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Levi was Jacob’s third son. Levi, Jacob and Leah’s third son, brutally demonstrated his skill with a sword when he and his brother Simeon avenged their sister Dinah.
Dinah had been raped by a local Canaanite named Shechem. When Shechem and his father, Hamor, arrived to propose a marriage uniting the two families (Shechem was enamored with Dinah), Jacob’s sons devised a cunning plan for vengeance. As the defining mark of God’s covenant with Abraham, they insisted Shechem and all those affiliated with him be circumcised if they wanted to form a union with Jacob’s family.
Hamor and Shechem believed this was an opportunity to enrich themselves by absorbing Jacob’s family and its wealth into their own— so they hastily agreed. While Hamor and his men were recovering from their painful surgeries, Jacob’s sons swooped down on their settlement. Levi, with his brother Simeon, led the charge, killing all the men of the town, while their brothers plundered the place and took the women and children for themselves.
On his deathbed years later, Jacob recalled Levi’s propensity for violence, criticizing his anger, fury, and cruelty.
Simeon and Levi are two of a kind, ready to fight at the drop of a hat. I don’t want anything to do with their vendettas, want no part in their bitter feuds; They kill men in fits of temper, slash oxen on a whim. A curse on their uncontrolled anger, on their indiscriminate wrath. I’ll throw them out with the trash; I’ll shred and scatter them like confetti throughout Israel. (Genesis 49:5–7).
As punishment for Levi’s aggression, Jacob warned that his descendants would have no territory to call their own—rather, they would be scattered throughout the Promised Land. Jacob’s promise came true—though God turned it into more of a blessing than a curse. In the wilderness, the descendants of Levi rallied to Moses after the Israelites worshipped the golden calf. As a reward, Moses promised the Levites they would be “set apart” for God.
Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (Exodus 32:29).
Both promises came true: The Levites did not receive a tribal inheritance, but as priests to the nation, they served as mediators between God and His people. The book of Leviticus, which contains the priestly law, is named for Levi’s descendants.