The Special Priesthood Joshua 21:1-45


Joshua 21:1-45

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Having considered in chapter 20 the establishment of the cities of refuge, an important part of Israel’s criminal justice system, we move now to the much larger number of Levitical cities, only six of which happened to be cities of refuge. We have read several times earlier in the book that the tribe of Levi would not be granted an allotment in the Promised Land as the other tribes were receiving. In 13:14 we read:

“To the tribe of Levi alone Moses gave no inheritance. The offerings by fire to the Lord God of Israel are their inheritance, as he said to them.”

That is, they would be supported by the offerings of the people, not, as the other tribes, by the agricultural production of their land. Then later in chapter 13 we read again:

“But to the tribe of Levi Moses gave no inheritance; the Lord God of Israel is their inheritance, just as he said to them.” [v. 33]

Then, once more, in 18:7:

“The Levites have no portion among you, for the priesthood of the Lord is their heritage.”

Three different explanations are offered as to why the Levites did not get a portion of the Promised Land allotted to them. All this repetition signals a point of some importance. It’s ours to consider what that matter must be.

Text Comment

v.2       The mention of “the land of Canaan” seems unnecessary, but it lays emphasis on the fact that the Levites too, however uniquely, received their portion of the Promised Land.

v.3       The pasturage around the cities supplied, in other words, what the offerings of Israel would not. Think of cows and goats giving milk and so on. It is natural that the Levites would come to ask for their allotment. They had been guaranteed one, however different in kind, and every other tribe had now received its allotment. They had been promised 48 cities (Num. 35:7) and that is what they received. They serve here as an example for us of what Calvin calls “presuming on the veracity of God.” the principle of daily Christian living is just this: assume that the Lord will be true to his word and act accordingly. Or as Oswald Chambers simply put it: “Trust God and do the next thing.” [McCasland, 177]

v.5       The Kohathites were divided among those who were the direct descendants of Aaron, so in the priestly line, and those who were Levites but not of the priestly line.

v.8       What we have in vv. 1-8 is a general overview; the remainder of the chapter provides the detail. The Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites were the three clans of the tribe of Levi, descending from Levi’s three sons, each clan sharing certain responsibilities but each, as well, having assigned to it different responsibilities for work at the tabernacle. You read all about that in the book of Numbers.

Now, I am not going to read the list of forty-eight cities. The tribes averaged four cities apiece as their contribution; western and eastern Manasseh functioned as a single tribe for the purposes of contributing Levitical cities, each contributing two. The Levitical cities are designated here; that does not mean that they were necessarily in Israel’s possession at the time. Some of these cities may not have been occupied by the Levites until later, perhaps in some cases much later. Now to v. 43.

v.45     The final three verses summarize the book to this point and complete its third major section, that section describing the division of the land among the tribes of Israel. The emphasis falls on the Lord’s faithfulness. Don’t take this for granted just because you are so familiar with the story. Nothing like this had ever happened in the world before and really nothing like it ever happened ever since. As an event in history, it is utterly unique and remarkable. From the exodus through the conquest, the Lord fulfilled his word spoken centuries before to Abraham and did it in the most extraordinary way.

We might consider from Joshua 21 the Levites as, in a way, the representative Israelite. In Deut. 18:6 their life is described as the life of a “sojourner,” the point apparently being that they were never to own the property on which they lived. The city might well be a Levitical city but the real estate still belonged to people from Judah or Manasseh or Simeon. But in that way the Levites served to remind the Israelites that they too were sojourners, one tribe actually living the sojourner’s life as a testimony to the others. They serve us in the same way. As David said to the Lord in 1 Chron. 29:15:

“For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.”

This is something you and I can never be reminded of too often. We are here for such a short period of time; we have but this one life to live here in this world by faith in Jesus Christ. We are to see ourselves in these Levites living in their cities that do not belong to them. [Davis, 159] But I don’t think that is the main burden of this text. So I intend to preach another sermon. The subject, once again, as last week, concerns a fundamental feature of a Christian view of the world.

