Chapter 6 – Particular Constitution of the Tribe of Levi
Besides the twelve tribes settled in their distinct provinces, and having each their distinct government as before described, there was one tribe which had a very different Constitution from all the rest. This tribe was to have no share in the land on the division of it, nor any property in it. The sons of Levi were not to live together, or to have the families of their tribe united, in a distinct government of their own, as the other tribes had. They were to be dispersed through all the tribes of Israel, to have their substance from the other tribes, and to live under the government of that tribe in which they had their habitation, without any property, without any sort of power or authority, civil or military of their own, as one of the tribes of Israel, or in any other view than as they were deemed members of that province or circle of the Hebrew empire in which they resided. But as they held no lands, they could be subject to no military tenure, on account of them, and were by the very Constitution incapable of any military office or preferment.
Upon the general poll of the children of Israel after their families, the Levites after the tribes of their fathers were not numbered among them…For the Lord had spoken unto Moses, saying, only thou shalt not number the tribes of Levi, neither take the sum of them among the children of Israel, but thou shalt appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of testimony, Num 1:2, 47-50. The further meaning of this Constitution, is afterwards thus explained: The Lord spoke unto Aaron, thou shalt have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt thou have any part among them. I am thy part and thine inheritance, among the children of Israel, and behold I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance for their service of the tabernacle of the congregation. And it shall be a statue for ever throughout your generations, that among the children of Israel they have no inheritance, Num 18:20,21,23.
It is then, without question, a designed part of the constitution of the Hebrew government, that the Levites, though one of the tribes of Israel, should not be settled in the promised land in the same manner as the other twelve tribes were. That they should have no share of lands assigned to them, for their property, and unalienable inheritance; and therefore, as they had no property in themselves, they were to be provided for some other way. This was appointed to be by an annual tithe payable to this tribe, by all the other tribes, that they might attend the publick service of the tabernacle, and as the reward of their service of the tabernacle, and as the reward of their service: For, says the law itself, it is your reward for your service in the tabernacle of the congregation, Num 18:31.
This is a well-known part of the constitution of the tribe of Levi, but the peculiar reasons for this peculiar constitution require a little more attention.
The Levites were designed for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation, or to attend the whole service of Jehovah, as God and King of the Hebrew nation, wherever it was he chose or fixed the place of his residence, whether he marched with their armies or whether the tabernacle rested in any particular place.
The Levites were moreover to teach the whole people the Law of God, and to instruct them in it, as Moses explains their office, They shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy Law; they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt sacrifice upon thine altar, Deut 33:10.
It became the dignity of the king of Israel to have a court, and to be served by his subjects as their king, as well as to have an altar and sacrifices, and to be worshipped by the church as their God. When both these services were appointed to the Levites, it was appointed to them as a service which the whole Hebrew nation was some way or other to have attended; this service would have been incumbent on the whole people, if the tribe of Levi had not been substituted in their room: So that by this appointment of the Levites the rest of the tribes were cased from all attendance, from all the expense and loss of time, which must have followed on such attendance, if there had been no pub lick provision for it. Therefore the Levites are said to be given for all the first-born of the children of Israel, Num 8:18. And it follows, I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron, and to his sons, from among the children of Israel, to do the service of the children of Israel, (or to serve me for the children of Israel, according to the V.L.) in the tabernacle of the congregation. Num 8:19. It should seem the direction at the consecration of the Levites to their office, refers to this reason of their appointment: And thou shalt bring the Levites before the Lord, and the children of Israel shall put their hands upon the Levites; and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord for an offering of the children of Israel, that they may execute (or be to execute) the service of the Lord, Num 8:10,11. This action of the children of Israel is carefully understood to mean, that the Levites were to execute the service of Jehovah, in their stead, and for them, as well as by their consent.
You plainly see now, this service of the Levites made it highly improper that they should be settled in the same manner that the other tribes were; that all the sons of Levi should be placed locally together in one particular part of the land, or that they should constantly attend the cultivation of their several farms, or that they should be enlisted into a regular militia, and trained to arms under the heads of their families and princes of their tribe, as the other tribes were. This would have taken up all their time, and have hinderd all the services of their office, whether to attend the service of the tabernacle of the congregation, or in teaching the people the law. It was highly proper they should be settled in every tribe, that each tribe might equally have the benefit of their instruction and advantage of their learning in the laws of Jehovah, for the better administration of justice; as these laws were the laws of their civil constitution, as well as of their religion and worship.
But then, it was as highly fit, that this tribe of Levi should have in return a reasonable consideration and reward, for services in which they gave up many national advantages to the other Tribes from themselves, and in order to ease the whole nation from those services which otherwise they must have executed personally.
For the tribe of Levi gave up to the other tribes their whole share of the land, as one of the tribes of Israel; and they gave up themselves to the national service of the tabernacle and to the public teaching of the law, discharging all the other tribes from any burden of those services, and giving them full leisure to attend solely their own private affairs, except when the danger of their country summoned them to arms in defense of it.
There were considerations that, in all justice and equity, required a suitable provision and reward, nor was this reward to be given the Levites, as many have very weakly conceited as ministers of the God of Israel, or in the modern cant, the Hebrew clergy or even as they were the servants of the king of Israel of his court and household; but moreover as the Levites parted with their own inheritance to the public; and for their public service, partly in teaching the law to the people and partly in excluding them from a personal attendance for the service of the tabernacle.
