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Did the Levites serve as police in ancient Israel?

According to the Mosaic Law, the tribe of Levi did not receive an inheritance in the Promised Land, instead the 11 remaining tribes set aside 48 cities across Israel where the Levites were allowed to live.

The Levites were also given pasture land around those cities, but did not actually own the land themselves, as the ownership remained with the tribe.

Though the Levites filled an important religious role in Israel, it is important to note, that not all Levites could work as priests, only those who were descendants of Aaron, Israel’s first High Priest were allowed to fill the role.

Spread across Israel in this way, the Levites were responsible for teaching the law, setting up and maintaining the tabernacle and later the temple. They undoubtedly helped with the logistics of the sacrifices and also played musical instruments and sang in choirs as part of the worship.

But one little-known role that the Levites held in Jewish society was that of police. We see the first indicator of this in Numbers, when we are told that they served as guards in the Tabernacle:

53 But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” (Numbers 1:53 ESV)

As part of this, six of the cities given to the Levites were dedicated as cities of refuge where people who had accidentally killed some could flee for a fair trial (Numbers 35:1-24), and if found innocent, the Levites would offer them refuge or protection from those seeking revenge (Numbers 35:25).

And their role is further elaborated in 1 Chronicles 26, where we see a breakdown of their responsibilities:

  • Gatekeepers or guards posted at the gates and in the temple itself (verses 12-19);
  • Administered and protected the temple treasury (verse 20);
  • Some served as officers in the military (verse 26) and some believe the Levites may even have served as Israel’s standing army during peacetime (verse 27); and
  • External duties (outside the temple) included serving as officers (a police-like role) and judges (verse 29).

And the Levites continue to fill many of these roles in the New Testament. They would have been responsible for the selling of sacrificial animals and serving as money changers at the temple (John 2:14–16) and collecting the temple tax (Matthew 17:24–27).

As part of their teaching role, many of them would have become Pharisees, scribes, or teachers of the Law.

We also see the Levites continuing their police role in the New Testament, serving as the temple guard.

After Jesus’ crucifixion, the Temple priests and Pharisees approached Pilate asking for Roman soldiers to guard Christ’s tomb, due to concerns that the disciples would try to steal Christ’s body.

But notice how Pilate responded by saying, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.”

While, some have suggested that Pilate was giving them a guard, in fact the more accurate rendering is Pilate was saying you have your own guard, the Temple guard, use them to protect the tomb.

And we see that confirmed in Matthew 28:11, when after Christ rose from the dead, the guard did not run back to Pilate with the news but rather to the priests, who then bribed the guard to keep the news quiet.

And we see references to the captain of the Temple guard in Luke 22:4, when Judas conspired with the Chief priests and officers on how to betray the Lord.

The Greek word stratēgos translated as officers in the ESV refers to the captain of a military or security unit, a reference to the Levitical guard protecting the temple.

Consequently, when Christ is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the soldiers mentioned in John 18 were not referring to a Roman guard, but rather the Levitical police.

3 So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. (Johan 18:3 ESV)

Nowhere in this passage, does John describe the soldiers as being Roman, and we read a few verses later, that these soldiers and their officers clearly reported to the priests:

12 So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him.13 First they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. (John 18:12 ESV)

And we see this Temple Guard in action in Acts 5, when the Priests used them to arrest the disciples and throw them into a public jail (Acts 5:18). Because of their access to the public jail, their role extended beyond simply guarding the temple, but to even maintaining law and order in the city.

However, that night an angel of the Lord broke the jail, and they returned to the temple to preach the gospel, and we read that the captain of the Temple guard and the chief priests were perplexed by this:

24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. (Acts 5:24 ESV)

Sources: Who Were the Soldiers Who Arrested Jesus? John 18

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