It is also one of those sermons preachers do not like to preach. It concerns the minister himself and his office and so invites the inevitable comparisons. If that is what a minister is supposed to be, why aren’t you more like that? I know that is just the sort of thing you people will think! But not to worry; I will rise above your petty judgmentalism and give you a sermon on the text! The subject is here in Joshua, an entire chapter is devoted to it, and so we need to do something with these Levitical cities. What are they here for? Why do we need to know about this? What is more, like it or not, the ministerial office, represented by the Levites, is crucial to the health and spiritual welfare of the people of God, always has been and always will be. Now, to be sure, the Levites were not exactly the equivalent of the Christian minister today. But, all in all, they may not be as different from him as you might think.

While the priest and the Levite might be the same thing, they usually were not. There were many more Levites than priests and only priests superintended the worship of God’s people at the temple, the sacrificial ritual, and the burning of incense. But, of course, most of Israel’s worship did not take place at the temple. It was at least several days’ walk for many if not most Israelites, whether to the tabernacle at Shiloh in the early years or to the temple in Jerusalem after Solomon built the temple there. One could hardly spend most of every week getting to worship and coming home from it! So only three times a year Israelite men were required to attend worship at the temple and women and children were never required to attend the sanctuary. They probably often did, but God did not require them to come. God never made temple worship both essential and unavailable at one and the same time!

So, for most Israelites, the weekly service was in their town or village, as it is for us today. We know comparatively little about the weekly worship of Israel in those early centuries after the conquest. There is a longstanding debate in biblical scholarship as to when the synagogue came into being and usually it is thought much later in Israel’s history, perhaps even after the exile, though, to be candid, there is precious little evidence one way or another. But whether it is right to say that the synagogue — with its specific associations — already existed in Joshua’s day, local weekly worship certainly did.

In Leviticus 23, first in a list of the feasts and festivals of Israel’s liturgical calendar, we read of the weekly Sabbath.

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places.” [v.3]

The term translated “convocation” means a gathering of the people for the purpose of worship. Precisely what that assembly amounted to is hard to say in detail, though it certainly seems likely to me that, given what we know of the development of OT worship, it contained hymns, prayers, and instruction in the Word of God. What else would it have contained? In other words, were we there we would immediately recognize it for a worship service, with most everything present we expect to find in a rightly ordered worship service except the sacrificial meal.

In fact, we know that the Levites were the teachers or preachers of the ancient church. Later there would be prophets from time to time, but ordinarily, week in and week out, preaching and teaching were provided by the Levites. When Moses blessed the tribes of Israel before his death, we read in Deut. 33:10 that, among other things, he said of Levi:

“They shall teach Jacob your rules and Israel your law.”

It was because they were the people’s teachers that they needed to be scattered throughout the land, not in one corner of it. And so the Levitical cities were located within all the tribes of Israel. As Moses had said long before, their cities were to come from the territories of the other tribes. [Num. 35:1-8] The rationale for this appears to be just this practicality. If they were to be Israel’s local pastors, they needed to be located close to every town and village in Israel. A city of refuge needed to be within a day’s walk of any place in Israel. So there were six. But Levitical cities needed to serve the pastoral needs of every Israelite in his own location. Hence there were 48 of these cities, distributed throughout the entire country.

If you want to know what the message of Joshua 21 is, here is its message. It is the Lord’s provision of a ministry of the Word for his people. It is Yahweh’s making sure that his people, all his people, will know and understand his Word, will have it applied to their lives, so that they might live in faith and obedience before him. Joshua 21 is about there being a ministry for the people of God. In the world of persons that God has made, in the world of persons that Christ has redeemed, it will always be a person who is needed to preach and teach the truth of God. And while Joshua 21 is about cities, it is about cities only insofar as Levites, men with the particular calling of teachers and preachers of the Word, should be spread throughout the towns and villages of Israel; within easy reach of every Israelite.

