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Deeper Commentary


Num 35:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying-
The Levites had no land inheritance, only cities. Or better, towns. As explained on Lev. 25:29,30, God's intention therefore was that Israel lived in small settlements and not walled cities. Ideally, the only cities were to be those of the Levites. This detailed potential intention was never realized by Israel; just as the extensive  and intricate commands about the restoration of the temple in Ez. 40-48 never were. One of the greatest tragedies for God must be all the wasted potentials He sets up in countless lives. And His joy is when we at least begin to realize them.

Num 35:2 Command the children of Israel that they give to the Levites from the inheritance of their possession some cities to dwell in, and you shall give suburbs for the cities around them to the Levites-
This meant that the Levites were divided amongst the 12 tribes of Israel, enabling them to teach God’s ways to the whole nation (Lev. 10:11; Dt. 33:9,10). In this way, the curse upon Levi that his children would be scattered in Israel (Gen. 49:7) turned into a blessing for all- and God so loves to work in this way, using the consequences of sin to bring about His work, purpose and glory.

Num 35:3 The cities shall they have to dwell in and their suburbs shall be for their livestock, and for their substance, and for all their animals-
Eve was "the mother of all living" (Gen. 3:20), in its primary application explaining to the Israelites in the wilderness where they ultimately originated from. Israel were to trace their first origins and parents back not merely to Abraham, but to Adam and Eve. Num. 35:3 [Heb.] uses the term to describe the "all living" ["livestock"] of the congregation of Israel; indeed, that Hebrew word translated "living" is translated "congregation", with reference to the congregation of Israel (Ps. 68:10; 74:19). Note how the Hebrew idea of 'all living' repeatedly occurs in the account of the flood (Gen. 6:19; 8:1,17 etc.)- which I suggest was a flood local to the area which the Israelites knew and which had been ultimately promised to Abraham.

Num 35:4 The suburbs of the cities which you shall give to the Levites shall be from the wall of the city and outward two thousand cubits around it-
The measurements of the "suburbs" or agricultural land around the Levitical towns was in a square with the measurements taken from the city wall. This implies that their towns were to be built as perfect squares within a town wall. The tabernacle was rectangular, not square. So they were not being asked to imitate the tabernacle but rather the altar, which is repeatedly described as foursquare (Ex. 27:1; 38:1; 30:2 cp. Rev. 21:16). The Levites were to have towns which were effectively the local altar for the people.

Num 35:5 You shall measure outside of 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 for the suburbs of the cities-
This grant of agricultural land to the Levites was really an indication of God's tacit acceptance that the whole system was not going to work as He ideally intended. If Israel were obedient to the covenant, they would be blessed with bumper harvests, of which they would tithe 10% to the Levites, and additionally the Levites received various tithes from the offerings, and also the freewill offerings. They would have no need to work the land but could dedicate themselves completely to studying and teaching God's law to the people, which would confirm them in their obedience to the covenant and continued receipt of blessing. But God foresaw this situation would break down, and so He gave them land on which to grow their own food. His law continually reflects His gracious awareness of likely human failure.

Num 35:6 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 besides them you shall give forty-two cities-
The number 42 recalls the 42 stopping places of Israel in the wilderness, just listed in Num. 33. The idea was that the priestly cities were places of teaching which would be stages towards Israel's eternal inheritance of the Kingdom of God in its full sense. We think likewise of the 42 generations to the Lord Jesus which are listed in Matthew' genealogy of the Lord. The Levites were to teach the people and lead them towards Christ, for the law they taught was a schoolmaster which led to Christ (Gal. 3:24).

Num 35:7 All the cities which you shall give to the Levites shall be forty-eight cities together with their suburbs-
"Suburbs" is translated by some as "cattle drives". Josh. 21:41 adds: "All the cities of the Levites in the midst of the possession of the children of Israel were forty-eight cities with their suburbs". The idea was that the Levites would live "in the midst" of the people, teaching them God's way. But Israel's apostacy is often blamed upon the failure of the priesthood; and yet that in turn was partly due to Israel not providing for the Levites.

Num 35:8 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. Everyone according to his inheritance which he inherits shall give of his cities to the Levites-
But the reality was that many of the cities the Israelites gave the Levites were in marginal areas or areas still under Canaanite domination. Thus Kedemoth was given to the Levites (Josh. 21:37) but was in fact a town which had not been captured from the local population (Josh. 13:18). They failed to learn the principle of 2 Sam. 24:24, that we are not to apparently sacrifice to God that which cost us nothing.