To understand the wise reasons of this part of the Hebrew Constitution, it will be necessary to consider more distinctly what the provision was, which the law made for the Levites, and the manner in which the laws of the Hebrew government made this provision for them; as both are so little understood by many, and so greatly misrepresented by some who pretend to understand them better.
The provision which the laws of the Hebrew government made for the Levites, was a yearly tithe of the produce of the lands, payable by the twelve tribes; and this was properly the only provision made for them as a tribe. For though there were some other payments by the people, as the first-fruits, the redemption of the first-born, the half-shekel poll-tax, and the like; yet these were not to be divided among the Levites, as a tribe. They were all appropriated to other uses, and were assigned to answer the expenses and constant charge of the tabernacle, of the public and national sacrifices, and other parts of the public worship of the church; or for tables in honor of the court, house, and residence of the king of Israel.
This distinction between the tithes and other public revenues of church and state, and their appropriation to very different uses, is not so commonly attended to as it ought; which had introduced no small darkness and confusion into this part of the Hebrew constitution.
The Levites were appointed to wait on the sons of Aaron, the priests for the service of the house of the Lord, and the work of the service of the house of Lord, and the work of the service of the house of God, 1 Chron 23:28—–And to stand every morning to thank and praise the Lord, and likewise at even, verse 30. They were divided as the priests into their several courses, for their attendance at the palace of the Presence. It became the honor of the divine Presence, and the dignity of the throne of the kingdom of Jehovah over Israel, that some provision should be made for a decent entertainment of such persons as should be in actual waiting on his service; as princes are used to have tables at their courts for their household and servants in waiting. There were also many other necessary expenses of the tabernacle and temple, in repairs, ornaments, sacrifices and offerings, ordinary and extraordinary. These were properly expenses, to use a modern expression, of a civil list, or of a church-rate, a very different thing from a provision made for the sons of Levi. For the Levites had no share in them, otherwise than it may be the convenience of a table during the time of their course, and in waiting on the service of the tabernacle, wherever the Presence was, after they had been at the trouble and expense of going up from their own habitation from all parts of the country, and were to be at the same trouble and expense in returning to their habitations again, as soon as the time of their waiting was over. Of this kind were many payments, in particular the first-fruits, the redemption of the first-born, and the half-shekel poll.
A righter understanding of this observation may give a useful light to many things of greater consequence than they may at first appear to be. A misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of them had been made an occasion of severe reflections without ground and against truth on the Mosaical Constitution of the Hebrew government, as if it had made a most exorbitant provision of riches for the Levitical Tribe to a heavy oppression of all the other tribes. Let us then a little consider the other revenues, as distinguished from the tithes, which only were the proper portion of the Levites.
The law for the first-fruits directs, they should be paid at the house of Jehovah, or the place of the Presence. The first of the fruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the House of the Lord thy God, Exodus 23:19. This offering of the first fruits was to be attended with an acknowledgment of the mercies of God, in bringing the Hebrew nation out of a state of affliction, labor, and oppression in Egypt, into a land flowing with milk and honey. The person therefore bringing the first fruits was directed to say, A Syrian ready to perish was my Father…And when we cried to the Lord God of our Fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor and our oppression,…and brought us into this place, and hath given us this land…And now behold I have brought the first fruits of the land which thou, O Lord, hast given me, Deut.26:5,7,9,10.
The first fruits then, seem to be paid as a kind of quit-rent, in acknowledgment of Jehovah as Lord of the fee, that the whole Hebrew nation held of him as his tenants, and that the tenure of all their estate, and of his gift and donation. It is moreover to be observed of this branch of revenue, that the law itself appointed no determined quantity; so that the quantity was left by the law to the discretion of each person who offered. It should seem the quantity supposed in the law, was not large, from a particular constitution concerning it. And thou shalt take of the first of all the fruits of the earth, which thou shalt bring of thy land that the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt put it in a basket, and shalt go unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to place his Name there… And the priest shall take the basket out of thine hand, and set it down before the altar of the Lord thy God, Deut.26:2,4. A basket which a man could carry in his hand, was not like to hold very much; so there the Talmudical doctors in this, as in many other things, went beyond the original law, when they afterwards settled the quantity of the first fruits to one in sixty.
Authors are not agreed what the difference was between the first fruits, which the Hebrews distinguish by the names of Biccurim and Therumoth, or indeed whether there was any difference at all; it is not material, I think, whether there was or no, so we may let that pass. But it may not be improper to observe, that though the traditionary writers allow the first fruits to be eaten by the priest, who were clean anywhere in the Holy Land, yet the Scriptures, as a learned man (Godwin’s Moses and Aaron, 1. vi. Ii. Sec. 8) observes, do not allow keeping any of the first fruits at home. The first fruits were reckoned of an intermediate holiness between the parts of the sacrifices, which were to be eaten in the holy place, and the tithes which were to be eaten anywhere in the land. The law directed, and it now where appears by any after-constitution, that direction was altered, that the first fruits were to be brought to the House of the Lord. It was not necessary, indeed, they should be eaten in the holy place, as the parts of the sacrifices were, which were therefore called the most holy things; for the first fruits might be eaten by the priest in their houses, and every one that was clean in their house might eat of them with them, Num 28:9,13. Yet still it seems plain, the first fruits were only to be eaten in the place of the Presence, or where the house of Jehovah was; for there the first fruits were to be brought and presented to the Lord. They are therefore very properly to be considered, as the provision of a table for the entertainment of such only as were in actual waiting at the palace of the king of Israel. A very inconsiderable accession to the riches of the priest that in the time of their waiting, in the rotation of their twenty-four courses, there was the provision of a table for them, who came and were to return so many miles whenever their attendance was in course.