Now, I can’t point you to chapter and verse to describe the Levitical ministry as it was exercised in Israel. We simply are not told what they did or how they did it. Did they travel to nearby towns to hold services every Sabbath? Probably. Were individual Levites assigned to individual villages or in larger towns to individual gatherings of worshippers? Probably. Did they remain the pastors of the same people for years on end? Perhaps. Who can say for sure? But, given that the spiritual needs of people have always been the same, given that we know that Levites were the appointed teachers of the Word of God, given that when Israel was spiritually revived in her history — as, for example, in the days of Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 17:8) — the teaching/preaching ministry of the Levites was an instrument of that revival, and given that the Levites overlapped with the priests who superintended the people’s worship at the temple, it seems a safe conclusion to draw that the Levites were at least broadly what we would call local pastors or ministers today. Joshua 21 is the beginning of the office of the local pastor that has continued ever since in Christendom!

Now, to be sure, there have been some changes since Pentecost, changes appropriate to the epoch of the Gentiles. Ministers are no longer confined to a particular Israelite lineage as they were in the OT. Paul, for example, refers to himself as a priest in Romans 15, though he was of the tribe of Benjamin not Levi. He was, he said, a priest, not because he descended from Aaron but because he was a preacher of the gospel. That is, he was a priest because he was called by Jesus Christ to do what the ancient priests and Levites did: viz. preach the Word of God. What is more, there was no longer to be the separation between the worship of the local assembly, what the Jews then called the synagogue, and the worship of the temple. They were combined in the worship service of the new epoch, a service of word and sacrament that was no longer tied to a sanctuary in Jerusalem. But these differences being acknowledged, the office with its duties is largely the same in the NT as in the Old. In the OT too we read of faithful shepherds of the sheep, that is of what has been called from ancient times the cure of souls. Such must have been the work of the Levites. The church has had its leaders and they have been its teachers and preachers of the Word of God from the beginning to the present. What is more the life of the church waxes and wanes, its fortunes rise and fall according to the faithfulness of those who occupy that office, call it what you will: pastor, preacher, minister, or priest. Priest is, after all, simply an English transliteration of the Greek word presbyter, which in the New Testament is the ordinary word for preacher or pastor.

There are some things about life that make the Christian ministry in its historic nature and function simply inevitable. The Word of God needs to be taught. The entire Bible bears witness to that fact. There is a power and an affect that attend the Word of God when it is well taught by learned, capable, and faithful pastors. The Holy Spirit ministers life and holiness to people through pastors and preachers. The whole of Christian history bears witness to that fact. And God’s people need pastors who will help them to navigate the troubled waters of this world by helping them to understand how the grace and mercy of God, how the law of God, the wisdom of God, and the justice and goodness of God illuminate their circumstances in daily life. They need pastors to show them, as Paul puts it, how “through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” [Rom. 15:4]

Have you followed the story in the news this past week about the late Jackie Kennedy’s letters written to an Irish priest? She met Father Joseph Leonard on a visit to Ireland when she was only 21 years of age. For the next fourteen years, until his death in 1964, she wrote him from time to time concerning her relationship with God, particular events in her life, her courtship and marriage to Jack Kennedy, a still-born baby, their first daughter, troubles in their marriage due to Jack’s womanizing, and then Jack’s assassination in 1963. In one letter, written not long after her husband’s death, she confided that she was “so bitter against God” but added that “only He and you and I know that.” She wrote that she was trying to make peace with God, and did not want to raise her children in bitterness. What is fascinating about the letters is precisely that they reveal a side of Mrs. Kennedy, her confidences, expressions of personal feeling, and private opinions that otherwise she had kept to herself. She felt free writing to Father Leonard because she knew her secrets were safe with him and because she felt he would both understand her joy or sorrow and be able to speak helpfully into her life. She said at one point it was good for her to write her thoughts to him because she didn’t really share them with anyone else.

Do you not suppose, human nature being what it is, human life and sorrow being what they are, that there were Levites in Israel in those days, who had ministries of comfort and pastoral care like that; Levites who ministered to individuals like Mrs, Kennedy as Eli did to Hannah or Elijah did to another heartbroken woman?

