Aaronids vs Levites

Did you know that there existed rival priestly houses in ancient Israel, and that they had vastly different and even contradictory views on religion, the role of the cult and its priesthood, Yahweh, ethics, sin, and even the covenant—all of which were preserved in two different and competing textual traditions now found together in the Pentateuch?

That’s correct. The redacted text of the Pentateuch as it now stands bears witness to an internecine rivalry that existed within the tribe of Levi, that is within the priesthood itself. At least two priestly groups that we know of wrote texts aimed at legitimating their right as sole officiating high priests and mediators to Yahweh. These two priestly schools and the texts they each wrote have come to be identified as the Aaronid writer of the Priestly source, whose main religious and cultic ideology is found in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, and the (rest of the) Levites whose religious views are found in the book of Deuteronomy, as well as a couple of passages from the Elohist source. More surprisingly however, is that both of these priestly schools wrote texts whose purpose was to legitimate their position and beliefs through the creation of archaized narratives that retrojected into the past their religious views and, as they crafted these narratives, their divine right to rule as high priests as expressed through the mouthpiece of their god Yahweh. These narrative creations served to legitimate and justify each guild’s claims. Yet when examined side-by-side they rather reveal the human agenda behind such claimants and rhetorical devices as having one’s national deity become the spokesperson for one’s pwn views and beliefs.

Our first glimpse into this internecine priestly rivalry and how priestly scribes composed archaized literary works to legitimate the supremacy of their guild over and against other priestly claimants and even defame those claimants comes in the Golden Calf narrative. There, Aaron, the head and father figure of the Aaronid priests was negatively portrayed as the fabricator of Israel’s “great sin.” The text goes to lengths, in other words, to present Aaron as Israel’s first apostate. Conversely, the text also introduces Moses and the Levites as Yahweh’s priestly agents who expiate this sin and its sinners from Israel (Ex 32:28-29). It portrays the Levites in a favorable role and suggests that following Levite dictates is the way to safeguard against breaking the covenant made with Yahweh and its ensuing punishment. Furthermore, since the Golden Calf narrative was created by 8th century BC Levite scribes as a parody and polemic of the bull-cult Aaronid led cultic institutions established by Jeroboam I in the north and how this sin lead to the destruction of Israel in 722 BC (1 Kgs 17) it serves as a stark reminder about what happens to apostates—at least as seen through the eyes of our Levite authors, who wrote to denigrate the calf altars of Jeroboam which were officiated over by Aaronid priests. We as readers cannot help but adopt the author’s perspectives. In other words the propagandistic function of the literature works its charms on the reader: in order to defame a priestly rivalry attack its founding figure. But as we shall see, the Pentateuch on whole presents Aaron in glowing terms. He is Yahweh’s consecrated one or messiah, and is without blemish or fault.

It is difficult to know with certainty the history of the Levites since the literature produced by this guild has its own agenda and priestly rivalries and religious systems were retrojected into the past by archaized narratives. Nevertheless, 1 Kings 2:26-27 recounts how Solomon banished the Levites from Jerusalem, and the rest of the Deuteronomic history from Solomon to Hezekiah makes no mention of Levites as priests in Jerusalem. Moreover, with the Levite led Deuteronomic reform under Josiah, a Levitical priesthood emerged or reemerged as the case may be in Jerusalem. What we do know with certainty, however, is that the 7th century BC Deuteronomic literature presents the Levites as sole officiating priests at the centralized altar in Jerusalem. Deut 10:8-9 and 18:1-5 present Yahweh as choosing the Levites to serve him and officiate his cult. Likewise we saw that this was also the case in the Golden Calf narrative penned by the Elohist. Yet other texts now contained in the same Sinai material, namely those written from the opposing camp, the Aaronids, present Yahweh claiming just the opposite and delimiting the role of the Levites to mere ministers of the officiating priests, who are now only those Levites descended from Aaron (Num 3:5-10; 16:8-11; 17; 18:1-7). All of these passages from Numbers are written by the Aaronids and not surprisingly present Yahweh declaring as an eternal covenant (25:19) that only Aaronid descendants may serve as priests and serve Yahweh at his altar. The Levites, on the other hand, are appointed to serve the Aaronid priests! Again it is not surprising that texts written by Aaronid priests should present Yahweh declaring that the priesthood belongs to Aaron’s descendants only, and texts written by Levites have Yahweh claim that all Levites are chosen to be Yahweh’s priests.

As a further example, we may note the exilic Aaronid author of the prophetic book of Ezekiel who also presents Yahweh condemning the Levites, blaming them and their officiation over the cult for the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians, and limiting their service to that of helpers to the Aaronids. In fact, contrary to the picture painted in Exodus 32 where Aaron, and thus the Aaronid priesthood, is presented as worshiping idols and the Levites expiate their sin, Ezekiel has Yahweh declare that the Levites were the idol worshipers and a scion from Aaron, the Zadokites, are to be sole officiating high priests in the future post-exilic temple.

