Joshua 20&21: Levite Cities

These two chapters cover Levite cities as well as the cities of refuge (which were all Levite cities).


Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord's side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him.Exodus 32:26 KJV

The Levites were not given an inheritance, but that didn't mean they were left homeless and at the mercy of the other tribes. Instead the Levites were given cities throughout each territory. Theologically, this makes sense, as the Levites had proven their desire to serve God and keep Israel on the path to righteousness (after the golden calf incident in Exodus 32). Sprinkling them throughout the nation should have insured each region a group of Levites to assist and advise on religious matters. While a single lamp can light a whole room, a rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch. That is to say, the Levites were not immune to corruption and over time, we will see them fall to sin as well (see Malachi 2:7-9).

I think there is a parallel to be made between the Levite's situation and modern day, particularly due to the influx of "prosperity preaching." When Moses asked for people to stand for God and against sin, it was the Levites who stood. The Levites were blessed and favored by God; He counted them as the firstborn of Israel, a position of honor and prestige. Furthermore, they were the only ones allowed to touch and care for the holy items of God's tabernacle. It is obvious that they were revered and special in the text, but we often glance over this detail about them not receiving land. Everyone who continued partying when Moses asked for servants of God inherited large expanses of land, while those who did as God commanded were merely given cities in the aforementioned people's territory. God had a purpose and a plan for the Levites; His decision to withhold territory in favor of individual cities was not a condemnation of the tribe despite how it may seem to us. When we claim our inheritance in the kingdom of God, there is no need for worldly inheritances. This is important to remember and keep in perspective as we navigate the world today.

Cities of Refuge

Joshua 20 reiterates the purpose of a the cities of refuge, which were introduced in Numbers 35 and discussed in Deuteronomy 19. In short, the cities were to be a safe haven for people who had accidentally killed someone. Until the person's trial (and after depending on the results of the trial), they were permitted to stay in the city of refuge without fear of any avenger's retribution. In Joshua 20, we learn the added tidbit that the person was to declare their situation at the gate upon entering the city.

Six cities of refuge were designated, three on each side of the Jordan. West of the Jordan, the three cities were Kedesh (in Naphtali's territory), Shechem (in Ephraim's territory), and Kirjatharba/Hebron (in Judah's territory). East of the Jordan, the cities of refuge were Bezer (in Reuben's territory), Ramoth (in Gad's territory), and Golan (in Manasseh's territory). These cities were strategically located, per command, to given refugees a chance to escape to the city before an avenger took his life.

Meanings of the Cities

Many of the cities and names given throughout the Bible have distinct meanings corresponding to their origin or purpose. The cities of refuge follow this pattern. Below is a table containing the name of each city and what it meant in ancient Hebrew. I have found that different sources cite different (but usually similar) meanings.
City RefugeMeaning
KedeshHoly placeHolinessSanctify or to make holyHoly
ShechemStrengthBurden bearerShoulder
RamothHigh placeUpliftingRaised up or exaltedExaltation
GolanEnclosure for captivesHappinessTo rejoice (possibly to deliver or pass away)Joy
BezerStrong hiding placeSafetyFortifiedStronghold
These meanings describe our salvation through Jesus. Jesus is holy, and makes us holy when we submit to Him. He carried our burden and gives us strength. Through Him we can fellowship with God, our Father. He brings us happiness and safety. Bridge to the Bible connects the rules pertaining to the cities of refuge to salvation as well![3] The cities of refuge housed people who had accidentally murdered someone, whereas Jesus is "the city of refuge" for those of us who commit any accidental sin. When the slayer entered the city of refuge he had to declare his intent; similarly, when we accept Jesus as our Saviour and thus enter His protection, we declare our faith in Him. The people of the city were required to take care of the slayer while he was in the city, just as followers of Christ are to take care of one another. Further, the city of refuge was only temporary—the slayer was to leave when the high priest died—while Jesus' city of refuge is eternal since He will never die.

Other Levite Cities

The Levites were given cities according to the families of Levi's sons: Kohath, Gershon, and Merari. In addition, the descendants of Aaron were also given cities.

Cities for Aaron

The descendants of Aaron are given 13 cities located across the tribal territories of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin. One of these 13 cities was to be shared with Caleb. In this city, Caleb received the main city with Aaron receiving the suburbs. One of the cities of refuge—Hebron—was among the 13 cities given to Aaron.

Cities for the Sons of Kohath

The Kohathites, which would have included Aaron and his descendants, was given the first lot for the Levites. Aaron's descendants' cities are listed first in the text, however. The Kohathites (minus Aaron's descendants), receive 10 cities. These cities are located in the territories belonging to the tribes of Ephraim, Dan, and Manasseh. Shechem, the city of refuge in Ephraim, is given to the Kohathites.

Cities for the Sons of Gershon

The sons of Gershon are given 13 cities; among these 13 cities are two cities of refuge: Golan and Kedesh. The Gershonites' cities are located in the territories of east Manasseh, Issachar, Asher, and Naphtali.

Cities for the Sons of Merari

Those descended from Merari were given 12 cities. These cities where located in the territories of Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun. The final two cities of refuge—Ramoth and Bezer—were given to this group.

Promise Fulfilled

Photocredit: retsf
God kept His promise to bring the Israelites to the land and defeat nations, however, Israel didn't always fall through with their end of the bargain, namely getting rid of the Canaanites or following God's commands. This may be why the kingdom never acquired all of the Promised Land.


  1. Morris, Henry M., PhD. "Cities of Refuge". Institute for Creation Research. 2016
  2. MacDonald, William. Believers Bible Commentary. pg. 254. 1980
  3. "6 cities of refuge". Bridge to the Bible. 2016
  4. MacDuff, John. The Cities of Refuge: Or, the Name of Jesus. A Sunday Book for the Young. 1874


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