In this post, I want to talk about Karel Van Der Toorn’s argument in Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible that the scribes of Israel were Levites.
Priests were able to write. Ezekiel was a priest. Priests witnessed oracles and wrote about them, even if they disagreed with them (Amos 7:10-11). Samuel was able to write (I Samuel 10:25), which he may have learned from the Levite Eli. For Van Der Toorn, “It seems likely that the author of the Samuel narratives projected his knowledge about scribal education in his own time upon earlier centuries” (page 89).
Chronicles (which Van Der Toorn dates to the fourth century B.C.E.) presumes that the Levites were literate: they taught the Torah (see also Deuteronomy 33:10; Malachi 2:4ff.), guarded the Torah, led prayer and praise, conducted cult music, preached homilies, distributed justice, collected taxes and tithes, kept state records, protected the gates, and supervised “construction activities” (page 90). Second Temple documents present the Levites as possessors of scribal knowledge, as we can see in the third century B.C.E. Levi Document, the second century B.C.E. Book of Jubilees, and the Qumran Vision of Amram.
Van Der Toorn’s scenario is that, in Israel’s pre-exilic period, all of the Levites were priests, and all of the priests were Levites (a concept that we see in Deuteronomy). After the destruction of Samaria in 722 B.C.E., Northern Levites came South, and there was rivalry between Northern and Southern priests—as Deuteronomy advocated the full inclusion of the Northern Levites (Deuteronomy 18:6-8), whereas Ezekiel 44 in the sixth century prioritized the Levites descended from Zadok over other Levites. In the post-exilic period, priests were those with Jerusalemite ancestry, whereas the Levites did not perform a cultic function. The priests had a higher rank because “only they had the right to enter the sanctuary to approach the table of Yahweh (Ezek 44:16)”, but the Levites “guarded the written tradition and held the keys to its interpretation” (page 94). As the religion of the Jews emphasized the Book, the Levites became more important. Eventually, however, the Levites were replaced by the scribes, who are mentioned in the Seleucid Charter of Antiochus III (222-187 B.C.E.) and the synoptic Gospels.