Good morning! Thank you again for sticking with these readings even when they’re difficult, and for sharing with me your progress when we meet in person. Your encouragement helps me greatly, and I’m so thankful for that which I’ve heard recently!
Today’s final two chapters of this book (Numbers 35-36) give an interesting window into the Hebrew criminal justice system, and then finish by returning to the question of marriage practices for women with inheritances of land. The concern of these chapters, as throughout the book of Numbers, is the organization of Hebrew life in faithfulness to the promises and sovereignty of God.
Remember that in preceding chapters each tribe was promised a certain amount of land once Canaan was conquered. This excluded the Levites, who were never promised a specific region as an inheritance. Instead, Chapter 35 provides a certain number of set-aside towns and pastureland for the Levites, spread proportionally among the tribes and territories of Israel. These include six “cities of refuge”, which are provided as safe havens for those who unintentionally commit manslaughter. Slayers are protected from retribution within the sanctuary of these city walls, at least until their guilt is determined by trial and the testimony of at least two eyewitnesses. Those found to have intentionally committed murder are not protected—they are immediately condemned to death in retribution. The “avenger of blood” (presumably a male family member) is responsible to seek out and kill the murderer. Note that the whole congregation is authorized to make judgment. Though we don’t hear how this takes place or what happens where the decision is not unanimous, this is perhaps an early precedent for trial by jury of one’s peers. Those who kill someone by accident are still forced into exile at a city of refuge until the death of the high priest. These six cities were something like penal colonies for all Israel, in addition to permanent homes for the Levites who live there. The high priest’s death allows those exiled in cities of refuge to return to their family and ancestral land throughout Israel. I’m curious why this sign was chosen, but perhaps it goes along with a sense of good will, freedom and forgiveness as a new high priest takes over. As described here, the “cities of refuge” policy establishes serious punishment for those who accidentally kill another, but also creates the possibility of eventual rehabilitation and return to one’s community. Remember that this is only for those guilty of unintentional manslaughter. Murder pollutes the land with blood (similar language as in the first murder of Abel by Cain) and can only be purified by corresponding blood of the murderer. This penal provision is how the Israelites are instructed to honor the God who dwells among them.
Numbers 36 hearkens back to chapter 27, which established the right of women to inherit property if there were no immediate male heirs. The tribe of Manassah (which includes the women who inherited their father Zelophehad’s land) are concerned that when these women or others in their situation marry outside the tribe, their portion of land will attach permanently to another tribe. Therefore, Moses issues a policy addendum: Israelite women with an inheritance of land must marry into their own tribe, so that the land allotted to each tribe stays constant. In this way, the placement of the tribes around the tabernacle—established at the beginning of Numbers and generally replicated in the geographic assignment of Canaanite land—is to be preserved, an everlasting manifestation of God’s promises.
Enjoy a day off of reading tomorrow! We’ll begin Deuteronomy after a leap day break. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for March 1st is Deuteronomy 1-3. Thanks for reading!