(Originally published February 10, 2017)
This week’s lesson explores Joshua chapter 21 and the allotment of the Levitical cities. Choosing cities for the Levites was the final allotment, and it involved cities and land that had already been apportioned to the various tribes. Before we consider the allotment, we must first go back to see why they are only given cities rather than lands of inheritance as the other tribes were given.
“And you shall set the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and shall offer them as a wave offering to the Lord.
“Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the people of Israel, and the Levites shall be mine. And after that the Levites shall go in to serve at the tent of meeting, when you have cleansed them and offered them as a wave offering. For they are wholly given to me from among the people of Israel. Instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the people of Israel, I have taken them for myself. For all the firstborn among the people of Israel are mine, both of man and of beast. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I consecrated them for myself, and I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel.” (Numbers 8:13-18)
“The Levitical priests, all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel. They shall eat the Lord’s food offerings as their inheritance. They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the Lord is their inheritance, as he promised them.” (Deuteronomy 18:1-2)
In these passages, we are reminded that the Lord had set the Levites apart for himself from among the nation of Israel. Being set apart as a tribe in place of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, they were a substutionary priesthood. They were consecrated to the Lord and were given the honor of serving him in the Tabernacle and eventually the Temple. They were entrusted with the sacred things of God. Their inheritance, therefore, was not to be land, but the Lord himself.
The vocational calling of the Levites was to the service of the Lord. The rest of the people of Israel were to pursue occupations as talent and need dictated, and so the land and cities would be occupied by carpenters, blacksmiths, farmers, vintners, butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers. The cities chosen by the Lord to be “Levitical cities” weren’t only occupied by the Levites. In order to function, after all, a city, no matter how small, would need a balance of trades for the sake of economy and even mere survival. When we read down the lists of cities given to them and recognize that these very cities had already been allotted to others, it doesn’t mean that those to whom they were first given had to pack up and move. As Keil and Delitszch remind us:
“the Levites were not the sole possessors of these towns, but simply received the number of dwellinghouses which they actually required, with meadow land for their cattle in the suburbs of the towns, whilst the rest of the space still belonged to the different tribes.” [Commentary on The Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Volume 2, by C. F. Keil, Hendrickson Publishers]
We are next asked what other duties beyond offering sacrifices and caring for the place of worship the Levites are responsible for. To find the answer, we are sent to the following passages of Scripture:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27)
“So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Make him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight. You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord. At his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the people of Israel with him, the whole congregation.” (Numbers 27:18-21)
“If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose. And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the Lord will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left.” (Deuteronomy 17:8-11)
“…the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:7-8)
In these we see that the Levites had broader responsibilities than most of the pastors in our pulpits today. While our pastors, shepherds, and elders do pronounce blessings upon God’s people, have the authority to commission leaders in the church, and, most vitally, by preaching and teaching, help us to understand and apply God’s Word to our lives, they don’t serve as the local civil judiciary or inquire of the Lord by way of the Urim and Thummim. (Nor do they serve as medical or building inspectors or search out health code violations in restaurants and homes! Leviticus 11, 13, 14, and too many more to list.)
Keeping these in mind, how did the Israelites benefit by having the Levites scattered throughout the land? As John Calvin explains, they acted…
“…as a kind of guardians in every district to retain the people in the pure worship of God. It is true, they were everywhere strangers; but still it was with the very high dignity of acting as stewards for God, and preventing their countrymen from revolting from piety. This is the reason for stating so carefully how many cities they obtained from each tribe; they were everywhere to keep watch, and preserve the purity of sacred rites unimpaired.” [Commentaries on The Book of Joshua, by John Calvin, Volume 4, Reprinted 2009 by Baker Books]
This leads to the accompanying question: how does the Levites’ role compare with ours today? The answer to which is found in the writing of Peter:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:9-12)
(On a personal note, I cannot hear or read this passage without seeing and hearing Don Carson proclaiming it from the pulpit at a conference years ago, in Quakertown, Pennsylvania.)
We too are to be declaring the excellencies of God to those around us. This is not a vocational calling for most believers, but it is a calling to all believers. We who are in Christ are his representatives wherever he has placed us, and it is there where we are to proclaim his excellencies by our lives and our words. We have been called out of darkness; shall we not also call others to come into his marvelous light? We have received mercy; shall we not share it?
