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Levites(lē`vīts), a religious caste among the ancient Hebrews, descended from Jacob's son Levi and figuring prominently in the Bible. There were three divisions of Levites—Kohathites, Merarites, and Gershonites. Loyal to Moses during the Golden Calf incident, they were rewarded with special religious privileges. The Levites replaced the firstborn, who devoutly served God for having been saved at the Passover. They alone of the tribes received no allotment of land; instead they received revenues from certain cities, and each city had its quota of Levites to support. With the unification of worship at Jerusalem, the Levites became temple servants with hereditary assignments, and later were teachers of the Law. The Book of Leviticus is named for them.
(ancient Hebrew), ministers of religious worship among the ancient Hebrews.
The origin of the Levites has not been completely clarified; according to tradition, they were descendents of the tribe of Levi (one of the tribes of the Judaic-Israelite tribal federation, second to first millennium B.C.) In the first half of the first millennium B.C., the Levites were the priests of the ancient Hebrew peripheral sanctuaries, whereas they played a secondary role in the worship connected with the central temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem. In the second half of the first millennium B.C. they formed a closed corporation, owned land, and received tithes. Between the sixth century B.C. and the first century A.D. the importance of the Levites in the worship of the temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem and in the life of Judaic society markedly increased, although they remained subordinate to the highest category of priests, the Cohanim.
REFERENCESVaux, R. de, Les Institutions de l’ancient testament, vol. 2. Paris, 1960. Pages 213–31 (”Le Lévitisme”).
Gunneweg, A. H. Y. Leviten und Priester. Göttingen, 1965.