Levi the Preacher-Swordsman – Part 1


“Although the Bible has no corporeal legendary swords, it does have a kind of legendary swordsman.”


by Jacob Gucker

The “legendary sword” theme in myth, legend, and literature is ancient and enduring. From King Arthur’s Excalibur to the Legend of Zelda’s “Master Sword,” powerful blades have slain dragons and orcs and banished all kinds of evil. Often the sword can only be wielded by a chosen hero who has shown himself worthy. Sometimes the sword, possessing a will of its own, chooses the wielder. Storied blades are close to the truth. Although the Bible has no corporeal legendary swords, it does have a kind of legendary swordsman.

Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah got his name because “Levi” sounds like the Hebrew word for “attach.” Leah named him hoping that her husband would be attached to her, since she had always been in second place behind her younger sister. What she could not know then was that her Levi would play an important role in the redemption of the whole world. He would be called to “attach,” or join together heaven and earth. He would be called to join people to God and to one another by the words of his mouth, and he would be ordained to keep and guard the family of God by the sword of his hand. First, Levi would have to be redeemed.

In order to understand the fall, redemption, and glorification of Levi we have to go back to the creation of the world and the Garden of Eden. God created the cosmos by the word of His mouth, speaking and bringing into existence the heavens and the earth. He made the world to be a reflection of heaven and in the world He planted a sanctuary garden. Into the garden He installed the man and gave him a priestly vocation of keeping the garden for the sake of the world, forming his wife from his side to stand shoulder to shoulder in their task.

In making the plants and animals God simply spoke, but in making man, He summoned the heavenly council saying, “Let us make man in our image.” It takes a community with a singular purpose to say, “Let us make…” and it comes to pass. The perfect community is the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A good deal more went into the making of human beings than the rest of creation with God forming man of the dust of the ground and then breathing into him the breath of life, but man was still created via speech. It was, however, a particularly divine form of speech; God took council. This will be echoed in Genesis 11 when people, having been enlightened by knowledge, take council to build the tower of Babel.

Unlike the animals, God made mankind in His own image. As a result, man could speak with God and it was his duty to speak the words of God. When the serpent came into the garden with its forked tongue, it spoke for the evil one, derailing the liturgy of the first temple, and leading man and woman to worship the creature, rather than the creator. They had no weapons to wield against the serpent, but they did not need them; they had the word of God. When they failed to speak true in the face of temptation, they committed sacrilege, and God drove them out and kept them out by posting cherubim and a flaming sword at the gate to guard the way back to the tree of life.

Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

The “primordial history” portion of Genesis ends in chapter 11 with the tower of Babel. Much happens in the intervening passages, including the total destruction and recreation of the world by a flood. In the new world, man grows in his wisdom and knowledge for good and ill. He establishes towns and he makes tools. He makes wine and musical instruments and develops animal husbandry. By chapter 11 he has become more like God and he attempts to do what the Godhead had accomplished in the creation by building a false version of the community that the original garden was meant to become, a city. At this point it is important to remind readers that the Bible ends with a city coming down from heaven. Here, humanity tries to get on the fast track to the end by building a city that reaches to heaven. Like God, man takes council saying,

Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

The Godhead echoes this language saying:

And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

This passage is parallel to the creation story at the beginning. The humans are speaking in the cohortative mood, taking council and creating their own temple with the intention of making a name for themselves and to prevent themselves from being dispersed. The Godhead comes down to inspect their city and to see the tower that their speech has wrought. He confuses their language, the very thing that distinguishes them as united, enlightened human beings. They were operating like the godhead, speaking together and creating together. One might even say that they are “whistling while they work” for the language of this passage is filled with word plays that give it all a musical quality. It is as if the people are singing antiphonally to one another the liturgy of the human temple. Their tower is pathetic, though. They think it is high, but God still must condescend from heaven to earth to see it.

In the garden, Adam allowed the serpent to derail the liturgy of God’s temple, and now God is derailing the liturgy in their temple! God intends to build His own city, but it would not be complete for thousands of years. He begins His long work in the next chapter with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve tribes of Israel. Israel fathers Levi, and Levi gets himself into similar trouble with similar consequences as the people at the Tower of Babel.

