Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

Numbers 35

Verses 1-8

Numbers 35:1-8

Give unto the Levites . . . cities to dwell in.

The Levites’ inheritance

1. Cities were allowed them with their suburbs (Numbers 35:2). They were not to have any ground for tillage; they needed not to sow or reap, or gather into barns, for their heavenly Father fed them with the tithe of the increase of other people’s labours, that they might the more closely attend the study of the law, and might have more leisure to teach the people; for they were not fed thus easily that they might live in idleness, but that they might give themselves wholly to the business of their profession and not be entangled in the affairs of this life.

2. These cities were to be assigned to them out of the possessions of each tribe (Numbers 35:8).

The Levite’s home

The history of this tribe of Levi is fraught with many lessons for Christian workers. They were selected for the priesthood of the children of Israel, and on that account were separated from the rest of their brethren, and God ordained that they should have no inheritance among the children of Israel, and reminded them that God was their inheritance. But it is well for us to remember that it was not always so. At the commencement of their history this tribe of Levi lay underneath a curse (Genesis 49:5). But there came in the history of the tribe a crisis. Moses had ascended to the top of the hill, and during his forty days’ absence the children of Israel made a molten calf, and bowed down to the idol. Moses came down from the hill-top, and at once standing amid the camp he shouted, “Who is on the Lord’s side, let him come over to me”; and all the tribe of Levi gathered themselves together unto Moses. It was the turning-point in their lives, they seized their opportunity, and from that time they were the tribe whom God chose for His service. But the call to Levi was not simply a call to privilege, it was a call to work. God calls not to idleness. When once you feel the consecrated hand of God laid upon you, you may be sure that He has work for you, and He has already commanded the help you need. And from that time that special characteristic of the tribe of Levi, which had in former times led them into sin, now is purified by God for His own special service. What was that characteristic? If I were to sum it up in one phrase, it would be this--intense sociability. Their very name, Levi, signifies the joined ones. It was this yearning for companionship which led Levi to join himself to the bloodthirsty Simeon, and to reap the vengeance which Jacob perpetuates upon his death-bed. It is a very important characteristic; it is a characteristic which the Christian ministry needs, which every individual Christian ought to possess. A Christian man should be a man of intense sympathy, and have his tendrils going forth to all around him. But there is another characteristic which is equally necessary to a true and faithful servant of God. And it is to produce this characteristic that God’s dealing with the children of Levi seems to be bent, namely, the power to stand alone. And not until these two characteristics are blended together is the Levite fit for the service of God. These are the true Christian servants--men who are ready to go forth to all, and yet men who are able, bravely, to take their stand alone, because they are joined to God. And now I want you to think of this one ordinance laid down with regard to these men, namely, the provision God had made in this chapter for their homes. We might have imagined it would have been better, as God had appointed this tribe to be workers for Him, for them to live about the temple of Jerusalem, so that they might be at hand to minister within its sacred courts. But no, God lays down the distinct command that this tribe of Levi, which He has chosen for His own peculiar service, should be scattered among the tribes. There were four or five centres in every tribe where these Levites were to dwell. What is the reason of this strange provision? I think it was made partly for the sake of the people, and partly for the sake of the Levites. It was in the first place, because of the people. In the wilderness the children of Israel were not likely to forget God. They had the tabernacle in their centre ; the pillar of cloud or file was always to be seen in the very middle of the camp. But when they became settled down in the promised land, and received their promised inheritance, then indeed they would be scattered abroad, and then would arise the danger lest they should forget the Lord their God. And, therefore, God ordained that their teachers should go and live in the very midst of them, because He wanted to bring religion to their homes. And this, I believe, is God’s law, that His people should go and scatter themselves; not simply settle down in some place, but actually go and let their light shine before men even in the very darkest places of the earth. But if the provision was made for the tribes, I think it was actually made for the Levites. If they had all been gathered together at Jerusalem, these Levites would consider that their work began, continued, and ended in their attendance at the ordinances of the sanctuary; and God wanted to show them, as His ministers, they were not simply to deal with the sanctuary, but with the home life of His people--to carry His religion into their various towns and villages. Further than that, by thus scattering them in these different tribes, God provides here that they may learn that their homes are not to be simply for themselves, but they are to be, as it were, cities of refuge. And this ought to be a picture of our homes. Not only would God scatter us as Christian men and women throughout the nations of the world, but each one of you has your home, and you want it to be a place where there shall be fellowship--a true Hebron. True, the Christian man’s home is in the midst of this world with all its defilements; but it is a home of fellowship, it is a royal city, where Jesus Christ reigns as King. (E. A. Stuart, M. A.)

