Bible Commentary: Numbers 35-36

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Bible Commentary

Numbers 35-36

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Cities for the Levites 

Why are the Levites in a category all to themselves? The answer is that they are not to make their living off the land, but, rather, from their service to God and the rest of the nation. And this requires an element of faith—that God will inspire the other tribes to fulfill their responsibility in supplying the Levites' needs. Each of the tribes of Israel is to provide cities for the Levites' living quarters, as well as surrounding countryside for their animals. The Levites, of whom there were 23,000 males, are assigned to 48 cities, each about the size of a football stadium surrounded by around 750 acres of "common-land." That may sound large by today's standards, but the entire land area for all the Levites amounted to approximately 36,000 acres out of a total of more than five million acres for all Israel.

God instructs Moses to appoint six of the Levite cities to be cities of refuge. When someone is murdered, members of the victimized family may choose an "avenger of blood"—a single individual—from among themselves to execute the murderer. The city of refuge provides asylum for anyone who fears the dead person's relatives will seek revenge before there can be a fair trial—as well as for those cleared of murder in a trial and found guilty of accidental death, or manslaughter. The congregation is to judge between these two situations, whether the crime was strictly accidental or if it was murder (Numbers 35:24). If deemed murder, the offender is put to death. If manslaughter, the killer is delivered to one of the six cities of refuge, there to remain until the death of the high priest—at which time he may leave a free man. But if he leaves the city of refuge before that, the avenger of blood will be allowed to kill him and remain guiltless. It may sound harsh to us today to think that someone who killed another person by accident could himself be legally killed by the victim's relative. Yet in practical fact it demonstrates the high value God places on human life and that God holds everyone responsible for his or her actions. We all have a serious responsibility to be sure that our actions never harm or injure others, because under God's legal system a person's carelessness could bring a severe—and possibly fatal—penalty.

Furthermore, God made some concessions to human weakness in the legal system He gave to the Israelites—realizing that they were a carnally motivated people (compare Matthew 19:8). These, in fact, can serve to demonstrate God's wisdom. Consider the appointment of an avenger of blood. Human nature, God knew quite well, demanded revenge. Without rules governing the exacting of it in situations such as that just described, family or tribal warfare could have broken out like the Hatfields and McCoys of American history, with no end to the bloodshed that defiles the land (Numbers 35:33). God said, "You must not defile the land where you are going to live, for I [will] live there myself. I am the Lord, who lives among the people of Israel" (verse 34, NLT).

Inheritances to Remain Within Each Tribe 

The daughters of Zelophehad, himself a grandson of Gilead of the tribe of Manasseh, had made an unusual appeal back in chapter 27—to inherit their father's land since he had left no surviving sons. And God gave Moses the judgment that the daughters were to receive the inheritance. But there was a complicating factor in this matter, which the Gileadite leaders among Manasseh brought before Moses. It had been good that the brotherless daughters of their tribe had been granted an inheritance. But what happens when they marry men from other tribes? Couldn't this gradually drain away the inheritance of Manasseh? And couldn't the same thing happen in other tribes? So God gives Moses another judgment. Women heirs among the ancient Israelites are permitted to marry only within their own tribe. "Thus no inheritance shall change hands from one tribe to another" (Numbers 36:9).