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Who was Levi in the Bible?

There are two Levis of significance in the Bible. One is Levi the tax collector who became one of Jesus' twelve disciples, better known as Matthew (Matthew 9:9; Luke 5:27). The person most often intended when referring to Levi in the Bible, however, is Leah's third son born to Jacob who became the head of the tribe of Levites.

Levi got his name because Leah was the unloved wife of Jacob and with the birth of her third son she hoped her husband would finally become emotionally attached to her. Therefore she named her son Levi, which sounds similar to the Hebrew word for attached (Genesis 29:34). However, Jacob continued to pour his love and attention on his other wife, Leah's sister, Rachel. Perhaps this disappointment played into the character trait Levi is most remembered for: anger.

Levi, along with his next oldest brother Simeon, became known for his fierce wrath and cruel fury. When their sister Dinah was sexually violated by Shechem, Levi and Simeon took justice into their own hands. They tricked the men of the city into undergoing the rite of circumcision, God's covenant sign with Abraham, promising to give Dinah as a wife and join the peoples together (Genesis 34:1–24). However, three days after the men of the city had been circumcised, Levi and Simeon "took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males" (Genesis 34:25). Jacob worried, "You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land… if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed" (Genesis 34:30). However, when God told Jacob to move his family to Bethel, "a terror from God fell upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob" (Genesis 35:5). Thus Levi's bloody revenge did not result in disaster for the family.

Once settled back in Canaan, Jacob's sons, including Levi, "conspired against [their younger brother Joseph] to kill him" (Genesis 37:18). Joseph was the first son of Rachel and was Jacob's favored son. Eventually, the brothers decided instead to sell him for twenty shekels of silver to Midianite traders on their way to Egypt (Genesis 37:28). Of course, Joseph eventually rose to power in Egypt and stored up grain ahead of a famine. So when Jacob and his sons were in need, Levi and his brothers traveled to Egypt to buy grain, not knowing Joseph was the one with whom they were dealing. Eventually Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and they all reconciled. Jacob and his entire family, including Levi, then resettled in Egypt (Genesis 39—50). Jacob's sons eventually became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, Levi being the patriarch of the Levites. He had three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Genesis 46:11).

When Jacob was on his death bed, he pronounced blessings and prophecies over each of his sons. Over Simeon and Levi he said, "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 49:7). This prophecy came true, but not necessarily as the curse it was intended to be. When Moses found the Israelites worshipping the golden calf in Exodus 32, he called, "'Who is on the LORD'S side? Come to me.' And all the sons of Levi gathered around him" (Exodus 32:26). He then instructed them to kill their brethren who were responsible for turning away from God. Three thousand Israelites died that day (Exodus 32:27–28). Moses explained, "Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day" (Exodus 32:29). Thus, the family trait of violent anger was harnessed in zeal for the LORD. In Deuteronomy 10:8–9 Moses further explained, "The LORD set apart the tribe of Levi… Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The LORD is his inheritance." Instead of their own plot of land, the Levites were to be given cities in each portion of the different tribes' land. In these cities, they would act as priests between God and each tribe, and they would act as judges settling disputes (Deuteronomy 21:5). Thus the Levites were scattered throughout Israel just as Jacob had predicted.

Therefore Levi is remembered as Jacob's third son and head of the tribe of Levites whose violent anger was passed down in such a way as to become passionate zeal for the LORD thus earning his descendants the role of priests among the people. Moses, Aaron, John the Baptist, Barnabas, and of course many others, were from the tribe of Levi. Levi's name is referenced symbolically in Malachi 2:4–6, specifically alluding to one of his descendants Phinehas (Numbers 25:10–13), and Levi would probably prefer to be remembered by this legacy. "So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may stand, says the LORD of hosts. My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity."


Related Truth:

What are the twelve tribes of Israel?

What is the biblical account of Jacob?

Who was Leah in the Bible?

What is meant by saying 'God is my portion'?

What is the biblical role of the high priest?


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