Who were priests and who were Levites?

The Priest and Levites of the Tabernacle

The operations of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) were in the hands of one extended family as mandated in the Torah. Instructions for the Levitical and Priestly offices are outlined in the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra) as follows:

Offerings   1:1 – 7:3

Priests  8 8:1-10:20

Regulations on Sacrifices, etc.   11:1 – 27:34

These important positions were given exclusively to the sons of Levi, the third son of Jacob (by Leah). Levi had three sons (in order of birth): Gershon, Kohath and Merrari. The importance of Levi is nowhere hinted in the Genesis record, in fact the later importance of Levi is an evidence against the total redaction of the Genesis text. For those who are critical of the text, an importance evidence of its early date is found in the lack of special words for Levi. Further, one wonder why Gen. 34:25-31 would have remained in the text if it were written after the formation of the Levites as a religious power. Genesis closes with a curse on Levi (Gen. 49:5-7) for the crime at Shechem! The term “Priest” is much more restricted than “Levite”. Priests were specific kinds of Levites, sons of Kohath through Aaron and his sons. As a result, all Kohathites were Levites, but not all Levites were Kohathites (some were Merrarites and others Gershonites, simply referred to as Levites). Additionally, all priests were Kohathites, but not all Kohathites were priests (since Kohath had other sons beside Amram the father of Aaron- see Ex. 6:18 for Izhar, Hebron, Uzziel; cp. Num. 3:17-20, 27-31).

Each of the Levites had specific work assigned to them in the maintenance and transportation of the Tabernacle:

-The Gershonites were charged with the transportation of the tent, curtains, hangings of the court and door, and the rope cords. When the camp was set up and the Tabernacle placed in the center of the camp, they encamped immediately outside the west of the structure (in the back). They were allotted two wagons and four oxen to transport the fabrics (Num. 7:7).

-The four families of the Kohathites included many not in the priestly line of Aaron. These were charged with the responsibility of carrying the Ark, Table, Menorah, Altars and vessels. All were covered with individual coverings (Num. 4:1-20) and were carried by hand, with no carts assigned to their family. The Kohathites encamped immediately adjacent to the south of the Tabernacle.

-The sons of Merrari were charged with the responsibility of transporting the wood and metal work of the Tabernacle. They moved the boards, pillars, sockets and cords of the courtyard in four wagons pulled by eight oxen (Num. 7:8). Their place in the camp was immediately north of the Tabernacle.