I understand some were priests...etc. from one tribe, but was there a hierarchy to the whole thing?

That is, were certain groups assigned to certain jobs as part of a "caste" system?

  • The general answer is no, but note that ancient Israelite is not well defined notion. To which period of time of the Israelite are you referring?
    – Ezra
    Sep 22 '16 at 16:40
  • 1
    I have (hopefully) clarified the question and suggest that it not be clased.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 22 '16 at 17:02
  • 3
    I don't think that anyone would classify Medieval Europe as a caste society even though it was divided into the first estate, the second estate and the third estate, nor would most people classify modern America as such, even though the most accurate predictor of poverty is whether your parents were poor. "Caste" remains a difficult term to define & use meaningfully.
    – MCW
    Sep 22 '16 at 17:40
  • It had a hereditary (male) priesthood, but that's all.
    – John Dee
    Jun 21 '18 at 14:48

Answering this question depends on what you mean by "ancient Israel". If you are referring to the so-called Biblical period, the biblical literature presents us with what appears to be a three-fold stratification: Priests (kohanim), other levites, then regular Israelites. Priests, who comprise a subset of all levites, face various restrictions as regards whom they are allowed to marry and are recipients of special taxes. Levites face no such restrictions, but are entitled to certain charities. This is resultant of the theoretical prohibition on their owning land outside of the six levitical cities.

In addition, ancient Israel was a society in which slavery was not uncommon, and you could consider slaves therefore to denote a distinct caste as well. The Bible differentiates between Israelite slaves and non-Israelite slaves, the latter of which is human property: they are inherited after the deaths of their owners along with all other assets, and only go free if actively given their freedom. Their condition is hereditary.

If, however, you are referring to the period best represented by the Mishna (a period that comprises the latter years of the second temple, through to approximately 220 CE), then the presence of distinct castes is quite pronounced. The Mishna (Qiddushin 4:1) itself mentions no fewer than ten:

  1. Priests (kohanim);
  2. Other levites (leviyim);
  3. Regular Israelites (yisraelim);
  4. Priests born of illegitimate unions (chalalim);
  5. Converts (gerim);
  6. Liberated slaves (charurim);
  7. The offspring of various impermissible marriages (mamzerim);
  8. The descendants of temple slaves (netinim);
  9. People who do not know the identity of their fathers (shetuqim);
  10. People who do not know the identity of either parent (assufim).

Priests, other levites and regular Israelites (points 1-3 above) - barring anything that might render them forbidden to one another - are allowed to get married. Barring the same exceptions, non-priestly levites, regular Israelites, priests born of illegitimate unions, converts and freed slaves (points 2-6) are allowed to get married. And so too, the individuals mentioned in points 5-10 are allowed to get married, barring reasons to the contrary. (Reasons to the contrary include incest and, in the case of women, already being married; since priests face various marital restrictions of their own, the women whom they are not allowed to marry constitute a broader demographic.)

Early rabbinic society, despite this social stratification, was also a meritocracy. In the words of the Mishna (Horayot 3:8), a sage born of an impermissible marriage takes precedence even over the high priest if he be an ignoramus (ממזר תלמיד חכם קודם לכהן גדול עם הארץ). As such, while the authors of the Mishna recognise the existence of diverse castes, they effectively replace it with two: the scholar and the ignoramus. These positions, needless to say, were not hereditary.

  • Great addition! The Mishnaic period is not one I have as much familiarity with, so it is good to have this insight. Dec 8 '16 at 13:57
  • I do have a question. When you say " the latter years of the second temple", what exactly constitutes the latter years? Post-Maccabean revolt? Post-Jesus? Dec 8 '16 at 18:06
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    Thanks, @called2voyage. That's tricky to answer - and given the key differences between Tractate Sanhedrin and the passion narrative, also a controversial one. To be safe, I'd say that it best represents a period beginning roughly 30-35 years after Jesus' death, but the traditional Jewish take (which is largely ahistorical) has been that it dates back to the early years of the Hasmonean era. The primary authors/compilers of the Mishna lived in the second century, around the time of the Bar Kochba revolt.
    – Shimon bM
    Dec 8 '16 at 22:45
  • The word gerim is actually the word used for 'resident aliens' or 'strangers' throughout the Old Testament. As one begins comparing Israel's status to the status of other nations before God there is indeed a special role of Israel in that it is the descendent of God's chosen one, Abraham, and thus is called a special people among the nations; though when they sinned in the prophetic books Israel is deliberately challenged to ask how they are better than any of the peoples of the earth. So there is a kind of sense of "concentric" circles globally with Israel at the center. Jun 21 '18 at 3:11
  • But this question, being as it is about Israelite society specifically, demands a look at its internal organization not it's relative status compared to other nations. Thus although it's true that there's quite a bit of writing in the Torah about the special rules for sojourners (those passing through) and resident aliens as to whether they could or could not participate in certain acts of Israel's worship I don't think that constitutes evidence of a developed caste system. Especially since it came with a reminder that Israel was once 'gerim' in Egypt, thus not "better" than gerim in Israel. Jun 21 '18 at 3:14

