The Levites were not the sole possessors or occupiers of these cities. They were simply allowed to live in them and have fields for the pasture of their herds. These cities did not cease to belong to the tribes within which they were located. The Levites could sell their homes, but could redeem them at any time, and if they failed to do so the homes automatically returned to them in the Year of Jubilee. Their fields, however, could not be sold (Lev 25:32ff.).
The Levites did not live only in Levitical cities. They appear to have been regarded, in some respects at least, as belonging to the tribe within which they resided, even if it did not happen to be a Levitical city; hence the statement in Judges 17:7, “Now there was a young man of Bethlehem in Judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite; and he sojourned there.” Thus also Elkanah, the father of Samuel, who undoubtedly was a Levite, is called an Ephraimite (1 Sam 1:1). The Levites are never regarded as a thirteenth tribe.
These cities were allocated to the Levites by anticipation, to be occupied by them only to the extent that they required them and the Israelites possessed them. It is unlikely that the Levites ever dwelt in all of them, or even most of them, for some of them did not belong to Israel until long after the time of Moses and Joshua. 1 Chronicles 6:54-81 also gives a list of the Levitical cities, but the list is smaller than the one in Joshua, and there are changes in names, perhaps because there was a change to a new city due to the unsuitability of the old one, or because some of the older ones were no longer in use. Levitical cities mentioned in Jewish history after the time of Joshua are Beth-shemesh (1 Sam 6:13-15), Jattir (1 Sam 30:27), Anathoth (1 Kings 2:26; Jer 1:1; 32).
W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (1941), 131; W. F. Albright, “The List of Levitic Cities,” Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (1945), 49ff.; M. F. Unger, Archaeology and the OT (1954), 210, 211; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961), 366, 367.
The Levitical Cities
Based on Joshua 21
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
See Levitical Cities; City.
I. LEGAL PROVISIONS
II. WELLHAUSEN’s VIEW
III. ALTERNATIVE VIEW AND EVIDENCE
1. Traces of the Cities
2. Wellhausen’s Arguments Answered
3. Van Hoonacker’s Reply
4. Ezekiel’s Vision
5. Priestly Cities and Cities in Which Priests Dwell
I. Legal Provisions.
1. Numbers: Nu 35:1-8 provides that 48 cities should be given to the Levites, each surrounded by a pasturage. The exact details are not quite clear, for in the Hebrew, Nu 35:4 would naturally be read as meaning that the pasturage was a radius of 1,000 cubits from the city walls, while 35:5 makes each city the center of a square, each side of which was 2,000 cubits long. Extant variants in the versions suggest, however, that the text has suffered slightly in transmission. Originally there seems to have been no discrepancy between the two verses, and it may be doubted whether the intent was that the city was always to be in the mathematical center of the patch. The Levites were to have the right of redeeming the houses at any time, and in default of redemption they were to go out in the Jubilee. The field was not to be sold (Le 25:32 f).
De 18:8 undoubtedly recognizes patrimonial possessions of the Levites outside the religious capital, and sees no inconsistency with its earlier statement that Levi had no portion or inheritance with Israel (18:1). The explanation lies in the fact that these cities were not a tribal portion like the territories of the secular tribes. The area occupied by the whole 48 jointly would only have amounted to less than 16 miles.
II. Wellhausen’s View.
Jos 21 relates that this command was fulfilled by the allocation of 48 cities, but it is clear that some of those cities were not in fact reduced into possession; see e.g. Jos 16:10; Jud 1:29 as to Gezer, and Jud 1:27 as to Taanach. Wellhausen treats the whole arrangement as fictitious. His main reasons are: (1) that the arrangement is physically impracticable in a mountainous country, and (2) that "there is not a historical trace of the existence of the Levitical cities." Many remained in the hands of the Canaanites till a late period, while others were "important but by no means ecclesiastical towns" (Prolegomena, 160). Two pages later he says that "four of them were demonstrably famous old seats of worship," and conjectures that most, if not all, were ancient sanctuaries. He also regards Ezekiel’s scheme of a heave offering of land (Eze 45) as the origin of the idea. Yet "Jerus and the temple, which, properly speaking, occasioned the whole arrangement, are buried in silence with a diligence which is in the highest degree surprising" (p. 164).
III. Alternative View and Evidence.
1. Traces of the Cities:
In point of fact, there are traces of some of the Levitical cities in the later history. Such are Anathoth (1Ki 2:26; Jer 1:1; 32), Jattir (2Sa 20:26, where, as shown in the article PRIESTS AND LEVITES (which see), Jattirite should be read for the Massoretic Jairite), Beth-shemesh (1Sa 6:13-15; see Priests and Levites as to the text). (From Am 7:17 it appears that Amaziah of Bethel had land, but we do not know that he was of Levitical descent or where the land was.)
2. Wellhausen’s Arguments Answered:
Further, the fact that many other Levitical cities appear to have been centers of worship points to the presence of priests. Was the great high place of Gibeon (1Ki 3:4) unserved by priests? It is surely natural to suppose that during the period between the capture of the Ark and its transport to Jerusalem there was a tendency for high places to spring up in cities where there were priests rather than elsewhere; indeed there would probably be a disposition on the part of unemployed priests to go astray in a direction that would prove lucrative.
3. Van Hoonacker’s Reply:
With regard to the other objection, Van Hoonacker’s answer is convincing: "As to the way in which the measurements were to be carried out in the mountainous country of Palestine, the legislator doubtless knew what method was usually employed. Besides, we are free to believe that he only gives these figures as approximate indications" (Sacerdoce levitique, 433).
4. Ezekiel’s Vision:
The same writer’s reply to theory that the idea originated with Ezekiel is wholly admirable. "Strictly we could ask .... whether Ezekiel did not found himself on the description of the camp of the Israelites in the desert. It is only too manifest that the division and appointment of the territory as presented in Eze 48 of the prophet are scarcely inspired by practical necessities, that they have a very pronounced character of ideal vision; and `as no fancy is pure fancy,’ we ought also to find the elements which are at the basis of Ezekiel’s vision. The tents of the tribe of Levi ranged around the tabernacle explain themselves in the Priestly Code; we may doubt whether the Levites, deprived of territory (Eze 44:28) and nevertheless grouped on a common territory, in the conditions described in Eze 48, explain themselves with equal facility. A camp is readily conceived on the pattern of a chessboard, but not the country of Canaan. We need not stop there. It is in fact certain that Ezekiel here has in view the protection of the holiness of the temple from all profanation; and in the realm of the ideal, the means are appropriate to the end" (op. cit., 425 f).
5. Priestly Cities and Cities in Which Priests Dwell:
Lastly there runs through Wellhausen’s discussion the confusion between a city where priests may be dwelling and a priestly city. There were priests in Jerusalem, as there are today in London or Chicago; but none of these three places can be regarded as a priestly city in the same sense as the Levitical cities. Not one of them has ever been a patrimonial city of priests, or could be the origin of such an arrangement.
While therefore the whole of the cities mentioned in Jos 21 were certainly not reduced into possession at the time of the conquest, the Wellhausen theory on this matter cannot be sustained.
J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena, 159-63; A. Van Hoonacker, Sacerdoce levitique, 423-35 (very brilliant and important).
Harold M. Wiener