Priestly Initiations in the Testament of Levi

Detail from A Levite Priest holds up Holy Hands - James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Testament of Levi is one of the books in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and is an apocryphal and pseudopigraphal work so we do not know its original author or source. The Testament of Levi, as we have it today, was composed in its final form in the second century B.C. It is also considered an apocalyptic work, relating visions similar to John’s book of Revelation. Fragments of this text have also been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, lending more credibility to them than some of the other “testaments.”

One particularly interesting passage is about Levi’s vision of his priestly ordination in heaven, including washings, anointings, and investiture:

And I saw seven men in white clothing, who were saying to me, ‘Arise, put on the vestments of the priesthood, the crown of righteousness, the oracle of understanding, the robe of truth, the breastplate of faith, the miter for the head, and the apron for prophetic power.’ Each carried one of these and put them on me and said, ‘From now on be a priest, you and all your posterity.’ The first anointed me with holy oil and gave me a staff. The second washed me with pure water, fed me by hand with bread and holy wine, and put on me a holy and glorious vestment. The third put on me something made of linen, like an ephod [apron]. The fourth placed . . . around me a girdle which was like purple. The fifth gave me a branch of rich olive wood. The sixth placed a wreath on my head. The seventh placed the priestly diadem on me and filled my hands with incense, in order that I might serve as priest for the Lord God. (Testament of Levi 8:2-10.)1

Other elements of the Testament of Levi are also of interest to Latter-day Saints. The text begins with Levi at the end of his life, and he calls his children to him to give them their charge concerning the things of God:

The copy of the words of Levi, what things he appointed to his sons, according to all that they should do, and what things should befall them until the day of judgment. He was in sound health when he called them to him, for it had been shown to him that he should die. And when they were gathered together he said to them:…2

This brings to mind several such familial gatherings in the scriptures, and patriarchal blessings and charges when the patriarch is close to death, including Lehi in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 1-4).

Levi retells a vision he had to his children. The vision opens when Levi is carried in the Spirit such that he beholds a high mountain and is instructed by an angel:

And when we were feeding our flocks in Abel-Maul, a spirit of understanding of the Lord came upon me… and I prayed to the Lord that I might be saved. Then there fell upon me a sleep, and I beheld a high mountain: this is the mountain of Aspis in Abel-Maul… And behold, the heavens were opened, and an angel of God said to me, Levi, enter.3

This sounds similar to Lehi’s experience:

And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God. (1 Nephi 1:8)

It also mirrors closely Nephi’s experience being swept up by the Spirit to a “high” mountain and speaking with an angel:

For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot. And the Spirit said unto me: Behold, what desirest thou? And I said: I desire to behold the things which my father saw. (1 Nephi 11:1–3; see also 1 Nephi 14:30; 1 Nephi 15:1)

And upon the wings of his Spirit hath my body been carried away upon exceedingly high mountains. And mine eyes have beheld great things, yea, even too great for man; therefore I was bidden that I should not write them. (2 Nephi 4:25)

The Testament of Levi also speaks of a multitude of heavens, barriers between them, and passing between them during ascension, each heaven being brighter than the last:

And I entered from the first heaven into the second, and I saw there water hanging between the one and the other. And I saw a third heaven far brighter than those two, for there was in it a height without bounds. And I said to the angel, Wherefore is this? And the angel said to me, Marvel not at these, for thou shalt see four other heavens brighter than these, and without comparison, when thou shalt have ascended thither: because thou shalt stand near the Lord, and shalt be His minister, and shall declare His mysteries to men, and shalt proclaim concerning Him who shall redeem Israel…4

What follows is a description of the different heavens, and those spirits that abide in them. It sounds very much like what we read in the revelations of D&C 76, and D&C 132, concerning those who will inherit different kingdoms of glory. It is interesting that there is a distinction between the first three heavens, and the the ones following them, always increasing in holiness until the throne of God in the holy of holies:

Hear, then, concerning the seven heavens. The lowest is for this cause more gloomy, in that it is near all the iniquities of men. The second hath fire, snow, ice, ready for the day of the ordinance of the Lord, in the righteous judgment of God: in it are all the spirits of the retributions for vengeance on the wicked. In the third are the hosts of the armies which are ordained for the day of judgment, to work vengeance on the spirits of deceit and of Beliar. And the heavens up to the fourth above these are holy, for in the highest of all dwelleth the Great Glory, in the holy of holies, far above all holiness. In the heaven next to it are the angels of the presence of the Lord, who minister and make propitiation to the Lord for all the ignorances of the righteous; and they offer to the Lord a reasonable sweet-smelling savour, and a bloodless offering. And in the heaven below this are the angels who bear the answers to the angels of the presence of the Lord. And in the heaven next to this are thrones, dominions, in which hymns are ever offered to God.5

It’s also interesting to note that this passage makes a reference that the angels of one heaven will administer to the angels of the other heaven, same as we find in D&C 76:86–88:

These are they who receive not of his fulness in the eternal world, but of the Holy Spirit through the ministration of the terrestrial;

And the terrestrial through the ministration of the celestial.

