Numbers 35
Pulpit Commentary
And the LORD spake unto Moses in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho, saying,
Verse 1. - And the Lord spake. Cf. Numbers 33:50; Numbers 36:13.
Command the children of Israel, that they give unto the Levites of the inheritance of their possession cities to dwell in; and ye shall give also unto the Levites suburbs for the cities round about them.
Verse 2. - That they give unto the Levites... cities to dwell in. This legislation forms the natural sequel and complement of the Divine decrees already promulgated concerning the Levites. Separated from the rest of the tribes from the time of the first census (Numbers 1:49), excluded from any tribal inheritance (Numbers 18:20), but endowed with tithes and offerings for their maintenance (Numbers 18:21, &c.), it was also necessary that they should be provided with homes for themselves and their cattle. They might indeed have been left to exist as they could, and where they could, upon the provision made for them in the law. But, on the one hand, that provision was itself precarious, depending as it did upon the piety and good feeling of the people (which must often have been found wanting: cf. Nehemiah 13:10; Malachi 3:8, 9); and, on the other, it is evident that the Levites were intended, as far as their family and social life was concerned, to share the ordinary comforts and enjoyments of Israelites. Nothing could have been more foreign to the Mosaic ideal than a ministry celibate, ascetic, and detached from this world's wealth, such as readily enough sprang up (whether intended or not) under the teaching of the gospel (cf. Luke 10:4; Luke 12:33; Acts 20:34, 35; 1 Corinthians 7:7, 25, 26; 1 Corinthians 9:18, 27; 2 Corinthians 6:10; 2 Timothy 2:4). Suburbs. The Hebrew word מִגְרָשׁ undoubtedly means here a pasture, or a paddock, an enclosed place outside the town into which the cattle were driven by day to feed. It is possible that the A.V. may have used the word "suburbs" in that sense. To keep cattle to some extent was not only a universal custom, but was well-nigh a necessity of life in that age.
And the cities shall they have to dwell in; and the suburbs of them shall be for their cattle, and for their goods, and for all their beasts.
Verse 3. - For their cattle. לִבְהֶמְתָּם, "for their great cattle," i.e., oxen, camels, and any other beasts of draught or burden. For their goods. "For their possessions," which in this connection would mean their ordinary "live stock," chiefly sheep and goats; the word itself (לִרְכוּשָׁם) is indeterminate. For all their beasts. לְכֹל־חַיָּתָם an expression which apparently only sums up what has previously been mentioned.
And the suburbs of the cities, which ye shall give unto the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city and outward a thousand cubits round about.
And ye shall measure from without the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits; and the city shall be in the midst: this shall be to them the suburbs of the cities.
Verse 5. - Ye shall measure from without the city (מִחוּצ לָעִיר - ἔξω τῆς πόλεως)... two thousand cubits. These directions are very obscure. Some have held that the country for 1000 cubits beyond the walls was reserved for pasture (according to verse 4), and for another 1000 cubits for fields and vineyards, so that the Levitical lands extended 2000 cubits in all directions. This is reasonable in itself, since 2000 cubits is only half a mile, and rather more than a square mile of land would not seem too much for pastures, gardens, &c. for a town with at least 1000 inhabitants. The smallest tribe territories seem to have comprised some 300 square miles of country; and if we take the Levitical towns as averaging 1000 cubits square, their forty-eight cities would only give them seventy-three square miles of territory. There is, however, no notice of anything being given to the Levites except their "suburbs," so that this explanation must be at best very doubtful. Others have argued for a plan according to which each outer boundary, drawn at 1000 cubits' distance from the wall, would measure 2000 cubits, plus the length of the town wall; but this is far too artificial, and could only be considered possible as long as it was confined to a paper sketch, for it presupposes that each city lay four-square, and faced the four points of the compass. If the first explanation be untenable, the only alternative sufficiently simple and natural is to suppose that, in order to avoid irregularities of measurement, each outer boundary was to be drawn at an approximate distance of 1000 cubits from the wall, and each of an approximate length of 2000 cubits; at the angles the lines would have to be joined as best they might. In Leviticus 25:32-34 certain regulations are inserted in favour of the Levites. Their houses might be redeemed at any time, and not only within the full year allowed to others; moreover, they returned to them (contrary to the general rule) at the year of Jubilee. Their property in the "suburbs" they could not sell at all, for it was inalienable. It is difficult to believe that these regulations were really made at Mount Sinai, presupposing, as they do, the legislation of this chapter; but if they were actually made at this time, on the eve of the conquest, it is easy to see why they were subsequently inserted in the chapter which deals generally with the powers of sale and redemption.
