What is the difference between priests and Levites? 


By BibleAsk Team

The Tribe of Levi

The Levites were the descendants of Jacob’s son Levi, who was the third son of Leah (Genesis 29:34). There were 12 tribes besides Levi, because Jacob had adopted Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph (Genesis 48:5, 6).

The entire tribe of Levi belonged to God and was given to His sacred service in place of the first-born of the Children of Israel. The Lord said, “Now behold, I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites shall be Mine” (Numbers 3:12). Anciently the father in the family carried on the priestly functions (Exodus 13:8; Judges 17:10) and passed those duties on to the first-born son. That custom was given to the Levites, who had rallied to Moses at the time of the worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32:26).

A Levite, between the ages of 25 and 50 years, was to carry on the services of the tabernacle. At the age of 50 years, he was freed from his responsibilities. He had the honor of taking care of minor services in the sanctuary on a voluntary ground (Numbers 8:25, 26). The Levites were exempt from military service; consequently, they were not counted with the tribal forces (1 Chronicles 9:33).

The Levites received no territorial inheritance in the Promised Land as did the other tribes (Numbers 18:20). As a reward for their service, they were to receive a tenth part of all produce (Numbers 18: 26, 30). The Lord said, “Behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance in return for the work which they perform, the work of the tabernacle of meeting” (Numbers 18:21). And the Levites were to give a tithe of what they received from the tithes of Israel to the priests (Numbers 18:26-28).


The priests of Israel were a group of spiritual men from within the tribe of Levi. They were descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses. All priests had to be Levites but not all Levites served as priests. The priests had responsibility over the holy aspects of tabernacle and temple worship. They had the most sacred duties, including offering sacrifices (Exodus 28:1–3). They also ministered as judges (Deuteronomy 17:8–13) and instructors of the law (Deuteronomy 33:10). The priests had a specific ritual of purity (Leviticus 21) for they ministered as mediators between man and God.

The high priest could make decisions to lead the nation after consulting with God (Numbers 27:21). He was the only one permitted to enter the Most Holy Place (1 Chronicles 6:49; Leviticus 24:9), that contained the Ark of the Covenant (which contained the Ten Commandments), the symbol of God’s presence (Hebrews 9:3; 1 Kings 8:6; Exodus 25:22). The high priest could only enter the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement to offer sacrifices for the people and himself (Hebrews 9:7).

It should be noted that priests were consecrated for religious service before the existence of the tribe of Levi. At the time of Abraham before Levi was born, Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18), king of Salem, served as a priest (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 6:20; 7:17).

The Levitical priesthood was abolished at the cross by the death of the Son of God (Hebrews 7:11–28; Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 2:14-17). When Christ died, the temple veil, separating the Holy and Most Holy places, was rent signifying the end of that system (Matthew 27:51). Now Christ serves as our High Priest in the heavenly temple (Hebrews 4:14) according to the order of Melchizedek, not of Levi (Hebrews 7:11–17). Christ became man’s Mediator before the Father (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 10:19–23).

In the New Covenant, the Lord says to His children, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). As priests, Christians are to give God the “spiritual sacrifices” (1 Peter 2:5); they also are to offer themselves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).

Levites – Gershonites, Kohathits, and Merarites

The Levites, who did not serve as priests, were given certain duties in the care-taking of the tabernacle and its furnishings (Numbers 3:21–26). The Gershonites, Kohathits, and Merarites were the descendants of “Gershon, Kohath, and Merari” sons of Levi (Numbers 3:17; 26:57). They served under Aaron to assist him in his responsibilities and to guard the tabernacle.

The Gershonites, Kohathits, and Merarites’ duties are stated in Numbers 3 and 4. They were not allowed to intrude upon the unique priestly sphere of Aaron and his sons. A separate command from Jehovah was given to them. They were appointed “over the tabernacle of the Testimony, over all its furnishings, and over all things that belong to it; they shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings; they shall attend to it and camp around the tabernacle” (Numbers 1:48–50).

The Kohathites were in charge of the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of Showbread, and other holy items (Numbers 10:21; 1 Chronicles 9:32). These items were carried on staves on their shoulders when the sanctuary was moved (Numbers 7:9; 4:15; Exodus 25:26–28).

The Gershonites were in charge of the curtains, ropes, and coverings (Numbers 4:24–26). The Merarites were in charge of taking care of and carrying the pillars, bases, frames, pegs, and cords that formed the structure of the tent of meeting. The Gershonites and Merarites were given ox carts to carry the temple items. The Gershonites received two carts and four oxen, and the Merarites received four carts and eight oxen (Numbers 7:6–8).

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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