Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
Suburbs - Rather, "pasture-grounds," required for their large cattle, for their sheep and goats, and for all their beasts whatever they might be Num 35:3.
From without the city - Omit "from." The demarcation here intended would run parallel to the wall of the city, outside which it was made. To guard against any restrictions of area, due to such causes as the irregular forms of the cities or the physical obstacles of the ground, it was ordained that the suburb should, alike on north, south, east, and west, present, at a distance of one thousand cubits (or, nearly one-third of a mile) from the wall, a front not less than two thousand cubits in length; and, by joining the extremities of these measured fronts according to the nature of the ground, a sufficient space for the Levites would be secured.
The Levitical cities were in an special manner the Lord's; and therefore the places of refuge, where the manslayer might remain under the protection of a special institution devised by divine mercy, were appropriately selected from among them. No doubt also the Priests and Levites would be the fittest persons to administer the law in the doubtful cases which would be sure to occur: compare Num 35:24 note.
Nine cities were eventually given to the Levites from the large joint inheritance of Judah and Simeon; three were taken from the territory of Naphtali, and the other tribes gave each four apiece.
The avenger - Hebrew גאל gā'al, a term of which the original import is uncertain. The very obscurity of its etymology testifies to the antiquity of the office which it denotes. That office rested on the principle of Gen 9:6, "whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." The unwritten code of the East conceded to the nearest kinsman of a murdered man the right of avenging the blood that had been shed. Such rude justice necessarily involved grave evils. It gave no opportunity to the person charged with crime of establishing is innocence; it recognized no distinction between murder, manslaughter, and accidental homicide; it perpetuated family blood-feuds, the avenger of blood being liable to be treated in his turn as a murderer by the kinsman of the man whom he had slain. These grievances could not be removed as long as there was no central government, but they might be mitigated; and to do this was the object of the institution in the text (compare Exo 21:13).
Among the Arab tribes, who are under the control of no central authority, the practice of blood-revenge subsists in full force to the present day.
The congregation - i. e. local court, consisting of the elders of the city Jos 20:4.
The sense is: Inasmuch as to take another man's life by any means whatsoever is murder, and exposes the murderer to the penalty of retaliation; so, if the deed is done in hostility, it is in truth actual murder, and the murderer shall be slain; but if it be not done in hostility, then the congregation shall interpose to stop the avenger's hand.
When he meeteth him - Provided, of course, it were without a city of refuge.
The case of the innocent slayer is here contemplated. In a doubtful case there would necessarily have to be a judicial decision as to the guilt or innocence of the person who claimed the right of asylum.
The homicide was safe only within the walls of his city of refuge. He became a virtual exile from his home. The provisions here made serve to mark the gravity of the act of manslaughter, even when not premeditated; and the inconveniences attending on them fell, as is right and fair, upon him who committed the deed.
Unto the death of the high priest - The atoning death of the Saviour cast its shadow before on the statute-book of the Law and on the annals of Jewish history. The high priest, as the head and representative of the whole chosen family of sacerdotal mediators, as exclusively entrusted with some of the chief priestly functions, as alone privileged to make yearly atonement within the holy of holies, and to gain, from the mysterious Urim and Thummim, special revelations of the will of God, was, preeminently, a type of Christ. And thus the death of each successive high priest presignified that death of Christ by which the captives were to be freed, and the remembrance of transgressions made to cease.
By the mouth of witnesses - i. e. two witnesses, at the least (compare the marginal references). The provisions of this and the following verses protect the enactments of this chapter from abuse. The cities of refuge were not intended to exempt a criminal from deserved punishment.
No satisfaction - Rather, ransom (see Exo 21:30). The permission to demand pecuniary compensation for murders (expressly sanctioned by the Koran) undoubtedly mitigates, in practice, the system of private retaliation; but it does so by sacrificing the principle named in Num 35:12, Num 35:33.
For I the Lord dwell ... - An emphatic protest against all enactment or relaxation of laws by men for their own private convenience.