Book of Numbers Chapter Thirty-Five Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
Refuge And Safety
Throughout history there have been brave men and women who have, often without the outward proof so many insist on, TRUSTED in the Lord as we all should. Many of them are seen in Scripture, speaking out in prophesies, warnings and encouragement, drawing others to have faith in the Lord just as they did. We catch glimpses of the faithful in God's Word and moved by their example, we are drawn to take "the leap of faith," too. For those who have difficulty letting go and believing, God has given us people, situations, rules and rituals of the Jewish nation that send parables, messages pointing us to faith in the Lord. In this chapter we are shown a priesthood that would not inherit large tracts of land like the other tribes of Israel, but they did have a different kind of inheritance, including cities of sanctuary, places of walled safety within a dangerous world for those who otherwise would endlessly flee for their lives or be murdered somewhere out in the wilderness. Their lives were spared so they would not pay the price for a "murder" which was actually an accidental death.
Verses 1-8: "Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho, saying, 2 'Command the sons of Israel that they give to the Levites from the inheritance of their possession cities to live in; and you shall give to the Levites pasture lands around the cities. 3 The cities shall be theirs to live in; and their pasture lands shall be for their cattle and for their herds and for all their beasts. 4 The pasture lands of the cities which you shall give to the Levites shall extend from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits around. 5 You shall also measure outside 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, with the city in the center. This shall become theirs as pasture lands for the cities. 6 The cities which you shall give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, which you shall give for the manslayer to flee to; and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities. 7 All the cities which you shall give to the Levites shall be forty-eight cities, together with their pasture lands. 8 As for the cities which you shall give from the possession of the sons of Israel, you shall take more from the larger and you shall take less from the smaller; each shall give some of his cities to the Levites in proportion to his possession which he inherits.'" The tribes of Israel were each to give up something of their sovereignty, parts of their territories, to the Levitical priests and their Levitical assistants. Conquered cities were to be ceded to them, along with considerable areas of land surrounding them. At the point in time when the words of this chapter were being written, Israel had few cities and not much land, except for what was recently conquered east of the Jordan River. When Moses relayed these words to the leaders and people of Israel, it would have felt to most of them like they were losing little because they presently didn't have very much. Later, the decision to impart those cities and lands would be more difficult, and NOW was the time for the Lord's law to be established for the nation. The Lord Himself is our Eternal City, and NOW is our time to run to Him, faithfully believing in Him—finding the safety we always needed.
Walled cities were to be given away to the Levites by those who had conquered those cities, with significant areas of land around them to be included. Two thousand cubits was roughly a half-mile, a total of about 73-square miles of territory around each city, for pasture and other purposes. Forty-eight of Israel's cities were to be governed by Levites, and of those cities, six were to be places of refuge, where somebody accused of murder could run to them and find sanctuary, safety from their pursuers, who were likely family members of the deceased. Those who have faith in Christ Jesus find eternal sanctuary in our Lord. We are eternally safe through His grace, when we place our faith in Him. Yes we have sinned, yes we have enemies because of what we have done, but the Lord is our Friend who has died in our place, keeping us safe in Him—forever.
Verses 9-15: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 'Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select for yourselves cities to be your cities of refuge, that the manslayer who has killed any person unintentionally may flee there. 12 The cities shall be to you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer will not die until he stands before the congregation for trial. 13 The cities which you are to give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities across the Jordan and three cities in the land of Canaan; they are to be cities of refuge. 15 These six cities shall be for refuge for the sons of Israel, and for the alien and for the sojourner among them; that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.'" Three of the Levitical cities of refuge were to be in Canaan, that is, west of the Jordan River. Three were to be east of that river, in lands already held by Israel. The cities were NOT places where a murderer could go and consider himself free. The six cities and surrounding areas were instead locations where someone who killed a person accidentally could find safety until an impartial court was convened and a trial held. Time would pass before the trial occurred and the families of the accused often joined them in this temporary exile.