And among the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites there shall be six cities for refuge, which ye shall appoint for the manslayer, that he may flee thither: and to them ye shall add forty and two cities.
Verse 6. - And among the cities. Rather, "and the cities." וְאֶת הֶעָרים - καὶ τὰς πόλεις. The construction is broken, or rather is continuous throughout verses 6-8, the accusative being repeated. Six cities for refuge. See below on verse 11.
So all the cities which ye shall give to the Levites shall be forty and eight cities: them shall ye give with their suburbs.
Verse 7. - Forty and eight cities. The Levites numbered nearly 50,000 souls (see on Numbers 26:62), so that each Levitical city would have an average population of about 1000 to start with. There seems no sufficient reason for supposing that they shared their towns with men of the surrounding tribe. Even if the provision made for their habitation was excessive at first (which does not appear), yet their rate of increase should have been exceptionally high, inasmuch as they were not liable to military service. It is possible that mystical reasons led to the selection of the number forty-eight (12 x 4, both typical of universality), but it is at least equally probable that it was determined by the actual numbers of the tribe.
And the cities which ye shall give shall be of the possession of the children of Israel: from them that have many ye shall give many; but from them that have few ye shall give few: every one shall give of his cities unto the Levites according to his inheritance which he inheriteth.
Verse 8. - And the cities which ye shall give shall be, &c. Rather, "And as to the cities which ye shall give from the possession of the children of Israel, from the many ye shall multiply, and from the few ye shall decrease." What seems to be a general rule of proportionate giving is laid down here, but it was not carried out, and it is not easy to see how it could have been. From the large combined territory of Judah and Simeon nine cities were indeed surrendered (Joshua 21), but all the rest, great and small, gave up four apiece, except Naphtali, which gave up three only. As the territory of Naphtali was apparently large in proportion to its numbers, this was probably for no other reason than that the tribe stood last on the list. Every one. Hebrew, אִישׁ. It was in fact each tribe that surrendered so many cities, but since the tribal inheritance was the joint property of all the tribesmen, every man felt that he was a party to the gift. No doubt it was the Divine intention to foster in the tribes as far as possible this local feeling of interest and property in the Levites who dwelt among them (compare the expression "their scribes and Pharisees" in Luke 5:30). The dispersion of the Levites (however mysteriously connected with the prophecy of Genesis 49:5-7) was obviously designed to form a bond of unity for all Israel by diffusing the knowledge and love of the national religion, and by keeping up a constant communication between the future capital and all the provinces. According to the Divine ideal Israel as a whole was "the election" (ἡ ἐκλογή) from all the earth, the Levites were the ἐκλογή of Israel, and the priests the ἐκλογή of Levi. The priestly family was at present too small to be influential, but the Levites were numerous enough to have leavened the whole nation if they had walked worthy of their calling. They were gathered together in towns of their own, partly no doubt in order to avoid disputes, but partly that they might have a better opportunity of setting forth the true ideal of what Jewish life should be.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come over Jordan into the land of Canaan;
Then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares.
