Numbers 35 – Cities for Levites, Cities for Refuge
A. Appointment of the Levitical cities.
1. (1-3) The command to provide cities and common-lands for the Levites.
And the LORD spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho, saying: “Command the children of Israel that they give the Levites cities to dwell in from the inheritance of their possession, and you shall also give the Levites common-land around the cities. They shall have the cities to dwell in; and their common-land shall be for their cattle, for their herds, and for all their animals.
a. Command the children of Israel that they give the Levites cities to dwell in: The tribe of Levi had no “state” or “province” within Israel. Their inheritance was to be the LORD alone: Then the LORD said to Aaron: You shall have no inheritance in their land, nor shall you have any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel. (Numbers 18:20)
i. This provision of cities and associated common-land did not contradict the principle that the Levites had their inheritance in the LORD. “Even with the surrounding pasture-lands for the cattle, the total area assigned to the Levites came to 15 square miles (40 km2), about 0.1% of the land of Canaan. In a society where farm-land was wealth, this minute fraction of the land meant that the Levites would still be dependent on the generosity of the secular tribes among whom they lived.” (Wenham)
b. They shall have cities to dwell in: Yet, the Levites had to live somewhere. God commanded that each tribe give cities to the Levites so that the Levites would be sprinkled throughout the whole nation. These cities were formally appointed to the Levites in Joshua 21.
i. “We do know of priest-towns, however, in later Scripture. Anathoth is the most celebrated (Joshua 21:18; 1 Kings 2:26; Jeremiah 1:1, 32:7-8); yet Bethel (Judges 20:18; 1 Samuel 10:3; 2 Kings 17:28), Nob (1 Samuel 21:1, 22:19), and Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:3) also come to mind.” (Allen)
2. (4-5) Measuring the common-land around each city.
The common-land of the cities which you will give the Levites shall extend from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around. And you shall measure outside the city on the east side two thousand cubits, on the south side two thousand cubits, on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits. The city shall be in the middle. This shall belong to them as common-land for the cities.
a. Shall extend from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around: The actual mapping out of these dimensions can be a challenge. Wenham does the best job of explaining, including helpful diagrams.
i. “Later in Jewish history this passage was used as the basis for determining the ‘Sabbath day’s journey distance,’ which was generally measured at two thousand cubits from the gate of the city. Thus the territory would expand with the city as it grew and enlarged the perimeter of its fortification walls.” (Cole)
b. As common-land for the cities: The Levites were to be given more than just the cities; around each city, they were to be given common-land – land suitable for the grazing of their animals and small-scale farming.
3. (6-8) The number of Levitical cities and their distribution.
“Now among the cities which you will give to the Levites you shall appoint six cities of refuge, to which a manslayer may flee. And to these you shall add forty-two cities. So all the cities you will give to the Levites shall be forty-eight; these you shall give with their common-land. And the cities which you will give shall be from the possession of the children of Israel; from the larger tribe you shall give many, from the smaller you shall give few. Each shall give some of its cities to the Levites, in proportion to the inheritance that each receives.”
a. Among the cities which you will give to the Levites: There were to be a total of 48 Levitical cities; six cities of refuge, and 42 additional cities. God wanted the Levites spread throughout all of Israel.
i. “Thus the Levites were dispersed throughout the land for instruction of the people; so ought ministers of the gospel, who are fitly called the salt of the earth, that being sprinkled up and down, may keep the rest (as flesh) from rotting and putrifying.” (Trapp)
b. From the larger tribe you shall give many, from the smaller you shall give few: The cities were to be distributed proportionally throughout the nation, so that where there were larger populations and larger areas of land, there would be more Levitical cities, so that no one in Israel would be far from a city of refuge.
c. In proportion to the inheritance that each receives: This reflects God’s desire to evenly distribute the Levites – who were to be the most spiritually focused Israelites – the full-time ministers, so to speak – evenly throughout Israel, so that their influence could be distributed throughout the whole nation.
i. This shows the wisdom of God in not making a Levitical state that others would have to go to. God intended that these ministers go out among the people, to influence them for the LORD.
ii. According to Leviticus 10:11, one responsibility of the priests (and by extension, the Levites) was to teach God’s word to the people of Israel. Leviticus 10:11 says, That you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken.
iii. This responsibility on the part of the priests (and their associates, the Levites) is often overlooked. We tend to look at them as only those who offered sacrifices. They did that, of course, but they also were called to be active Bible teachers. The “teaching priest” is seen in many Old Testament passages.
