Mark Leuchter. The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity. Oxford University Press. New York, 2017.
Sometime during the late Second Temple Period, an anonymous author imagined the patriarchs of Israel’s twelve tribes bestowing their final blessings and admonitions to their children. Later called the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, they expand upon a discernible testamental genre in the Hebrew Bible—including, most notably, Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33. At one point in Levi’s testament, the forefather of the priesthood enjoins his descendants as follows:
And now, my children, I command you: Fear the LORD and walk in simplicity according to His Torah. And teach your children to read as well, so that they may have understanding throughout their lives by reading God’s Torah unceasingly. (T. Levi 13:1-2)
This plea, stirring as it is, might justifiably puzzle a contemporary reader more familiar with the idea—so dominant in rabbinic texts like m. Avot—that the Torah is the property and raison d’être of the entire people of Israel. Why would Torah observance and study be uniquely concerns of Levi’s descendants? Why is Levi, of all people, the one so closely associated with Israel’s very essence?
In a way, these are the questions that drive Mark Leuchter’s important new study, The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity. Yet whereas the Testaments preserve a Hellenistic reflex of the idea of levitical centrality, Leuchter pursues this idea’s roots in ancient Israel itself. He probes “why the aggregate Aaronide narrative of Israel’s past projects Levites into every era of Israel’s existence as a social-religious community,” arguing “that the emergence of the Levites is intimately connected to Israel’s own ethnographic, political, sociological, and ritual mythologies” (p. 24). The result is a compelling, innovative account of how the Hebrew Bible both reflects and encodes levitical concerns and power dynamics.
It would be a mistake, however, to focus on the Levites in the first part of Leuchter’s title at the expense of the “boundaries” in the second. For Leuchter has written neither an encyclopedic catalogue of the Levites’ appearances nor a linear reconstruction of their history. Rather, the book is undergirded by a keen perception of the Levites’ penchant for appearing at the boundaries—whether spatial, temporal, ethnic, cultic, or literary. Sometimes the Levites are brokers across boundaries, like when a Levite runaway from Egypt informs Israel that a mountain deity from somewhere near Midian is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3, 6). Other times, they strictly enforce boundaries—both with the pen (Deuteronomy) and with the sword (Exodus 32). It is in this recognition of the Levites’ role as both boundary-enforcers and boundary-transgressors that Leuchter has truly made an innovative contribution.
Methodologically, Leuchter’s book in many ways represents a fresh version of a self-consciously “old-school” approach to biblical texts as reliable vessels of accurate historical kernels or memories—some going back to the Iron Age. “The texts in question,” he explains, “are treated not as historical witnesses but as useful historical resources that must be consulted alongside anthropological, archaeological, rhetorical, and tradition-historical methods of evaluation. The end result of such an approach may lead to a sense of (1) how late tradents conceived of their distant past (which thus gives us insight into the world of those tradents); and (2) why some features, and not others, were memorialized in the first place” (p. 17). Leuchter takes seriously, for instance, that the association of an altar with a legendary figure might reflect that altar’s one-time affiliation. While all such conclusions are ultimately characterized by some degree of speculation, Leuchter argues that speculation—provided that it is bolstered by the kinds of evidence mentioned above—is ultimately more productive than the increasingly common “dismissal of all attempts to recover some sense of Israel’s pre-eighth century BCE past as exercises in historical positivism” (p. 15).
The book basically divides into two halves: the first focuses on the history of the Levites, the second on their literary legacy. The opening chapter, as Leuchter puts it, “follow[s] the lead of an anonymous Priestly writer of the sixth century BCE by starting at the beginning” (p. 32). This “beginning,” however, is not the beginning of the universe but Israel’s national beginning in the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Through a tandem rereading of the Merneptah Stele and the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15), Leuchter examines the roles of the agrarian highland and conflict with Egyptian hegemony as intertwined mythological topoi in Israelite recollection of their own prehistory. It is in this context, he argues, that we must situate the rise of Israelite YHWHism through YHWH’s gradual displacement/absorption of native, patriarchal El.
The social context of emergent YHWHism is obviously pertinent to any aspect of Israelite religion. Yet it is particularly relevant to the origins of the Levites, for it is a Levite who is credited with (re)introducing YHWH into Israel. That Levite, of course, is Moses—to whom Leuchter turns in his second chapter. Leuchter intriguingly suggests that the thematization of social ambiguity in Moses’ biography reflects his embodiment of larger forces of cultural mediation and transition. Drawing on the sociological scholarship marshaled by Jeremy Hutton in his own work on the Levites, Leuchter presents Moses as a “priest-saint” of the pre-levitical Mushite line of priests. The Samuel stories are a key literary repository for cultural memory of the Levites’ eventual displacement of the Mushites, as well as their appropriation of Moses.
