The Torah offers three accounts of the selection of the priests and the Levites:
1) The selection of Aharon and his sons to serve as priests is described in the framework of the command regarding the Mishkan:
And take you to you Aharon your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel that he may minister to Me in the priest's office, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar, the sons of Aharon. (Shemot 28:1)
2) The selection of the tribe of Levi is described in the wake of its actions during the incident of the golden calf:
And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moshe… For Moshe said, "Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, even every man against his son, and against his brother, that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day." (ibid. 32:28-29)
At that time, the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to Him, and to bless in His name, to this day. (Devarim 10:8; see Rashi, ad loc. [cited below])
3) The Torah describes how the tribe of Levi was given to the priests – to join them and minister to them, and to keep the charge of the Tent of Meeting:
Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aharon the priest, that they may minister to him… And you shall give the Levites to Aharon and to his sons. They are wholly given to him out of the children of Israel. (Bamidbar 3:6-9)
And your brethren also of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, bring near with you, that they may be joined to you, and minister to you… And they shall be joined to you, and keep the charge of the Tent of Meeting, for all the service of the tent… And I, behold, I have taken your brethren the Levites from among the children of Israel. To you they are given as a gift for the Lord, to do the service of the Tent of Meeting. (ibid. 18:2-6)
The Choosing of the Firstborn
When God brings you to the land of the Canaanite that He pledged to you and to your ancestors and He gives it to you, then you shall transfer all firstborns to God, and all firstborn male animals that you shall have, to God. ... When your child asks of you on the morrow saying: "what is this?" then you shall say to him: "with great power God brought us forth from Egypt from the house of bondage. When Pharaoh refused to send us forth, then God slew all firstborns in the land of Egypt, firstborn men and firstborn animals, and therefore I sacrifice to God all firstborn male (animals) while I redeem my firstborn sons." It shall serve as a sign upon your hand and as a headband between your eyes, for with great power God brought us forth from Egypt (Shemot 13:11-16).
Shemot 28 opens with the command to consecrate Aharon and his sons to serve as priests:
(1) And bring thou near unto thee Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that they may minister unto Me in the priest's office, even Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's sons.
As these verses come in the midst of the instructions regarding the building of the Tabernacle and its service, but before the story of the Golden Calf, it would appear that the designation of the priests occurred prior to the sin of the Calf and was unrelated to it.
However, after recounting the aftermath of the Golden Calf in Devarim 10, Moshe seems to suggest otherwise:
(1) At that time the Lord said unto me: 'Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first, and come up unto Me into the mount; and make thee an ark of wood....
(8) At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister unto Him, and to bless in His name, unto this day.
Ostensibly, these verses indicate that the tribe of Levi assumed their special responsibilities only after the Sin of the Golden Calf. How is one to reconcile the accounts of Shemot and Devarim? Moreover, is it logical that Aharon, who is castigated by Moshe for his role in the making of the Calf, would receive a special promotion immediately thereafter?
Priests Before the Miskhan?
Further confusing matters, a third verse found in Chapter 2 of the Book of Shemuel may place the selection of the Priests in an even earlier era:
(27) And there came a man of God unto Eli, and said unto him: 'Thus saith the Lord: Did I reveal Myself unto the house of thy father, when they were in Egypt in bondage to Pharaoh's house? (28) And did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to go up unto Mine altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before Me? and did I give unto the house of thy father all the offerings of the children of Israel made by fire?
According to these verses (assuming they refer to a single event), Hashem revealed himself to the priestly line and chose them to serve while they were still in Egypt!
And, in fact, even before the construction of the Mishkan, the text describes a class of "כֹּהֲנִים" as well as a group who offer sacrifices.
Thus, in Shemot 19, before the revelation at Sinai, Hashem warns,
21) And the Lord said unto Moses: 'Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish. (22) And let the priests also, that come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them.' (23) And Moses said unto the Lord: 'The people cannot come up to mount Sinai; for thou didst charge us, saying: Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it.' (24) And the Lord said unto him: 'Go, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee; but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the Lord, lest He break forth upon them.'
During the covenantal ceremony in Shemot 24, the Torah states, "וַיִּשְׁלַח אֶת נַעֲרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת וַיִּזְבְּחוּ זְבָחִים שְׁלָמִים".
4) And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the mount, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. (5) And he sent the young men of the children of Israel, who offered burnt-offerings, and sacrificed peace-offerings of oxen unto the Lord.
Who are these groups and how do they relate to Aharon and his sons? Were the priests chosen prior to the Exodus, before the Sin of the Golden Calf, or in its aftermath?