There were some other taxes payable in money, as the redemption of the first-born, and the half-shekel poll; but neither of these was part of the Levites portion. As they have been greatly misrepresented, both in their value and in the use, it will be proper briefly to place them in their true light.
The law directed that the first-born, whether of men or beasts, should be offered to the Lord; but it was provided by the same law, that the first-born of men and the first-born of unclean beasts should be redeemed, that is, by paying a sum of money for them, Num 18:15,16. The redemption of the first-born of men was settled at five shekels, Ex 13:13, Num 3:45-47, and the firstlings of an unclean beast at a lamb, but the first-born of cows, sheep and goats, which were beasts of sacrifice, were to be sacrificed, and their flesh was to be eaten, as the law directed eating the parts of the other sacrifices, which were given to the priests to be eaten in the holy place, Numbers 18:17.
When we observe of these first-born of men, and firstlings of beasts, that part was to be redeemed for money, and a part to be offered in sacrifice, and used as other sacrifices were; it is very easy to perceive that neither the one or other sort could be any part of the Levites portion: for what were sacrificed, could be used no other ways than as a table for those who were in actual waiting at Jehovah’s palace; in like manner, as the first fruits above mentioned were to be used, especially as all sacrifices were to be eaten only in the holy place. So that for all these they could be no richer than saving a dinner when on duty in their courses.
As to the first-born of men and firstlings of beasts converted into money by redemption, the tribe of Levi had no share in them at all; that was a treasure appropriated to the ordinary and contingent expenses of the Tabernacle or Temple, that is for the building, ornaments, sacrifices, and other public expenses; for all which the tribe of Levi was never the richer. The want of keeping in view this manifest distinction between the treasure of the tabernacle and portion of the tribe of Levi, has misled some learned men into considerable errors, as well as it have given occasion to others, who seem fond of everything that offers to reflect on the provision made for the priest and Levites in the Mosaic Constitution.
This distinct use of the treasure of the Tabernacle from the tithes, which were given for the proper maintenance of the priest and Levites, is evident from many considerations. It appears from the very nature of the thing, that there must have been some considerable provision for the use of the Tabernacle. Whoever will consider, what the first erecting of the Tabernacle or Temple must have cost, what was necessary to be expended on repairs and keeping up the beauty and splendor of the palace of Jehovah, what was constantly the charge of the public and national worship and sacrifices, must see, that all these branches of expense required an handsome revenue or civil list to discharge them. And whosoever shall further consider how necessary it was to the political government, as well as to the religion of the Hebrew nation, to preserve a reverence and respect for the presence of Jehovah, as their God and King, (for this was the fundamental constitution of their government as well as religion) will see how necessary it also was, that the palace of Jehovah as king, and the presence of Jehovah as God, should be equal in dignity and magnificence to the palaces of neighbor kings, and the temples of neighbor idol gods.
That this branch of revenue was actually appropriated to these uses of the Tabernacle, was long since observed by a very learned author, in whose words I shall choose to express it:
“There were two sorts of treasurers to the sacred revenues, some were treasurers of the first fruits and tithes, others of other things sacred to God, and consecrated to him as vows, and the redemption of them, seem to be, the first-born also, and shekels of the sanctuary: and finally all things, which being turned into money, were offered in the temple. From this last treasury was taken what was necessary for the daily sacrifices on the Sabbaths and new moons, and more solemn feasts, on the spices, ointments, flour, offerings of wine and oil, frankincense and showbread…The portions of the Priests and Levites were paid them from the treasury of the first-sort,” Bertram de Rep. Jud. l. p. 27.
That branch of revenue, which arose from the half-shekel poll tax, will deserve a particular consideration, for other reasons besides that most extraordinary account a late author has given the world of it. The law itself, by which this tax was raised, thus enacts; And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, when thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when thou numberest them that there be no plague amongst them, when thou numberest them. This they shall give every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary, (a shekel is twenty gerahs) an half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord. Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upwards, shall give an offering unto the Lord. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering to the Lord to make an atonement for your souls; and thou shalt take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation, that it may be a memorial unto the children of Israel before the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls, Ex 30:11-16.
It is plain on the first view of this law, that whatever sum of money this poll-tax might amount to, it was no part of the portion of the Priests and Levites; for it is expressly appropriated to the service of the tabernacle of the congregation, in particular towards the building, or ornaments of it, as Bishop Patrick has justly observed on the twelfth verse. This manifestly appears in the after application of it; for this money which amounted to an hundred talents and a thousand seven hundred and threescore and fifteen shekels, Ex 38:25 etc., was all laid out in the ornaments of the sanctuary, and veil, and pillars of the Tabernacle.
It further deserves observation that the law makes the payment of this half-shekel only an occasional tax for that time and occasion, on erecting the Tabernacle; there is no mention, not the least intimation in the law, that it was to be raised annually, and to continue an annual charge on the people.
The learned Ainsworth has therefore expressly observed: “Some do think that this commandment was but for the present building of the sanctuary, and not to be a yearly tribute,” Ainsworth on verse 16. And this opinion, how strange so ever it may seem at first, since the constitutions of the Talmudists have continued it so long as an annual payment, as to wear out the memory of the ancient usage, is yet greatly countenanced by these two considerations.
