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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 35

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary



The Lord commands forty-eight cities, out of the twelve tribes, to be given to the Levites; six whereof were to be the cities of refuge, to which the man-slayer might fly till the death of the high-priest.

Before Christ 1452.

Verses 1-3

Numbers 35:1-3. And the Lord spake unto Moses,—saying As the priests and Levites, were a distinct body from the rest of the nation, and had no share in the division of the country, God here assigns them several towns for their residence, with such a portion of ground about them as would serve for their decent subsistence. Under the name Levites are comprehended both priests and Levites, who were all of the tribe of Levi. See Joshua 21:4. Notwithstanding this provision, it was lawful for them to hire or purchase houses in any other city, particularly Jerusalem; for we find in Scripture many proofs of their dwelling in other cities besides these which are assigned to them; and in like manner, no doubt, other people, with their permission, might dwell with them in their cities. It is plain, that the suburbs of the cities were for pasturage, and for the use of their cattle. Their goods mean stables for their cattle, and stowages for their provisions of all kinds. See Bonfrere on the place.

Verses 4-5

Numbers 35:4-5. The suburbs of the cities shall reach, &c.— In the version of the LXX, instead of a thousand cubits round about, it is two thousand cubits, which, from the next verse, appears evidently to have been the true and original reading; a reading which entirely removes all those difficulties wherewith the passage otherwise is loaded, and which commentators have so laboriously endeavoured to remove. The plain meaning seems to be, that the suburbs of these cities, whether from the wall, or from the centre of the city, as Le Clerc would render it, were to be two thousand cubits in extent on every side, the city standing in the midst. The reader, desirous to enter into the critical disquisitions of this subject, will find sufficient matter in almost every commentator, particularly in Calmet, Houbigant, Scheuchzer, and Le Clerc. If, however, this reading of the LXX should not be approved, we may well follow Mr. Lowman's interpretation: "In measuring from the wall of the city outward," says he, "the law appoints one thousand cubits only, not two thousand; which Grotius seems well to express by spatium mille cubitorum accessio urbium: it was but one thousand cubits to the cities. The next verse, indeed, directs that you shall measure from without the city, on the east side, two thousand cubits, and so each way. At first view, it is plain, that these two directions cannot be meant of the same measure from and to the very place, or from the walls of the city to the end of the ground without the walls; it must be meant of different measures, and therefore of different places. In the first case, measure from the walls outward to the end of the suburbs, and it will be one thousand cubits; in the other case, measure from without the city, or from the end of the suburbs inward, and so into the city, and to the centre of the whole ground, and it will be two thousand cubits each way. This gives a just and easy sense to these directions, and the difference is no more than measuring outward from the walls in one case, and from the parts without the city into the city itself in the other case: so that one measure gives the contents of the suburbs alone, the other the contents of the suburbs and cities together; yet, as it is thought by some, that the areas of the cities are not included in the four thousand cubits square, let the addition be made for the areas of the cities: what shall it be, one thousand, fifteen hundred, or two thousand cubits square? Be it two thousand; and then, the whole being a square of six thousand cubits, or thirty-six millions of square cubits, will be somewhat more than as much again as the former computation, or as thirty-six to sixteen. Let then, if you will, an allowance be made to the Levitical cities of one hundred and ten thousand acres, instead of near fifty-three thousand in the former calculation; this will not amount to a tenth of the remainder of one million two hundred thousand acres, after the division of ten millions, and is not one in a hundred to eleven millions two hundred and sixty-four thousand, the very longest contents of the whole land." See his Civ. Gov. of the Hebrews, p. 110. But respecting the subject, we refer to Joshua 20:0.

REFLECTIONS.—As the Levites would need an abode when they came into the land, God assigns them forty-eight cities, with their suburbs, for their cattle in the several tribes. They needed not arable land, as the tithes were their portion, and the care of the soil would have diverted them from the care of men's souls. For mutual edification, they dwell together; for general usefulness their cities are dispersed, each tribe; according to its extent, furnishing them out of their lot with a suitable abode. Note; (1.) To provide a gospel ministry should be the great concern of every people. (2.) They who are engaged in the ministry should, as much as possible, divest themselves of every worldly care. (3.) They who minister to us in spirituals have a right to reap our worldly things.

