Joshua: Chapter 21 - Cities for the Levites

Bible Study @ Hurst Gospel Hall

Author: John Whitmarsh
Added: 2010-01-21

The introduction to chapter 20 applies to this chapter and is repeated here. From chapters 13-19 we have read about the division of the land into the inheritance given to each tribe. Two cities, in particular, have been allocated one to Caleb in chapter 14 and the second to Joshua at the end of chapter 19. Chapters 20 and 21 deal with the allocation of further cities with special emphasis on the tribe of Levi which was without an area of land but received 48 cities dispersed among the 12 tribes' territories.



The cities were divided into four lots. The first was for Aaron and his sons. The second was for the Kohathites. The third was for the Gershonites and the last was for the Merarites. Why was Aaron favoured and singled out? His was the priestly family. Though a Kohathite, Aaron was designated high priest in the book of Exodus.



Who were Kohath, Gershon and Merari? Numbers 3.17 says, 'And these were the sons of Levi by their names; Gershon, Kohath and Merari.' The same order is given in the book of Chronicles (I Chronicles 6.1), 'The sons of Levi; Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.' The same is true in Exodus 6. Presumably this was the order of birth. In Joshua 21 the order is Kohath, Gershon and Merari.



When I Chronicles 6 gives the next generation it starts with the sons of Kohath in verses 2-15. Then verse 16 speaks of the three sons of Levi only this time Gershon is mentioned first of all! Quite confusing!



Kohath's sons are of interest. They were Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. Amram married Jochabed, his aunt (we know this from Exodus 6.20). Amram was father to Miriam, Aaron and Moses. This surely is the order of birth (we know this from the early chapters of the book of Exodus; Miriam was older than Moses as she was the one who spoke up for him when pharaoh's daughter discovered him in the river; Exodus 7.7 explains that Aaron was 83 when he appeared before pharaoh and Moses was 80) but not the order in I Chronicles 6. In Exodus 6 Miriam does not even get mentioned!!



The families of the Levites also had their positions in the camp as the children of Israel journeyed through the wilderness. Gershon was to the west of the tabernacle (Numbers 3.23); Kohath was to pitch to the south of the tabernacle (Numbers 3.29); Merari was to be to the north (Numbers 3.35) and the east was to be for Moses and for Aaron and his sons (Numbers 3.38). Which tribes were with each family of Levites? With Gershon were Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin; with Kohath were Reuben, Simeon and Gad; with Merari were Dan, Asher and Naphtali. Moses and Aaron and his sons were with Judah Issachar and Zebulun.



This is some of the family background to the tribe the members of which were not even numbered among the children of Israel.



It was stated during the reading that there were many questions raised during the careful reading of the passage not all of which could be answered by the study group. Such questions are left open ended in the notes.



21:1 Then came near the heads of the fathers of the Levites unto Eleazar the priest, and unto Joshua the son of Nun, and unto the heads of the fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel;


21:2 And they spake unto them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, saying, The LORD commanded by the hand of Moses to give us cities to dwell in, with the suburbs thereof for our cattle.


21:3 And the children of Israel gave unto the Levites out of their inheritance, at the commandment of the LORD, these cities and their suburbs.


21:4 And the lot came out for the families of the Kohathites: and the children of Aaron the priest, which were of the Levites, had by lot out of the tribe of Judah, and out of the tribe of Simeon, and out of the tribe of Benjamin, thirteen * cities.


21:5 And the rest of the children of Kohath had by lot out of the families of the tribe of Ephraim, and out of the tribe of Dan, and out of the half tribe of Manasseh, ten cities.


21:6 And the children of Gershon had by lot out of the families of the tribe of Issachar, and out of the tribe of Asher, and out of the tribe of Naphtali, and out of the half tribe of Manasseh in Bashan, thirteen * cities.


21:7 The children of Merari by their families had out of the tribe of Reuben, and out of the tribe of Gad, and out of the tribe of Zebulun, twelve * cities.