Verse 11. - Ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you. God had already announced that he would appoint a place whither one guilty of unpremeditated manslaughter might flee for safety (Exodus 21:18). The expression there used does not point to more than one "place," but it is not inconsistent with several. Probably the right of sanctuary has been recognized from the earliest times in which any local appropriation of places to sacred purposes has been made. It is an instinct of religion to look upon one who has escaped into a sacred enclosure as being under the personal protection of the presiding deity. It is certain that the right was largely recognized in Egypt, where the priestly caste was so powerful and ambitious; and this is no doubt the reason (humanly speaking) for the promise in Exodus 21:13, and for the command in the following verse. Inasmuch as the whole of Canaan was the Lord's, any places within it might he endowed with rights of sanctuary, but it was obviously suitable that they should be Levitical cities; the Divine prerogative of mercy could nowhere be better exercised, nor would any citizens be better qualified to pronounce and to uphold the rightful decision in each case.
And they shall be unto you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.
Verse 12. - From the avenger. Hebrew, גֹאֵל. Septuagint, ὁ ἀγχιστεύων τὸ αῖμα. In all other passages (twelve in number) where the word occurs in this sense it is qualified by the addition "of blood." Standing by itself, it is everywhere else translated "kinsman," or (more properly) "redeemer," and is constantly applied in that sense to God our Saviour (Job 19:25; Isaiah 63:16 &c.). The two ideas, however, which seem to us so distinct, and even so opposed, are in their origin one. To the men of the primitive age, when public justice was not, and when might was right, the only protector was one who could and would avenge them of their wrongs, and by avenging prevent their repetition. This champion of the injured individual, or rather family, - for rights and wrongs were thought of as belonging to families rather than to individuals, was their goel, who had their peace, their safety, above all, their honour, in his charge. For no sentiments spring up quicker, and none exercise a more tyrannous sway, than the sentiment of honour, which in its various and often strangely distorted forms has always perhaps outweighed all other considerations in the minds of men. Now the earliest form in which the sentiment of honour asserted itself was in the blood-feud. If one member of a family was slain, an intolerable shame and sense of contumely rested upon the family until blood had been avenged by blood, until "satisfaction" had been done by the death of the manslayer. He who freed the family from this intolerable pain and humiliation - who enabled it to hold up its head, and to breathe freely once more - was the goel; and in the natural order of things he was the nearest "kinsman" of the slain who could and would take the duty upon him. To these natural feelings was added in many cases a religious sentiment which regarded homicide as a sin against the higher Powers for which they too demanded the blood of the guilty. Such was the feeling among the Greeks, and probably among the Egyptians, while among the Hebrews it could plead Divine sanction, given in the most comprehensive terms: "Your blood of your lives will I require, at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man;... whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:5, 6). The moral difficulties of this proclamation need not here be considered; it is enough to take note that the Divine law itself recognized the duty as well as the lawfulness of private blood-revenge when public justice could not be depended on. The goel, therefore, was not merely the natural champion of his family, nor only the deliverer who satisfied the imperious demands of an artificial code of honour; he was a minister of God, in whose patient efforts to hunt down his victim the thirst for vengeance was to some extent at least superseded by, or rather transmuted into, the longing to glorify God (compare the difficult case of Revelation 6:10). It was not merely human feelings of great reach and tenacity which were outraged by the immunity of the manslayer; it was still more the justice of God which received a grievous wound. Just because, however, God had made the cause of the slain man his own, and had sanctioned the avenging mission of the goel, he could therefore regulate the course of vengeance so as to make it run as even as possible with true justice. It was not indeed possible to distinguish ab initio between the homicide which deserved and that which did not deserve capital punishment. Such distinction, difficult under any circumstances, was impossible when vengeance was in private hands. But while the goel could not be restrained from immediate pursuit unhindered by investigation