The entire book of Yehoshua has been focused on the process of acquiring the land. But after all the wars, the conquering, the dividing and giving out, there is one last thing that must happen before we reach the declaration that God has given Israel “all the land that he promised to give their forefathers” (21:41). In order to fully receive the land, every tribe has to be willing to give some of it up.
The tribe of Levi, we learned long ago, is not given an ‘inheritance’, for ‘God is their inheritance’. The simplest way to understand this is that Levi is freed from the need to tend to the land to make their living, in order to allow them to focus on spiritual matters. But if this was the whole point, we might expect that Levi receives no portion at all, that they must integrate themselves into other tribes’ portions and cities. God’s plan is somewhat different, and it’s worthwhile to consider why.
Levi does get something. The tribe receives an urban inheritance, specific cities which are designated as their own. These cities are not given to them directly by God, however. Each tribe is asked to give up some of the cities within their designated portion. This is a significant difference; the act of giving is emphasized again and again in the beginning of chapter 21. After the request of the Leviim in verse 2, the word ‘to give’ is repeated exactly seven times, from verse 3 to 21, and then not even once until verse 41. The next time the word is mentioned, it is not the Jewish people giving, but God who gives them the land.
Our people needs a land, without question, not only to defend ourselves, but to fulfill our destiny in the world. But acquiring the land and possessing it also carry the greatest of spiritual dangers, that we will become so enamored with our ownership, with our lordship, that we forget the Lord, the true Owner. This threat is at the very center of the Torah’s dark words of rebuke at the end of the books of Vayikra and Devarim, and of the message of the society altering commandments of Shemita and Yovel. And so, before God can give us the land, we must first prove that we, too, are capable of giving it up.
This is a blog of short reflections on the 929 project’s daily study of Tanach, one chapter a day, until it’s all done. Join the adventure! Learn more at 929.org.il.