But whatever the shape and character of a typical Levite’s ministry, from that time to this, the church has had a ministry. In this respect Joshua 21 is a very important turning point in the history of the world and the history of the Christian church. From this point on the people of God will assume as a matter of course that they require a pastor, a minister of the Word of God, and that they should have them in their immediate locale. It would not be too much to say, I think, that we have in this chapter the commencement of what we have ever after understood to be the local ministry, the Christian pastorate.

That ministry is, of course, a subset of the history of the world’s leadership. When you think of the world and its history, its epochs, its developments, its catastrophes, its successes, you naturally think of the men whose leadership, for good or ill, gave direction to that history. Can you describe the history of Israel without mentioning Moses, David, or Solomon? Well, in the same way, can you describe the history of Rome without mentioning Julius Caesar, Augustus or Marcus Aurelius? Can you think of American history without considering George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? The history of the world is to some significant degree the history of its great men, its leaders.

And the history of the church is no different in that respect. We know comparatively little about the thousands and eventually millions of Christians who populated the church in its early centuries after Pentecost. We have few literary remains to help us understand what their lives were like, that describe their lives or spiritual experience. But their stories are taken up into the stories of the great men who led the way for the church: from Origen to Cyprian to Athanasius to Augustine and so on, pastors all by the way. And so it continues. The Reformation was a movement that depended upon the spiritual and intellectual leadership of Luther, Calvin, and Knox; the Great Awakening cannot be understood apart from the ministries of Whitefield, Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards. Victorian evangelical Christianity which had such an immense and long term impact upon the modern world was the effulgence of the zeal of generations of missionary pioneers who were leaving Great Britain by the ship load month after month through the entire nineteenth century. Or think of the preaching of Charles Spurgeon, and so on. And so to our own day. In a real sense the history of the church is the history of its ministry. In this way, too, the Levites are the representative Israelite.

We know the great ministers, but underneath them, invisible to history, are many times 48 cities worth of Levites, ordinary men who conducted the ministry of the Word Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day and day by day. True enough, among them were turncoats and traitors who gave their people everything but the pure Word of God. There are others, alas, who were simply unsuited for the work. That has always been the bane of the church’s life as it is the bane of the world’s life, inadequate leadership. It was not only in Jesus’ day that many of the people of God were sheep without a shepherd; not because there were no shepherds, but because their shepherds were useless. But there were as well large numbers, generations of faithful pastors who through the ages have cared for the people of God and have sought to do their best to make sure the sojourners under their charge they made it safely to the Promised Land.

Generally speaking it was a law in Israel and has been a law ever since that when the church grows weak, when it begins to decline in numbers, when its voice is no longer one to be reckoned with in a culture, it is because the church’s ministers have failed in their duty to teach the Word of God and to inspire the church to live by that Word. And vice versa. When the church was renewed and her faith and hope and love revitalized, it was almost always the result of the spiritual revitalization of her ministry.

I am a minister and so I am always reading about ministers. Some of them are the great men whose names you would know, but many of them are such men whose ministries would be more like those Levites whose congregations were in the outlying towns near Hebron or Libnah or Beth-shemesh. For example, I have been reading of late a modern study by a University of Washington history professor, of the ministry of Mark Matthews, in his day a very well-known American minister, who in the early years of the 20th century built Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church into the largest Presbyterian church in the world. [D. Soden, The Reverend Mark Matthews: An Activist in the Progressive Era].

But a brand new book just arrived on my desk, the first ever full length study of the ministry of Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor from St. Louis, who, for a year or more in 1945 and 46, was the pastor, the chaplain, of the Protestant defendants and their families, the Nazi war criminals, at Nuremberg. It is a remarkable story of pastoral work, of gospel preaching, of the truth of God being brought to bear on a small group of human beings who were the most vilified people in the world of their day, men who had committed horrific evil, and there in the middle of this small group of individuals a simple, uncomplicated Levite, whose work has been largely forgotten, like the work of most ministers before him.