Atrocity in Israel

When Israel was a sojourner in the land of Canaan, he bought a piece of land on which to place his tent (Genesis 34) and dwelt there. When the prince of the land noticed Israel’s daughter, Dinah, he took her and slept with her, defiling and humiliating her. Drawn to her, he insisted that she be his wife. Jacob did not want to cause trouble in the land, but his sons were reasonably incensed against Hamor and his lusty son, Shehem. Therefore, they deceived them and said, “If you become a part of us by being circumcised, we will give you our sister in marriage.”

The men of the city were circumcised and while they were all healing up, Levi and Simeon sacked them and killed them all, taking their wives and little ones for themselves. Israel was put out with them. Their underhanded deception and murder of a whole city was not justified, even in light of what Shechem did to their sister. Israel remembered their deeds and before he died, speaking about each son in turn, spoke words over their lives. He judged each son according to the quality of his life. Of Simeon and Levi he said:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
Let my soul come not into their council;
O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men,
and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.”
(Genesis 49:5-7)

Simeon and Levi’s actions stand in stark contrast with the calling of God for Abraham and the nation of Israel. They deceived the people of Shechem by inviting them into their covenant community and used the sign of the covenant as an opportunity to slaughter them all. They built a false community, founded upon deceitful language, and destroyed it. The text of Genesis 49 does not say it, but it seems that Jacob’s words are the words of God over the twelve tribes. In fact, it is from this passage that we get strong foreshadowing of David and Jesus:

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”

The result of Israel’s speech is that Simeon and Levi would be scattered throughout Israel. Simeon would be distributed within Judah alone and Simeon looks like little more than a tag-a-long with Judah in the conquest of their territories (Judges 1). Levi, on the other hand, had no inheritance in Israel. Levi would be scattered throughout the tribes. From this we can see that their evil council to build a false community has practically the same effect as that of the people of Babel. There’s no mention here of confused tongues, but the Levites will have an interesting relationship with speech from here on out. Furthermore, all of the elements in this prophecy will come up again and again. Levi will continue to be a community builder and guardian, a wielder of speech and swords and even a slayer of beasts and men. He keeps this vocation to this day, but only because of repentance and faithfulness and redemption.


People love to flatten it down into simple transactions, believing that redemption is about “getting saved.” One believes that the transaction of Jesus dying on the cross saves him from his sin, and he is saved. The historical events and cultural background of Jesus matter little, and the process of redemption for individuals is likewise reduced to instant pudding. Want pudding? Just add water! The redemption of Levi is no simple transaction, but a thing worked out in space and time. Obviously, Levi is a tribe, and not an individual man throughout most of the Bible, and we’re not just talking about the redemption of the one man, but of the whole tribe, and ultimately, the whole nation of Israel.

Nevertheless, there was something about Levi’s faithfulness to his sister, Dinah. It was zealous, though misguided faithfulness to the covenant, and God would redeem it for good. However, it would come through acts of faithfulness and despite acts of sin and rebellion. God would also redeem his mouth and his sword.

The birth order of Israel’s sons roughly prefigures the history of the Old Testament and New Testament eras with three sons being key. Levi, Judah, and Joseph are Priests, Kings, and Prophets, respectively. This cycle can be seen at several levels, but suffice it to say that Israel’s leaders were priests in the era of the Mosaic Tabernacle, then Kings (David, Solomon, etc.) and then prophets (Isaiah, Daniel). The cycle repeats in John the Baptizer who was a Levite, and Jesus who is Son of David and reigning King, and the Church which consists of Spirit-led speakers who prophesy in Christ to the nations. Jesus is the consummate priest, king, and prophet.