· Deuteronomy 33:10: They shall teach Jacob Your judgments and Israel Your law.
· 2 Chronicles 17:7: Also in the third year of his reign he sent his leaders, Ben-Hail, Obadiah, Zechariah, Nethanel, and Michaiah, to teach in the cities of Judah.
· 2 Chronicles 15:3: For a long time Israel has been without the true God, without a teaching priest, and without law.
· Nehemiah 8:7: Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites helped the people to understand the Law.
· Micah 3:11: Her heads judge for a bribe, her priests teach for pay, and her prophets divine for money.
· Ezekiel 7:26: Disaster will come upon disaster, and rumor will be upon rumor. Then they will seek a vision from a prophet; but the law will perish from the priest, and counsel from the elders.
· Malachi 2:7: For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.
· Ezra 7:25: And you, Ezra [a priest], according to your God-given wisdom, set magistrates and judges who may judge all the people who are in the region beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God; and teach those who do not know them.
· Hosea 4:6: My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me; because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.
· Jeremiah 18:18: Then they said, “Come and let us devise plans against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet.”
iv. Therefore, spread evenly through the land as the Levites were, no one in Israel would be far from the ministry of God’s word.
v. Today, God also wants to distribute His people broadly throughout the world. God does not intend that there be a Christian country or state where all the Christians live together in spiritual bliss, and simply say to the world, “come and join us if you want.” Instead, God wants Christians to be sprinkled throughout the whole world, influencing people for Jesus Christ and being messengers of His word.
B. Cities of refuge.
1. (9-12) The purpose of the cities of refuge.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall appoint cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person accidentally may flee there. They shall be cities of refuge for you from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation in judgment.
a. Appoint cities to be cities of refuge: This command to appoint cities of refuge would be fulfilled in Joshua 20. Deuteronomy 19:2-3 tells us that proper roads were to be built and maintained to these cities of refuge. The city was not much good to the slayer if he could not get to it quickly.
i. Though Joshua 20 describes the establishment of these cities, there is no case in the history of the Old Testament that shows the use or misuse of the cities of refuge.
b. That the manslayer who kills any person accidentally may flee there: The purpose of the cities of asylum was to protect the manslayer who kills any person accidentally. They were to protect someone in the case of manslaughter as opposed to murder.
i. “The term translated ‘accidental’ (bisgaga) in the NIV is the same as the word translated ‘unintentional’ in Numbers 15:22–29, which addressed matters of atonement for inadvertent sins.” (Cole)
c. They shall be cities of refuge for you from the avenger: The one who accidentally killed another person needed protection from the avenger. The Hebrew word for this phrase is goel, and in this context means the representative from the victim’s family charged with making sure justice is carried out against the murderer of the family member.
i. In the ancient culture of Israel, it was not left entirely up to the government to avenge a murder. Each extended family had a recognized avenger who would ensure that one who murdered a family member would likewise be killed. The institution of the family avenger was never commanded in Scripture; it was a broad cultural practice that was regulated by Scripture.
ii. This practice was based upon a correct understanding of Genesis 9:6: Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man. The state’s right to use the sword of execution is also stated in the New Testament (Romans 13:3-4).
iii. “The avenger of blood is a relative of the slain who will take it on himself to protect the family rights, to avenge his relatives of the loss suffered by the family. In fact, the term goel often translated ‘redeemer,’ has this basic idea; the goel is principally the ‘protector of family rights’ (see Leviticus 25:48; Ruth 3:13).” (Allen)
iv. “The permission to carry out this act was not an unrestrained right. Howard notes that ‘the “avenger of blood” was not free to take private vengeance: the Bible clearly reserves vengeance to God alone (Deuteronomy 32:35; Isaiah 34:8; Romans 12:19).’” (Cole)
d. That the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation in judgment: The use of the avenger had its purpose in a culture without sufficiently developed institutions of justice. Yet, it also had a critical weakness. What if the avenger hunted someone, who had accidently killed another person but had not murdered them? What if a death was accidental, yet it was difficult to prove that it was accidental?