Num 35:9 Yahweh spoke to Moses saying-
This legislation assumes that the revenger of blood was free to operate. The structure of the law of Moses seemed to almost encourage the idea of serving God on different levels. After much study of it, the Rabbis concluded that there was within it “a distinction between holy and holy just as much as there is between holy and profane”. They were not to avenge (Lev. 19:18). But they could avenge, and provisions were made for their human desire to do so (Num. 35:12; Dt. 19:6). These provisions must also be seen as a modification of the command not to murder. The highest level was not to avenge; but for the harshness of men's hearts, a concession was made in some cases, and on God's prerogative. We have no right to assume that prerogative.

Num 35:10 Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them, ‘When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan-
This could imply that establishing the cities of refuge, of which we will now read, was to be immediately attended to. But there is no evidence Israel did this. They were satisfied with a bit of farmland, and showed no real interest in the development of a system of blessing and salvation as God had potentially enabled.

Num 35:11 then you shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person unknowingly may flee there-
But as noted several times in Josh. 19, some of these cities they had not even taken from enemy hands.  "Appoint" is the usual word for "give". The tribes were to give these cities. But several of them they had not even bothered to take from the local inhabitants. Their disobedience to these commandments made their personal salvation so much more difficult. And so we again see the upward spiral, the self reinforcing nature, of God's commandments. They were not a burden, a chain that binds, but rather an opportunity to prosper spiritually.

Num 35:12 The cities shall be to you for refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment-
The word go'el translated "avenger" is also that translated "redeemer" or 'ransomer'. The cities of refuge are therefore understood in Heb. 6:18 as looking ahead to refuge in the Lord Jesus: "Who have fled for refuge to lay hold on the hope set before us". The allusion is to how the person who found they had committed a sin worthy of death, yet without as it were wishing to have done so, could flee to a city of refuge and be saved there by the death of the high priest. The curse upon Levi was that the members of this tribe were to be scattered in Israel (Gen. 49:7). However, this resulted in the cities of the Levites being scattered throughout the land, thus providing accessible cities of refuge to all who wished to escape the consequences of sin. Those cities were evidently symbolic of the refuge we have in Christ. Again and again, the curses and consequences of human sin are used by the Father to mediate blessing. It is the sure hope before us which is our refuge. "Hope", elpis, is a confident knowledge of a future reality, rather than a hoping for the best. We should be confident in our salvation. The 'guilty' person was made free totally through the death of the High Priest, clearly looking forward to the significance of the death of the Lord Jesus. 

Num 35:13 The cities which you shall give shall be for you six cities of refuge-
Dt. 19:7 adds that they were to do so "for yourselves", or here "for you". The emphasis was very much upon them making the cities of refuge, and defining the paths which led to them from all settlements in the land (Dt. 19:3): "I command you, saying, You must set apart three cities for yourselves" (Dt. 19:7). Yet the record in Joshua 18-20 shows that Israel didn't do this, because they didn't even capture all the cities which were to be cities of refuge. All God's laws are and were for the spiritual benefit of His people, rather than simple tests of obedience. Disobedience therefore harms us more than anyone.

Num 35:14 You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan and you shall give three cities in the land of Canaan. They shall be cities of refuge-
Dt. 19:8,9 make it clear that more cities would be added if Israel were obedient and their land borders were enlarged. Those cities of refuge could have been increased in number, thereby making salvation that much 'easier' or accessible; but there is no evidence Israel availed themselves of this. Israel would be provided with more cities of refuge if they were obedient; the way of escape from sin would become easier, as it does for us the more we are obedient to God’s principles.

Num 35:15 For the children of Israel and for the stranger and for the foreigner living among them, these six cities shall be for refuge; that everyone who kills any person unintentionally may flee there-
We are all in the position of the person who unintentionally killed another person and is therefore liable to death. We have all sinned, and yet as it were in the spirit of how Paul describes our sin in Romans 7- committed against our better intentions. Heb. 6:18 speaks of us fleeing for refuge into Christ- suggesting we are the one who flees after committing manslaughter, and becoming “in Christ” by baptism is our entry into Him as our city of refuge. But we must abide in Him- for if we leave Him then we are liable to death (:26). And our final salvation from the effects of sin is guaranteed by the death of the High Priest, the Lord Jesus (:25).

