Tribe of Levi and a Land Inheritance

Why did the tribe of Levi receive no land inheritance?

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In the book of Joshua, each of the twelve tribes receive an allotment of land once they enter into the Promised Land, or in the case of the Transjordan tribes, on the other side of the Jordan. However, one of the twelve tribes, the priestly tribe, the Levites, did not receive an allotment of land, per se. And so, right away we see that this tribe of the Levites was categorically different than the other tribes, the other eleven tribes. As such, their interaction with the Promised Land and their value therein is going to be categorically different as well. As we mentioned, all eleven receive an allotment of land. The Levites receive, per the text, "offerings by fire." Their inheritance is not land; their inheritance is deemed an offering of fire. Now this phrase is used throughout Leviticus 1–7, and it denotes various kinds of burnt offerings. It can also denote other types of offerings, grain and gift offerings as well. But the idea is that Israel's priestly tribe will be interacting and symbolically different than the other tribes in the Promised Land… Further stipulations for the Levites in the Promised Land are given in Deuteronomy 18:1, 2… In Deuteronomy 18:1, 2, we're told that the Levites are going to live off of their neighbors' sacrifices. Their livelihood will not come from their working their own particular plot of land. It will come from the sacrifices of the Israelites as they come in obedience to worship of the Lord. And in verse 2 of Deuteronomy 18, we're told the Levites' inheritance itself will be the Lord — "The Lord himself will be your inheritance." … In chapter 21 of Joshua, we're told that the Levites, instead of being given one land that belongs to their tribe, they are given cities inside of the other tribes' land. In these cities, the Levites can live, receive sacrifices and live off the neighbors' sacrifices that are brought to them. They also are allowed to raise cattle for their own consumption on some land outside of the city. And so, again, we see that the Levites interaction with the Promised Land is categorically different than the other tribes… The designation of these tribal cities for the Levites in chapter 21 has this dual effect on this different category of tribe, these Levites. The first effect that it has on the Levites is that it severely limits their possessions, physically underscoring the fact that all that they've received, all that Israel has received, is from the hand of the Lord. It's not their own doing. So, the first effect of the Levites simply inheriting cities as opposed to an entire land is that they're reliant upon others. The second effect is that the Levites themselves physically become symbols, symbols of God's presence, first of all locally among the other tribes, and then Israel becomes a symbol of God's presence amongst neighbors who do not worship the Lord. The Levites become these constant physical, tangible reminders of Israel's devotion exclusively to the Lord and reminders and encouragement that, in fact, the Lord is devoted to Israel as well and has placed his representative, the Levites, those who commune with him directly, in their midst for their good.

Answer by Dr. Seth Tarrer

Dr. Seth Tarrer is Visiting Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Knox Theological Seminary. Dr. Tarrer received his M.Div. from Beeson Divinity School and his Ph.D. from University of St. Andrews. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and has taught at seminaries in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Medellin, Colombia. He is the author of "Reading with the Faithful: Interpretation of True and False Prophecy in the Book of Jeremiah from Ancient Times to Modern" (Eisenbraums, 2013).