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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 35

F. FUTURE PROSPECTS IN THE LAND (chapters 26-36).

We now come to the final main section of the book. It will commence with the numbering of Israel, a sign that they were making ready for the final push, and is divided up into rededication and preparations for entering the land (chapters 26-32), and warning and encouragement with respect to it (chapters 33-36). The first section concentrates on the mobilisation and dedication of the people of Yahweh, and the punishment of those who by their behaviour hinder that mobilisation and dedication.

In terms of the overall pattern of the book the first section covers the mobilisation of Israel, the appointment of Joshua on whom was the Spirit and the death of Moses For Sin (chapters 26-27), which compares with the earlier murmuring of Israel, the appointment of elders on whom came the Spirit, and the plague on Miriam because of sin (chapters 11-12). This then followed by the dedication of Israel through Feasts, Offerings and Vows and the purifying of Transjordan through vengeance on the Midianites and settlement of the two and a half Tribes (chapters 28-32) which compares with the purification and dedication of Israel in chapters 5-10.

Analysis of the section.

(I). Preparation for Entering the Land (chapters 26-32).

This can be divided up into:

a Numbering of the tribes for possessing the land (Numbers 26:1-51).

b Instructions concerning division of the land (Numbers 26:52-62).

c Vengeance had been brought on those who had refused to enter the land (Numbers 26:63-65).

d Regulation in respect of land to be inherited by women and others (Numbers 27:1-11).

e Provision of a dedicated shepherd for the people of Israel (Numbers 27:12-23).

e Provision of a dedicated people and future worship in the land (Numbers 28-29).

d Regulation in respect of dedicatory vows made by women and others (Numbers 30:0)

c Vengeance to be obtained on Midian (Numbers 31:1-24).

b Instructions concerning division of the spoils of Midian (Numbers 31:25-54).

a Settlement of the Transjordanian tribes in possessing land (Numbers 32:0).

(II) Warning and Encouragement of The Younger Generation (chapters 33-36).

a Review of the journey from Egypt to the plains of Moab (Numbers 33:1-49).

b Instruction concerning the successful possession of and dividing up of the land in the future (Numbers 33:50 to Numbers 34:15).

c The Leaders who will divide the land for them are appointed (Numbers 34:16-29).

d Provision of cities for the Levites. (Numbers 35:1-5)

d Provision of cities of refuge and prevention of defilement of the land (Numbers 35:6-34).

c The Leaders of the tribe of Manasseh approach Moses about the possible loss of part of their division of the land as a result of the decision about the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 36:1-4).

b Instruction concerning women who inherit land so as to maintain the dividing up of the land which they successfully possess (Numbers 36:5-12)

a Final summary of the book and colophon. The journey is over. They are in the plains of Moab opposite Jericho (Numbers 36:13).

In this section stress is laid on preparation for entering the land.

II). Warning and Encouragement of The Younger Generation (chapters 33-36).

This final section of the book is full of hope, the kind of hope that was in the hearts of Israel when they first mobilised at Sinai. It reiterates the successful journey from Egypt to the plains of Moab, lays out details of how they were to divide the land that they would soon inherit, as the Gadites, Reubenites and half tribe of Manasseh had already done, describes that land in realistic terms as a goal to aim at, appoints the very leaders who will have responsibility for that task, tells them of the necessity to provide cities for the Levites and cities of refuge for the maintenance of the holiness of the land, and brings the whole to a conclusion with the glorious example of the daughters of Zelophehad, demonstrating how their struggle for fair treatment ended in success because of their faithfulness and trust in Yahweh and their final obedience to His commands. This last human interest story, which also carried within it other valuable lessons concerning the guaranteeing of the land to those to whom it would be allotted, would act like a spur to all the people as they sought to copy the trustfulness and obedience of these courageous daughters of Zelophehad. The inspiration that it was comes out in the constant references to it. It had seized the imagination of Israel (Numbers 26:33; Numbers 27:1; Numbers 27:7; Numbers 36:2-11), and was thus seen as a suitable ending for the book.

Analysis of the Section.

a Review of the journey from Egypt to the plains of Moab (Numbers 33:1-49).

b Instruction concerning dividing up the land by lot in the future so that each man has his lot and for the purifying of the land (Numbers 33:50-56).

c Description of the land to be inherited (Numbers 34:1-15).

d The Leaders who will divide the land for them are appointed (Numbers 34:16-29).

e Provision of cities for the Levites. (Numbers 35:1-8)

e Provision of cities of refuge and prevention of defilement of the land (Numbers 35:9-34).

d The Leaders of the tribe of Manasseh approach Moses about the possible loss of part of their division of the land as a result of the decision about the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 36:1-2 a).

c Description of the problem relating to the land inherited by the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 36:2-4).

b Instruction concerning women who inherit land so as to maintain the lot in the dividing up of the land (Numbers 36:5-12)

a Final summary of the book and colophon. The journey is over. They are in the plains of Moab opposite Jericho (Numbers 36:13).