First, the law itself does certainly not make it an annual payment. Now laws that are made for raising money, are never used to be so loose as to direct only one payment, and on a particular occasion, and this an extraordinary one too, if they designed such money should be raised annually and continue to be raised every year, when the extraordinary occasion for which it was given should cease. Whatever reasons then the Talmudists might have to persuade the Hebrew nation afterwards to raise this poll-tax annually, they could have no reason to lay any obligation on the Hebrews from the original law, which give not the least direction or intimation concerning it. Besides,
Secondly, there is no instance or any precedent in the whole Hebrew history, of any such payment annually, or any intimation that it was a stated revenue of the Tabernacle or sacred treasure, according to the Constitution of Moses, and original laws of the Hebrew government.
Afterwards, it is well known, the payment of a half-shekel became an annual poll-tax. There is a particular title in the Talmudical constitutions called Schekalim 1. I. Sec. 3,4, which very particularly directs how it is to be payed.
By these constitutions of the Talmudists, all persons, Priests, and Levites, as well as Israelites, were equally to pay this tax; for the constitutions declare none excepted, but women, servants, and children. They further make the uses of this money altogether public, and allow not any the least part of it for the Priests or Levites. Let the learned Selden give a just account of it, according to the constitution of the Talmudists.
“From this sacred treasury were supplied, not only the daily, monthly, yearly and sabbatical sacrifices, but also the Priest and High Priests, vestments, and other things belonging to the worship; moreover the pensions of the censors or curators of the cities, of those who taught the priest the rites of sacrificing, and the like; of those who corrected the books which were written at Jerusalem; of those who were employed in the administration of justice, and of other servants and works of the commonwealth. Finally, the expenses of repairing walls, castles, water-courses, and such things, were payed out of it, and this always according to a rate settled by the great council, or Sanhedrim,” Selden, de Syned. 1. Iii. c. x. Sec. 3 Vol II. 1634
This poll-tax then, which a late author (Moral Philof., Vol I. 137, etc.) would represent as a most extraordinary revenue for the Priests, and as an enormous oppression of the Hebrew nation, through the knavery of Moses, will really show such an instance of enormous ignorance, or something worse in our author, as is not to be excused in any man who shall pretend to write on the subject. For, let the amount of this tax be what it will, the Priests and Levites were to pay it in common and equally with the whole nation, and the uses of it were appropriated solely to the public charge of the nation; nor had the Priests or Levites the disposal of any part of it in their own hands, all was to be ordered by the great council of the nation or Sanhedrin.
After all, what was the real value of this revenue, which is represented as so enormous; our author has given a very extraordinary account of it. He reckons it the sum of half a shekel, payable three times every year; he reckons the value of a shekel at ten shillings, and supposing it was paid by a million and six hundred thousand persons, according to the poll in the days of Joab, he concludes, it was equal to two millions and four hundred thousand shekels, or to one million and two hundred thousand pounds sterling a year; a considerable sum indeed!
But in the first place our author can know nothing at all, whether any sum was ever paid, according to Joab’s poll, of one million and six hundred thousand persons, or whether there was any such tax in being for some hundreds of years, both before and after the days of Joab or David. There is no mention of it in any part of history, there is no law that requires it, nor is there any full precedent of it anywhere to be found, till after the destruction of the first Temple, with which Moses and the original Constitution of the Hebrew government have nothing at all to do.
Besides, what was it that struck our author’s imagination to fancy this tax was to be paid three times every year? This is a blunder, for which there is not the least shadow of reason, nor do I believe it ever entered into any man’s head, but our author’s. All authors without exception that I have ever met with make it a yearly payment, not three times a year. All agree with the learned Selden, “This sacred tribute was annual.” And the testimony of Josephus, alleged by him, puts it out of question that Vespasian ordered the half-shekel be paid every year to the capital, as it was before used to be paid to the temple of Jerusalem. And yet this enormous blunder makes our author’s computation, even in his own way of reckoning three times as much as it should be and reduces his sum of one million and two hundred thousand pounds to four hundred thousand pounds a year.
But to set aside all these chimerical calculations, let us see what it did really produce. We have a real poll and the sum it produced to a shekel in the Mosaical history. The poll was taken on six hundred three thousand five hundred and fifty men, and the sum at half a shekel a head was one hundred talents, one thousand seven hundred threescore and fifteen shekels. This is so exact, that when we know the value of a shekel and talent, we know to a shilling the sum in English money, Ex 38:25,26.
Whatever difference there may be, as to the exact value of a shekel, and so of a talent, no one before our author was ever so whimsically extravagant as to reckon the shekel at ten shillings.
A very usual estimation of the shekel is at somewhat less than half an ounce Troy; a little more than two shillings and three-pence English money. Then the sum will be thirty-four thousand four hundred and eleven pounds near.
But it we take the valuation of the shekel from the very accurate accounts of Bishop Hooper, and the agreement between the Hebrew, the Phaenician, and the Attick weight of Solon taken from the Tyrian, the shekel will be the same weight with the standard tetradrachm of Athens. As this most judicious author has observed several valuation of the drachma, one at the weight of 68.4 grains, which he supposes to hold from Solon to Alexander; another at 65.5 grains, from thence to the subjection of Greece to the Romans; and another of 62.57 grains, equal to the Denarii under the first Roman emperors; let us compute this hundred talents, one thousand seven hundres threescore and fifteen shekels at the highest rate of 68.4 grains to the drachma, which will make the tetradrachm or shekel somewhat more than our half ounce troy; then the sum will be forty four thousand four hundred and thirty-six pounds near, Hooper’s Enquiry, 335,337.
