The Beginning of the Priesthood: Revisiting Levi in Genesis 34

41gzmdxgXRL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_If anyone has spent anytime reading this blog, they know that I have written a fair bit about the priesthood. In January of next year, Lord willing, I will even have a book coming out on the topic. One note that I didn’t put in that manuscript, however, begins with the choice of Levi and his backstory in Genesis 34. As I have been reading Exodus this month I was reminded of this note and the textual connection between Moses and Aaron in that book with the historical figure of Levi. Here’s the note. Let me know what you think.

The Sword of Levi and Redemption of God

To understand the Levitical priesthood, we need to know Levi. In Genesis 28 we find his birth, but Genesis 34 records the defining moment of his life—the violent execution of Shechem. If you do not remember the story, go read the deceptive and deadly tale, where Dinah the daughter of Jacob is violated by Shechem a foreign prince. In response, Simeon and Levi struck down Shechem and the men of Hamor when they were “sore” from circumcision (v. 25). Feigning peace, these two brothers used their swords to avenge their sister’s defilement.

Opinions on this violent act are mixed.[1] Was it a righteous act of vengeance? Or a loathsome shedding of blood? Jacob assumed the latter (v. 30), but Moses gives Simeon and Levi the last word: “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (v. 31). This final word doesn’t prove the whole point, but it does suggest that they were willing to stand up and defend Dinah’s honor when Jacob was not. Here, we do not need to render a final decision about the meaning of Genesis 34, because this is not the last time in Genesis that we find this event mentioned. In Genesis 49:5–7, when Jacob blessed his twelve sons, he pronounced a curse on Simeon and Levi because of this act.

“Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
Let my soul come not into their council;
O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men,
and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
and scatter them in Israel. (Gen. 49:5–7)

In a series of blessings that prophetically identify Judah with royalty (see vv. 8–12) and Joseph with prosperity (vv. 22–26), Jacob’s words for Levi are remarkably harsh. They even suggest that the lines of Levi and Simeon would be cursed. Yet, as the story continues we will see how God redeems Levi’s sword and turns their curse into a blessing.

After Genesis we find Israel has multiplied greatly in Egypt (Exod. 1:1–7). Only their growth has invited the Pharaoh’s aggression. Like Shechem who seized Dinah and forced himself upon her (Gen. 34:2), another foreign king has enslaved God’s people. Exodus 1 tells how Pharaoh sought to kill Israel’s sons (vv. 15–16). Like Dinah the daughters of Israel were once again under threat, as Pharaoh forced them to kill the sons of Israel. Refusing Pharaoh’s command, these midwives demonstrated their faith. Yet, the threat remained and something had to be done.

Enter Moses, the son of a “man from the house of Levi” and “his wife a Levite woman” (2:1). In answer to the problem of Pharaoh, Moses underscores—not once, but twice—his Levitical heritage. Why? The answer must come from what Moses has already revealed about Levi.

Though our modern reading plans teach us to read Genesis and Exodus on different days, read together Exodus 2:1 recalls the sword-wielding fury of Levi (Gen. 49:6–7). In answer to the question, “Who will stand up to defend Israel?” The double-mention of Levi is good news. To a nation whose sons were being murdered by a foreign king, what would give greater hope than a son of Levi? Indeed, if we look again at Genesis 34, we begin to see a pattern of priesthood emerging.

In Genesis 34 Simeon and Levi save their sister from the slavery of prostitution (v. 31). Then in Genesis 35 Jacob leads his family to worship at the altar of Bethel (the house of God). If Genesis is written with Exodus in view, it is not a stretch to see Genesis 34–35 anticipating Exodus—the deaths of Shechem’s males foreshadow the deaths of Egypt’s firstborns, the worship at God’s house (Bethel) prefigures the gathering of Israel at Sinai, and most importantly the actions of Levi with respect to Shechem anticipates the violence that will be inflicted upon Pharaoh and his house because of his wickedness.

This bloodshed does not match modern sensibilities, but it does match Genesis 3:15, the place God promised to crush his enemies’ head with the bruised feet of the woman’s seed. Holding in tension the complexity of priesthood, Moses will eventually invite God’s judgment on himself to save Israel from their sin (Exod. 32:32). Likewise, he will anoint a priest from Levi’s house whose chief ministry will be sacrificial service. Thus, at the heart of worship is a priest who bears the sin for his people. Simultaneously, he will also commission the Levites to take up the “sword” to defend the God’s honor and the people’s holiness (Exod. 32:25–29; cf. Num. 25:6–9). Accordingly, we see in these events how the Levitical priesthood is beginning to take shape.

From Adam to Levi to Us: How All God’s Priestly Servants Must Be Redeemed

Indeed, like Adam, who was the first priest, the Levitical priests (i.e., the sons of Aaron) will be placed in God’s house to guard the holiness of God and God’s people (see Num. 3:10). Similarly, the Levites who draw the sword in Exodus 32 will be appointed assistants to their brothers, the priests. (In Scripture the priests and the Levites are not coterminous). Together the priests and the Levites will serve to guard’s house, while the priests will bring the blood of the sacrifices to the altar. In both cases, the priests will be armed with swords (or knives) in order to defend God’s holiness and offer true sacrifices.

In this way, we find that the harsh history of Levi and Simeon, once redeemed, foreshadows the priestly service they will render to the Lord. The same is true for you and I. Because of the true and greater priest, Jesus Christ, the Lord redeems us from our past and appoints us to serve in his household. In this way, we become true Levites who serve alongside our great high priest.

Wonderful are the ways of the Lord, and glorious is his plan of redemption. In Levi’s history we see this carried out, and this should give us confidence for seeing how God can and will work in our lives as well.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

[1] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18–50, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 372–73; Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 316–19.