Joshua 21:3-8: The Nomination of Cities for the Levitical Families

Verse 3:[1] And the children of Israel gave unto the Levites out of their inheritance, at the commandment of the LORD, these cities and their suburbs.

[And they gave, etc.] Either, 1. for use and habitation, with absolute dominion remaining in the power of the Tribe, as it is evident from Hebron, verse 11-13 (Junius). But Hebron was simply given to them, even if the field of Hebron remained to Caleb himself (Malvenda). The territory was remaining under the power of the Tribe; but the habitations in the towns, and the nearby pasture-lands, fell to the Levites. Thus on Sicily; Jurisdiction in the fields that were distributed remained under the power of those from whose territory they were taken. See Concerning the Law of War and Peace 2:3:4 (Grotius). Or, 2. as far as dominion. They not only had the right of use of these possessions, but also ownership. Which is confirmed out of Leviticus 25:33, 34 (Drusius, similarly Masius, Malvenda). Now, they gave by use of the lot, as it is evident from verses 4, 6, 10 (Menochius). Cities were not assigned to them by the will of the people; for then they had given to them only the worst. Moreover, just as in the establishment of cities of refuge equal spacing was to be observed, so also in the case of the habitations of the Levites, lest they should be farther away from some assemblies of men; since from the the Law of God was to be sought, Malachi 2:7. Therefore, it was the proper function of the dividers’ prudence to subtract certain cities from the inheritance of the individual tribes, seats by their very location suitable for the Levites, and to distribute them into four classes; so that then those four clans of the Levites might appoint them by lot among themselves (Masius).

The children of Israel gave, etc.: It seems most probable that they gave to the Levites promiscuously such cities as God commanded, and that the lot appropriated them to their several houses or families. Out of their inheritance, that is, out of their several possessions; partly that the burden and loss might be equally divided; and principally, that the Levites being dispersed among the several tribes, according to Jacob’s prediction, Genesis 49:7, might more easily, and frequently, and effectually teach the Israelites God’s law and judgments, which they were engaged to do, Deuteronomy 33:10; and that the people might upon all occasions resort to them, and require the meaning of the law at their mouths, Malachi 2:7. These cities and their suburbs; not only the use, but the absolute dominion of them, as is manifest both from Joshua 21:11, 12, where a distinction is made between the city and suburbs of Hebron, and the fields and villages thereof, and the former are given to the Levites, the latter to Caleb; and from the return of these cities in the jubilee unto the Levites, as to their proper owners, Leviticus 25:33, 34.


Verse 4:[2] And the lot came out for the families of the Kohathites: and (Josh. 21:8, 19) the children of Aaron the priest, which were of the Levites, (see Josh. 24:33) 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.

[And the lot went forth, etc.] In this verse, וַיְהִי, and it was,[3] is in the singular instead of the plural, they were. Because the use of this word is so very frequent, number or gender is not marked in it (Vatablus). From this passage it is demonstrated that these cities were distributed by lot to the Levites, supposing it to be the case that without regard to the lot these cities were separated from the other cities (Bonfrerius).

Judah…Simeon…Benjamin: Which three tribes were nearest to the temple, where their business lay.

[Thirteen cities] It is remarkable that so many cities were allotted to so few priests. For in the crossing of Jordan there were not more than twenty-four. And so, even if in the fourteen years [following] they be multiplied fourteen times, they will still not yet be four hundred, whom, if you divide by thirteen, will only be thirty-one priests in each city (Menochius out of Serarius). But the people desired to be bountiful with the Levites, and regarded, not how much they had increased, but how much they would be able to increase in time coming (Menochius).

Thirteen cities; for though the priests were now few enough for one city, yet respect was to be had to their succeeding numbers; this division being made for all future generations. And seeing the Levites might sell their houses until the jubilee, Leviticus 25:33, much more might they let them; and therefore it is probable their cities were not very long uninhabited, many being inclined to dwell with them by virtue of relations contracted with them, or dependence upon or expectation from them; or out of respect to the service of God, and the good of their souls.


Verse 5:[4] And (Josh. 21:20, etc.) 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.

[And to the rest of the children of Kohath] That is, who were not of the sons of Aaron, but were only Levites (Vatablus, Drusius, Menochius).

The children of Kohath were of Aaron’s family, or priests, but Levites only. These tribes are nearest to the three former, and so the Kohathites are placed next to their brethren the Aaronites. Ten cities; fewer than they gave out for the three former tribes, because their inheritance was less than the former. See Numbers 35:8.


Verse 6:[5] And (Josh. 21:27, etc.) 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.


Verse 7:[6] (Josh. 21:34, etc.) 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.


Verse 8:[7] (Josh. 21:3) And the children of Israel gave by lot unto the Levites these cities with their suburbs, (Num. 35:2) as the LORD commanded by the hand of Moses.

These cities with their suburbs; of which see on Numbers 35:2.