It is quite clear that the book itself sees each of these passages as an encouragement ready for the crossing over into the land. Each of them is a confirmation to them that the conquest will in essence be completed within their lifetime and the lifetime of their leaders. The setting of it in between the journeying to the plain of Moab, and their actually being there stresses the context of the whole. It promises that they will possess a land to divide up after removing those who defile it, describes that land and who will divide it up, guarantees that they will possess sufficient cities to be able to give forty eight to the Levites, and that they will be able to set up Cities of Refuge for the purpose of keeping the land free from defilement, and finally affirms the necessity for each part of the land to remain with the tribe to whom it was allotted, and encourages all by describing how the five women of faith and loyalty, the daughters of Zelophehad, of whom all had now heard, brought their story to a happy ending by fully obeying Yahweh.

This all confirms the purpose of the whole book, encouragement for the battles ahead. If the date of its writing is pushed into the future it loses its main purpose, and we have to ask why some theoretical future writer should have designed it in this way. He would have spent considerable time achieving something that had no significance. It only has significance if the invasion is about to begin.

5). Provision of Cities To Dwell In For the Levites (Numbers 35:1-8 ).

As is regular in Numbers the regulations for the Levites follow on after the regulations for the people (compare Numbers 1:1-46 with Numbers 1:47-54; Numbers 2:0 with Numbers 3:0; Numbers 6:1-21 with Numbers 8:5-22; Numbers 26:1-56 with Numbers 26:57-62).

A mark of the width and depth of the land which would be possessed was now revealed in the requirement to provide forty eight cities for the Levites to dwell in. For them to be able to do this large conquests would have to be made. Thus this confirmed the certainty of the success that would be theirs once they entered the land. Talking about something as though it was already possessed was a huge confidence booster, and expressed full belief in the certainty of the fulfilment of the promises of Yahweh.

It also confirmed Yahweh’s provision for their spiritual need. No Israelite would be living far from a Levitical city. There he could seek advice and guidance in respect of the Instruction of Yahweh. Information concerning these cities is found in Joshua 21:1-42.

Analysis.

a Cities to be given for the Levites to dwell in with the suburbs of the cities (the surrounding land) (Numbers 35:1-2).

b The cities are for the Levites to dwell in (Numbers 35:3 a).

c The suburbs are for their beasts to dwell in (Numbers 35:3 b).

c The suburbs of the cities defined (Numbers 35:4-5).

b The cities of the Levites defined (Numbers 35:6-7).

a How the cities to be given to the Levites are to be selected (Numbers 35:8).

6). Provision of Cities of Refuge and Prevention of Defilement of the Land (Numbers 35:9-34 ).

Central to maintaining the purity of the land was the need to prevent within it the shedding of innocent blood. If a man deliberately slew another his life was forfeit. Blood would have to be given for blood, however shed (Exodus 21:23; Deuteronomy 19:21). For to slay a man was to take what belonged to God, his very life, the breath of God (Genesis 2:7), and to despatch his lifeblood into the dust before the time determined by Yahweh (Ecclesiastes 12:7), and thus his own life would be forfeit (Genesis 9:5-6). In that way would the land be cleansed from blood guilt. If the murderer could not be discovered special provisions were made for an atonement ceremony so that the guilt could be purged (Deuteronomy 21:1-9).

But the question arose, what about the accidental shedding of blood? Provision was made for this in the cities of refuge. There the manslayer could be isolated until the death of the High Priest, whose blood would in some way then allow for the manslayer’s release, probably because the High Priest died and his blood was shed as the representative of the whole of Israel before Yahweh. Until then the ‘innocent’ manslayer could not be allowed to roam the land. His life was, as it were, held in suspense, until the death of the High Priest had finally expunged the consequences of shedding blood. By this the sacredness of human life was stressed. It was not a punishment. He was not imprisoned, his movements were not restricted, but he knew that if he moved away from the shelter of the city of refuge the avenger of blood was duty bound to seek him out in order to kill him.

For further stress on the cities of refuge see Exodus 21:13; Deuteronomy 19:1-13; compare Joshua 20:2; Joshua 20:8. They symbolise the place of safety in Christ for all who flee to Him from ‘unwitting sin’.