Verses 9-34

Numbers 35:9-34

Ye shall appoint you cities, to be cities of refuge for you

The cities of refuge

I.
The position of the homicide exposed to the stroke of the avenger is a type of our position in our sin. Few positions in the drama of life could be more tragic than that of the manslayer as he looks upon his victim and turns to flee with the speed of desperation to the nearest of the refuge cities. And is our case any the less tragic--difficult as it may be to realise it? Is there any sin we have done that is not pursuing us, or whose stroke will be lighter at last than that of the avenger of blood? No law is so sure as that of retribution.

II. The position of the man-slayer with the city of refuge before him is a type of our position before the Cross.

III. The position of the manslayer within the city of refuge is a type of our position under the shelter of the Cross.

1. His safety lies in his remaining within the city. In proportion as a man forgets Christ, the avenging power of sin will find him out and bring darkness on his soul.

2. On the death of the high priest the manslayer may safely leave the refuge (Numbers 35:28). For then the arm of the avenger is arrested, and the whole land becomes as a city of refuge to the homicide. And was it not because in after years the death of God’s great High Priest should set men free from the condemnation of their sin? Here for the first time we find a hint of a greater sacrifice than bullock or goat--a hint that He who is High Priest is also Himself the sacrifice. (W. Roberts, M. A.)

The cities of refuge

I. Their design.

1. The first object aimed at in them was undoubtedly to save the condemned. The gospel is everything to a sinner, or it belies itself, it is nothing. It is either “a cunningly devised fable,” a mockery of human woes, or it is a great remedy in a desperate case, an antidote for a mortal poison, help in a total wreck, life for the dead.

2. These cities had, however, a second end in view--they were undoubtedly intended to uphold and honour the Divine law. The Lord Jesus Christ humbled Himself and died to “magnify His law and make it honourable”; to show His creatures, in the very utmost stretch of His love, how “glorious He is in holiness,” how determined to do or give up anything rather than suffer one of His commands to fail, rather than suffer the authority of His eternal statutes to be even suspected. Nothing establishes His law, nothing honours it, like His gospel; nothing goes half so far in proving its unchangeableness; the destruction of a universe could not have clothed it with such an awful glory.

II. We come now to the second point we proposed to consider--the means by which the protection of these cities was obtained.

1. The manslayer was, in the first instance, to enter one of them. It is one thing to have the name of Christ in our ears and on our lips, and another to have Christ Himself in our hearts, “the hope of glory.”

2. But it was not enough for the manslayer to enter the city of refuge; to secure his permanent safety, we are told in this chapter that he must abide in it. Within its walls he was safe; a step out of them, he was once more at the avenger’s mercy. And here we have another spiritual lesson taught us--the sinner who would be saved by Christ, must not only actually apply to Him for salvation, but must abide as a suppliant at His feet to his dying hour. And here we must stop; but the partial view we have taken of this ancient institution will remind us of the care which God manifested in it of two gracious objects. The first is the safety of the transgressor who seeks his safety in the way which God has prescribed. Another object secured in the appointment of these refuges, was the encouragement of the trembling offender. (C. Bradley, M. A.)

The cities of refuge

I. The names of the cities selected as places of refuge have been observed to convey, in the original Hebrew, some allusion to the offices which Christ bears to His Church, and will therefore demand our primary consideration. The name of the first city was Bezer in the wilderness, in the plain country of the Reubenites, which name, in the Hebrew language, means a stronghold, or fortified place, eminently calculated as a shelter to the distressed fugitive. The agreement between the name of this city and the office which the Lord Jesus Christ bears for His people, as their refuge and defence, may be very interestingly traced by observing the expression used, in reference to ibis subject, in Zechariah 9:12, where the same radical word is used: “Turn you to the strong hold, ye prisoners of hope.” Thus Christ is called a fortress, a place of defence for His people. The name of the second city was Ramoth, in Gilead, of the Gadites, which signifies high, or exalted, as though the fugitive manslayer when within the walls of the city, was raised out of danger into a place of security. Under the same radical word we find God saying, “I have laid help upon one that is mighty; I have exalted one chosen out of the people (Psalms 89:19). And “Him,” declares St. Peter, “hath God exalted with His right hand robe a Prince and a Saviour” (Acts 5:31). His seed are therefore not only a saved people, saved with a present salvation, but they are also raised up together with Him, and made to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. The third city was Golan, in Bashan, of the Manassites, a name implying joy, or revelation, a suitable description of the frame of that person’s mind who had escaped the avenger’s sword, and fitly portraying Him who is eminently the joy of His people. The above three cities were upon the other, or eastern, side of the river Jordan; and when the children of Israel were settled in the land of Canaan, the Lord, through Joshua, directed them to appoint three more cities of refuge on this, the western side of the river (see Joshua 20:1-9.). Accordingly they appointed Kedesh, in Galilee, in Mount Naphtali, whose name signifies holy, or set apart, which, in fact, all these cities were; for no avenger of blood dared to enter those sanctuaries in order to retaliate for the injury inflicted. As Kedesh, the holy city, was a sacred refuge to the unwitting manslayer, so Jesus, the Holy One of Israel, is a sanctified defence to His people. Again, the name of the fifth city of refuge was Shechem, in Mount Ephraim, a word signifying a shoulder, expressive of a power and readiness to bear burdens, and used in reference to magisterial and regal authority. Thus it is prophesied, concerning the Messiah, “The government shall be upon His shoulder” (Isaiah 9:6). And respecting the typical Eliakim, it was declared, “The key of the house of David will I lay upon His shoulder: so He shall open, and none shall shut; and He shall shut, and none shall open” (Isaiah 22:22). The last-named city, called Kirjath-arba (which is Hebron), in the mountain of Judah, a name signifying fellowship, or association. As the flier from vengeance shared in the privileges of the city of refuge, and dwelt as one with the inhabitants thereof, so those who have fled to Jesus for refuge dwell in communion with Him and with all His saints: they have fellowship with the Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ, and have access unto Him at all times.

