Numbers: Cities of Refuge

Sermon by on April 30, 2008

Numbers 35:1-34

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Wednesday Evening

April 30, 2008

Numbers 35:1-34

Numbers — With God in the Wilderness

“Gimme Shelter”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to
Numbers 35, the second to the last chapter in this great book that we have been
studying since January 2007.

A couple of words about where we’re going next: God
willing, next Wednesday night we’ll finish this book looking at the fairly short
chapter, Numbers 36, which picks up on a really great story which we’ve already
touched on in this book. If you peek ahead, you’ll notice that Numbers 36 has to
do with a change in inheritance laws in Israel, and that change in inheritance
laws stems from a conversation that some godly daughters of Israel had with
Moses, and with God’s instructing Moses to change the inheritance laws in the
case of fathers who died with no male successor [with no son as a successor] but
with daughters who were in his family and his household. And so we’ll close this
book with that.

But tonight we’re in Numbers 35, and if you’ll
remember, we said the last time we were together in this passage that the whole
book of Numbers looked forward to Israel’s settlement in the Promised Land, and
it closes with provisions of God in relation to the occupation of the land of
Canaan. And we considered the boundaries of the land and the men appointed by
God to oversee the distribution of it.

And as we looked at Numbers 34, we saw three things
in particular:

One, God’s generosity — He gave the children of
Israel more land than they ever occupied;

Two, we saw a principle of growth in the Christian
life in the phrase, “The land is yours; now take it”–that is, that God grants to
us a reality in Christ that He then calls on us to press towards, to live out.
So, for instance, in Romans 6 we said that the Apostle Paul says you are dead to
sin. You’ve died to sin in your union with Christ. And then he turns right
around and says what? So don’t go on sinning. You are dead to sin, you have died
to sin; now stop sinning. Don’t continue sinning. And so he points to a reality
that God has worked, and then he calls on us to respond to that reality: The
land is yours; now take it. The way some theologians put this is that in the
Christian life, the indicative precedes the imperative. What you are in Christ
precedes God’s call and command to you to live out the reality of being in

And then, thirdly, as we looked at Numbers 34
together, we saw God’s wise three-part plan for taking the distribution of the
land out of the hands of the tribes. You know we said that after all this
wandering in the wilderness — indeed, after 430 years since God said to Abraham
that He was going to give his family the land — it could have been a big hoo-hah
when they got in the land and people started actually inheriting the land. They
could have fought like cats and dogs!

Brister Ware was reminding us in staff meeting on
Tuesday that one of the standing pastoral issues that he sees tear families
apart is settling the inheritance after the death of someone in the family.
Brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and children and surviving parents and
others just get crossways with one another, and sometimes it can tear a family

Well, God is so wise and kind that He wanted to make
sure that that didn’t happen amongst the children of Israel, and so first of
all, you remember, He said, ‘How are you going to decide who gets the land?
Well, you’re going to draw lots. You’re going to cast lots. There’s going to be
no human finagling about that. You’re just going to draw lots, and that’s part
of how you’re going to decide who gets what.’ And then secondly, of course, He
said the big tribes were going to get the large tracts of land, and the smaller
tribes were going to get the smaller tracts of land, so there was going to be
proportionate designation. And then God himself appointed men within each tribe
that were going to be in charge of breaking out the allotments of land to the
various families within that tribe. All of this was designed to do what? To keep
folks from being at one another’s throats when the inheritance was distributed.
God’s wisdom and kindness is seen there.

And that brings us to tonight’s passage in Numbers
35:1-34. Let’s give attention to it in God’s word.

Let’s pray before we read.

Lord, this is Your word. We ask that You would
open our eyes to behold wonderful truth in it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

“The Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at
Jericho, saying, ‘Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites some of
the inheritance of their possession as cities for them to dwell in. And you
shall give to the Levites pasturelands around the cities. The cities shall be
theirs to dwell in, and their pasturelands shall be for their cattle and for
their livestock and for all their beasts. The pasturelands of the cities, which
you shall give to the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city outward a
thousand cubits all around. And you shall measure, outside the city, on the east
side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the
west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, the
city being in the middle. This shall belong to them as pastureland for their

“The cities that you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of
refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them
you shall give forty-two cities. All the cities that you give to the Levites
shall be forty-eight, with their pasturelands. And as for the cities that you
shall give from the possession of the people of Israel, from the larger tribes
you shall take many, and from the smaller tribes you shall take few; each, in
proportion to the inheritance that it inherits, shall give of its cities to the

“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel
and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you
shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills
any person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge
from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the
congregation for judgment. And the cities that you give shall be your six cities
of refuge. You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in
the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be for refuge
for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them,
that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there.

