Levitical towns (Joshua 21)

The tribe of Levi was not granted a self-contained territorial allotment as were all the other ancestral tribes, because the Lord Himself was their lot: “I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites” (Numbers 18:20, cf. Deuteronomy 18:1-2, Joshua 13:33). Not being possessed of land or encumbered by the attendant obligations, the Levites were consecrated to the Lord and free to fulfil their priestly duties. According to Numbers 35:1-8, God commanded the remaining tribes to donate 48 walled “Levitical towns” from their various tribal allotments, six of which were to serve as cities of refuge. Each Levitical town was surrounded by an area of land in which the Levites might pasture their flocks and herds (Numbers 35:2-5). Together with the people’s tithes and offerings (Numbers 18:21), these provisions sustained the Levites economically.

The actual distribution of the Levitical towns is delineated in Joshua 21:1-42 and 1 Chronicles 6:54-81; the average number of towns coming from each of the 12 tribes was roughly four. This more or less even sprinkling of Levitical towns throughout the tribal territories would have served to provide centres of religious instruction throughout the land (2 Chronicles 17:7-9).

Levitical land was subject to a distinctive set of laws. In ancient Israel a family in debt could sell its property to obtain cash – in effect pawning the land, since family property could later be redeemed and reclaimed by its original owners (Leviticus 25:32). Plots of Levitical pastureland, however, were off limits for sale (Leviticus 25:34).

The historical existence of the Levitical towns has been the subject od academic inquiry. The Bible appears to indicate that the allotment of these cities took place during the period of the conquest, but scholars have suggested a variety of other explanations for the list of Levitical cities on the grounds that archaeologists have uncovered little evidence that all of these cities were in fact held by Levites.

  • W.F. Albright posited that the list of Levitical towns actually date from the period of the united monarchy (tenth century B.C.), since this was the only point in time in which all of the named cities were actually known to have been within Israel’s territorial borders. Some argue that David settled the Levites in these cities throughout Israel in order to utilize the clergy to strengthen his hold on the people’s loyalties.
  • Other scholars date the list to an even later time in the monarchy, some suggesting that they were composed as late as the eighth century B.C. – centuries after the conquest of Joshua.
  • Still others reference these lists to the postexilic period. Many of these particular interpreters, in fact, regard them as utopian fantasies created very late in Israel’s history and projected back to an idealized but non-historic era.

It is important to realize, however, that the list in Joshua 21 is not accompanied by an explicit statement that each of these cities was actually inhabited by Levites at this point in time. Rather, the list seems intended as a designation of (some possibly future or intended) Levitical cities. The tribe of Dan, we might recall, was initially given an allotment of land in the Southwestern part of the country (Joshua 19:40-46) but in reality moved north when the Danites failed to gain control of their allotted territory. The mere fact that the towns were designated as Levitical cities does not require that all of them served that purpose in Joshua’s time.


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