What sort of moral computation must our author have used, to swell his account to one million and two hundred thousand pounds; for he seems to understate common numbers well enough to have seen the truth.
But our author would have it, that the value of a shekel is not to be taken from its weight in silver, which yet sure is the intrinsic value of all coins, but from the proportion of money to other things. He produces an instance to show, that a shekel ought to be computed at ten or twelve shillings, for the law directs a man’s estimation at fifty shekels, Lev:27:2. But whoever considers this very instance will see, it can no ways agree with his value of a shekel. The law there sets the estimation of a vow. These settled estimations in the law seem to be designed as a modus not only to prevent all disputes, but to fix the valuation at an easy rate. Thus, the redemption of the first-born is fixed at five shekels, and the firstling of an ass at a lamb or kid, Ex 13:13; which, considering the general use and value of asses to ride upon and for beasts of burden, (for they had then no horses) was a very moderate estimation. And as vows were voluntary acts, a low valuation to encourage them seems much more likely to be designed in the law, than setting a very high valuation, which would probably discourage them, if not altogether prevent the making of any.
Now if these fifty shekels are to be computed at ten shillings each, the redemption money will come to twenty-five pounds, a full price for a servant, an excessive price for the redemption of a vow, whereas fifty shekels according to Bishop Hooper’s valuation used above, will make the redemption above seven pounds seven shillings, which is a sufficient estimation for such a redemption; so that our author’s calculation of this supposed annual tax, at one million and two hundred thousand pounds a year, is an over reckoning of one million one hundred and fifty thousand pounds per annum.
And if after all, this tax was not annual, as I am fully persuaded is the truth of the case, and that it was not paid above once or twice occasionally, from the time of erecting the Tabernacle to the destruction of the first Temple, that is, for above nine hundred years; our author will have overcharged the payments of the Hebrews above a thousand million of pounds sterling; more than as much again as the purchase of all the lands in England, in fee, would amount to at twenty-five years purchase.
It is the more necessary to be thus particular, in showing what was not the portion of the Sons of Levi, by the Mosaical constitution, because without a just observation of this distinction we can neither rightly understand the true state of the Tribe of Levi, or the true nature and use of the public revenues of the Hebrew government; for these were all the revenues, for the civil government, laws and religion of the whole nation; and considering all these uses of them, it will appear one of the most moderate, ancient or modern history can furnish us with.
But let us now see, what the proper provision for the Tribe of Levi was. Their proper provision, as a tribe, consisted in two articles: In forty-eight cities, with their territory for their habitation; and in the tithe of all the produce of fruit and cattle. Both these are pretty well understood in general, but the political wisdom of this institution is not so well understood as it deserves to be, because it arises from some observation which are commonly overlooked.
All the sons of Levi, including both Priests and Levites, were to have no property in any of the lands of Canaan, except only in forty-eight cities for their habitation. This is an express and standing law, and Jehovah spake unto Aaron, thou shalt have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt thou have any part among them. I am thy part, and thine inheritance among the children of Israel, Num 18:20.
But when the Levites were to have no inheritance, as one of the tribes of Israel, it was necessary they should have houses to live in; and it was convenient and wise, these habitations should be so disposed as to enable them to perform the proper duties of their office in the best manner; therefore the law assigned to them forty-eight cities, some in each of the tribes in which they were to dwell, and so by the residence of some of the Levites in every one of the tribes, they might most conveniently perform the services to which they were appointed. Thus therefore the law enacts: Command the children of Israel that they give unto the Levites of the inheritance of their possession, cities to dwell in; and ye shall give also unto the Levites, suburbs for the cities round about them…And ye shall measure from without the city on the east two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, and the city shall be in the midst; this shall be to them the suburbs of the cities…So all the cities which ye shall give to the Levites shall be forty and eight cities, then shall ye give with their suburbs; and the cities which ye shall give, shall be of the possession of the children of Israel, from them that have many, ye shall give many; but from them that have few, ye shall give few; every one shall give of his cities unto the Levites, according to his inheritance which he inheriteth, Num 35:2,5,7,8.
When this law was put in execution, we find the Levitical cities were thus allotted. Out of the tribes of Judah, Simeon and Benjamin thirteen cities, Ephraim, Dan, and half the tribe of Manasseh ten cities, other half-tribe of Manasseh, Issachar, Asher, and Naphtali thirteen cities, and Zebulun, Reuben, and Gad twelve cities, which totals forty-eight Levitical cities, Josh 21:4-7.
Each of these cities containing four thousand cubits square for their suburbs or territory, had about eight hundred and ten acres assigned to each of them according to the lesser cubit, and about eleven hundred and one according to the measure of the greater cubit; the sum of which for the forty-eight cities, will amount to about fifty-two thousand eight hundred and forty-eight acres. This you will observe is a very material circumstance.
It shows what a small proportion these cities of the Levites bore, to the rest of the promised land; and it opens another great mistake of a modern author (Moral Philof. Vol II. Pg 137), who remarks that the lands of the Levites would seem to amount to a seventh part of the whole country, though he is pleased to let them pass for a tenth.
