Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Appointment of Towns for the Levites. - As the Levites were to receive no inheritance of their own, i.e., no separate tribe-territory, in the land of Canaan (Num 18:20 and Num 18:23), Moses commanded the children of Israel, i.e., the rest of the tribes, in accordance with the divine instructions, to give (vacate) towns to the Levites to dwell in of the inheritance that fell to them for a possession, with pasturage by the cities round about them for their cattle. "Towns to dwell in," i.e., not the whole of the towns as their own property, but as many houses in the towns as sufficed for the necessities of the Levites as their hereditary possession, which could be redeemed, if sold at any time, and which reverted to them without compensation in the year of jubilee, even if not redeemed before (Lev 25:32-33); but any portion of the towns which was not taken possession of by them, together with the fields and villages, continued the property of those tribes to which they had been assigned by lot (cf. Jos 21:12, and my commentary on this passage: also Bhr, Symbolik, ii. p. 50; Ewald, Gesch. ii. p. 403). They were also to give them מגרשׁ (from גּרשׁ, to drive, drive out), pasturage or fields, to feed their flocks upon, all round the cities; and according to Lev 25:34, this was not to be sold, but to remain the eternal possession of the Levites. לבהמתּם, for their oxen and beasts of burden, and לרכוּשׁם, for their (remaining) possessions in flocks (sheep and goats), which are generally described in other cases as Mikneh, in distinction from behemah (e.g., Num 32:26; Gen 34:23; Gen 36:6). לכל־חיּתם and for all their animals, is merely a generalizing summary signifying all the animals which they possessed.
The pasture lands of the different towns were to measure "from the town wall outwards a thousand cubits round about," i.e., on each of the four sides. "And measure from without the city, the east side 2000 cubits, and the south side 2000 cubits, and the west side 2000 cubits, and the north side 2000 cubits, and the city in the middle," i.e., so that the town stood in the middle of the measured lines, and the space which they occupied was not included in the 2000 cubits. The meaning of these instructions, which have caused great perplexity to commentators, and have latterly been explained by Saalschtz (Mos. R. pp. 100, 101) in a marvellously erroneous manner, was correctly expounded by J. D. Michaelis in the notes to his translation. We must picture the towns and the surrounding fields as squares, the pasturage as stretching 1000 cubits from the city wall in every direction, as the accompanying figures show, and the length of each outer side as 2000 cubits, apart from the length of the city wall: so that, if the town itself occupied a square of 1000 cubits (see fig. a), the outer side of the town fields would measure 2000 + 1000 cubits in every direction; but if each side of the city wall was only 500 cubits long (see fig. b), the outer side of the town fields would measure 2000 + 500 cubits in every direction.
Of these cities which were given up to the Levites, six were to serve as cities of refuge (see at Num 35:12) for manslayers, and in addition to these (עליהם, over upon them) the Israelites were to give of their possessions forty-two others, that is to say, forty-eight in all; and they were to do this, giving much from every tribe that had much, and little from the one which had little (Num 26:54). With the accusatives הערים את and ערי שׁשׁ עת (Num 35:6), the writer has already in his mind the verbs תּרבּוּ and תּמעיטוּ of Num 35:8, where he takes up the object again in the word והערים. According to Josh 21, the Levites received nine cities in the territory of Judah and Simeon, four in the territory of each of the other tribes, with the exception of Naphtali, in which there were only three, that is to say, ten in the land to the east of the Jordan, and thirty-eight in Canaan proper, of which the thirteen given up by Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin were assigned to the families of the priests, and the other thirty-five to the three Levitical families. This distribution of the Levites among all the tribes - by which the curse of division and dispersion in Israel, which had been pronounced upon Levi in Jacob's blessing (Gen 49:7), was changed into a blessing both for the Levites themselves and also for all Israel - was in perfect accordance with the election and destination of this tribe. Called out of the whole nation to be the peculiar possession of Jehovah, to watch over His covenant, and teach Israel His rights and His law (Deu 33:9-10; Lev 10:11; Deu 31:9-13), the Levites were to form and set forth among all the tribes the ἐκλογή of the nation of Jehovah's possession, and by their walk as well as by their calling to remind the Israelites continually of their own divine calling; to foster and preserve the law and testimony of the Lord in Israel, and to awaken and spread the fear of God and piety among all the tribes. Whilst their distribution among all the tribes corresponded to this appointment, the fact that they were not scattered in all the towns and villages of the other tribes, but were congregated together in separate towns among the different tribes, preserved them from the disadvantages of standing alone, and defended them from the danger of moral and spiritual declension. Lastly, in the number forty-eight, the quadrupling of the number of the tribes (twelve) is unmistakeable. Now, as the number four is the seal of the kingdom of God in the world, the idea of the kingdom of God is also represented in the four times twelve towns (cf. Bhr, Symbolik, ii. pp. 50, 51).
