Holman Bible Dictionary
(leh viht' ih cuhl) Residence and pasture lands provided the priestly tribe of Levi in lieu of a tribal inheritance. Because of their priestly duties, the tribe of Levi did not receive any part of the land of Canaan as an inheritance (Numbers 18:20-24 ; Numbers 26:62 ; Deuteronomy 10:9 ; Deuteronomy 18:1-2 ; Joshua 18:7 ). To compensate them for this, they received the tithes of Israelites for their support (Numbers 18:21 ), and 48 cities were allotted to them from the inheritance of the other tribes. On the average, four cities from each tribe were Levitical cities. The practice of setting cities aside in this manner was a common Ancient Near Eastern practice.
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
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