Levitical Cities

From BiblePortal Wikipedia

Holman Bible Dictionary [1]

 Numbers 18:20-24 Numbers 26:62 Deuteronomy 10:9 Deuteronomy 18:1-2 Joshua 18:7 Numbers 18:21

The Levites were not the sole possessors or occupiers of these cities. They were simply allowed to live in them and have fields to pasture their herds. These cities did not cease to belong to the tribes within which they were located. Although six of the 48 were asylums for those guilty of manslaughter (Kedesh, Schechem, Hebron in Canaan, Bezer, Ramoth-Gilead, and Golan), Levitical cities and cities of refuge are not synonymous. See Cities Of Refuge . The privilege of asylum was not extended to all 48 Levitical cities. The aim of having cities of refuge was to control blood revenge by making it possible for public justice to intervene between the slayer and the victim's avenger of blood. The cities of refuge were probably priestly cities containing important shrines. Cities of refuge also served as punitive detention centers. The slayer was not permitted to leave until the death of the high priest. This was possibly interpreted as a vicarious expiation of life by life.

Levitical cities were a series of walled cities, apart from the lands surrounding them. Unwalled suburbs and fields outside the cities remained tribal property. The Levites could not sell any open plots of land.

The legal status of Levitical houses within these cities differed from ordinary property. To prevent the dispossession of Levites, it was ordained that they might at any time redeem houses in their own cities which they had been forced by need to sell. Moreover, such a house, if not redeemed, reverted to its original Levitical owner during the year of Jubilee. See Jubilee, Year of). Pastureland belonging to Levites could not be sold ( Leviticus 25:32-34 ).

Theological, political, and economic reasons led to establishing the cities. The cities formed bases of operation so that the Levites could better infiltrate each of the tribes to instruct them in God's covenant. Such bases would be most needed precisely where one finds them: in those areas least accessible to the central sanctuary. Obviously, there was also a political dimension. Certainly, the Levitical desire to secure Israel's loyalty to the Lord of the covenant would also imply a commitment to secure loyalty to the Lord's anointed, the king. There was a blending of covenant teaching and political involvement. The economic factor may have been the most significant. The list of cities describes the dispersion of the Levites who were not employed at the large sanctuaries, had no steady income, and who belonged, therefore, in the category of widows and orphans. The cities were established for men needing economic relief.

Gary D. Baldwin

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [2]

Levitical Cities See Priests and Levites, § d.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [3]

lḗ - vit´i - kal

I. Legal Provisions

1. Numbers

2. Deuteronomy

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:

 Numbers 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,   Numbers 35:4 would naturally be read as meaning that the pasturage was a radius of 1,000 cubits from the city walls, while   Numbers 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 (  Leviticus 25:32 f).

2. Deuteronomy:

 Deuteronomy 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 (  Deuteronomy 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.

 Joshua 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.   Joshua 16:10;  Judges 1:29 as to Gezer, and   Judges 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 (Ezek 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 ( 1 Kings 2:26;  Jeremiah 1:1; 32), Jattir ( 2 Samuel 20:26 , where, as shown in the article Priests And Levites (which see), Jattirite should be read for the Massoretic Jairite), Beth-shemesh ( 1 Samuel 6:13-15; see Priests And Levites as to the text). (From  Amos 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 ( 1 Kings 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  Ezekiel 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 (  Ezekiel 44:28 ) and nevertheless grouped on a common territory, in the conditions described in Ezek 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  Joshua 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).