Selection and Appointment of Cities of Refuge for Unpremeditated Manslayers. - Num 35:10, Num 35:11. When the Israelites had come into the land of Canaan, they were to choose towns conveniently situated as cities of refuge, to which the manslayer, who had slain a person (nephesh) by accident (בּשׁגגה: see at Lev 4:2), might flee. הקרה, from קרה, to hit, occurrit, as well as accidit; signifies here to give or make, i.e., to choose something suitable (Dietrich), but not "to build or complete" (Knobel), in the sense of קרה, as the only meaning which this word has is contignare, to join with beams or rafters; and this is obviously unsuitable here. Through these directions, which are repeated and still further expanded in Deu 19:1-13, God fulfilled the promise which He gave in Exo 21:13 : that He would appoint a place for the man who should unintentionally slay his neighbour, to which he might flee from the avenger of blood.
These towns were to serve for a refuge from the avenger of blood, that the manslayer might not die before he had taken his trial in the presence of the congregation. The number of cities was fixed at six, three on the other side of the Jordan, and three on this side in the land of Canaan, to which both the children of Israel, and also the foreigners and settlers who were dwelling among them, might flee. In Deu 19:2., Moses advises the congregation to prepare (הכין) the way to these cities, and to divide the territory of the land which Jehovah would give them into three parts (שׁלּשׁ), i.e., to set apart a free city in every third of the land, that every manslayer might flee thither, i.e., might be able to reach the free city without being detained by length of distance or badness of road, lest, as is added in Deu 19:6, the avenger of blood pursue the slayer while his heart is hot (יחם, imperf. Kal of חמם), and overtake him because the way is long, and slay him (נפשׁ הכּה, as in Gen 37:21), whereas he was not worthy of death (i.e., there was no just ground for putting him to death), "because he had not done it out of hatred." The three cities of refuge on the other side were selected by Moses himself (Deu 4:41-43); the three in Canaan were not appointed till the land was distributed among the nine tribes and a half (Jos 20:7). Levitical or priests' towns were selected for all six, not only because it was to the priests and Levites that they would first of all look for an administration of justice (Schultz on Deu 19:3), but also on the ground that these cities were the property of Jehovah, in a higher sense than the rest of the land, and for this reason answered the idea of cities of refuge, where the manslayer, when once received, was placed under the protection of divine grace, better than any other places possibly could.
The establishment of cities of refuge presupposed the custom and right of revenge. The custom itself goes back to the very earliest times of the human race (Gen 4:15, Gen 4:24; Gen 27:45); it prevailed among the Israelites, as well as the other nations of antiquity, and still continues among the Arabs in unlimited force (cf. Niebuhr, Arab. pp. 32ff.; Burckhardt, Beduinen, 119, 251ff.). "Revenge of blood prevailed almost everywhere, so long as there was no national life generated, or it was still in the first stages of its development; and consequently the expiation of any personal violation of justice was left to private revenge, and more especially to family zeal" (Oehler in Herzog's B. Cycl., where the proofs may be seen). The warrant for this was the principle of retribution, the jus talionis, which lay at the foundation of the divine order of the world in general, and the Mosaic law in particular, and which was sanctioned by God, so far as murder was concerned, even in the time of Noah, by the command, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood," etc. (Gen 9:5-6). This warrant, however, or rather obligation to avenge murder, was subordinated to the essential principle of the theocracy, under the Mosaic law. Whilst God Himself would avenge the blood that was shed, not only upon men, but upon animals also (Gen 9:5), and commanded blood-revenge, He withdrew the execution of it from subjective caprice, and restricted it to cases of premeditated slaying or murder, by appointing cities of refuge, which were to protect the manslayer from the avenger, until he took his trial before the congregation. גּאל, redeemer, is "that particular relative whose special duty it was to restore the violated family integrity, who had to redeem not only landed property that had been alienated from the family (Lev 25:25.), or a member of the family that had fallen into slavery (Lev 25:47.), but also the blood that had been taken away from the family by murder" (Oehler). In the latter respect he was called הדּם גּאל, (Num 35:19, Num 35:21, Num 35:24.; Deu 19:6, Deu 19:12). From Sa2 14:7, we may see that it was the duty of the whole family to take care that blood-revenge was carried out. The performance of the duty itself, however, was probably regulated by the closeness of the relationship, and corresponded to the duty of redeeming from bondage (Lev 25:49), and to the right of inheritance (Num 27:8.). What standing before the congregation was to consist of, is defined more fully in what follows (Num 35:24, Num 35:25). If we compare with this Jos 20:4., the manslayer, who fled from the avenger of blood into a free city, was to stand before the gates of the city, and state his cause before the elders. They were then to receive him into the city, and give him a place that he might dwell among them, and were not to deliver him up to the avenger of blood till he had stood before the congregation for judgment. Consequently, if the slayer of a man presented himself with the request to be received, the elders of the free city had to make a provisional inquiry into his case, to decide whether they should grant him protection in the city; and then if the avenger of blood appeared, they were not to deliver up the person whom they had received, but to hand him over, on the charge of the avenger of blood, to the congregation to whom he belonged, or among whom the act had taken place, that they might investigate the case, and judge whether the deed itself was wilful or accidental.