The Lord arranged for the Israelites to give up part of their inheritance in order to provide for the Levites for the same reason we provide for our spiritual leaders today.
“Take special care of the poor clergy! This is the theme of the complex formed by Numbers 35 and Joshua 21, along with the relevant Deuteronomic laws… The Christian church found that it needed only the priesthood of Jesus the Christ (cf. Hebrews), but the problem opened itself in a new form. The church had gifted men who served as evangelists and teachers and pastors. Paul, though seeking to provide for his own living, reminded his followers that the ones “who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (1 Cor 9:14; cf. Matt 10:10). Joshua 21 thus represents the first step in a long road, the road to the rights of the minister.” Trent C. Butler, Word Biblical Commentary volume 7, Joshua, Thomas Nelson Inc, 1983
Paul addressed this directly in his first letter to Timothy.
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)
Here is what this passage has meant to the church. Paul drew a direct line from this principle in the law to caring for the clergy today. Pastoring a church involves much more than preaching on Sundays. Shepherding a congregation is more than a full-time job, and we must do our part to care for these “overseers of our souls.” Our tithes and offerings go towards many things, not the least of which is the salaries of our pastors, so they can focus on caring for us through the ministry of the Word and sacraments.
We now turn to the details of the Levitical allotments, beginning with the clan of the Kohathites and their specific responsibilities as delegated by the Lord.
“According to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, there were 8,600, keeping guard over the sanctuary. The clans of the sons of Kohath were to camp on the south side of the tabernacle, with Elizaphan the son of Uzziel as chief of the fathers’ house of the clans of the Kohathites. And their guard duty involved the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the vessels of the sanctuary with which the priests minister, and the screen; all the service connected with these.” (Numbers 3:28-31)
The Kohathites were descendants of Aaron the priest. Their responsibilities in the care of the Tabernacle involved the most holy things therein, particularly the ark of the covenant. Why is it therefore no surprise that the first lot should fall to them? In our answer, we are to consider the following passage of Scripture:
“Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood. These are the garments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons to serve me as priests. They shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen.” (Exodus 28:1-5)
Aaron was the first to be consecrated and wear the holy garments as high priest, and his descendants were also to serve as priests. This was a high honor, and the lot for them fell out for the territory of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin. This placed them right where they would need to be when the Temple was eventually built in Jerusalem, a future event yet unknown to the people of Israel.
“This did not happen by chance; but God, according to His wonderful counsel, placed them just in that situation which He had determined to select for His own temple” (John Calvin).
Next: why does it make sense for Gibeon to be one of the cities given to the Levites?
“Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” (Joshua 9:23)
The Gibeonites had tricked Joshua into making a covenant of peace, and so they were cursed to be servants in the service of the house of God. It makes perfect sense that they should live with the Levites then, so they may fulfill their service. This curse is also a blessing in that they will be in proximity to the things of God, able to see, hear, and learn the plan of salvation as the Levites in their midst perform their duties to the Lord and to his people.
We move next to the allotment to, and the duties of the Gershonite clans.
“And the guard duty of the sons of Gershon in the tent of meeting involved the tabernacle, the tent with its covering, the screen for the entrance of the tent of meeting, the hangings of the court, the screen for the door of the court that is around the tabernacle and the altar, and its cords—all the service connected with these.” (Numbers 3: 25-26)
We should note that in several verses throughout the chapter we are reminded that particular Levitical towns are also cities of refuge. Why is this? As discussed earlier, the Levites were the local judiciary. The passage from Deuteronomy 17 quoted above makes this abundantly clear, “If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another… then you shall arise and go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose. And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision.” There were many judicial needs among the nation of Israel, so there were Levites living scattered around the country to meet those needs. Our wise God, in his merciful kindness, saw to it that the fugitives seeking safety had access to the judges they required in their time of need.
And now we come to the allotment to and duties of the Merarite clans.