21:8 And the children of Israel gave by lot unto the Levites these cities with their suburbs, as the LORD commanded by the hand of Moses.



'Heads of the fathers' seems a strange phrase. We have encountered this term in the first verse of chapter 14. These were the most important men among the children of Israel. The chief men among the Levites met with the chief men from all the other tribes and with Eleazar and Joshua. They met at Shiloh. This is not the first mention of this town in the book of Joshua as we encountered this place in the beginning of chapter 18. They referred to the commandment of the Lord given by the hand of Moses. Numbers 35.2 says, 'Command the children of Israel, that they give unto the Levites, of the inheritance of their possession, cities to dwell in; and ye shall give also unto the Levites suburbs for the cities round about them.' It is Numbers 35 that deals with the forty eight cities that were to be given to the Levites and includes the six cities of refuge. An explanation of the extent of the suburbs (pasture land) is also given in Numbers 35. Joshua 21 is the fulfilment of this command. Verse 3 explains that the children of Israel gave out of their inheritance. This was grace manifest in their behaviour for they had been given this territory but now they were prepared to give back of their inheritance. The sons of Aaron had their cities in the southern part of the land. It is interesting to note that Shiloh was in Ephraim, further up country. The reason for mentioning this fact is that the 'temple' was there in Eli and Samuel's day. Surely the priests were required for the temple? They were living further to the south. This was one of the open ended questions to which reference was made in the introduction. Verse 5 speaks of the rest of the children of Kohath. This means the children of Kohath who were not in Aaron's family. Their ten cities came from within the territories of tribes who were further north. Gershon had its cities from out of three and a half tribes as there were cities that it owned within the Bashan region on the eastern side of the river Jordan. The children of Merari had their twelve cities in the eastern side of the river and also in Zebulun to the west of the river. The families did not get the same number of cities. The lowest number of cities, ten, went to the remainder of the children of Kohath after the 13 cities were given to the sons of Aaron. This overview of what took place is given in the first eight verses and then from verse 9 the detail is given.



21:9 And they gave out of the tribe of the children of Judah, and out of the tribe of the children of Simeon, these cities which are here mentioned by name,


21:10 Which the children of Aaron, being of the families of the Kohathites, who were of the children of Levi, had: for theirs was the first * lot.


21:11 And they gave them the city of Arba * the father of Anak, which city is Hebron, in the hill country of Judah, with the suburbs thereof round about it.


21:12 But the fields of the city, and the villages thereof, gave they to Caleb the son of Jephunneh for his possession.


21:13 Thus they gave to the children of Aaron the priest Hebron with her suburbs, to be a city of refuge for the slayer; and Libnah with her suburbs,


21:14 And Jattir with her suburbs, and Eshtemoa with her suburbs,


21:15 And Holon with her suburbs, and Debir with her suburbs,


21:16 And Ain with her suburbs, and Juttah with her suburbs, and Bethshemesh with her suburbs; nine cities out of those two tribes.


21:17 And out of the tribe of Benjamin, Gibeon with her suburbs, Geba with her suburbs,


21:18 Anathoth with her suburbs, and Almon with her suburbs; four cities.


21:19 All the cities of the children of Aaron, the priests, were thirteen * cities with their suburbs.



There were ten cities allocated to the children of Aaron. The language of verse 9 and 17 is similar to that of verse 3 in the AV. They gave out of their inheritance. The cities that were given were mentioned by name as verse 9 lets us know. Aaron's genealogy is traced back to Levi in verse 10 (see introduction). The sons of Aaron had the first lot. It was then the turn of the Kohathites and this maybe because they were connected (family wise) with the sons of Aaron.



Hebron was a city of refuge belonging to the children of Aaron. This is the first city that is mentioned in the list. Hebron is interesting in that it has already been given to Caleb in chapter 14. Now it was a priestly city and also a city of refuge. It performed three functions. An explanation is required and this is duly given in verse 12. Caleb had the fields and villages that were around the city.



