The Levites traced their ancestry back to Levi, the third son of Jacob, but it was Moses and Aaron, the two great heroes of Israel's Exodus, who under God's direction gave the tribe its greatest prestige and standing. Ultimately it became one of the most influential tribes in Israel, owing to its position as holder of the Temple priesthood. Although this honor is viewed as a blessing, the tribe of Levi was not blessed with a territorial allotment as were the other tribes. This lack of landed inheritance in Israel could be seen as the result of an unfortunate situation (Gen. 49:5-7; see also 14:28, 29), but it was compensated by the spiritual honor of having God as their inheritance (chap. 10:9).
According to Joshua 21, the Levites were given forty-eight cities in which they lived, and most likely fulfilled the ritual needs of the town and its region. Of course, these local rites were not to take the place of the tabernacle (or Temple) ceremonies, but the Levitical presence was needed among all the tribes to prevent backsliding and apostasy, as well as to educate those whose homes were far from the central sanctuary. Note that most of the Levitical cities appeared to be situated far from the major centers of Israelite religion Shiloh, Bethel, Jerusalem, and Shechem and were, in fact, clustered near the traditional borders of tribal Israel.
However, the record shows that Levites were not confined to the designated Levitical cities, nor did they always retain a form of strict orthodoxy as they sought to make their living. For example, a young Levite once hired himself to a rich family in Ephraim, headed by a man named Micah, to minister in the family shrine that included a silver image of Yahweh! (see Judges 17). Later the Danites, migrating from the region of their original tribal allotment in the lowlands west of Jerusalem to their new territory in the north, raided the shrine, and the Levite went with them to be their priest (chap. 18). With such potential problems it is no wonder that the Levites had finally requested security in their own cities (Joshua 21).
Not every Levite practiced his profession in a temple or tabernacle or even a shrine. In 1 Samuel 9:11-14 we find Samuel leading out in a sacrificial ceremony at a "high place" outside the city. Possibly many towns maintained such high places, whether orthodox or not, as a place for the practice of religious rites for which it was not necessary to attend the central sanctuary.
Most of the temples found by archeologists in the Holy Land come from the periods preceding the entrance of the Israelites into Canaan (See MINISTRY, August, 1978, pp. 21, 22). Only one certain temple from the Israelite period has been found so far, the temple of Arad, although the temple platform at Dan has most likely been discovered and a dismantled altar found at Beer-Sheba confirms the presence of a temple at that site (Amos 5:5), which has not yet been indisputedly identified.
The presence of a shrine is more difficult to detect than that of a temple, since it may have no distinctive plan that would allow an archeologist to differentiate it from a house or a room in a house. Only if distinctive cultic objects were found in immediate association would a tentative designation of "shrine" be possible. Even then, the room may have simply served to store the materials for use elsewhere. Even more difficult to detect would be the site of a tabernacle, since a tent would leave almost no recognizable remains for archeologists to unearth thousands of years later.
Because it is often difficult to deter mine what the function of a building or an object was in antiquity and because ancient religions are usually enigmatic, there is a tendency to classify enigmatic finds as "cultic" simply because the excavator does not know the function of his find. Fortunately, as more arid more of these wrongly labeled cultic objects are eliminated from the religious sphere, a corpus of objects that can be safely designated as cultic has been established. The most common of the cultic objects were made of pottery. Wide-mouthed bowls set on top of cylindrical stands may have been used for libations or incense; double bowls (a small bowl built into a larger one) were used most likely for libations; censers (portable incense holders) with punctured holes to let the smoke out have been found; zoomorphic vessels or figurines could be crude representations of deities or pedestals for deities, or they could be children's toys; large stands; either plain or elaborately carved, were used to hold sacred objects. Sometimes animal bones from the sacrifices may also be found nearby.
Several caches of such cultic materials have been discovered. Most temples from pre-Israelite days contained store rooms or benches housing such items, in addition to commonly used vessels that were used to hold offerings. Recently a cache of cultic vessels was found at a village site called Tell Qiri, situated in the Jezreel Valley just north of the Carmel Mountains. (Amnon Ben-Tor, "Tell Qiri: A Look at Village Life," Biblical Archaeologist, 42 (1979), pp. 105-113). The vessels were found in a typical Israelite domestic dwelling dated to the Iron I period (twelfth and eleventh centuries B. c.). Along with the cultic vessels, finds included several bones from the right foreleg of goats, calling to mind a sacrificial practice mentioned in Exodus 29:22, and in Leviticus 7:32, where the right thigh of certain sacrifices is said to belong to the priest as his share.
The excavator of Tell Qiri, Amnon Ben-Tor, has suggested that cult rites were not practiced solely in temples, but were also performed in private houses or at least in parts of them (ibid., p. 113). He thus has posited that the Tell Qiri dwelling housed a shrine somewhat similar to that portrayed in Judges 17.
However, to have a full sacrificial ceremony performed within the small confines of the courtyard of a private house would be difficult if not awkward. The lack of bones other than the right foreleg from sacrificial animals would suggest that the bone finds in the house represented the meat cuts that were brought back to the house by the officiating Levites for the family's food. It thus seems to me that the house at Tell Qiri was a house belonging to a Levitical family, and not a domestic house with a sacrificial precinct.
Interestingly enough, Tell Qiri is not the only site where cultic vessels have been found in private dwellings. Similar finds from this same period have been made at Hazor, Taanach, Megiddo (with possibly two such dwellings), Beth-Shean, and Lachish. Interestingly, one of these cities, Taanach, is mentioned in Joshua 21 as a Levitical city. One might suppose that a more formal kind of rite was practiced at the designated Levitical cities than in the other cities. Indeed, the cultic material found at Taanach included highly sophisticated materials—an ornate cultic stand and a nicely made censer—that make the other finds look crude by comparison. If these cultic vessels were used in the Yahwistic religion, as seems likely for at least Hazor, Taanach, Qiri, and Lachish, the implication of such texts as Judges 17 and 1 Samuel 9, that the Levitical profession was practiced outside the central sanctuary and the Levitical cities, is confirmed archeologically.
Almost all domestic dwellings with cultic caches so far discovered seem to date to the period of the Judges, that is, before Saul and David had centralized the government and the religious practices. This can be illustrated very nicely by the stories of Micah with his hired Levite and of Samuel at his high place at a time when independent Levites seem to have prospered. Thus the identification of these dwellings with Levitical families hired by various communities to perform limited religious rites is very attractive. Such practices in premonarchial days might be considered alien to Mosaic law, though perhaps the book of Judges offers plausible reason: "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes" (chap. 21:25).