Special instructions are given in Num 35:16-28, with reference to the judicial procedure. First of all (Num 35:16-21), with regard to qualified slaying or murder. If any person has struck another with an iron instrument (an axe, hatchet, hammer, etc.), or "with a stone of the hand, from which one dies," i.e., with a stone which filled the hand, - a large stone, therefore, with which it was possible to kill, - or "with a wooden instrument of the hand, from which one dies," i.e., with a thick club, or a large, strong wooden instrument, and he then died (so that he died in consequence), he was a murderer, who was to be put to death. "For the suspicion would rest upon any one who had used an instrument, that endangered life and therefore was not generally used in striking, that he had intended to take life away" (Knobel).
The avenger of blood could put him to death, when he hit upon him, i.e., whenever and wherever he met with him.
And so also the man who hit another in hatred, or threw at him by lying in wait, or struck him with the hand in enmity, so that he died. And if a murderer of this kind fled into a free city, the elders of his city were to have him fetched out and delivered up to the avenger of blood (Deu 19:11-12). Then follow, in Num 35:22-28, the proceedings to be taken with an unintentional manslayer, viz., if any one hit another "in the moment," i.e., suddenly, unawares (Num 6:9), without enmity, or by throwing anything upon him, without lying in wait, or by letting a stone, by which a man might be killed, fall upon him without seeing him, so that he died in consequence, but without being his enemy, or watching to do him harm. In using the expression בּכל־אבן, the writer had probably השׁליך still in his mind; but he dropped this word, and wrote ויּפּל in the form of a fresh sentence. The thing intended is explained still more clearly in Deu 19:4-5. Instead of בּפתע, we find there בּבלי־דעת, without knowing unintentionally. The words, "without being his enemy," are paraphrased there by, "without hating him from yesterday and the day before yesterday" (i.e., previously), and are explained by an example taken from the life: "When a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the iron slippeth (נשׁל Niphal of שׁלל) from the wood (handle), and lighteth upon his neighbour."
In such a case as this, the congregation was to judge between the slayer and the avenger of blood, according to the judgments before them. They were to rescue the innocent man from the avenger of blood, to bring him back to his (i.e., the nearest) city of refuge to which he had fled, that he might dwell there till the death of the high priest, who had been anointed with the holy oil.
If he left the city of refuge before this, and the avenger of blood got hold of him, and slew him outside the borders (precincts) of the city, it was not to be reckoned to him as blood (דּם לו אין, like דּמים לו אין, Exo 22:1). But after the death of the high priest he might return "into the land of his possession," i.e., his hereditary possession (cf. Lev 27:22), sc., without the avenger of blood being allowed to pursue him any longer.
