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[Bamidbar 35 Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB)]

1 And Yahweh spoke unto Moshe in the plains of Moav [Moab] by Yarden [Jordan] near Yericho, saying,

2 Command the children of Israel [Bnei Yisroel], that they give unto the Levites [Levi'im] of the inheritance [from the nachalah] of their possession cities [achuzzah towns] to dwell in; and ye shall give also unto the Levites [Levi'im] suburbs for the cities round about them [open pasturelands around the towns].


The Levites' relation to the tithes as "a heave offering" (Num. 18 : 24) made it plain that they, like the priests, had a dual role, and often acted in the symbolism of the Law as types of God as well as of the people. They were "the priests, the Levites", as the Law repeatedly called them (e.g., Deut. 17: 9), and as such frequently acted as His representatives in Israel in the discharge of duties which, though they were properly the responsibility of the High Priest, were too numerous and too extensive for him to be able to attend to them all. They were the custodians of the written Law (Deut. 17: 18; 19 : 17), and the spiritual instructors of the people (Lev. l0 : I I ; Deut. 24 : 8), "for the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts" (Mal. 2 : 7)·

The Levites were thus much more than an objective representation of Israel. It is in the light of that fact that the full moral significance emerges of God's words to Moses:

"Command the children of Israel that they give unto the Levites of the inheritance of their possession cities to dwell in" (Num. 35 : 2).

These cities, numbering forty-eight in all, had to be distributed all over the Land, and contributed by the various tribes according to the principle of proportional representation.

"From them that have many ye shall give many; but from them that have few ye shall give few; every one shall give of his cities unto the Levites according to his inheritance which he inheriteth" (Num. 35 : 8).

The didactic purpose of this arrangement was obvious. The command to Israel to give place among them for the Levites "to dwell", was but a restatement of the principle embodied in the Tabernacle -

"Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them".

It was merely a case of adapting that principle to suit fresh circumstances, the moral lesson remaining the same, namely, that Israel as a whole was meant to constitute itself a fit abode for God. Each tribe was to play its part according to its resources; this meant that each individual was likewise to further the great moral purpose, implicit in Israel's calling, to the limit of his gifts and powers.

As the teachers of the people the Levites were to urge each and all to co-operate in the great endeavour to provide a spiritual habitation for God - and in so far as their own revenues depended largely on the spirituality of the people as a whole they had every inducement to do their duty faithfully! They had to see that all the cities in their locality became like their own - holy to the Lord. Only if they in fact became so could the nation fulfil the symbolism of the Lightstand by witnessing for God (as His Priestly People) to the nations around, as "the priests the Levites" themselves did to their fellow Israelites. *

6 And among the cities [towns] which ye shall give unto the Levites [Levi'im] there shall be 6 cities for refuge, which ye shall appoint for the manslayer [rotze'ach], that he may flee thither [to there]: and to them ye shall add 42 cities [ir].


The pre-eminent Levitical cities were the Cities of Refuge.

There were six of these, three on either side Jordan, each strategically placed so as to be easily accessible from any part of the particular natural division of the Land in which it was located (Num. 35 : 6, 14; Deut. 4: 41-43; Joshua 20: 7-8). Provision was made for their number to be increased, if need be, to nine (Deut. 19 : 8-9), again to ensure that access to them should always be swift and easy; and, as an added precaution, it was also decreed that special roads should be built to converge on them (Deut. 19 : 3). The reason for these special regulations, and the care required in observing them, lay in the fact that these cities were intended to serve as asylums for any who were guilty of accidental homicide.

The Sixth Commandment categorically outlawed murder: the Book of the Covenant, in keeping with its purpose, next prescribed the penalty for it. "He that smiteth a man so that he die shall surely be put to death" (Exod. 21 : 12). This law, being at once so drastic and so general in character, naturally required qualification, which it in fact received. The fatal blow might easily be unintentional and purely accidental; this was duly taken into account, and provision was made for the exemption of the accidental killer from forfeiting his own life in requital for his offence.

This was done in such a way that his offence was in no way minimized because it happened to be unintentional: its gravity was rather emphasized. This was done by making his escape from death contingent upon his taking asylum in a City of Refuge. "If a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee" (Exod. 21 : 13). The eventual provision of the six cities was the application of this earlier law.

The Law, in making these special arrangements, had to take account of the fact that the right of asylum might be abused by a wanton slayer. Toleration of such an abuse was therefore strictly forbidden. "But if man come presumptuously upon his neighbour to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die" (Exod. 21 : 14). Yet death was never to be inflicted until guilt had first been proved by scrupulously careful and just trial (N um. 35 : 16-'.2 I, 30; Deut. 19 : 15- I 9), though once guilt had been proved it had forthwith to be inflicted by the "avenger of blood". 

