Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
During the wandering in the desert and after crossing into the Promised Land, there was a lot of talk among the Israelites as to who would inherit what land. People were curious what their tribal family would own and live on in the land flowing with milk and honey. In fact, a few of the families actually were so nervous about the whole war against the Canaanites that they tried to claim land on the non-promised side of the Jordan River. We can read about them in Numbers 32:1-5,
The Reubenites and Gadites, who had very large herds and flocks, saw that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were suitable for livestock. So they came to Moses and Eleazar the priests and to the leaders of the community, and said, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon- the land the Lord subdued before the people of Israel- are suitable for livestock, and your servants have livestock. If we have found favor in your eyes,” they said, “let this land be given to your servants as our possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan.”
Along with the Reubenites and the Gadites, half of the tribe of Manasseh decided to settle outside of the Promised Land in some of the other claimed territory. The rest of the tribes were to settle in the Promised Land, and would have their portions decided based on size and random draw (casting of lots). This was all well and good, until we notice the whole picture. We read,
These are the areas the Israelites received as an inheritance in the land of Canaan, which Eleazar the priest, Joshua son of Nun and the heads of the tribal clans of Israel allotted to them. Their inheritances were assigned by lot to the nine-and-a-half tribes, as the Lord had commanded through Moses. Moses had granted the two-and-a-half tribes their inheritance east of the Jordan but had not granted the Levites an inheritance among the rest (Joshua 14:1-3).
Ok, so nine and a half tribes got land in Canaan, two and a half got their land east of the Jordan, and the Levites…got…nothing? Now I am exaggerating the situation to make it sound like this was a last-minute surprise. Actually the Levites already knew they’d be receiving no land in Canaan. Moses had previously told them in Numbers 18:23,
It is the Levites who are to do the work at the Tent of Meeting and bear the responsibility for the offenses against it. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. They will receive no inheritance among the Israelites.
So, along with added responsibility, the Levites were granted no land after they crossed the Jordan. It sounds great to be a Levite, right?
Actually, this declaration for the Levites comes from before Moses’ time. It originates from a curse that Jacob placed on his sons Simeon and Levi (the father of the Levites) after they had horribly murdered every man in a city. We read,
Simeon and Levi are brothers-
Their swords are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council,
Let me not join their assembly,
For they have killed men in their anger
And hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
And their fury so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
And disperse them in Israel (Genesis 49:5-7).
Even before Moses was born, both Simeon and Levi were marked to God to not inherit their own lands. …Well wait, hold on here, we already read that the Levites had no inheritance, but what about Simeon; they seem to have gotten land. Oh, God was at work there too. For we read,
The second lot came out for the tribe of Simeon, clan by clan. Their inheritance lay within the territory of Judah. It included:
Beersheba (or Sheba), Moladah, Hazar Shual, Balah, Ezem, Eltolad, Bethul, Hormah, Ziklag, Beth Marcaboth, Hazar Susah, Beth Lebaoth and Sharuhen- thirteen towns and their villages;
Ain, Rimmon, Ether and Ashan- four towns and their villages- and all the villages around these towns as far as Baalath Beer (Ramah in the Negev).
This was the inheritance of the tribe of the Simeonites, clan by clan. The inheritance of the Simeonites was taken from the share of Judah, because Judah’s portion was more than they needed. So the Simeonites received their inheritance within the territory of Judah (Joshua 19:1-9)
See how God did that? They didn’t get their own land; they got some of Judah’s. And moreover, as the books of the Bible continue, you can watch as Simeon is driven from their land by enemies and end up completely nomadic in Israel while Judah recaptures all of the land originally given to Simeon. So indeed, the curse held up.But for the Levites, the situation was different; Moses had already announced that the Levites would receive no inheritance of their own. God though was not going to use this apparently binding curse as a curse; instead, he would turn it over into a blessing. For we read in Joshua 13:33, “But to the tribe of Levi, Moses had given no inheritance; the Lord the God of Israel, is their inheritance, as he promised them.” See how he did that? God said, “You get no inheritance, because I’m your inheritance.” So instead of being just another tribe of Israel, the Lord set the Levites apart as holy men. Besides giving the Levites a special status though, God also granted the people of Levi with a better understanding of the Lord through their lives. For example, we read, “But to the tribe of Levi he gave no inheritance, since the offerings made by fire to the Lord, the God of Israel, are their inheritance, as he promised them” (Joshua 13:14). This makes the Levites dependent upon what people bring to God. Therefore, the tribe of Levi was unable to look after their own riches, as everything they got came from others (whose hearts had been moved by the Lord). Because of this, they were able to better understand that riches in life were meaningless and would eventually go away (as they’d be receiving said things from the people). We understand this because John wrote to us, “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17). However, the Levites learned this long before because they were completely dependent on God moving the people to provide for them. The Levites’ unique position also allowed them to watch the other tribes indulge in many kinds of sins, riches, and pleasures and to see the results thereof. While the Levites were forced to depend on God, they watched as people struggled to depend on themselves, often meeting with failure. It took Solomon a life of experience to be able to say in Ecclesiastes 9:7-8, “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that god favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil.” But for a Levite, this is what they saw in practice every day and the life they were pretty much forced to live.
Now, I am exaggerating the Levites status a little bit to make the point clear. They were given towns to live in scattered through Israel, so to say they got nothing is a bit over-dramatic. However, the Levites were forced to rely on God moving the people’s hearts. We read,
Instead, I give to the Levites as their inheritance the tithes that the Israelites present as an offering to the Lord. That is why I said concerning them: “They will have no inheritance among the Israelites” (Numbers 18:24).
This dependence on the Lord brought them closer to God than the rest of Israel (who were working the fields and trading for themselves). They didn’t have to learn through experience how to trust God; they had to do it in their daily lives. They didn’t have to experience need in order to understand God’s abundance for they started with nothing and had to wait on God. It is a unique position I think many people could stand to learn from.
Where are we in all of this then? The Bible tells us (speaking of Jesus),
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:12-13).
When a person accepts Jesus into their heart, they become children of God. And this comes with a special benefit, our inheritance is the Lord. Paul tells us,
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are god’s possession- to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:13-14).
Many people run after riches, power, fame or anything else the world can offer. But as Christians, we receive our inheritance from the Lord. Our God is mighty, and although the dollar value may seem less than some other people, the Lord will bless us in ways only a person in Christ can understand. And to cap it all off, he’ll give us eternal life. Thanks be to God for his great inheritance!