Num 35:16 But if he struck him with an instrument of iron, so that he died, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death
Dt. 19:13 expresses this as "you must put away the innocent blood from Israel". We would rather expect that guilty blood must be put away. AV has "the guilt of innocent blood", LXX "so shalt thou purge innocent blood". The idea was that the guilt for innocent blood must be purged by blood. The Lord's blood was the ultimate innocent blood, and so Israel were being prepared to accept that blood was to be shed for His blood. And thus it happened (Mt. 27:25; Acts 5:28).  

Num 35:17 If he struck 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-
The purpose of the system of cities of refuge was (Dt. 19:10) "so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance, and so guilt for blood be upon you". Innocent blood would not be shed because there was a system of judging and punishing those who shed it (Dt. 19:12). If Israel were indifferent to preparing the way for others’ salvation, then innocent blood would be shed and they would be responsible for it (Dt. 19:10). This is powerful stuff. Indifference to providing others with a way of escape from their sin and death means we are actually guilty of their lack of salvation. And yet we tend to think that committed sin is all we have to worry about / avoid. The lesson here, however, bites far more caustically and insistently into our comfort zone. If we are indifferent to marking out the way of escape for others, their blood will be upon our heads. Our chief excuses for not witnessing enthusiastically basically amount to laziness, indifference, not getting our act together because we don’t see we have to… when actually, there is an intense urgency about our task.

Num 35:18 Or if he struck him with a weapon of wood in the hand, by which a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death-
The slayer of innocent blood was to be slain without pity: "you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with you" (Dt. 19:13). But David seems to have stepped up to a higher level when he told the woman of Tekoah that he would protect her son from revenge murder, after he had slain another man (2 Sam. 14:8-10). The woman pointed out that if her son was slain, the inheritance would be lost in her husband's name. Here was a case where two principles seemed to be at variance: the need to slay the guilty, and the need to preserve the inheritance. The higher level was to forgive the slayer of innocent blood, even though the Law categorically stated that he should be slain.

Num 35:19 The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death. When he meets him, he shall put him to death-
The idea of blood vendettas, whereby a family member of the murdered has a legal right to hunt and kill the murderer, is widespread in primitive societies. Yet the Law of Moses seems to make provision for it. Seeing that God is presented as the ultimate avenger (see on Num. 31:2), this may seem strange. Instead of grace and forgiveness being inculcated, revenge seems allowed. Yet the desire to repay murder with murder is so great within primitive society that it seems God made a concession to this weakness, and allowed it, whilst seeking to control it from being applied in any wrongful or doubtful context. The fact God makes concessions to human weakness doesn’t mean we should eagerly make use of them; the spirit of all God’s revelation to us in His word is that we should forgive and leave vengeance to Him.

Num 35:20 If he thrust him from hatred, or hurled at him, lying in wait, so that he died-
Dt. 19:6 defines this in more detail. The person was innocent of intentional murder "was not worthy of death because he didn’t hate him in time past". We note that hatred of a neighbour was to be the reason for death. John appears to have this in mind when he reasons that hatred of our brother is effectively a living death sentence (1 Jn. 2:11; 4:20). It was to be that "whoever hates his brother is a murderer", not a manslaughterer (1 Jn. 3:15). And that hatred can be in someone's heart, even if they have not killed the object of their hatred. This is the principle which is taught here.

Num 35:21 or in enmity struck him with his hand, so that he died; he who struck 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-
As Hosea ‘redeemed’ Gomer in His attempt to force through His fantasy for her (Hos. 3:1), so Yahweh is repeatedly described in Isaiah as Israel’s go’el , redeemer (Is. 41:14; Is. 43:14; Is. 44:6,24; Is. 47:4; Is. 48:17; Is. 49:7,26; Is. 54:5,8). The redeemer could redeem a close relative from slavery or repurchase property lost during hard times (Lev. 25:25,26, 47-55; Ruth 2:20; Ruth 3:9,12). The redeemer was also the avenger of blood (Num. 35:9-28; Josh. 20:3,9). All these ideas were relevant to Yahweh’s relationship to Judah in captivity. But the promised freedom didn’t come- even under Nehemiah, Judah was still a province within the Persian empire. And those who returned complained: “We are slaves this day in the land you gave…” (Neh. 9:36). The wonderful prophecies of freedom and redemption from slavery weren’t realized in practice, because of the selfishness of the more wealthy Jews. And how often is it that the freedom potentially enabled for those redeemed in Christ is in practice denied them by their autocratic and abusive brethren?

