There are thirteen tribes in Israel: twelve regular ones plus the priestly tribe of Levi. Yahweh chose the Levites to be His special tribe because they stayed loyal to Him at a time when the rest of the tribes fell away (see Why the Levites?). In return for their loyalty, God decided that special access to Him would be a greater inheritance for the Levites then some silly plot of land. So when the Promised Land was divided up by Joshua, the Levites weren’t given a big piece like everyone else. Instead, each of the other twelve tribes had to give up a certain portion of their cities and land to become the property of the Levites. This way, the Levites would have a place to live, but their priestly influence would also be spread throughout all of Israel instead of just being concentrated in one area. The plan was to disperse the Levitical influence throughout the nation so that everyone would be reminded to keep their focus on Yahweh.
“But to the tribe of Levi, Moses did not give an inheritance; Yahweh, the God of Israel, is their inheritance, as He had promised to them.” (Josh. 13:33)
This is all fine, but the Levites were in charge of running the sacrificial system in Israel and that was no small task. By the time they were done taking care of Yahweh’s requirements, they had no time for side jobs, and that meant they had no way to make a living. But God is a very generous King, and He made sure His priests had more than enough to keep them healthy, strong, and well fed. There were certain portions of the incoming sacrifices that the priests were allowed to eat—that included bread and meat. In many cases, God insisted that the priests ate their designated portions the same day the sacrifices were made. That meant the priests had to take meal breaks, which would give them a chance to rest from the labor intensive work of processing an endless stream of animal carcasses. Yahweh also designated certain portions of the incoming sacrifices to be given to the priest’s family members—both males and females—so that they would be provided for as well. In addition, the priests got to have all of the tithes that the people were required to give to Yahweh. That meant the priests received a tenth of all the people’s harvests, produce, and animals. This was plenty to keep them and their families very well provided for, and this was God’s generous way of rewarding them for all the work they did for Him.
“To the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the tent of meeting.” (Num. 18:21)
“The Levitical priests—indeed, the whole tribe of Levi—are to have no allotment or inheritance with Israel. They shall live on the food offerings presented to Yahweh, for that is their inheritance. They shall have no inheritance among their fellow Israelites; Yahweh is their inheritance, as He promised them.” (Deut. 18:1-2)