Verses 6-15

Numbers 35:6-15. And among the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites, there shall be six cities for refuge, &c.— The cities of the Levites were appointed for this purpose, rather than any other, because they were a kind of sacred places inhabited by sacred persons; and here men might spend their time better than in other places, being among the ministers of religion. These cities of refuge were only for those who killed any person unawares, Num 35:11 i.e. unwittingly, or ignorantly, as it is in Deu 19:4-5 and Joshua 20:3. See also Num 35:22 following. The avenger, Num 35:12 says Mr. Locke, means the next heir, or next of kin. For the original word is גאל goel, see Leviticus 25:25. Maimonides justly observes, that this was a merciful provision, both for the man-slayer, that he might be preserved; and for the avenger, that his blood might be cooled by the removal of the man-slayer out of his sight. It appears, from the 12th verse, that the city of refuge protected him who fled thither, so as that the right of the judges to bring the matter to a fair trial remained entire; that the man-slayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment. The elders of the city of refuge inquired, whether the man-slayer should be received or not, upon a summary hearing of the cause; Jos 20:4 but they were not the proper judges, neither could they examine witnesses; and therefore he was delivered, upon demand, to the court or senate of that city where the fact was committed, that he might be tried by them whether he was guilty or not of wilful murder. That the passage ought to be thus interpreted, is plain from Num 35:24-25 where it is said, if the congregation found him innocent, he should be restored to the city of refuge; which evidently supposes that he was tried in another place. Cities or places of refuge, usually called asyla, were common to the Hebrews, and with almost all the Gentile world; but, as in the foregoing circumstance, so in various other particulars, they were much more wisely regulated among the Hebrews than among the Gentiles: for, 1. Among other nations it was not allowed to bring to trial, against his will, the person who had fled to the place of refuge; but, among the Hebrews, the asylum served only to secure the man-slayer from being punished without a fair hearing: a point of the greatest equity, but by no means such as screened the guilty from the stroke of justice; so far from it, that the wilful murderer might even be taken from God's altar, if he fled thither for sanctuary: Exo 21:14 or, if he would not stir from thence, he might be put to death upon the spot. 1 Kings 2:28. We may observe the wisdom of the divine legislator in this particular. It would have been unjust to have put the man-slayer upon the same footing with the wilful murderer, and it would have been imprudent to suffer him to have been daily conversant in the sight of the relations of the person slain; for, love to their deceased friend might have provoked them to watch the opportunity of avenging his death. The evil, therefore, was guarded against by sending the man-slayer out of the way to the city of refuge. 3. As the man-slayer could not without injustice be put to death, to neither ought he to pass without some animadversion, in order to put others upon their guard, lest, through negligence, they should be the unhappy instruments of taking away their neighbour's life. Therefore, it was wisely provided, that the man-slayer should live in exile till the death of the high priest. 4. The wisdom of the legislature remarkably appears, in not opening a sanctuary for all homicides without distinction, as was the case among the Gentiles; but only for involuntary manslaughter. The asyla of the Greeks were sanctuaries for all criminals, which could not but be a source of great licentiousness and disorder. Hence it was, that, as Tacitus informs us, lib. 3: cap. 60. Tiberius found it necessary to take away that privilege from most of the Grecian temples. 5. It was with the same wise discernment, that the places of refuge were not appointed at the tabernacle, or in the temple, where the worship of God might have been prophaned by the presence of murderers, or by the violent assaults of the avengers of blood. On the contrary, throughout all the Gentile world, the temples and places of worship were sanctuaries for crimes. So that Euripides had good reason to find fault with the asyla of the Greeks, as he does in his Ion; Δεινον γε θνητοις, &c. that is, "It is surprising that the gods did not institute laws for mortals with more wisdom and equity; for criminals, instead of being protected by the altar, ought to have been driven from it, since it is a profanation for impious hands to touch the things of God; but those sacred places ought to have been a sanctuary for the just, a refuge from injury and oppression. Thus the gods would not have shewn equal favour to the virtuous and the wicked, when they came to the same place." 6. It is worthy of remark, that though the punishment inflicted on the man-slayer by the Jewish legislator be banishment, yet it is not banishment out of the Jewish territory; lest, by residing among idolaters, he should be seduced from the true religion, and become a worshipper of false gods. Whereas, among other nations, particularly the Greeks, not only the wilful murderer, but the involuntary man-slayer, was banished out of the country, whereby the commonwealth was deprived of one of its members. See Samuel Petit de Leg. Att. lib. 7: Titus 1:0. We are chiefly indebted to Mr. Le Clerc for the foregoing remarks. They who would see more concerning the cities of refuge will find a full account of them in the Univ. Hist. vol. 3: p. 92 and of the asyla of the heathens in Abbe Banier's Mythology, vol. 1: book 3 chap. 8.

