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.

Apocalyptic in the Testament of Levi

Image result for Old testament priest visionTestament of Levi 14-18 is a mini-apocalypse. Levi explains that in the past the people of God have acted impiously (citing the Book of Enoch). Because of the sin of the people, which is compared to that of Sodom and Gomorrah, the sanctuary of the Lord will become desolate and the nation will become a “revolting thing” and the world will rejoice in their destruction (15:1-2, probably the destruction of 586 B.C. is in mind here). This “review of history” is presented as a prophecy in the mouth of Levi.

Levi then predicts the nation will wander for 70 weeks and profane the priesthood and sanctuary:

Testament of Levi 16.1-5 “Now I have come to know that for seventy weeks you shall wander astray and profane the priesthood and defile the sacrificial altars. You shall set aside the Law and nullify the words of the prophets by your wicked perversity. You persecute just men: and you hate the pious; the word of the faithful you regard with revulsion. A man who by the power of the Most High renews the Law you name ‘Deceiver,’ and finally you shall plot to kill him, not discerning his eminence; by your wickedness you take innocent blood on your heads. I tell you, on account of him your holy places shall be razed to the ground. You shall have no place that is clean, but you will be as a curse and a dispersion among the nations until he will again have regard for you, and will take you back in compassion.

This is probably based on Daniel’s prophecy of a period of “seventy weeks of years” before the consummation of God’s plan (Dan 9). At the end of the seventy weeks a man will come from the power of the most high, but the nation will call him a deceiver and plot to kill him (16:3) and the city will be razed as a result. The people will be a curse and dispersed among the nations (16:5). This section may shed light on reactions to the ministry of Jesus. For example, in Matthew 12 the Pharisees claim that Jesus does miracles by the power of Beelzebub and in Matthew 26:63 the Jews call Jesus a “deceiver.”

Christian elements aside, this text seems to be calculating the 70 weeks of Daniel as “complete” in the near future of the writer. This would imply that at least some Jews living near the turn of the eras were looking forward to the end of the prophecy of Daniel and the establishment of some sort of Jewish independence. The difficulty for the Jew living in 100 B.C. is knowing when to start the “count” of Daniel’s 70 “sevens.” Modern history makes it is bit more easy to rough out potential beginnings and endings, in the first century the period of the exile and Persian period are not well documented. There is no real evidence that Jews in the first century knew precisely how long ago Daniel’s prophecy would have been made.

During seventy weeks there will be several Jubilees. During the second, “Anointed One shall be conceived in sorrow of the beloved one, and his priesthood shall be prized and shall be glorified by all” (17.2). After the series of Jubilees, the priesthood will lapse and the Lord will raise up a new priest who will “effect the judgment of truth over the earth for many days” (18.2) during which time the heavens will open and the glory of the Most High will be upon him (18.6-7). During this priest’s rule there is ill be peace and prosperity throughout the whole earth (18.5). The priesthood will once again be pure (18.9). The gates of paradise will be re-opened people will be permitted to eat from the tree of life (18.10). During this time Beliar will be bound and the sons of the new priest will have authority to trample wicked spirits (18.12).

This is much in this description that sounds too close to Christian apocalypses, especially Revelation. When Jesus returns he will bind Satan (Rev 20:1) and there will be a long period of peace and prosperity, described with many images drawn from the Garden of Eden. Revelation 22:14 the “one who is coming soon” grants those who have washed their robes the right to eat from the Tree of Life (c.f., Rev 2:7). For this reason most scholars suspect an earlier Jewish Testament of Levi was edited by the Christians who preserved this literature. Kugler provides a chart comparing the Testament of Levi with the Aramaic Levi found at Qumran (49-50).

Even if these are Christian interpolations, there is some warrant for pre-Christian Messianism in the Testament of Levi. Why would Christians insert this kind of messianic material into the book? If other Testaments were preserved for their ethical content, why are they not heavily edited with apocalyptic material? As Kugler says, “We cannot be certain that an earlier Jewish version of the chapter proposed two messiahs or a single messiah with priestly and royal characteristics” (52), but there seems to have been some messianic content for a later Christian to expand.

Ethics in the Testament of Levi

Image result for levi from the bibleLevi is one of the most interesting of the Testaments for the study of the New Testament. While there are ethical elements, the Testament begins by informing the reader Levi was healthy when he gathered his sons and he told them of what would happen “until the day of judgment” (1:1-2). While Levi was tending flocks, a “spirit of understanding” came upon him, the heavens were opened and he came up into a second heaven and was told he would see great mysteries. Like the Enochian literature, Levi is given insight into the heavens (Chapter 3).

The lowest heaven is dark because of injustice. In the second there are armies ready for the great Day of Judgment. The “holy ones” and the archangels are prepared to take vengeance on the spirits of error Beliar. The archangels make sacrifices to propitiate God for the “sins of ignorance” committed by the saints (3:6). He sees “thrones and authorities” (3:7, cf. Col 1:16). The whole of creation trembles before the Lord: the abysses, the earth, and the heavens (3:9-10, cf. Paul’s description of creation in as three-tiered in Phil 2:10-11, “every knee on earth, under earth, and in heaven”). Chapter 4 describes the coming judgment (verse 1) but promises the reader he will be delivered to become an “anointed priest” (verse 2). The nation is to become a son, but a Christian interpolation has added that this son would be “impaled,” a reference to the crucifixion. (Kee calls this the one of the “clearest instances of a Christian interpolation.” OTP 1:789).

Levi is then invited to come up through the open gates of heaven to be a priest until “I should come and dwell in the midst of Israel” (5:2). The idea that God would dwell among his people is found frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, Paul uses several Old Testament texts to make this point in 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 in an ethical section. The “New Jerusalem” of Revelation 21:3ff is also an obvious parallel in an apocalyptic setting. This passage in Revelation 21 is based on a number of Old Testament texts, as early as Exodus 25:8 God promised to dwell with his people. This promise is renewed in Ezekiel 37:27 with nearly the same words as Rev. 21:3.

Chapters 6-7 consist of an expansion on Genesis 34. Levi makes his revenge against Shechem, but here the attack is considered to be the justice of God for a number of things Shechem has done against God’s people in Genesis. Shechem is renamed the “city of the senseless” because of what they did to Dinah. After destroying Shechem, Levi has a vision in which he is appointed to the priesthood by seven “men” in a vision (chapter 8) The Abrahamic covenant is recounted with Levi in the important role as the priest to the nation (8:16). Two days later he relates the vision to his father and grandfather and receives their blessing. Jacob pays a tithe to the Lord through Levi while Isaac continually encourages him to keep the Law of God (chapter 9). Levi makes the same plea to his own children (chapter 10). Chapters 11-12 recount Levi’s marriage and children.

Chapter 13 is an ethical section which begins with a plea to fear the Lord with a whole heart (13:1). Children are to be taught to read so they too may read and know the Law of the Lord (13:2).  There are a number of benefits to knowing the Law (13:3-4); doing righteousness is likened to sowing good things in one’s soul (13:6). This is generally parallel to Gal. 6:7, although Paul uses the sinful nature and the spirit rather than following the Law.

One wonders if this sowing/reaping motif was common enough in first century Judaism to be recognized by Paul’s readers. If so, Paul’s change from doing the Law as sowing “good” to “sowing to please the Spirit” would be a significant change in the context of Galatians.  One ought to acquire wisdom in the fear of the Lord rather than silver and gold (13:7). Those who teach good things will be enthroned as kings (13:9).