And also the telestial receive it of the administering of angels who are appointed to minister for them, or who are appointed to be ministering spirits for them; for they shall be heirs of salvation.

The Testament of Levi continues to speak about becoming a son of the Most High:

Therefore the Most High hath heard thy prayer, to separate thee from iniquity, and that thou shouldest become to Him a son, and a servant, and a minister of His presence.6

Levi sees the heavenly temple, and the throne of God, just as Lehi:

And the angel opened to me the gates of heaven, and I saw the holy temple, and the Most High upon a throne of glory. And He said to me, Levi, I have given thee the blessings of the priesthood until that I shall come and sojourn in the midst of Israel.7

After the vision, he awakes as if asleep, and keeps the things he saw and heard sacred:

And after these things I was as it were awaked, and blessed the Most High, and the angel that intercedeth for the race of Israel, and for all the righteous… and I kept these words in my heart.8

The second vision that Levi has I have already quoted some at the beginning of the post. Interestingly, this vision purportedly occurs in Bethel (Hebrew “house of God”), the same place where Levi’s father, Jacob, had a heavenly vision and a temple experience (Gen. 28:10–19).9 Levi also says that this vision is similar as the former vision.

This vision mentions that a “Lord” will arise and will receive a new name in connection with his coronation:

The third—a new name shall be called over Him, because He shall arise as King from Judah, and shall establish a new priesthood, after the fashion of the Gentiles, to all the Gentiles.10

This vision was also kept sacred:

And when I awoke, I understood that this thing was like unto the former. And I hid this also in my heart, and told it not to any man upon the earth.11

The visions Levi had are considered the law of the Lord:

And we came to Hebron to dwell there, and Isaac called me continually to put me in remembrance of the law of the Lord, even as the angel of God showed to me. And he taught me the law of the priesthood, of sacrifices, whole burnt-offerings, first-fruits, free-will offerings, thank-offerings.12

Washings are mentioned again in instructions from his father, Jacob, in connection with entering sacred places and offering sacrifice:

And before entering into the holy place, bathe; and when thou offerest the sacrifice, wash; and again when thou finishest the sacrifice, wash.13

Having thus instructed his children upon his death bed Levi has a clear conscience, similar to other patriarchal charges in the scriptures (Mosiah 2:15, 27; D&C 135:4):

Now, therefore, observe whatsoever I command you, children; for whatsoever things I have heard from my fathers I have made known to you. I am clear from all your ungodliness and transgression14

Those that so obey the law of God are to become kings, along with other ancient patriarchs:

If a man teach these things and do them, he shall be enthroned with kings, as was also Joseph our brother.15

Levi predicts apostasy among his covenant posterity:

Therefore the temple which the Lord shall choose shall be desolate in uncleanness, and ye shall be captives throughout all nations, and ye shall be an abomination among them, and ye shall receive reproach and everlasting shame from the righteous judgment of God; and all who see you shall flee from you… And now I have learnt in the book of Enoch that for seventy weeks will ye go astray, and will profane the priesthood, and pollute the sacrifices, and corrupt the law, and set at nought the words of the prophets. In perverseness ye will persecute righteous men, and hate the godly; the words of the faithful will ye abhor, and the man who reneweth the law in the power of the Most High will ye call a deceiver; and at last, as ye suppose, ye will slay Him, not understanding His resurrection, wickedly taking upon your own heads the innocent blood. Because of Him shall your holy places be desolate, polluted even to the ground, and ye shall have no place that is clean; but ye shall be among the Gentiles a curse and a dispersion, until He shall again look upon you, and in pity shall take you to Himself through faith and water.16

A restoration of priesthood keys to multiple priests and of the house of the Lord is foretold:

And because ye have heard concerning the seventy weeks, hear also concerning the priesthood; for in each jubilee there shall be a priesthood. In the first jubilee, the first who is anointed into the priesthood shall be great, and shall speak to God as to a Father; and his priesthood shall be filled with the fear of the Lord, and in the day of his gladness shall he arise for the salvation of the world. In the second jubilee, he that is anointed shall be conceived in the sorrow of beloved ones; and his priesthood shall be honoured, and shall be glorified among all. And the third priest shall be held fast in sorrow; and the fourth shall be in grief, because unrighteousness shall be laid upon him exceedingly, and all Israel shall hate each one his neighbour. The fifth shall be held fast in darkness, likewise also the sixth and the seventh. And in the seventh there shall be such pollution as I am not able to express, before the Lord and men, for they shall know it who do these things. Therefore shall they be in captivity and for a prey, and their land and their substance shall be destroyed. And in the fifth week they shall return into their desolate country, and shall renew the house of the Lord. And in the seventh week shall come the priests, worshippers of idols, contentious, lovers of money, proud, lawless, lascivious, abusers of children and beasts…

