The Shadow of Levi Cast at Qumran
The history of the patriarchs—from Abraham through to Moses and Aaron—is a common topic in the Aramaic scrolls found at Qumran. Seventeen of the twenty one manuscripts belonging to this category focus on figures from the Levitical line. These include: the Aramaic Levi Document (ALD: 1Q21, 4Q213, 4Q213a, 4Q213b, 4Q214, 4Q214a, 4Q214b), the Apocryphon of Levi (4Q540–541), the Visions of Amram (VA: 4Q543–547, 4Q549, and possibly 4Q548), and the Testament of Qahat (4Q542). The Testament of Jacob (4Q537) also exhibits close affinities with this group. All have similar terminological and substantive features, leading some scholars to suggest that ALD, the Testament of Qahat, and VA form a Levitical “trilogy.” The linguistic and thematic correspondences between these three compositions are even closer. Linguistic and paleographical considerations suggest that they were written at the end of the third century, or beginning of the second century BCE. According to later evidence, they appear to have been copied together as a single composition. This article discusses the common elements and disparities between the accounts of the Levitical line.
The Patriarch as Priest
One of the clearest and striking features of this group of documents is their representation of the patriarch Levi—or his descendants—as (high) priests serving in the temple, his association with the cultus and prayer, and responsibility for learning and teaching the laws of purification and sacrifice. While this motif is well known from Jubilees, which stresses that all the patriarchs observed the Sinai-covenant laws, the Aramaic Levitical-line texts emphasize the ordinances linked to the temple cultus performed by Levi and his descendants (or his father, Jacob). It is also reasonable to assume that the traditions preserved in Jubilees derive from such earlier Aramaic compositions. ALD makes the most comprehensive use of this motif. In this text, Levi offers up a prayer (4Q213a 1), which, according to the Greek version from the Athos monastery, he prepared for by washing with pure water, apparently as a type of purificatory immersion. He wears priestly vestments, accepts tithes from his father Jacob (4Q213b 5 1–4), and studies the purificatory laws (4Q214b 7), which the Cairo Geniza version suggests were taught him by Isaac.
The topic of sacrificial processes and places also receive treatment in these texts. ALD refers to injunctions pertaining to the offering of sacrifices and wood offerings (4Q214 1–3; 4Q214b 1, 3–6). The Testament of Jacob touches on the offering of sacrifices and their consumption with pure hands (4Q537 12). Although laws linked to sacrifices also appear in VA (4Q547 6, 7), the state of this fragment prevents any precise understanding of their significance. VA nonetheless explicitly adduces the everlasting priesthood given to Aaron and his sons (4Q545 4 15–19), also giving a clear account of Moses’ erection of the copper altar on Mount Sinai (4Q547 9 3–7; cf. 4Q547 8). The Apocryphon of Levi describes the future construction of an (eschatological?) temple (4Q540), whereas the Testament of Jacob seemingly alludes to Bethel (4Q537 14 2), identified as an ancient cultic site in the biblical literature in general and the Jacob cycle in particular. In its extant form, the Testament of Qahat contains no depiction of the patriarch’s deeds, merely recording his blessings and ethical instructions to his sons. Although it thus provides no details associated with priestly duties or the priesthood, Qahat uses his testament to command his sons to keep and honor all the good priestly attributes and qualities bequeathed by their forefathers, including holiness and the priesthood (4Q542 i 13).
Sapiential Priestly Teaching and Blessings
Another of the key features of the Aramaic documents relating to the Levitical line are the blessings and instructions the patriarchs delivers to their progeny, typically from a deathbed. This motif is an essential element of the testamentary genre, to which four of the texts we are discussing here either likely belong to (Testament of Jacob, Testament of Qahat, VA), or exhibit close affinities with (ALD). As in other Hebrew and Greek testamentary texts, the blessings and ethical instructions are formulated as sapiential statements. Despite being schematic and stereotypical in form and clothed in dualistic language, they are thus closely associated with wisdom literature.
The blend of ethical-sapiential instructions typical of the testamentary genre and Second Temple priestly material created a class of “sapiential priestly teaching,” very likely derived from an exegetical reworking of Deut 33:10 and Mal 2:6–7. The documentation of ethical-religious instruction in a “book” (i.e., a written text) containing wisdom revealed or passed down to the patriarch from his own forefathers is a recurring motif across these texts (e.g., 4Q537 1–3 5; 4Q541 7 4; 4Q542 1 ii 10–13; 4Q213 1 i 9–12, ii 5–9, 2 5). In contrast to the other documents, VA makes no reference to a book or tablet; rather, Amram recounts to his children what he viewed in his visions.
The motif of the patriarchal blessing of sons—characteristic of testamentary literature—also takes on a priestly hue via the stress laid on the fact that the descendants are destined for the priesthood. On occasion, the verbal act is accompanied by the laying on of hands in accordance with the pattern established in Exod 28:41. Although the Geniza copy of ALD contains a description of Levi’s investiture as high priest, the Qumran fragments preserve only a depiction of Jacob presenting a tithe to him and the expression “[a priest of the G]od of eternity” (4Q213b 4–6). Aaron and his sons’ appointment to the high priesthood may also be portrayed in VA (4Q546 11 3–5), although this text is fragmentary and cannot be reconstructed with any certainty.
The blessings, and in particular the ethical instructions, are crafted unambiguously on formulations of two-ways ideologies: the way of truth and righteousness vs. the path of falsehood and sin. This language imbues them with a quasi-dualistic overtone that derives from the representation of the patriarch as an exemplary figure whom his sons and descendants should imitate.
