Numbers 35

The Word Made Fresh

1The LORD spoke to Moses on the plains of Moab across the Jordan River from Jericho and said 2“Tell the Israelites that the Levites will be given towns and the surrounding pasturelands in the territories the tribes will possess. 3The Levites will have towns to live in and land for their animals. 4The pasturelands of their towns will extend for fifteen hundred feet from the town walls, 5and the outer measurement of the pastureland along each side will be three thousand feet.

6“The towns you give the Levites will include six towns that are designated ‘cities of refuge,’ where someone who has taken the life of another may be given refuge. In addition to those six, the Levites will be given forty-two towns, 7so they will have a total of forty-eight towns with surrounding pastureland. 8The number of towns given to the Levites will differ with each tribe, depending on the size of each tribe’s territory.”

9The LORD said to Moses, 10“Tell the Israelites that when they cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan 11you will select the towns that will be ‘cities of refuge,’ so that anyone who kills another person accidentally will have a safe place to go, 12and that anyone who seeks to avenge the death will be stayed until there can be a public trial.

13“The ‘cities of refuge’ you choose 14will be on each side of the Jordan; three on the east and three on the west in the land of Canaan. They will serve as safe places for anyone – Israelite or foreigner – to flee to until they can be tried.

16“However, if someone strikes and kills another with a metal object, they must be charged with murder and put to death. 17Anyone who uses a stone to strike and kill another must be put to death. 18The same applies to anyone who uses a piece of wood to strike and kill another. 19The blood relative who is designated the avenger is to put the murderer to death whenever he finds him.

20If someone pushes another in anger or lies in wait and throws a heavy object at another and kills him, 21or if someone strikes another with his fist in anger and it results in death, then the one who strikes the blow must be put to death by the relative of the deceased who is designated the avenger.

22However, if death results from someone striking or shoving another unintentionally, 23or accidentally dropping a stone on another, if they were not enemies and no harm was intended, 24then the people must judge between the two according to these rules 25and thus rescue the accused from the designated avenger; but they must send the one who caused the death back to the ‘city of refuge’ where they must remain until the death of the high priest. 26If the one who caused the death wanders outside the boundaries of the ‘city of refuge’ 27and is discovered by the avenger who then kills him, there is no blame to be incurred 28because the slayer is required to stay within the boundaries of the ‘city of refuge’ until the high priest dies. After the death of the high priest the slayer may safely return home.

29“These laws are binding on the Israelites from generation to generation wherever they may happen to live.

30“A murderer should be put to death on the evidence of witnesses, but never on the testimony of a single witness. 31Also, do not accept a ransom fee for a murderer who is found guilty; murderers must be executed. 32And do not accept any offer of payment from one who has gone to a ‘city of refuge’ to allow them to go free before the death of the high priest. 33The only way the land can ever be cleansed of spilled blood is to spill the blood of the one who committed the murder.

34“Do not defile the land in which you live. Remember that I the LORD dwell among the people of Israel.”

Commentary

1-5: The Levites cannot own land, but they can own cities. Actually, we already knew this from Leviticus 25:32-34. The situation is an enigma, though: do they own the cities, or only the houses within the cities? Do they own the pastureland around the cities, or merely grazing rights? Furthermore, verse 4 gives them the surrounding land 1000 cubits wide, and then verse 5 extends it to 2000 cubits. Perhaps the 2000 cubits is from the center of the town, but the intention is probably meant to be the circumference measurement of the outlying fields rather than the distance from the town walls. Of course, this would hold only if the towns were all the same size.

6-8: There will be 48 Levitical towns in all; six of them are to be designated “cities of refuge.”

9-15: Of the cities of refuge, it is specified that three of these will be in Canaan, the other three in the Trans-Jordan territories settled by Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh. We wonder if the greater concentration of cities of refuge in the trans-Jordan might indicate a more violent culture there.

16-21: The cities of refuge are for the protection of “the slayer who kills a person without intent.” In such cases, the victim’s family would be expected to avenge the killing even though there may have been no criminal act involved. To protect the person responsible for the death, these cities were designated. The killer could flee to one of the cities of refuge and be safe there until a trial could be arranged and the killer either condemned or exonerated. Certain circumstances are enumerated for determining if a death is wrongful, mostly having to do with the use of blunt deadly force. It is interesting, however, that weapons such as swords, knives, arrows and spears are not mentioned.

22-28: When the death is clearly not a murder but rather accidental, although the accused is exonerated he is forced to live in a city of refuge until the death of the high priest. This seems a bit cruel at first thought, but consider that even though no evil intent was involved the slayer is still responsible for the death. Human life is holy and the shedding of blood within the community is such a serious affair that only the death of the high priest can fully atone for the spilling of blood, accidental though it may be.

29-34: Murder is not to be tolerated in any case, and no abridgements of the preceding laws are to be allowed. God is a co-inhabitant in the land, and the land must not be defiled by the spilling of blood. Remember Cain and Abel!

Takeaway

The reason given for God to send the flood in Noah’s day was the violence that had spread throughout humanity, and the accompanying general wickedness among people. It would seem now that God is seeking to control violence with a controlled counter violence, and this situation will continue and even escalate through the Old Testament. In Christ, however, God will personally accept our tendency to violence, and overcome it finally with the promise of resurrection.