When did the Levites say to their father and mother "I have not seen him" as mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:9 ?

And of Levi he said, Let thy Thummim and thy Urim be with thy holy one, whom thou didst prove at Massah, and with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah;

Who said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children: for they have observed thy word, and kept thy covenant.

[Deuteronomy 33: 8,9 KJV ]

  1. What does it mean?
  2. Why was the Lord pleased about it so as bless them and to make them close to Him?
  • 2
    I took the liberty of adding in verse 8 which I think is crucial to the question. Please roll back if that is not satisfactory.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 13:42
  • 1
    @NigelJ Thank you for adding :-) Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 13:45

5 Answers 5


The tribe of Levi was headed up by Aaron, and one of his grandsons was Phinehas. It might be the faithfulness of this grandson that seems to be the point of the verses in question. Numbers 25:7-13 details events at Shittim, after Balaam’s failure to curse Israel. That was when Moab seduced Israel to commit sexual immorality with Moabite women, which included pagan worship of false gods. Moses gave out God’s instruction: “Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord against the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel” (vs. 4). This meant that the judges of Israel were to slay all of their own who had joined themselves to Ba’al-pe’or. The scale of this horror was such that about 24,000 died in the ensuring plague, which was only stopped by the action of Phinehas. He took a javelin in hand, entered a tent where Zimri was having sex with Cozbi, and killed them both.

As a result, God said of Phinehas, “Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: and he shall have it, and his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.” This everlasting covenant stands in contrast to the much later statement of Malachi who wrote of the Levitical priests of his day that God would curse them and corrupt their seed if they did not give glory to God: “But ye are departed out of the way; ye have caused many to stumble at the law; ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Mal 2:1-3 & 8-9)

What does it mean? - When Moses blessed Levi (Deut 33:8-11), it was prophetic, taking in all of the events up till then. The Urim and Thummim were objects involved in ascertaining the will of God and initially given to Aaron. Then comes mention of Massah. All I could find on that was that Proverbs 30:1 has a superscription, “Son of Jakeh from Massa.” If Massa was the home of Agur, then he was a non-Israelite; the tribe of Massa is known from Assyrian texts. Meribah was the place where Moses and Aaron failed to trust God enough to demonstrate his holiness to the people of Israel, but he did, despite them (Numbers 20:12-13).

Why was the Lord pleased about it so as bless them and to make them close to Him? - This brings us back to Phinehas, who demonstrated the holiness of God, resulting in an everlasting covenant for him due to his zeal for God. Phinehas did not recognise his brothers or acknowledge his own children because he elevated God’s word and covenant over all else. This is a prophetic pointing towards the everlasting covenant of grace and the One whose zeal for the holiness and righteousness of God culminated in the new covenant, long foretold in the Old Testament.

This answer I give is to provide further related biblical information about Levi, the tribe, and the grandson of Aaron, Phinehas, whose vision of the righteousness of God caused him to no longer 'see' father, mother, or brothers. Phinehas seems to have had a profound bearing on prophetic blessings given first by God, then by Moses. I hope this will be helpful to you.


You ask two questions. First, what does it mean? In the largest sense, this is the blessing that places the privilege of the priesthood on Levi. This can be seen by the mention of "Thummim" and "Urim." These are parts of the priestly attire (Exodus 25:16, 28:30; used to cast lots, a method of receiving direction from God; they formed the medium through which the high priest ascertained the will of Jehovah in regard to any important matter affecting theocracy (Numbers 27:21)), and as such represent the whole of the priesthood (this is called synecdoche and is a common literary device in Scripture).

Broken down further, the meaning also gets at your second question of why the Lord was so pleased with them as to give this blessing. The remainder of the text mentions two events— the water from the rock at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17.1-7) and the golden calf (symbol of vitality and strength) incident (Exodus 32:25-29).

At Massah ("test") and Meribah ("quarrel") it was one Levite (Moses) who demonstrated faithfulness in the midst of the grumbling of the israelites. Then, in Exodus 32 it is the whole tribe also being faithful to execute God's judgement. These taken together pleased the Lord and brought about the eventual blessing of the priesthood, which we were prepared for by the Exodus 32 passage:

And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.” (Exodus 32.29, ESV)

Why did God choose these to be the incidents that brought about is blessing? That's for Him to explain. Even still, it seems to be part of a larger fulfillment of what was promised in Genesis 49:

Cursed be their [Simeon and Levi's] anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel. (Genesis 49.7, ESV)

Because they were given the priesthood the Levites wind up not receiving any land for themselves but instead serve across Israel in the lands of their brothers (Number 18.23-24). So, in some sense, the priesthood is both a blessing and a curse, and both show God's mercy and consistency throughout the generations.


Alexander, T. Desmond. Genesis notes from ESV Study Bible. Crossway, 2008.

Merrill, Eugene H. Deuteronomy: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary). Holman Reference, 1994.

The KJV Study Bible. Barbour Publishing, 2011.

Unger, Merrill F., Harrison, R. K. New Unger's Bible Dictionary. The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1957.