We did not spend much time considering the names of each town. Libnah has been mentioned in chapters 10, 12 and 15. Jattir was mentioned in chapter 15 a chapter that includes a lot of these names. Others have already been mentioned in earlier chapters in the book Eshtemoa (possibly the Eshtemoth of 15.50), Holon (15.51), Debir (chapters 10, 11, 12, 13 and 15 this city is interesting as the captor of Debir was promised Caleb's daughter to be his wife), Ain (15.32), Juttah (15.55), Bethshemesh (15.10; it is also to be found in chapter 19), Gibeon (the Gibeonites and their mouldy bread featured in chapter 9), Geba (not mentioned elsewhere in the book as Geba), Anathoth (not mentioned elsewhere in Joshua but known to us as a town in Benjamin famous as being the birthplace of Jeremiah), Almon (only ever mentioned here). It is suggested that the reader look back at the passages where these names first appear for further help.



21:20 And the families of the children of Kohath, the Levites which remained of the children of Kohath, even they had the cities of their lot out of the tribe of Ephraim.


21:21 For they gave them Shechem with her suburbs in mount Ephraim, to be a city of refuge for the slayer; and Gezer with her suburbs,


21:22 And Kibzaim with her suburbs, and Bethhoron with her suburbs; four cities.


21:23 And out of the tribe of Dan, Eltekeh with her suburbs, Gibbethon with her suburbs,


21:24 Aijalon with her suburbs, Gathrimmon with her suburbs; four cities.


21:25 And out of the half tribe of Manasseh, Tanach with her suburbs, and Gathrimmon with her suburbs; two cities.


21:26 All the cities were ten with their suburbs for the families of the children of Kohath that remained.



Then it was the turn of the Kohathites who were not in Aaron's family. The word 'remained' in verse 20 and verse 26 means 'the remainder' or 'the rest'. There were ten cities allocated to the Kohathites. One of these was Shechem, a city of refuge. This is the first on the list of the cities allocated to the Kohathites. Gezer has been mentioned in chapters 10, 12 and 16. It was at Gezer that, despite the king of Gezer being slain in chapter 10, the children of Ephraim could not remove the Canaanite from their midst and they dwelt among the Ephrathites giving them tribute for the privilege of doing so. Kibzaim is only ever mentioned here. Bethhoron was mentioned on a number of occasions in earlier chapters (twice in each of chapters 10, 16 and 18).



Out of the tribe of Dan there were four cities including Gathrimmon. It is interesting that two cities were given from the half tribe Manasseh and one of these was also called Gathrimmon. There must have two places with the same name, one in each territory.



21:27 And unto the children of Gershon, of the families of the Levites, out of the other half tribe of Manasseh they gave Golan in Bashan with her suburbs, to be a city of refuge for the slayer; and Beeshterah with her suburbs; two cities.


21:28 And out of the tribe of Issachar, Kishon with her suburbs, Dabareh with her suburbs,


21:29 Jarmuth with her suburbs, Engannim with her suburbs; four cities.


21:30 And out of the tribe of Asher, Mishal with her suburbs, Abdon with her suburbs,


21:31 Helkath with her suburbs, and Rehob with her suburbs; four cities.


21:32 And out of the tribe of Naphtali, Kedesh in Galilee with her suburbs, to be a city of refuge for the slayer; and Hammothdor with her suburbs, and Kartan with her suburbs; three cities.


21:33 All the cities of the Gershonites according to their families were thirteen * cities with their suburbs.



Then it was the turn of Gershon and thirteen cities were allocated to the Gershonites with two of these being cities of refuge - Golan in Bashan and Kedesh in Galilee. Both are described as such. Both are the first city to be named from the particular tribe from which they came. Golan was the first city of two that was given by the half tribe Manasseh. Kedesh was the first in the list of three cities given by the tribe of Naphtali.



21:34 And unto the families of the children of Merari, the rest of the Levites, out of the tribe of Zebulun, Jokneam with her suburbs, and Kartah with her suburbs,


21:35 Dimnah with her suburbs, Nahalal with her suburbs; four cities.