In a foregoing computation of the contents of the Promised Land, it appeared that at a larger computation it contained nineteen millions and two hundred thousand acres; at a mean computation, fourteen millions nine hundred and twenty-six thousand; and at the lowest computation, eleven millions two hundred and sixty-four thousand. This would allow a large remainder for public uses, near twenty-three times as much as all the Levitical cities amounted to: for when ten millions of acres had been shared among the tribes, the remainder is one million and two hundred thousand acres and better; whereas all the Levitical cities did not amount to fifty-three thousand. You will then perceive at the very lowest computation of the contents of the land of Canaan, that the lands of the Levitical cities are so far from the proportion of one seventh or one tenth, that they have not near the full proportion of one in two hundred. But you will say, the Israelites were not in full possession of the Promised Land according to the original grant, the Canaanites remained many of them still in the land. Be it so; was this the fault of Moses and the Constitution, or was it the fault of the Israelites and a breach of the constitution, that the Canaanites were suffered to remain in the land with them? However, what proportion of the land will you suppose the Israelites did posses? Will you allow it to be an half? Even on such supposition, the lands assigned to the Levitical cities, will not amount to one in a hundred; a proportion somewhat less than a seventh or a tenth.
This is a true computation of the proportion of the Levitical cities to the whole land of Israel, if the four thousand cubits include the areas of the cities which are directed to be built in the midst; and this is the opinion of many learned men. Menochius (de Rep. Hebr. L. ii. C. iii. Sec viii. P. 109) has given a plan of the Levitical cities, with their ground about them, in which he measures the two thousand cubits each way from the centre of the whole ground; and so from the middle of the city, which he supposes to measure a thousand cubits within and a thousand cubits without the walls, each way from the centre. But not to depend on the opinions of learned men, let us see what the law itself directs. It is said at the fourth verse, And the suburbs of the cities which ye shall give to the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city, and outward a thousand cubits round about, Num 35:4,5. Now in measuring from the wall on the city outward, the law appoints one thousand cubits only, not two thousand; which Grotius seems well to express. “It was but one thousand cubits to the cities,” (Spatium mille Cubitorum accession Urbium). The next verse indeed directs, you shall measure from without the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and so each way. At first view it is plain, that these two directions cannot be meant of the same measure, from and to the very same place, or from the walls of the city to the end of the ground without the walls; it must be meant of different measures, and therefore of different places. In the first case measure from the walls outward to the end of the suburbs, and it will be a thousand cubits. In the other case, measure from without the city, or from the end of the suburbs inward, and so into the city, and to the centre of the whole ground, and it will be two thousand cubits each way.
This gives a just and easy sense to these directions, and the difference is no more than measuring outward from the walls in one case, and from the parts without the city into the city itself in the other case: so that one measure gives the contents of the suburbs alone, the other the contents of the suburbs and cities together.
Yet as it is thought by some, that the areas of the cities are not included in the four thousand cubits square, let an addition be made for the areas of the cities, what shall it be, a thousand, fifteen hundred, or two thousand cubits square? Be it two thousand, then the whole being a square of six thousand cubits, or thirty-six millions of square cubits, will be somewhat more than as much again as the former computation, or as thirty-six to sixteen. Let then, if you will, an allowance be made to the Levitical cities of an hundred and ten thousand acres, instead of near fifty-three thousand in the former calculation, this will not amount to a tenth of the remainder of one million two hundred thousand acres, after the division of ten millions, and is not one in a The hundred to eleven millions two hundred and sixty-four thousand, the very lowest contents of the whole land.
Tithes. The tenth however, it may be said, was a very unequal portion for the Levites. Our author’s computation of this revenue is as curious and exact as his former calculations have appeared to be. “This, he says, was a tenth of all the original natural produce of the soil, in corn, oil, wine, and fruit; and as this tenth was free from labor and expense, it must have been at least three tenths of the annual rent of the land. After this had been taken away, the priesthood had a tenth of all the beasts and the first-born of all beast; this must have much exceeded a tenth, but I shall reckon them both at two tenths, or one fifth; now since the stock upon an estate must, upon an average, amount to at least two annual rents, one fifth will be two fifths or four tenths of the annual rent, which with the other three make seven tenths,” (Moral Philof. Vol II. 137). The following articles of the Levitical cities and the half-shekel poll-tax, which with our author make three tenths more, to show the revenue of the priesthood amounted to the full annual rent of the whole land, have been so fully considered before, that I shall beg leave to cast them out of this reckoning, especially as in our present question concerning the tithes, it is most certain they could not be any part of them.
But are not seven tenths of the annual rent a most burthensome tax? Does it not amount to fourteen shillings in the pound? True; but what if our author’s computations of seven tenths prove, on examination, like his foregoing calculations? Examine them, and see.
The priesthood had, he says, a tenth of the natural produce of the soil in corn, oil, wine, and fruit. This was then a tenth of the natural produce———Of what soil, I beseech you? Not sure of pasture, meadow, wood-lands, or timber; not then of the whole land, as our author would have you understand it.
The reasons for which, be to himself; but till our author can ascertain how much of the land of Canaan produced corn, wine, oil, and fruits, he must certainly conclude without premisses, when he makes it amount to any determined proportion of the whole land, or even to ascertain any sum for the produce of the arable lands or fruit-grounds themselves.
It is probable the arable lands and fruit-grounds were not a third part of the whole country, and then our author’s computation, instead of three tenths of the annual rent of the whole, will be but one third of a tenth of the whole produce; that is, it will be no more of the whole produce than three pounds six shillings and eight-pence per cent.