  • 1
    Hi Todd Burus. Reading the end of OP there's indeed two questions but initially looks like there's another one, «When did the Levites say to their father and mother "I have not seen him" as mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:9 ?». Commented Dec 22, 2019 at 14:23

It is plainly referring to the sin of the golden calf, when Moses was looking for voluntaries to purge the nation from the idol worshippers, and the one and only tribe to volunteer were the Levites:

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 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 32:25-30)

This was considered a very brave act since they have killed their own relatives in an effort to please Him and diminish His wrath, so God has rewarded them for this act by bestowing upon them priesthood and the privilege to serve Him in His temple.

  • The context of the question relates to Massah and Meribah, a much later incident than the golden calf.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 19:10

Before Moses dies, he blesses the Israelites and the various tribes. Although the incidents mentioned in verse 8 are not related to the incident of the golden calf, two Study Bibles link verse 9 to the tribe of Levi, who were ordained as a tribe of priests to serve the Lord after they allied themselves with Moses against the idolaters. Here is what I found:

NLT Study Bible: “The Levites obeyed your word and guarded your covenant. They were more loyal to you than to their own parents. They ignored their relatives and did not acknowledge their own children.” (Exodus 32:27)

NLT Study Bible comment: The Levite’s love for the Lord and loyalty to his covenant eclipsed their devotion to their own families, averted God’s judgment, and brought them the honor expressed here.

The cross-reference to Exodus 32:27 is about the incident when the Israelites were punished for idolatry. The commentary suggests that many of the Levites had led in the worship of the idol and so they were killed by those Levites who “were willing to confront the sin that Aaron had let loose”.

ESV Study Bible: who said of his father and mother, ‘I regard them not’; he disowned his brothers and ignored his children. For they observed your word and kept your covenant.”

ESV Study Bible comment: The blessing of Levi acknowledges the tribe’s uprightness in the golden calf incident (Exodus 32:26-29)

The cross-reference is to the incident when the Israelites worshipped the golden calf. All the sons of Levi gathered around Moses and they obeyed the Lord’s instruction to put about three thousand men to the sword. Moses said to them: “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day” (Exodus 33:29).


This passage is a blessing given by Moses to the tribe of Levi at the time of his death (as noted in Deuteronomy 33:1). In this chapter Moses goes tribe-by-tribe to pronounce a blessing over each.

It is believed by numerous commentators that "Who said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children" is specifically referring to the incident in Exodus 32:25-29 in which the Levites have to slay their brothers, spouses and neighbors as penitence for their sin of worshiping the golden calf.

For instance, John Gill notes in his Exposition of the Old Testament

Who said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him,.... Which some understand of the high priests who were of this tribe, and according to the law were not to defile themselves, or mourn for a father or mother, Leviticus 21:11; or rather, as others, of their having no respect to them in judgment, but determining all causes that came before them according to the law of God, and the rules of justice and equity, in the most impartial manner, without having any regard to the nearest relations to them: with this compare what Christ the antitype of Levi says, in Matthew 12:49,

neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children; had no respect to persons in judgment, though ever so nearly related: many restrain this to the affair of the golden calf, when the tribe of Levi gathered together, girded their swords on their thighs, and slew every man his brother, companion, and neighbour, guilty of that idolatry, Exodus 32:26.

Similarly, in their Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown write:

8-10. of Levi he said—The burden of this blessing is the appointment of the Levites to the dignified and sacred office of the priesthood (Le 10:11; De 22:8; 17:8-11), a reward for their zeal in supporting the cause of God, and their unsparing severity in chastising even their nearest and dearest relatives who had participated in the idolatry of the molten calf (Ex 32:25-28; compare Mal 2:4-6).

Matthew Poole concurs in his commentary, Synopsis criticorum biblicorum noting:

I have not seen him, i.e. I have no respect unto them, for so knowledge is oft used, as Job 9:21 Proverbs 12:10,11 1 Thessalonians 5:12. The sense is, who followed God and his command fully, and executed the judgment enjoined by God without any respect of persons, Exodus 32:26,27. This seems better than to refer it either to their not mourning for their next kindred, for that was allowed to all but the high priest in case of the death of father or mother, and that was only a ceremonial rite, and no matter of great commendation; or to their impartiality in executing the judgments committed to them, Deu 17:9, of which they had as yet given no considerable proof.

Joseph Benson also agrees, saying in Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments ... with Notes, Critical, Explanatory, and Practical:

Who said to his father, &c., I have not seen him — That is, I have no respect unto them in comparison of God and my duty. The meaning is, Who followed God and his command fully, and executed the judgment enjoined without any respect of persons. It appears to refer to the whole tribe of Levi, who, fired with a holy zeal for God and his worship, performed impartial execution on the worshippers of the golden calf, not excepting even their nearest relations that were concerned in that wickedness: see Exodus 32:26-29.

Finally, John Wesley states in his Explanatory Notes:

I have not seen him — That is, I have no respect unto them. The sense is, who followed God and his command fully, and executed the judgment enjoined by God without any respect of persons, Exodus 32:26,27.

They kept thy covenant — When the rest broke their covenant with God by that foul sin of idolatry with the calf, that tribe kept themselves pure from that infection, and adhered to God and his worship.

So there is pretty overwhelming agreement among scholars and commentators that this refers to the golden calf incident in Exodus 32. It seems though that this was not something which was said literally - that is, it is not a direct quote, but instead something that was figuratively said through the actions of the Levites. It seems that this action by the Levites demonstrated the devotion of the Levites in such a pleasing way to Moses such that he chose to include this in his blessing and bless the tribe of Levi accordingly.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.