Num 35:22 But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or hurled on him anything without lying in wait-
As discussed on :20, the essential difference between manslaughter and murder was whether or not there was "enmity" or hatred in the heart. Time and again, God's law judges matters of the heart, in a way which no human, secular law ever could.

Num 35:23 or with any stone, by which a man may die, not seeing him, and cast it on him, so that he died, and he was not his enemy, neither sought his harm-
Secular law would go into questions as to whether the man had taken due reasonable precautions, and judge him accordingly. But that aspect isn't considered under Divine law. The simple division was over the question of whether or not the person had intentionally harmed another, and whether he had previously had hatred in his heart for the person (:22). Questions of 'But did you take precautions? Were you careful enough?' were totally made irrelevant by the immense value God gives to the question of the state of heart.   

Num 35:24 then the congregation shall judge between the striker and the avenger of blood according to these ordinances-
But Israel were not to avenge (Lev. 19:18). But they could avenge, and provisions were made for their human desire to do so in some cases (see too Num. 35:12). These provisions must also be seen as a modification of the command not to murder. The highest level was not to avenge; but for the harshness of men's hearts, a concession was made in some cases, and on God's prerogative. We have no right to assume that prerogative. Rather than continually make use of God’s many concessions to human weakness, we should seek to live on a higher level.

Num 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. He shall dwell therein until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil-
The death of the High Priest enabled the ‘guilty’ person to be totally freed because the principle that death was required to atone for death had been thus fulfilled (:33)- as if in his death, the High Priest was taking upon himself the guilt of the sin of murder, as a total representative of the sinner. In this we see foreshadowed the representative nature of Christ’s death for us.

The command "You shall not kill" in Ex. 20:13 must be understood in the context of a situation where the same Law also commanded certain sinners to be put to death within the community, and at times Israel were Divinely commanded and enabled to kill others outside of the community. We have to look, therefore, for a more specific meaning for this commandment- and it seems it is speaking specifically of blood revenge, killing the person who murdered one of your relatives. According to Num. 35:25-28, if the murder was unintentional, i.e. manslaughter rather than murder, then the person could flee to a city of refuge lest he be slain by the avenger of blood. There is no guidance for the avenger of blood in these 'cities of refuge' passages; rather is there the assumption that he might well attempt to take revenge even for manslaughter, and in this case the unintentional murderer should flee from him into a city of refuge. But clearly enough, this was not God's will- for "You shall not kill". But such is God's grace that He built into His law a recognition that His people would fail. This isn't what we would expect of a 2+2=4 God, where broken commandments are to be punished and period. In this case, we see here a tacit recognition even within the Mosaic Law that the commandments- in this case "You shall not kill"- wouldn't always be obeyed, and therefore extra legislating was added to enable this situation to be coped with. This isn't only an example of God's sensitivity to human sin and weakness of hot blood [although it is that]. It's an insight into how the very structure of His law is such that He understands human weakness, and is eager to ensure that it hurts others as little as possible. No more human 'god' would have dreamed this up. This grace has the stamp of the ultimately Divine, and any attempt to understand it within the frames of literalistic, legalistic analysis are doomed to failure.

Num 35:26 But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the border of his city of refuge where he flees-
These borders are defined in :4 as 2000 cubits from the foursquare city wall of the Levitical city; and the cities of refuge were Levitical cities. The Levitical towns were representations of the altar, which is repeatedly described as foursquare (Ex. 27:1; 38:1; 30:2 cp. Rev. 21:16). The Levites were to have towns which were effectively the local altar for the people. Hence the manslayer could flee to those towns as if fleeing to an altar. And that city of refuge represents finally the Lord Jesus (Heb. 6:18). Going out from it is therefore rather like leaving Him.

