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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 35

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



Since the tribe of Levi was to have no territorial allotment, there must be some other mode adopted of settling its members among the people. This mode, foreshadowed in Leviticus 25:32, (see note,) is here fully unfolded in the requirement to assign to the Levites forty-eight cities scattered among all the twelve tribes. This exactly tallies with the prediction of Jacob. Genesis 49:4-7; comp. Numbers 34:25-26. See Numbers 1:49, note.


The purpose of the cities of refuge was humane. Moses found the law of revenge so deeply rooted in the habits of the people that it was impossible to eradicate it altogether. He could only check its execution and mitigate its horrors. He did not design to screen the real murderer from punishment, but merely to secure a fair judicial investigation. If convicted of murder, the culprit was handed over to the avenger of blood, who was himself to be the executioner.

But in the case of the purely accidental homicide through such an accident as the axe slipping from the helve there seems but scant justice, bordering hard on injustice, accorded to the innocent. He must take to his heels and run for dear life, with the possibility of being struck down by the swifter avenger. The utmost favour shown to him, if he entered the gate, was to be shut up in the city, and to be exposed to be killed as an outlaw if he ventured out. Cruel and unjust as was the custom of blood avenging, it has prevailed substantially among the many tribes in these Oriental lands from remote ages down to this day; and although there are now no cities of refuge, still no manslayer is safe outside the city gate. Christianity is the only cure for such injustice.

Verse 1

THE LEVITE CITIES, Numbers 35:1-5.

1. The plains of Moab Numbers 22:1, note.

Verses 4-5

4, 5. Suburbs… a thousand cubits There would be no perplexity in making a diagram fulfilling this requirement if it were not added that a distance of two thousand cubits must be measured from without the city on each of the four sides. Eight different kinds of diagrams have been devised to meet the requirements of the text, one of which will be found in Joshua 21:2, note. The Seventy, Josephus, and Philo cut this knot by reading two thousand in both verses. In the summer of 1878 two stones bearing the inscription in old Hebrew and Greek characters, “The limit or boundary of Geser,” were found near Abou-Shushek, the ancient Levitical city of Gezer, (Joshua 21:21,) taken from the Philistines by the king of Egypt, and given by Pharaoh to his daughter, Solomon’s wife. 1 Kings 9:16. This discovery will go far toward fixing the standard of the Jewish cubit, and in determining the shape and extent of the suburbs of these cities. The limit of the inner suburb was one thousand cubits from the wall round about the city, which was probably circular. The outer precincts were two thousand cubits beyond the inner, according to the Hebrew text, to the east, west, north, and south corners; so the boundary of the outlying fields could not have been circular, but diagonal. The suburbs did not measure three thousand cubits in all directions, only the angles at the four cardinal points. The first thousand cubits were to be measured “from the wall of the city,” not from the center of it, the city being “in the midst.” This discovery corrects the diagram of Keil. See Joshua 21:2, note.

Verse 6

6. Cities for refuge… manslayer Joshua 20:1-9, notes.

Verses 6-34

CITIES OF REFUGE, Numbers 35:6-34.

The right of shelter and impunity, ( jus asyli,) by fleeing to sacred places, was afforded to the guilty and the unfortunate by the ancient Greeks and Romans. When abuses arose and justice was grossly outraged, the limitation of this privilege was necessary to the preservation of society. Tacitus records the increase of criminals because of the increase of places of asylum among the Greeks and Romans. This merciful and wise provision of Mosaism, so far as the spirit of the age allowed it, prevented all family hatred and war from ever taking place, as was inevitably the case among the other nations, where any bloodshed whatever, whether wilful or accidental, laid the homicide open to the duty of revenge by the relatives of the slain person, who again in their turn were then similarly watched and hunted by the opposite party, until a family war of extermination was the sad heritage of succeeding generations.

