Levitical Cities

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The ecclesiastical tribe of Levi neither fought in the wars of the conquest of Canaan nor received an allocation of continuous territory as did all the other tribes (see *Priests and Levites). Its economic base was to be the sacred offerings of the Israelites – figuratively speaking, "yhwh was its portion and share among the Israelites" (Num. 18:20, 24; Deut. 18:1–2). Yet since the clergy was not a monastic order but a tribe consisting of families, the Levites required real estate on which to build their houses and land on which to graze their beasts. That need was met by the levitical cities prescribed in Numbers 35:1–8: the Israelites were to assign out of their tribal portions 48 towns with strips of open land outside them to Levites, distributed among the tribal territories in proportion to their varying sizes. The six cities of refuge are included among the 48. The open land is in the form of a square, each of whose sides is at a distance of 1,000 cubits from the town wall at its farthest extension toward each of the four cardinal points of the compass (on this meaning of verses 4–5 see M. Greenberg in bibl.). The legal status of this property differed from that of ordinary property: to prevent the dispossession of the Levites it was ordained that they might at any time redeem houses in their towns that they had been forced by need to sell; moreover, such a house, if not redeemed, reverted to its original Levite owner at the Jubilee (ordinarily, a town house that was not redeemed within a year of its sale became irreversibly transferred to its buyer). No plots of their open land could be sold at all (Lev. 25:29–34).

From Joshua 21:11–12 it emerges that the assignment of a town to Levites did not include either its unwalled suburbs or its fields (beyond the levitical open land); these remained tribal property. How the assignment was done is described in Joshua 21, where the list of towns is also given. The Levites received by lot four towns in the portions of each of the 12 tribes, excepting Judah and Simeon which together supplied nine, and Naphtali which supplied only three. The priests were concentrated in 13 southern towns in the portions of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin; all the rest of the Levites were assigned towns of the other tribes to the north. A variant of the list in Joshua appears in I Chronicles 6:39–66; W.F. Albright's close study has led him to conclude that both derive from a single original.

Two features of the plan of Joshua 21 indicate its artificiality: its schematic nature – the number and distribution of the towns and the clean separation of priests from Levites (in the spirit of the priestly stratum of the Pentateuch); and obliviousness of the real impulse behind the Levites' scattering through the land of Israel – the necessity of finding employment at local sanctuaries. Not only does the list omit many early sanctuary towns (e.g., Beth-El, Nob, Jerusalem, Beer-Sheba) while

mentioning towns in which the presence of Israelites, let alone a sanctuary, is dubious (e.g., Gibbethon, Eltekeh), but the whole scheme to which the list belongs aims at solving the problem of settling the Levites without reference to their sacred vocation. Had the scheme envisioned them serving at sanctuaries, it could never have been content with only four towns per tribe. (The real situation of Levites – namely, dispersal throughout the countryside – is rather reflected in Deuteronomy's allusion to them "in any of the settlements throughout all Israel"; 18:6; cf. 16:11, 14.) The visionary arrangement of Ezekiel 45:1–5; 48:8–14 gives more consideration to the reality of levitical needs in that it settles the priests and Levites in a sacred "oblation" adjacent to the future temple in which they are to serve (on the analogy of their position around the desert tabernacle in the Pentateuch). Granting the unreal character of the scheme of Joshua 21, one may still ask whether any historical situation underlies the town list. J. Wellhausen regarded it as a post-Exilic "echo of the general recollection that there were once in Israel many holy places and residences of priesthoods," the influence of Jerusalem being reflected in the concentration of priests in Judah and Benjamin – this in accord with his view of the lateness of the entire priestly stratum of the Pentateuch. On the other hand, Y. Kaufmann regarded the list as a very early solution to the problem of the future of the Levites after the break up of the unified camp of Joshua's time; he dates it to a time before sanctuaries had been established throughout the country, and characterizes it as wholly utopian and never put into practice. Other scholars sought to interpret the list in the light of the fact that the United Monarchy (under David and Solomon) was the sole period in which all the towns were in Israel's possession. The list was taken as a reflex of the royal regulation of the settlement of Levites throughout the newly extended kingdom (S. Klein, W.F. Albright). B. Mazar considered the Levites an arm of the civil service of the United Monarchy (suggested by I Chron. 26:30–32), settled in strategic locations and provincial capitals around the country to manage royal estates, collect taxes, and strengthen borderlands with prevailingly non-Israelite populations. Even this interpretation, however, cannot mitigate the theoretical and unreal character of the scheme of Joshua 21, although its representation of the dispersal of the Levites throughout the land of Israel is in principle historically true (cf. M. Haran).


J. Wellhausen, Proleg, 159–64; D. Hoffmann, Die wichtigsten lnstanzen gegen die Graf-Wellhausensche Hypothese, 1 (1903), 148ff.; S. Klein, in: Koveẓ ha-Ḥevrah ha-Ivrit le-Ḥakirat Ereẓ-Yisrael ve-Attikoteha (1935), 81–107; W.F. Albright, in: L. Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (1946), 49ff. (Eng. sect.); Y. Kaufmann, Sefer Yehoshu'a (1959), 270–82; B. Mazar, in: vt Supplement, 7 (1960), 210ff.; M. Haran, in: jbl, 80 (1961), 45ff., 156ff.; M. Greenberg, in: jaos, 88 (1968), 59ff.

[Moshe Greenberg]