As to the tithes of cattle, you will observe that the first-born, as has been shown before, belongs to another account; whatever that revenue was, it belonged to the treasury of the temple, and was no part of the proper revenue of the Levites.
“But the priesthood, says our author, had a tenth of all the beasts; this must have exceeded a tenth, but I shall reckon them at two tenths, or one fifth. And since the stock upon an estate must, upon an average, amount to at least two annual rents; one fifth will be two fifths, or four tenths, of the annual rent.”
Here we must ask our author, what annual rent does he mean? Sure he should mean no other rent than of the pasture-grounds; for what sort of cattle are corn-fields, olive trees, or vines used to produce? Here to our author concludes without premisses, till he can ascertain what was the proportion of pasture-ground to the rest of the land of Canaan. It might be, for anything he knows to the contrary, but one tenth, or but half a tenth of the whole produce; though he puts it down at four tenths, with his usual assurance.
There is another question that deserves attention on this head. The priesthood had, our author says, one tenth of all the beasts. What, had the priesthood one tenth of all the beasts, fed in all the pastures of the Hebrew land? Had the priests the tenth fleece of all sheep fed in them, or any consideration for the herbage or feeding of any cattle throughout the whole land? Where do you find any such constitution, or custom? The law only directs, concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, even of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord, Lev:27:32. As to the custom of tithing, according to this law, let the learned Selden inform us: “For their cattle—-of the increase of them, one tithe only was paid, and that to the Levites. At the tithing they used to shut the lambs for example in a sheep coat, where the straightness of the door might permit but one at once to come out; then opening the door, either gently to hunt them out, or placing the ewes bleating near them without, so to cause them to run out one by one, a servant standing at the door, with a rod colored with oker, solemnly told to the tenth, which tenth with his rod he marked: so they understand going under the rod,” (Selden of Tithes, c. ii. Sec. 5. V. III. p. 1085).
For all our author’s dexterity in calculation, to make the tithes of the Hebrews amount to a full annual rent of the whole land, you evidently see it does not amount to one tenth of the annual produce; which according to his own estimate of the produce, equal to three annual rents, will not be a full quarter of the whole: for it is moreover to be observed that the whole land was not titheable, no woodlands, no timber, or sylvacaedua, paid any tithe at all, even the whole cattle the most considerable part of the Hebrew husbandry paid only a tithe of the young. So that when the tenth lamb, calf, etc. were paid for tithe, the remainder paid nothing more, either in wool or for herbage, how many years so ever they were kept for any use. So that the whole country of the Hebrews did by no means pay a tenth of the produce. The greater part of the land in quantity, and likely the larger produce in quality, all the woodlands and grazing grounds, either paid nothing at all or so small a matter that it could not amount to near one tenth.
But is there not mention of a second, and even of a third tithe? As there is a little obscurity in what the Hebrew authors have written concerning this tithe, which seems to have misled some into mistaken notions, as if this was a part of the Levitical or national revenue, and to have given occasion to others to misrepresent the Hebrew constitution as unreasonably partial to the Levities: let it be examined somewhat more particularly.
There is a direction in the law, Thou shalt eat before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and of thy flocks, that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always. It is further directed, that if the place be too far, then shalt thou turn it into money and bind up the money in thine hand, and shalt go to the place which the Lord thy God shall choose. To what uses this money was appropriated, the law further declares: And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or whatsoever thy soul desireth; and thou shalt eat there befor the Lord thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou and thy household, Deut. 14:23,24,25,26. The plain meaning of this law is no other than an injunction on the Hebrew nation, to use one part of their income in hospitality, to rejoice in the goodness of God when they came before his presence, to acknowledge they owed all their blessings to his protection and favor, and to glad the hearts of the poor, the fatherless, and the widow with a cheerful entertainment, imitating the goodness of God to themselves by such acts of kindness to others; but this was left entirely to the owner, and his good will, on what to spend it, and whom to entertain. He is expressly allowed to lay it out, for whatsoever his soul lusteth after, or desireth. This is therefore not unfitly called by the Hebrew writers, the tithe of feast and the poor man’s tithe.
But what was the third tithe? The following direction of the law may explain it. At the end of three years thou shalt bring forth all the tithe of thine increase the same year, and shalt lay it up within thy gates; and the Levite (because he hath no part no inheritance with thee,) and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, which are within thy gates, shall come and eat and be satisfied, that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hand which thou doest, Deut. 14: 28,29. This is a direction how the tithe of feast, or of the poor, should be used the third year. It was not to be spent every year at the place of the Presence, or where the Shechinah resided; but the third year it was to be spent at home in their own city. So that what is called the third tithe is what the law speaks of as the tithe of the third year, which was to be spent every third year in their own cities.
Let us see how the learned Selden represents this matter. “This first tenth paid (viz. the Levites tenth) the remaining nine, were accounted profane or for common use; yet not to be spent by the possessor, until he had taken out of these nine another tithe, which he was the first two years to carry to Jerusalem,…and spend it there at the temple in feasts,…and every third year the same he was to spend upon the poor and Levites, within his own gates…This other tithe they call their second tithe, or tithe of feasts…Some make a third, as Tobit… but he means only the tithe of the third year; that is, the tithe which every third year after the first tithe paid was to be laid up by the husbandman in his own gates, for the Levites within his gates, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, which Josephus also names a third tithe to be bestowed every third year, and this the Rabbins call the poor man’s tithe; and it is also instituted a third, but falls better under the second of our division, and need not to be made a third. Nor is it.” Selden of Tithes, c. ii. Sec. 2,3. V. III. p. 1083
These second and third tithes then seem to be one and the same, only to be used at different times in a different manner for two years at the place of the Presence, and the third year at home; but it is evident they were no property of the Levites, no national tax, or assigned for any public uses. The law appropriates them to hospitality, according as the owner himself shall choose, to rejoice their household, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, among whom they were not to forsake the Levites, many of whom, especially their fatherless and widows, might stand in need of their neighbor’s hospitality, as much, perhaps more, than the other inhabitants of their cities.