i. We can picture the situation easily: Two men work together, chopping down trees, when one man swings an ax and the ax head flies off, striking the other man in the head and instantly killing him. The surviving man had good reason to believe the avenger of blood from the dead man’s family would track him down and kill him, believing the death was murder.
ii. “It is quite possible to do unjust things in the name of justice. It was against such a possibility that these cities were provided.” (Morgan)
iii. Therefore, such a man could flee to a city of refuge – an appointed Levitical city, where he could stay, safe from the avenger of blood, until he could stand before the congregation in judgment and he could leave the city of refuge safely.
2. (13-14) The placement of the cities of refuge.
And of the cities which you give, you shall have six cities of refuge. You shall appoint three cities on this side of the Jordan, and three cities you shall appoint in the land of Canaan, which will be cities of refuge.
a. You shall have six cities of refuge: There were to be six cities of asylum, with three on each side of the Jordan River. Each of the three cities on either side would be positioned as north, central, and south.
i. Joshua 20:7-8 records the actual choice of the cities. They fulfilled the plan of being evenly distributed perfectly. Deuteronomy 19:3 also tells us that proper roads were to be built and maintained to these cities of refuge. A city of refuge was no good to the slayer if they could not get there quickly.
ii. “The cities that were later selected as the asylum cities are Bezer, Ramoth-Gilead, and Golan in Transjordan, and Hebron, Shechem, and Kedesh in cis-Jordan (see Deuteronomy 4:43; Joshua 20:7-8; 21:13, 21, 27, 32, 36, 38).” (Allen)
b. Which will be cities of refuge: This meant that the cities were close to everyone; no one was very far from a city of refuge. This was obviously important when the avenger of blood was in pursuit.
3. (15) The people eligible for protection in the cities of refuge.
These six cities shall be for refuge for the children of Israel, for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills a person accidentally may flee there.
a. That anyone who kills a person accidentally may flee there: Anyone – a stranger or a citizen of Israel – who needed to find protection in the cities of refuge could. Their protection was not limited to the children of Israel.
4. (16-21) How to judge if a death was truly murder.
‘But if he strikes him with an iron implement, so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he strikes him with a stone in the hand, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he strikes him with a wooden hand weapon, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. The avenger of blood himself shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. If he pushes him out of hatred or, while lying in wait, hurls something at him so that he dies, or in enmity he strikes him with his hand so that he dies, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.
a. He is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death: Significantly, the Bible makes the clear distinction between killing and murder. All murder is killing, but not all killing is murder. Society needs laws to establish the principles that decide a death to be either an unfortunate killing or true murder.
b. If he strikes him with an iron implement: Murder could be judged depending on the weapon used; if it were an iron implement (likely to kill), or if it were a stone or a wooden hand weapon, by which one could die, then the killer could be found guilty of murder.
c. If he pushes him out of hatred or, while lying in wait, hurls something at him so that he dies: Murder could also be judged by discerning the state of heart and presence of premeditation in the killer. If the killing happens while lying in wait or if the killer strikes in enmity, murder can be judged.
d. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him: If a killing could justly be understood to be murder, then the murderer was to be put to death – either by the judges of Israel or the avenger of blood.
i. “If a person committed the intentional ‘sin of a high hand’ and thus despised the word of the Lord, that person was to be cut off from his people. In like manner the intentional murderer was afforded no refuge or protection under the law.” (Cole)
5. (22-24) How to judge if a death was truly manslaughter.