or compunction (lest his whole usefulness be paralyzed), the manslayer might have opportunity to escape, and to be sheltered under the Divine mercy until he could establish (if that were possible) his innocence. No better instance can be found of the way in which the King of Israel adopted the sentiments and institutions of a semi-barbarous age, added to them the sanctions of religion, and so modified them as to secure the maximum of practical good consistent with the social state and moral feelings of the people. No doubt many an individual was overtaken and slain by the goel who did. not deserve to die according to our ideas; but where perfection was unattainable, this error was far less dangerous to that age than the opposite error of diminishing the sanctity of human life and the awfulness of Divine justice. The congregation. Hebrew, עֵדָה. This word is used frequently from Exodus 12:3 to the end of this chapter, and again in Joshua and the last two chapters of Judges. It is not found in Deuteronomy, nor often in the later books. In every case apparently eydah signifies the whole nation as gathered together, e.g., as represented by all who had an acknowledged right to appear, for of course 600,000 men could not gather together in any one place. The force of the word may be understood by reference to its use in Judges 20:1; Judges 21:10, 13, 16. Another word (קָהָל) is also used, less frequently in Leviticus and Numbers, but more frequently in the later books, for the general assembly of the people of Israel. No distinction of meaning can be drawn between the two words, and it cannot, therefore, be maintained that the "congregation" of this verse means the local elders of Joshua 20:4. The regulations there laid down are not inconsistent with the present law, but are quite independent of it. They refer to a preliminary hearing of the case as stated by the fugitive alone in order to determine his right to shelter in the mean time; which right, if accorded, was without prejudice to the future judgment of the "congregation" on the whole facts of the case (see below on verse 25).
And of these cities which ye shall give six cities shall ye have for refuge.
Verse 13. - Six cities. See on Deuteronomy 19:8, 9, where three more are apparently ordered to be set aside upon a certain contingency:
Ye shall give three cities on this side Jordan, and three cities shall ye give in the land of Canaan, which shall be cities of refuge.
Verse 14. - Ye shall give three cities on this side Jordan. According to Deuteronomy 4:41-43. Moses himself severed these three cities, Bezer of the Reubenites, Ramoth of the Gadites, and Golan of the Manassites. Those verses, however, seem to be an evident interpolation where they stand, and are hardly consistent with previous statements if taken literally. It is tolerably clear that the two tribes had only formed temporally settlements hitherto, and that their boundaries were not defined as yet; also that the Levitical cities (to which the cities of refuge were to belong) were not separated until after the conquest. It is likely that Deuteronomy 4:41-43 is a fragment, the real meaning el which is that Moses ordered the severance of three cities on that side Jordan as cities of refuge, for which purposes the three cities mentioned were afterwards selected.
These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that killeth any person unawares may flee thither.
And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.
Verse 16. - With an instrument of iron. There is no reasonable doubt that בַּרְיֶל has here (as elsewhere) its proper meaning of iron. The expression must be held to include both weapons and other instruments; the former may have been mostly made of bronze, but where iron is used at all it is sure to be employed in war.
And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.
Verse 17. - With throwing a stone, wherewith he may die. Literally, "with a stone of the hand, by which one may die," i.e., a stone which is suitable for striking or throwing, and apt to inflict a mortal wound.
Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.
Verse 18. - A hand weapon of wood. A club, or other such formidable instrument.
The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer: when he meeteth him, he shall slay him.
Verse 19. - When he meeteth him, i.e., outside a city of refuge.
But if he thrust him of hatred, or hurl at him by laying of wait, that he die;
Verse 20. - But if. Rather, "and if" (וְאִם). The consideration of willful murder is continued in these two verses, although chiefly with reference to the motive. It is to be understood that the deliberate intent was present in the former cases, and a new case is added, viz., if he smite him with his fist with fatal consequences.
Or in enmity smite him with his hand, that he die: he that smote him shall surely be put to death; for he is a murderer: the revenger of blood shall slay the murderer, when he meeteth him.
