The Twelve Tribes of Israel – Levi

An unpromising start

We saw in our previous study that Levi and Simeon are jointly addressed by Jacob as he calls to mind their cruelty in the brutal murder of the men of Shechem. It is difficult to see how the future of the tribe would recover from his strong words, ‘I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel’, Gen. 49. 7.

However, a redemptive transform-ation will take place 400 years later, to find them front-and-centre in God’s purposes. We will need to be light on detail here – it may be helpful to outline things briefly first, before expanding a little, where possible.

  • Levi slays the uncircumcised men of Shechem.
  • God begins to work with the tribe through Moses’ parents.
  • Moses slays an Egyptian.
  • God perseveres with the tribe, schooling Moses for forty years before calling him to lead.
  • God slays the firstborn of the Egyptians.
  • God selects Aaron and his sons from the tribe to minister as priests.
  • Levi slays his fellow Israelites in devotion to God.
  • God exempts the tribe from involvement in national combat.
  • Amongst other things, Levites are tasked with putting to death any contravener of the rules of God’s house.

An unlikely transformation

Our outline is deliberately crafted to emphasize the transformation of the tribe. From the beginning, they seem a people intent on violence. Their cause is their family, and they take matters into their own hands to safeguard themselves – all very ‘Jacob’. However, when God moves out to them in sovereign grace, the transformation begins. The Exodus will teach them that the only sword Jehovah needed was His own, Exod. 13. 15. Applying the shed blood of the lamb guaranteed their safety and deliverance. So it is with us; no human force will do. How glad we can be for God’s sovereign grace in moving first to provide for us His Lamb, by who’s death we might be freed, Heb. 2. 15.

Next, at Sinai, God establishes the family of Aaron as the priestly tribe, Exod. 28. 1. Gradually, the family is being oriented away from the horizontal to the vertical, from earth to heaven, from family to God.

An unpleasant turning point

Shortly after this, we are presented with the most absurd scene of a calf-worshiping people. Levi was the only tribe who stood in solidarity with God’s honour when the call came. In Genesis chapter 34, it had been a question of family honour, but now it was a question of God’s. As the family looked on, Levi raised the sword on their uncircumcised siblings, cp. Gen. 34. 14, with Acts 7. 51. On account of their devotion, God ultimately devoted them to His service, in place of the redemption of first-born males.1

The absurdity of the Israelites’ actions can be matched only by our own failure to live in the good of our redemption. We are not our own, but are ‘bought with a price: therefore (we should) glorify God in (our bodies)’,

1 Cor. 6. 20.

Thus, came about the Levites, a name distinguishing the men of this tribe, as those that would support the priesthood, Num. 8. 19. Their labour was distributed between Levi’s sons, Gershon, Kohat, and Merari.2

A unique exemption

When the children of Israel come to the promised land, it is Joshua, from the tribe of Ephraim, who will lead in combat. Levi is exempted from the register of Israel’s warriors in Numbers chapter 1. Their energies will not be occupied with war, but with worship. Still, their business was not to be trifled with. If any outsider came near to the tabernacle, they were to put him to death, vv. 51-53.

What a glorious transformation! Who would have thought? God takes the most improbable candidates, and elevates them through sovereign purpose to undertake what He wills. We are fairly safe in suggesting that Ephesians chapter 2 corresponds very closely with all this. Paul writes that ‘in time past ye walked according to the course of this world … in the lusts of our flesh … and were by nature the children of wrath, … But God, who is rich in mercy … hath quickened us together with Christ … and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus’, vv. 2-5.

An unusual outcome

Jacob’s words were, of course, still fulfilled, but in an unusual way. The families of the Levites were dispersed throughout forty-eight cities within the territories of their brethren. God, not land, would be their inheritance. So it is with us, Eph. 1. 11. God’s grace prevails in this tribe even through their later failure, Ezek. 44. 15.

Let us be careful not to underestimate God’s grace. Like Jacob, we may not be able to foresee change in people. Faith’s eye, however, will always hold out on God’s grace. You cannot change them, but God just might.



Num. 3. 12-13, 8. 16; Deut. 10. 8.


See Numbers for the tabernacle, and 1 Chronicles for the temple.


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