“But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he
is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. And if he struck him down
with a stone tool that could cause death, and he died, he is a murderer. The
murderer shall be put to death. Or if he struck him down with a wooden tool that
could cause death, and he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to
death. The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when he
meets him, he shall put him to death. And if he pushed him out of hatred or
hurled something at him, lying in wait, so that he died, or in enmity struck him
down with his hand, so that he died, then he who struck the blow shall be put to
death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death
when he meets him.

“But if he pushed him suddenly without enmity, or hurled anything on
him without lying in wait or used a stone that could cause death, and without
seeing him dropped it on him, so that he died, though he was not his enemy and
did not seek his harm, then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer
and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these rules. And the congregation
shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the
congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and
he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the
holy oil. But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the boundaries of his
city of refuge to which he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the
boundaries of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer,
he shall not be guilty of blood. For he must remain in his city of refuge until
the death of the high priest, but after the death of the high priest the
manslayer may return to the land of his possession. And these things shall be
for a statute and rule for you throughout your generations in all your dwelling

“If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the
evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of
one witness. Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer,
who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death. And you shall accept no
ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell
in the land before the death of the high priest. You shall not pollute the land
in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for
the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who
shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which
I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Now as we’ve already noted, the final chapters of
Numbers are filled with instructions for Israel’s occupation of, and living
within, the Promised Land, and there is absolutely nothing anti-climactic about
these passages. This section of Numbers is the direct culmination of everything
that has been going on in the history of Israel, not just since the departure
from Egypt, but even since the time of Abraham. And in our passage tonight the
Levites are given 48 cities with surrounding pastureland for their living and
for their sustenance. You see that in verses 1-8. And then further, six of those
48 Levitical cities are established as cities of refuge, and a series of
instructions are given regarding maintaining the land’s purity by not defiling
it with the blood of the victims of murder, and you see that focused on in
verses 9-34. Laws concerning manslaughter and murder, and cities of refuge, and
vengeance, and ransom, and the death penalty are all recounted in verses 9-34.

And as we come to Numbers 35:1-34, we see at
least two huge things in this passage, and the first one is simply this:
God’s concern for the pastoral care of His whole

One of the things that
strikes you in this passage is that as the Levites’ cities are distributed
throughout the land proportionately to the population of the people of Israel,
you see that God is concerned for the pastoral care not only of the
Levites, but of His whole people. He spreads the Levites throughout the land
proportionate to its geography and population.

The second big thing that we see in this passage
tonight is that God intends His people to manifest a public respect for the
sanctity of life
by taking life seriously, and by following through on a
stringent set of consequences in the case of either manslaughter [unintentional
killing of a person] or in the case of murder. Let’s look at these two things
briefly together tonight.

First let’s look at verses 1-8, where the Levites
and the people are provided for in the allocation of cities and lands for the
In giving the Levites cities and pasturelands, and in placing the
Levites’ cities throughout all the tribes proportionately to the size of the
tribes, God shows His wise and kind provision both for His servants the Levites
and for the rest of His people. Let’s think of three things in particular that
shows this.

First of all, the Levites needed sustenance.
They needed a way to eat, and they didn’t have land to farm, they didn’t have
territory that they were granted. So how were the Levites going to feed their
babies? How were they going to put food on the table? Where were they going to
graze their animals? Well, God came up with an answer to that. He wasn’t going
to give them territory like He was going to give the other tribes, but He was
going to give them cities and then two thousand cubits in every direction
outside of those cities were going to belong to the Levites so that they could
graze their animals and so that they could provide for their families. This is
God’s provision for the sustenance of the Levites. And so we see God’s kindness
and His wisdom in providing the Levites what they needed, even though they
didn’t get land like the other tribes.

The second thing we see, though, is that in the
very way that God appoints this to be done He squelches potential complaints
from the various people in the various tribes that are going to be hosting these
He squelches potential complaints by divinely establishing — by
establishing himself — what the boundaries of the Levites’ land are going to be
around each of those cities. Notice He’s the one who says, ‘Now two thousand
cubits to the north, to the east, to the south, and to the west. That’s going to
be the land.’

If God had left it up to each of the tribes to
determine how much pastureland that the Levites were going to get around each of
those cities, can you imagine the squabbling that would have gone on in that
congregational meeting? [“Why, the preacher’s got more pasture land than I do!
Why, those Levites, they’re living mighty high on the hog with all the pasture
land that they’ve got!”] No, the Lord just sets it out and He says this is going
to be how much land they get around each of the cities, and He does this to
squelch any complaint about the land which the Levites are going to receive.
Anyone who has ever been in a contentious congregational meeting where the
people haggle over the pastor’s salary package can appreciate the Lord’s good
wisdom over this! He just takes all of that out and He says, ‘This is how we’re
going to feed the Levites, and this is how much land they’re going to get, and
these are the cities they’re going to get, and this is how we’re going to
distribute where those cities are going to be.’ And so the Lord is wisely and
kindly providing for the Levites. But it’s not just the Levites that are getting
the benefit out of this.