In chapters three and four, Leuchter takes up the Levites’ complicated relationship with monarchic authority. Historically situating the literarily reflected ups-and-downs of the Levites’ status vis-à-vis Saul, David, and Solomon, Leuchter builds to an argument that “the ‘exodus’ from ‘Egypt’ was a turn away from Levite and Davidic religion and a return to the old agrarian ideology” (p. 124) by the North. If the exodus was a Northern counter-tradition, then we can in turn identify three levitical counter-counter-traditions: the Golden Calf, the Song of Moses, and the oracles of Hosea.
Chapters five and six treat, in succession, the two texts that can most discernibly be identified as levitical scribal achievements: Deuteronomy and Jeremiah. Leuchter affirms the identification of the original Deuteronomists with Levite refugees from the fallen Northern Kingdom. Their disempowerment accounts for Deuteronomy’s implicit redefinition of levitical identity in terms of scribal learning rather than military zeal; their displacement accounts for Deuteronomy’s broad, pan-Israelite purview. Perhaps the most exciting piece of the entire book is Leuchter’s account of how Deuteronomy’s levitical authors made it a “cosmic text geared to keep cosmic threats pushed to the margins of Israel’s geographical landscape” (p. 176). This is a compelling corrective to Moshe Weinfeld’s influential but problematic thesis of deuteronomic “secularization.”
As for Jeremiah, Leuchter argues, “The Jeremiah tradition extends the Deuteronomistic project, presenting scribes as the levitical bearers of Jeremiah’s prophetic teachings” (p. 217). He convincingly makes the case that Jeremiah 8:8 should be read not as a condemnation of Deuteronomy—the usual reading—but a condemnation of those who condemn it. What follows is an analysis of Jeremiah’s textualized prophecy in the fraught social and political space between Shaphanide scribalism and Judahite royalty. While a few of Leuchter’s claims strike me as going a step too far—for instance, can we really say that Jehoiakim “attempts not simply to destroy [Jeremiah’s] oracles but to dismantle the redactional arrangement of those oracles wrought through the scribal process” (p. 206)?—overall he succeeds in showing how the Levite Jeremiah bears witness to and promotes Israel’s textual turn.
In the seventh and final chapter, Leuchter takes up the literary legacy of the Persian-period Levites, whose vocational identity had become decidedly sapiential. He makes the fascinating argument that the “Aramaic Transition”—the shift of Hebrew to Aramaic script and the training of (levitical) scribes in an Aramaic textual milieu—provides “a conceptual framework for seeing dissonant sources such as those undergirding the Pentateuch coming together in a manner that dovetails with what we know of the era’s larger scribal culture” (p. 230-231). Leuchter applies this paradigm to two case studies, one local and one global: the recitation and interpretation of the Torah in Nehemiah 8 and the redactional formation of the Book of the Twelve—the second of which is especially compelling. In the book’s brief conclusion, Leuchter sets up levitical trajectories in the Hellenistic period. He also offers a tantalizing consideration of levitical hermeneutics in relation to the development of rabbinic conceptions of Scripture. Virtually every component of Leuchter’s final chapter and conclusion hints at a promising avenue for future research.
The most obvious potential criticism of Leuchter’s book will come from those who are unconvinced by his aforementioned methodological premise that biblical texts can serve as sites of Iron Age “memory.” Such critics will object that many of the relevant texts were cut out of whole cloth in post-exilic (or even Hellenistic) settings, and even those that do repurpose older traditions have so reshaped them as to render them unusable for historical inquiry. To his credit, Leuchter anticipates this issue in the introductory methodological note cited above. While a more sustained treatment of the methodological dimensions of cultural memory is possible and even desirable, it would probably be better as an essay or book in its own right than as the introduction to a study of the Levites. At any rate, I should hope that critics of Leuchter’s approach will at least acknowledge that he is not methodologically parochial, engaging charitably and productively with scholarship across geographical and intellectual boundaries.
The reader who finishes Leuchter’s study might wonder whether they have in fact read a book about the Levites. After all, the book ranges so widely across both space and time, touching on so many central issues in biblical scholarship, that at certain moments, the Levites seem quite far from view. Yet whereas this could conceivably be articulated as a criticism, I suspect that Leuchter would tout it as a mark of success. In a sense, that is the whole point: to tell the Levites’ story is to tell Israel’s story, for Israel’s story comes to us in a form shaped, curated, and indelibly marked by the group that traced their lineage to Jacob’s third son. This brings us back to the post-biblical construal of Levi with which we began:
And now, my children, I command you: Fear the LORD and walk in simplicity according to His Torah. And teach your children to read as well, so that they may have understanding throughout their lives by reading God’s Torah unceasingly.
Having read Leuchter’s book, I have discovered even greater appreciation for this moving appeal in virtue of the remarkable history that stands behind it.
Ethan Schwartz is a PhD candidate in Hebrew Bible at Harvard University.