There is one thing relating to the Levitical revenues, which a late author has passed over in deep silence; with art enough for his purpose, but hardly with the regard for truth one might have expected from a moral philosopher. The tithe is represented as very great, and the more valuable, as the Levites had so large a portion of the produce of the land, assigned them without any labor or expense of their own; but why were not the reasons and considerations of this assignment taken into the account? To put a true estimate on this provision for the Levites, a love of truth and justice, which I take to be moral virtues, require we should observe, whether any consideration was given for this assignment, and what that consideration was? It was not a bothersome tax on the other tribes, only for their support as a national clergy; for the Levites gave up their own property and privileges as a tribe to the nation, and took upon themselves the national services of the sanctuary and of the law, as a consideration for it.
The tribe of Levi was one of the tribes of Israel, as much as Judah or Ephraim. It had as just a claim to a proportion of the promised land for an inheritance as any of the other tribes. The tribe of Levi then had a previous natural right to a share in the land in full property, and to an independent government, as a tribe under its own prince, and heads of families, as any of the other tribes had, according to the Hebrew constitution.
Yet, as the peculiar service of the Levites made it inconvenient their time should be taken up with husbandry and arms, or that they should live together as one tribe, which would have been inconsistent with their study of the law, and the national advantages designed by their knowledge of it; it was appointed by the constitution, that they should give up their share of the land to the public; and for the better service of the public, that they should part with their own government and security as a tribe, by inhabiting together in one province, and be separated throughout all the tribes of Israel under the government, and subject to the power of that tribe where they had their habitation.
Now so much of the tithes, as the Levites thus purchased for a valuable consideration, ought to be accounted their own proper estate, as much as an annuity paid by a government for a sum of money advanced by the annuitants for the service of the public. Let us just observe what this may reasonably amount to.
The Levites were a thirteenth tribe; to make the computation less exceptionable, let their proportion of land be estimated at a fifteenth. Then in every hundred pounds a year produce, the Levites property would have been six pounds thirteen shillings near. Now the tenth of one hundred pounds a year amounting to ten pounds, the Levites really received no more above their own property, as one of the tribes of Israel, than three pounds seven shillings, or not three and a half per cent.
But there are other considerations of considerable consequence, as I apprehend, in this computation. The Levites in this exchange, of a real estate for an annuity, gave up possession, and yielded away all the advantages of personal property, and independent government. They trusted solely to the national faith, for the secure payment of their annuity; they divested themselves of all power of re-entry upon nonpayment, and ran the hazard of the insolvency of any tribe, or any part of the country, either by ill husbandry or accidental damages, by reason of contentions at home, or invasions from abroad; so that no misfortune could befall either the Hebrew nation, or any one of the tribes; but the Levites annuity must feel it, and suffer a deficiency by it.
Further it may be observed, how little to the purpose the moral philosopher has distinguished, between an annual rent and an annual produce. For the property given by the Levites to the public, and actually distributed among the other tribes, gave up the annual produce, not an annual rent only; and had the Levites kept their property in their own possession, they would have received not one rent only, but the whole three rents. It is true, then they must have kept their farms in their own hands, and have been employed in husbandry with the rest of their neighbors, which now others were to do for them; but what then? Was it an unequal convention, that the nation should do for the Levites their work of husbandry, when the Levites were to do for the whole nation all the services of the sanctuary, and every where to assist the administration of justice, by their study and knowledge of the law? It was highly necessary some persons should be appointed to these services, when the Levites were appointed to them, and freed all others of the nation from them. It was most equitable that the nation should free the Levites in there turn from the care of husbandry, that they might be able to do the national services for which they were appointed.
Before we take leave of this part of the Hebrew Constitution, let us view it in one light which is not very common, though it seems obvious and plain enough.
The rank of the priests and Levites, as ministers of religion, as the men of best understanding and knowledge in the laws, as of great interest in the nation and influence in the administration of justice, might have proved too great a balance of power in one tribe, if they had retained with these advantages a considerable property in land and an united, independent government in themselves, as one of the Tribes of Israel, according to the model of the other Tribes or Provinces.
I cannot but look upon it as a wise intention, and an original design in the Constitution, appointed with great political skill to cut off all possible abuse of such power and influence, as their character might give them. By these means they were deprived of all power to hurt the liberty of the other tribes, or any ways endanger the constitution by any ambitious views or projects. For not only all the estates of the Levites, but their persons too, were given into the hands of the other tribes, as so many hostages and as a security for their good behavior. They were so separated from one another, that they could no way mutually assist each other in any ambitious design. They were so dispersed among the other tribes that it was absolutely in their power upon any national quarrel, or even on a suspicion of any ill designs of the Levites, to put a stop to their whole livelihood, and seize on all their persons at once. You may hence perceive, that whatever power or influence that Constitution gave the Levites to do good, the same Constitution carefully provided to put it out of their power to do ill, either to disturb the peace or endanger the liberties of their country.