And after their punishment shall have come from the Lord, then will the Lord raise up to the priesthood a new Priest, to whom all the words of the Lord shall be revealed; and He shall execute a judgment of truth upon the earth, in the fulness of days.17

A millenial day is also foretold:

The heavens shall rejoice in His days, and the earth shall be glad, and the clouds shall be joyful, and the knowledge of the Lord shall be poured forth upon the earth, as the water of seas; and the angels of the glory of the presence of the Lord shall be glad in Him. The heavens shall be opened, and from the temple of glory shall the sanctification come upon Him with the Father’s voice, as from Abraham the father of Isaac. And the glory of the Most High shall be uttered over Him, and the spirit of understanding and of sanctification shall rest upon Him in the water.18

The gates of paradise are opened, the saints will partake of the tree of life, and Satan is bound:

And He shall open the gates of paradise, and shall remove the threatening sword against Adam; and He shall give to His saints to eat from the tree of life, and the spirit of holiness shall be on them. And Beliar shall be bound by Him, and He shall give power to His children to tread upon the evil spirits.19

The Two Ways are explained (2 Ne. 2:27; 2 Ne. 10:23), and witnesses are proclaimed:

And now, my children, ye have heard all; choose therefore for yourselves either the darkness or the light, either the law of the Lord or the works of Beliar. And we answered our father, saying, Before the Lord will we walk according to His law. And our father said, The Lord is witness, and His angels are witnesses, and I am witness, and ye are witnesses, concerning the word of your mouth. And we said, We are witnesses.20

The Testament of Levi is a very interesting read. I believe most of the prophesies are generally considered by scholars to be attributed to the meridian of time, the coming of Jesus Christ, his restoration of the keys of the priesthood, etc. But there are also some parts which seem to allude to the great apostasy, the restoration of the gospel in the last days, the coming of the prophet Joseph Smith, the restoration of the priesthood keys once more, and the establishment of temples again upon the earth.

Notes:
  1. Qtd. in John A. Tvedtnes, “Early Christian and Jewish Rituals Related to Temple Practices,” 1999 FAIR Conference, <http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/1999_Early_Christian_and_Jewish_Rituals_Related_to_Temple_Practices.html>. []
  2. Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8, “The Testament of Levi Concerning the Priesthood and Arrogance,” 12, <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf08.iii.v.html>. []
  3. ibid., 13. []
  4. ibid., 13. []
  5. ibid., 13 []
  6. ibid., 13 []
  7. ibid., 13 []
  8. ibid., 13 []
  9. See also President Romney, “The Gates to Heaven,” Ensign, March 1971, 16, link to article. []
  10. Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8, “The Testament of Levi Concerning the Priesthood and Arrogance,” 14, <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf08.iii.v.html>. []
  11. ibid., 14 []
  12. ibid., 14 []
  13. ibid., 15 []
  14. ibid., 15 []
  15. ibid., 15 []
  16. ibid., 16 []
  17. ibid., 16 []
  18. ibid., 16 []
  19. ibid., 16 []
  20. ibid., 16-17 []

5 Comments

  1. Posted May 1, 2008 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your insights on the temple. The Testament of Levi is a fascinating book. I don’t always know what to make of these parallels. My curiosity and struggles with such findings are reflected in my essay Temple Symbols Surround Us.

    Clearly, Levitical temple practices were not identical to modern LDS ones. Yet, there are correlations. In any case, I appreciate your cogent analyses and observations as I try to make sense of it all.

  2. Posted May 1, 2008 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    You’re welcome. See my post today for a followup.

  3. Roger Gardiner
    Posted May 4, 2008 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi Bryce,
    Re the painting on this post ‘A Levite Priest holds up Holy Hands’ Am I mistaken or have I witnessed a similiar action undertaken by Jews, whilst they pray at the ‘Wailing Wall’ today?

    Best

    Roger Gardiner
    Glasgow Scotland

  4. Posted May 4, 2008 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    They may do something similar while they are praying at the wall. I personally have not witnessed it, but there are many religious traditions that use uplifted hands as a part of prayer, which is interesting from an LDS perspective.

  5. anthony Josè Lòpez A.
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Me parece fascinante estos temas, realmente uno puede percibir la belleza del evangelio al leer textos de esta magnitud, el espíritu santo, me testifica aun mas que esta obra es una obra de Dios. Agradecido a los expertos en esta materia que aclaran un poco mas estas relevantes verdades.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] thought that was interesting that Welch mentioned the Testament of Levi that I just recently wrote about. He also gives interesting commentary on Barker’s temple connections to the Sermon on the Mount, [...]

  2. [...] to LDS interests, especially concerning temple themes, I highly recommend Bryce Haymond’s commentary over at http://www.templestudy.com. Bryce covered all of the most exciting points of the document, so I [...]

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