Last week we read how the Lord described the boundaries of the Promised Land which he was giving to his people as an inheritance gift. And then we read how he assigned Eleazar the high priest and Joshua, who was a king-like leader, to oversee the distribution of the land among the tribes and clans. Eleazar and Joshua were to lead the people into the land and give it to them. And so, they point forward to Christ, who is our Great High Priest and King who is leading us to the Promised Land to come in the new heaven and earth.
In today’s passage, we read, first, how towns were to be set aside for the Levites; and, second, how some of those towns were to be designated as cities of refuge.
Verses 1 to 9
In verse 1 we read how the Lord instructed Moses to command the people to give the Levites towns to live in. You might recall from Numbers 18 that the priests and Levites were not to receive a share of the land. The other tribes were to receive land in Canaan which they could farm in order to make a living. But the priests and the Levites were not to be farmers: instead they were to serve the Lord in the tabernacle and temple.
How then could they make a living without land to farm? Well, the Lord commanded that the priests and the Levites should live off the gifts and offering which the people brought to the Lord. So, the priests would receive a portion of the offerings which were sacrificed to the Lord on the altar; and the Levites were to receive a tithe of all the people produced: a tenth of their crops and a tenth of their livestock. In many ways, the Levites were very well off.
But still, where would they live without any land? Well, that’s why the Lord commanded the Israelites to set aside towns for the Levites to live in. You’ll see from verse 2 that the Israelites were to give the Levites towns from their inheritance. So, the Lord gave the towns to the Israelites; and the Israelites were to give them to the Levites. In a way, the Israelites were tithing, not only their crops and animals, but also their towns.
And as well as towns to live in, the Levites were to receive pastureland for their livestock. So, around each of the towns, the people were to set aside a square of land — 3,000 feet by 3,00 feet — to be used as pastureland for their livestock.
According to verse 7, the Levites were to receive 48 towns in total. And the towns were to be given in proportion to the size of the tribes: so those tribes with many towns were to give more towns to the Levites compared to those tribes with fewer towns.
Verses 9 to 28
According to verse 6, six of these towns were to be set aside as cities of refuge. Three of these cities were to be on the east side of the Jordan where the Reubenites and Gadites wanted to settle; and three were to be on the west side of the Jordan, where the rest of the tribes were to settle. And according to verse 10 anyone who killed someone accidentally would be allowed to flee to the city of refuge. And in the city of refuge, the accused would find refuge from the avenger so that he would not die until he stood trial before the assembly of the people.
The word ‘avenger’ is interesting, because elsewhere in the Bible the Hebrew word used here is translated ‘kinsman-redeemer’. You’re perhaps familiar with the idea of a kinsman-redeemer from the story of Ruth, because Boaz was Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer. The kinsman-redeemer was responsible for delivering his family from danger or from other difficult situations. In the case of Ruth, Boaz was responsible for delivering her from poverty and childlessness.
However, the kinsman-redeemer was also responsible for seeking justice whenever one of his relatives was murdered. Life is so valuable, so precious, that the person who took a life was not allowed to get away with it. Justice had to be done. Someone had to pay for taking the victim’s life. It was to be — according to Genesis 9 — life for life. And so, the kinsman-redeemer, the avenger, was responsible for ensuring that justice was done for his family; he was responsible for ensuring that someone paid for the life which was taken.
Before the avenger was allowed to act, the accused had to stand trial. And so, after committing the crime, the accused was allowed to flee to the city of refuge where he was to be kept safe until the trial. And the purpose of the trial was to determine where the accused was guilty of murder or manslaughter.
How do you decide? The Lord set down rules in verses 16 to 21 to determine whether the accused was guilty of murder. First of all, did the person use a weapon? That’s in verses 16 to 18. So, did he use an iron object that could kill or a stone that could kill or a wooden object that could kill? If he did, then he was guilty of murder; and the murderer must be put to death. Secondly, did he act intentionally? That’s in verses 20 and 21. So, did he push the victim with malice or did he intentionally throw something at the victim or did he hit in hostility? In those cases, he’s a murderer; and the murderer must die. According to verse 19 and verse 21, the avenger shall put the murderer to death.
So, we mustn’t misunderstand the role of the cities of refuge: the cities of refuge didn’t allow another to get away with murder. The cities of refuge merely allowed the accused to remain safe until he stood trial. And if he was found guilty of murder, then the accused had to be put to death.
In verses 22 to 24, we have cases where someone was killed, but not deliberately. It was an accident. So, without hostility someone was pushed and died as a result. Perhaps they were pushed by accident and stumbled over a cliff. But it was an accident. Or someone threw something and, by accident, it hit another person and killed him. You were chopping wood, and the head of the ax came off and flew through the air and killed someone. It was an accident. Or without seeing him, one person dropped a stone on the head of another person and killed him. It was an accident.
