Bible Commentaries
Numbers 35

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 2


(2) Cities to dwell in.—The object of the dispersion of the Levites throughout the other tribes seems to have been primarily with a view to the instruction of their brethren in the law of the Lord (Deuteronomy 33:10). It is probable that the Levites also discharged all those other functions which are now discharged by the learned professions.

And ye shall give also unto the Levites suburbs . . . —The word migrash, “suburb,” denotes, probably, pasture ground into which flocks are driven.

Verse 3

(3) For their cattle . . . —The word which is rendered “cattle” generally denotes oxen and beasts of burden. The word which is rendered “goods” probably refers here to the sheep and goats. (Cf. 2 Chronicles 21:14; 2 Chronicles 35:7.) The passage may be rendered, for their cattle and for their substance, even for all their beasts.

Verse 5

(5) And ye shall measure from without the city on the east side two thousand cubits . . . —The explanation of this passage commonly given by Jewish writers is that the area included by four lines drawn at a distance of 1,000 cubits from the walls of the city was to be allotted to the Levites for their cattle, and a larger area included by four lines drawn at a distance of 2,000 cubits from the inner suburbs was to be allotted to them for vineyards, &c. The explanation of J. D. Michaelis is, that only an area included by four lines drawn at a distance of 1,000 cubits from the walls of the city was to be assigned to the Levites, and that the length of the city walls, supposing the city to be square, was to be added to the 2,000 cubits of the four boundary lines. The Greek text has 2,000 in Numbers 35:4 as in Numbers 35:5. According to the former of these explanations it is supposed that the space included in the first thousand cubits from the city walls was designed for the cattle, and that the space included in the 2,000 cubits beyond the walls was designed for vineyards, &c., or vice versa. According to the explanation of this passage which has been suggested by J. D. Michaelis, it is supposed that the length of the city wall was added to the 2,000 cubits in every case, so that, e.g., in the case of a city the walls of which were 1,000 cubits in length and breadth, the suburbs would be 3,000 cubits in length and breadth; and in the case of a city the walls of which were 500 cubits in length and breadth, the suburbs would measure 2,500 cubits in length and breadth. It is obvious that, if this supposition be correct, the size of the suburbs would vary in each case with that of the city, so that the suburbs of the larger city, in which there would, in all probability, be a greater number of resident Levites, would be greater than those of a smaller city, in which the number of Levites would probably be less. At the same time, the explanation does not accord so nearly as the preceding with the direction that in every case the measure was to be 2,000 cubits.

Click image for full-size version

Verses 6-8

(6, 7, 8) And among the cities which ye shall give . . . —The construction of this verse is involved; or, rather, there is a suspension of the subject in Numbers 35:6, and a resumption of it in Numbers 35:7-8. The verses may be rendered thus: And as to the cities which ye shall give to the Levites, viz., the six cities of refuge which ye shall give that the manslayer may flee thither (and in addition to these ye shall give forty and two cities); as to all the cities which ye shall give to the Levites, viz., forty and eight cities, them and their suburbs; now as to the cities which ye shall give from the possession of the children of Israel; from the many ye shall take many, and from the few ye shall take few . . . It had already been announced in general terms that a place should be appointed whither any one should flee who had unintentionally smitten a man so that he died, and had not lain in wait with a view to commit murder (Exodus 21:12-13). In the verses which follow, the law is delivered at length, and is repeated and further expanded in Deuteronomy 19:1-13. There were many reasons why all the cities of refuge were Levitical cities. Of these reasons the chief probably were:—(1) That these cities were specially consecrated to the Lord (see Joshua 20:7, “And they appointed,” &c.—Heb., consecrated); and (2) that it was to the priests and Levites that the people looked as administrators of justice.

Verses 10-11

(10, 11) When ye be come over Jordan . . . —Or, Ye are going over the Jordan into the land of Canaan; and ye shall appoint . . .

Verse 12

(12) And they shall be unto you cities for refuge . . . —Better, And the cities shall be unto you for refuge (or, as a place of refuge) from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stand before the congregation for judgment. The avenger (Heb., goel) was the near kinsman whose office it was to redeem the person or inheritance of his kinsman, if that kinsman was reduced by poverty to sell himself into slavery, or to sell his inheritance; and also to avenge his blood in the event of his being slain. (See Leviticus 25:25-55, and Notes.) The law of the goel, as contained in this chapter, served to keep in check the excited passions of the near relations of the man who had been slain, and to secure for him a fair and impartial trial. The duties which devolved upon the congregation are stated in Numbers 35:24-25. Christ, as our “Redeemer” (Heb., goel), ever lives (Job 19:25). He has redeemed the persons and the inheritance of His people by His death; and He will in the last great day, ransom them from the power of the grave, and redeem them from death (Hosea 13:4, where the cognate verb to goel occurs), and will avenge their blood on them that dwell on the earth (Revelation 6:10).

