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D'varim/Deuteronomy 18:2 And an inheritance shall not be for him in the midst of his brothers; the L-rd He [is] his inheritance just as He spoke to him.
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This week's text comes from the very short third aliyah - just five verses - in parashat Shoftim. The parasha as a whole covers a wide range of detailed daily but sundry regulations for life in the Land covering such diverse subjects as installing judges and officers in every city, dealing with idolaters, appointing cities of refuge and their due processes, going to war but not cutting down fruit trees, and unsolvable murders. The first five verses of chapter eighteen address the position of the Levites, the religious professionals of their day, who were tasked with serving alongside the cohanim in the sanctuary and with living among the other tribes throughout Eretz Yisrael to teach them how to live and work within the covenant according toHaShem's Torah. Hirsch comments that, "out of this position of theirs - living scattered in the land amongst the people and only from time to time coming up for service in the sanctuary - in the midst of the lives of the people, they are now granted a portion directly from the table of the people as a right of priests."
Our text repeats the previous verse's rule that they "shall have no territorial portion with Israel" (D'varim 18:1, NJPS), but adds that "the L-RD is their portion, as He promised them" (v. 2, NJPS). The 'promise' was made when HaShem told Aharon, "You shall, however, have no territorial share among them or own any portion in their midst; I am your portion and your share among the Israelites" (B'Midbar 18:20, NJPS) for himself and his sons who serve as priests, and "They shall have no territorial share among the Israelites" (v, 24, NJPS) with regard to the Levites. Grouping both the priests and the Levites together as "the levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi" (D'varim 18:1, NJPS), the text restates the Levites' special position within Israelite society for the next generation of Israelites before they enter the Land. The Levites were not to be granted an inheritable land portion as the members of every other tribe were. Although they could own and inherit houses within the Levitical cities, they could not own any land, farms, buildings or pasture elsewhere in the country although like any other Israelite, they could buy and rent them leasehold until the year of Jubilee.
This prohibition on having an inheritance "among their brothers" even applied to the territories allocated to Reuven, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh as Drazin and Wagner affirm: "Not even outside Canaan, east of the Jordan river." This based on the commentary ofSifrei: "this refers to the portion of the three [east of the Jordan] 'among their brethren' this refers to the portion of the five [nations that the L-rd will expel from the Land]" (Sifrei Piska 164), which in turn rests upon Moshe's statement to the Israelites just before they left Egypt that HaShem will bring them to "the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which He swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Shemot 13:5, NJPS). The 'three' are the Girgashites, the Perizites and the Amorites, of whom Sihon and Og were kings.
Are the Levites then to be disenfranchised from being able to enjoy the land where they now live? Not at all.Targum Onkelos, who changes the anthropomorphic "the L-rd is his inheritance" to "the gifts that the L-rd will give him, they are his inheritance", starts the explanation that the L-rd has allocated the offerings that are brought by the Israelites to be the livelihood of the Levites, echoing the second half of the previous verse: "They shall live only off the L-RD's offerings by fire as their portion" (D'varim 18:1, NJPS). Patrick Miller continues: "The Levites are presented as brothers to all the other Israelites and thus are entitled to the provision and benefits of the good land that G-d gives even though they possess no special territory or tribal allotment. Instead of land, 'his inheritance' is the L-rd and the dues or offerings presented by the people. But this 'inheritance' is sufficient to sustain the Levite, or priest, as the inheritance of land does for all his fellow Israelites."1
Walter Brueggemann disagrees. First, he claims that the Levites are "omitted from the land process and so are excluded from the economic-political-legal dynamics of Israel." This gives them a certain aloofness that allows them to be seen as detached and able to speak and act without bias among the other tribes. They are not partisan in any of the aspects of land ownership. However, Brueggemann continues that "as compensation for that odd and costly status, these verses make two provisions. First, YHVH is the inheritance of the tribe of Levi, not YHVH's goods or properties, but YHVH's own self." This would imply that it is HaShem Himself rather than anything He may give to or provide for the Levites that is their true inheritance. "Thus the phrasing of verse 2 suggests a particular intimacy with YHVH that is regarded as a great gift, perhaps greater than a parcel of land."2 The Psalmist speaks in a similar way, telling us that: "The L-RD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance" (Psalm 16:5-6, ESV), linking HaShem as portion/inheritance with inheritance; and, "God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (73:26, ESV) repeating the tie between God and an eternal or everlasting portion.