The book of Genesis ends the story of the sons themselves and Exodus begins the story of the tribes which bear their names. The story of the nation of Israel begins with a Levite man and woman giving birth to a son, Moses. Named for the fact that he was drawn alive from the water of the Nile while other Hebrew boys were being drowned, he would lead Israel up from Egypt and through the waters of the Red Sea, to be drawn alive from the waters while Pharaoh’s armies drowned. Like Moses when he was a baby, they didn’t even get that wet! Now, consider that the New Testament begins with Levite Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth giving birth to a son who leads people through the waters of baptism in the Jordan river, and you are seeing the aforementioned priest, king, and prophet pattern. Furthermore, it is the priests and Levites who are sent to inquire as to the nature of John’s baptism and message.

It is in Exodus that we begin to see Levi’s explicit relationship with speech and the sword. God commanded Moses to speak for Him to Pharaoh, but Moses complains about his “uncircumcised lip.” Aaron would be his mouthpiece:

“Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well.” (Exodus 4:12-14)

God explicitly refers to Aaron as “your brother, the Levite” and the fact that he can speak well. This is ironic because Moses is a Levite as well, but it is Aaron who will be the father of the Levitical priesthood. The calling of Levi is already in the works, but again, redemption is worked out in space and time and another event will bring Levi into his redemption.

At mount Sinai, after the people commit idolatry by forming the golden calf and feasting in its presence, Moses bids that anyone who is on Yahweh’s side take up his sword:

And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.” (Exodus 32:26-29)

This episode is the immediate cause of Levi’s redemption. With the Spirit of God hovering over Sinai, the Word thundered from the heart of heaven that swift justice consume the transgressors, and Levi became a proper guardian of God’s holy temple. In their idolatrous revelry the people had broken through the barriers which had been set about the mountain sanctuary. Any sharp weapon is an extension of the mouth, and the sword is a fitting punishment for those who refuse to listen. All people are destined to be cut; they will either have their hearts circumcised by the word, or they will be cut off from the earth by the sword. Just as Adam and Eve followed the word of the serpent to feast from the forbidden tree, and so were cut off from the tree of life by Cherubim with flaming sword, so did Levi and his flashing sword become a guardian angel of God on that day, cutting off many of those who feasted with the golden calf, about 3000 souls.

Zeal for the covenant name is zeal for the covenant community. Loving Yahweh is loving people. Loving God is loving one’s sister and brother and companion. Love, food, and fellowship are on one side of the sword, and dereliction, starvation, and death are on the other. The same is true of the Word of God. The sword is the word extended to those who will not hear and the word is the sword given to those who will. Levi earned his priesthood by being a defender of the covenant. This moment in the tribe of Levi was a moment of redemption and victory. His sword went from being a weapon of murder to an implement of covenant guardianship. The tribe’s motives were similar when it was Levi the man taking revenge for his sister’s honor, but now, rather than building a false community, he was protecting the true covenant community.

The prophecy concerning his scattering does come to pass, but in a redemptive way. The tribe of Levi will be dispersed throughout the whole land and he will have no inheritance, but Yahweh Himself will be his inheritance! Levi will serve God in the Tabernacle and the Temple and he will be distributed throughout Israel to keep and serve in the whole nation. He will speak the words of the various liturgies in worship and he will wield a knife in the priestly duties of sacrifice and circumcision. He will continue to “slay men” and “hamstring oxen,” (Genesis 49) but now he will help men offer sacrifices representing themselves to God. Levi will help men to die to themselves and be attached to God, whether they were born in Israel, or whether they are grafted in to the nation’s tree.

Levi is not only proficient in the use of swords, however. All sharp edged or piercing weapons are extensions of human speech in the Bible. When Israel united itself to the Baal of Peor and a son of Simeon took a Midianite princess into his family, Phinehas the Levite showed his zeal for the covenant community with his spear:

When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. (Numbers 25:7-8)

This act earned Phinehas a special covenant of “perpetual priesthood.” According to Psalm 106, Phinehas’ actions are “counted to him as righteousness.” This echoes the language of Genesis when Abraham believes God, and it is credited to him as righteousness. Phinehas is not only believing in his heart but confessing with his spear that Yahweh Sabaoth is Lord!

The redemption of Levi has twists and turns, just as with the rest of Israel. We now turn to several major examples of the chaos that ensues when Levites do not keep covenant with Yahweh.

