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Monday, June 17th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 35

Gray's Concise Bible CommentaryGray's Concise Commentary

Verses 1-34


We may conclude our exposition of Numbers with this chapter, as the final one contains no difficulties not dealt with in previous lessons, or that are not explained in the text itself.


As the Levites were to have no domain like the other tribes, they were to be distributed throughout the land 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 these suburbs; but the statements refer to 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 probably occupied with out-houses for the accommodation of shepherds and other servants, with gardens, or olive yards. 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 (Jet. 32:7). The other two thousand cubits remained a common for the pasturing of cattle (Leviticus 25:34 ).

THE CITIES OF REFUGE (Numbers 35:6-29 )

The practice of Goelism 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 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 state of society it is a natural principle of criminal jurisprudence, it is liable to great abuses. The chief of the evils inseparable from it are that the kinsman, who is bound to execute justice, will often be precipitate, little disposed in the heat of passion 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 Goel 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.

This practice of Goelism obtained among the Hebrews to such an extent that it was not expedient to abolish it; and Moses, while sanctioning its continuance, was directed to make special regulations, which tended to prevent the consequences of personal vengeance, and, at the same time, to afford an accused person time and means of proving his innocence.

This was the humane end contemplated in the institution of cities of refuge. There were to be six, 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 Israelites only, but of all resident strangers.


How many of these cities were there (Numbers 35:6 )? For whom appointed? From among what other cities? What important qualification is made in Numbers 35:11 ? And what further one in Numbers 35:12 ? How were these cities arranged with reference to the Jordan (Numbers 35:14 )? “On this side Jordan” should be rendered beyond Jordan, and the idea is that three were especially for those tribes which so recently had elected to stay on the east side of the river. Was this refuge limited to the Israelites (Numbers 35:15 )?


What three cases of premeditated murder are mentioned (Numbers 35:16-18 )? What three in Numbers 35:20-21 . What name is given him whose duty it was to slay the murderer (Numbers 35:19 )? The word “revenger” or avenger (see Numbers 35:12 ), is the translation of the Hebrew word Gaal from which comes Goelism. It means a kinsman, the nearest of kin. It was he, only, who could perform this office.

In the case of premeditated murder was there any escape for the guilty? But in the case of unpremeditated murder what protection did these cities provide (Numbers 35:22-24 )? What was the method of operation (Numbers 35:24-25 )? What condition was necessary for the man-slayer to observe (Numbers 35:26-28 )? Once having reached the nearest city, 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 was a wise rule, designed to show the sanctity of human blood in God’s sight, as well as to protect the man-slayer himself, whose presence in society might have provoked the passions of the deceased’s relatives. But the period of his release from confinement was not until the death of the high priest. That was a season of public affliction, when private sorrows were 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.

We meet this subject again in Deuteronomy 19:0 and Joshua 20:0 , all of the passages put together furnishing rich material for a Bible reading or a sermon on the cities of refuge as a type of Christ. They are a type in the following ways; that is, in their:

1. origin, since they were divinely ordained

2. necessity, for without them there was no hope for the pursued

3. accessibility, for being on both sides of the Jordan, and within a day’s journey of all parts of the land, they might be easily reached

4. security, for the manslayer once received within their walls could not be assailed

5. applicability, for they were designed for all, Jew and Gentile, friend and alien, without distinction

Any able to use such an outline will not need to be reminded of the New Testament Scriptures which parallel the different divisions. In working out the details it might be well to show that like our salvation in Christ, the value of these cities of refuge was limited to those that remained in them. Also, point the contrast, that whereas they were restricted to the innocent man-slayer, Christ receives the guilty. The man-slayer had to be judged first, we believers are already judged, condemned, and yet free in Christ.

It is proper to say also that the “avenger of blood” or the kinsman redeemer is a beautiful type of Christ, some think more fitting than the cities of refuge themselves, but of this we shall speak in the next lesson.