Verse 8

8. Many… many… few… few According to Joshua xxi, Judah and Simeon, whose territorial allotments seem to have been blended very early, as predicted by Jacob, (Genesis 49:5; Genesis 49:7,) gave to the Levites nine of their cities, the other tribes gave four each, except Naphtali, who gave only three, making thirty-eight cities west of the Jordan. The eastern tribes gave ten. The thirteen given by Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin were assigned to the priests, being near the tabernacle and temple, and thirty-five to the three Levitical families. “Called out of the whole nation to be the peculiar possession of Jehovah, to watch over his covenant, and teach Israel his rights and his law, (Deuteronomy 31:9-13; Deuteronomy 33:8-10; Leviticus 10:11,) the Levites were to form and set forth among all the tribes the εκλογη ( election) of the nation of Jehovah’s possession, and, by their walk as well as by their calling, to remind the Israelites continually of their own divine calling, to foster and preserve the law and testimony of the Lord in Israel, and to awaken and spread the fear of God and piety among all the tribes.” Keil and Delitzsch. If the Levitical families had been completely isolated, they would have been in danger of spiritual declension. Their association was a safeguard against this evil.

Verse 11

11. Killeth… unawares Joshua (Numbers 20:3) adds, “and unwittingly.” See note.

Verse 12

12. Avenger Joshua adds, “of blood.” See note cited above. The goel, redeemer, is “that particular relative whose special duty it was to restore the violated family integrity, who had to redeem not only landed property that had been alienated from the family, or a member of the family who had fallen into servitude, (Leviticus 25:25-47,) but also the blood that had been taken away from the family by murder.” Oehler.

Until he stand before the congregation The refugee, on his arrival at the city of refuge, made his plea to the elders of the city, who protected him till he was sent for. See note on Joshua 20:6. The cities of refuge were not designed to screen a real murderer from being put to death, but merely to secure a fair judicial investigation.

Verse 14

14. Three cities on this side Jordan The cities of refuge east of the Jordan were Bezer in the south, Ramoth in Gilead, and Golan in Bashan. Joshua 20:8, note.

Three cities… in… Canaan These were Kedesh in Galilee Shechem (Nablous) in Mount Ephraim, and Hebron in Judah. Joshua 20:7, note. An inspection of the map will show how admirably these cities were distributed for the accomplishment of their purpose. These were all Levitical or priests’ cities, because the administration of justice is germane to religion, being its natural fruitage. Jehovah also had a peculiar ownership in these cities, which rendered them eminently fitting for refuge to those who were in trouble.

Verse 15

15. The stranger A temporary resident.

The sojourner Literally the dweller one who remains a settler in Israel but is not an owner of land (Leviticus 25:40) nor a partaker of the sacred gifts. Leviticus 22:10; Leviticus 23:22, notes.

May flee thither To facilitate the flight Moses commanded the roads to the cities of refuge to be kept open. Deuteronomy 19:3. The Talmud adds that at the crossroads posts were erected bearing the word REFUGE to direct the fugitive, lest he should miss his way and fall into the hands of the avenger.

Verses 16-21


16-21. If any person has struck another with an instrument of iron, as an axe or hammer, or with a stone, literally, a stone of the hand, that is, large enough to fill the hand and to kill a man with, or with a hand weapon of wood, as a thick club, and death ensued, a murderous intent is inferred, and the death penalty is inflicted. An ambuscade or laying of wait, preceding the fatal blow, is a still stronger proof of malice aforethought. Genesis 9:5-6; Exodus 20:13, note. Capital punishment is discussed in Leviticus 24:21, note, and in the concluding note of the same chapter.

The revenger of blood shall slay the murderer This duty was never outlawed by any limitation of time or of place, save within the walls of the city of refuge. If the offender took refuge in a free city the elders of the city were to hand him over to the avenger, or goel, to be slain. Genesis 4:15, note; Deuteronomy 19:11-12.

Verses 16-29


The ex officio members of this commission were Eleazar, the high priest, and Joshua, the commander of the army, as the lieutenant of Jehovah.