A Tale of Two Levites: Judges 17-21

These chapters at the end of Judges show the corruption and chaos that results when everyone in Israel does “what is right in his own eyes.” Chapters 17-18 are a story about a Levite from Bethlehem who travels to Ephraim, and it forms an interlocking literary unit with chapters 19-21, which feature a Levite from Ephraim who travels to Bethlehem.

The Levite from Bethlehem

The first story is about a certain Micah of Ephraim, a man who stole money from his own mother and returned it. She forgave him and used some of the money to create graven images. He takes a Levite from Bethlehem into his house and installs him as his own personal priest to Yahweh and a host of other household gods, as though the God of Israel was but one among many. He sets up a shrine with idols and a linen ephod. It’s a sweet deal for a lawless Levite from the “house of bread” who is now a servant in a house full of false gods. Despite the idols, Micah thinks that having his own Levite priest to Yahweh is bound make him prosperous.

Along come members of the tribe of Dan, looking for a portion of the land to call their own. They tell the Levite to ask God if their venture will succeed and he tells them that it will go well for them. They go on to find the people of Laish, a quiet and unsuspecting people prospering in a good area. They decide to raid the town and take it for themselves, but not before they go back to snatch up the Levite and the idols. Coming upon Micah’s house with 600 men, they plan to take everything, even the women and children, leaving Micah with nothing. They come to the gate of Micah’s house and the Levite asks them what they are doing.

And they said to him, “Keep quiet; put your hand on your mouth and come with us and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be priest to the house of one man, or to be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel?”

The faithless Levite folds like a house of cards and leaves Micah with nothing. No Levite should be guarding a house full of idols, but this one did for as long as it was profitable. When the time came for him to guard the gate of his master’s house, he put his hand over his mouth. The Danites go on to attack the peaceful people of Laish, killing them with the sword and burning their city. They rebuild the city for themselves and dwell there with a line of priests to call their own. There was no King in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

The Levite from Ephraim

The companion story of the Levite from Ephraim is one of the Bible’s most unsettling accounts. The story is about a Levite whose concubine leaves him to go back to her father’s house in Bethlehem. He goes to speak kindly to her, hoping she will return. Arriving at Bethlehem, he abides with her father for almost a week. The text repeatedly highlights her father’s hospitality and their eating and drinking each day. Her father urges him to stay longer, but he takes his concubine and leaves. Unwilling to lodge at Jebus, the city that would one day be Jerusalem, the very house of Yahweh and the city of the King, the Levite instead turns in at Gibeah.

The language of what follows is conspicuously like that of the account of Lot and the angels in Sodom from Genesis 19. A seemingly hospitable Ephraimite meets him in the square and urges him not to spend the night there, but to come in and commune with him. The wicked men of Gibeah try to beat down the door like Sodomites that they might sexually assault the Levite. The owner of the house bids that they take his virgin daughter together with the concubine and have their way with them. They refuse to listen and the owner of the house thrusts the concubine without and shuts the door. After they ravage her all night, she staggers toward the door where her adonai was abiding in safety. She collapses on the threshold of the door as the morning light dawns and she dies. Up to this point the narrator has referred to her as a concubine or youthful girl, but for the first time in the passage, the narrator calls her “Isha,” woman, wife.

The text refers to the Levite as “Ish” just once in the beginning of the passage, and he received the hospitality of her father, but he does nothing to show that he is her husband and she is his wife. The Levite did nothing to spare her, but allowed himself to be closed up inside the house, safe and sound. Whereas the Levite in the previous story stood aside while the Danites carried him off, the Levite in this story closes the door on his own flesh. He hauls her home on his donkey and then does an appalling thing:

And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.”

The Levite takes not sword, but knife to divide her. There are relatively few words translated “knife” in the Bible, and there are only four times that this particular word is used, and two of those occurrences are in Genesis 22 where Abraham nearly sacrificed his only son, Isaac:

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.

