Messianic Education Trust
(Num 30:2(1) - 36:13)

B'Midbar/Numbers 35:3   And the cities shall be for them to live; and their pasture shall be for their cattle, and for their property and for all their other livestock.

View whole verse and interlinear translation ...

With these words, The Name ...

HaShem: literally, Hebrew for 'The Name' - an allusion used to avoid pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the so-called 'ineffable' name of G–d
HaShem is directing Moshe in the allocation and use of the cities that are to be allocated for the Levites throughout the tribal territories in the land of Israel. Apart from the six larger cities so designated, most of these cities are not cities of refuge; they are simply named sites scattered in each tribal region for the Levites to live among their fellow Israelites. A total of forty eight cities seems quite a lot, but we should not, however, think that this was necessarily a significant allocation of real estate; Gordon Wenham observes that "settlements in biblical times were very small. Most of the levitical cities were like hamlets, probably just a few small houses grouped together."1

Nevertheless, we can see in the words of our text that each levitical city has an allocation of , pastureland. The following verses tell us that there were two lines or rings drawn around each city: one at a distance of 1,000 cubits, the other at 2,000 cubits. These marked the extents of communal utility land, the inner ring, and pasturelands from the inner to the outer ring. The Levites are to live in the housing area in the middle: together, not separated across the land. The Sages of the Talmud report that no graves were allowed in any of the Levite domains: "Rabbi Abbahu said that the 'cities of refuge' were not assigned for burial, as it is written, 'And the cities shall be for them to live' and the suburbs of them shall be for their cattle and for their goods and for all their living, meaning: assigned for 'living' but not for burial" (b. Makkot 12a) We have to assume that the dead had to be buried outside the bounds of the city, thus avoiding any risk of accidental ritual impurity from a grave within the normal living space.

Our text suggests that there are three ways in which the land is used: the is for the cattle, their property and all the other livestock. The Who Is ...

Sforno: Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550 CE), Italian rabbi, philosopher and physician; born in Cesena, he went to Rome to study medicine; left in 1525 and after some years of travel, settled in Bologna where he founded a yeshiva which he conducted until his death
Sforno suggests that this means: "for their animals ... for riding and (to carry) burdens; and for their goods ... cattle and sheep; all their other livestock ... such as beehives, dovecotes and other such items." What Is ...

Targum Onkelos: An early (1st-2nd Century CE) translation/paraphrase of the Torah into Aramaic; attributed to a Roman convert to Judaism, Onkelos; used in Babylonian synagogues during the Talmudic era
Targum Onkelos changes the Hebrew to , which Drazin and Wagner translate as "necessities of life". Rabbi Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch expands that to "all purposes necessary for caring for health, e.g. for wash-houses, etc." The Who Is ...

The Rashbam: Rabbi Samuel ben Asher (1085-1174 CE), a grandson of Rashi; lived in Northern France; worked from the plain meaning of the Hebrew text even when this contradicted established rabbinic interpretaton
Rashbam suggests that "the inner ring is for parkland and the rest for fields and vineyards", while Who Is ...

Ramban: Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman of Gerona or Nachmanides (1194-1270 CE), Spanish rabbi, author and physician; defended Judaism in the Christian debates in Barcelona before making aliyah
Nachmanides reports that "the land inside the 1,000 cubit line could not be used for agricultural purposes."

Given that the Levites are not to have territorial land holdings and are to be provided for by way of the tithes - "The levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no territorial portion with Israel. They shall live only off the L-RD's offerings by fire as their portion, and shall have no portion among their brother tribes: the LORD is their portion, as He promised them" (D'varim 18:1-2, NJPS) - it is a fair question to ask why the Levites need pasture land and what they were doing with fields and vineyards. Like everyone else, Levites have to have somewhere to live and have/keep fresh food; they need fresh milk and fresh meat during the year. Does that mean that, in practice, the Levites were farmers and needed the time and skills to do that?

Dennis Cole answers that "these flocks and herds could be of their own animal husbandry activities or from those contributed among the tithes by the Israelites who lived in the region surrounding the given town." Joshua 21:11-12, which records the allocation of Hebron and its environs, makes a distinction between the grazing lands, called (its pasturelands) that were given to the descendants of Aharon, and the botanical fields around the city, called (the field of the city) and the surrounding villages that were granted to Caleb and his descendants. Cole concludes that "the Levite land grants around the allotted cities were primarily for pasturage and not for botanical crop production."2 The Levites were not farmers!

