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B'Midbar/Numbers 35:2 ... cities for dwelling and open space for the cities around them ...
These are the cities, forty-eight in all, where the Levites are to live among the other tribes of Israel. They are to be given from the land holdings of the other tribes in proportion to the amount of land allocated to each tribe, and include the six cities of refuge, three on each side of the Jordan river. Although the size of the cities themselves are not specified, the text does go on to measure the size of the open space that is to come as part of the city's endowment: "from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits around" (v. 4, NASB). A cubit is approximately eighteen inches, so this belt or ring is about 500 yards wide, a little more than a quarter of a mile. The next verse goes on to "measure outside the city on the east side two thousand cubits" (v. 5, NASB) and so on for the south, west and north sides, "with the city in the centre ... pasture land for the cities" (v. 5b, NASB). Commentators differ as to exactly how the measurements worked: one thousand plus another two thousand, or two thousand in total including the first thousand; whether the area was to be circular or rectangular. However, the picture is clear - an area of at least half a square mile with the city at its centre.
By definition, the use of the land was controlled. Commenting on the first thousand cubits, Rashi - drawing on the Talmud (b. Arachin 33b) - says, "open space: a space, a vacant area - outside the city, around, to be an aesthetic enhancement to the city. They are not permitted to build a house there, nor to plant a vineyard, nor to sow any sowing." The inner ring of land is just to be space, recreational land; it cannot be built on, so the city cannot expand or develop urban sprawl. The word - from the root , to drive out, expel, divorce - is often translated "pasture land", a place where cattle are driven to graze Davidson. The outer ring of land, although still called , may be used for vineyards and olive groves, possibly for growing vegetables, herbs and fruit; the Levites received no formal apportionment of of land, so farming and production of cereal and large scale crops is effectively prohibited. Milgrom makes two interesting points: firstly, "[a] characteristics of pasture land is that it is common property" - the community owned the land so that it could be shared and used by everyone in contrast to farmland which is owned by individuals; secondly, that the was legally a part of the city, so that "the city limits, within which a man-slayer was safe from the blood redeemer, was not the city walls but the extent of the pasture."
The Levites led a very different life from the other Israelites: a mixture of restriction and provision. The lived in their own cities in the middle of the territory of the other tribes, surrounded by open space that they could use for some things and not for others, not allowed to work like everyone else so that they were free to teach the people and serve both G-d and the people in the Temple, not allowed to grow their cities but with their houses protected against being sold permanently away from the community, supported by the tithe of the other tribes but having their own flocks and herds for fresh meat and growing their own fresh fruit and vegetables; a people within a people, an organic part of the whole yet ring-fenced and protected, set apart and chosen by G-d. Even those confined to the cities of refuge had the freedom of the open space so that they too could have some quality of life and outside activity.
Many people consider that becoming a believer is rather like receiving a life sentence: picking up a whole lifestyle of restrictions and obligations, being told what to do all the time, never being able to have fun and with a whole list of "dos and don'ts" to regulate regulate one's life and get in the way of being normal. Yet believers are surprisingly like the Levites in many ways. We are called to live cheek by jowl with everyone else, in the world but - as Yeshua said - "not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (John 17:16, NASB); rubbing shoulders with and working alongside others - in similar, yet at the same time different because we are working to higher orders, occupations - to put fresh food on the table while relying on the L-rd for our long-term provision and existence. Rather than being hemmed in by pressures and stress, we are in a wide open space where every one can see us and approach us without obstacles and hindrances in their paths; we have a view and freedom to move where the enemy of our souls cannot reach us, as Rav Sha'ul wrote: "We have all kinds of troubles, but we are not crushed; we are perplexed, yet not in despair; persecuted, yet not abandoned; knocked down, yet not destroyed" (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, CJB). The highest priority in our lives, the most important thing that we do, is no longer a life of work and daily survival but teaching others about G-d: His laws and the relationship He offers us in Messiah Yeshua; everything should come second to that, for that is why we exist. The resources of the kingdom are at our disposal as we fulfill our assigned tasks and calling, not just in word - for talk is not only cheap but easily ignored - but in our lives, in the quality and depth of our relationships with others, the way we care and give ourselves to others, hospitality and availability, being there for people.
Like the Levites, this is not a position that we chose or resourced for ourselves; it is G-d at work through us. The other tribes would not have chosen to give land and cities to the Levites, but G-d said that it should be so: He made it happen; the world certainly does not owe us a living or want to grant us the space for the kingdom of Heaven to grow, but G-d has said that it will be so and - often much more slowly than we would like - He is making it happen. Just like the Levites, we also have to act out our parts in this drama that G-d has produced; we have to open our homes, change our priorities, make ourselves available, speak out the whispers from the prompt box, met and care for people where they are. When people enter our space - our lives, our homes - are they aware of the open space and the freedom we have to live lives that are pleasing to G-d, are a blessing to others and that fulfill our own deepest needs? G-d has said that it should be so and is prepared to make it happen. What are you waiting for?
Application: How are you doing on the availability front? This is something that everyone can do at some level because it is G-d who works in us as we open up to Him and let Him into our lives. Why not take a few minutes today to ask G-d what He would like you to do?
© Jonathan Allen, 2008
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