It is interesting that here, as in the case of the Balaam stories, we now have three threefold sequences placed within a chiastic framework. In both cases the divine is being directly affected by the activities of a human, in the former case by sorcery, in the latter by the extinguishing of the breath of Yahweh, of the image of God, in a man.

a When they pass over Jordan they are to provide cities of refuge for unwitting manslayers (to prevent the shedding of innocent blood) (Numbers 35:9-11).

b The city is for a manslayer’s protection until he is brought for trial (Numbers 35:12).

c Six cities to be appointed, three in Canaan and three beyond Jordan. These cities available for both Israelites and resident aliens (Numbers 35:13-15),

d Three descriptions of slayings which deserve death (Numbers 35:16-18).

e The avenger of blood may put such to death when he meets him (Numbers 35:19).

d Three further descriptions of slayings which deserve death (Numbers 35:20-21 a).

e The avenger of blood may put him to death when he meets him (Numbers 35:21 b).

d Three descriptions of accidental slayings which do not deserve death (Numbers 35:22-23).

e The congregation will judge them and put them in safety in a city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. (Numbers 35:24-25).

c If the manslayer leaves his appointed city of refuge before that he can be slain by the avenger of blood without him incurring guilt (Numbers 35:26-28).

b The deliberate manslayer will be slain at the mouth of witnesses (at least two) (Numbers 35:29-30).

a No ransom to be allowed for manslaying, whether deliberate or accidental. This is because violent shedding of blood pollutes the land and there must be a death for it, for the land is not to be defiled because Yahweh dwells in it (Numbers 35:31-34).

Verses 1-8

5). Provision of Cities To Dwell In For the Levites (Numbers 35:1-8 ).

As is regular in Numbers the regulations for the Levites follow on after the regulations for the people (compare Numbers 1:1-46 with Numbers 1:47-54; Numbers 2:0 with Numbers 3:0; Numbers 6:1-21 with Numbers 8:5-22; Numbers 26:1-56 with Numbers 26:57-62).

A mark of the width and depth of the land which would be possessed was now revealed in the requirement to provide forty eight cities for the Levites to dwell in. For them to be able to do this large conquests would have to be made. Thus this confirmed the certainty of the success that would be theirs once they entered the land. Talking about something as though it was already possessed was a huge confidence booster, and expressed full belief in the certainty of the fulfilment of the promises of Yahweh.

It also confirmed Yahweh’s provision for their spiritual need. No Israelite would be living far from a Levitical city. There he could seek advice and guidance in respect of the Instruction of Yahweh. Information concerning these cities is found in Joshua 21:1-42.

Analysis.

a Cities to be given for the Levites to dwell in with the suburbs of the cities (the surrounding land) (Numbers 35:1-2).

b The cities are for the Levites to dwell in (Numbers 35:3 a).

c The suburbs are for their beasts to dwell in (Numbers 35:3 b).

c The suburbs of the cities defined (Numbers 35:4-5).

b The cities of the Levites defined (Numbers 35:6-7).

a How the cities to be given to the Levites are to be selected (Numbers 35:8).

Numbers 35:1

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying,’

Note the usual statement concerning Yahweh’s words to Moses, but reinforced by an identification of the place where the revelation was given. This reads very much like a genuine contemporary statement. Standing there on the verge of the Jordan ready for entry into the land final instructions were being given. Nothing was more important for their true survival as a covenant people than the presence among them of those whose lives were devoted to looking after the interests of Yahweh. This would enable the land to be kept pure, and was now to be provided for.

Cities To Be Given to the Levites, Along with the Suburbs of the Cities (the surrounding land).

Numbers 35:2

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

Out of their inheritance that they would soon possess the children of Israel were to give ‘cities to dwell in’ to the Levites. Surrounding land was also to be given to them. Note the change to the personal ‘you’ (ye). This may simply be in order to distinguish the ‘they’ now used of the Levites. Or it may be in order to bring home to the children of Israel the personal aspect of their gift to the Levites. All were involved, and all must give as unto Yahweh.

Numbers 35:3

And the cities they shall have to dwell in, and their suburbs, shall be for their cattle, and for their substance, and for all their beasts.”

The cities themselves were to be for the Levites to inhabit, and the surrounding land for their cattle and other animals.

