Numbers 35 – Levitical Cities, Cities of Refuge
A. Appointment of the Levitical cities.
1. (1-3) The command to provide cities and command-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)
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.
c. And their common-land shall: 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 for small-scale farming.
2. (4-5) Measuring the common-land around each city.
The common-land of the cities which you shall 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.
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 of 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.
b. From the larger tribe you shall give many, from the smaller you shall give few: The cities were to be distributed proportionally through 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 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. In the same way, 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.
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. That the manslayer who kills any person accidentally may flee there: 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.
i. This practice was based upon a correct understanding of Genesis 9:6: Whoever shed’s man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God, God made man.
b. Who kills any person accidentally: This, if properly understood and applied, could be an effective deterrent to murder and not a bad institution. Yet, the system had a fatal weakness: What if a death was accidental, yet 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. 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 the issue was settled, 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 refuge, 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.
b. Which will be cities of refuge: This meant that the cities were close to all; no one was very far from a city of refuge. This was obviously important when the avenger of blood chased you.
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 – anyone 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 was 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.
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. So the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood according to these judgments: Both sides of the story had to be taken into account. Judgment was not to be made on the basis merely any one side’s story.
6. (25-28) If the killer is determined 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 that city of refuge. The tragedy also affected their life.
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 rights over the man in the city of refuge.
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 says, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. More than 15 other times, the Psalms speak of God as being our refuge.
ii. Hebrews 6:18 says, 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. We can flee to Jesus for refuge!
b. Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are within easy reach of the needy person; they were of no use unless someone could get to the place of refuge.
c. Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are open to all, not just the Israelite; no one needs to fear that they would be turned away from their place of refuge in their time of need.
d. Both Jesus and the cities of refuge became a place where the one in need would live; you didn’t come to a city of refuge in time of need just to look around.
e. Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are the only alternative for the one in need; without this specific protection, they will be destroyed.
f. Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provide protection only within their boundaries; to go outside meant death.
g. With both Jesus and the cities of refuge, full freedom comes with the death of the High Priest.
h. A crucial distinction: The cities of refuge only helped the innocent; the guilty can come to Jesus and find refuge.
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. 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, yet show himself hypocritical enough to bring the woman, but not the man to judgment.
b. One witness is not sufficient testimony: We may comfort ourselves that we would never judge someone guilty of murder so quickly, without proper evidence; but how often do we murder someone’s reputation in our own minds or in the minds of others with no witnesses, much less one.
i. 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!
ii. Remember 1 Timothy 5:19 does not say “except from two or three gossips”; it says except from two or three witnesses. If a matter is false, it does not become true because many people hear it or many people repeat it.
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.
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.
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 (Genesis 9:6).
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 under many circumstances and few are brought to justice. The blood of the slain cries out before God.