The sheer irony of this Levite using a sacrificial knife to cut up his poor concubine should not be missed. He is not attached to her, but tosses her aside so flippantly that she is ravaged to death right outside the door where he was safe until morning. Then, he cuts her up like an animal sacrifice and sends a piece of her to each tribe in Israel so that the whole covenant nation would know what the sons of Benjamin at Gibeah did. The narrator urges the reader to consider, take counsel, and speak to the matter.

This introduces the next part of the story in which we see the covenant community being ripped apart, rather than drawn together. The troubled nation of Israel comes together to take counsel and speak as to what to do about the tribe of Benjamin and it leads to war against one of the tribes. The Levite switches places with the whole nation. He tells the nation which has “assembled as one man” to “give your advice and counsel here.” Then, “as one man,” the nation takes action and goes up against Benjamin to “burn out” the transgressors. They take a tithe of the people, ten of a hundred, a hundred of a thousand, a thousand of ten thousand to go against Benjamin, Judah first. Truly, the whole world has turned upside down!

Throughout the Bible Israel and the church are the bride of God and priests and pastors are liturgical husbands who represent God to the people. They represent Christ to the church. Priests, Levites, and pastors are meant to “speak kindly to her,” to offer her forgiveness in times of unfaithfulness. But this Levite does not lay down his life for his unfaithful bride. He leaves her to die by the door. “Ephraim” means “fruitful,” but this Levite from Ephraim and his wife are not fruitful. The closed door where she dies symbolizes the closing of her womb. It symbolizes the fact that the nation of Israel is bearing no fruit, and if the nation does not bear fruit in the form of faithful children, there can never be a Messiah to save her. Levi was supposed to be distributed to Israel to serve in every place, but this Levite distributed his wife in twelve pieces to the twelve tribes. He used his sacrificial knife to divide the woman and she became a fire in every tribe that nearly burned the whole nation down. This is not the fire of Yahweh’s altar. This is strange fire! Moreover, the whole ordeal leads to the desolation of Benjamin and a need for women to be wives to the men of Benjamin. There was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

A Future Reforging

In Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, Yahweh takes up a case against the Levites and the men of Judah for their failure to worship from the heart and keep their speech pure.

“My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.”

“But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts.”

The covenant here refers to the one God made with the Levites through the covenant-guarding actions of Phinehas. It references the fact that Levites are teachers and preachers as well as those who offer sacrifices to God, and this was particularly true of the non-priest Levites who were scattered throughout Israel to be local pastors. God is cross with the Levitical priests in Malachi for several reasons, one of which is that Levi is supposed to speak the truth and guard knowledge with his lips. The Hebrew word for “guard” is often translated as “keep” and refers to keeping the garden, the tabernacle, the temple, and the covenant. The act of guarding the sanctuary of God implies the use of a sword. Again, the sword is an extension of the mouth and speech. The good news is that in Malachi 3, God promises that the “the Lord… will suddenly come to his temple,” and that “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver….”

Conclusion to Part 1

This article has shown the role of speech in the creation of the world and the formation of covenant community. It has shown that Levi’s sin of using the sign of circumcision to create a false church in order to deceive and destroy the men of Shechem caused him to be scattered throughout Israel. God graciously redeemed this consequence by acknowledging Levi’s covenant faithfulness at Sinai with ordination; Levi would be distributed throughout the land to become a mediator between God and Israel. The third son of Jacob and Leah was ordained to be a sword-wielding guardian of the people and the temple of God. Born to a woman who hoped that his birth would attach her to her husband, Levi was redeemed to serve as a representative husband to Israel with sword in hand and truth in mouth to attach people to God and to one another. When the Levites failed to live up to their calling, chaos ensued in the covenant community.

Nevertheless, God will go on to refine and “purify the sons of Levi,” glorifying them to serve in the same capacity for the sake of the whole world. Part 2 of this article will set out the glorification of Levi in the New Testament.

Jacob Gucker is a librarian at BMA Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, Texas. He lives with his wife and baby daughter at Preacher’s End Farm where she raises vegetables and pastures chickens and he looks up from his books to help out.

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