Hebrew Lineage Organization:
Political and Religious Functions

The integration of the separate tribal territories into a political and religious sodality, however fragmentary, involved a system of ranking both the tribes and their internal segments. This pattern reflects a history of religious and political centralization and stratification, which stood at variance with the egalitarian order of the segmentary system. These contradictory conditions of power distribution are expressed in many biblical passages and establish a central dialectic apparent in their mythological structure.

Status distinctions among tribal units are initially set out in the story of Jacob and his wives and concubines. His two official wives, Leah and Rachel, are set against each other in a competitive relationship to bear sons. Leah is more fertile and gives Jacob his 6 oldest sons. Rachel, his favorite wife, is infertile, but is able to have two sons "on the knees" of her handmaid, Bilhah. She eventually has two of her own son's. Not to be outdone, Leah gives Jacob her own maid, Zilpah, who bears two more sons. ( Genesis 29-30.)

Leah Rachel Bilhah Zilpah

This account underwrites a hierarchical division between the 8 groups attributed to the legitimate wives, who are also tied to Jacob through preferred endogamous marriages, and the 4 marked by extramarital relations with domestic servants. The biblical texts provide no clear indication of the full import of the distinction of origins, but the "Leah and Rachel tribes", especially Levi, Judah, Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh), and Benjamin were clearly dominant in political and territorial affairs. A final twist in the story is added with the account of Reuben's seduction of Jacob's concubine, which is used as a rationale for excluding him and his patrimony from first-born privileges. The final implications of this complex tale are:

  1. Judah's line is awarded rights to kingship
  2. Levi's line is given hereditary positions in the priesthood
  3. Joseph's lines, and especially Ephraim, receive special birthrights, which primarily entail substantial territorial allocations.

The appearance of distinct and unequal rights and duties among different tribal units is also apparent within their segments, especially so within the hereditary priesthood. The Levites were assigned exclusive authority to organize and perform ritual observances and to attend to the ark of the covenant, which was eventually located in Solomon's temple in Jerusalem. They were also allocated valuable urban properties and awarded substantial incomes from tithes. The priests were divided into three religious orders, the Gershonites, Kohathites, and Merarites, according the number of son's attributed to their founding ancestor, Levi. These segments were assigned separate responsibilities for the care and transport of religious paraphernalia. The hereditary differentiation of ritual responsibilities represented a functional specialization but also involved a status distinction, since the Kohathites, from whom the high priests were drawn, were given lighter and more prestigious tasks than members of the other two segments. (Numbers 3-4).

Further hereditary orders were established within two special descent lines, the descendants of Aaron and Kora, which unlike the major segmentary divisions, were uniquely distinguished and not counterbalanced by complementary segmentation. The Korites assumed a special status as temple singers and counted an important prophet, Samuel, within their pedigree. The Aaronite line assumed the more central offices of high priests and, with it, a major share of temple tithes. Further narrowing of privilege along hereditary lines is apparent in the progressive succession to the highest offices within ever smaller branches. After Aaron's death the central priestly responsibilities are at first shared by his two sons, Ithamar and Eleazar, and, for a time continue to be divided between the two resulting descent lines. Thus during David's reign pre-eminent ritual authority is assigned to two priests, Abiathar and Zadok. However, at the beginning of his reign, King Solomon relieves Abiathar of his post for supporting Adonijah, a rival claimant to the throne. Zadok and his descendants (the Saducees of the New Testament) are given exclusive priestly authority and control of the new temple, whose establishment marks a concentration of religious authority within Jerusalem. (I Kings 1.)

The exclusionary succession system marked by the biblical history of the priesthood is of course paralleled by the development of the hereditary monarchy, which assumed an extreme degree of centralization under Solomon, and possibly by increasing inequalities of property ownership in the wider society. Other segmentary societies provide evidence of similar processes in which some descent lines become hierarchically distinguished from complementary branches because of concentrations of power and wealth.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created 1995