Those Stubborn Levites: Overcoming Levitical Disenfranchisement

Preexilic Israelite society developed as a monarchic state out of an earlier acephalous, segmentary organization. Israel’s new centralized societal system could not immediately replace its earlier village system, however, so two social systems coexisted in tension and conflict for centuries amid the people. In particular, the growth of monarchy could not immediately dissipate the traditional prestige and authority of rural priestly Levitical family-lines. In their old, village-based organization, these tribal lines identified with, ministered to, and interpenetrated, the whole of society, independent of geographic, political, and economic borders and strictures. As Israelite society regrouped and entrenched itself as a centralized monarchy, they strove to preserve a society-wide, village-oriented symbol and value system, but their lifestyle became increasingly outmoded. In the era of the divided kingdoms, the Levites were forced to perdure in the face of an ever stronger, centralized organization of society that increasingly rendered older assumptions and institutions peripheral, impractical, or irrelevant. Their actions and words surface in the biblical texts as evidence of activist-traditionalists working to turn back the clock, defending old ideas and values with new vigor and imagination.