The Levites Place in Society
What Moses gave to Israel in regard to the tithe was reasonable, and very beneficial to the whole nation. Let us now look at the sensibleness of the Mosaic law of tithing. When it is fully understood, it will be seen that it was intended to benefit the whole of society within Israel. The Levites were central to it all.
Though the tribe of Levi in ancient Israel was empowered to receive tithe of the people (except that part of the tithe needed by the people for festival requirements and that for the destitute), the Levites also had other ways of earning money. Not all of them were supported by the tithe.
The Levites were not given territorial lands like other Israelites. They (along with the Priests) were allotted forty eight cities in which they could earn a living. This means the Levites received a reasonable amount of acreage to cultivate besides the fact that many of those cities were located in some of the best parts of the Land of Canaan.
"And the Lord spoke unto Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho saying: Command the children of Israel, that they give unto the Levites of the inheritance of their possession cities to dwell in; and open land round about the cities shall ye give unto the Levites. And the cities shall they have to dwell in; and their open land shall be for their cattle, and for their substance, and for all their beasts."
• Numbers 35:1–3
Many people have not realized that Moses gave the Levites the means by which to earn a living without having a dependence upon tithe alone. Other than the tithe of the third and sixth years of a sabbatical cycle, the only Levites that received tithe were those who attended the service of the Tabernacle (and even then it was only that part left over from the festival use by ordinary Israelites). At other times they had to earn their own living within the cities and lands allotted them. The Levites were expected to work for their livelihood like any other normal citizen within the community of Israel.
This is why the Levites were provided with open lands surrounding the cities. The suburb of each Levitical city had 1,000 cubits (about 1,600 feet) on each side for grazing their cattle (Numbers 35:4). There was a further 2,000 cubits beyond the first measure surrounding each city that they were to use as fields and vineyards (verse 5). The two zones represented 3,000 cubits of open land extending outward from each side of the city walls (Lange’s Commentary, vol. II, p.186). At least four square miles of land belonged to each Levitical city. With 48 cities being represented, the cumulative amount of land equaled almost 200 square miles for pasturing and cultivation. It is interesting that this amount of Levitical land was very near the square mileage assigned to the tribes of Benjamin and Zebulun.
Since some of the cities that the Levites inherited were the most prosperous in the nation, their combined property value would almost equal that of the lesser Israelite tribes. These facts ought to put to rest the belief of some church leaders who imagine that the Levites lived solely off the tithe of the other tribes. In no way was this true. The Levites had to work for their living as anyone else. Only when Levites attended the service of the Tabernacle (whether on a full-time or part-time basis) was the tithe expected to support them (Deuteronomy 18:6–8).
Moreover, God was quite concerned that the Levitical lands remain within the tribe of Levi perpetually: "But the fields of the open land about their cities may not be sold; for that is their perpetual possession" (Leviticus 25:34).
Though the Levites were scattered throughout the land of Israel, there was only one place in the land where they could assist in the service of the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple). When Israel got the possession of the Land of Canaan, they set up the Tabernacle first at Shiloh and later in the time of Solomon it was finally moved to Jerusalem where the portable structure was abandoned for the permanent Temple. But the greatest percent of the Levites did not perform services in the Temple. That building was simply too small for all of them to work there. Most Levites performed duties in other employments within the nation of Israel.
The occupation of the Levites were in what we call professional fields today. Moses expected this to be the case.
As stated before, the Levites earned their living by becoming what we call "the professional people" of the community.
And while the ordinary Israelite gave his tithe every third year to the Levites (and the destitute), look at the services he got besides the management of the Temple. Israel got teachers for their children, physicians for their ills, scribes, musicians, singers, judges, and law enforcement officers. A part of their tithe even went to support a type of social security service every third and sixth year for the destitute.
This indicates that the one tithe, which was distributed differently over a seven year period, was not simply intended for religious purposes. It was something similar to our taxes that support our educational institutions, our government hospitals, our law enforcement agencies, our cultural societies, etc. When one sees the true picture of Israel’s tithing system, the early Israelites didn’t get too bad a deal in their payment of tithe. Today, however, the "tithe payer" normally gets no such material benefits. He receives the sole opportunity of supporting his church—and that’s all he gets. What a far cry from the ancient tithing system of Israel in which all benefited.
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