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Bible Commentaries

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged

Numbers 35

Verse 1

And the LORD spake unto Moses in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho, saying,

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 2

Command the children of Israel, that they give unto the Levites of the inheritance of their possession cities to dwell in; and ye shall give also unto the Levites suburbs for the cities round about them.

Give unto the Levites ... cities to dwell in. Since the Levites were to have no territorial domain allocated to them, like the other tribes, on the conquest of Canaan (Numbers 18:20), they were to be distributed throughout the land (cf. Genesis 47:7) in certain cities appropriated to their use; and these cities were to be surrounded by extensive suburbs. There is an apparent discrepancy between Numbers 35:4-5 with regard to the extent of the suburbs; but the statements in the two verses refer to totally different things-the one to the extent of the suburbs from the walls of the city, the other to the space of 2,000 cubits from their extremity. In point of fact, there was an extent of ground, amounting to 3,000 cubits, measured from the wall of the city. One thousand were most probably occupied with out-houses for the accommodation of shepherds and other servants, with gardens, vineyards, or oliveyards. And these which were portioned out to different families (1 Chronicles 6:60) might be sold by one Levite to another, but not to any individual of another tribe (Jeremiah 32:7). The other 2,000 cubits remained a common for the pasturing of cattle (Leviticus 25:34); and, considering their number, that space would be fully required.

The Levites being ministers supported at the public expense (Deuteronomy 12:19; Deuteronomy 14:27-29; Deuteronomy 18:3-5; Deuteronomy 26:12), and devoted to the service of God, would be expected to employ their spare time from the direct services of the sanctuary in promoting the cause of religion; and, indeed, their establishment in various districts of the country seems to have been subservient to such sacred occupations-nay, to act in a civil as well as an ecclesiastical respect. 'The Levites and priests were the appropriate juris-consults of the nation. They did not go round and preach, and teach in a public capacity; but it was their business to settle and adjudicate all controversies between man and man; to declare the law in all cases of trespasses or injury; to decide all dubious cases of conscience about rites and ceremonies; to give counsel, whenever asked, about anything which pertained to duty; and, in a word, to perform the office of judges and of religious as well as civil ministers (cf. Leviticus 10:10-11; Deuteronomy 17:8-10; 2 Chronicles 19:8; Ezekiel 44:23-24; Malachi 2:7). Ordinarily, to say the least, and at any rate according to strict rule, the Levites were to abide in the cities assigned to them, and not go elsewhere to reside' (Moses Stuart 'On Canon,' p. 81).

Verses 3-5

And the cities shall they have to dwell in; and the suburbs of them shall be for their cattle, and for their goods, and for all their beasts.

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 6

And among the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites there shall be six cities for refuge, which ye shall appoint for the manslayer, that he may flee thither: and to them ye shall add forty and two cities.

There shall be six cities ... for the manslayer. These were sacred cities, as inhabited by the Levitical order, who acted as moral guardians, and presided along with the elders in the inferior tribunals in those cities to which men charged with homicide fled for an asylum. The establishment of those privileged sanctuaries among the cities of the Levites is probably traceable to the idea that they would be the most suitable and impartial judges; that their presence and counsels might calm or restrain the stormy passions of the blood-avenger; and that, from their being invested with the sacred character, they might be types of Christ, in whom sinners find a refuge from the destroyer (see Deuteronomy 4:43; Joshua 20:8).

Verse 7

So all the cities which ye shall give to the Levites shall be forty and eight cities: them shall ye give with their suburbs.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 8

And the cities which ye shall give shall be of the possession of the children of Israel: from them that have many ye shall give many; but from them that have few ye shall give few: every one shall give of his cities unto the Levites according to his inheritance which he inheriteth.

The cities ... shall be of the possession ... of Israel. The burden of furnishing those places for the residence and support of the Levitical order was to fall in equitable proportions upon the different tribes (see Numbers 33:54; Joshua 20:7). The larger and wealthier tribes were to support a greater number than the smaller and poorer ones; but the distribution of the whole Levitical body was accommodated to the number of the tribes.

Verses 9-10

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 11

Then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares.

Slayer may flee ... which killeth any person at unawares. The practice of Go'elism - i:e., of the nearest relation of an individual who was killed being bound to demand satisfaction from the author of his death-existed from a very remote antiquity (Genesis 4:14; Genesis 27:45). It seems to have been an established usage in the age of Moses; and although in a rude and imperfect state of society it is a natural and intelligible principle of criminal jurisprudence, it is liable to many great abuses. The chief of the evils inseparable from it are, that the kinsman, who is bound in duty and honour to execute justice, will often be precipitate, little disposed, in the heat of passion, or under the impulse of revenge, to examine into the circumstances of the case-to discriminate between the premeditated purpose of the assassin and the misfortune of the unintentional homicide.