Num 35:27 and the avenger of blood find him outside of the border of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kill the manslayer; he shall not be guilty of blood-
This ruling was in order to point up the importance of the cities of refuge, and the need to take manslaughter seriously. Even if in fact the avenger of blood was acting in a morally deficient way. For slaying a morally innocent man out of personal anger and blood lust, not in order to cleanse the land of innocent blood, was surely far below ideal behaviour.

Num 35:28 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 into the land of his possession-
One day, the manslayer who wandered outside the city of refuge could be slain; but the next he couldn't be, because the High Priest had died. This was to point up the huge significance of the death of the High Priest. This was clearly presented as a kind of atonement through death, and served no practical purpose apart from to point ahead to the atoning death of the great High Priest to come, the Lord Jesus.

Num 35:29 These things shall be for a statute and ordinance to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings-
"Throughout your generations" is a kind of way of saying 'for ever', but "in your dwellings" may suggest we are to interpret it as meaning 'for as long as you live in the land'. The significance of Israel being deported from their land was therefore that effectively the law of Moses had thereby been ended. And the destruction of the temple, tabernacle furnishings, the loss of the ark and Biblical priesthood, all meant that it was obvious that the law could no longer function. It effectively ended well before the death of the Lord Jesus, so the Israelite wanting relationship with God had to return to the promises to Abraham for that basis of relationship. And those promises were the essence of the new covenant. It was the Lord's death which confirmed the new covenant.

Num 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-
Insisting on more than one witness before accepting the truth of an allegation meant that gossip and slander were limited; and Jesus applies this principle to dealing with disputes within His church (Mt. 18:16). Although His teaching about not condemning our brethren meant that He didn't advocate as it were 'putting to death', but rather stern rebuke and damage limitation. Those who served other gods had to die on the testimony of two or three witnesses. This idea is twice alluded to in the New Testament in the context of making the decision to cease fellowship with someone (Mt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1). The implication is that death under the Old Covenant pointed forward to first century church discipline under the New Covenant. But we must note that the reason for this was serving other gods and wilful departing from covenant relationship with the Lord- not minor reasons. And yet the Lord appears to go a step beyond this; for I detect in Mt. 18:16 a reference to this law, but He goes on to suggest that the higher level in interpersonal offences is not to apply this but to simply forgive.

Num 35:31 Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death; but he shall surely be put to death-
"Ransom" is the word for atonement or covering, kapher. There is a position where there is no atonement possible. And yet David was at this point- there was no sacrifice or fine to get him out of his guilt over the sin with Uriah. But the 'sureness' of the command here was by grace not carried out, just as the 'sure' promise of death in the day Adam ate the fruit was not carried out. Possibly God factored in the way that David had not hated Uriah in his heart in the past; see on :20,23.

Num 35:32 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-
We died and rose with Christ, if we truly believe in His representation of us and our connection with Him, then His freedom from sin and sense of conquest will be ours; as the man guilty of blood was to see in the death of the High Priest a representation of his own necessary death, and thereafter was freed from the limitations of the city of refuge (Num. 35:32,33).

Num 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 therein, but by the blood of him who shed it-
Yet see on :31. Note how blood is a symbol of both life and also death (Gen. 37:26; Num. 35:19,33; Lev. 20:9). Both the Lord's death and His life form a covenant / testament / will for us to obey- in both baptism and then in living out the death and life in our daily experience. We cannot be passive to it. Gal. 3:15; Heb. 9:16 and other passages liken the blood of Christ to a covenant; and yet the Greek word used means definitely the last will and testament of a dead man. His blood is therefore an imperative to us to do something; it is His will to us, which we must execute. Thus His death, His blood, which is also a symbol of His life, becomes the imperative to us for our lives and living in this world.

Num 35:34 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’-
The implication is that if Israel were morally defiled, then Yahweh would be unable to dwell in the midst of them. Seeing they lived in the land of Canaan, this would mean that He would have to depart from that land. And that is the significance of Ezekiel's visions of the shekinah glory of Yahweh departing from the sanctuary and forsaking the land. The idea is not that the land of Israel was defiled in some metaphysical sense.  The defilement was clearly related to the moral defilement of the people within the land. Hence Lev. 18:24,25 Don’t defile yourselves in any of these things; for in all these the nations which I am casting out before you were defiled. The land was defiled; therefore I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out her inhabitants". But there was no ritual of cleansing the physical land; rather was the land intended to bring forth great harvests in reflection of Israel's obedience to the covenant.