Chapter 35

NUMBERS CHAPTER 35

Cities for the Levites

    • The Lord spoke to Moses again while the Israelites were camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan River across from the city of Jericho and said, “Tell the other Israelite tribes that they must give the Levites cities and pastureland surrounding these cities from their own property inheritances. The Levites will live in these cities and their livestock will live in the pastures. The amount of pastureland given to the Levites will be calculated as follows: measure 1,500 feet from the town walls in each direction, then measure 3,000 feet from the town walls in each direction, with the city in the center. The land within these measurements will be the pastureland for the cities.”

      • HCSB commentary explains, “The Levites do not receive a distinct territorial allocation like the other 12 tribes. They are to be dispersed in cities throughout the land to carry out their responsibilities on behalf of the entire nation of Israel…This allocation provided the Levites with pasturage for the flocks and herds they acquired through the tithes and offerings of local Israelites (Numbers 18:21-32). They, and the priests, were available in all parts of the land to teach the laws of God to the people, most of whom did not read (Leviticus 10:11).”

      • The instructions for measurement are a little confusing in that they can be interpreted a couple of different ways. The HCSB notes the following, “Commentators have noted the seeming incongruity of the dimensions given here, which would require the cities to be of minimal size to meet both distance parameters. The figures delineate a territory extending out 1,000 cubits (1,500 feet) from the city walls, with a total of 2,000 cubits (3,000 feet) on a side. Most walled cities were 3-5 acres in size, so the figure of 2,000 cubits per side does not allow a distance of 1,500 feet from any side of the city. Several writers have suggested that the 3,000-foot dimension represents the view from outside the city, making the walled city the epicenter of a 3,000 foot square Levitical territory. Others suggest the outer distances are meant to be taken as 3,000 feet plus the city area.”

    • The Lord continued, “Six of the cities that you give to the Levites will be designated cities of refuge. These refuge cities are to function as safe cities where people who have killed someone may flee for safety. There will be 48 total cities given to the Levites, 42 in addition to the 6 cities of refuge, in addition to their surrounding pastureland. Each tribe will give cities to the Levites proportionately according to the size of its land. The larger tribes will give more cities and the smaller tribes will give fewer cities.”

      • On God’s design for these cities, Guzik writes, “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…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…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.”

Cities of Refuge

    • The Lord told Moses to give the Israelites the following instructions, “When you cross the Jordan River and enter Canaan, you are to designate cities to function as a refuge where people who have accidentally killed someone may flee for safety. Within these cities, the person who has accidentally killed someone will be safe from the family members of the deceased who wish to avenge the death of their relative. The person who has accidentally killed someone will not be put to death without standing trial before the community. You must choose 6 cities of refuge- 3 on the east side of the Jordan River and 3 on the west side of the Jordan River, in Canaan. These cities are for the protection of Israelites, foreigners who live among you, and temporary residents who have killed someone accidentally.

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “This unusual institution illustrates the humanitarian aspect of Hebrew law. These six Levitical towns provided a safe haven in cases of accidental or involuntary manslaughter (cp Exodus 21:12-14). Just as the forty-eight Levite towns were widely distributed across Israel’s territories, the six cities of refuge were dispersed so they would be widely accessible. These designated settlements supplemented the role of the altar as a temporary place of asylum (eg 1 Kings 1:50-53; 2:28-34; Exodus 21:14). Other ancient peoples provided special places of asylum or refuge, often at the altar, but only ancient Israel established whole settlements as places of sanctuary, reflecting a special interest in social justice.”

    • The Lord continued, “If someone strikes someone fatally with a stone or with an object made of iron or wood, this is considered murder and the murderer must be put to death. The victim’s relative is to find the murderer and personally put him to death. Also, if anyone, either in malicious hatred or by intentional plan, to fatally pushes, throws an object at, or hits with his fists, another individual, this person is a murderer and must be put to death by the person who seeks to avenge his death. However, if someone accidentally and without hostility throws an object at or drops a stone on an individual who is not their enemy, and it results in their death, the community must follow these rules to judge between the killer and the avenger: the community must protect the killer from the avenger and escort the killer back to the city of refuge that he fled to. The killer must live there until the death of the high priest who was anointed with holy oil. But, if the killer ever leaves the city of refuge and the avenger finds him and kills him outside the city of refuge, the avenger will not be considered guilty of murder because the killer was supposed to stay inside the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. After the high priest has died, the killer may leave the refuge city and return to his own property. This is a law for you throughout your generations, wherever you live.”

      • Guzik notes, “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.”

      • HCSB commentary offers this summary, “The promised land was to be a holy land, free from the heinous impurity of shed blood. The six cities of refuge established a place where someone who committed accidental manslaughter could find protection from a vengeful member of the slain person’s family. In another sense, the city of refuge was a place of banishment for the offender. City elders assessed each case individually to determine the nature and cause of the victim’s death. The killer’s guilt was atoned only through the death of the high priest, so the killer was obliged to remain inside the city until the high priest died. The law did not apply to willful murderers; if the local city congregation determined that the death of the victim had been the result of premeditation or intent to harm, they were to execute the slayer.”

    • The Lord continued, “All murderers must be put to death, but evidence must be presented by more than one witness. No one is to be sentenced to death based on the testimony of only one witness. Also, no one is allowed to accept a ransom payment for the life of someone who has been judged guilty of murder- murderers must always be put to death. In addition, no one is allowed to accept a ransom payment from someone allowing an accidental killer to leave a city of refuge and return to their property before the death of the high priest. Bloodshed defiles the land and the only way atonement can be made for the land is by the death of the person who shed blood. So, do not defile the land that you live in. I, the Lord, also live in this land among the Israelites.”

      • The NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “If the slayer in either a homicide or involuntary manslaughter were not dealt with as commanded, God regarded the land as polluted, because human bloodshed requires death (Genesis 4:10-11; 9:6; contrast Exodus 21:29-30; see also Leviticus 18:28; Ezekiel 36:17-18; Hosea 4:2-3). In its stern warning about the evil of murder, this entire passage highlights the absolute value of human life (Exodus 20:13).”

      • The NLT Illustrated Study Bible also adds, “The Lord lived among the people of Israel even as the Tabernacle stood in the middle of the Hebrew camp. This meant that they must not defile their land by ignoring God’ commands or by failing to uphold justice.”

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