We have started this new year with a sermon series titled “The 12 Tribes of Israel”. These messages are intended to increase our knowledge of and familiarity with the sons of Jacob and the families that they fathered. The Bible refers to these tribes frequently and each plays an important role in Scripture. In addition, there are spiritual lessons we can learn from these sons and tribes to improve our personal relationships with Jesus.
In the 2 previous messages, we talked about Jacob’s oldest sons - Reuben and Simeon. Reuben forfeited his privileged status as Jacob’s firstborn son because he slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. Both he and the Reubenites that followed were inconsistent and undependable in their faith. This led to their relative obscurity. Simeon, Jacob’s second son, along with his brother, attacked and killed all of the men of an entire city while they were unable to defend themselves - all because of the sins of one man. His anger was excessively vicious and cruel, and thus the tribe of Simeon suffered greatly and became weak and inconsequential.
This morning we continue our series with a discussion about Levi. Before we begin, It is important to note that there is another prominent character in the Bible named Levi besides the son of Jacob. Matthew, who was one of Jesus’ apostles, was actually named Levi (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27). Moreover, the were 2 other men named Levi mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:24,29). These other men named Levi are not the subject of today’s message.
I. LEVI - THE SON OF JACOB
Jacob’s third son was named Levi. His mother was Leah. Believing that Jacob would become more closely attached to her since she had now borne him three sons (Genesis 29:34), Leah named the child Levi which means means “attached”. There is only one reference in Scripture to an event in Levi’s life where he is specifically named. It is the vengeful retaliation that he and his brother Simeon took upon the Hivites after Shechem had raped their sister Dinah (Genesis 34). We discussed this story in detail last last week. Though not expressly mentioned, Levi was present with his brothers when they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:12:28) and later during their journeys to Egypt (Genesis 42-45). When Jacob and his entire family moved from Canaan to Egypt to live in the fertile Nile River valley, Levi brought along with him 3 sons named Gershon, Kohath, Merari (Genesis 46:11).
II. LEVI - THE TRIBE OF ISRAEL
The descendants of Levi are not generally considered to be one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Instead, the Levites were chosen by God (in lieu of the firstborn) to serve as priests and ministers in the tabernacle (Numbers 3:5-13) and later in the temple (1 Chronicles 23). As such, they were counted separately during the first and second census of Moses because they were not considered “fighting men” (Numbers 1:47-54). Nevertheless, the Levites numbered 22,000 during the early part of the exodus (Numbers 3:39) and 23,000 near its end (Numbers 26:62).
While the 12 tribes of Israel camped some distance from and around the tabernacle, the sons of Levi camped in the center right next to it. The descendents of Levi’s 3 sons were stationed on each side (Numbers 3:23,29,35,38) - the Gershonites on the west, the Kohathites on the south, and the Merarites on the north. Moses and Aaron and his sons were positioned on the east side. Whenever the Israelites marched in procession, the Levites were in the center carrying the tabernacle and its articles with 6 tribes going in front of them and the other 6 tribes behind
them (Numbers 2:17).
During the days of the tabernacle and temple, the high priest wore a breastplate that displayed 12 gemstones which represented the 12 tribes of Israel (Exodus 28:15-21). Because the Levites are not typically considered to be one of these 12 tribes, it is possible that none of the stones represent them. That said, the person wearing the breastplate would himself be a descendant of Levi. In the absence of a specific stone, the colors of the tabernacle (gold, purple, blue, and red) are often associated with the tribe of Levi.
Unlike the 12 tribes who were each given a particular region of land in which to settle, the sons of Levi were assigned to 48 cities that were scattered throughout Israel (Joshua 21). From these cities the Levites were to serve and to administer the Law of God among the various tribes. Thus, the sons of Levi were spread about in the midst of their brothers, just as Jacob had prophesied when he blessed his sons (Genesis 49:5-7).
Some have wondered why God selected the tribe of Levi to be the priests and ministers for Israel. One possible explanation might be their willingness to stand up for the LORD following the Golden Calf incident at Mt. Sinai. While Moses was up on the mountaintop, Aaron and the people below fashioned an idol and worshipped it. When Moses discovered their horrible sin, only the sons of Levi seemed appalled by it enough to carry out God’s judgment (Exodus 32:25-29). Perhaps this endeared them in God’s sight.
Following the reign of the judges and the united kingship of Israel under Saul, David, and Solomon, the nation separated into 2 distinct kingdoms. This left the Levites divided for a short time, as their cities were split between both places. However when the northern kingdom of Israel chose to abandon God and worship idols instead, the Levites moved en masse to the southern kingdom of Judah - especially to its capital city Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 11:13-17).
Around 586 BC the kingdom of Judah fell to Nebuchadnezzar and the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Many years later, after the Babylonian exile, the temple was rebuilt and a priest named Ezra sought to return and restore proper worship there. He sent a delegation to summon some of the Levites to join him as they journeyed back to Jerusalem to revive the faith (Ezra 8:15-36).
Priests were chosen from the tribe of Levi, but not every member of the tribe became a priest. Those who were not priests still served in some capacity in the ministry of the tabernacle or temple as Levites. The priests and Levites are referred to numerous places throughout the Bible. Some of the most notable descendants of Levi were Moses, Aaron (the very first high priest), Miriam, Ezra, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, and Barnabas.
III. THE LESSON FROM LEVI
Last we we read that Levi participated with his brother Simeon in the violent attack on Shechem. The tribe of Simeon suffered greatly as a result. On the contrary, the sons of Levi turned back to God and showed tremendous loyalty and devotion to Him at Mt. Sinai. Because of their repentance, the Levites prospered, whereas the Simeonites didn’t. The distinction is important - both Simeon and Levi had together committed a grave sin, but their sons experienced very different outcomes. In similar fashion, all people begin as sinners before God. Those who continue in sin will suffer, but those who confess their sins and repent will be forgiven and
restored. The tribe of Levi is a powerful testimony of restoration.
The symbol for the Levites is the breastplate of the high priest. For centuries the nation of Israel only had access to God through the priest. However, when Jesus died on the cross and rose again He became the final and eternal High Priest. Christians now have direct access to God through Jesus Christ and are in no need of a human priest. This was symbolized at the moment of Jesus’ death by the tearing of the curtain that shielded the Holy of Holies (Matthew 27:51). As such, the Levitical priesthood is no more. That said, in a sense all believers are like the Levites - they are the ministers of God, a chosen and royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).
The tribe of Levi is not usually included in a listing of “The 12 Tribes of Israel”. It was uniquely chosen by God and set apart from the others. Personally, I informally consider it to be the unnamed 13th tribe. The fact is that the Levites were always there scattered among the other 12 tribes. They faithfully served God and sought to teach His law to all of their brethren. Today, Christians have this same role. We are the Levites of this generation, and have been chosen by God to proclaim His word and wonders to the lost world around us. Our inheritance is not of this world, but awaits us in the next. Our acclaim is not here, but rather it is in Heaven. No one needs to know our name, but may we never cease to proclaim the LORD’s name and make it great!