“The cities they shall have to dwell in.” The Levites were not to be given the whole cities for their own possession but to have sufficient space allotted so that they would be able to build (or restore captured houses) for them to dwell in. They were to receive as many houses as were needed for their requirements, and these would become their hereditary possession, which, if sold, could be redeemed, and which reverted to them without compensation in the year of Yubile, if not redeemed before then (Leviticus 25:32-33). The remainder of each such city was then available for other Israelites to dwell in once they had restored or erected their own houses.

Numbers 35:4-5

And the suburbs of the cities, which you shall give to the Levites, shall be from the wall of the city and outward a thousand cubits round about. And you 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.”

The size of the surrounding land which was to belong to the Levites was not to be left to chance but was clearly delineated. The land was to stretch 1000 cubits (450 metres, just over a quarter of a mile) in each direction, measuring from the boundaries of the cities, north, south, east and west, thus making an area of somewhat over 2000 square cubits, taking the area of the city into account. Each ‘side’ would have a 2000 cubit border, making a square around the city just over 2000 cubits in length and width. Some have related this to the 2000 cubits to be allowed around the Ark at the crossing of the Jordan (Joshua 3:4), but this is doubtful. The cities did not have the holiness of the Ark. On the other hand it is probably intended to signify that these Levitical cities were ‘special’. There was, however, no limit to access, except probably to the avenger of blood when it was a city of refuge (Numbers 35:19; Numbers 35:26-27). This land was to belong to the Levites in perpetuity. It could not be sold for it was Yahweh’s (Leviticus 25:23).

The figures were of course symbolic and approximate. They indicated the divine nature of the gift (the ‘thousand’ was the highest symbolical number). The size of the ‘city’ wall to wall would determine exactly how far they stretched.

The ‘cities’ would themselves not be overlarge. The forty eight cities would house the 22/23 Levite clans, although not being limited to them, and would indeed house a good number of ‘innocent manslayers’ for many years. The surrounding land was also not large. It would feed a minimum level of cattle and grow a minimal amount of food, possibly sufficient for survival in bad times. But while the Levites could personally own their houses (taken over or built by their own hands) they would not personally own land. The land was to be group land. Their possessions were communal. They had no individual personal inheritance in land. Yahweh was their inheritance.

We are not told how the manslayers were catered for. Perhaps their families would provision them, and their nearer family would presumably move with them into the city of refuge and rent nearby land. But once they became ‘needy’ they would have a right to receive from the common pool for the needy (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) and take advantage of similar provisions (Leviticus 19:9; Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21).

Numbers 35:6

And the cities which you shall give to the Levites, will be the six cities of refuge, which you shall give for the manslayer to flee to: and besides them you shall give forty and two cities.”

Of the cities given to the Levites six were to be cities of refuge, a concept dealt with in what follows. The number six (3x2) indicated completeness of provision. These were for ‘innocent’ manslayers to flee to. There were to be three each side of the Jordan. The remaining forty two cities were simply for the housing of the Levite families so that by living among the people they could properly carry out their functions of teaching, guiding, and collecting and storing tithes. For any of the people who might desire clarification on a matter to do with the Instruction (Law), help was always available there.

The six cities of refuge actually appointed were Bezer, Ramoth-gilead and Golan in Transjordan and Hebron of Judah, Shechem of Ephraim and Kadesh of Galilee in Canaan proper (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). It will be noted that these were dispersed throughout both areas. Deuteronomy 19:1-6 describes it in terms of splitting Canaan into three parts and appointing a city in each. The cities had to be reachable from anywhere in Canaan, ‘lest the avenger of blood pursue the (innocent) manslayer while his heart is hot, and overtake him because the way is long, and smite him mortally, whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he did not hate him (his victim) in time past.’

Numbers 35:7

All the cities which you shall give to the Levites shall be forty and eight cities; them shall you give with their suburbs.”

So the total cities given to the Levites to dwell in, along with their surrounding land for 1000 cubits every way, were forty eight. This was twelve times four. The twelve indicated the twelve tribes whom they would serve. The four stressed the ‘universal’ nature of Yahweh’s provision, just as four rivers went out from Eden to the whole world, the four winds came from every part of heaven, and north, south, east and west stretch out to the four furthest parts (corners) of the earth. The basic idea was that the spiritual needs of Israel were being fully catered for.

Numbers 35:8

And concerning the cities which you shall give of the possession of the children of Israel, from the many you shall take many; and from the few you shall take few: every one according to his inheritance which he inherits shall give of his cities to the Levites.”

