April 30, 2008
Numbers — With God in the Wilderness
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 Christ.
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 apart.
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 cities.
“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 Levites.’
“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 places.
“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 people.
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 Levites. 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 cities. 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 presence.
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 generation.
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.
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.