Where are the Levites Mentioned? An Experiment in Visualization of Word Distribution in the Bible

I am experimenting with a template for visualizing the distribution of words and ideas in the Bible in a simple, at-a-glance format. Right now, with my limited IT skills, Prezi is the tool of choice. So here is a set of examples of how we might quickly and clearly show the distribution of a term or concept in the Bible. I’m using data on where Levites are mentioned in the New International Version, so it’s a simple English-language study, drawn from a search in BibleWorks.

The Pentateuch

Levite Refs in Pentateuch Sshot

What I notice here is that the book with Levites virtually in the name, ‘Leviticus’, barely mentions them! They don’t appear until ch. 25, almost at the end, and then only that chapter. So Leviticus is hardly about the Levites in any explicit way. But Numbers is loaded with references, as if it has Levites and their religious roles squarely in view. They appear among the underprivileged classes in many of the references to them in Deuteronomy, and they also appear significant in Exodus, especially in connection with Moses and Aaron as their patron figures.

The Historical Books

Levite Refs in Hist'l Books Sshot

Levites feature with some frequency in the historical books of the OT, with particular concentrations in the mildly bizarre story about the Levite and his concubine late in Judges and in 1-2 Chronicles, suggesting that Levites may have had a part in ancient Israelite society from very early on, but are a particular focus of interest after the exile.

The Prophets

Levite Refs in Prophets Sshot

Levites are distinct for their general absence in the (Latter) Prophets, appearing in just a single half-chapter in Jeremiah, and that being the section of Jeremiah, 33:14-26, that is absent from the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint or LXX. The Levites are only mentioned in the last few verses of Isaiah 66, once in the Twelve (Minor Prophets) in Malachi 3:3, and a number of times in Ezekiel’s temple vision in Ezekiel 40-48, with suggestions that Levites are to have a demoted status in Jewish religion. That’s a very limited range of texts, and arguably late in production in each case. The general impression is of an appearance of this topic in exilic and post-exilic times.

The Writings

Levite Refs in Writings Sshot

It perhaps isn’t surprising in some cases, given the nature and subject matter of some of these books, but the Levites are not mentioned anywhere in the Writings, including the Psalms (not shown), apart from post-exilic Ezra and Nehemiah, where they become very prominent indeed.

I’m no scholar about the Levites, and in my mind the big three features of post-exilic Jewish religious life are Torah, Sabbath and, moreso later, synagogue. But perhaps Levites, though the Judges story in particular may set their origin in Israelite society very early, to say nothing of the Exodus references, are primarily a prominent feature of post-exilic society, and most references to them in our Bibles come from the exile or later. There is of course an intersection here with older historical-critical concerns, but I’m not an expert on these either, and would like to keep scholarly hypotheses from too quickly shaping the data at hand.

Another good visual study would be references to the Sabbath, no?

Samuel – A Temple Slave?

Two quick questions raised by a single verse, 1 Samuel 1:28, and in fact, a single word…

  1. In response to her answered prayer, Hannah brings the very young Samuel back to the Shiloh temple to be devoted to the LORD’s service for life. Now multiple times in Ezra-Nehemiah, albeit books that narrate a much later time, we encounter a category of the post-exilic population called ‘Nethinim’, the ‘given ones’, apparently meaning a kind of dedicated person, a temple slave of some kind. The word occurs in 1 Chr. 9:2; Ezr. 2:43, 58, 70; 7:7; 8:17, 20; Neh. 3:26, 31; 7:46, 60, 72; 10:29; 11:3, 21, and nowhere else in the Old Testament. Ezra 8:20 attributes the formation of this class of persons to David, though there is no reference to them in narratives of pre-exilic times. So my first question is, should we view the character Samuel in these terms, as one of the ‘given ones’, a ‘nātîn‘ or temple slave? He is certainly something like it, though the formal category may come later.
  2. However, the word for ‘given’ (in all English versions I’ve checked) is different in 1 Samuel 1:28. It is ‘šāʾûl‘. Look familiar? It should, for it is identical to a name that occurs numerous times in the same book from 9:2 and following: Saul. At one level this is odd, because the Hebrew form is the qal passive, which I would expect normally to mean ‘requested’, or ‘asked’. Its meaning in its context can be debated: I haven’t yet looked into it in detail. But my second question is this: Why does the story so carefully connect Samuel to Saul through this distinct anticipation of his name so early in the book? The English reader can’t see it, but it’s obvious in the Hebrew. Samuel himself is the first ‘shaul’ in the book of Samuel. To conclude, here is the BibleWorks chart showing occurrences of this word form in the Old Testament. Aside from its use as Saul’s name, this form is extremely rare. Its occurrence in 1 Samuel 1:28 in description of Samuel is no accident!

'Shaul' in Genesis to 2 Samuel 4'Shaul' in 2 Samuel 5 to end OT

Examples of Visual Representation for the Classroom

This is a collation of some of my attempts at visualizing information for the classroom, compiled for an upcoming conference. I hope to soon upload a link to the Prezi that integrates and explains these examples.