Priests and Levites
Since the Priests and Levites served in related roles, and were part of the same tribe, it would not be surprising if they might have been designated together. Nonetheless, the text presents the commands to consecrate each group separately, discussing Aharon and sons already in Shemot 28, and the Levites only first in Bemidbar 8. It is noteworthy, however, that the Levites are also alluded to (albeit only in passing) in Shemot 38, in the midst of the Mishkan chapters:
(21) These are the accounts of the tabernacle, even the tabernacle of the testimony, as they were rendered according to the commandment of Moses, through the service of the Levites, by the hand of Itamar, the son of Aaron the priest.
Did the Priests and Levites merit their elevated positions for the same reason or was Aharon's designation due to factors unrelated to those of the broader tribal appointment? Did they take place at the same or different times?
Replacement of Firstborns
In Bemidbar 3, the selection of the tribe of Levi is integrally connected to the rejection of the firstborns:
12) 'And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every first-born that openeth the womb among the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be Mine; (13) for all the first-born are Mine: on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto Me all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast, Mine they shall be: I am the Lord.'
Though the firstborns had been consecrated after the Plague of the Firstborns, they were replaced by the Levites. These verses raise several questions:
- What role was originally played by the firstborns? Were they the original Priests, Levites, or neither?
- Was their replacement by the Levites due to a sin on the part of the firstborns, or a meritorious deed of the Levites? Alternatively, was the decision a practical one unrelated to the worthiness of either group?
In the Aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf
After the nation sinned at the Golden Calf, the tribe of Levi was picked for both the priesthood and Levite position
According to Rashi, the first stage was the selection of the tribe of Levi. In the second stage, Aharon and his sons were selected for the priesthood out of the tribe of Levi in the framework of the command regarding the Mishkan This position fits in with his general approach, according to which the command regarding the Mishkan was given after the sin of the golden calf.
Rashi Bereshit 25:31
|מכרה כיום SELL ME THIS DAY (literally, like the day) – Explain it as the Targum renders it "as this day": just as this day is certain, so make me a sure sale.
בכרתך THY BIRTHRIGHT – Because the sacrificial service was then carried out by the first-born sons, Jacob said, "This wicked man is unworthy to sacrifice to the Holy One, blessed be He" (Genesis Rabbah 63).
Rashi Bereshit 29:34
He named him Levi: [I wondered why] it is written concerning this one, “and he named,” while concerning all [the others], it is written, “and she named.” There is an aggadic midrash in Deuteronomy Rabbah, [which relates] how the Holy One, blessed be He, sent Gabriel and he brought him (Levi) before Him, and He gave him this name, and He gave him the twenty-four priestly gifts; and because he accompanied him (לִוָּהוּ) with gifts, he named him Levi.
Rashi Bereshit 49:7
I will separate them throughout Jacob: I will separate them from one another so that Levi will not be numbered among the tribes; hence they are separated. Another explanation: There are no [itinerant] paupers, scribes, or teachers of children except from [the tribe of] Simeon, so that they should be scattered. The tribe of Levi was made to go around to the threshing floors for heave offerings and tithes; thus he caused him to be dispersed in a respectable way. — [From Gen. Rabbah 98:5, 99:6, Shitah Chadashah]
Shemot 4:14 And the Lord's wrath was kindled against Moses, and He said, "Is there not Aaron your brother, the Levite? I know that he will surely speak, and behold, he is coming forth toward you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.
4:14 wrath was kindled: Rabbi Joshua ben Korchah says: In every [instance that God’s] kindling anger [is mentioned, i.e., that God’s anger was sparked] in the Torah, it is stated [that there was] a consequence [i.e., it was followed by a punishment]. In this [instance, however,] no consequence is stated, and we do not find that a punishment came [to Moses] after this kindling of anger. Rabbi Jose said to him, “Here too you can see a consequence is stated: [namely in the question] ‘Is there not Aaron your brother, the Levite,’ who was destined to be a Levite and not a priest [kohen]. I had said that the priesthood would emanate from you, henceforth it will not be so, but he [Aaron] will be a priest and you the Levite, as it is said: ‘But as for Moses, the man of God-his sons were to be called in the tribe of Levi’ (I Chron. 23:14).” -[from Zev. 102a]
5:4 Go to your own labors: “Go to your work that you have to do in your houses.” But [he could not have been referring to the Egyptian bondage, because Moses and Aaron were from the tribe of Levi and] the labor of the Egyptian bondage was not incumbent upon the tribe of Levi. You should know [that this is true] for behold, Moses and Aaron were coming and going without permission. — [from Tanchuma, Va’era 6; Tanchuma Buber, Va’era 4]
Rashi Shemot 19:22
וגם הכהנים AND THE PRIESTS ALSO – the first born sons also, through whom the sacrificial service was carried out (Zevachim 115b),
Rashi Bemidbar 3:12
ואני הנה לקחתי AND I, BEHOLD I HAVE TAKEN [THE LEVITES FROM AMONG THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL] – This means: And I — whence do "I" claim the right on them from among the children of Israel, that the Israelites should have to hire them (cf. Rashi on v. 8) for My service? It is through the firstborn — to whom I surely have a title — that I have a claim on them (the Levites) and so I take them in their (the firstborns') stead. For originally the service (the priestly functions) was performed by the firstborn, but when they (the Israelites and among them their firstborn too) sinned by worshipping the golden calf they became disqualified, and the Levites who had not worshipped the idol were chosen in their stead (cf. Zevachim 112b).
