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The Levitical towns - Comments and conclusions


  1. Overview
  2. Towns that were important
  3. Similarities and differences
  4. Towns where the Canaanites retained control


Study of the maps indicates that the towns - especially those west of the Jordan - were not evenly distributed in a geographical sense. However, they do broadly follow the general occupation pattern. Many of the towns, especially amongst the Kohathite towns, play a prominent role in the later life of Israel or Judah. The following table shows which were important within certain periods:

Levitical clan United monarchy Divided monarchy
Kohathite (Aaron) Hebron, Libnah, Jattir, Eshtemoa, Beth Shemesh, Gibeon, Geba, Anathoth Hebron, Libnah, Beth Shemesh, Gibeon, Geba, Anathoth
Kohathite (other) Shechem, Gezer, Jokmeam, Beth Horon, Aijalon, Taanach Shechem, Beth Horon, Gibbethon, Aijalon, Taanach, Ibleam
Gershonite Ashtaroth Kedesh in Galilee
Merarite Ramoth in Gilead, Mahanaim, Jazer Rimmon, Jahaz, Ramoth in Gilead, Mahanaim, Heshbon, Jazer

There is a notable absence of towns in the Jordan valley itself, such as Beth Shan, ... Although the coastal plain region associated with the Philistines was supposed to be a goal of the original possession of the land, no towns were appointed for the Levites here. The closest are Gezer, and the four Danite towns.

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Towns that were important later

Certain towns which became important at later stages of Israel's history are missing - for example Jerusalem (captured in David's reign), Lachish (a major target during the Assyrian advance), Penuel (the transJordan capital used by Jeroboam after secession from Judah), or Samaria (the later capital of the northern state).

A few of the towns are explicitly associated with religious activities in later Old Testament books, for example the Benjamite towns of Gibeon, Geba and Anathoth: also Shechem, Gezer and Ashtaroth. In other cases the town names strongly suggest such a use - for example Beth Shemesh (probably associated with solar worship), or Kedesh (from "Holy"). These cities were often in fact important as Canaanite religious centres before the Israelite usage. This raises the question as to how long Canaanite worship continued to be practised here after the occupation.

However, it is certainly not true that all Levitical towns were important. Many of the towns are named only in these two lists out of the entire Old Testament.

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Similarities and differences

Examining the similarities and differences between the two lists, particularly in the light of the lists of areas the Israelites failed to take, is interesting. These are now reviewed in broad categories:
Kohath (Aaron) and the transJordan area
The towns given to the Aaronite Kohathites, from Judah and Benjamin, are essentially the same in both the Joshua and Chronicles lists, with only minor differences of spelling (Holon/Hilen, Ain/Ashan - though it is not clear if these are alternative names or different towns, and Almon/Alemeth). The same applies to the towns given by the transJordan tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh are essentially the same (Be Eshtarah/Ashtaroth and Jahaz/Jazer). Most of these towns were made available to the Merarites, but the two northernmost ones to the Gershonites. These tribal assignments were carried out in the early phases of apportioning the land. In addition, the town assignment - especially in the transJordan areas - was done at a stage when the regions had been at least partially secured by the tribes. The only exception to this is in the northern transJordan area apportioned to half-Manasseh, where Og's capital city Ashtaroth had not been captured by the end of Joshua's lifetime. Although Og was defeated in battle, the northern parts of transJordan were not entered by the Israelites at this stage.
Kohath (other) and the central area
Here there are significant differences in the two lists. The Ephraimite towns are largely the same, with only Kibzaim/Jokmeam differing. These may be alternate names for the same town. The Danites are entirely absent from the 1 Chronicles list. Two of these towns were later captured by Ephraim. The towns made available from the half-tribe of Manasseh west of the Jordan are different - the Chronicles list towns are further south, away from the Jezreel valley area given in the Joshua list. Of the 10 towns named in Joshua, only 5 are unequivocally the same in Chronicles, and two of these have changed tribal ownership. Although the writer Chronicles is aware that 10 towns were to be supplied, only 8 names are given. This matter is discussed further in the next section.
The northern area
This area mostly provided for the Gershonites, with some towns for the Merarites. Many of the names here differ between the two lists, though in most cases the variations are minor. In only 4 cases out of 15 are the names identical. The only towns where there is a strong likelihood of real difference are Helkath/Hukok and Nahalal/Tabor.
In short, the areas with least differences are the southern parts assigned to Judah, and the transJordan regions. The northern tribal areas display superficial differences, but the central area contains most actual differences between the lists.

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Towns where the Canaanites retained control

Joshua 15-19, and Judges 1, record the names of a number of towns which the Israelites failed to secure in the early stages of the occupation of Canaan. In most cases, an annotation has been added to the effect that after a while the Israelites were able to take control, subjecting the Canaanite occupants to hard labour. In some cases the comment is that the two peoples ended up living side-by-side. In general it is not possible to identify the time at which these events occurred. A more thorough discussion of this may be found in the pages dealing with the Conquest in general. The towns in question are:
Ephraim failed to capture this town. Josh. 16:10 says that the Canaanites were required to do forced labour, but Jdg. 1:29 simply has the two peoples living side-by-side.
Aijalon and Gath-rimmon
Dan permanently failed to capture this town, but Jdg. 1:34 records Ephraim's eventual success at pressing them into forced labour.
Be Eshtarah/Ashtaroth
This town is not in the Joshua list, but is in 1 Chronicles. Josh. 17:12 and Jdg. 1:27 record that the Canaanites were determined to remain in this town, as well as a group of others further north, and that eventually Manasseh subjected them to forced labour.
Eltekeh and Gibbethon
Dan permanently failed to capture this town, and there is no indication of Israelite success at all. The towns do not appear in the 1 Chronicles list.
Manasseh failed to take this town, and since the Chronicles 6 list has Aner in its place it seems likely that the failure was long-term. Josh. 17:12 and Jdg. 1:27 record that the Canaanites were determined to remain in this and other nearby towns, and that eventually Manasseh subjected them to forced labour.
Zebulun failed to take this town, and since the Chronicles 6 list has Tabor in its place it seems likely that the failure was long-term. Jdg. 1:30 records that the Canaanites were eventually subjected to forced labour.

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