In these regulations "all the rigour of the divine justice is manifested in the most beautiful concord with His compassionate mercy. Through the destruction of life, even when not wilful, human blood had been shed, and demanded expiation. Yet this expiation did not consist in the death of the offender himself, because he had not sinned wilfully." Hence an asylum was provided for him in the free city, to which he might escape, and where he would lie concealed. This sojourn in the free city was not to be regarded as banishment, although separation from house, home, and family was certainly a punishment; but it was a concealment under "the protection of the mercy of God, which opened places of escape in the cities of refuge from the carnal ardour of the avenger of blood, where the slayer remained concealed until his sin was expiated by the death of the high priest." For the fact, that the death of the high priest was hereby regarded as expiatory, as many of the Rabbins, fathers, and earlier commentators maintain (see my Comm. on Joshua, p. 448), is unmistakeably evident from the addition of the clause, "who has been anointed with the holy oil," which would appear unmeaning and superfluous on any other view. This clause points to the inward connection between the return of the slayer and the death of the high priest. "The anointing with the holy oil was a symbol of the communication of the Holy Ghost, by which the high priest was empowered to act as mediator and representative of the nation before God, so that he alone could carry out the yearly and general expiation for the whole nation, on the great day of atonement. But as his life and work acquired a representative signification through this anointing with the Holy Ghost, his death might also be regarded as a death for the sins of the people, by virtue of the Holy Ghost imparted to him, through which the unintentional manslayer received the benefits of the propitiation for his sin before God, so that he could return cleansed to his native town, without further exposure to the vengeance of the avenger of blood" (Comm. on Joshua, p. 448). But inasmuch as, according to this view, the death of the high priest had the same result in a certain sense, in relation to his time of office, as his function on the day of atonement had had every year, "the death of the earthly high priest became thereby a type of that of the heavenly One, who, through the eternal (holy) Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God, that we might be redeemed from our transgressions, and receive the promised eternal inheritance (Heb 9:14-15). Just as the blood of Christ wrought out eternal redemption, only because through the eternal Spirit He offered Himself without spot to God, so the death of the high priest of the Old Testament secured the complete deliverance of the manslayer form his sin, only because he had been anointed with the holy oil, the symbol of the Holy Ghost."
If, therefore, the confinement of the unintentional manslayer in the city of refuge was neither an ordinary exile nor merely a means of rescuing him from the revenge of the enraged goel, but an appointment of the just and merciful God for the expiation of human blood even though not wilfully shed, that, whilst there was no violation of judicial righteousness, a barrier might be set to the unrighteousness of family revenge; it was necessary to guard against any such abuse of this gracious provision of the righteous God, as that into which the heathen right of asylum had degenerated.
(Note: On the asyla, in general, see Winer's Real-Wrterbuch, art. Freistatt; Pauly, Real-encyckl. der class. Alterthums-wissenschaft, Bd. i. s. v. Asylum; but more especially K. Dann, "ber den Ursprung des Asylrechts und dessen Schicksale und Ueberreste in Europa," in his Ztschr. fr deutsches Recht, Lpz. 1840. "The asyla of the Greeks, Romans, and Germans differed altogether from those of the Hebrews; for whilst the latter were never intended to save the wilful criminal from the punishment he deserved, but were simply established for the purpose of securing a just sentence, the former actually answered the purpose of rescuing the criminal from the punishment which he legally deserved.")
The instructions which follow in Num 35:29-34 were intended to secure this object. In Num 35:29, there is first of all the general law, that these instructions (those given in vv. 11-28) were to be for a statute of judgment (see Num 27:11) for all future ages ("throughout your generations," see Exo 12:14, Exo 12:20). Then, in Num 35:30, a just judgment is enforced in the treatment of murder. "Whoso killeth any person (these words are construed absolutely), at the mouth (the testimony) of witnesses shall the murderer be put to death; and one witness shall not answer (give evidence) against a person to die;" i.e., if the taking of life were in question, capital punishment was not to be inflicted upon the testimony of one person only, but upon that of a plurality of witnesses. One witness could not only be more easily mistaken than several, but would be more likely to be partial than several persons who were unanimous in bearing witness to one and the same thing. The number of witnesses was afterwards fixed at two witnesses, at least, in the case of capital crimes (Deu 17:6), and two or three in the case of every crime (Deu 19:15; cf. Joh 8:17; Co2 13:1; Heb 10:28). - Lastly (Num 35:31.), the command is given not to take redemption money, either for the life of the murderer, who was a wicked man to die, i.e., deserving of death (such a man was to be put to death); nor "for fleeing into the city of refuge, to return to dwell in the land till the death of the high priest:" that is to say, they were neither to allow the wilful murderer to come to terms with the relative of the man who had been put to death, by the payment of a redemption fee, and so to save his life, as is not unfrequently the case in the East at the present day (cf. Robinson, Pal. i. p. 209, and Lane's Manners and Customs); nor even to allow the unintentional murderer to purchase permission to return home from the city of refuge before the death of the high priest, by the payment of a money compensation.
The Israelites were not to desecrate their land by sparing the murderer; as blood, i.e., bloodshed or murder, desecrated the land, and there was no expiation (יכפּר) to the land for the blood that was shed in it, except through the blood of the man who had shed it, i.e., through the execution of the murderer, by which justice would be satisfied.
And they were not to desecrate the land in which they dwelt by tolerating murderers, because Jehovah, the Holy One, dwelt in it, among the children of Israel (cf. Lev 18:25.).