Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Numbers 35

Numbers 35: Towns for the Levites, and Cities of Refuge


In this chapter, the LORD hands down some rules for “cities of refuge,” as well as outlining how many cities the Levites are to be given in the Promised Land, since they don’t have any land of their own. There are also some rules about murder, and murderers, since the chapter is already talking about “cities of refuge” anyway. Note that these rules have been grouped together topically; they’re not necessarily in the order that they’re presented in the text. Also, for the sake of clarity, I’m sometimes using the term “the ACCUSED” when I refer to someone who killed someone else—either accidentally or on purpose.
  • Towns for the Levites
    • Since the Levites weren’t to have any land of their own, the Israelites were to allocate 48 towns for the Levites, out of their land.
    • Each town was also to have pastureland, for the Levites’ flocks; the pastureland was to be 810km2. (It was to be a square area, 900m long on each side.)
    • Since these towns were being taken from the rest of the Israelites, and given to the Levites, they were to be fair when deciding how many towns to take from each tribe; a tribe that had many towns would give more towns to the Levites, and a tribe that had fewer towns would give fewer.
  • Cities of Refuge
    • Six of the towns given to the Levites were to be designated “cities of refuge.” If someone accidentally killed another person, they could flee to a city of refuge, to escape the “avenger” of the person who died. (More on this in the section on murder.)
    • Since the Israelites were split, with tribes on either side of the Jordan River, there were to be three cities of refuge on each side of the river.
    • Cities of refuge were not just for Israelites; aliens living in the country would fall under the same laws.
    • If an Israelite accidentally killed someone, and fled to a city of refuge, he had to stay there, inside the city, until the death of the High Priest. If the ACCUSED ever ventured outside of the city, and the avenger of blood found him and killed him, the avenger could kill him, without being guilty of murder. Only after the death of the High Priest would the ACCUSED ever be allowed to return to his own property.
  • Rules regarding murder
    • Anyone who struck another person with an object, killing that person, would be considered a murderer, and was to be put to death. The text gives some examples of such an object: An iron object, a stone that could kill, or a wooden object.
    • In addition:
      If anyone with malice aforethought shoves another or throws something at him intentionally so that he dies or if in hostility he hits him with his fist so that he dies, that person shall be put to death; he is a murderer. (verse 20–21a)
    • A murderer was to be put to death by “the avenger of blood” (verse 21b). The text doesn’t make clear exactly who the “avenger of blood” would be; my guess is that this would be a relative of the deceased, but I don’t have much to base that assumption on.
    • If the ACCUSED killed someone accidentally—“…if without hostility someone suddenly shoves another or throws something at him unintentionally or, without seeing him, drops a stone on him that could kill him, and he dies” (verses 22–23)—then he could flee to a city of refuge, to be safe from the avenger of blood. The assembly was to judge between the avenger of blood and the ACCUSED, and, if they found the ACCUSED innocent, he had to return to the city of refuge.
    • If a person was on trial for murder, there had to be at least two witnesses giving testimony for the person to be put to death for the murder.
    • If a person was found guilty of murder, no ransom was to be accepted, to buy back his life; he was to be put to death.
    • If the ACCUSED fled to a city of refuge, no ransom was to be accepted, to allow him to return to his property; he was to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest.
At the end of the chapter is a summary:
Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites. (verses 33–34)


I’ve always found these rules to be very fair. However, in going through them for this blog entry, I’ve come across some things I don’t really get. (That’s the purpose of going through the Bible in-depth, of course; you think about things more than you would with just a cursory reading.) Here are some things I’m not clear on, in regards to these rules.
  • For the case where the ACCUSED used an object, I’m not sure if these rules are about people who intentionally killed someone, and happened to use an object, or if these rules are stating that hitting someone with such an object, even if you didn’t mean to kill him, if it resulted in death, would count as murder. (It took me three tries to word this paragraph properly, and it’s still not clear. If only I had gone to law school, maybe it would be easier to blog about this chapter…)
  • Second, I’m not sure about the “avenger of blood.” Was this an officially designated role, or was this some kind of relative of the deceased? The way the chapter is worded, it very much makes it sound like it’s a relative of the deceased, because the text makes it sound like this person might lie in wait for the person who killed the deceased.
  • Which brings me to the cities of refuge. It sounds like the residents of such a city would have to actively protect the ACCUSED, by keeping the avenger of blood outside the city walls. Also, I don’t know why the ACCUSED had to stay in a city of refuge until the death of the High Priest.
  • I always thought it was very fair, to state that there had to be at least two witnesses giving testimony before the ACCUSED could be put to death. That way, you couldn’t maliciously get someone accused and killed by calling him a murderer. But when I read it this time—and I don’t know why it never occurred to me before—I suddenly thought: What if the ACCUSED killed the victim when there were no witnesses? I guess that person would remain alive, and have to live in a city of refuge. Is that one of the reasons why the ACCUSED had to stay in a city of refuge until the death of the High Priest? To cover this case, so that even if a person “got away with murder,” and wasn’t executed, he would at least have to remain in the city of refuge, sort of like a jail sentence? If so, it seems like a very lenient sentence for murder, and it doesn’t seem fair to someone who accidentally killed someone, and ended up in the city of refuge…

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