Tribe of Levi: History, Symbol & Descendants

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

The tribe of Levi is one of the most important tribes of Israel, being the tribe from which the religious authorities came. Read more in this lesson about the tribe of Levi's history, symbols, and descendants.

History of the Levites

Who Was Levi?

The Levites were one of the most important tribes of Israel because they were the tribe responsible for the religious leadership of the Jews. But where did this tribe come from? According to Jewish tradition, Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel, was one of the patriarchs of the Israelites. Jacob had 12 sons and, on his deathbed, left certain responsibilities to his sons. Despite the later importance of the Levites, Jacob did not speak kindly to Levi when on his deathbed because Levi and his brother Simeon had earlier murdered an entire town's males to avenge Dinah, their sister who was defiled by and then married to Shechem.

Importance of the Levites

It was not until later, when Moses and Aaron became prominent leaders of Israel, that the Levites rose to importance. Both brothers were from the tribe of Levi, and both guided the Israelites. While Moses acted as the main leader of the Israelites, Aaron took over the religious responsibilities. This prepared the way for the priesthood later, the Jews exclusively responsible for religious rituals. To be a legitimate priest, according to most Jews, the person had to be from the tribe of Levi.

As a heavily religious group, the priesthood for the Israelites was incredibly important. The priests would engage in rituals in the Jerusalem Temple, the building that was thought to contain the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant. The priests would make animal sacrifices in the temple to appease God. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest, a Levite superior to the other priests, would offer an animal sacrifice in the inner most and holiest room of the temple to atone for the sins of the people.

An artistic representation of the Jerusalem Temple
An artistic representation of the Jerusalem Temple

Levite Symbols

While the Levites do not have one specific symbol that represents their tribe like other tribes do, they have a few symbols that are important to the history and purpose of the tribe. One of these is the pitcher. The pitcher is often used as a symbol for the Levites because it signifies the ritual of cleansing, like the Levitical priests would do before entering the temple or performing sacrifices.

The high priest wore a piece of clothing called the breastplate of judgment, according to Exodus 28. This breastplate later became a symbol of importance for the Levites. While the gold and linen used to make the piece were luxurious, the importance of the piece was the rows of stones or jewels. The breastplate had three rows of four squares on the front, one square for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Each tribe had a specific stone or jewel and its name inscribed on it, showing the importance of the priesthood as all tribes were symbolically contained in it. The jewel for the tribe of Levi was agate, a type of beautiful, colorful stone with a ringed pattern, like a tree trunk.

Sketch of the breastplate of judgment the high priest would have worn, with the name of the Levites on the top left
Sketch of the Breastplate of Judgment

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