The latter would appear (if we take the usage of the Hebrew as a guide) to have been normally the next of kin to the deceased. Yet that he acted strictly in an official capacity and was authorized to serve as public executioner only by special appointment seems equally certain. Otherwise many a wrongfully accused man would himself be murdered before he could say a word in his own defence, and the purpose of the murder laws far from being furthered would be stultified.

In the judgment of the Law killing was so serious a crime that capital punishment was prescribed even in cases where a farmer's criminal negligence resulted in the goring of a man to death by his bull (Exod.2 1: 28-29)' In this particular case it did, however, recognize the difference between negligence and malice to the extent of permitting the commutation of the death penalty to a fine in the case of the former (Exod. 2 I : 30). In the case of malicious killing, on the other hand, no commutation was tolerated: "Ye shall take no satisfaction for the life ofa murderer, which is guilty of death : but he shall be surely put to death" (Num. 35 : 31). Commutation to a fine was likewise forbidden in the case of the unintentional killer. The reason for this lay in the fact that his own hand had been responsible for another's death. For him escape from death by seeking asylum in a City of Refuge was all that was allowed. "He shall flee unto one of those cities, and live" (Deut. 19 : 5).

There the fugitive killer had to stay. *

11 Then ye shall appoint you arim to be arei miklat (cities of refuge) for you; that the rotze' ach [slayer] may flee to there, which killeth any nefesh bishegagah [person] (unintentionally, accidently).

Yet what had the Law to say in the allegory of the murder laws to those who were sinners despite themselves? It intended such to see themselves typified by the unintentional slayer of his brother. The provision of a City of Refuge thus became full of meaning: it signified that God had compassion on the weak and erring in Israel, and made provision for their needs. Yet in assuring them of His mercy it contrived at the same time to uphold His holiness. *

19 The Go'el HaDahm [revenger of blood] himself shall slay the rotze'ach [murderer]; when he meeteth him, he shall slay him.

This arrangement allowed his condemnation to be as representative of the entire nation as was practicable in the circumstances. Like the Sabbath-breaker in the wilderness he was, in effect, put to death by "all the congregation" when the revenger of blood carried out its sentence (Num. 15 : 32-36). He was, moreover put to death for the same reason: he had "despised the word of the Lord" and had therefore to be "utterly cut off".

The representative disowning of his crime by the whole congregation was in fact essential to the allegory: it enabled his execution to serve as a ritual repudiation by the entire nation of sin as embodied in, and symbolized by, the murderer. He had "come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile" (Exod. 21 : 14). Like the Sabbath-breaker he was thus a perfect type of the wanton sinner. In the light of that fact his doom - 'he shall be surely put to death" was a stern and salutary warning to all in Israel to eschew evil and flee from wrong-doing. *

27 And the Go'el HaDahm [revenger of blood] find him outside the geval (borders, city limit) of his ir miklat [refuge], and the Go'el HaDahm [ revenger of blood] kill the rotze'ach [slayer], he shall not be guilty of dahm [blood],

If he strayed beyond a thousand cubits of its walls he exposed himself to arrest by the avenger of blood and inevitable death in consequence (Num. 35 : 1-5; 26-'.29)· Not until the death of the existing High Priest could he recover the right to proceed beyond that limit and return with impunity to his own home (Num. 35 : 25-28).

These regulations covered every aspect of homicide and made its enormity plain for all to see. Israel had to observe them most strictly.

...It was insistent that the fugitive was not to stray beyond the limits of the City upon risk of death, for his sin, though it had been unintentional, was still sin; and unless he respected the restrictions on his liberty implicit in asylum within the City he was in effect presuming upon God's mercy and flouting His hatred of sin.

Such an attitude was incompatible with acceptable worship and the Law would have men know it - hence the rule that, if the avenger of blood found him "without the borders of his city of refuge", and killed him, he was to be regarded as solely responsible for his own doom, "because he should have remained in the city of his refuge until the death of the high priest" (Num. 35 : 26-28).

The Law thus spoke of pardon for sin but without abating one jot God's abhorrence of it. Mere lapse of time did not suffice to restore to the fugitive his liberty: not until "the death of the high priest" could "the slayer return to the land of his possession".