II. Their convenience for the purpose for which they were selected.

1. They were so situated that there was scarcely any part of the land of Israel more remote than a day’s journey from some one of these cities, so that the distance was not too great for any one to escape thither. Placed, through the length of the land, on each side of the river Jordan, facility was thus afforded for crossing the river, if occasion required it, while the territory between the northern and southern boundaries of the country were regularly subdivided by them; the distance from the south border to Hebron, from Hebron to Shechem, from Shechem to Kadesh, and from Kadesh to the north border of the land, being nearly equal.

2. The way of access to these cities was also to be kept perfectly free from obstacles; as Moses commanded (Deuteronomy 19:3). The gospel is a highway, “the way of holiness: the unclean shall not pass over it; but the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein” (Isaiah 35:8). Is not, then, the access to our refuge easy and plain? And, further, all the obstacles which the law, our depraved nature, and the machinations of Satan had placed in the way, have been graciously removed by our merciful Forerunner and High Priest.

3. It may be observed, also, in connection with this part of our subject, that these cities of refuge were in the inheritance of the priests and Levites (see Joshua 21:1-45.); so that the unhappy manslayer might there receive the consolations of religion, and enjoy communion with those who were specially set apart for God’s service, the immediate attendants upon the altar. This may also be considered as an interesting and typical allusion to Him, who not only shelters from wrath and judgment, but guides our feet into the way of peace enriches our souls with spiritual knowledge, and gives everlasting consolation, and good hope, through grace.

4. Lastly, we may remark, that all these cities were situated upon hills; thus serving to direct the distressed person who was fleeing thither, and to encourage him with the hope that, although the last part of his flight was up hill, he would soon be in a place of safety. A striking comparison this, of Him whom “God hath exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins,” who, though once obscure and despised, is now highly exalted; who affirmed, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me”; and who now sends forth the savour of His name into all lands, declaring that “whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

III. The safety which they afforded. If once the unintentional manslayer entered into any one of these cities, the avenger of blood had no power to smite or kill him. Thus it is written in Joshua (20:4-6), “When he that doth flee,” &c. When we remark the particular directions given concerning these cities, and the repeated allusions made to them in various parts of Scripture, we may surely be warranted in concluding that they were, equally with other parts of the Jewish law, of a typical character. As such, therefore, we see in them an eminent type of the protection which Jesus affords to the distressed sinner, who is fleeing from the curse of the law, the penalty of death, and the wrath of God. No other prospect of relief is held out to the penitent transgressor, but in Christ. He is appointed by God the Father as the only way of escape from Divine vengeance. (R. S. Eaton, B. A.)

The Divine guardianship o/ human life

The various provisions of this law afford an impressive illustration of the Divine regard for human life.

I. In the institution of the cities of refuge as a provision that the life of an innocent person should not be taken away. The adaptation of these cities for this purpose appears in--

1. Their accessibility from all places. A reference to the map of Canaan will show that these cities were so situated that one of them could be reached in a few hours from any part of the country.

2. Their accessibility to all persons. “For the children of Israel, and for the stranger.” God’s regard is not simply for the life of the Israelite, but for the life of man as man.

II. In the laws by which the trial of the manslayer was to be conducted. The Divine guardianship of human life is manifested in these laws at least in two respects.

1. In the clear discrimination between intentional and unintentional manslaughter. “If he smite him with an instrument,” &c. (Numbers 35:16-24).

2. In the absolute necessity for the evidence of at least two witnesses before a man could be adjudged guilty of murder. One witness might be mistaken in his view of the case, or might be prejudiced against the homicide; hence the importance of the testimony of at least two witnesses in the trial of such cases.