Brueggemann finds support from Christopher Wright, who notes that, "it was a bold stroke that consigned Israel's priestly tribe to landlessness. This meant that Israel was not meant to be a nation in which a clerical hierarchy could wield economic power (and all its derivative forms of social influence) as an exploitative, land-owning elite. In this way Israel was remarkably different from surrounding societies." Egypt, for example had a land-owning and controlling priesthood as did other countries in the ANE time and region. This sends a clear signal, Wright continues, that "in Israel, the priesthood of Yahweh the liberator was not to be a tool of religiously sanctioned oppression."3 HaShem brought His people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in their own land so that they might serve Him. It would be inconceivable that priests - representing Him - could oppress the people He had set free.
Starting from the assertion that "The New Testament never calls those who serve the church in its leadership 'priests'. Priesthood is applied only to either Christ (Hebrews 7, etc.), or the whole community of believers (1 Peter 2:9, echoing the same collective use in Exodus 19:4-6)"4, Wright takes the argument firmly into the way that workers in the kingdom of G-d are or should be supported. He writes: "The principle that those who serve G-d and teach G-d's people should be fully provided for by G-d's people is emphatically reapplied in the New Testament." Adding that "'One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches' (Galatians 6:6, ESV) applies [the principle] to Christian teachers," he points to Rav Sha'ul's words to Timothy - "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, 'You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,' and, 'The laborer deserves his wages'" (1 Timothy 5:17-18, ESV) - and to the Corinthians - "the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:14, ESV) - before concluding that "Churches or other Christian groups that fail to pay their workers adequate living wages are not 'living by faith', but are simply living in disobedience."5 That's certainly pretty blunt!
How are we to honour and support those who work among us as pastors, teachers and counsellors? Often they have given up their first vocations as teachers, doctors, lawyers, librarians and more in order to serve the call of God to work in His vineyard. There tends to be an assumption that kingdom workers are either "on staff" somewhere with a congregation or ministry, or that they are doing kingdom work alongside their "day jobs", so that their needs are being met by a full-time salary. This assumption is further fed by the idea that whatever they do in the kingdom of G-d is a gift that they have only been given by G-d to use for the benefit of the kingdom, so that the teaching, classes, counselling, visiting or whatever, should be free of charge to its recipients because it would be indefensible to charge fellow believers for something that is a gift intended for their benefit in the first place. Lastly, there is often the feeling that if G-d has called these workers, it is up to Him to provide for them.
Luke tells us that when Yeshua went through the villages and towns, teaching, preaching, healing and sharing the good news of the kingdom, not only His twelve disciples travelled with Him but also "some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means" (Luke 8:2-3, ESV). It was those who travelled with Him and those who received His ministry who supported His work. Hospitality, accommodation and food were provided at each stop along the way as people flocked to hear His words and be healed. When He sent His disciples out, Yeshua told them to "remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'" (10:7-9, ESV). They were to expect and accept board and lodging wherever they went as part of the unspoken rules for giving and receiving ministry. We should expect no less today: to provide for those who teach and minister among us, the Levites who have no land inheritance, who have given up other means of earning an income to work among the people of G-d. Look around you and see who is on the journey with you; who needs your support or encouragement "when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way" (D'varim 6:7, ESV). This is something that we can and should all do!
1. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 150.
2. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 189.
3. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 215.
4. - Whether Peter applies the Israelite calling of "holy people and nation of priests" from Shemot19:6 to the wider Body of Messiah thus including Gentiles in what had been an exclusively Jewish role is debated. Although the letter is clearly addressed to "the elect exiles of the Diaspora (1 Peter 1:1) and Paul tells us that "Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (Galatians 2:7, ESV), the church has always taught that it is being so addressed.
5. - Wright, page 216.
Further Study: 1 Samuel 25:5-8; 1 Corinthians 9:3-7; Romans 15:26-27
Application: Who do you travel with that blesses, encourages and teaches you in the journey of the kingdom? Consider how you can help to support them in their work and ministry so that you and others can honour the L-rd who has equipped them and sent them to you for such a time as this.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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