A Priestly Presence.

Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites came to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua the son of Nun and to the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the people of Israel. And they said to them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, “The Lord commanded through Moses that we be given cities to dwell in, along with their pasturelands for our livestock.” So by command of the Lord the people of Israel gave to the Levites the following cities and pasturelands out of their inheritance.

The lot came out for the clans of the Kohathites. So those Levites who were descendants of Aaron the priest received by lot from the tribes of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin, thirteen cities.

And the rest of the Kohathites received by lot from the clans of the tribe of Ephraim, from the tribe of Dan and the half-tribe of Manasseh, ten cities.

The Gershonites received by lot from the clans of the tribe of Issachar, from the tribe of Asher, from the tribe of Naphtali, and from the half-tribe of Manasseh in Bashan, thirteen cities.

The Merarites according to their clans received from the tribe of Reuben, the tribe of Gad, and the tribe of Zebulun, twelve cities.

These cities and their pasturelands the people of Israel gave by lot to the Levites, as the Lord had commanded through Moses.

Out of the tribe of the people of Judah and the tribe of the people of Simeon they gave the following cities mentioned by name, 10 which went to the descendants of Aaron, one of the clans of the Kohathites who belonged to the people of Levi; since the lot fell to them first. 11 They gave them Kiriath-arba (Arba being the father of Anak), that is Hebron, in the hill country of Judah, along with the pasturelands around it. 12 But the fields of the city and its villages had been given to Caleb the son of Jephunneh as his possession.

13 And to the descendants of Aaron the priest they gave Hebron, the city of refuge for the manslayer, with its pasturelands, Libnah with its pasturelands, 14 Jattir with its pasturelands, Eshtemoa with its pasturelands, 15 Holon with its pasturelands, Debir with its pasturelands, 16 Ain with its pasturelands, Juttah with its pasturelands, Beth-shemesh with its pasturelands—nine cities out of these two tribes; 17 then out of the tribe of Benjamin, Gibeon with its pasturelands, Geba with its pasturelands, 18 Anathoth with its pasturelands, and Almon with its pasturelands—four cities. 19 The cities of the descendants of Aaron, the priests, were in all thirteen cities with their pasturelands.

20 As to the rest of the Kohathites belonging to the Kohathite clans of the Levites, the cities allotted to them were out of the tribe of Ephraim. 21 To them were given Shechem, the city of refuge for the manslayer, with its pasturelands in the hill country of Ephraim, Gezer with its pasturelands, 22 Kibzaim with its pasturelands, Beth-horon with its pasturelands—four cities; 23 and out of the tribe of Dan, Elteke with its pasturelands, Gibbethon with its pasturelands, 24 Aijalon with its pasturelands, Gath-rimmon with its pasturelands—four cities; 25 and out of the half-tribe of Manasseh, Taanach with its pasturelands, and Gath-rimmon with its pasturelands—two cities. 26 The cities of the clans of the rest of the Kohathites were ten in all with their pasturelands.

27 And to the Gershonites, one of the clans of the Levites, were given out of the half-tribe of Manasseh, Golan in Bashan with its pasturelands, the city of refuge for the manslayer, and Beeshterah with its pasturelands—two cities; 28 and out of the tribe of Issachar, Kishion with its pasturelands, Daberath with its pasturelands, 29 Jarmuth with its pasturelands, En-gannim with its pasturelands—four cities; 30 and out of the tribe of Asher, Mishal with its pasturelands, Abdon with its pasturelands, 31 Helkath with its pasturelands, and Rehob with its pasturelands—four cities; 32 and out of the tribe of Naphtali, Kedesh in Galilee with its pasturelands, the city of refuge for the manslayer, Hammoth-dor with its pasturelands, and Kartan with its pasturelands—three cities. 33 The cities of the several clans of the Gershonites were in all thirteen cities with their pasturelands.

