An Unexpected Inheritance
Over the last 30 years I have listened to parents wrestle with how to best pass wealth to their children. But the more complicated issue arises when they have to decide which of their children is most likely to handle the blessing well and not to be hobbled with an inheritance.
What is fair? What is enough to express love but not spoil? Those who deserve the most are not always easy to discern. Take the case of the Levites.
The people became impatient waiting for Moses to return from meeting with God on Mt. Sinai and created a golden calf to worship. After Moses discovered what they had done he shouted, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me,” and all the Levites rallied to him. By the end of the day, the Levites had killed 3,000 people, including their own brothers, friends and neighbors. Immediately following, Moses tells them their reward for faithfulness and obedience: “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
What was this blessing Moses gave? “They (the Levites) shall have no inheritance among their brothers. The Lord is their inheritance.”
This meant that Canaan was to be divided between the disobedient and idolatrous tribes but those who were most faithful would receive almost nothing. The only tribe to stay true to the Lord is excluded from any inheritance of the land.
Is that fair? Is that just? The Levites do receive the right to live on the land distributed to the others and they are to be supported by them through a mandatory tithe but, honestly, if I were at the reading of this will, I would question the fairness of the distribution: “All this I give to your brothers and you get nothing but the opportunity to work for and be dependent on them.”
But reading further you discover something. Because they had no ownership concerns or connection to one particular tribe and because they rotated regularly back and forth to Jerusalem to serve in the Temple, they became the people who kept the whole nation in touch as they moved around. They were the newspapers of their day and the county extension agents sharing news and best practices to isolated and protective tribes. Involved in every aspect of the life of the nation, the Levites enjoyed an extraordinary blessing not given to the others. Because they had patrons, this gave them the financial freedom to concentrate on their work and unique role in Israel.
Even better, unlike priests, they each served a relatively short time. They did not begin their work until they were 30; retirement was mandatory at 50; and they spent their remaining years bringing along the next generation of Levites. These were probably some of their most productive, vibrant decades. They were old enough to have experience and young enough to keep learning.
And look at what they produced.
Who were the teachers, writers and librarians?
Who were the judges?
Who provided medical services?
Who were the artists, singers, musicians and architects?
Who were the financial managers?
Isn’t that an irony? What seemed like God being unfair in depriving them of their equal share of land was his giving them a role they could never have played otherwise. When God relieved them of the responsibilities of working the land and protecting the interests of a particular tribe, he freed them to become examples not just of a holy life but a creative and productive life filled with variety and learning. They were the first examples of what Jews have become everywhere they have gone – the leaders in culture, the arts, the professions and finance.
This is not how we think of the Levites in the New Testament, is it? We see them as dry, colorless and lifeless lawyers who are only interested in picking apart Jesus. That was not their original purpose or assignment. They were reduced to that over time because, in John Gardner’s words, they stopped renewing themselves. They became fixed and stagnant, and their faith deteriorated into formulas.
As poet Christian Wiman puts it, “Faith never grows harder, never so deviates from its nature and becomes actually destructive, than in the person who refuses to admit that faith is change.”
So, what in the end did it mean for God to be fair in deciding they would have no inheritance? What would Israel had been like and what would the future of the Jews been had God rewarded their faithfulness in the way we would have predicted? Thankfully, His ways are not our ways.