In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Levitical Cities

  • Introduction
  • Classical Works
  • Dating of Lists: Early, Late, or In-Between
  • Specific Cities and the Lists of Levitical Cities
  • Asylum, Aliens, and Sociology

Biblical Studies Levitical Cities
John R. Spencer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0217


The story told in the biblical text is that when land is distributed to the ancient Israelite tribes in Joshua (13–19), the tribe of Levi is not included. Instead the Levites are assigned a group of forty-eight cities [Joshua 21:1–42 and I Chronicles 6:54–81 (=MT 6:39–66)] drawn from the other twelve tribes. The biblical rationale for giving these cities to the Levites starts with the special status of the Levites. According to Genesis 34, the Levites are involved with Simeon in the killing of the recently circumcised males in Shechem. As a result they are supposedly disbanded as a tribe in “Jacob’s Blessing” (Genesis 49:5–7) and thus are to receive no land. However, more likely rationales to explain their lack of land are provided in other parts of the Hebrew Bible. Because they are to serve (guard) the tent of meeting (Numbers 18:21–24), because they are to carry the ark (Deuteronomy 10:8–9), because Yahweh is their inheritance (Joshua 13:32–33), or because their priesthood is their inheritance (Joshua 18:7), they are not to receive an allotment of land among the other tribes. Thus, their cultic status, although varied in the accounts, provides a more reasonable explanation of their “landlessness.” The passage that establishes what they do receive is found earlier in the Bible, in Numbers 35:1–8, where, commanded by God through Moses, the Levites are assigned the forty-eight cities. In addition to the cities, they are to receive the “pasture” land (not agricultural land) around the cities to a distance of 2,000 cubits in all four directions. The details of this distribution of cities are found in Joshua 21:1–42 and I Chronicles 6:54–81 (=MT 6:39–66). The passages specify which clans or families of the Levites will receive which cities from which tribes. In addition, the distribution includes the designation of six of the forty-eight cities as cities of refuge (asylum), the rationale for which is found in Joshua 20; Deuteronomy 19:1–13; and Numbers 35:9–34. In spite of this supposedly logical explanation of the Levitical Cities, there are a number of issues that emerge. The first issue revolves around the historicity of the lists. Are they realistic, utopian, or some combination? Associated with that question is the date of the lists, both when the events reported might have taken place and when they ended up in their current literary form. This then leads to questions of the literary sources in the Bible that present these accounts. Finally, one cannot help but notice that the lists of Levitical Cities in Joshua 21 and I Chronicles 6 do not totally match. This observation is further complicated by the differences in the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. (see also Leviticus; Aaron; Zadok/Zadokites; Priest/Priesthood; Cities of Refuge/Asylum; Alien/Ger).

Classical Works

The controversy over the Levitical cities and their lists did not start in earnest until J. Wellhausen. In his classic text on the history of ancient Israel (initially published in 1878), he was the first to take a stance on the historicity of the lists (not real) and the time of their composition (late). In seemingly all writings on the topic since then, the authors start with a reference to Wellhausen and then establish their own stance in relation to him. Barton 1904 provides an early attempt at identifying the location of the Levitical cities. In his classical discussion of ancient Israel, Y. Kaufmann, writing in Hebrew in 1937 (and in English in 1960), sought to counter Wellhausen’s dismissal of the veracity of the lists. The first detailed response to Wellhausen in English was Albright 1945. He sought to provide an explanation for the differences between the two lists and to support their early date and authenticity. Two early writers, who published in German as did Wellhausen, were Noth 1952 and Alt 1953. They each differed with both Wellhausen and Albright, arguing for a late monarchical (or later) construction of the lists. Mazar 1960 argues that there was at least a historical core to the lists and that there was a possible link to Egyptian sources. About the same time, Haran 1961 published an article that reviews past discussions and then argues that the lists are a mixture of realistic and utopian features. All of these authors reflect the early discussions of the Levitical cities where the issues of historicity, date, relationship of the two lists, and rationale were discussed and debated.

  • Albright, William Foxwell. “The List of Levitic Cities.” In Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume. Vol. 1. By William Foxwell Albright, 49–73. New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1945.

    Albright argues that the list in Joshua is the original list that came from the tenth century BCE, the time of David, since that is the only time when all the cities were in Israelite possession. Also argues that the texts are authentic and that the divergences between the two texts (Joshua 21 and I Chronicles 6) are due to scribal mistakes.

  • Alt, Albrecht. “Festungen und Levitenorte im Lande Juda.” In Kleine Schriften. Vol. 2. 306–315. Munich: C. H. Beck’sche, 1953.

    Rejecting the dating of Albright, Alt dates the lists to the late monarchic period, probably the time of Josiah. He distinguishes the lists’ historical background from their present literary form and context. Sees the list of defensive cities for Rehoboam (II Chronicles 11:5–10) coming from this period also.

  • Barton, George A. “The Levitical Cities of Israel in the Light of the Excavation at Gezer.” The Biblical World 24.3 (September 1904): 167–179.

    DOI: 10.1086/473454

    Although relying heavily on the biblical text, Barton also looks at the environment and some archaeology in an attempt to locate the Levitical cities. He acknowledges that some cities, like Gezer, had worship sites prior to the arrival of the Levites. Since the publication of the article, much more archaeological evidence is available (see discussion under Specific Cities and the Lists of Levitical Cities).

  • Haran, Menahem. “Studies in the Account of the Levitical Cities.” Journal of Biblical Literature 80 (1961): 45–54, 156–165.

    DOI: 10.2307/3264206

    Reviews discussions of the lists as utopia versus real and early versus late. Date of list is often tied to dating of P (Priestly writer). Land given to Levites (migrash) is for keeping livestock. Only six Levitical cities were cities of refuge, but asylum also available at cult sites with the “horns of the altar” (see, for example, Exodus. 21:12–14; I Kings 2:28–29).

  • Kaufmann, Yehezkel. The Religion of Israel: From its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile. Translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

    Rejects view of Wellhausen and dates Levites and their cities early (pre-monarchic). Elide branch of Levites served as priests in Egypt and Aaronides (another branch) as ancient pagan priests. First published as Toldot ha-emunah ha-Yiśreʼelit: mi-yeme ḳedem ʻad sof Bayit sheni (4 vols, Tel Aviv: Mosad Byaliḳ, 1937–1956).

  • Mazar, Benjamin. “The Cities of the Priests and the Levites.” Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 7 (1960): 195–203.

    Lists reflect the tradition that Levitical cities did exist as some point in history—probably from time of Solomon as a reward for Levites’ loyalty. The original form of the list (now lost) was text upon which both Joshua and I Chronicles drew. Sees the possibility that Egyptian examples may have influenced the organization of the Levites as part of royal service.

  • Noth, Martin. Das Buch Josua. 2d ed. Handbuch zum Alten Testament 7. Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr, 1952.

    Continues argument that date of lists themselves is distinct from date of events they portray. He allows a possible early date for the creation of Levitical cities but dates the lists to a time after Josiah and before the restoration of the Persian period. Also discusses the textual problems of the list of cities in chapter 21 (first edition published in 1938).

  • Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. New York: Meridian, 1957.

    Argues that the lists of Levitical cities are utopian constructions by the priestly writer (“P”) long after the reign of David since many cities in Joshua 21 were not under Israelite control during the time of Joshua. Some cities were occupied only in part by the Levites; the distinction between priest and Levite is post-exilic, the size of the land around the city, and the number (forty-eight) of cities—the lists reflect a utopian desire (first published as Prolegomena zur geschichte Israels in 1878 and in English in 1885).

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