Example 1: Excel spreadsheet used as table: “[Geography and] History in the Time of Isaiah and Jeremiah”

Example 2: Excel spreadsheet with line chart: “Rare Old Testament Names for God”:

Example 3: Literary Guide to the Lord’s Prayer PowerPoint: a mostly autonomous presentation:

Example 4: ‘A Stable World and a Shaken World’: an interlinked PowerPoint with a master diagram and twelve detailed slides illustrating non-linear and potentially teacher-independent use of PowerPoint:

Example 5: a schematic Prezi heatmap, ‘Levite References in the Old Testament’, that could act as a navigational page in a website if image-mapped:

Pentateuch Levite References Heatmap


Example 6: a Prezi that is both a map and a timeline. Too much, perhaps?

ANE of Israel's Time Prezi


Example 7: Psalm 148 mindmap using FreePlane, with aim of displaying intricate literary structure:

Psalm 148 mind map screen shot enlarged

Example 8: Chart of genres in Joshua, illustrating a kind of data visualization requiring some human judgment:

Genres of Joshua Chart

Example 9: Prezi diagram of the history of interpretation of Genesis 1 demonstrating prominent use of a visual metaphor, that of a tree. An example of a very content-rich diagram that seeks to remain intuitive at the macro level:

Creation Week Prezi Screenshot


Example 10: the risk of using a picture instead of an icon: risks distracting the viewer with extraneous detail:

Pentateuch Overview Screenshot


Example 11: Prezi on Psalm 79 using Star of David motif to categorize interpretive questions such as those of history, literature and theology, as well as the motif of the Greek letter chi to guide a student exercise looking for symmetrical use of terms in the psalm:

Psalm 79 Prezi Screenshot


Finally, example 12: a great open access NASA photo from Wikimedia Commons supplies an attractive backdrop for an exercise in getting acquainted with Exodus:

Tour through Exodus Prezi S'shot


Days of Creation Book Now Available

Received the first box of print copies this week, and I’ve checked and found that the title is available for purchase:


Boxa Books

Here’s a better view, though I enjoyed the first one, too:

Days of Creation Book Image

Here’s the rider: it only covers up to around 1860! (Perhaps I should have put that on the cover!) Stay tuned for the sequel. I hope you’re in good health…it’s gonna take some time!

A Judgment Seat Reference in Nehemiah?

I’m throwing something out there. Biblical commentators have some trouble with Nehemiah 3:7, which falls within that passage describing who worked on rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day:

Adjacent to them worked Melatiah the Gibeonite and Jadon the Meronothite, who were men of Gibeon and Mizpah. These towns were under the jurisdiction of the governor of Trans-Euphrates. (NET Bible)

The NET Bible translation note tells us that “under the jurisdiction” is literally “to the seat” in the Hebrew. The wording of the last part of the verse, including ‘Mizpah’, is ‘וְהַמִּצְפָּה לְכִסֵּא פַּחַת עֵבֶר הַנָּהָר’. It is usually interpreted somewhat abstractly, as a reference to Mizpah being the nearest provincial capital within the Persian administration of the region. This makes sense in itself, since the town of Mizpah was a centre of governance from Babylonian times (Jer 40:6).

But it does not constitute an easy translation of the verse. Let me show you a picture and suggest an alternative.

Judgment seat at Tel Dan

The Judgment Seat at the City Gate at Dan (far northern Israel)


I have seen a picture somewhere of a much higher seat, built into a city wall, but I can’t find it right now, so this will have to do.

I just wonder whether ‘kissēʾ‘ (‘seat’) here might be meant literally, not as a reference to Mizpah as the administrative centre, but denoting that part of Jerusalem’s wall that had such a facility for judgment and decree-making, for the use of the Persian administrator of the province of Aber-Naharaim, which covered Yehud (post-exilic Judah) when he happened to be in town. (Perhaps the preceding word, ‘hammiṣpâ‘, normally the name of the town, is being used in its general sense as an elevated place or ‘look-out’ here? It’s a long shot, perhaps.* Comments?)

The whole situation of the wall reconstruction was quite politically sensitive. It was important that the rebuilders remained clearly within the approved boundaries of Artaxerxes mandate to Nehemiah for the rebuilding. Even the (quite necessary) incorporation of a formal place of judgment and decree into the rebuilt Jerusalem would have expressed the returned exiles’ willingness to co-operate with the Persian administration, helping avoid the charge of “rebelling against the king” (Neh 2:19)


* On the Hebrew grammar concerning the town name Mizpah, ‘hammiṣpâ‘, it is interesting that many occurrences of this name feature the definite article, which is unusual for proper nouns in Hebrew, which don’t require the article but are inherently definite. In fact, Gesenius’ grammar (#125.1.a-d) makes it a rule that proper nouns do not have the article unless something has gone wrong. But most of the 49 occurrences of the name in the OT do have the article! Perhaps it was a carry-over from the time when it was a kind of geographical reference – “the watchtower” – and the article simply stuck. An analogy would be a suburb in Melbourne near where I live: ‘The Basin’.