The cities were to be given in accordance with the size of tribal possession. Thus the larger tribes provided more, and the smaller tribes less. But all were to give something from their inheritance to the Levites, a kind of firstfruits of land. It was for Yahweh’s possession so that Yahweh’s servants might live among them and ensure the keeping of His Instruction (Torah), and, in the case of the cities of refuge, especially for the prevention of the defilement of the land as a result of the shedding of blood.

According to Joshua 21:0, the Levites received nine cities in the territory of Judah and Simeon, and four in the territory of each of the other tribes, with the exception of Naphtali, in which there were only three. Thus there were ten in Transjordan, and thirty-eight in Canaan proper. Of these the thirteen given up by Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin were available to the wider families of the priests, while the remaining thirty five were available to the three Levitical families. It will be quite apparent thaut the priests’ families would be scattered fairly thinly, at least to begin with, but provision was also being made for the future.

Verses 9-12

6). Provision of Cities of Refuge and Prevention of Defilement of the Land (Numbers 35:9-34 ).

Central to maintaining the purity of the land was the need to prevent within it the shedding of innocent blood. If a man deliberately slew another his life was forfeit. Blood would have to be given for blood, however shed (Exodus 21:23; Deuteronomy 19:21). For to slay a man was to take what belonged to God, his very life, the breath of God (Genesis 2:7), and to despatch his lifeblood into the dust before the time determined by Yahweh (Ecclesiastes 12:7), and thus his own life would be forfeit (Genesis 9:5-6). In that way would the land be cleansed from blood guilt. If the murderer could not be discovered special provisions were made for an atonement ceremony so that the guilt could be purged (Deuteronomy 21:1-9).

But the question arose, what about the accidental shedding of blood? Provision was made for this in the cities of refuge. There the manslayer could be isolated until the death of the High Priest, whose blood would in some way then allow for the manslayer’s release, probably because the High Priest died and his blood was shed as the representative of the whole of Israel before Yahweh. Until then the ‘innocent’ manslayer could not be allowed to roam the land. His life was, as it were, held in suspense, until the death of the High Priest had finally expunged the consequences of shedding blood. By this the sacredness of human life was stressed. It was not a punishment. He was not imprisoned, his movements were not restricted, but he knew that if he moved away from the shelter of the city of refuge the avenger of blood was duty bound to seek him out in order to kill him.

For further stress on the cities of refuge see Exodus 21:13; Deuteronomy 19:1-13; compare Joshua 20:2; Joshua 20:8. They symbolise the place of safety in Christ for all who flee to Him from ‘unwitting sin’.

It is interesting that here, as in the case of the Balaam stories, we now have three threefold sequences placed within a chiastic framework. In both cases the divine is being directly affected by the activities of a human, in the former case by sorcery, in the latter by the extinguishing of the breath of Yahweh, of the image of God, in a man.

a When they pass over Jordan they are to provide cities of refuge for unwitting manslayers (to prevent the shedding of innocent blood) (Numbers 35:9-11).

b The city is for a manslayer’s protection until he is brought for trial (Numbers 35:12).

c Six cities to be appointed, three in Canaan and three beyond Jordan. These cities available for both Israelites and resident aliens (Numbers 35:13-15),

d Three descriptions of slayings which deserve death (Numbers 35:16-18).

e The avenger of blood may put such to death when he meets him (Numbers 35:19).

d Three further descriptions of slayings which deserve death (Numbers 35:20-21 a).

e The avenger of blood may put him to death when he meets him (Numbers 35:21 b).

d Three descriptions of accidental slayings which do not deserve death (Numbers 35:22-23).

e The congregation will judge them and put them in safety in a city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. (Numbers 35:24-25).

c If the manslayer leaves his appointed city of refuge before that he can be slain by the avenger of blood without him incurring guilt (Numbers 35:26-28).

b The deliberate manslayer will be slain at the mouth of witnesses (at least two) (Numbers 35:29-30).

a No ransom to be allowed for manslaying, whether deliberate or accidental. This is because violent shedding of blood pollutes the land and there must be a death for it, for the land is not to be defiled because Yahweh dwells in it (Numbers 35:31-34).

The Provision of Cities of Refuge for Unwitting Manslayers (to prevent the shedding of innocent blood) (Numbers 35:9-11 ).

Numbers 35:9

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’

Once more we are reminded that we have here Yahweh’s word given to Moses.

Numbers 35:10-11

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall appoint for yourselves cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person unwittingly may flee there.”

The need for cities of refuge is declared by this requirement for their being ‘appointed’. They were needed in order to prevent the shedding of innocent blood, but also in order to isolate from the land anyone who had shed blood and slain another. The sacredness to God of human life was such that none who had taken such a life could be allowed to roam free in the land unless a parallel death had taken place. For thereby the land would be defiled.