Verse 14

(14) Ye shall give three cities on this side Jordan.—The meaning of the Hebrew word which is here rendered “on this side” is determined by the words “in the land of Canaan,” which describe the position of the three cities on the west of the Jordan. Otherwise the Hebrew word is applicable equally to the cities on the east and to those on the west of the Jordan. Moses himself appointed the three cities on the east of the Jordan—viz., Bezer, in the country of the Reubenites; Ramoth in Gilead, in the country of the Gadites; and Golan in Bashan, in the country of the Manassites (Deuteronomy 4:43). The three cities on the west of the Jordan were not appointed until the land had been allotted amongst the nine tribes and a half (Joshua 20:7), when the original appointment of Moses in regard to the three cities on the east of the Jordan was confirmed (Joshua 20:8). It is supposed that the six cities were so selected that no one should be above thirty miles from the nearest city of refuge.

Verse 15

(15) For the stranger, and for the sojourner . . . —The word ger, “stranger,” properly denotes a foreigner who took up a temporary abode amongst the Israelites; whereas toshab, “sojourner,” denotes one who was settled in Israel. Sometimes, however, the words ger and toshab appear to be used as a compound term, as in Leviticus 25:47, where they occur with the conjunctive (or disjunctive) particle in the former part of the verse, and without it in the latter. “The cities of refuge,” says Dr. Gill, “were of God’s appointing: so Christ, as a Saviour and rock of refuge to His people, is appointed and foreordained of God; they were well known for refuges, as the Lord is in the palaces of Zion; they were open for all at all times, as Christ is for all sinners, even the chief of sinners—Jews or Gentiles; they are all one in Christ—the Israelites, and the stranger and sojourner; all impediments were removed out of the way of them, and plain directions given, as are in the Gospel, and by the ministers of it; and there is always room in Christ for such that flee to Him, as there was in those cities; and being in Him, they are safe from the curse and condemnation of the law, from wrath to come, and from the second death; and their redemption and atonement, peace and reconciliation, liberty, life and salvation, are owing to the death of Christ, their High Priest.” (Comp. Numbers 15:29.)

Verse 17

(17) And if he smite . . . —Better, And if he smote . . .

With throwing a stone.—Literally, with a stone of the handi.e., a stone held in the hand, whether thrown or used as the “weapon of wood” of Numbers 35:18.

And he die.—Better, and he died.

Verse 20

(20) But if he thrust him . . . —Better, And if . . .

That he die.—Better, that he died. So in Numbers 35:21-23.

Verses 22-23

(22, 23) But if he thrust him suddenly . . . —See Deuteronomy 19:4-5, where the meaning of the law is illustrated.

Verse 25

(25) And he shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest.—Although the death which had been occasioned was accidental, not intentional, nevertheless the shedding of blood demanded expiation. The manslayer was, therefore, required to remain an exile from his own home until the death of the high priest who had been anointed with the holy oil. As the high priest, by reason of the anointing with the holy oil, became qualified to act as the representative of the nation, and in that capacity acted as their mediator on the great day of atonement, so the death of the high priest assumed a symbolical or representative character, and became a type of that of the great High Priest who, through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God, and who by His death made a propitiation for the sins of the world. Thus, as by the death of the Jewish high priest a typical atonement was made for the sin of the Israelitish manslayer, and he was restored thereupon to “the land of his possession” amongst his brethren, so by the death of our High Priest they who have fled for refuge to lay hold on the hope set before them, are restored to the inheritance which had been forfeited by sin, and made joint heirs with Christ of those mansions which He has gone before to prepare for those who love Him.

Verse 26

(26) But if the slayer shall at any time come without the border of the city . . . —As the bodily safety of the Israelite who had slain a man depended upon his strict observance of the law which required him to remain within the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, so in the same way the spiritual safety of the believer depends upon his exclusive reliance upon the merits and efficacy of the atoning death and righteousness of Christ, seeing that “there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we may be saved; neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12).

Verse 30

(30) By the mouth of witnesses.—The number of witnesses is not here specified. In Deuteronomy 17:6 it is ordained that the crime of idolatry should be punished with death “at the mouth of two witnesses, or of three witnesses;” and in Deuteronomy 19:15 it is ordained in general terms that “one witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.”

Verses 31-32

(31, 32) Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer . . . —The Israelites were not allowed to make terms with the relatives of the man who had been slain, as is not unfrequently the case at the present time; nor were they permitted to allow the man who had slain any one unintentionally to return home from the city of refuge before the death of the high priest, on the payment of a sum of money by way of compensation.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Numbers 35". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.