‘However, if he pushes him suddenly without enmity, or throws anything at him without lying in wait, or uses a stone, by which a man could die, throwing it at him without seeing him, so that he dies, while he was not his enemy or seeking his harm, then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood according to these judgments.
a. If he pushes him suddenly without enmity: If there was the absence of murderous intent, or the absence of premeditation, or if the death was clearly accidental, then the man was not guilty of murder and could not be turned over to the avenger of blood.
b. Then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood according to these judgments: Joshua 20:4 explains that this was done before the elders of the city of refuge. Both sides of the story were considered. Judgment was not to be made hearing only one side of the story.
i. “The fact that a man slayer reached one of those cities did not ensure him against inquiry and investigation. It rather made such inquiry necessary and thus gave him opportunity of explanation and ensured the certainty of just action.” (Morgan)
6. (25-28) If the killer is declared to be innocent of murder.
So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge where he had fled, and he shall remain there until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the manslayer at any time goes outside the limits of the city of refuge where he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood, because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession.
a. So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood: Having been judged innocent of murder, the manslayer could live in peace and safety – but only within the walls of the city of refuge.
i. Significantly, someone who killed another – but was innocent of murder – still had their life profoundly affected. They had to move from their city, and presumably their family as well, and had to live the rest of their lives in a city of refuge. The tragedy also affected their life.
ii. “He would have a fair trial; but even if he were found innocent, he must stay within the city, into which the avenger of blood could not by any possibility come. If he went out of the city, the avenger might kill him. He was therefore to suffer perpetual banishment, even for causing death accidentally, in order that it might be seen how much God regarded the rights of blood, and how fearful a thing it is to put a man to death in any way.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Shall return him to the city of refuge where he had fled: “The mention that the person convicted of manslaughter would be sent back to the city suggests that the trial would have taken place outside the city walls, whereby a person convicted of murder could be easily rendered to the blood kinsman for execution. One also assumes that the participation of the Levites whose lives were dedicated to the Lord would ensure fairness and justice in their decision making.” (Cole)
b. He shall remain there until the death of the high priest: The only thing that could set the man free from the city of refuge was the death of the high priest; at the death of the high priest, the avenger of blood no longer had any claim over the man in the city of refuge.
i. “There was an atoning significance for the entire populace when the high priest (notice the phrasing: ‘who was anointed with holy oil’) would die. If the high priest died during the period of the slayer’s exile in the asylum city, then he was not only free to leave the city, but he could resume his normal life again, including his stake in his ancestral land.” (Allen)
ii. “Atonement for manslaughter came through the death of the high priest. This is shown by the ban on ransoming murderers and manslaughterers. Just as a murderer cannot buy his life for money (Numbers 35:31), so a manslaughterer cannot purchase freedom (Numbers 35:32). Both have caused the death of another man, and only the death of a man can atone for the killing.” (Wenham)
iii. The very use of the phrase death of the high priest reminds us that our High Priest, Jesus Christ, ever lives. He is a High Priest forever (Hebrews 6:20), and Jesus is the High Priest according to the power of an endless life (Hebrews 7:16) and because He continues forever, Jesus has an unchanging priesthood (Hebrews 7:24).
c. But if the manslayer at any time goes outside the limits of the city of refuge where he fled: Until the time of the high priest’s death, if the man who sought protection in the city of refuge wandered outside the walls of the city, he was fair game for the avenger of blood – only within his place of refuge was he safe.
7. The cities of refuge as a picture of Jesus.
a. The Bible applies this picture of the city of refuge to the believer finding refuge in God on more than one occasion.
i. Psalm 46:1: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. More than 15 other times, the psalms speak of God as our refuge.
ii. Hebrews 6:18 also explains, That by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.
b. There are many points of similarity between the cities of refuge and our refuge in Jesus.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are within easy reach of the needy person; they are of no use unless someone can get to the place of refuge.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are open to all, not just the Israelite; no one needs to fear that they will be turned away from their place of refuge in their time of need.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge become a place where the one in need can live; you don’t come to a city of refuge in time of need just to look around.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are the only alternative for the one in need; without this specific protection, they will be destroyed.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provide protection only within their boundaries; to go outside means death.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provide full freedom upon (or because of) the death of the High Priest.
c. There is a crucial distinction between the cities of refuge and our refuge in Jesus.