Joshua 5:14. Of the ten princes, representing the nine and a half tribes, Caleb is the only one of whom any thing else is known. The order of the tribes here enumerated, with slight exceptions, corresponds both to their fraternal relationship and to their geographical location in Canaan, reckoning from south to north. This deviates somewhat from the order in which the lots came out for the different tribes according to Joshua 15-19.

Verses 22-28


Human life is so sacred that it must be hedged about by all possible safeguards. Hence, when one kills another by casualty, perfectly innocent of any evil intention, he must undergo the privation of his liberty by a lifelong imprisonment in the city of refuge. Such a liability tended to the utmost caution in the intercourse of man with man.

Verse 23

23. Stone… cast it upon him Here is a case of anacoluthon, or want of grammatical sequence, in the Hebrew. The writer evidently begins the sentence with the word “smite” (Numbers 35:17) in his mind, and discovering its inappropriateness substitutes let fall, too strongly rendered in the English by cast it upon. The case of casual killing is more clearly illustrated in Deuteronomy 19:4-5.

Verse 24

24. These judgments The provisions of this statute.

Verse 25

25. Unto the death of the high priest The reason for this requirement is not given. May it not be to symbolize that the death of the antitypical High Priest, Jesus Christ, constitutes a successful plea against the demands of divine justice as the sin avenger? It is a Jewish tradition that the mother of the high priest made presents to the refugees that they might not be praying for the death of her son.

Holy oil Anointing with this oil was a symbol of the Holy Spirit imparted. Hence the high priest’s death may be considered as in a sense expiatory, so that the refugee might return cleansed to his own city. For the preparation of the anointing oil see Exodus 30:23-24; Leviticus 4:3, note.

Verses 26-27

26, 27. If the slayer… at any time come without He could not leave the asylum to bury his dead, to worship in the great feasts, nor to testify in the courts. He was constructively dead while his life was hidden in the city of refuge. Colossians 3:3, note. No mere lapse of time can satisfy the claims of justice, as many vainly imagine who dream that sin will eventually disappear, even in the case of those who have deliberately thrust aside the cover of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ and count it as a common thing. If these verses have any spiritual significance, it is that a saved soul may fall away from salvation and be finally lost.

Verse 30

30. By the mouth of witnesses It required two to convict of a capital crime, (Deuteronomy 17:6,) and two or three to convict of other crimes. Deuteronomy 19:15; 1 Timothy 5:19, notes. The Jews here literally followed this statute, and insisted that the testimony be given by the mouth and not by writing.

Verse 31

31. No satisfaction for… a murderer In the LXX. the words “ satisfaction for the life” are almost exactly those used by Jesus Christ in Matthew 20:28, “To give his life a ransom for many.” Human life is too sacred to be paid for in gold and silver. Without the shedding of blood there is no possible atonement for murder. The soul of the murdered man is the possession of God, and not of the avenger of blood; hence he is forbidden to accept ransom money. Imprisonment for life is not a sufficient expiation. Vers. 16-21, note.

Verse 33

33. Not pollute the land According to the conception of both Greeks and Hebrews an unavenged murder stained the land with guilt and exposed it to the most dreadful judgments. A government in sympathy with crime, or indifferent to the claims of justice, ought to feel the bolts of divine wrath.

Cannot be cleansed Literally, “and for the land atonement is not made except in the blood of him that murderously shed blood.” The atonement was not effected by the blood of the murderer as a sacrificial victim, but by the righteous conduct of the authorities and people in slaying him, and thus endeavoring to make murder odious. See the Greek tragedy, “OEdipus Rex.”

Verse 34

34. The land… wherein I dwell The omnipresent Deity specially manifested his presence in Israel, and so sanctified their land. This was a special reason why the people might not pollute it. Exodus 25:8; Numbers 5:3, notes.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 35". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/numbers-35.html. 1874-1909.
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