Verses 16-21: "But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. 17 If he struck him down with a stone in the hand, by which he will die, and as a result he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. 18 Or if he struck him with a wooden object in the hand, by which he might die, and as a result he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. 19 The blood avenger himself shall put the murderer to death; he shall put him to death when he meets him. 20 If he pushed him of hatred, or threw something at him lying in wait and as a result he died, 21 or if he struck him down with his hand in enmity, and as a result he died, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death, he is a murderer; the blood avenger shall put the murderer to death when he meets him." A plea of innocence was entered, a trial would ultimately be held, then sentencing, followed by summary judgment. The reference in these verses to objects of iron, stone and wood, along with mention of the manner of the death, were items of evidence at the trial. It wasn't enough to just say, "He did it!"—the evidence introduced was also to include HOW and WHY it was done. An iron object could be a scythe or instead a sword—the court was to be told what was used and how it happened. Marks in the sand, footprints... all was to be considered. Evidence would be the basis of the conviction and we will see that more than one witness was necessary to determine the outcome. And note that the sentence upon the guilty, the ones who murdered with malicious intent, was to be carried out by the "blood avenger," the relative who chased the accused to the refuge in the first place and then offered evidence against him.
Verses 22-25: "But if he pushed him suddenly without enmity, or threw something at him without lying in wait, 23 or with any deadly object of stone, and without seeing it dropped on him so that he died, while he was not his enemy nor seeking his injury, 24 then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the blood avenger according to these ordinances. 25 The congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the blood avenger, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he fled; and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil." If, after trial, it was determined this was an accidental death, then the accused was to be set free, and the "blood avenger" must leave him alone; if he didn't, then HE would be charged with murder in the other man's place. However, the man found to be innocent of murder was to stay in the city of refuge, accompanied, no doubt, by his wife and children, "until the death of the high priest" of Israel. Time would pass, the family of the deceased would eventually move on to other concerns, and the current high priest's death became like a "year of jubilee" in which the one declared innocent of murder might leave the city of refuge and return to something like a normal life. In our lives, the Lord is our High Priest and His death in our place has set us free from sin and death.
Verses 26-28: "But if the manslayer at any time goes beyond the border of his city of refuge to which he may flee, 27 and the blood avenger finds him outside the border of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger kills the manslayer, he will not be guilty of blood 28 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 to the land of his possession." The "manslayer" who ran to the city of refuge was to stay there until his situation was decided in a court of law—He was not safe if he ran away. Israel was to be a nation of law under God—not a place of panic and bad decisions like Canaan had become under the tribes who presently lived there. The "blood avenger" could actually kill the one who ran from refuge without penalty, and we are to live within the boundaries that God has placed around us. If we know in our hearts that we should or should not do something, it's time to listen to and obey the Lord. Wait for God's timing instead of committing rash actions that all will regret.
Verses 29-34: "These things shall be for a statutory ordinance to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. 30 If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses, but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. 31 Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. 32 You shall not take ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to live in the land before the death of the priest. 33 So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. 34 You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel.'" Much like the body of law that governs the decisions, the rulings of modern judges, this chapter contains statutes that were to govern the courtroom decisions of ancient Israel. The penalty for murder was death, but that finding had to be based on evidence, including the testimony of witnesses. Accidental deaths were not murder. The judges were forbidden to takes bribes of any kind on behalf of plaintiffs or defendants that would influence the court's decision. These were God's rules and this was to be His people. Innocent blood was not to be shed within His holy nation. The Lord Himself dwells in the midst of His faithful ones, and He is watching over us all. We are all sinners who must run to Him, our Savior, and find everlasting safety.
Lord, I have done that which is wrong. My only hope for safety is You. I confess my sin and I trust in You, Lord. I give up my old ways and choose to live for You, my Sanctuary, now and forever. Thank You, Lord. I am Yours. In Jesus Name. Amen.