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Bible Commentaries

Smith's Bible Commentary

Numbers 35

Verses 1-34

Chapter 35

As we get into chapter thirty-five, it describes the cities of refuge that they were to establish, verse two,

Command the children of Israel, that they give to the Levites of the inheritance of their possession cities to dwell in; and you shall give unto them also suburbs of the cities round about them. And the cities that they shall have to dwell in; and the suburbs of them shall be for their cattle, and their goods, and for their beasts. ( Numbers 35:2-3 )

So the city itself and then extending out from the city a thousand cubits for their farm area and then out another two thousand cubits for their cattle. These were the suburbs of the city, and forty-eight of these cities were to be given to the Levites. They were not to get any huge chunks of land nor were the families given portions of land. The Levites received no inheritance. God said, "I am their inheritance". They got the best deal. The rest of the people got property; the Levites got the Lord as their inheritance. And so they were given these forty-two cities to live in and the suburbs around the city to graze their cattle and to grow their crops and so forth, forty-two cities given to the Levites.

Now among the forty-two cities there were to be six cities that were appointed as cities of refuge. Three on either side of the Jordan River placed strategically through the land so that no matter where you were living in the land you were never more than a half day's run from the city of refuge. Now the purpose of the city of refuge was to take care of a cultural practice that was deeply ingrained within the people.

You know one of the hardest things to become free of is tradition. There are certain cultural things that are so deeply embedded in our whole thinking processes that they are the hardest things in the world to root out. And I can give you one offensive illustration. Christmas is a pagan holiday. It has nothing to do with the birthday of Jesus Christ in its original forms. They celebrated Christmas long before Jesus ever came along. They called it by a different name. The Romans called it Saturnalia, but it is-you can trace its origin clear on back to Nimrod shortly after the time of Noah.

The decking of trees, all of the customs are not Christian in origin at all. And yet to suggest that we abandon the celebration of this pagan holiday would bring great incense and censure from the church. "You mean you're not gonna celebrate Christmas?" Because it's so deeply imbedded in our whole traditional patterns, we hold on to it though we recognize that it is becoming more paganized all the time.

How many people really honor Jesus Christ on Christmas? If it was His birthday, it wasn't, but if it was His birthday how many are truly honoring Christ? As we look at the celebration the police department have to put on extra duty. All of the reserves are called in. Why? Because there are gonna be so many drunks on the road. People going home from the Christmas party "We've been celebrating Jesus is Born. Ha ha ha". And yet we find extreme difficulty in trying to divorce ourselves from it because it's so much a part of our culture. Tradition, the hardest things in the world to root out.

And so God, rather than seeking to root out totally the tradition, though he wasn't in favor of it, placed restrictions upon it. And to these people, a part of their cultural process was revenge killing. That was just a part of their whole culture. If a member of your family was killed by someone else, you were honor-bound to kill him. You owed it to your dead relative; the honor of the family is at stake and you must pursue him until you find him and put him to death. And the family honor cannot be maintained until his blood has been spilt. And if you're the oldest son in the house then you become the avenger of blood and it's your duty, your family duty, to avenge the blood of your dead brother or sister or mother or father. And this idea of revenge killing was deeply embedded in their whole cultural process.

Now, in some cases the killing was totally accidental. There was no malice, there was no anger, there was no premeditation; it was just an accident. But this idea of revenge killing was so deep that even though it was an accident, the avenger of blood was prone to catch the guy and kill him anyhow. "I didn't mean to do it. It was just an accident, friend. I didn't-" You know you had it anyhow, they had no mercy. It's honor, it's duty, I've gotta kill you.

So in order to modify this deeply ingrained practice, God established the cities of refuge so that if you, by accident, should kill someone you could flee to the city of refuge. And if you could get to the city of refuge before the avenger caught up with you, if you could come within the borders of the city you were safe. He could not come into the city to take your life. And the Levites, it was the city of the Levites, the Levites would shelter you and protect you and they would guarantee your opportunity to have a free trial and a fair trial. Now unless you got to the city, you didn't have a fair trial at all. It was the law of vengeance and revenge and they would catch you and kill you. So you had to flee to the city of refuge. There, you would have a fair trial.

Now if it could be proved that it was not an accident, that you have been planning it, that you had hatred and animosity and it was a-and it could be proved that it was an action and it was done in anger, malice on your part, then you were delivered from the city of refuge and the avenger put you to death. But if you could show that it was purely an accident, you had no intention of doing it, it was just an accident, then you could remain in the city of refuge and they could not touch you. You would then live in the city of refuge. And as long you stayed in the city of refuge you were protected, but if you should leave the city of refuge, then if the avenger would catch you he would put you to death. You were only safe as long you stayed within the borders of that city of refuge.

There was another provision because man needs hope and living in a city can feel like living in a prison and you can soon despair "I'm away from my family. I want to be home and all. And I'm never gonna go home again." So there was another provision to give hope for that person; and that is, if the high priest should die then you were freed and you could go home. God was making these options and all because really he was opposed to the whole practice of revenge killing but it was so deeply ingrained in their culture he then created the limitations and loopholes for the innocent parties. That became then a part of the tradition and the culture of the people.

I believe that God is not incensed or angry if you celebrate Christmas, if you have a Christmas tree. I thank God that I have great liberty in Jesus Christ. And when we celebrate Christmas we are not thinking of Tammuz or Nimrod or Summeramus??? or the pagan gods that are usually celebrated this time of the year, nor Saturn nor the sun. I think that it is good to remember that "God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son" and as much as we don't know when Jesus was born, it really doesn't matter which day you might set aside to celebrate his birth. The date itself isn't important.

But I thank God that I have that freedom to celebrate with a family a day of giving, a day of expressions of love. But I'm also thankful that I have the freedom not to enter into certain pagan aspects of the holiday, if I don't want to. It's great to have freedom in Christ. I'm free to have a tree or I'm free not to have a tree, and it doesn't condemn me if I have one and it doesn't make me more righteous if I don't have one.

But these things are tradition, they become deeply embedded in our whole family culture processes and God understands how deeply embedded they're in and so he just, you know, makes the rules whereby oftentimes He modifies some of the poorer aspects of those practices. So where traditionally Christmas is a time for getting drunk, the Lord modifies that and he says, "Be not drunk with wine wherein excess, be filled with the spirit" ( Ephesians 5:18 ). It teaches us moderation in all things.

So, here God deals with a cultural practice, modifying it, bringing it within borders, within limitations, providing for the innocent. And yet the murderer was in no way to be set free. They were not to actually put to death a man with one witness. There had to be at least two witnesses. They could not take the testimony of one witness and put to a man to death; in the mouth of two witnesses, at least, it had to be established. Then if it was established they were not to take any ransom for the guilty. In other words, he was not to be able to buy his way out. Thus, the guilty were to be put to death and the land would be free from pollution.

Now, we've got a lot of sociologists today that say that the death penalty is no deterrent against crime; it's a horrible thing to put men to death and all this kind of stuff. And so what has happened? We say the law of God really isn't valid, it really isn't good. With our social sciences we know much better than the law of God and we're able to establish law that is superior to the law of God. How would you describe our land today? Pretty polluted; isn't it? That's what God said, He established a force so the land wouldn't be polluted. And we have found out that rather than knowing better than God, he knew best but we've gone so deep into it there seems to be now no way out.

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Copyright © 2014, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Ca.
Bibliographical Information
Smith, Charles Ward. "Commentary on Numbers 35". "Smith's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/csc/numbers-35.html. 2014.