I am forging ahead with my reading of Mark Leuchter’s The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity.
There are three options about the history of the Levites after the Babylonian exile. The first is to take at face value the reports of the Bible in Nehemiah, Ezra, and 2 Chronicles.
However, most recognize that these works give us the points of view from later priest and scribes, not historical reality. Many scholars have taken the second option that only the elite Jerusalem priesthood would have been taken into exile. The Levites would have been left behind. The history after the exile would have involved conflict between the Zadokites and the (now) apostate Levites.
Leuchter’s pointed out that Jeremiah seemed to communicate with Levites who had gone into exile. So a division within the Levites is a third option. Perhaps there was already a split in the Levites during the late monarchy as hinted at by the animosity of the “men of Anathoth” toward Jeremiah (Jeremiah 11:21).
So one party of Levites was associated with the Shaphanide scribes in Jerusalem. They went into exile. But other Levites remained in mostly northern, rural parts of Judah/Benjamin. These left-behind Levites developed their own theology reflected, according to Leuchter, in the prayer in Nehemiah 9.
Meanwhile the exilic Levites participated in the switch from Hebrew as the scribal language to the more esoteric Aramaic. This corresponded to the Levites becoming more attached to a post-exilic establishment where Persian authorities supported a Zaddokite-led priesthood in Jerusalem.
The problem of intermarriage with women outside the developing priestly tradition touched both kinds of Levites and some Zadokites. So Ezra enforced a mass divorce on the priesthood according to Ezra 9. Leuchter seems to think this may reflect a later mass divorce built upon a memory of something smaller that happened in Ezra’s lifetime.
So the story of Ezra introducing and reading aloud the Torah in Nehemiah 8 may also draw on an old story about Ezra, but it has been shaped to authorize the Levites to perform and interpret the Pentateuch. It also gives a new “mythic potency” (p.238) to the Pentateuch.
Ezra himself returned from Babylon exercising Persian authority. But the book of Nehemiah sees the Torah and Levite interpretation of it as divine wisdom above the authority of the state.
Also in the Persian period Levites edited the Book of the Twelve—that is, the minor prophets—as a reflection on Israel’s history and the future arrival of the “day of YHWH” when Israel would rule itself more wisely.
So the Levites moved from a role as scribes and performers of texts to a role that included being sages who drew wisdom from the history of Israel and the words of the prophets.
Leuchter’s discussion is very learned. It is beyond my ability to criticize this part of it in detail. He is interpreting religious texts through the lens of sociology and politics. Israel believed its religion to come from the self-disclosure of God. So to see the texts as reactions to human events is to see them quite differently than religious Jews (and now Christians) see them. Nevertheless, I am learning much from Leuchter’s work.