Testament of Levi and the Priesthood

During the 70 weeks, each Jubilee will bring a further digression of the priesthood, from the first priests who are great and speak to God as a father, to the seventh, who are idolaters, adulterers, and money-lovers, arrogant, lawless, voluptuaries, pederasts, and practice bestiality. This is a fairly strong condemnation of a priesthood which is presumably practicing at the time of the writing of the book. Since the date of 150 -100 B.C. is considered a good possibility for the writing of T.Levi, this generation of priests would be the post-Maccabean revolt period.  At the very least, the writer is seeing a complete degradation of the formerly holy office of the priesthood.

A common criticism of the priesthood of the first century is that they were corrupt. Potentially contemporary to the writing of T.Levi, the Essenes criticized the Temple and the priesthood, especially the “wicked priest” who may have been an “enemy” of the sect’s own Teacher of Righteousness (1QpHab 12.8).  The Damascus Document (CD 4.17-5.11, 6:15-16; For additional DSS material on the priesthood, see 1QpHab 1:13, 8:9. 9:9, 11:4, Craig Evens, Mark 8:27-16:20 Word Bible Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 2001).

The DSS accuses the priests of incest and theft. Psalms of Solomon 8 is a sustained polemic against the priests, accusing them of incest, adultery, trading wives, and bringing menstrual blood into the temple. T.Levi 14:5 describes the priests: “You plunder the Lord’s offerings; from his share you steal choice parts, contemptuously eating with whores.” T.Moses 6:1 describes priests as committing “great impiety” in the Holy of Holies. E. P. Sanders considers these sins as typical of polemic – the priests are accused of all sorts of evil, whether they are guilty or not (Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 183). On the subject of incest, it is possible some priest married women who were close relatives, but in their interpretation of the law it was not incest. In the eyes of the writers of these texts, it may have been illegal. The example of Herod Antipas’ marriage to his sister-in-law, for example, as a “disputed” incest comes to mind. See also Josephus Antiq. 20.9.4, bribery; Antiq. 20.8.8, violence.

It is possible the charge of adultery refers to Alexander Jannaeus who did have concubines. The charge of menstrual blood may refer a legal definition of a flow which causes impurity and should preclude sexual activity. Even the charge of theft may have to do with the making of vows. These accusations may point to legal debates and interpretation of the Law which were ongoing in the century before Jesus. In any event, T.Levi is describing the priesthood as corrupt and therefore under the judgment of God.

Chapter 18 describes the replacement of the priesthood in detail. The Lord will raise up a new priest who will be faithful to the word of the Lord (18:2). He will be like a star which rises out of heaven (18:3) and the whole world will rejoice when he comes (18:4-5).  He will be an eternal priest (18:9) who will rule over a kingdom of priests. He will judge the ungodly, open the gates of paradise, bind Beliar and grant his children the authority to trample on wicked spirits (18:10-13).

The binding of Satan is well known from Rev. 20:1-6, but this passage is based on Isaiah 24:22-23. In this passage wicked spirits are bound in prison and the Lord punishes these “powers.” The reference to “trampling wicked spirits” may be parallel to Luke 10:19, although there the Disciples of Christ are given authority to trample on snakes and scorpions. Trampling snakes is found most prominently in Gen 3:15, a passage interpreted as messianic by Jews and Christologically by Christians (cf., Psalm 91:13) Some of the elements of this description are found in Luke 1:67-80, Zechariah’s song. The coming one will be like the rising sun, shining light from heaven (1:78) and a proper guide for the people (1:79). He will be a horn of salvation raised up “in the house of David (1:69). It is significant that these are the words of a priest, spoken in the temple.

The book ends with a clear choice for the children of Levi – either follow the Law of the Lord or the works of Beliar. This sort of black-and-white choice seems to be common in the intertestamental literature, probably because of the influence of earlier wisdom literature. There one either was wise or foolish, here one either keeps the Law or the works of Beliar. While this ethical dualism is found in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13, for example, it is a common theme in the Old Testament (either worship God or the idols) and in Paul’s writings (Romans 6:16-22).

In the context of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, Jesus says one is either for him or against him (Matthew 12:30). There is no middle ground possible.

One thought on “Testament of Levi and the Priesthood

  1. Have a look at the Apocalypse of Thomas (final verses) and the Discourse on Abbaton. The 8th angel is the one who will be wearing red. Once you see this mystery, it’s amazing how it’s been concealed, hiding in plain sight. The unnamed Angel of the Lord of the Old Testament is the priest who will arise at the end. He is the one who delivers the message of Revelation to John which is why John worships him twice … at the end of the Revelation. Jesus is not returning to glorify himself but His heir. This is why he led a young colt (young male donkey) into Jerusalem. Every artist who misses this detail is in good company.

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