Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bible Commentary - Joshua 21

In this chapter, Joshua assigns the 48 Levitical cities.

Much like Deuteronomy was filled with random administrative trivia, Joshua is also filled with administrative trivia.  This time, it is the allocation of the cities promised to the Levites back in Num 35 (which also allocated the six cities of refuge).  Numbers didn't specify which cities, because the people still hadn't been to the promised land.  They might not have even known the names of the cities there.

Most of this chapter is fairly uneventful, but I think there are a few things that stood out to me.

First, I was very surprised that the sons of Aaron are given 13 cities.  Remember the time scale: Levi died about 440 years ago, but Aaron was alive during the exodus in the desert and died only a few years before the events of this chapter.  How then are the sons of Aaron given more cities than an entire clan of Levi like the Merarites or Gershonites?  During the second census (Num 26) the Levites numbered 23,000 in total, so we can reason that each clan of Levites had around 6,000-8,000 men (not including women).  It seems unlikely that in his 80 year lifespan, Aaron was able to father 6,000 descendants.  It seems probable that the cities of Aaron must have been drastically underpopulated when they were first given, at least compared to the other clans of Levi.

Either way, there is a clear imbalance between the cities given to Aaron versus the other clans when compared to their respective populations.

Second, it's likely that not every city given to the Levites has been captured yet.  Since Aaron is given cities from Judah, Simeon and Benjamin, which are all located in the south east, nearly all of these cities have probably been captured.  However, the cities given to Gershon from Naphtali and Asher are possibly unconquered.  Similarly, Kohath is given cities from Dan which are almost certainly under Canaanite control.  This parallels the fact that not every tribe of Israel has captured their own inheritance yet, so the Levites are sharing in their homelessness.  For now, these inheritances are at least partially theoretical, and will have to be earned before they can be enjoyed.

Third, I noticed that the division of cities from the tribes is nearly but not exactly equal.  Since there are twelve tribes and 48 cities, it is evenly divisible with each tribe giving 4 cities.  However, for whatever reason Judah and Simeon give 9 cities, while Naphtali only gives 3 cities.  Every other tribe gives 4 cities.  This means there is close to equality between the tribes in how much they have to give to the Levites, but it also means that each tribe has roughly equal access to Levite ministry.  It's like they are paying a price, but also receiving a benefit, for having the Levites within their territory.  I don't think we know yet exactly what the Levites will do once the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant find a permanent resting place, but presumably the even distribution of the Levitical cities is designed to increase their availability across the nation.

On the other hand, the priests are clearly concentrated in Judah and Benjamin (Benjamin is directly adjacent to Judah), which seems to be concentrating the religious power in Judah.  While we don't have a clear idea what the Levites will do, the priests have numerous religious and legal functions, so putting them all near Judah means that the people of the other tribes will have to travel there whenever they need to be e.g. pronounced clean from a skin infection, among many other things.

Other than that, there's also the peculiar distribution of Hebron, where the city and fields around it are given to the priests, but the larger area around that, towns and so forth, are given to Caleb.  Clearly Hebron must have been a major city since it is named after Arba, "the father of the Anakites" (i.e. giants).

Lastly, as with the cities of refuge, the Levitical cities play a very small role in the stories of the OT.  They were probably important to the Israelites of the time, who lived and worked in the land that we only read about, but with more than 2,000 years of time between us and them, these details have little meaning to us now.

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