Ancient Israel was not a "caste" society, at least not in the sense that we know it in India.

You appear to be referring to the fact that the priests were drawn from the Levites, one of 12 tribes of Israel. That appeared to have been a "convenience" thing, to formalize the fact that a disproportionate number of priests (and temple workers) came from that tribe.

But that was exceptional; no other occupation was reserved for one tribe, and no other tribe "dominated" one occupation. And the Levites were not considered "better" than anyone else; if anything, they may have been consigned to that status for the tribes "past sins". So there wasn't a caste hierarchy built upon such specialization.

  • 4
    In fact, the Biblical account claims that the Levites' status, if anything, was somewhat akin to a punishment. As the priestly tribe they were not formally assigned any tribal lands. This was because Levi was one of the brothers that destroyed the city of Shechem. The tribe of the other brother Simeon was completely subsumed within Judah. Sep 22 '16 at 16:47
  • @called2voyage: OK, amended my next-to-last sentence to incorporate your helpful comments.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 22 '16 at 17:00

This is going to sound simplistic and possibly self-evident but Israel was a tribal society. And especially in light of Israel's ancient Hebrew texts this wasn't just a general 'tribal' notion but was delineated specifically historically, and by name, according to a fixed number of tribes. There is some debate whether there were 12 or 13 tribes since Ephraim and Manasseh, as Joseph's descendants, double Joseph's tribal representation (Joseph being one of Jacob's [Israel's] 12 sons). So there were in reality 13 tribes but only 12 were allotted land and the Levites in contrast were assigned specific cities in each of the 12 tribal lands of Israel and were subject to the hospitality of the host tribe.

The Levites indeed had a special status, but were the only tribe singled out in such a way for special roles in relation to temple worship, handling of agrarian tithes, and having no land inheritance, among other things.

The reason I go into this is because the Torah (Pentateuch or Law of Moses) spends far more time on inter-tribal relations than anything that could be considered 'caste' assignments in some heirarchical manner. For example the book of Numbers takes under consideration what happens when a woman in one tribe marries a man from another tribe in terms of inheritance transfer - out of a concern that one tribe may become so small from inheritance transfers over time that it would one day cease to exist. There was even a story (found in Numbers 27) of a man named Zelophahad who only had daughters, and the matter of the daughters' inheritance was brought before Moses when their father died since the rules at the time were not clear.

Even with the Levites though, they were seen neither as superior nor inferior to the other tribes in terms of the whole, and all tribes were expected to treat their brothers and sisters fairly and with equity; although of course the High Priest would have been one from the Levite ranks, and specifically had to be a descendant of Aaron, who was an individual of note (but then again many of the other tribes also supplied individuals of note in the form of judges, prophets, and kings). But hereditary succession of rulers and priests is a common feature of almost all ancient cultures and nations and can't be used exclusively to make a 'caste' argument.

Another answerer brought up slaves, but in that regard Israel's practice there must be compared to that of the entire Ancient Near East since all nations back then practiced it, especially enslavement of POWs and putting them to menial labor. However, that is neither prescribed by the Hebrew Biblical texts as something that should be done, nor is it discussed as a predetermined "lot in life" for a certain class of people as if it were a manifestation of the ideology of the Israelite religion in obedience to some kind of teaching or commands to enforce slavery.

I don't think Israel can be said to be based on a caste system unless one is willing to say that the majority of ANE nations were also based on a caste system (i.e. Egypt, Babylon, Hittite Empire, Assyria, Aram, Phoenicia, etc.).

Postscript: It is, however, worth noting – by comparison – that the Greek philosopher Plato did come up with some ideas of how society ought to be structured which bears some strong resemblance to caste systems. He even believed that each child was born with a different kind of metal heart, ranked from more precious to less precious metals, with the kind of metal they were born with determining their role in life. See this article on Plato's Five Regimes for more on that.

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