Rashi Bemidbar 8:17
כי לי כל בכור FOR ALL THE FIRSTBORN [OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL] ARE MINE – This means: they became Mine by strict right (lit., by the line of justice), because I protected them distinguishing between them and the firstborn of Egypt, and I took them as Mine — until they sinned by worshipping the Golden Calf, but now ואקח את הלוים I HAVE TAKEN THE LEVITES in their stead.
Rashi Devarim 10:8
בעת ההוא הבדיל ה' וגו' AT THAT TIME THE LORD SEPARATED [THE TRIBE OF LEVI] – This is to be connected with the former narrative (that which speaks of the tablets of stone, ending at v. 5; vv. 6—8 which contain reference to Aaron's death being interpolated for the reason given by Rashi);
Ibn Ezra, Introduction to Parashat Korah
These events occurred in the Sinai Desert when the firstborn were exchanged for the Levites, the latter being designated [for sanctuary service]. Israelites thought Moses acted at his own discretion, giving prominence to his brother, his close relatives from Kohath and his fellow Levites. The Levites conspired against Moses because they were subordinated to Aaron and his sons; Dathan and Abiram conspired because he removed dynastic firstborn rights from their tribe of Reuben [descendants of Jacob‟s firstborn] and gave them to Joseph. Perhaps they suspected Moses of favoring his disciple Joshua, who derived from Joseph‟s son Ephraim. Korah was himself a firstborn as Scripture indicates (“And Izhar‟s sons were Korah” etc. [Exod. 6:21]). Reuben‟s designated encamping position was south of the Tabernacle (Num. 2:10) as was Korah‟s, who was part of the Kohath Levite branch (Num. 3:29) [thus their connection]. The 250 tribal chieftains were firstborns who previously had performed the offerings and that is why they took fire pans.
Before the Sin of the Golden Calf
The Priests were designated before the Sin of the Golden Calf, in preparation for the construction of the Mishkan. This positions subdivides regarding the timing of the selection of the Levites
According to the Ramban, Moshe was commanded about the Mishkan during the first forty days that he was on Mount Sinai, and at that time he was also commanded about the holy garments for Aharon and his sons. When God became reconciled with Israel, the original command regarding the Mishkan was once again in force – including the command regarding those who were to serve in the Mishkan – and at that time the entire tribe of Levi was given over to Aharon to serve in the Mishkan.
The correct interpretation, it appears to me, is that the expression "at that time" means that the second [giving of the tablets] was like the first. For from the time He said to Moshe, "Hew two tablets of stone," He was reconciled with Israel, and Moshe was instructed regarding the construction of the Mishkan. Then he was reconciled also with Aharon, and Moshe was commanded, "And they shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother, and his sons, to sanctify him, that he may minister unto Me in the priest's office" (Shemot 28:4)… Moshe regarded the separation of the entire tribe [of Levi – priests and Levites] as one matter; [therefore, he said here "At that time" - when the second tablets were given, even though only the priests were formally separated, it was equivalent to a designation of the entire tribe, with the formal designation of the Levites to come after the first census] for from that day on it was [resolved] before Him that His tribe be wholly given unto Him to perform the service of the Mishkan.
 In the continuation, he suggests another explanation: "Or else it means that the tribe of Levi was set aside at that time so that the priests should come from them, for they too carry the ark… and they will serve there and bless in His name."
Seforno Shemot 24:18
ויהי משה בהר, each time Moses ascended the mountain from this point on he remained on it for a period of 40 days and forty nights. This period corresponds to the time it takes for a fertilised egg in a woman’s womb to achieve a critical status that permits us to refer to it as a fetus. Moses’ stay on the mountain for such periods of time effected his spiritual progress in a similar manner, elevating him to higher spiritual dimensions.
