In a long list detailing who gets what following the Israelites’ conquest throughout Canaan, there is an unexpected piece of information. “Only to the tribe of Levi he did not give an inheritance; the offerings by fire to the LORD, the God of Israel, are their inheritance, as He spoke to him” (Joshua 13:14). It would be hard, for me, to not feel like I got the short end of the stick. Did you hear all of the lands Judah received? The Simeonites received a part of Judah’s territory “for the share of the sons of Judah was too large for them” (19:19). But the Levites get nothing except the task of preparing burnt offerings on behalf of all the other Israelites.
Or maybe they’ve received everything. The sacrificial system is so unknown to most of us that we might not quite grasp the gravity of what it means for the Levites to receive “the offerings by fire to the LORD.” Thankfully, the author of Joshua clarifies the point a few paragraphs later: “But to the tribe of Levi, Moses did not give an inheritance; the LORD, the God of Israel, is their inheritance, as He had promised to them” (Joshua 13:33). The call to make burnt offerings is not simply an inherited career; somehow, the call to make burnt offerings is God’s way of offering Godself to the Levites. In a way, the sentence is antithetical. Did God give them nothing for an inheritance? Or did God give them the ground of all being?
I am drawn in by the thought of the Levites really receiving God whenever they participated in the worship sacrifices. Each time they prayed and killed and prepared and burned and prayed, they met God. Reading Gary A. Anderson’s very intriguing chapter on the way language about the Temple, especially in liturgical writings, parallels language about the incarnation of Christ, helped me to better recognize the deep, complex understanding of worship that was alive in the Israelite sacrificial system. After reviewing several liturgical prayers, Anderson suggests, “Either the temple is such a overpoweringly holy structure that angelic spirits literally ooze from its various surfaces, or those surfaces themselves slip into the realm of divine being” (Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, p. 111). God became present, by some divine mystery, in the sacrifice but also in the objects of worship.
Anderson is Catholic and so has been trained to see the time of worship as a place where God literally dwells. Some of us Protestants have something to learn from our Jewish and Catholic brothers and sisters who hold out hope that, in their worship, God is arriving as their inheritance. From my experience, the worship service in low-church Protestantism is popularly described as a time of learning or a time when we “give our best to God.” And while those are a part of worship — there are laws prohibiting blemished animals from being sacrificed — more centrally, worship is a specific period in our lives when God comes to us and makes us holy.
The curtain in the Temple was rent asunder, so God is no longer relegated to any specific place. And the ultimate sacrifice has been made, so there is no longer any need for burnt offerings. But the God of Israel is still the inheritance of those who come to God in worship. As Calvin writes about the sacraments, “Our gracious Lord, with endless understanding, brings himself down to our level by earthly means and leads us to himself.”
We have not been given nothing; we have been given God, that is, everything.