Dennis Olson offers us a valuable survey of the Levites: "The Levites in the book of Numbers are a liminal group within Israel. They cross boundaries and they do not fit neatly into any one category. They are clergy but not full priests like the sons of Aharon. They are a tribe but not one of the twelve tribes. They live in designated cities with surrounding pasture, and yet they have no allotted tribal land. This mirrors their function as a buffer zone or boundary around the holy sanctuary. They mark the boundary between the presence of G-d at the centre of the community and Israel's twelve tribes around the outside. The Levites both protect the boundary and cross the boundary between the divine and human, between G-d's holy love and the people's sinful rebellion. The scattered presence of the Levites throughout the land of Israel suggests that the presence and holiness of G-d will likewise be distributed over the entire land."3

So when they are not on duty at the Sanctuary, assisting the priests in the processing of all the sacrifices, looking after the administration of the Temple, leading worship by singing and playing musical instruments, what exactly do the Levites do? Why are they scattered throughout the Land? The answer appears to be that, alongside their brothers the priests, they were responsible for teaching the ordinary Israelites about the worship and service of HaShem, for explaining the Torah, reminding them about each of the festivals and Shabbat as the year went round. When Moshe blesses the tribes before he dies, he says of the Levites, "They shall teach Your laws to Jacob and Your instructions to Israel" (D'varim 33:10, NJPS). King Josiah confirms this is happening in his day - "[Josiah] said to the Levites, consecrated to the L-RD, who taught all Israel, 'Put the Holy Ark in the House that Solomon son of David, king of Israel, built; as you no longer carry it on your shoulders, see now to the service of the L-RD your G-d and His people Israel'" (2 Chronicles 35:3, NJPS). When Nehemiah organises a public reading of the Torah in Jerusalem after the return from the Babylonian Exile, "Nehemiah the Tirshatha, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were explaining to the people said to all the people, 'This day is holy to the L-RD your G-d: you must not mourn or weep,' for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching'" (Nehemiah 8:9, NJPS).

But there is a problem. Given the historically low mobility and travel that is typical of pre-modern societies, how could the Levites teach the rest of the people if they were isolated in their own cities? If everyone walked everywhere and ancient settlements - including the levitical cities - were spaced several miles (or more) apart, when and how could the Levites teach - how was their witness of how things should be done, how they kept the festivals and Shabbat seen, how could those critical over-meals learning conversations take place? Later rules the Torah gives for the buying and selling of houses in walled cities and levitical cities suggests that, in practice, the population was rather more mixed than our text might imply. Other Israelites lived and worked in levitical cities, while many Levites lived and worked in the non-levitical Israelite towns and cities. The Levites were not isolated in their own cities with no-one else to talk to, teach or influence. They were rubbing shoulders with their neighbours all the time, every day!

Here's the question for us today. How is the presence of G-d distributed across our land? Where is the witness to those who do not know and worship the G-d of Israel? Put more bluntly, how can the followers of Yeshua today teach, influence and be a witness to the world if we isolate ourselves in our little Christian bubbles? Rav Sha'ul told Timothy, "what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2, ESV); this requires getting out there and talking to people. Timothy was to "devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching" (1 Timothy 4:13, ESV). Even more exposure. But this is no more than when the Master sent out His disciples, "He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of G-d and to heal ... And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere" (Luke 9:2,6, ESV). This didn't happen in meetings with Yeshua, precious though those were; this happened by the disciples getting out on the streets, at workplaces and coffee shops, in villages and hospitals, down on the quay and over garden fences; even - on occasion - in the town square, the high street and the shopping malls. So should we!

1. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 261.

2. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 545.

3. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), pages 189-190.

Further Study: Colossians 4:5-6; 2 Timothy 2:24-26

Application: How many non-believers do you meet and talk to in the course of a day? Are you very private about your faith and practice or are you "ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15, ESV)? Ask the Dispatcher-in-Chief who is on your itinerary for today and be ready to share a word of hope or encouragement.

Comment - 02:34 09Jul23 Joshua VanTine: The Holy One fills us up to be gatherers are we ready to be sent out? Gathering doesn't happen in a static insular bubble. Gather wherever He leads you in the course of life.

Buy your own copy of the Drash Book for Numbers/B'Midbar now at Amazon US or Amazon UK.

© Jonathan Allen, 2023

Messianic Trust Home Page Join Weekly Email More Weekly Drashot
Last Week Support the work of producing this weekly commentary
Next Week
Last Year - 5782 Scripture Index

Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?

Name Display my name ? Yes No
Email Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comments.
Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.