Moreover, it had a tendency not only to foster a vindictive spirit, but, in case of the Go'el (H1352) being unsuccessful in finding his victim, to transmit animosities and feuds against his descendants from one generation to another. This is exemplified among the Arabs in the present day. Should an Arab of one tribe happen to kill one of another tribe, there is 'blood' between the tribes, and the stain can only be wiped off by the death of some individual of the tribe with which the offence originated. Sometimes the penalty is commuted by the payment of a stipulated number of sheep or camels. But such an equivalent, though offered, is as often refused, and blood has to be repaid only by blood.

This practice of Go'elism obtained among the Hebrews to such an extent, that it was not perhaps expedient to abolish it; and Moses, while sanctioning its continuance, was directed, by divine authority, to make some special regulations, which tended both to prevent the unhappy consequences of sudden and personal vengeance, and at the same time to afford an accused person time and means of proving his innocence. This was the humane and equitable end contemplated in the institution of cities of refuge.

There were to be six of these legalized asyla-three on the east of Jordan, both because the territory there was equal in length, though not in breadth, to Canaan, and because it might be more convenient for some to take refuge across the border. They were appointed for the benefit, not of the native Israelites only, but of all resident strangers. Bahr ('Symbolik') draws a conclusion from the institution of such public sanctuaries, that for accused persons of the description referred to there was no sin offering prescribed or accepted. But the professed object of this chapter is not to treat of the unintentional manslayer, otherwise directions would have been given, in accordance with the principles of the legal economy, in regard to the ecclesiastical expiation; but of the free cities and of the manslayer, to whom the privilege of a secure retreat within their walls was afforded, until an investigation should be made into the case by the judicial authorities. Bahr's inference, therefore, is not warranted by the tenor of this chapter, which is limited to certain special instructions to the homicide-where and how to consult his safety pending a legal inquiry, whether the deed was premeditated or unintentional.

Verses 12-15

And they shall be unto you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verses 16-21

And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.

If he smite him ... Various cases are here enumerated in which the Goel or avenger was at liberty to take the life of the murderer; and every one of them proves a premeditated purpose. In every case where a refugee was convicted of having perpetrated deliberate murder, he was doomed to suffer death, without redemption or commutation. No sanctuary could protect him; because even though he took hold of the horns of the altar, he might be torn from that sacred place, and be surrendered to justice (Exodus 21:14; 1 Kings 2:28-34).

Verses 22-28

But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him any thing without laying of wait,

But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity ... Under the excitement of a sudden provocation or violent passion, an injury might be inflicted issuing in death; and for a person who had thus undesignedly committed slaughter, the Levitical cities offered the benefit of full protection. Once having reached the nearest-for one or other of them was within a day's journey of all parts of the land-he was secure. But he had to "abide in it." His confinement within its walls was a wise and salutary rule, designed to show the sanctity of human blood in God's sight, as well as to protect the manslayer himself, whose presence and contact in society might have provoked the vindictive passions of deceased's relatives. But the period of his release from this confinement was not until the death of the high priest. That was a season of public affliction, when private sorrows were sunk or overlooked under a sense of the national calamity, and when the death of so eminent a servant of God naturally led all to serious consideration about their own mortality. The moment, however, that the refugee broke through the restraints of his confinement and ventured beyond the precincts of the asylum, he forfeited the privilege; and if he was discovered by his pursuer, might be slain with impunity.

Verses 29-34

So these things shall be for a statute of judgment unto you throughout your generations in all your dwellings.

These things shall be for a statute of judgment. The law of the blood-avenger, as thus established by divine authority, was a vast improvement on the ancient practice of Goelism. By the appointment of cities of refuge, the manslayer was saved, in the meantime, from the blind and impetuous fury of vindictive relatives; but he might be tried by the local court, and if proved guilty on sufficient evidence, condemned and punished as a murderer, without the possibility of deliverance by any pecuniary satisfaction. The enactment of Moses, which was in adaptation to the character and usages of the Hebrew people, secured the double advantage of promoting the ends both of humanity and of justice.

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Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Numbers 35". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfu/numbers-35.html. 1871-8.