1. How is the supposed discrepancy between verses 4 and 5 explained?

2. What is meant by the word “Goelism?”

3. Of what is Gaal or Goel the translation?

4. What is the meaning of the word?

5. To what abuses was Goelism liable?

6. In what ways was the Mosaic legislation intended to restrain them?

7. Where were the cities of refuge located with reference to the Jordan, and why?

8. How comprehensive were their benefits?

9. Why should the manslayer be confined in them?

10. In how many ways may they be considered typical of Christ?


In fulfillment of the promise in the last lesson there is here a consideration of the kinsman redeemer as a type of Christ, being an abridgment from the Rev. Henry Melvill, D.D., an eloquent English University preacher of an earlier generation. Our object is not only to open up the subject to those who have never considered it, but also to furnish material for a Gospel sermon to those who have opportunities in that direction.

Great Truths Taught by Common Things

Melvill begins by speaking of the close connection between the Jewish and Christian dispensations as we have discovered in our study of the Pentateuch. We have seen this especially in regard to redemption, the redeemer under the law being the type of the Redeemer under the Gospel. There may be no distinct allusions to Christ, but whenever you meet with a transaction of redemption, either of land or of a person, the matter is so ordered as to be typical of the person and work of Christ. Thus the Jews were taught even through the common dealings of life the great spiritual deliverance that was wrought out in the fullness of time.

There are three conditions marked in the Old Testament as requiring the interposition of a redeemer: (1) if there had been a forfeiture of an inheritance, (2) if there had been a loss of personal liberty, or (3) if there had been the shedding of blood.

In each it was enjoined that the Goel or redeemer should interfere on behalf of the distressed individual. Moreover, the occasions which necessitated the interference of the Goel, and the manner in which it was conducted, bear so close a likeness to the Gospel redeemer that we can scarcely doubt it to have been the purpose of the Holy Spirit to keep the scheme of human redemption always before Israel.

The Forfeiture of an Inheritance

To begin with the forfeiture of an inheritance alluded to in the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus. If an Israelite had become poor, and sold some of his possessions, the Goel was directed, if possible, to redeem the land. In that

case it became the property of the Goel until the year of Jubilee, when it returned to the original proprietor. The forfeited possession might be redeemed by the latter at any time were he able to pay the price of it; but were he not, then only the Goel could redeem it for him, and if he did or could not do so, no stranger might interfere, the possession must remain unredeemed.

We see the typical character of this transaction indicated first in the fact that only a kinsman could fill the office of Goel. Some other individual might be ready to render aid, but had he the rights of the closest kinman- ship? If not, the law refused to allow his interposition. In laying down this principle, God taught that He who should arise as the Goel or Redeemer of a lost world, must be bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh. No angel could redeem us (Hebrews 10-18).

In the next place, if you wish to describe man’s natural condition and the change effected in it by the work of Christ, where can you obtain a better illustration than from the directions of this law in regard to a forfeited inheritance? Who is the Israelite that has grown poor and alienated himself from the possession of his fathers if it be not the sinner originally made in the image of God, and who has destroyed that image by an act of rebellion? An eternity of happiness was our possession, but we threw it away, bringing upon ourselves the curse of death of body and soul. We became poor, and who shall measure our spiritual poverty? Have we a solitary fraction of our own to pay for our redemption? Therefore, the inheritance must be forfeited forever, unless a kinsman redeemer shall arise. God has provided this redeemer in a man, and yet infinitely more than a man, the God-man Christ Jesus.

But furthermore, as in the case of the impoverished Israelite, what Christ had redeemed He has not instantly restored. The year of jubilee has not yet come for us, but with a mightier trumpet peal than could be heard upon the mountains of Israel shall that jubilee year be introduced. The resurrection and glorifying of our bodies will be their completion for entrance on the fullness of the purchased possession.

The Loss of Personal Liberty

To pass now to the second instance of redemption where there has been a loss of personal liberty, and where all that has been spoken of in regard to the forfeiture of an inheritance applies with only a light change. The same chapter shows that for the discharge of a debt or the procurement of subsistence an Israelite might sell himself either to another Israelite or a stranger. Should he become the servant of an Israelite, there was no right of redemption, but he must remain in the house of his master till the jubilee. But should he become the servant of a stranger and cause arise for the interposition of the Goel the law ran: “After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him.’ If he were able to redeem himself he might do so but were the ability lacking then his kinsman must interpose, no stranger could discharge the office.