Thirdly, did you notice that God establishes that
there is going to be pastoral care literally distributed throughout the whole
land of Canaan
, the whole land of what’s going to be the nation of Israel,
and it’s going to be done proportionate to what? Proportionate to the geography
and to the population of Israel. There’s going to be no part of Israel that is
left without one of these cities of the Levites. The big tribes are going to
have to have more cities, and the small tribes are going to have less cities of
the Levites, but they’re going to be spread throughout the land so that
everywhere in Israel there are going to be Levites dwelling in the midst of the
tribes of God’s people.

Now of course one of the Levites’ main jobs is going
to be presumably going in a rotation down to Jerusalem to help with what? First
the tabernacle, and later the temple. But when they’re back in their cities in
the midst of the tribes, what are they doing? They’re carrying out pastoral care
in the midst of God’s people. No doubt they’re involved in marrying and burying
people. No doubt they’re involved in visiting people who are sick and helping
people who are in need. Since God has given to them cities and God has given to
them animals and God has given to them pasture lands, they’re able to go out and
help the poor. (This is why Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan is so damning
of the Levites and the priests of His day, because as they’re making their way
down to Israel, the Levite and the priest do what? Pass by the man in need,
whereas God has appointed them to be in the midst of Israel and in the midst of
the tribes to do what? To help those in need.)

So this is a win-win situation. God is not only
providing for the Levites through these cities, He’s providing for pastoral care
in every part of the land of Israel, no matter how far away from the city of
Jerusalem. Jerusalem was tucked down into the southern end of the country. If
all of the Levites and all the priests had been there around Jerusalem, all of
the northern tribes would have been neglected from this pastoral care, and even
parts of the southern tribes that were over towards the Mediterranean would have
been a long, long way away from a preacher who could perform a marriage or who
could do a circumcision, or who could do a funeral, or who could carry out the
various parts of pastoral care that were required in Israel. So we see here
God’s kind and wise provision for His servants in His establishing of these
forty-eight cities for the Levites.

Secondly, though, if you look at verses 9-34, you
see that of these forty-eight cities, six of them are going to be appointed
cities of refuge.
Now this is very strange to us. For those of you who are
attorneys and you’ve studied law, perhaps you know about some things like this
even in Medieval law. But, boy, in modern American law the whole idea of cities
of refuge is totally alien!

Let me see if I can introduce you quickly to this
strange world. These laws that are made in verses 9-34 all relate to
manslaughter [which is not technically what we call manslaughter in modern law].
This refers to unintentional killing as opposed to murder (which is used as
intentional killing, whether it’s premeditated or whether it’s in the heat of
the moment). If it’s intended, it’s considered murder in Israel. And these laws
relating to manslaughter and murder are designed to promote the sanctity of life
in the land of Israel, and thus the purity of the land.

And as you look at this part of the chapter, let me
outline it for you because it’s a long chapter and it’s somewhat complex. But I
think it breaks down fairly clearly. It breaks into six parts.

First of all, in verses 9-15, you have the command
about the cities of refuge, and the cities of refuge are going to be provided
for those who have taken life unintentionally, but they are in danger of a
vendetta of vengeance being brought to bear upon them by someone within the
family of the victim, and so cities of refuge are provided to them so that they
don’t lose their own life when they’re in the case of an unintentional death.

Then in verses 16-22, we come to the second part of
this part of the chapter, and there it is a provision that all murder is to be
punished with death. This reinforces capital punishment for murder. This is not
the first time that Moses has mentioned this. It was mentioned all the way back
in Genesis 9, and it’s been mentioned elsewhere in the laws of Moses, but it’s
reiterated here: murderers are to be visited with the death penalty.

Third, in verses 22-25, we see again the exemption
of the death penalty for accidental or unintentional killing.

Fourth, in verses 26-28, you see a special law about
how long a person has to stay in a city of refuge after an unintentional killing
has taken place. In this law it’s established that when you go to a city of
refuge, you have to stay there until the high priest dies. And then when the
high priest dies, then you can come out of that city and go back to your family.

Fifth, in verses 29-32, we have rules of testimony.
How many witnesses do you have to have? You’ve got to have more than one witness
to establish a murder case in Israel. You cannot convict anyone of murder in
Israel without having at least two witnesses to bear testimony in the case. So a
rule of testimony is made.

But there is also a rule in verses 29-32 about
ransom. The rule says if you committed unintentional killing and had to flee to
a city of refuge, and you wanted to pay money by way of restitution to the
family of the victim, if the family of the victim agreed and received your
ransom price, you could leave the city of refuge early. But, the law says, you
cannot pay a ransom price for murder. Murder’s so serious that ransom is not
allowed for it. The murderer must be put to death; no ransom money is allowed.

