1 Now Joshua was old and advanced in years, and the Lord said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and there remains yet very much land to possess. 2 This is the land that yet remains: all the regions of the Philistines, and all those of the Geshurites … 6 … I myself will drive them out from before the people of Israel. Only allot the land to Israel for an inheritance, as I have commanded you. 7 Now therefore divide this land for an inheritance to the nine tribes and half the tribe of Manasseh.”
… 33 But to the tribe of Levi Moses gave no inheritance; the Lord God of Israel is their inheritance, just as he said to them. (Joshua 13:1–2, 6–7, 33 ESV)
So, all Israel gets land. All Israel gets the ability to sustain and care and provide for themselves. All Israel gets an allotment in the land God long-promised to Abraham and his descendants. Even Simeon, who joined Levi in his brutal assault on Hamor’s people in Genesis after Hamor the Hivite seized their sister Dinah and “lay with her and humiliated her” (Genesis 34:3) — and paid for that assault by being disinherited when a dying Jacob blesses his sons at the end of Genesis. Simeon gets a big circle of land in the middle of — surrounded by — Judah.
All Israel gets land. Except Levi.
The sons of Levi (the tribe of Moses) had been set aside to carry the Ark of the Covenant and “to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless his name, to this day.” (Deuteronomy 10:8) They are Israel’s priests, and are utterly dependent on the gifts given to God for their own survival (Deuteronomy 18:1–8).
They will receive their own patrimony — cities and pastures — later in Joshua. But mostly, the Levites have to depend on the goodwill gifts of the rest of Israel. They eat of the sacrifices given to God. While the manna stopped falling for Israel once they crossed the Jordan, the Levites are still dependent upon God for their sustenance.
For their daily bread.
This is what it means to do the work of serving God, as the priests of God’s people, to carry the physical embodiment of the covenant God has with his people, to keep the incense fires lit, to keep and tell and transmit the story of God’s people.
I believe in tent-making ministry, because our professionalized clergy have become a bourgeois “helping profession” where we are somewhere between community organizers and social workers, just another career that helps maintain good order in a democratic capitalist society. There is a place for that, I suppose, but, it is not all we are. We do a strange work, this lighting fires of incense, this proclamation of grace over bread and wine, this leading of prayers, this being the presence of God in the midst of sorrow and joy, terror and suffering. It is an odd thing we lead, this worship of God. It is particular work, this, and the community of God’s people have an obligation to the Levites called out of their midst to lead those prayers, keep that story, and proclaim that presence.
Because they rely on the Lord for all they have. They have to trust in ways the rest of us do not. They have no sustenance of their own, and no inheritance, no patrimony, except the promise of God. They show the rest of us what it means to live on the ragged edge, and in the midst of God’s amazing blessing.