In 2 Sam. 8:18, we learn that David’s sons are serving as priests. Previously, we’ve read that only the descendants of Levi could serve as priests (as, for example, in Numbers 18). As David is, in fact, from the tribe of Judah, this poses a rather serious continuity problem.

I’ve seen some apologetics claim that this is a translation error, and that it should rather say that David appointed his sons to oversee the priests. Of course, that doesn’t address the other breadcrumbs.

Genesis and Judges seem, to me, to be the most folk books we’ve read so far, showing us glimpses of the popular religious expression. What we see in both books, but that is largely lacking in the more urban/establishment books, is the presence of individuals setting up their own personal shrines. In Genesis, the characters are semi-nomadic, and seem to be dotting the landscape with altars. In Judges, we see the beginning of more settled, permanent installations, such as Micah’s shrine in Judges 17.

High PriestIf we assume a nomadic/semi-nomadic origin for Israel, we could be seeing the process of settlement and the evolution of belief. This is further illustrated when Micah replaces his own sons as priests with a dedicated professional, giving us the term “levite.” This could be a story illustrating the beginnings of the priesthood as a dedicated vocation in Israelite society.

In a nomadic culture, it’s rare to fine specialization. When camp needs moving, everyone needs to help. When sheep need tending, everyone needs to pick up a crook. It’s only as societies settle that agriculture can support a class of people providing services that are not directly related to the acquisition of food.

If we make further assumptions, it could be that, as the priest cast came to hold more power, they consolidated by making the position hereditary. Perhaps even to prevent precisely what David does – rulers setting their own sons in the priesthood, which could lead to the same family controlling both the secular and religious life of the nation. It’s quite possible, then, that the tribe of Levi was formed sometime after David, taking over what had been a more generic term for priest, and constructing a tribal identity that fit with the cultural and cosmological milieu.

It could also be that there was a nomadic tribe of Levi that, when it finally came down to settle, found it more expedient to serve as priests than to fight established communities for patches of land.

There’s also an evolution from regional worship to a more centralized cult, giving us the possibility that the term “levite” (and the definition of the levite’s role) may have originally had more pronounced regional variations, hints of which remain in the stories collected in the Bible. We may see a hint of this in the different uses of the word “ephod” – which is used variously to mean an item of clothing, an object made of metal, or a divination tool. It’s possible that the term had cultic significance, but that what it referred to differed by region. Or perhaps it referred to a whole class of objects and garments associated with ritual.

Certainly, it’s clear from 1-2 Samuel that tribal heredity was not a requirement at the time of the events being described, but we also see that this was a concern for later contributors. For example, Samuel’s father is explicitly an Ephraimite in 1 Sam. 1:1. Given Samuel’s later role, however, it seems that a group of contributors were uncomfortable with him having so much religious authority without being a Levite. So the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:22-27 makes him a descendant of Kohath, turning him into a proper Levite.

This may have been the case with Eleazar, as well. In 1 Sam. 7, Abinadab appoints his son, Eleazar, as a priest and caretaker of the ark. In 2 Sam. 6:3-4, however, Eleazar is not listed as one of Abinadab’s sons (who are given as Uzzah and Ahio). It’s quite possible that multiple people have been named Eleazar, and that perhaps he’d died prior to or been absent from the events described in that chapter. Or, it could be that Eleazar was known as an early priest of the ark, and was written into Aaron’s family at a later date.

There’s frustratingly little evidence from which to draw conclusions, and it doesn’t help that the texts have been periodically edited so that clear chronologies are difficult to tease out. I think, however, that it’s reasonably clear that the priesthood evolved over time – from a role assigned to a member of the family, to a mostly hereditary profession.