Levites: Ancient Snake Handlers?

Who the hell were the Levites? It’s surprisingly difficult to get a straight answer to that question. They were priests, most assuredly. But, were they a caste, their own tribe, or merely a profession? They appeared to be trained in using the Ephod oracular device for prophesying, but they don’t appear to be the only ones that used it. Their exact nature is never pinned down in the Bible

There are a couple of origin stories of the Levite Priests:

1. Genesis: they are the descendants of Levi, son of Jacob. Though, by that token, Moses would have been a Levite as well, which he is not described as being.

2. Exodus 32:28-29, the sons of Levi were exalted for helping to slaughter the idolaters in the dessert (“Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD ”)

Either way, the origins of the Levites told within the Bible seems a bit contrived. Everyone related to a man named Levi will be called a Levite. And be a priest. It assumes that all members of a tribe originated from a single progenitor within recent history and were named after him, like the Edomites all being sired by a man named Edom. These things work well in folk tales, but if you talk to an anthropologist, they can tell you that the “tribe” will be acquire interbreeding related genetic abnormalities in a few generations.

We know that the Kingdom of Israel, under the rule of Jeroboam, had erected two large golden bulls in Dan and Beth El to act as worship centers for the Northern Kingdom so the inhabitants would not feel obligated to travel down to Judah to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. However, even though it was their home territory, the Levites were, for some reason, prevented from acting as the priests for the monuments. Memories of this dissatisfaction is found its way into the Exodus story were the Levites are used as avenging assassins to murder worshipers of the Golden Calf of Aaron.

Another interesting clue to their origin is in the etymology of the name. In Hebrew, levi means serpent or snake (as does nâchâsh, root word for Nehushtan, the serpent God). Is there a connection between Nehushtan, the snake idol Moses mythically carved in the dessert, and the Levites? 2 Kings tells us that people burned incense to this bronze idol in the same way they did Yahweh. Is there a connection to the serpent in the Garden of Eden myth? Contrary to popular opinion, the serpent is actually the only upright character in the story, acting as a Prometheus to the naked Adam and Eve, implying that it could have originally been a tale told in favor of the Levites. These connections would make the snake worshiping Levites antagonists against the bull worshiping priests of the Hebrews.

Ignaz Goldziher, in Mythology Among The Hebrews, theorizes that the Levites were originally the Priests of Levitation, the many headed chaos dragon that appears in Job and Psalm 74.

Psalm 74:12-14

Yet God is my King of old, Working salvation in the midst of the earth.

Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: Thou brakest the heads of the sea-monsters in the waters.

Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces; Thou gavest him to be food to the people inhabiting the wilderness. (AS)

Job 41

1″Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?
Or press down his tongue with a cord?

8″Lay your hand on him;
Remember the battle; you will not do it again!

Isiah 27:1

In that day Jehovah with his hard and great and strong sword will punish leviathan the swift serpent, and leviathan the crooked serpent; and he will slay the monster that is in the sea.

Does they mystery of the Levites all boil down to a battle between the serpent priests and the bull priests? I certainly hope so.

Destruction of Leviathan

Destruction of Leviathan by Gustave Doré

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4 Comments on “Levites: Ancient Snake Handlers?”

  1. Jazzy Says:

    I’ve seen this pop up in the bible here and there but never actually stopped to think about what it was =]

  2. […] like how another blog I ran across while researching today’s post started its own entry on this […]

  3. […] Flesh | Lets Talk Bible Blog1Levites: Ancient Snake Handlers? « Universal Heretic […]

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