At the outset these men who had strode the world’s stage for many years and had done such immeasurable evil, who had been instrumental, some of them more than others, in the murder of millions, were little impressed by Henry Gerecke, his unequivocal faith in God and his unpretentious sermons. The Allies would be judging the crimes of the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg and sentencing them to their fate; that is what they cared about. But it would be this Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor whose task it was to convince these men — men the entire world loathed and wished dead — that it was really God’s judgment that they should fear. [Townsend, Mission at Nuremberg, 8] Over time his ministry began to tell.

Months later, nearer the end of the trial — upon which the entire world’s attention hung day after day — a rumor circulated among the prisoners — we mean Goering, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Hess, Keitel, Jodl, Speer, and the rest, the cream of the Nazi high command — that Gerecke was to be allowed to go home. He had not seen his wife for two and a half years.  The defendants themselves wrote a letter to Gerecke’s wife, Alma, back in St. Louis. All twenty-one signed it, even the Roman Catholics who had their own priest, many of whom would be executed in a few months’ time.

“Frau Gerecke,

Your husband Pastor Gerecke has been taking religious care of the undersigned defendants during the Nuremberg trial. He has been doing so for more than half a year. We now have heard, Mrs. Gerecke, that you wish to see him back home after an absence of several years. Because we also have wives and children we understand this wish of yours very well.

Nevertheless we are asking you to put off your wish to gather your family around you at home for a little time. Please consider that we cannot miss your husband now.

During the past months he has shown us uncompromising friendliness of such a kind, that he has become indispensable for us in an…environment which is filled with cold disdain or hatred….

Our dear chaplain Gerecke is necessary for us not only as a minister but also as the thoroughly good man that he is — surely we need not describe him as such to his own wife. We simply have come to love him.

It is impossible for any other man than him to break through the walls that have been built around us, in a spiritual sense even stronger than in a material one. Therefore, please leave him with us. Certainly…we shall be deeply indebted to you.” [223-225]

Only three men among the Allies at Nuremberg spoke German to the defendants. The two chaplains, Gerecke and the Roman Catholic, and the psychologist.  Hans Fritzsche, the Nazi radio propaganda chief, one of the few defendants who would eventually be acquitted, wrote later.

“Pastor Gerecke’s view was that in his domain God alone was Judge and the question of earthly guilt therefore had no significance as far as he was concerned, His only duty was the care of souls. In a personal prayer which he once made aloud in our queer little congregation he asked God to preserve him from all pride, and from any prejudice against those whose spiritual care had been committed to his charge. It was in this spirit of humility that he approached his task; a battle for the souls of men standing beneath the shadow of the gallows.” [8]

Fritzsche would later write a book about his Nuremberg experience in which he offered this opinion:

“Of all the prison officials, the most outstanding was the insignificant-looking, unassuming, Lutheran pastor from St. Louis, Gerecke.” [Don Stephens, War and Grace, 271]

Isn’t it astonishing and wonderful that there was a faithful Levite at Nuremberg, offering life in Christ’s name to some of the deadest men in the world? Isn’t it still more wonderful — a window on all that we believe about sinful ourselves and about the gospel of Jesus Christ — that some of them apparently found eternal life at the very end of their earthly life there in Nuremberg because of the faithful ministry of this Levite.

That man and that ministry and the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of others like him and like it, find their beginning in Joshua 21. God has made the world as well as the church to depend upon faithful preachers and pastors. He has left us in his Word clear instruction regarding what such men must be and do. He has taught us to understand how essential their work must be for every Christian church, family, and individual and as well for the salvation of the world. We have here in this chapter, in other words, a chief part of our understanding of how the world works and how salvation comes to men and women. No thoughtful Christian with a Bible in his hand will ever underestimate the importance of the Christian ministry. Our world would be unrecognizable to us without it and impossibly worse!

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The Special Priesthood Joshua 21:1-45
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