Levitical city

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Cities of Refuge (illustration from a Bible card published 1901 by the Providence Lithograph Company)

In the Hebrew Bible, the Levitical cities were 48 cities in ancient Israel set aside for the tribe of Levi, who were not allocated their own territorial land when the Israelites entered the Promised Land.

Numbers 35:1-8 relates God's command to Moses to establish 48 cities for the Levites, of which six would also function as Cities of Refuge to which manslayers could flee. Each settlement was to comprise a walled city and the common land around it for pasture, measured radially as one thousand cubits in each direction,[1] or as a square measuring two thousand cubits along each side.[2] The land for the cities was to be 'donated' by the host tribe [3] and was allocated to the Levites according to their tribal sub-divisions.

13 cities were for the Aaronites.
13 cities were for the Gershonites.
10 cities were for the Kohathites.
12 cities were for the Merarites.

The six cities which were to be Cities of Refuge were Golan, Ramoth, and Bezer, on the east of the Jordan River,[4] and Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron on the western side.[5]

Locations of Cities

Joshua 21 recounts the fulfilment of God's command at the request of the Levite leaders. A further list is provided in 1 Chronicles 6:54-81. The following table reflects the list in Joshua 21:

Tribe Levitical cities Levite division City of refuge
Asher Abdon Gershonites
Asher Helkath Gershonites
Asher Mishal Gershonites
Asher Rehob Gershonites
Benjamin Almon Aaronites
Benjamin Anathoth Aaronites
Benjamin Geba Aaronites
Benjamin Gibeon Aaronites
Dan Aijalon Kohathites
Dan Eltekeh Kohathites
Dan Gath Rimmon Kohathites
Dan Gibbethon Kohathites
Ephraim Beth Horon Kohathites
Ephraim Gezer Kohathites
Ephraim Kibzaim Kohathites
Ephraim Shechem Kohathites
Gad Ramoth-Gilead Merarites
Gad Jazer Merarites
Gad Mahanaim Merarites
Gad Heshbon Merarites
Issachar Daberath Gershonites
Issachar En Gannim Gershonites
Issachar Jarmuth Gershonites
Issachar Kishion Gershonites
Judah Ain[6] Aaronites
Judah Beth Shemesh Aaronites
Judah Debir Aaronites
Judah Eshtemoa Aaronites
Judah Holon Aaronites
Judah Jattir Aaronites
Judah Juttah Aaronites
Judah Kirjath Arba (Hebron) Aaronites
Judah Libnah Aaronites
Manasseh Be Eshterah Gershonites
Manasseh Gath Rimmon Kohathites
Manasseh Golan Gershonites
Manasseh Tanach Kohathites
Naphtali Hammoth Dor Gershonites
Naphtali Kartan Gershonites
Naphtali Kedesh in Galilee Gershonites
Reuben Bezer Merarites
Reuben Jahaz Merarites
Reuben Kedemoth Merarites
Reuben Mephaath Merarites
Simeon See Judah (above)
Zebulun Dimnah Merarites
Zebulun Jokneam Merarites
Zebulun Kartah Merarites
Zebulun Nahalal Merarites


John Calvin suggested that the Levites had initially been 'overlooked' in the allocation of land on entry to the Promised Land, until the Levites brought forward a reminder of the divine commandment, making this an example of how:

... it is apt to happen, every one being so attentive in looking after his own affairs that even brethren are forgotten. It was certainly disgraceful to the people that they required to be pulled by the ear, and put in mind of what the Lord had clearly ordered respecting the Levites.[7]

However, the writer of the Pulpit Commentary disagreed:

'We are not to suppose, with Calvin, that the Levites had been overlooked. Such a supposition is little in keeping with the devout spirit of him who now directed the affairs of the Israelites, who had been minister to Moses the Levite, and had but lately been concerned with Eleazar, the high priest, in making a public recognition of that God to whose service the Levites had been specially set apart. The delay in appointing to the Levites their cities arose from the nature of the arrangement which had to be made for the Levitical cities.'[8]

This 'arrangement' was the fulfilment of Jacob's prophecy in Genesis 49:5-7 - I will scatter them (Simeon and Levi) in Israel - which was a punishment for Simeon and Levi's massacre of the men of Shechem.[9] The Levites could not be scattered amongst the cities of the other tribes until the other tribes had all been appointed to their territories after the entry into the Promised Land (Joshua 18-19).

Matthew Henry commented that Jacob's condemnation of Levi became a blessing for Israel:

'The sentence as it respects Levi was turned into a blessing. This tribe performed an acceptable service in their zeal against the worshippers of the golden calf (Exodus 32:26). Being set apart to God as priests, they were in that character scattered through the nation of Israel.[10]


  1. Numbers 35:4
  2. Numbers 35:5
  3. Numbers 35:2
  4. Deuteronomy 4:43 and Joshua 20:8
  5. Joshua 20:7
  6. Ain is described as a city of Judah and a village of Simeon, as Simeon's territory lay within Judah's. Joshua 21:16 refers to these cities as 'nine cities from those two tribes'.
  7. Calvin's Commentary on the Bible, Joshua 21:1 http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/view.cgi?bk=5&ch=21 accessed 29 August 2015
  8. Pulpit Commentary on Joshua 21 http://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/joshua/21.htm, accessed 3 September 2015
  9. Genesis 34:25
  10. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhc/genesis/49.htm accessed 4 September 2015