21:36 And out of the tribe of Reuben, Bezer with her suburbs, and Jahazah with her suburbs,


21:37 Kedemoth with her suburbs, and Mephaath with her suburbs; four cities.


21:38 And out of the tribe of Gad, Ramoth in Gilead with her suburbs, to be a city of refuge for the slayer; and Mahanaim with her suburbs,


21:39 Heshbon with her suburbs, Jazer with her suburbs; four cities in all.


21:40 So all the cities for the children of Merari by their families, which were remaining of the families of the Levites, were by their lot twelve * cities.



There were twelve cities allocated to the Merarites. Two of these cities were cities of refuge. One of them is described as such. This city was Ramoth in Gilead the first on the list of four cities that was given by the tribe of Gad. It should also be noted that Bezer in Reuben was a city of refuge but that it is not described as such here. It is, however, the first on the list of cities given by Reuben. We could offer no explanation for the omission of the description of Bezer as a refuge city. It seems strange that all the other five were described as a 'city of refuge for the slayer' but not Bezer.



21:41 All the cities of the Levites within the possession of the children of Israel were forty and eight cities with their suburbs.


21:42 These cities were every one with their suburbs round about them: thus were all these cities.



The total number of cities was 48 with six of these being refuge cities. The word 'suburbs' occurs 59 times in the book of Joshua 58 of these are to be found in this chapter!! The other reference is in chapter 14. Every single one of the forty eight cities is referred to as 'X and her suburbs'. Why keep repeating this word? Why not make a blanket statement along the lines of each city that was given was so given with her suburbs (as in verse 42)? For some reason God wanted to make clear that each city came with suburbs. In Numbers 35 He had been very specific 'And the suburbs of the cities, which ye shall give unto the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city and outward a thousand cubits round about. And ye shall measure from without the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits and the city shall be in the midst: this shall be to them the suburbs of the cities.'



21:43 And the LORD gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein.


21:44 And the LORD gave them rest round about, according to all that he sware unto their fathers: and there stood not a man of all their enemies before them; the LORD delivered all their enemies into their hand.


21:45 There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass.



This final section posed some questioning especially relating to the word 'all' that appears 5 times in the AV. Verse 43 makes it clear that God gave them all the land. And yet it was pointed out how that we had read of Canaanites who were not driven out of the land but who dwelt among the people of God. Surely such people possessed their own land or did living under tribute mean that they were no longer landowners? The Lord giving them rest roundabout did not pose as many problems for, as the last verse of chapter points out, the land had rest from war. There was a period of time after the conquest and after the division of the land when there was peace. This did not mean to say that all the land was possessed as it should have been but it does mean to say that it was peaceful. Peace and possession must not be confused.



When we read the next phrase, though, our minds go once again to the passages that tell us that, either they did not drive out the Canaanites, or, that they could not drive them out. How does this equate with this statement that there stood not a man of all their enemies before them? This phrase surely means that every single enemy of the Lord's people was removed so that they no longer stood. The implication is that all people in the land were utterly destroyed. We have seen that phrase applied to certain towns and cities in the book of Joshua. Does it apply to every town in the land? How could it if some were not driven from the land? There was no answer given to these questions.



Conclusions



These chapters that include lengthy lists of place names (as is the case with other passages of scripture where lengthy lists of names of people appear) are difficult to read as individuals. However, the discipline of covering every verse in the text of a given book in an assembly Bible reading means that a careful individual reading of the verses has to be done ahead of the corporate reading. This means that a number of questions are asked by the reader as this is not a passage that would normally be heard from the platform/pulpit. That some of these remained open ended questions is testimony to the fact that we are ever learning.



God made provision for the innocent slayer in chapter 20. God made provision for the tribe without inheritance in chapter 21. The last part of this chapter showed that any failure in the land was not of God's doing as there failed not ought of any good thing which the Lord had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass.