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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 35

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Here we have the instructions regarding the cities of refuge and the provision of cities for the Levites, and also the rules governing the utility of the cities of refuge to protect the guiltless in instances of unintentional homicide. A careful distinction between murder and manslaughter is made.

Verses 1-5

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, Command the children of Israel, that they give unto the Levites of the inheritance of their possession cities to dwell in; and suburbs for the cities round about them shall ye give unto the Levites. And the cities shall they have to dwell in; and their suburbs shall be for their cattle, and for their substance, and for all their beasts. And the suburbs of the cities, which ye shall give unto the Levites, shall be from the wall of the city and outward a thousand cubits round about. And ye shall measure without the city for the east side two thousand cubits, and for the south side two thousand cubits, and for the west side two thousand cubits, and for the north side two thousand cubits, the city being in the midst. This shall be to them the suburbs of the cities.”

One concern of the student here is the inevitable claims of “contradiction,” “various traditions,” and “conflicting sources” Biblical critics have been screaming about this chapter for generations. Of course none of such things is here. The most that could be said about the somewhat ambiguous directions for measuring the “suburbs” in Numbers 35:4-5, is that any man attempting today to follow these instructions would hardly know how to do it. To the thoughtful person, this presents no problem whatever. The instructions were not given to men today, but to Moses for the benefit of Joshua who eventually ordered the compliance with God’s Divine order given here. Both Moses and Joshua were inspired men, and when the Cities of Refuge and the other Levitical cities were opened as God commanded, we do not have any record that the project was in any manner hindered by “inadequate, or contradictory instructions.” They were all opened as God commanded! So where is the problem? That commentators today sitting in their ivory towers cannot imagine how this was done is of no concern at all. Sure! They could not follow these instructions, and neither could they have constructed the tabernacle! The Five Books of Moses were simply not given for the purpose of instructing men for all ages to come on how to do the things done by the Chosen People, and there is no set of blueprints here for the tabernacle, or for any of the sacred furniture within it. Such considerations as these, however, are ignored by the seekers of discrepancies and contradictions. Note:

Numbers 35:4-5, are compatible with one another only if the size of the city be reduced to a point!”(F1) Gray based his conclusion upon his assertion that Numbers 35:5 requires the understanding that the suburbs were laid in a perfect square, a conclusion that is ridiculous on the face of it. There is no mention of a “square” anywhere in the whole passage; and besides that, the text flatly declares that the marking out of those “suburbs” should be round about the cities! (Numbers 35:4). Of all the ancient cities ever known, who ever heard of any of them being laid out in a perfect square? For that matter, where is the city today that is a perfect square? So much for the critical wisdom (?) of 1903. We have cited it here only for the purpose of demonstrating how much the critics have learned about this in the 82 years since Gray wrote. Wade declared in 1924 that, “In the delimitation of the pasture grounds of the cities, there is a curious oversight; and if these instructions were followed, the city within the square is reduced to a point.”(F2) John Marsh writing in 1953 has this, “The measurements given in Numbers 35:5 leave the city itself a mere point.”(F3) Even as recently as 1968, Noth has this: “According to these (verses) the `city’ with its `wall’ must have been only a point.”(F4) This is a classical demonstration of how Bible critics keep shouting the same old discredited and outworn criticisms of the 19th century, despite the fact of the most effective refutation of their errors being currently available almost anywhere one may seek them. In all of the quotations above about the city “being reduced to a point” it is perfectly clear that every one of the `scholars’ was merely parroting Gray’s critical remark published in 1903, using exactly the same terminology, and not even bothering to give the source of their misinformation!

Believers have never had any problem whatever with this chapter. Robert Jamieson commented on the mention first of 1,000 cubits, and later of 2,000 cubits, saying that, “The statements of the two verses (Numbers 35:4-5) refer to totally different things. The 1,000 cubits refers to out-houses, accommodations for shepherds, servants, etc.; and the 2,000 cubits to the common pasture lands beyond the first thousand cubits!(F5) It is a good thing the children of Israel had a practical leader like Joshua, the current class of scholarly critics would never have been able to discharge this commandment at all. Yet it was simple enough. The surveyor merely took a few points, each 1,000 cubits from the walls of the city, and joined them with a rude circle, then he went out another 2,000 cubits and circumscribed another band around the first. It was that simple! More than 150 years ago Adam Clarke drew a diagram of exactly how this was done.(F6) In our opinion, he should have used a diagram of a city somewhat different from the “exact square” model that he chose.

Verses 6-8

“And the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites, they shall be the six cities of refuge, which ye shall give for the manslayer to flee unto: and besides them ye shall give forty and two cities. All the cities which ye shall give to the Levites shall be forty and eight cities; them shall ye give with their suburbs. And concerning the cities which ye shall give of the possession of the children of Israel, from the many ye shall take many; and from the few ye shall take few: everyone according to his inheritance which he inheriteth shall give of his cities unto the Levites.”

The Divine charter for the appointment of these cities is given here, but the actual opening of the cities to their intended use, of course, had to wait upon the conquest of Canaan, and Moses’ death would take place before that could be accomplished. Therefore, it was left to Joshua actually to appoint and open the cities of refuge and to supervise the distribution of the other 42 cities to the Levites. To be sure, when Joshua did this, he incorporated the Divine instructions here with his order of execution for the project, as in Joshua 20:1-4, where it is stated that “Jehovah spake unto Joshua, saying, Assign you the cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by Moses”! To us it simply seems incredible that intelligent men would allege “a contradiction” upon such a flimsy pretext as this. Moses already knew of his impending death, and he no doubt guided Joshua to the best of his ability while still alive. In fact it is related in Deuteronomy that Moses first named the cities west of the Jordan, which is. what happened, naturally enough; and what is there in such information as this to justify Gray’s assertion that, “Both this passage and Joshua 20 are at variance with Deuteronomy 4:41-43, where Moses appointed three of the cities!”(F7) The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing!

This is a good place to name the cities of refuge, although they are not named in the text of this chapter:


KEDESH in Galilee from the tribe of Naphtali.

SHECHEM from the tribe of Ephraim.

HEBRON (Kiriath-arba) from the tribe of Judah.


BEZER from the tribe of Reuben.

RAMOTH-GILEAD of the tribe of Gad.

GOLAN in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh.

Six different tribes were represented in the locations of these cities, and they were scattered throughout Israel, so that one of them could be reached in about a day’s journey from anywhere in Palestine.

“From the many, ye shall take many; and from the few, ye shall take few” (Numbers 35:8). God’s people honored this. “Nine of the 48 cities eventually came from the large joint-inheritance of Simeon and Judah; three came from the territory of Naphtali; and the ether tribes contributed four each.”(F8)

The matter of the Levitical cities was at this point in the chapter placed in the background, and more specific details concerning the purpose of the cities of refuge were enumerated.

Verses 9-15

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then shall ye appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer that killeth any person unwittingly may flee thither. And the cities shall be unto you for refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation for judgment. And the cities which ye shall give shall be for you six cities of refuge. Ye shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities shall ye give in the land of Canaan; they shall be cities of refuge. For the children of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, shall these six cities be for refuge; for every one that killeth any person unwittingly may flee thither.”

The conception of a place for persons in jeopardy for manslaughter or other crimes was widely received throughout the East during the times of the exodus. The temple of Diana at Ephesus proclaimed “a sanctuary” for a quarter of a mile in all directions from the temple, with the result that the greatest concentration of violent criminals on earth dwelt in the very shadow of the pagan temple. Joab, it will be remembered, sought sanctuary at the altar of God, but God’s people did not honor such “sanctuaries.” This institution of the cities of refuge was a far different thing from the heathen sanctuaries where the guilty were protected. These cities of refuge merely protected the refugee from the avenger until his case could be heard before his own congregation, and all turned upon their decision. If they declared him really to have committed unintentional manslaughter, he was confined to the area of the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, and if they declared him guilty of murder, he was given over to the vengeance of the avenger of blood. As Keil said, “These cities of refuge were never intended to save the criminal from any punishment that he deserved, but were simply established for the purpose of securing a just sentence, whereas, the pagan sanctuaries actually answered the purpose of rescuing the criminal from the punishment that he legally deserved.”(F9)

The Hebrew word from which we get “Avenger of Blood” is actually [~go’el],(F10) the near-kinsman, or next of kin to the victim. He was a very important person in the customs and traditions of the Near East, even down to the present times. He had a number of functions, but one of the principal things was his duty of “settling” the debt caused by the death of his relative, which in the normal run of things meant killing the manslayer. Gray listed some of the duties of the [~go’el] as follows: “to contract a Levirate marriage, collect debts owed to the deceased, to buy a kinsman out of slavery into which poverty had compelled him to sell himself, and to buy property to keep it from passing out of his family”(F11)

“Until he stand before the congregation” (Numbers 35:12). Carson thought this might refer either to the congregation in the city of refuge, or to the refugee’s own congregation,(F12) but most of the older commentators thought it meant the man’s home assembly, at which location all the facts would be much more available.(F13) “This took place in the city or the place where he had done the killing.”(F14) Recent Jewish scholars agree: “The congregation was of the community within whose boundaries the slaying occurred.”(F15)

Verses 16-21

“But if he smote him with an instrument of iron, so that he died, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he smote him with a stone in the hand, whereby a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he smote him with a weapon of wood in the hand, whereby a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death: when he meeteth him, he shall put him to death. And if he thrust him of hatred, or hurled at him, lying in wait, so that he died, or in enmity smote him with his hand, so that he died; he that smote him shall surely be put to death; he is a murderer: the avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death, when he meeteth him.”

Here we are given a group of situations in which the blood guilt of an offender must be assumed. Note the frequency of the stern words, “The murderer shall surely be put to death!” This is God’s law; it was not a new law, but merely a re-affirmation of the Divine order given to Noah and his posterity in Genesis 9:6. Modern man is nowhere at fault quite so much as he is in the casual manner of his lenience with murderers.

Verses 22-28

“But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or hurled upon him any thing without lying in wait, or with any stone, whereby a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, so that he died, and he was not his enemy, neither sought his harm; then the congregation shall judge between the smiter and the avenger of blood according to these ordinances; and the congregation shall deliver the manslayer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall dwell therein until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil. But if a manslayer shall at any time go beyond the border of his city of refuge, whither he fleeth, and the avenger of blood find him without the border of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood slay 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 shall return into the land of his possession.”

“Unpremeditated murder (Numbers 35:22-23) is here indicated by such terms as, `suddenly without enmity,’ `without lying in wait,’ `without seeing him,’ `not his enemy,’ and `did not seek his harm’.”(F16) It should be especially noted that, “Killing of any kind, even unintentional killing, was serious business (and so it is yet); and the provisions of this regulation by no means fully acquitted an offender.”(F17) Certainly, it was no trivial thing for an offender to be forced to leave his family and his possessions and to live until the death of the High Priest in one of the cities of refuge. Of course, his family could have joined him in his new residence, but even so, such arrangements were not easily or quickly made in those days.

“Until the death of the high priest” Why a regulation like this? We should always remember that “Moses in the law wrote of Christ” (John 1:45); and here is another of the almost innumerable foreshadowings of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This was probably intended to typify that no sinner can be pardoned and restored to his lost inheritance (of fellowship with God), and delivered from his banishment from God, until Jesus Christ the Great High Priest, should die for his offenses, and rise again for his justification.(F18)

“Thus the death of each successive high priest of Israel pre-signified that death of Jesus Christ by which the captives were to be freed, and the remembrance of transgressions made to cease.”(F19)

Another thing that resulted from the death of the High Priest was that, “It terminated the right of blood-vengeance as it related to any refugees freed from restraint by the high priest’s death.”(F20)

One strategy of Bible enemies consists in their imposing some unusual or inappropriate meaning upon an important word with rich spiritual significance, and “refuge” as used here has not escaped the operation of this evil strategy. Gray insisted that, “It means a place of reception, as for example, the collection, or reception of rainwater”!(F21) In this instance, Satan’s strategy has been completely frustrated by the writings of a recent very brilliant Jewish scholar, W. Gunther Plaut; “In contemporary Hebrew, this word means shelter, especially air-raid shelter”? Perhaps it will be admitted by all that the Jews do not hide from Arabian bombs in a rain barrel!

The word “refuge” is sacred in the theology and vocabulary of the Christian. These cities are plainly alluded to throughout the Bible, and, “We cannot doubt the typical character of their appointment.”(F22) “Turn ye to the stronghold saith the voice of mercy” (Zechariah 9:12). The apostle Paul declared that, “We have a strong encouragement who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:18).

“He should have remained in his city” (Numbers 35:28). The strictest observance of this was observed in later times. When Abner, for example, sought refuge from Joab after the slaying of Asahel in self-defense (2 Samuel 2), Joab maneuvered him just across the city line in the very gate of the city of refuge and there thrust a sword through his heart!

Verses 29-34

“And these things shall be for a statute and ordinance unto you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be slain at the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person that he die. Moreover ye shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer, that is guilty of death; but he shall surely be put to death. And ye shall take no ransom for him that is fled to his city of refuge, that he may come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood, it polluteth the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. And thou shalt not defile the land which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell: for I Jehovah dwell in the midst of the children of Israel.”

It is not possible to imagine any stronger language showing God’s disapproval of murder and setting forth his just and eternal decree that all murderers shall be put to death; in fact the land polluted by murder can be cleansed only by the blood of the murderer. One may only pity the blind folly of the world’s current crop of “wise (?) men,” who tamper with the judicial system perpetually in order to weight the machinery of the law and of the courts of justice in favor of violent killers! The disintegration of all civil order into ultimate chaos will be the eventual result of this, as the prophecies plainly teach.

The guidelines laid down concerning such cases include such things as requiring more than one witness, denying the right of redemption with money for any murderer, or for any person who had fled to a city of refuge. The full time until the death of the high priest was commanded to be observed for such refugees.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 35". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-35.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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