Moses assigns to the Levites select cities where they will maintain justice and protect the innocent.
Read Numbers 35
Here the matter of living accommodations for the Levites is taken up, beginning with a reminder that
- a) Moses was allotting the land, and
- b) Israel was on the eastern edge of the Jordan River in the former land of Moab when this land allotment took place.
And, in verse 2, we see that (as there were to be 48 cities set aside for the Levites) each tribe was to decide which cities they would give to the Levites as a permanent holding.
In addition to the city proper, there was an amount of land contiguous to each city to be used as pastureland for the Levites’ animals, also so they could grow crops.
Now let’s not be naive about what the Levites were given; these were NOT walled or substantial cities. And they were, generally speaking, not cities that the Israelites would build from scratch.
Rather, these 48 cities would be from among the hundreds, if not thousands, of small villages and towns that the Israelite army would capture from the various Israelite tribes from the conquest. Most of these “cities” would consist of a handful of buildings.
Let’s also understand that like the Jubilee Year (an essential part of the laws concerning the prohibition against permanently transferring land to other than the original owner), a celebration that the records indicate never happened even ONE time, the Levites also never got their 48 cities.
Oh, they were assigned cities; but it was critical to the ability of these Levites to inhabit those cities that would consistently care for those Levites who were to live in those assigned Levite cities in their territory, and in many cases, it simply didn’t happen.
The book of Joshua speaks of several of these Levite cities by name, but only the larger ones. I have no doubt that some tribes chose to give the Levites unlivable and burnt out villages to inhabit (things that were of little value to that tribe); so the Levites just never moved in and instead concentrated in the more substantial cities they had been given, especially the few that had walls.
After all, they (like all the other Israelites) had to protect themselves from the never-ending series of attacks from marauding bands of bandits and occasionally the armies of king’s intent on expanding their territory. The remote tribes made no distinction between Israel and the Levites and the Priests; they were all fair game.
Verse 6 begins to speak of the famous “cities of refuge”; and there is to be a total of 6 of these. Interestingly, 3 of them are to be on the east side of the Jordan (for the 2 1/2 tribes that lived over there), and the other three on the west side of the Jordan for the 9 1/2 tribes that lived in the Promised Land.
And, we’re told that just as part of the formula for deciding the territory each tribe would receive was based on that tribe’s relative size, so it would be that the scale of the cities given to the Levites would be built on the amount of territory each tribe received. If a tribe had a large amount of land, then the cities given to the Levites were to be larger.
Since that was the case, a rather ingenious method of deciding how much pastureland was to go along with each of the 48 cities was ordained; it was that the longitudinal measurement of 1000 cubits (about 500 yards) was to be IN ADDITION to the length of the town itself. So, the bigger the city, the more was added to the 1000 cubits of pastureland that were afforded each of the Levite cities.
Now, the 6 cities of refuge (these were 6 of the 48 cities, not in addition to the 48) they were central to God’s justice system. but even more, the laws concerning them dealt with this foundational theological principle: God is so holy that He cannot possibly be present on land that has been defiled by murder.
When we think back to Leviticus, we see how important blood is to all of God’s laws. We are also shown that while blood is the ONLY efficacious means of expiating sins (that is, only blood could bring atonement), the improper spilling of blood is an abomination to the Lord, and it defiles.
One of the clearest examples of this is the matter of menstrual blood, which is a desecrating thing for which there must be purification. The blood of a duly sacrificed animal could atone for all but a few of the most egregious sins (or as the Bible calls them, high-handed).
Here, the issue is the killing of a human being; and whether or not this killing is murder or manslaughter. So, these verses define just what murder is, as opposed to what manslaughter is; and what the role of the cities of refuge are to be in each case.
In my next blog post, we’ll examine this and the role of the Blood Avenger.