How the pious in Israel must have pondered the meaning of that strange arrangement: a man deserving of death granted amnesty upon the death of another, and he the High Priest! What could be signified by this mystery? We can be sure that none could, or did, resolve the enigma without first understanding the real meaning of the High Priesthood and the sacrifices. *

33 So ye shall not pollute HaAretz [land] wherein ye are; for dahm [blood] pollutes HaAretz; and kapporah [cleansed] cannot be made for HaAretz for the shefach dahm [ blood that is shed] therein, except by the dahm [blood] of him that committed shefach dahm (shedding of blood).

Blood, we see, was as abhorrent to God who dwelt in the Land, as corruption in the Camp in which He walked. The parallel is too exact to be without significance. We know that in the case of the Camp corruption was a symbol of sin: so we can safely conclude the same to have been true of shed blood in the case of the Land. It is not difficult to find the reason why it came to have this symbolic value.

Sin (as the story of Eden proved conclusively) is a killer, visiting death on those in its power. A murderer, therefore, merely hastened Sin's inexorable work in man, and brought his victim all the quicker into the clutches of the dread enemy death. In killing another he ranged himself on Sin's side, and acted as Sin's agent.

In the judgment of the Law he did this so effectively as actually to become a personification of Sin, and was treated as such in its symbolism.

Law and Grace Ch 11

34 Defile [ make not tameh] therefore the land [HaAretz] which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I Yahweh dwell among the children of Israel [Bnei Yisroel].


A grievous complication arose when, with all the good intention in the world, the authorities sought to bring the miscreant to book but could not identify or trace him because the crime had been unobserved. The rule still held good- "blood it defileth the land": unhappily it could not be cleansed on this occasion by "the blood of him that shed it".

To allow for, this, and to enable the nation to disown the crime and thereby fulfil the "allegorical purpose of the murder laws, a special ritual was devised. For simplicity (and justifiably in most cases) the murderer was presumed to be someone from the nearest city. This was represented by its elders; while they, in turn, stood not only for the city but also for the nation as a whole on the familiar principle of representation which we find so often in operation in the Law.

The elders had to take "an heifer which hath not been wrought with and which hath not drawn the yoke" (Deut. 21 : 1-3). They were then to bring the heifer to an unfrequented and uncultivated dell through which ran a brook, and there break its neck in the presence of "the priests the sons of Levi". (The latter doubtless came from the nearest Levitical city, and in the ritual clearly symbolized God as a witness to the transactions.)

"And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley and they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Be merciful, 0 Lord, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel's charge, and the blood shall be forgiven them" (Deut. 21 : 4-8 ; R.V. ver. 6, "whose neck was broken").

The R.V. makes it clear that the heifer was in no sense a sacrifice.

Its blood was not drawn off or manipulated in any way. It was killed by the simple breaking of its neck.

What then was its function? We can at once conclude that it did not symbolize the murderer from the fact that it had to be a virgin animal and unused to the yoke, i.e., a perfect symbol of purity and innocence. It must therefore have stood for the victim. The latter had not been sinless in the absolute sense so there was no insistence that the heifer should be 'without blemish" as in the case of an atoning sacrifice. Yet his untimely death had been unjust and undeserved. To allow for his innocence in this respect the animal prescribed to typify him had to be a virgin cow.

If the heifer represented the victim its death must have represented his murder. Every aspect of the ceremonial confirms the accuracy of this view. The crime had been unobserved and for that reason the criminal had been able to flee unnoticed and escape his just deserts. In keeping with that fact a deserted spot had to be chosen as the site for the special ceremony prescribed in such cases. There the heifer was to be suddenly struck down as the victim himself had been. Then, as it lay there dead, the elders had to protest their Innocence on behalf of the City and nation as a whole.

This they did ritually by washing their hands over the carcase in water from the brook, and orally by disowning all responsibility for the crime, with the Levites (i.e., God) as witness. The Levites, hearing the elders' appeal to God for the merciful pardon of the nation whom He had redeemed, doubtless concluded the ceremony by declaring the sin forgiyen (so far as the innocent were concerned) and pronouncing the blessing which they were qualified (as types of God) to give "in the name of the Lord" (Deut. 21 : 5). The stream was perhaps regarded as symbolically bearing the nation's guilt away in its purifying waters.

The murder laws thus had a transparently didactic purpose. They most effectively taught how defiling and dangerous was the presence of sin and of sinners in the midst of the nation; Their lesson did not stop short at the execution of literal murderers but was infinitely wider in its scope. In all things, in fact, they were to heed God's warning, " Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit wherein I dwell: for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel"

Law of Moses Ch 11