Having determined that it was an accident, the assembly must protect the accused from the avenger. That’s in verse 25. However, the accused isn’t allowed to go home. He must return to the city of refuge and remain there. He’s only safe in that city; and if he ever leaves the city, and the avenger sees him, the avenger may kill him without impunity. That’s in verse 26. The avenger of blood will not be guilty of murder, because it’s the avenger’s responsibility to ensure that it’s life for life; and that someone pays for the death of his relative.
However, look now at the end of verse 25. The person who has been cleared of murder, but who is guilty of manslaughter, must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. That’s repeated in verse 28: the accused must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. Only after the death of the high priest may the person return to his own property. He can’t go home until the priest dies. Since it’s life for life, the death of the high priest makes up for and pays for the victim’s death. Isn’t that interesting? When a life was taken deliberately, that life must be paid for by the death of the murderer. But when a life was taken by accident, that life is paid for by the death of the priest: the priest pays for that life by means of his own death.
Verses 29 to 34
In the remaining verses, we’re told that the people of Israel were to keep these requirements throughout their generations. Furthermore, it took at least two witnesses to condemn a murderer. And they were not allowed to accept a ransom to pay for anyone’s death. That is, someone who has killed another person wasn’t allowed to pay a fine in order to avoid the death penalty. It’s life for life. So, a murderer must pay with his own life for the life he’d taken, while the person who was guilty of manslaughter will only be pardoned after the death of the high priest.
And verses 33 and 34 gives the theological reason for these laws. Bloodshed polluted the land. It defiled it. And the land must not remain defiled, because the Lord lived there, among his people. If the land was left defiled by their bloodshed, if it was not washed away and removed, then the Lord was liable to depart from their midst. And so, whenever blood was shed, it had to be atoned for: the stain of death had to be washed away and removed. And it could only be washed away and removed by the death of either the murderer or the priest. By means of their death, the land was cleansed from defilement, so the Lord could continue to live among them.
As we think about the significance of this passage for us, we should focus on two things.
Firstly, life is precious to the Lord. He did not allow the Israelites to treat life lightly. They weren’t allowed to treat a death as unimportant; and it was always necessary in those days that someone should pay for the life that was taken. That meant, in the case of murder, that the murderer must pay for it with his own life. In the case of manslaughter, the death of the high priest paid for the life that was taken. Someone had to pay for the life that was taken, because every life was valuable and precious.
And so — while these particular laws were for those particular people at that particular time — these laws nevertheless make clear to us that life is precious and valuable. We’re not to treat life lightly. And therefore, we ought to pray for our law courts and our security forces, asking the Lord to help them as they seek to uphold law and order and to protect lives everyday.
But let’s think now about the death of the high priest. It seems peculiar to us — doesn’t it? — that the death of the high priest should somehow make up for what someone else had done. Someone killed another person by accident; and somehow the death of the high priest was able to make up for what that person had done.
How could this be? Well, some commentators suggest that the death of the high priest signified the end of an old era and the beginning of a new. So, whenever the priest died old debts were cancelled and a new day dawned. So, there’s that. But then, we also need to remember that the Old Testament high priests foreshadowed our Great High Priest who was to come into the world. And so, just as the death of the Old Testament high priest was able to make up for what the people had done, so the death of the Lord Jesus is able to make up for what we have done wrong. His death on the cross pays for all our sins; and not just our accidental sins, but our deliberate ones as well.
So, he gave his life as the ransom to set us free from the condemnation we deserve for our many sins. And he shed his blood to wash us and to cleanse us from all our guilt and defilement. By his death, our sins are cancelled and we’re set free. By his death, the old era of guilt and condemnation is over; and a new era of peace and life has begun for all who belong to Christ and who are trusting in him for forgiveness.
And, of course, our high priest has already died, so that we receive forgiveness now and not later. So, think of a man in those days who was guilty of manslaughter. Think of how he had to live year after year in one of those six cities of refuge, waiting for the priest to die, so that he could go home. Until the priest died, he had to remain in a city of refuge. How long did he have to wait? Five years? Ten years? Fifty years? Longer? Well, the good news is that our Great High Priest has already died for us. He’s already paid for our sins. And so, right now, we are pardoned for what we have done wrong; right now, we’re freed from condemnation; right now, the guilt of our sins has been washed away.
And so, when we meet together as a church, we meet as a people who have been cleansed from all that defiles us. And that means the Lord our God is able to dwell in our midst by his Spirit and to minister to us according to our need.