III. In the punishment of the intentional manslayer. “The murderer shall surely be put to death” (Numbers 35:16-18; Numbers 35:21; Numbers 35:30). As an evidence of the regard of God for human life, this punishment has additional weight from two facts.

1. It could not be averted by any ransom. The crime was too heinous to be expiated by anything less than life itself.

2. It was insisted upon for the most solemn reason. The argument seems to be this: that the shedding of human blood defiled the land, that such defilement could be cleansed only by the blood of the murderer; that the Lord Himself dwelt in that land, and therefore it must be kept free from defilement; if the murder were committed, the murderer must be put to death. To spare the life of a murderer was to insult Jehovah by defiling the land wherein He dwelt.

IV. In the punishment of the unintentional manslayer. When it was proved on the trial that the manslayer was perfectly free from guilty designs, that he had slain another entirely by accident, even then he had to bear no light punishment. He must leave his estate and worldly interests, his home and his family, and dwell in the city of refuge. His dwelling there closely resembled imprisonment; for if he left the city, and its divinely appointed suburbs, the Goel, if he should come upon him, was at liberty to put him to death.

1. Respect human life--that of others, and your own also.

2. Guard against anger; for it leads to murder, and in the estimation of Heaven it is murder.

3. Cultivate brotherly kindness and Christian charity. (W. Jones.)

Security in Christ

The son of a chieftain of the Macgregors was killed in a scuffle at an inn on the moors of Glenorchy, by a young gentleman named Lamont. The manslayer mounted his horse and fled, and though sharply pursued, in the darkness of the night succeeded in reaching a house. It happened to be the house of Macgregor himself. “Save my life!” cried Lament to the chieftain, “men are after me to take it away.” “Whoever you are,” replied Macgregor, “while you are under my roof you are safe.” Very soon the pursuers arrived, and thundered at the gate. “Has a stranger just entered your house?” “He has; and what may be your business with him?. . . The man has killed your son! Give him up to our vengeance!” The terrible news filled the house with lamentation; but the chief with streaming tears said, “No; you cannot have the youth, for he has Macgregor’s word for his safety, and as God lives, while he is in my house he shall stay secure.” This story has been told for centuries to illustrate Highland honour. What shall we say of the older story, that illustrates Divine love? To Jew and Gentile, high and low, rich and poor, friend and enemy, the grace of Christ is free.

Hasting from danger

Can you be safe too soon? Can you be happy too soon? Certainly you cannot be out of danger of hell too soon; and, therefore, why should not our closing with Christ, upon His own terms, be our very next work? If the main business of our life is to flee from the wrath to come, as indeed it is (Matthew 3:9), and to flee for refuge in Jesus Christ, as indeed it is (Hebrews 6:18), then all delays are highly dangerous, The manslayer, when fleeing to the city of refuge before the avenger of blood, did not think he could reach the city too soon. Set your reason to work upon this matter ; put the case as it really is: I am fleeing from the wrath to come; the justice of God and the curses of the law are closely pursuing me; is it reasonable that I should sit down in the way to gather flowers or play with trifles? For such are all other concerns in this world, compared with our soul’s salvation. (J. Flavel.)

The nearest refuge

As the manslayer, being to haste for his life unto one of the cities of refuge, was ordered to flee unto that city which was nearest to him, so it is the duty and privilege of the poor sinners, when they see their miserable condition, to haste immediately unto Christ, the great Saviour; and unto that in Christ, which they have the clearest discerning of, and so, in that regard, is the nearest unto them as being a suitable relief for that part of their misery which most sensibly affects them. And thus some souls, being most sensibly touched with the guilt and filth of sin, have a more clear revelation of the blood of Christ, in its excellency and suitableness to cleanse from all sin, and are enabled to haste unto this, as the immediate refuge set before them. Other souls are more sensible of their misery, as naked creatures, and have a more clear discovery of Christ as a suitable, glorious remedy, in regard to His righteousness, and these are enabled to run in His name, “The Lord our Righteousness,” as the refuge that is next or most immediate unto them. And others, who have a more general sense of their misery, have a more general revelation of Christ’s excellency, and are enabled to flee unto Him for refuge, as a complete Saviour that is every way suitable to their case. Though the distinct actings of faith on Christ in all these vary, yet in the main they agree, inasmuch as it is one Christ that is believed on for justification and life. They all flee unto Christ for refuge, and so are all safe, though one flees unto Him under one consideration, and another under another, according to that revelation they have of Him as suitable to their case. For though the soul’s first actings of faith on Christ may more peculiarly respect one of His distinctive excellences than the rest, yet all are implied--faith acts towards a whole Christ. And those of His excellences, which were not at first so distinctly viewed and acted towards by the soul, are afterwards more fully discovered, and particularly dealt with. (Dutton on Justification.)
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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Numbers 35". The Biblical Illustrator. https://beta.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/numbers-35.html. 1905-1909. New York.