But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him any thing without laying of wait,
Verse 22. - Without enmity.... without laying of wait. These expressions seem intended to limit mercy to cases of pure accident, such as that quoted in Deuteronomy 19:5. Neither provocation nor any other "extenuating circumstances" are taken into account, nor what we now speak of as absence of premeditation. The want of these finer distinctions, as well as the short and simple list of farm injuries given, show the rudeness of the age for which these regulations were made.
Or with any stone, wherewith a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm:
Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood according to these judgments:
And the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil.
Verse 25. - The congregation (עֵדָה) shall restore him to the city of his refuge. It is perfectly plain from this (and from Joshua 20:6) that the general assembly of all Israel was to summon both homicide and avenger before them with their witnesses, and, if they found the accused innocent, were to send him back under safe escort to the city in which he had taken refuge. He shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest. No doubt his family might join him in his exile, and his life might be fairly happy as well as safe within certain narrow limits; but under ordinary circumstances he must forfeit much and risk more by his enforced absence from home and land. It is not easy to see why the death of the high priest should have set the fugitive free from the law of vengeance, except as foreshadowing the death of Christ. No similar significance is anywhere else attributed to the death of the high priest; and it was rather in its unbroken continuance than in its recurring interruption that the priesthood of Aaron typified that of the Redeemer. To see anything of a vicarious or satisfactory character in the death of the high priest seems to be introducing an element quite foreign to the symbolism of the Old Testament. The stress, however, which is laid upon the fact of his decease (cf. verse 28), and the solemn notice of his having been anointed with the holy oil, seem to point unmistakably to something in his official and consecrated character which made it right that the rigour of the law should die with him. What the Jubilee was to the debtor who had lost his property, that the death of the high priest was to the homicide who had lost his liberty. If it was the case, as commonly believed, that all blood feuds were absolutely terminated by the death of the high priest, might this not be because the high priest, as chief minister of the law of God, was himself the goel of the whole nation? When he died all processes of' vengeance lapsed, because they had really been commenced in his name.
But if the slayer shall at any time come without the border of the city of his refuge, whither he was fled;
Verse 26. - Without the border of the city, i.e., no doubt beyond its "suburbs."
And the revenger of blood find him without the borders of the city of his refuge, and the revenger of blood kill the slayer; he shall not be guilty of blood:
Because he should have remained in the city of his refuge until the death of the high priest: but after the death of the high priest the slayer shall return into the land of his possession.
So these things shall be for a statute of judgment unto you throughout your generations in all your dwellings.
Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.
Verse 30. - By the mouth of witnesses, i.e., of two at least (cf. Deuteronomy 17:6).
Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death.
Verse 31. - Ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer. The passion for vengeance is both bad and good, and is therefore to be carefully purified and restrained; but when the desire for vengeance can be appeased by a money payment, it has become wholly bad, and is only a despicable form of covetousness which insults the justice it pretends to invoke. Such payments or "ransoms" are permitted by the Koran, and have been common among most semi-civilized peoples, notably amongst our old English ancestors.
And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest.
Verse 32. - That he should come again to dwell in the land. No one might buy off the enmity of the avenger before the appointed time, for that would give an unjust advantage to wealth, and would make the whole matter mercenary and vulgar.
So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.
Verse 33. - The land cannot be cleansed. Literally, "there is no expiation (יְכֻפַר) for the land." Septuagint, οὐχ ἐξιλασθήσεται ἡ γῆ. By these expressions the Lord places the sin of murder in its true light, as a sin against himself. The land, his land, is defiled with the blood of the slain, and nothing can do away with the guilt which cleaves to it but the strict execution of Divine justice upon the murderer. Money might satisfy the relatives of the slain, but cannot satisfy his Maker.
Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel.
Verse 34. - For I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel. Therefore the murderer's hand is raised against me; the blood of the slain is ever before my eyes, its cry for vengeance ever in my ears (cf. Genesis 4:10; Matthew 23:35; Revelation 6:10).

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