducted Jacob’s daughter and married her without Jacob’s consent. Now, deeply in love with his newly taken bride he came to ask for peaceable relations between his people and those of his wife. Levi, one of Jacob’s sons hid his fury with Sechem. He was disgusted by this foreign Prince who had humbled his sister. With a forked tongue he told the Prince, “Of course we can be at peace, we can intermarry, only… in order to be a true husband to my sister you must of course be circumcised. And in fact all of your people must consent to be circumcised. Then we shall truly be as one and you can marry our women folk and we can marry yours.” The Prince loved Levi’s sister so much that he instantly agreed to some state wide genital mutilation. His people were less impressed with the idea, but he was the Prince after all. After an afternoon of much cutting and slicing, the men of Sechem lay down to recover from their impromptu surgery. It was then, in their weakened state that Levi and one of his brothers fell upon the people of Sechem and slaughtered them to a man. They took back with them the spoils of their victory, the herds and asses, the wealth of Sechem, the children and the widows.
Years later, when Jacob lay on his death bed he gave out prophecies to his children. To Levi he said, “Because you were deceitful with Prince Sechem your descendants shall be scattered amongst the tribes of Israel.” And so they were, the Levites lived with all tribes and in all places.
The above is just one story of the origin of the Levites from the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally said to be descendants of one of the sons of Jacob they were nevertheless different from any specific ethnic group. In other part of the bible they are treated more as people holding a job rather then being a family. What was that job? In general they were priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. But in some stories they are specifically not part of the priest overclass, the ones who got the meat, and coin from sacrifices. Instead they were the musicians and dancers, the performers who would enact rituals. If the Ark of the Covenant was about to be wheeled out into battle you can be sure some Levites would be in the procession signing praises to Yahweh who would be sat invisibly on top.
In another story of their origin, during the Exodus many people turned from Moses to follow the Golden Bulls and Aaron. Upon returning from a trip Moses found a group of young likely lads and sent them to kill all those who had followed the Bull. They did so with gusto, killing even members of their own family. In blood they were forged and from then on became the Levites, the zealots of the priesthood.
But perhaps the real origin of the Levites is missing from the books we have left. Enough clues are left behind to point to a possible origin that would not sit well with later generations. We know from the bible that Moses (identified as a descendant of Levi himself) used a staff, given to him by Yahweh, to show the wonders of his god. When facing Egyptians who sent snakes towards him the staff changed into a mighty Serpent which devoured the Egyptian snakes. Later in the wilderness there was a plague and Moses crafted a staff with a bronze Serpent coiled around it. All that saw this Serpent were healed. The Levites were not originally priests of Yahweh, but of a Serpent God. Leviathan.
Leviathan was a primal being, made of chaos. Only Yahweh could tame (or destroy, depending on the story) this seven headed sea creature of the depths, and in doing so Yahweh became the King of the Gods.
But just as there were priests dedicated to the Storm God Yahweh, and priestesses devoted to his wife Asherah, so too were there priests of the ancient enemy. Chaos itself was one to be watched and placated. The Levites were up to the task – zealous killers, loyal brothers, dancers, musicians, and perhaps the ones who kept the seven headed beast safely away from Jerusalem.