“And the appointed guard duty of the sons of Merari involved the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessories; all the service connected with these; also the pillars around the court, with their bases and pegs and cords.” (Numbers 3:36-37)
We have read about the duties of each of the three clans of the Levites concerning the tabernacle. Throughout the years of wandering in the wilderness they had to take down and set up the entire tabernacle over and over again. Doing so was a massive endeavor and required teamwork and coordination. If some part of the structure was misplaced or broken they couldn’t just run to Lowes to buy a replacement. Once the tabernacle was settled in its place in Shiloh, the need for maintenance would continue, and the clans knew who were responsible for each part.
We now come to a question that had me stumped. None of my commentaries addressed it, and yet it seemed significant. The fact that the Levites are given pasturelands along with their towns is emphasized throughout the chapter. If they are supposed to live off the offerings of the people, why are they keeping livestock? I phoned a friend. (Really, I texted one and emailed another.) One of my pastors found the following in his library of commentaries.
“The Levites belong to God and must serve him, not their own financial interests. They must depend upon him for their livelihood. God, not land and agricultural riches, are the inheritance of the Levites (cf. 13:14, 33). The priesthood, not farm work, occupies their time (18:7). The remedy is equally simple. The tribes of Israel are responsible to support their priests. Part of this support involves a “parsonage.” Each tribe gives of its own cities for the priests. It gives offerings of which the priests gain a part for their own food.” Trent C. Butler, Word Biblical Commentary volume 7, Joshua, Thomas Nelson Inc, 1983
And in another:
“Altogether the number of Levitical cities totaled forty-eight, as Num. 35:6 had specified. A special point is made of the fact that the cities assigned consisted each of a city with its pasture land round about it. The fact that this already much-repeated information is mentioned once more at the end indicates the functional purpose that the cities had. The Levites were not to possess them, but to be users of them. They did not receive an “inheritance” in the proper sense of the word because the Lord was their inheritance. The cities were meant for them to dwell in. The Levitical cities were a constant reminder to Israel that the land they had received was different from that of other lands. This helped every believing Israelite to say as he reflected on his blessings: “the Lord is my portion” (Ps. 16:5).” Martin H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1981
Finally, this answer came by email from Iain Duguid, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary.
“I couldn’t find any obviously compelling answers in my commentaries. I suspect that there is a distinction in OT thought between keeping some animals and farming the soil. The former is a sideline that almost everyone does (including the Levites), while the latter is a means of supporting yourself. But I can’t cite any authorities in favor of that view.”
Basically, as my pastor said, they didn’t have refrigeration, and they needed to eat year-round, not only when there were appointed feasts. If almost everyone keeps some animals, but not for the sake of farming vocationally, then the pasture lands are like the pantry. Keeping animals was a functional necessity, not limited only to farmers.
I was looking for redemptive symbolism in this, and it turns out to be simply a practical need in the culture in which they lived. These practical details are important, but we can miss them if we are looking for spiritual meanings in every line of Scripture. The Lord was aware of their daily needs, and he met them where they lived. We have refrigerators and grocery stores, they had pasture lands.
Our next question reminds us of Jacob’s harsh words to Levi in his final blessing of his sons.
“Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” (Genesis 49:5-7)
Who would have guessed that the Levites’ dispersion throughout Israel would be as chosen priests to bless to the entire nation? What does this teach us about God? As James Boice succinctly puts it:
“God turned what was originally a curse into a blessing… (his) righteous judgement on sin into a blessing.” [Joshua, An Expositional Commentary, by James Montgomery Boice Published 1989 by Baker Books]
Does this sound familiar?
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:13-14)
If you are in Christ, you are blessed because he took the curse on your behalf. God’s righteous judgement on sin fell on Jesus as he hung on the cursed cross, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. Praise be to our Savior, Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, who interceded on our behalf that we might be blessed in him with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
And now, finally, we come to the closing verses of Joshua chapter 21.
“Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.” (Joshua 21:43-45)
Words of encouragement, so beautiful, and so true. God fulfilled his promise to them. There were still pockets of Canaanites living here and there, and that would present difficulties in years to come, but God’s promise remained. Complete peace and tranquility won’t be found this side of heaven, but knowing that the Lord will be faithful to fulfill his promises to us, just as he did for the Israelites, gives us reason to hope. Our trust is in a promise-keeping God. Not one word of all his good promises will fail; they will all come to pass.