The evidence lies in the fact that eventually Moses’ face radiated so much spiritual illumination that the people were frightened by this phenomenon and Moses had to veil his head. (Exodus 34,29) Moses had been meant to achieve this stature already at the end of his first 40 days’ stay on the mountain, but the people’s making the golden calf and worshipping it, foiled this plan.
God Himself told Moses to descend due to his people having become corrupt (Exodus 32,7). According to our tradition, Moses’ second stay of forty days on the mountain was a period when God’s anger at the people had not yet abated, so that he could not be rewarded with the distinction God had in mind for him. He attained that distinction only during his third stay on the mountain when he was also instructed concerning the construction of the Tabernacle seeing that he was told to place the second set of Tablets in the Holy Ark (Exodus 25,21).
This did not refer to an ark within which to place the shattered first set of Tablets. In fact, according to tradition, seeing that the letters written by God on the first set of Tablets had “flown” away, the remnants of those Tablets which were eventually placed in another ark are not referred to as “The testimony,” seeing they did not contain any writing anymore at that point. (compare Pesachim 87)
Commencing with 25,8 where God says to Moses that He will take up permanent residence in the Tabernacle to be built, the first 2500 years of mankind’s history where God was equally accessible anywhere has come to an end, and there would be a centralised form of worship as part of the Jewish religion.
Instead of God permitting the erection of altars anywhere it pleased man, and His coming to meet man at such sites, (Exodus 20,20) now the roles are reversed and He will be in residence in His palace on earth, and anyone who wishes to pray to Him effectively will have to do this at that Temple. There will be groups of people charged with the sacrificial service in the Temple, the priests, and laymen will not be allowed into the inner sanctum of this Temple at all.
This, in short, is the message of Exodus 28,1 “and you (Moses) bring close (To Me) your brother Aaron.” Actually, the tribe of Levi had not yet been selected until after the affair of the golden calf. Moses recalls that event in Deuteronomy 10,8 and the events that had led up to it.
In light of all this the fact that Moses spent 40 days and nights on the mountain each time he ascended there is very significant. The stage at which Moses‘ face radiated these rays of light was not achieved until the end of Moses’ third stay on the mountain after he had been commanded to erect the Tabernacle.
After the building of the Tabernacle had been completed, as well as the making of the priestly garments, and the incense and oil anointing, Moses revealed the stages that preceded it, telling the people that at the end of the first forty days on the mountains he received the first set of Tablets. Any delay in the carrying out of God’s original timetable for these events was not due to God delaying His plan but to the conduct of the people in the interval that had forced Him to revise His timetable. Had the episode of the golden calf not intervened, Moses’ second and third stay on the mountain would have been totally superfluous.
The episodes described in Exodus 32,7, 33,12 and 34,1 until 34 28-29 were only caused by the repercussions of the sin of the golden calf.
Seforno Shemot 31:18
ויתן אל משה ככלותו, after the Torah described all the spiritual accomplishments which should have resulted from the many days Moses had spent on the mountain with God, the Torah now has to explain why all these spiritual accomplishments God had envisaged did not in fact materialise so that it became necessary to build a Tabernacle, etc., in order to achieve these spiritual accomplishments via a different route. The Torah explains that the cause of this detour in the spiritual ascent of the people was the abuse they had made of the freedom of choice. They, who had been about to receive the set of Tablets made and written by God Himself at the end of Moses’ stay on Mount Sinai for forty days, who were all to personify the ideal of being priests, and a holy nation, rebelled, corrupted themselves, as testified in Exodus 33,6 when they divested themselves of the signs of the covenant God had made with them, removing the garments emblazoned with the blood of that covenant.
Seforno Shemot 32:29
'מלאו ידכם היום לה, acquire for yourselves some degree of perfection today! Today you will become worthy to perform service in God’s Temple in the future!
Seforno Bemidbar 3:13
כי לי כל בכור, as the Temple service used to be the duty of the respective firstborn in each family.ביום הכותי כל בכור בארץ מצרים הקדשתי לי כל בכור בישראל, although at the time when the firstborn in Egypt were killed, the Jewish firstborn had been guilty of death also, as had been the firstborn of that entire generation. They were singled out for this penalty as they were the most honoured people of their time, and as such served as role models for others. There was no special merit due to which they would have been spared, as in Genesis 19,15 where the angels warned Lot not to remain in Sodom lest he too would be killed on account of the company he kept.