Numbers 35:12

And the cities shall be to you for refuge from the avenger (goel), that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation for judgment.”

These cities would act as a refuge from ‘the Avenger’ (the goel). The ‘goel’ often signified the ‘next-of-kin’, the kinsman-redeemer (Numbers 5:8; Numbers 27:11; Leviticus 25:25; Leviticus 25:49), and the term was used of those seen as responsible in the family for the protection of its name, its integrity, its wholeness and its inheritance from Yahweh. A man could sometimes be his own goel (Leviticus 25:26, compare Genesis 4:24; Genesis 27:45). Most would thus see ‘the avenger’ as a member of the family of a slain man who had the right to seek blood vengeance, the idea partly being that murder could be best controlled by allowing swift justice to be carried out by those most affected. Such an avenger could not then be accused of murder because he was judicially avenging the death of a member of his own family, and taking ‘life for life’. He was acting as official executioner. Such a concept was known from the earliest times. Cain feared that his family would kill him on sight (Genesis 4:14). This sense of a right to family revenge is still in vogue among some supposedly civilised people even today, and treated as acceptable, even though usually illegal, an indication that man with all his outward sophistication, is still a beast at heart. Some others see the Avenger as being an appointed official whose responsibility it was to seek out murderers and slay them.

Note that the refuge was only until the manslayer was brought to trial before the people’s representatives. But that would probably only happen if an accusation was brought against him. It then remained his refuge either if he was not accused or if he was found not guilty of deliberate murder. But stress is laid on the fact that for a guilty man there was no permanent refuge.

“Stand before the congregation for judgment.” ‘Before the congregation’ generally indicates the whole of Israel (16:9; 32:4). Thus this was probably before the Tent of Meeting, with the justices and elders conducting the trial, with all who would being able to gather to hear the verdict. For the fact that if not guilty he was to be returned to the city of refuge confirms that it took place away from there. Alternately it might have been in the locality where the manslaying had been committed (19:12), where witnesses could be found, but in that case we might have expected that to be explained. And that would not really be ‘before the congregation’, unless ‘before the congregation’ is seen as signifying being judged by one’s peers.

Something of the procedure is described in Joshua 20:4. The manslayer would flee from the avenger of blood to a city of refuge, and there he would stand before the gates of the city, and, having been brought within the gate area, would state his case before the elders. They were then to decide whether to receive him into the city, and give him a place in order that he might dwell among them, or whether to reject him because he admitted to deliberate murder. In cases of doubt they were not to deliver him up to the avenger of blood until he had stood ‘before the congregation’ for judgment.

Verses 13-15

The Number of Cities To Be Set Up And Their Widespread Coverage (Numbers 35:13-15 )

Numbers 35:13-14

And the cities which you shall give shall be for you six cities of refuge. You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities shall you give in the land of Canaan. They shall be cities of refuge.”

The number of cities was to be six, three on each side of the Jordan. This was so that a city of refuge would be within easy reach from any point in Canaan or Transjordan. It was seen as complete provision (six = twice three) for this purpose.

Numbers 35:15

For the children of Israel, and for the foreigner and for the resident alien among them, shall these six cities be for refuge; that every one who kills any person unwittingly may flee there.”

And they were to be for the children of Israel, for foreigners and for resident aliens. Justice and compassion in Israel was to reach to all in the land, whether homeborn or strangers. Anyone who unwittingly slew a man could flee there. And once there he would be protected by the Levites and by Yahweh until his case could be examined, and then, if found to be not guilty, he could remain there until the death of the High Priest, at which point he was absolved and his life again became ‘sacred’. From then on his murder by an ‘avenger’ would be punishable by death as an act of sacrilege against Yahweh. Because for an avenger to slaughter him while he was under Yahweh’s protection would be sacrilege.

This is now followed by three threefold categorisations of possible incidents. The first two threesomes are seen as proving guilt. The third threesome as demonstrating probable innocence.

Verses 16-18

Three Examples of Those Who Would Find No Protection In A City of Refuge (35:16-18).

The deliberate murderer had no refuge. This would partly be determined by the nature of the instrument used. Thus an iron instrument, a large stone, or a wooden weapon would be evidence of intent. It would suggest that the slaying was intentional.

Numbers 35:16

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.”

To attack a man with an instrument of iron with sufficient force to kill clearly implied either a premeditated intention to kill or a total disregard for life. In such a case the slayer would have no valid excuse. The instrument used indicated a total disregard for a life given by Yahweh. To send a man’s lifeblood prematurely into the dust, before its time fixed by Yahweh, defiled the land and was a high-handed sin against Yahweh.