· The cities of refuge only helped the innocent, but the guilty can come to Jesus and find refuge.
i. We must take advantage of the refuge, the asylum offered to us in Jesus Christ. “The law of God is the blood-avenger that is on your track! You have wilfully transgressed, you have, as it were, killed God’s commandments, you have trampled them under your foot; the law is the avenger of blood, it is after you, and it will have you in its grasp ere long; condemnation is hanging over your head now, and it shall surely overtake you.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “Take heed that it is to Christ you flee; for, if the man who had slain his neighbour had fled to another city, it would have been of no avail; had he fled to a place that was not an ordained city of refuge.” (Spurgeon)
C. Laws regarding murder.
1. (29-30) Two witnesses are required before the punishment for murder.
‘And these things shall be a statute of judgment to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty.
a. Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death: When a person was justly found to be a murderer, God commanded that their life be taken. This principle goes back at least as far as the covenant God made with Noah (Genesis 9:5-6).
i. Adam Clarke gave two reasons why God’s law against murder was so strong: “No wonder God is so particularly strict in his laws against murderers, 1. Because he is the author of life, and none have any right to dispose of it but himself. 2. Because life is the time to prepare for the eternal world, and on it the salvation of the soul accordingly depends; therefore it is of infinite consequence to the man that his life be lengthened out to the utmost limits assigned by Divine Providence.”
b. One witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty: One witness was never enough to condemn a murderer to death. Furthermore, the witnesses had to be so certain that one of them must be willing to initiate the actual execution – to “cast the first stone” (Deuteronomy 17:6-7).
i. This puts the words of Jesus regarding the woman taken in adultery in John 8 in perspective: He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first (John 8:7). Jesus asked for the official witness to step forward and go on record as having witnessed this act of adultery. Whoever did so would show himself to be a hypocrite – one who would condemn the woman but excuse the man guilty of adultery.
ii. The principle that one witness is not sufficient testimony extends beyond the physical act of murder. It is possible to “murder” someone’s reputation without adequate testimony of even one witness.
iii. God is concerned about the murder of reputation, as well as physical murder, and commands Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19) – the same standard as for proving murder.
iv. “As we know, even the provision of multiple witnesses will not automatically preclude collusion; witness the shocking perversion of Israel’s justice system by the foreign priestess Jezebel in the incident of Naboth (1 Kings 21).” (Allen)
2. (31-32) A murderer’s life cannot be ransomed.
Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the priest.
a. You shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer: If someone was guilty of murder, they could not make monetary restitution in the place of their life. The principle of Genesis 9:6 stands: Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.
i. “Other ancient Near Eastern law permitted composition, that is payment of a ransom in place of the death penalty. However, this law insists that no monetary composition is possible.” (Wenham)
b. You shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge: This reflects an important principle; namely, that money cannot replace justice. Sometimes a monetary reward satisfies justice (as in Exodus 22:4, for example); but other times it does not and should not be used as a replacement for justice.
3. (33-34) The urgency to bring murderers to justice.
So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel.’”
a. For blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land: Unjudged murders defile a nation. When murderers are not brought to justice, there is a blot on a nation that only the severe judgment of God can cleanse.
i. “It is paradoxical that in the right place blood is the most effective purifier, the only means of atonement between God and man, but in the wrong context it has precisely the opposite effect: for blood pollutes the land (Numbers 35:33; cf. Deuteronomy 19:10, 21:9, 23).” (Wenham)
ii. “With all the attention we (rightly) give to issues of ecology and pollution in our own day, there is an act of pollution that far transcends the trashing of rivers, the killing of lakes, the denuding of forests, and the spilling of oils to mar even the seas; this is the abuse of persons. The worst abuse of all is wrongful death. God will not draw near a land where blood is the polluting agent.” (Allen)
b. Except by the blood of him who shed it: The way to avoid this defilement is to judge and execute murderers – no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it (Numbers 35:33).
i. One may say that because of the stain of so many unpunished murders, the United States of America is a defiled land. Across the country, many are murdered and few are brought to justice. The blood of the slain cries out before God, the blood defiles the land.
ii. “Be not cruel to your own land by making it a den of murderers.” (Poole)