It is the literature of the post-exilic period that affords us more clarity on this priestly rivalry, at least its outcome. All post-exilic texts not only distinguish between “the priests and the Levites” as now two separate groups, but the Aaronid guild is portrayed as the clear winner. Repeatedly the Priestly literature now contained in Leviticus and Numbers declares, through the mouthpiece of Yahweh, that Israel’s deity himself choose Aaron and his sons as his priests, to officiate the cult, expiate sin, and to serve him. This is a powerful theological message. The Aaronid priestly guild, in other words, were the sole mediators of the god of Israel. Certainly tradition still preserved Moses as Yahweh’s mediator of his laws. But that torah was now a part of the archaic past. In the post-exilic community, it was the Aaronids who served as sole mediators of Yahweh’s graces, and through the cult uniquely. This conflict between Moses as mediator of Yahweh’s laws or torah, and the Aaronids as the mediator of Yahweh’s presence and holiness is a tension that influenced the very making of the Pentateuch.

To legitimate their sole rule as Yahweh’s priests in the post-exilic period, Aaronid scribes, much like the Deuteronomic scribes before them, rewrote history. It is not incoincidental that Aaron appears out of the blue in chapter 4 of Exodus. He is not mentioned as Moses’s brother during the alleged killing of the male born infants as decreed by Pharaoh (Ex 2), nor is there even any mention of the fact that Moses has a brother until Exodus 4:14. This is startling considering that for the Aaronid priests, i.e., Yahweh’s messiahs, Aaron was vastly more important than Moses. In the Elohist literature Aaron is Moses’ mere Levite brother, that is they are from the same tribe, the Levites. But the priests of the post-exilic period had to find a way to legitimate their rule over and above that of the Levitical priests and even above their founding figure, Moses. The Priestly writers first coup de grace was to change Aaron’s pedigree from a brother Levite into a flesh and bones brother of Moses, his older brother in fact!, and to accentuate his role throughout the Exodus story. The genealogy crafted by the Priestly writers, now preserved in Exodus 6:14-25, highlights Aaron’s genealogy not Moses’. Furthermore, we are to learn that Aaron’s grandson Phinehas, highlighted as the last entry in the genealogy (Ex 6:25) is given, in another story, the covenant of the priesthood. “Here I [it is Yahweh who speaks] am giving him my covenant of peace, and it shall be his and his seed’s after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood, because he was jelous for his god and he made atonement for the children of Israel” (Num 25:12-13). And violà. This is how one legitimates their rule in the ancient Near Eastern world, by recreating history and having the national deity proclaim a covenantal relationship to the contemporaneous group’s ancestor. This singling out of Aaron and his descendants as sole heirs to the priesthood did not stop with the writing of passages that expressed Yahweh’s selection and consecration of Aaron and his sons as high priests (Ex 28:1-5; 29:6-10; 40:12-15; Lev 8:1-13) and conversely passages that delimited the Levites to mere ministers of the Aaronid priestly guild (Num 3:5-10; 16:8-11, 18:1-7), but continued to rewrite the past in more subtle ways, in an attempt to raise Aaron above his younger brother Moses. In the plague narrative that the Priestly writers inherited, for example, it is now Aaron who performs the mighty signs of Yahweh with his staff and not Moses (read carefully Exodus 4-8). And it is Aaron who is consecrated as Yahweh’s messiah throughout the ending chapters of Exodus and Leviticus 8. Conversely, the Priestly writers went to extreme measures to defame Moses in any way they could. In the Exodus story relating Moses’ “heavy tongue” and his inability to articulate the god’s words to Pharaoh, the Priestly writer retells the episode by referring to Moses as having “uncircumcised lips” (Ex 6:30). The choice of words is not haphazard. To be deformed in any way or to be uncircumsiced eliminated oneself from entering into the presence of Yahweh. And indeed this is just what the Aaronid Priestly writers did. Althoug tradition had already marked Moses as Israel’s law giver, the Priestly writer who rewrote the Sinai event only declared that it was permissible for the Aaronids to enter into Yahweh’s presence in the Tent of Meeting. Another literary tactic used by the Aaronid scribe to defame Moses was to attack his Medianite connection through his wife. In the Priestly literature, Moses’ Midianite wife disappears; they oppressed her! Likewise, in the Baal Pe’or episode the Priiestly scribe had changed Israel’s enemies and the cause of their sinning from the Moabites to the Medianites. All of these literary rewritings and the penning of laws and commandments that placed Aaron and his sons above Moses as decreed by Yahweh were nothing more than the literary creations of a priestly guild out to legitimate their authority and defame that of their rivals. This was how one legitimated their supremacy over and against one’s rival in the ancient world. The Levitical Deuteronomist had done the same a century and a half earlier.

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