Numbers 35:17

And if he smote him with a stone in the hand, by which a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.”

To take a large stone in hand ‘by which a man may die’ would again show clear intent of murder or total disregard for God-given life. The intent to make unconscious or to injure would have been indicated by the use of a smaller stone.

Numbers 35:18

Or if he smote him with a weapon of wood in the hand (a piece of wood deliberately taken in hand, or ‘with a handle’), by which a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.”

Here the instrument is specifically described as a ‘weapon’, a man wrought instrument, a piece of wood with a handle, or deliberately taken in hand (either translation is possible). The purpose of carrying such a weapon would be in order to kill. Why else was he carrying the weapon? Thus again it revealed premeditated intent.

So in all these three cases the Avenger of blood was himself to put the slayer to death. The crime of shedding blood and open rebellion against God by slaying someone in His image was to be punished by those most directly offended against, the family. This ensured that the matter was pursued at a time when there was no police force. Whenever the avenger saw the slayer he was to put him to death.

Verses 20-34

Further Examples.

Numbers 35:20-21

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 meets him.”

Here not only premeditated intent as indicated by the instrument used, but also knowledge of the persons involved and the circumstances of the death were taken into account. Was it done through hatred, or by something deliberately and cold-bloodedly hurled, or by someone lying in wait, or in enmity? Then clearly it was deliberate. The slayer was guilty, and the Avenger must slay him when he meets him.

Examples Of Innocent Slaying.

Numbers 35:22-23

But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or hurled on him anything without lying in wait, or with any stone, whereby a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it on him, so that he died, and he was not his enemy, neither sought his harm;”

Here we have the opposite cases, those where the thrust was accidental or instinctive and without a pre-history of enmity (compare Deuteronomy 19:4) or where the hurling of something was not by someone in hiding or lying in wait; or where the stone was not one of such a size that it would be seen as probably intended to produce a fatality; in all cases being where the slayer was known not to be an enemy of the slain man, or as someone who intended his victim harm. Then in those cases the assumption was to be that no such harm was intended. The example in Deuteronomy 19:5 of an insecure head of an axe flying off in an ‘industrial accident’ demonstrates how innocent the manslaying might be. But the death still required to be balanced with a parallel death, demonstrating the sacredness of life. All had to do all in their power to prevent death whether by murder or accident, and were responsible where the death was the result of their actions.

Numbers 35:24

Then the congregation shall judge between the smiter and the avenger of blood according to these ordinances.”

In that case it would be up to the congregation to judge whether the man was guilty or not. They would decide whether the man’s life should be spared, or whether the avenger of blood should be allowed his rights. Deliberate, premeditated murder was seen as an attack on God Himself.

While we would now probably take mitigating circumstances into account, it was considered very important in those days for there to be ‘life for life, blood for blood’. However, the point also being emphasised is that circumstance and motive must be taken into account. What was to be sought was not vengeance but justice. Thus provision was mad for accidental death.

Numbers 35:25

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, where he was fled: and he shall dwell in it until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.”

If the congregation found the man not guilty of deliberate manslaying, then it was to deliver the man out of the hand of the avenger of blood and restore him to his city of refuge. He had still shed blood and a compensating death was required, but this death would take place when the High Priest who had been anointed with the holy anointing oil, died. His death would compensate as death for death. And the land would remain clean in the light of the inevitable death one day of the High Priest. (He atoned for sin done aforetime? - compare Romans 3:25).

This delay was thus seen as totally in the hands of Yahweh. It could be long or short, as He determined by His preservation or otherwise of the life of the High Priest.

The High Priest’s death is not actually said to be atoning, and we should not read into this a wider application than to this situation. But it would certainly seem to have reference to the fact that as ‘the anointed Priest’ he represented the whole of Israel. The whole of Israel was therefore seen as bearing the guilt of the accidental death so that the land was not seen as defiled before Yahweh. To this extent it could certainly be seen as atoning, and might therefore indeed have been seen as compensating for all unwitting sin. But if so it was additional to, and did not replace, the day of Atonement and all the other purification for sin offerings required in the cultus. It was a reminder both that all died, and that the need for atonement was never ending and never fully satisfactory. The purification for sin offerings had to be supplemented by the Day of Atonement, the Day of Atonement had to be supplemented by the death of the High Priest, and each High Priest in succession had to die. The process was never ending, an indication in fact of its insufficiency.