Verses 14-15

Numbers 35:14. Three cities on this side Jordan, and three cities—in the land of Canaan This appears not to be an equal partition, the land of Canaan being much larger than the territory beyond Jordan; for it contained about three parts in four of the tribes of Israel: but it is to be considered, that the country beyond Jordan was as long as the land of Canaan, though not so broad; besides, God commanded those in Canaan, if he enlarged their coasts to add three cities more besides these; Deuteronomy 19:8-9.

See commentary on Num 35:6

Verses 16-18

Numbers 35:16-18. If he smite him with an instrument of iron, &c.— It appears from these verses, that it made no difference with what kind of weapon the man was killed; if he was killed wittingly and knowingly, this was adjudged murder, and the guilty person was to die for it. For though, perhaps, he had no formed intention to kill the person; yet he ought to have moderated his passion, and could not be ignorant that such an instrument was capable of inflicting a deadly wound.

Verse 19

Numbers 35:19. The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer The Jews understand this as an absolute order for the avenger of blood to kill the murderer; but others suppose, that it is only a permission to the avenger, and after actual and legal condemnation of the murderer: an opinion which seems much confirmed by Deuteronomy 19:12-13. Le Clerc translates it, eum interficere licebit; it shall be lawful for him to kill him.

Verses 20-21

Numbers 35:20-21. But if, &c.— Here the case of malice prepense is provided for. Houbigant renders it, in like manner, if any one strike a man through hatred. See Deuteronomy 19:11. Le Clerc thinks, that the words when he meeteth him, (Numbers 35:19; Numbers 35:21.) shew, that Moses here speaks of one who took guilt to himself by flying, and refused to stand his trial; the avenger of blood might be allowed to kill such a one, either in consequence of the sentence of the judges, who, upon hearing the witnesses, might try and condemn the party, though absent, or upon account of his secreting himself from justice, whereby he appeared to be self-condemned.

Verse 25

Numbers 35:25. The congregation shall deliver the slayer—unto the death of the high priest By this punishment inflicted on the man-slayer, others were taught to be very watchful over themselves, lest by negligence they should chance to kill any body, and so be forced into banishment. It would be endless to relate the different conjectures of the learned concerning the return of the homicide upon the death of the high priest. Many of the Jews affirm, that the death of so eminent a person, being lamented with the greatest concern by the whole nation, was one of the best means possible to put an end to all private resentments, and to unite men in friendship and affection: but the greater part of Christians consider this circumstance as a type of our deliverance through the death of Jesus Christ, by which mankind obtained entire and spiritual freedom, and a privilege of returning to their own country; namely, heaven. There were some footsteps of this custom among the Gentiles; for Servius, upon the 6th AEneid, ver. 143 has observed, that, upon the death of the high priest at Aricinum, those who had taken refuge in that temple were at liberty to return. We find in Philostratus a law of the citizens of Memphis: that, in the case of manslaughter, the party was obliged to fly, and put himself into the hands of the Gymnosophists, or Indian divines, who were to absolve him by water of lustration, and then he became, as we say, rectus in curia, or, an acquitted man, after he had first offered a sacrifice of inconsiderable value at the grave of the person whom he had unfortunately killed. De Vita Apollon. lib. vi. sect. 2. c. 5.

Verses 26-27

Numbers 35:26-27. If the slayer—come without the border, &c.— The reason of this law seems to be; because thus the man-slayer was, in some sort, accessary to his own death: for he might have been safe if he had pleased, though, at the same time, Moses in this seems to have indulged the Jews in the hardness of their hearts; for it is what the milder genius of the Gospel will undoubtedly condemn. See Matthew 5:44; Matthew 5:48. And though, in this case, such a slayer was free from the punishment of the law, yet he might be obnoxious to the judgment of God, as having killed an innocent person; see Barbeyrac's Notes on Grotius, de B. & P. lib. 1 cap. 1 sect. 17 n. 4.

Verse 30

Numbers 35:30. One witness shall not testify against any person This is a wise precaution to prevent the shedding of innocent blood. The Jews tell us, that where there was but one witness, though he who was accused of the murder could not be put to death, yet he was thrown into a very strait prison, and there fed with bread and water.

Verse 31

Numbers 35:31. Ye shall take no satisfaction, &c.— See Gen 9:6 and Leviticus 24:20. Lord Clarendon, upon this and the 33rd verse, observes, that there is no established government in Christendom where the pardon of murder is not against the law.

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Numbers 35". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tcc/numbers-35.html. 1801-1803.
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