During last week’s internet outage here, I took the opportunity to read some pdf. articles I had downloaded from academia.edu. I have found this a great source. Articles are free. But you have to sign up.
Perhaps the most interesting article I read was Bernard Lang’s “New Light on the Levites: The Biblical Group that Invented Belief in Life after Death in Heaven”. This is a great article because it contains a whole bunch of new unconventional ideas. It makes you think.
I definitely disagree with some of it. I reserve judgement about other ideas.
But I love an article that brings up stuff I had never thought about before.
His basic contention is that, while the Levites expected most people to be gathered to their families in the shadowy underworld of Sheol, the Levites thought God would take them directly to heaven after death.
This is because Levites did not have families through whom they inherited land the way other Israelites did. The Levites were separate from the kinship system. Most Israelites were bound up in a cultural context of: kin, cult, land, and afterlife in Sheol.
Most Israelites were caught up in a form of modified ancestor veneration. This is what the fifth commandment was about. It was part of the religious commands in the first tablet of the law, because honoring your father and mother included taking care of the proper rites and burial so that they could become ghosts and make their way to the ancestral gathering in Sheol.
But the Levites stood in a different relationship to family. They may even have renounced all family ties. Lang refers to the story about the Levites being willing to kill their kin in Exodus 32:27. Unlike the vast majority of Israelites, the Levites disregarded kinship ties in order to serve God and the law.
One idea that comes up along the way is that the Levites were a very small group. A little more than 700 went into exile in Babylon. He estimates that if about the same number stayed behind, there were less than 1500 altogether. In later Judaism they became just minor clergymen. But in the period of the monarchy, and perhaps before, they were a caste with an esoteric role separate from Israel’s elaborate kinship system.
Another startling idea is that the Levites did not have wives. They had concubines (Judges 19-20). A wife produced children who would inherit land. But the Levites had no land and no inheritance system. So the kind of a marriage contract that applied to others made no sense for a Levite. Concubines were not necessarily plural wives. The one in Judges seems to be the Levite’s only partner.
So the problem was that the Levites existed outside the kinship system that included inheritance of a portion of the family land allotment in this life and a place in Sheol when they were “gathered to their fathers” after death. So what happened to the Levites after death?
The linchpin of Lang’s case is Psalm 16, which he takes as a Levitical psalm. He wants to see the words of the Psalm as something a novice Levite would recite.
I have notes in my NRSV Bible that the meaning of verse 2 and 4 of the Psalm are uncertain. Lang interprets verse 2 as referring to the “netherworld”:
(2a) Say to Yahweh,
“You are my Lord;
my [highest] good.
(2b) I shall not [place] above You (3 saints who are in the netherworld.
And he interprets verse 4 as referring to ancestor worship:
(3b) Cursed [be] all who take delight in them (4a) in the large number of [ancestor] idols (4b) I shall not pour out their drink offerings of blood,
nor will I take their names upon my lips.
Such words reposition the novice Levite in relation to the kinship system of Israel. By renouncing the ancestor cult, the Levite put his hope only in God. So then in the verses that follow the Levite expresses faith that his “heritage” and his “lot” are with God. And finally, in relation to death, he says
For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit (v. 10 NRSV).
Lang sees this as contrasting the Levite’s fate with everyone else’s.
Then, if I understand Lang correctly, he thinks that the Levites themselves eventually expanded this hope to others. So Psalm 49:15 is not exclusive to the Levites, and neither is Psalm 73:24-25.
But originally the hope for heaven applied to Levites. Moses was their father, but they are not said to be gathered to Moses at death. Instead, Moses himself was not gathered to his fathers. His tomb is unknown so that no one could venerate him or attach themselves to his fate in the afterlife (Deuteronomy 34). Eventually it was speculated that Moses had been “taken” like Enoch or Elijah.
His conclusion was that as a landless minority particularly close to God, the Levites did not expect to life after death with their ancestral families in Sheol, but they expected life after death with God in heaven.
So, in my rather irreverent understanding, most Israelites were left behind while the Levites were taken. The doctrine of resurrection perhaps developed as a way to reunite the other tribes with the already-raptured Levites.
I do think there must have been an ancestor cult in ancient Israel and that it was related to the kinship system. I have long marveled at the slight importance of life after death in the Hebrew Bible compared to the obsession with it in Egypt. Zadokite priesthood, as opposed to the Levites, seem to have edited out this part of Israelite popular religion. They thought it was dangerous.
The Levites, according to Lang, just renounced it for themselves and adopted their own unique doctrine of the afterlife.