It was only in the death of our Lord Jesus Christ that such an atonement was provided once for all as to make unnecessary any other form of atonement. His death alone was sufficient for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2), and in Him we have an undying High Priest (Hebrews 7:24-25). It is the indication that in His death on the cross full atonement has been made.

Numbers 35:26-28

But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the border of his city of refuge to which he flees, and the avenger of blood finds him outside 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.”

However the manslayer must remain in the city of refuge until such a death of the High Priest took place. If he leaves it any consequence will be on his own head. The avenger of blood will then have the right to slay him. And if he does he will not be guilty of blood because he is simply obtaining a life for a life. The manslayer should have remained within the city of refuge where he knew he would be safe. However, once the High Priest had died he could then return to the land that he owned, and which belonged to him as an inheritance from Yahweh, and no one had any further right against him. His life was once again fully sacred.

This approach had much in its favour. Firstly all were made to recognise the sacredness of human life, and that if life was taken then someone had to bear the responsibility even if it was done innocently. It provided a warning against taking death, even accidental death, lightly. Secondly it allowed the slain man’s relatives the right of revenge, with provisos. It prevented running sores in men’s minds which might result in worse consequences. The ‘detaining’ of the man would help to assuage their feelings of frustration and anger. He would not be walking about openly in front of them. Thirdly it did provide a means by which the innocent could find protection, but only when they were open to being tried before their fellow-countrymen. Fourthly it made sure that all suspicious deaths were investigated. In fact family feelings ran so high that it is questionable whether someone who had slain another could ever feel absolutely safe from ‘avengers of blood’ outside a city of refuge (where all would protect him), such was the sense of family honour that often held sway, even if revenge had become illegal. But it was more likely that once time had passed, the feeling of vengeance would have died down, especially as the death had been declared to be accidental. But it would pass from one generation to another. Only the death of the High Priest could settle the matter.

Numbers 35:29

And these things shall be for a statute and ordinance to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings.”

It is confirmed that these principles laid down were the statute and ordinance in respect of manslaying which would apply among all the people through every generation.

Attitudes To Be Taken Towards The Crime of Murder.

Various precautions were now described concerning the crime of manslaying. No man must be found guilty on the testimony of only one person. No ransom could be paid which could redeem a deliberate manslayer. The sentence of death was absolute. Nor could a man be released from a city of refuge on the payment of a ransom. Whether deliberately or accidentally a violent death had taken place and it had to be strictly compensated for by another death. Nothing less would do. Human life was so valuable that there was no compensation which could be adequate.

Numbers 35:30

Whoever kills any person, the murderer shall be slain at the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person that he die.”

One way in which innocence or guilt was established was at the hands of witnesses. They were seen as especially important in the case of a murder. But no one should ever be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. This was a safeguard against false accusation.

Numbers 35:31

Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer, that is guilty of death; but he shall surely be put to death.”

But once a man was convicted there was no substitute punishment. No compensation payment or bribe should be allowed to prevent full capital punishment. Murder was so sacrilegious that only the death of the murderer was sufficient to counteract it. There must be blood for blood. Other nations allowed compensation, but in Yahweh’s eyes life was so sacred that its premature taking could only have one consequence, a death for a death. Israel could allow compensation in lesser cases (Exodus 21:29-30) but not in this.

Numbers 35:32

And you shall take no ransom for him who is fled to his city of refuge, that he may come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest.”

The same was even true of accidental death. There was no way by which a man who had sought refuge in a city of refuge could be allowed to ransom himself and be able to go about freely. Were he to walk abroad in the land it would cry out against him because the death had not been compensated for, ‘until the death of the High Priest’.

Numbers 35:33

So you shall not pollute the land in which you are. For blood, it pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, but by the blood of him who shed it.”

The whole idea behind all this was that man’s life was given to him by God and that the shedding of blood by violence polluted the land. The blood returning prematurely to the dust was evidence of the breaking of Yahweh’s commandment, it revealed that one who was in the image of God had been destroyed, thus Yahweh had a twofold reason for reaction against it. It was so serious that the only way by which its shedding could be atoned for was by the death of the perpetrator. By such an emphasis the sacredness of human life was established.

Numbers 35:34

And you shall not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell, for I, Yahweh, dwell in the midst of the children of Israel.”

And this was especially important because Yahweh would be dwelling in the land. Thus the defiling of it with human, violently shed blood was inconceivable. It robbed God of what was His. It must not happen. For, He reminded them, He Yahweh would dwell among them as the Preserver of Life , and He would know.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 35". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/numbers-35.html. 2013.