In the Testament of Jacob, which was probably composed within priestly circles such as those responsible for VA, the Testament of Qahat, and ALD, only the righteous are blessed—falsehood and vanity inevitably disappear (4Q537 1–3 1–2). ALD contains a wisdom poem that depicts wisdom as light and folly as darkness (4Q213 4), apparently designed to ensure that Levi’s descendants will not forsake the reading and writing of sapiential and ethical instructions. In VA, the distinction between the two ways is revealed to Amram by two angels. One of the three names of the fierce-looking, swarthy-countenanced being is “Melkiresha,” who represents the way of darkness and death. The second angel, who has a bright, pleasing appearance, symbolizes goodness and life. Although fragmentary, the text indicates that the bright angel rules over Amram—or that Amram chooses to subject himself to him (4Q544 1–3). In the Apocryphon of Levi, the dualistic terminology seems to occur in an apocalyptic-eschatological context, the Israelites being pardoned, the sun shining forever and keeping all the ends of the earth warm, while darkness is banished and disappears (4Q541 9 i 2–5).
In all of these works, the dualistic terminology is meant to present the right paths to pursue and the avenues to avoid, all the while being devoid of the polemical overtones of the Qumran sectarian writings with dualistic qualities. A more belligerent and polemical sense only occurs in two of the documents—the Testament of Qahat and 4Q548 (the latter perhaps a copy of VA or a related work). Both these compositions contain a patriarch’s blessing to his sons, distinguishing between those who are portrayed in various synonyms as righteous and those who, being evil, do not belong to the family of Levi. Here, we also find the characteristically Qumran language of the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness” (4Q548 1 ii 2, 11, 16). Thus, these two documents display the closest affinities with sectarian brands of dualism, differentiating between a select group of righteous (i.e., the Levitical line) and all those outside it.
Common Features and Notable Divergences
Three elements thus appear, in various guises and forms, in each of the Aramaic works dealing with Levi and his family:
The patriarch’s association with the cultus and bequeathing of cultic laws.
The delivery of priestly sapiential instructions.
The blessings that highlight the patriarch’s descendants’ appointment to the priesthood.
These are complemented by dualistic terminology, primarily in the context of blessings and ethical guidelines. Other common features occur only in some of the texts, such as: the visions revealed to the protagonist (VA and ALD), the importance of endogamous marriage (ALD and VA), and messianic motifs associated with the priesthood (ALD and Apocryphon of Levi). This variation and diversity in form of expression, structure, and genre extends to all the Qumran Aramaic documents.
Here, we may also note the distinctive nature of VA in relation to ALD and the Testament of Qahat, the former reflecting a broader national perspective in contrast to the stress on the priestly branch within Israel. VA represents Amram as an exemplary figure, not only because he belongs to the priestly lineage but also because he is a national leader, effecting a symbolic exodus from Egypt in the form of bringing Joseph’s brothers out the land of the Nile to be buried in Canaan, and bequeathing the notion of national redemption to his sons, who bring Israel out of physical bondage in Egypt.
The Qumran Aramaic scrolls thus rework and expand the biblical stories concerning the tribe of Levi in order to highlight its centrality and the importance of the high priesthood. They stress Levi’s and his sons’ distinctive status as priests serving in the sacred place, their integrity and righteousness, and the divine wisdom imparted to them. Although such general brush strokes are clear, numerous questions remain unanswered regarding this tradition and these texts. For example, was a priestly-scribal circle responsible for the production of these predominantly priestly texts (ALD, Testament of Qahat, VA)? Are they all informed by a common ideology, and if so, how should this outlook be defined? Why were they written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew (or Greek)? Does their language evince their early authoritative status or feature the Levitical line’s special status within the people as the “true” descendants of the “Aramean” Abraham and Jacob from Haran? Although the theory that they were composed by a priestly circle in the Jerusalem temple towards the end of the third century, up until the rise of the Hasmoneans remains the most plausible and convincing, it does not provide answers to many of these other questions.
Further Reading on Topics and Texts Treated in this Article
H. Drawnel, “The ‘Visions of Levi’ and Priestly Education in Israel,” Folia Orientalia 42–43 (2006–2007): 237–240.
J. Frey, “On the Origins of the Genre of the ‘Literary Testament’: Farewell Discourses in the Qumran Library and their Relevance for the History of the Genre,” in Aramaica Qumranica: The Aix en Provence Colloquium on the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by K. Bertelot and D. Stökl Ben Ezra, STDJ 94 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 345–370.
L. Goldman, “Dualism in the Visions of Amram,” Revue de Qumran 95 (2010): 421–432.
L. Goldman, “The Burial of the Fathers in the Vision of Amram,” Rewriting and Interpreting the Hebrew Bible: The Biblical Patriarchs in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by D. Dimant and R. Kratz, BZAW 439 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2013), 231–249.
J. C. VanderKam, “Jubilees Exegetical Creation of Levi the Priest,” Revue de Qumran 17 (1996): 359–373.
Liora Goldman is a Senior Lecturer in the departments of History and Biblical Studies in Oranim Academic College of Education and she works as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project team at the University of Haifa. She teaches on a variety of courses at the Department of Biblical Studies, University of Haifa, including “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible,” “Early Jewish Exegesis to the Book of Genesis,” and “Prophets and Prophecy during the Restoration Period.” Her postdoctoral research focused on the Aramaic Visions of Amram (4Q543–549) as part of a joint project between the University of Göttingen and University of Haifa (2008–2012),
The Ancient Jew Review and Trinity Western University Dead Sea Scrolls Institute forums and reviews commemorating the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Qumran scrolls were edited by Dr. Andrew Perrin (Trinity Western University), Dr. Andrew Krause (University of Münster), Dr. Jessica Keady (University of Chester), and Spencer Jones (Trinity Western University).
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