And then, sixth and finally, in verses 33-34, you
see the rationale for all these above commands. The rationale is because the
land must not be defiled. And I wish I could talk for a long time about this
stuff, because there are some really great things here, but let me quickly draw
your attention to four lessons that we learn from this section of the passage.

The first thing that we learn from this passage
is the respect for the sanctity of life that God is trying to foster in the land
of Israel.
In the case of both the cities of refuge and the demand for the
death penalty, do you see that God is trying to impress upon the children of
Israel that you must be very careful with life? That wrongly and deliberately
taking a life — whether it’s premeditated or in the heat of passion — is so
serious that it requires the taking of the life of the one who wrongly took
life? And even in the case of unintentional killing, life is so important and
we’re to be so careful with it that it’s going to require exile for a number of
years in a city of refuge if you were involved in the taking of that life. Boy,
can you imagine that today being applied in the case of, say, a teenager who not
out of any malice or necessarily any negligence…there was some sort of an
accident and someone was killed in an automobile accident; can you imagine that
teenager having to be sent off for years away from the family because of an
accidental or an unintentional death that was caused? Well, all of this is
designed to provoke in Israel a carefulness about human life. Human life is
sacred because human beings are made in the image of God; and, therefore, the
deliberate taking of human life requires the death penalty, and even accidental
taking of human life requires a period of exile.

Secondly, and this is perhaps the strangest thing
for us, these laws are designed to break a cycle of sin.
In the ancient Near
East, and even in the Middle East today, even accidental killing can lead to
family vendettas that exist for centuries.

I told you the story before, but one of my
professors regularly took a group of students to Israel, and on one occasion he
met a friend of his who he had been the acquaintance of for a number of years.
And while he was meeting with this friend, this friend (who was a young Israeli)
spoke to a classmate of his at Harvard who was a Muslim woman. Now, he spoke to
her in broad daylight in the street. But, when he spoke to her she was
unaccompanied by her male relatives, who were nearby but not in their immediate

Now, her Muslim male relatives took this as an
affront on her family honor. In Muslim law you would never ever speak to a woman
unaccompanied by her family members. You are suggesting that she is a woman of
ill repute by doing this. They went and they kidnapped this young Israeli boy,
they chained him to the bumper of their automobile, and they drove him through
the streets of Jerusalem. He almost died. Believe it or not, he survived this
brutal treatment. He was in the hospital for months, and when he got out, what
do you think happened? His father and his brothers then sought out a blood
vendetta against this Muslim family! And this in the ancient Near East, and even
in the modern Middle East, could go on generation after generation after

By establishing this city of refuge law, what is
Moses doing? [Of course it’s God doing this; Moses is saying, ‘Enough of that.
That’s not how we’re going to operate in God’s kingdom. We’re not going to have
generational feuds that go on and on and on. If there’s an accidental killing,
as terrible as that is, we are not going to allow vengeance to be visited
generation after generation after generation. Justice is going to be done, but
we’re not going to play the family vendetta game. We’re not going to play a
blood feud that goes on for centuries and centuries.’

Third, all of this is so clear to those of you
who are attorneys. All of these commands are designed to establish what? The
rule of law in the land.
You’re not going to have people in the heat of the
moment deciding they’re going to take vengeance on someone who hasn’t even been
through a trial. Notice the commands about the whole congregation deciding
whether this person has committed murder or has only been involved in an
accidental killing. Various patterns are established here for the rule of law.
There must be a trial, there must be witnesses. All sorts of things are done to
establish the rule of law in the land.

But ultimately and finally, and you see this at
the very end of the chapter in verses 33-34, the point is made that all sin in
the land of Israel ultimately is against God.
When murder is committed in
the land, what’s so bad about that? You’ve defiled the land where God is.

What does that remind you of? Well, it reminds you
of David in Psalm 51. Have you ever wondered why David, after killing Uriah, can
say to God, “Against You and You only have I sinned”? And you want to say, “Wait
a second! Wait a second, David! You’ve sinned pretty good against Uriah, there!
You killed him. You murdered him.” But Numbers 35…ultimately when you murder,
who is it that you’re sinning against? God, who dwells in the land.

And so this passage reminds us that just as God
was in the midst of the camp of Israel, so He is going to be in the land of
Israel, and therefore Israel is going to have to do what? Live differently than
the unholy nations around us. And of course that’s the lesson for believers
today. Within the fellowship of God’s church, we are to live differently than
the pagans around us. Why? Because God is in our midst.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this great word.
Thank You for this book of Numbers, from which we’ve learned so much; and we
ask, O Lord, that You would bless its truth to our hearts, to Your glory, and to
our everlasting well-being. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Would you stand for God’s blessing.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our
Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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