Observe that the Goel had no right to interfere unless the Israelite had sold himself to a stranger. The reason is that if his master was an Israelite like himself, then he had not become separated from God’s people and the exigency had not arisen for his redemption in the same sense. It were only when the master were a stranger that the servicing became typical of man’s bondage to Satan. It was in such a case only that we find the illustration of the New Testament, saying that the servant of sin has been “made captive by Satan at his will.’

Thank God in such a case the sinner need not languish forever in bondage. The chain need not be eternal, for there advances his kinsman, made of a woman, made under the law, and in the likeness of sinful flesh, to pay down the price of redemption and to bid the prisoner come forth into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

The Shedding of Blood

The third case of redemption, where there had been the shedding of blood, differs from the two already examined.

This is referred to in Numbers 35:0 , and in connection with the appointment of the cities of refuge.

The King James translation speaks only of the “avenger of blood,” but the original is Goel or the kinsman redeemer. You will recall that the latter must pursue the murderer and take vengeance if he overtake him before reaching the city of refuge. But if the Goel were not at hand to follow him no stranger had the right to do so. This feature of the Goel therefore stands out as prominently here as in the other instances.

It is the common idea that the cites of refuge were typical of Christ and the murderer was the human race pursued by the justice of God. There is some fidelity in this figure, and under certain limitations it may be considered as a type, but the standing type of Christ under the Mosaic law was the Goel, or kinsman redeemer. It is for this reason we seek the figure of Christ, not in the cities of refuge, but in the avenger of blood.

For example, those who were really guilty fled in vain to the city and must be delivered up to the punishment due their crime. Who can find in this any emblem of the flying of sinners for refuge to Christ?

On the other hand, observe that the human race, created deathless, was slain by Satan when he moved our first parents to the act prohibited in the words “in the day that thou doest it, thou shalt surely die.” It was with reference to this slaughter of mankind that Christ said of him: “He was a murderer from the beginning.” It was through Satan that death, whether of body or soul, gained footing in this creation, and we count it therefore proper to describe him as the great manslayer.

Our Nearest of Kin

But who pursued the murderer? Who took on him the vengeance which drew the wonder of the universe and “through death destroyed him that had the power of death?” Who but the kinsman redeemer? Who but that “seed of the woman” predicted to bruise the serpent’s head? Though Satan for a while may be permitted to roam over this creation, there has been gained a mastery over him which has reduced him to the bond-slave of our kinsman. And He is only reserving the full taking of vengeance until the year of jubilee arrives, when the enemy will be hurled into the lake of fire forever and ever.

Finally, we should not suppose that in pleading for the typical character of the Goel we plead for the existence of a figure hidden from the men of the old dispensation. When Job exclaims, “I know that my redeemer liveth,” what he really says is, “I know that my Goel, my kinsman, liveth.” And if the saints among the Jews could describe Christ as the Goel, would they not naturally turn to the offices of the Goel that they might ascertain the offices of Christ?

Who is there that is not the kinsman of Christ, since that kinsmanship resulted in His taking human nature upon Him? It is enough to be a man to know oneself Christ’s kinsman. He tasted death for every man. He redeemed every man’s inheritance. He regained every man’s liberty. He avenged every man’s blood. Will anyone put from him through unbelief the benefits of His interposition? “If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.”

This is the glorious Gospel of the Son of God, and nothing but belief can exclude the poorest, the meanest, the wickedest among men from a full and free share in the perfect redemption.


1. What great truth were the Jews taught even in the common duties of life?

2. What three conditions in the Old Testament required the interposition of a redeemer?

3. What relation must this redeemer bear to the distressed person?

4. Could any other person act in this capacity?

5. What great principle of our redemption is illustrated in this case?

6. How long might the Goel retain a redeemed possession, and what does this illustrate?

7. Why, in the second case, might not the Goel interpose unless an Israelite had sold himself to a stranger?

8. Can you quote Job 19:25-27 ?

Bibliographical Information
Gray, James. "Commentary on Numbers 35". Gray's Concise Bible Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jgc/numbers-35.html. 1897-1910.
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