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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Numbers 35

Verses 1-8

Levitical cities 35:1-8

The previous chapter dealt with the general borders of the land and its tribal boundaries. This one gives regulations concerning special towns in the land. [Note: See Menahem Haran, "Studies in the Account of the Levitical Cities," Journal of Biblical Literature 80:1 (March 1961):45-54, and 80:2 (June 1961):156-65.] According to the plan of revelation established previously in Numbers, directions regarding the Levites follow directions regarding the other tribes (cf. Numbers 1:1-54; ch. 2 and Numbers 3:1-49; Numbers 26:1-62).

The Levites received four towns for each of the 12 tribal areas. However there were more Levitical towns in the larger tribes and fewer in the smaller tribes. The writer of the Book of Joshua identified these towns in Joshua 21. [Note: See my notes on Joshua 21 for a map showing these cities.] Very few Israelites lived more than 10 miles from a Levitical town. God provided these so that the Levites, whose responsibilities included the teaching and counseling of the other Israelites in the Law, would not live far from anyone in Israel. [Note: See Jacob Milgrom, "The Levitical Town: An Exercise in Realistic Planning," Journal of Jewish Studies 33:12 (Spring-Autumn 1982):185-88.]

The pasture lands provided the Levites with a small agricultural income, but they received most of their support from the tithes and offerings of God’s people.

Verses 9-34

Cities of refuge 35:9-34

Six of these Levitical towns were also cities of refuge.

The appointment of cities of refuge was a divine provision for the safety of a killer who was not guilty of premeditated murder (cf. Deuteronomy 19:1-13; Joshua 20). God had told the Israelites not to murder (Exodus 20:13). The right and duty of man to execute murderers was ancient (Genesis 4:15; Genesis 9:5-6). Ancient Near Easterners practiced capital punishment widely as part of the law of retaliation. The Mosaic Law regarding the cities of refuge regulated this practice of retaliating in harmony with God’s will.

Three of the cities stood west of the Jordan (Hebron, Shechem, and Kedesh), and three on the east side (Bezer, Ramoth-gilead, and Golan; Deuteronomy 4:43; Joshua 20:7-8; Joshua 21:13; Joshua 21:21; Joshua 21:27; Joshua 21:32; Joshua 21:36; Joshua 21:38).

A manslayer (i.e., an unintentional killer) could find refuge in one of these cities, but a murderer (one who premeditated his act) could not. The next of kin to the victim (the blood avenger, Numbers 35:19) was not just free to kill the murderer, but he had an obligation to do so (Numbers 35:19; Numbers 35:21). This was the duty of the next of kin. Moses called him the "avenger of blood." There was no police force as such in Israel.

When a manslayer fled to a city of refuge, the residents of that city would determine if the guilty person was a murderer or a manslayer. The residents would have been mainly Levites since the cities of refuge were Levitical cities. If they judged him to be a murderer, the residents would turn him over to the avenger of blood who would kill him. If he was a manslayer, he would have to live in the city of refuge until the high priest died. He could not leave the city; it became his prison. If he left the city, he would be sinning against God. In this case the avenger of blood could hunt him down and kill him for his double offense of manslaughter and leaving his city of refuge.

"The sanctity of human life is clear both from the fact of capital punishment as the only suitable punishment for murder (Genesis 9:5-9) and, on the other hand, from the prohibition against enacting the death penalty in cases where premeditation cannot be proved. To execute the innocent is as evil in God’s sight as to exonerate the guilty." [Note: Merrill, "Numbers," in The Old . . ., p. 126.]

The death of the high priest atoned for the sins of manslayers. The death of the high priest had atoning value. Consequently after the high priest died, the manslayer was free to go home. However, until the high priest died, his act of killing another human being, even though it was unintentional, rendered him guilty before God (of manslaughter; i.e., shedding blood, but not of murder, since it was unintentional).

"His death may have been understood as fulfilling the principle that shed human blood can only be expiated by shed human blood (Genesis 9:6). In this case, the high priest’s death was on behalf of the killer, much as the priest offers sacrifices on behalf of the people elsewhere." [Note: Ashley, p. 654. Cf. Keil and Delitzsch, 3:265; and Budd, p. 384.]

God required at least two witnesses to give testimony before anyone in Israel suffered execution as a murderer. This was a requirement in the ancient Near East generally. [Note: See the Code of Hammurabi, sections 9-11, in James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, p. 166.]

In some cases of law-breaking the guilty party could pay for his redemption. He could substitute a payment of money that the priest took as a covering for his sin. However, God did not permit this in the case of murderers or manslayers. The reason for this was that "blood pollutes the land" (Numbers 35:33). That is, these crimes brought uncleanness on the land because they involved killing people without divine authorization. The land was to be clean in this sense because the Lord dwelt in it among His people (Numbers 35:34). Canaan was not just the Promised Land, but it was to be the Holy Land as well.

These regulations underscore again the uniqueness and value of human life. We see this both in the consequences for killing another person and in the safeguards granted the killer. The basic human rights of people are extremely important to God. The cities of refuge are also illustrative of Christ who provides shelter for the sinner from judgment (cf. Romans 8:1; Romans 8:33-34; Hebrews 6:17-20).

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 35". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/numbers-35.html. 2012.