[1] Hebrew: וַיִּתְּנ֙וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֧ל לַלְוִיִּ֛ם מִנַּחֲלָתָ֖ם אֶל־פִּ֣י יְהוָ֑ה אֶת־הֶעָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה וְאֶת־מִגְרְשֵׁיהֶֽן׃

[2] Hebrew: וַיֵּצֵ֥א הַגּוֹרָ֖ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹ֣ת הַקְּהָתִ֑י וַיְהִ֡י לִבְנֵי֩ אַהֲרֹ֙ן הַכֹּהֵ֜ן מִן־הַלְוִיִּ֗ם מִמַּטֵּ֣ה יְ֠הוּדָה וּמִמַּטֵּ֙ה הַשִּׁמְעֹנִ֜י וּמִמַּטֵּ֤ה בִנְיָמִן֙ בַּגּוֹרָ֔ל עָרִ֖ים שְׁלֹ֥שׁ עֶשְׂרֵֽה׃

[3] Joshua 21:4:  “And the lot came out for the families of the Kohathites:  and it was (וַיְהִי) to the children of Aaron the priest, which were of the Levites, by lot out of the tribe of Judah, and out of the tribe of Simeon, and out of the tribe of Benjamin, thirteen cities.”

[4] Hebrew: וְלִבְנֵ֙י קְהָ֜ת הַנּוֹתָרִ֗ים מִמִּשְׁפְּחֹ֣ת מַטֵּֽה־אֶ֠פְרַיִם וּֽמִמַּטֵּה־דָ֞ן וּמֵחֲצִ֙י מַטֵּ֧ה מְנַשֶּׁ֛ה בַּגּוֹרָ֖ל עָרִ֥ים עָֽשֶׂר׃

[5] Hebrew: וְלִבְנֵ֣י גֵרְשׁ֗וֹן מִמִּשְׁפְּח֣וֹת מַטֵּֽה־יִשָּׂשכָ֣ר וּמִמַּטֵּֽה־אָ֠שֵׁר וּמִמַּטֵּ֙ה נַפְתָּלִ֜י וּ֠מֵחֲצִי מַטֵּ֙ה מְנַשֶּׁ֤ה בַבָּשָׁן֙ בַּגּוֹרָ֔ל עָרִ֖ים שְׁלֹ֥שׁ עֶשְׂרֵֽה׃

[6] Hebrew: לִבְנֵ֙י מְרָרִ֜י לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֗ם מִמַּטֵּ֙ה רְאוּבֵ֤ן וּמִמַּטֵּה־גָד֙ וּמִמַּטֵּ֣ה זְבוּלֻ֔ן עָרִ֖ים שְׁתֵּ֥ים עֶשְׂרֵֽה׃

[7] Hebrew: וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לַלְוִיִּ֔ם אֶת־הֶעָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה וְאֶת־מִגְרְשֵׁיהֶ֑ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֙ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהוָ֛ה בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה בַּגּוֹרָֽל׃

1 thought on “Joshua 21:3-8: The Nomination of Cities for the Levitical Families

  1. Matthew Henry: ‘The Levites’ petition granted immediately, without any dispute, the princes of Israel being perhaps ashamed that they needed to be called upon in this matter, and that the motion had not been made among themselves for the settling of the Levites. 1. The children of Israel are said to give the cities for the Levites. God had appointed how many they should be in all, forty-eight. It is probable that Joshua and the princes, upon consideration of the extent and value of the lot of each tribe as it was laid before them, had appointed how many cities should be taken out of each; and then the fathers of the several tribes themselves agreed which they should be, and therefore are said to give them, as an offering, to the Lord; so God had appointed. Numbers 35:8, Every one shall give of his cities to the Levites. Here God tried their generosity, and it was found to praise and honour, for it appears by the following catalogue that the cities they gave to the Levites were generally some of the best and most considerable in each tribe. And it is probable that they had an eye to the situation of them, taking care they should be so dispersed as that no part of the country should be too far distant from a Levites’ city. 2. They gave them at the commandment of the Lord, that is, with an eye to the command and in obedience to it, which was it that sanctified the grant. They gave the number that God commanded, and it was well this matter was settled that the Levites might not ask more nor the Israelites offer less. They gave them also with their suburbs, or glebe-lands, belonging to them, so many cubits by measure from the walls of the city, as God had commanded (Numbers 35:4, 5), and did not go about to cut them short. 3. When the forty-eight cities were pitched upon, they were divided into four lots, as they lay next together, and then by lot were determined to the four several families of the tribe of Levi. When the Israelites had surrendered the cities into the hand of God, he would himself have the distributing of them among his servants. (1.) The family of Aaron, who were the only priests, had for their share the thirteen cities that were given by the tribes of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin, Joshua 21:4. God in wisdom ordered it thus, that though Jerusalem itself was not one of their cities, it being as yet in the possession of the Jebusites (and those generous tribes would not mock the Levites, who had another warfare to mind, with a city that must be recovered by the sword before it could be enjoyed), yet the cities that fell to their lot were those which lay next to Jerusalem, because that was to be, in process of time, the holy city, where their business would chiefly lie. (2.) The Kohathites-Levites (among whom were the posterity of Moses, though never distinguished from them) had the cities that lay in the lot of Dan, which lay next to Judah, and in that of Ephraim, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, which lay next to Benjamin. So those who descended from Aaron’s father joined nearest to Aaron’s sons. (3.) Gershon was the eldest son of Levi, and therefore, though the younger house of the Kohathites was preferred before his, yet his children had the precedency of the other family of Merari, Joshua 21:6. (4.) The Merarites, the youngest house, had their lot last, and it lay furthest off, Joshua 21:7. The rest of the sons of Jacob had a lot for every tribe only, but Levi, God’s tribe, had a lot for each of its families; for there is a particular providence directing and attending the removals and settlements of ministers, and appointing where those shall fix who are to be the lights of the world.’

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