What were the Levitical Cities?
Levitical cities were places designated for Levitical priests to reside. Numbers 35:1-8 provides that 48 cities should be given to the Levites, each surrounded by a pasturage. The exact details are not quite clear, for in the Hebrew, Numbers 35:4 would naturally be read as meaning that the pasturage was a radius of 1,000 cubits from the city walls, while Numbers 35:5 makes each city the center of a square, each side of which was 2,000 cubits long.
Extant variants in the versions suggest, however, that the text has suffered slightly in transmission. Originally there seems to have been no discrepancy between the two verses, and it may be doubted whether the intent was that the city was always to be in the mathematical center of the patch. The Levites were to have the right of redeeming the houses at any time, and in default of redemption they were to go out in the Jubilee. The field was not to be sold ( Leviticus 25:32 f).
Deuteronomy 18:8 undoubtedly recognizes patrimonial possessions of the Levites outside the religious capital, and sees no inconsistency with its earlier statement that Levi had no portion or inheritance with Israel ( Deuteronomy 18:1 ). The explanation lies in the fact that these cities were not a tribal portion like the territories of the secular tribes. The area occupied by the whole 48 jointly would only have amounted to less than 16 miles.
1. Traces of the Cities:
In point of fact, there are traces of some of the Levitical cities in the later history. Such are Anathoth (1 Kings 2:26 ; Jeremiah 1:1 ; 32), Jattir (2 Samuel 20:26 , where, Jattirite should be read for the Massoretic Jairite), Beth-shemesh (1 Samuel 6:13-15). (From Amos 7:17 it appears that Amaziah of Bethel had land, but we do not know that he was of Levitical descent or where the land was.)
2. Wellhausen's Arguments Answered:
Further, the fact that many other Levitical cities appear to have been centers of worship points to the presence of priests. Was the great high place of Gibeon (1 Kings 3:4 ) unserved by priests? It is surely natural to suppose that during the period between the capture of the Ark of the Covenant and its transport to Jerusalem there was a tendency for high places to spring up in cities where there were priests rather than elsewhere; indeed there would probably be a disposition on the part of unemployed priests to go astray in a direction that would prove lucrative.
3. Van Hoonacker's Reply:
With regard to the other objection, Van Hoonacker's answer is convincing: "As to the way in which the measurements were to be carried out in the mountainous country of Palestine, the legislator doubtless knew what method was usually employed. Besides, we are free to believe that he only gives these figures as approximate indications" ( Sacerdoce levitique , 433).
4. Ezekiel's Vision:
The same writer's reply to theory that the idea originated with Ezekiel is wholly admirable. "Strictly we could ask ... whether Ezekiel did not found himself on the description of the camp of the Israelites in the desert. It is only too manifest that the division and appointment of the territory as presented in Ezekiel 48 of the prophet are scarcely inspired by practical necessities, that they have a very pronounced character of ideal vision; and 'as no fancy is pure fancy,' we ought also to find the elements which are at the basis of Ezekiel's vision.
The tents of the tribe of Levi ranged around the tabernacle explain themselves in the Priestly Code; we may doubt whether the Levites, deprived of territory ( Ezekiel 44:28 ) and nevertheless grouped on a common territory, in the conditions described in Ezek 48, explain themselves with equal facility. A camp is readily conceived on the pattern of a chessboard, but not the country of Canaan. We need not stop there. It is in fact certain that Ezekiel here has in view the protection of the holiness of the temple from all profanation; and in the realm of the ideal, the means are appropriate to the end" (op. cit., 425 f).
5. Priestly Cities and Cities in Which Priests Dwell:
Lastly there runs through Wellhausen's discussion the confusion between a city where priests may be dwelling and a priestly city. There were priests in Jerusalem, as there are today in London or Chicago; but none of these three places can be regarded as a priestly city in the same sense as the Levitical cities. Not one of them has ever been a patrimonial city of priests, or could be the origin of such an arrangement.
While therefore the whole of the cities mentioned in Joshua 21 were certainly not reduced into possession at the time of the conquest, the Wellhausen theory on this matter cannot be sustained.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).