34 And to the rest of the Levites, the Merarite clans, were given out of the tribe of Zebulun, Jokneam with its pasturelands, Kartah with its pasturelands, 35 Dimnah with its pasturelands, Nahalal with its pasturelands—four cities; 36 and out of the tribe of Reuben, Bezer with its pasturelands, Jahaz with its pasturelands, 37 Kedemoth with its pasturelands, and Mephaath with its pasturelands—four cities; 38 and out of the tribe of Gad, Ramoth in Gilead with its pasturelands, the city of refuge for the manslayer, Mahanaim with its pasturelands, 39 Heshbon with its pasturelands, Jazer with its pasturelands—four cities in all. 40 As for the cities of the several Merarite clans, that is, the remainder of the clans of the Levites, those allotted to them were in all twelve cities.

41 The cities of the Levites in the midst of the possession of the people of Israel were in all forty-eight cities with their pasturelands. 42 These cities each had its pasturelands around it. So it was with all these cities. Joshua 21:1-42 ESV


During the days of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, God had given the tribe of Levi the responsibility of caring for the tabernacle and everything associated with it. They were declared by God to be a priestly order, with their descendants holding the distinct honor of serving the rest of the tribes of Israel in a spiritual capacity.They were to be unique among all the other tribes, not only because of their  special God-ordained role, but because of God’s declaration that they not be allotted their own portion of land as an inheritance. In the book of Numbers, we have recorded God’s words to Moses that outlined His plans for the Levites.

“Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel. 10 And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood. But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” – Numbers 3:6-10 ESV

And God gave Moses the reasoning behind His decision.

12 “Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, 13 for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:11-13 ESV

And later on, when God had given the law to Moses, He provided further details concerning the distinctive role of this particular tribe.

At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him.) – Deuteronomy 10:8-9 ESV

But who were the Levites and what led God to choose them for this very special honor? To understand what is going on here, we have to go back to Exodus chapter 2, where we have recorded the birth of Moses.

1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. – Exodus 2:1-2 ESV

Moses was a pure-blooded Levite. His father, Amram, was a Levite, born to Kohath, who was a son of Levi, the third son of Jacob. Moses’ mother was also a Levite. And Moses and his brother, Aaron, would become the first priests overseeing the well-being of the tribes of Israel as a whole. The Levites would become God’s ordained instruments dedicated to His service and assigned the task of ministering to the spiritual needs of the people. They belonged to God and, as His servants, they were to be cared for by God. So, when it came time to apportion the land of promise, they were not given a particular portion of land like all the other tribes. Instead, God gave them cities located within the boundaries of the other tribes – 48 cities in all. Each tribe was required to provide four cities each, and the Levites were given pasture land around those cities for their own use. This plan resulted in the Levites being equally distributed among the other tribes, providing them with ready access to the people of God so that they might instruct them in the law and in the worship of Jehovah. The Levites did not become the sole-inhabitants of these cities and the cities did not become their possessions. The cities remained the property of the tribes on whose land they existed. But the Levites were provided places to live and a means for raising flocks to care for their needs. God became their provider and benefactor.

God provided for His people. He had given them the land, but He had also provided them with a priestly clan, whose sole purpose was to teach the people the law and encourage them in their worship of God. God knew the people were going to need far more than land. He also recognized that their designation as His chosen people would not be enough to keep them faithful to His law and committed to the worship of Him alone. In fact, one of the key reasons the Levites had been chosen by God is because of the role they had played in God’s discipline of the people of Israel after they had made the golden calf in the wilderness. When Moses had seen what Aaron and the people had done while He had been on the top of Mount Sinai receiving the law from God, he called for judgment to be enacted upon the people, nd it was the Levites who responded.

26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord‘s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. 29 And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.” – Exodus 32:26-29 ESV

The Levites, the tribe of Moses, came to his aid and to the defense of God’s name, and brought just judgment upon all those who had worshiped the false god. This tribe was dispersed among all the other tribes in order that they might hold the people of God accountable. They were to be a strong influence for good among the people,

9 “For they observed your word
    and kept your covenant.
10 They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar. – Deuteronomy 33:9-10 ESV

These men were dedicated to God. They belonged to Him and were given the indispensable and unenviable task of keeping the people of God faithful to God. From their 48 cities, spread all across the land of promise, they were to be salt and light among the tribes of Judah. Their job would not be an easy one, but it was vital to the spiritual well-being of the nation. Obedience was going to be the key to Israel getting the most out of their experience in the land. And the Levites were God’s ambassadors, tasked with teaching the people the ways of God so that they might walk in obedience to God and fully know the blessings of God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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