From Slaves to Soldiers

Chapter 35

Yahweh had told Aaron that he and his descendants or any of the tribe of Levi wouldn’t get even a small plot of land for an inheritance. Yahweh was the inheritance[1] of the priests among the chosen people. The tithes and offerings of the people of Israel were to belong to the Levites as payment for the work they did in the Tent of Meeting. [2] Yahweh told Moses while they were on the Plains of Moab at Jordan-Jericho that he was to tell Israel to give the Levites towns to live in as their part of the inheritance. The towns were to have plenty of land around them for pastures for cattle and flocks. Theirs was to be a live of service to the people and, in return, the people were to supply their material needs.

The pastures around the towns were to spread 1,500 feet in every direction from the walls of each city and, outside the borders; the pastures were to measure three thousand feet on each side. The towns were to be in the center of each plot.

There were to be forty-eight towns in all – forty-two besides the towns of refuge. They were to be proportioned according to the size of each tribe – the more people in a tribe, the more towns for the Levities. The Levites were to be spread out and available to all the tribes.

Six of the Levitical towns were to be for protection for anyone who accidently killed another person. Yahweh told Moses that if someone were to hit another man so that he died the penalty for the murderer was death unless the man hit the dead man by mistake. Yahweh is full of mercy and grace and because there was no intent to kill and Yahweh didn’t prevent it, it was an “act of God” and Yahweh would set apart a place of refuge for the killer.[3] Anyone who killed someone could go to these cities until he went to court to determine whether he was guilty of manslaughter or murder. When the accused impulsively pushed someone and there was no history of hard feelings between them and the other died, he would be innocent of murder. Other incidents where he should be judged innocent were when someone impetuously picked up something and threw it or accidentally dropped a stone tool and it hit and killed someone he didn’t even know was there. It was the task of the community to save the killer from the hand of the avenger in these cases. The community was to return him to his asylum-city to which he fled. He must stay there until the death of the High Priest who was anointed with the holy oil. Nevertheless, if the murderer left the asylum-city to which he had fled, and the avenger found him outside the borders of his asylum-city, the avenger had a right to kill the murderer and he would not be considered guilty of murder. A person guilty of involuntary manslaughter was a prisoner in the sanctuary city till the death of the High Priest.

There were to be three sanctuary towns on each side of the Jordan. They were to be for the foreigner as well as the Israelite – as long as the killer didn’t use an iron object, wooden club, or rock to kill. When it was an obvious murder, the killer couldn’t flee to a city of refuge. If it wasn’t an accident – or even an act of anger that resulted in death there should be no mercy. Premeditated murder deserves death.[4] In which case the avenger – the family member had the responsibility of holding the murderer accountable – had a right to kill the slaughterer on the spot.[5] This is not the kind of feud portrayed in Hollywood movies. Only the slayer was in danger, not his family or associates, and only one member of the victim’s family served as the blood avenger.

However, a person couldn’t be condemned without the testimony of more than one witness. Yahweh’s chosen people were not to accept bribe money to let a murderer – or someone found guilty of manslaughter – go free or condemn someone who was innocent. In Mesopotamia the state was responsible and anyone could begin the legal process by notifying the established authority. They would investigate the case and hold a trial. Historical records suggest that sometimes the members of the victim’s family could choose whether they preferred the execution of the slayer or compensation payment. Bribery was a way of life.[6] There are many parallels and overlapping themes within the Mosaic Law and various ANE law codes. These include the death penalty for murder. As Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke observed, Scripture’s incarnation within its historical environment does not negate its theological significance. Despite the overlap between the Mosaic Law and ANE legal texts, there are notable differences between them and significant moral advances made in the Mosaic Law. Israel’s law was far more concerned with the sanctity of life than Mesopotamian law. Because of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, laws intending to preserve both the family unit and Yahweh’s unique covenant/marriage relationship to Israel were paramount. Their violation was a serious matter that would undermine Israel’s very identity.[7] The Torah attempts to lay forth principles of right and wrong and to set up a just society, while the primary goal of the other codes is to preserve law and order.[8]

The Promised Land was to be cleansed of all the murder and degradation that it was soaked with from the evil of the people living there at the time Israel moved in. Israel was not to pollute the land themselves, with the blood of the innocents. Yahweh told Israel that the land could only be cleansed of the blood of murder through the blood of the murderer. They were to remember that Yahweh lived in the neighborhood with his people.


Summary of chapter 35

The Israelites were commanded to give the Levites, out of their inheritances, cities and their suburbs for themselves and their cattle, etc. The suburbs were to be 3,000 cubits around the walls of the cities. There were to be forty-eight cities in all, six of them were to be for refuge. Each tribe was to give cities in proportion to its size. These cities were to be appointed for the person who might slay his neighbor unintentionally. Of these six cities there was to be three on each side Jordan. The cities were to be places of refuge for anyone who killed a person inadvertently, whether they were an Israelite, a stranger or a sojourner. Yahweh listed cases of murder in which the benefit of the cities of refuge were not to extend. He also described cases of manslaughter in which the benefits of the cities of refuge would cover. Yahweh told the congregation how they should judge between the murderer and the avenger of blood. The man guilty only of manslaughter was to reside in the city of refuge till the death of the high priest at which time he could return to the land of his possession. Two witnesses must attest a murder before a murderer could be put to death and every murderer was to be put to death. The land was not be polluted with blood, for Yahweh dwelt in it with his people.


Prayer: Lord, thank you for the poets and songwriters who write lyrics and music that express my feelings so I can espouse them as my own communication to you. Yahweh, my God, how great you are! Beautifully, gloriously robed, you are dressed up in sunshine. All heaven is stretched out for your tent. You built your palace on the ocean deeps. You made a chariot out of clouds and took off on wind-wings. You commandeered winds as messengers, and appointed fire and flame as ambassadors. You set earth on a firm foundation so that nothing can shake it, ever. You blanketed earth with ocean waters and covered the mountains with deep waters. Then you roared and the water ran away. Your thunder crash put it to flight. Mountains pushed up and valleys spread out in the places you assigned them. You set boundaries between earth and sea. Never again will earth be flooded. You started the springs and rivers, and sent them flowing among the hills. All the wild animals now drink their fill – wild donkeys quench their thirst. Along the riverbanks the birds build nests – ravens make their voices heard. You water the mountains from your heavenly cisterns and earth is supplied with plenty of water. You make grass grow for the livestock and hay for the animals that plow the ground. What a wildly wonderful world, Yahweh! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, you made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.



Things to think about

  1. Why didn’t the tribe of Levi get any plots to farm?
  2. Why did the rest of the tribes have to share with the tribe of Levi?
  3. What did the nation get out of the arrangement of the priesthood?
  4. For what were the six sanctuary cities?
  5. What was the difference between murder and manslaughter?

6 Why do you think someone who committed manslaughter had to stay in a sanctuary city until the death of the High Priest?

  1. Why did the near relative of the person killed by a murderer have to carry out the punishment for the murderer? Why didn’t they just give the poor man life behind bars somewhere and give him or her a chance to get his or her life straightened out?



[1] Psalm 73:26; 142:; I Peter 2:9

[2] Page 176

[3] Exodus 21:14 – Out of bondage, Alison Kohn, page 158

[4] IBID

[5] Exodus 21:12-14; Deuteronomy 19:1-13

[6] Pamela Barmash, “Homicide in the Ancient Near East “, n.p. [cited 22 Mar 2017]. Pamela Barmash is professor of Hebrew Bible and biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis and served as director of Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies there. She is the author of Homicide in the Biblical World (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and is editor of Exodus in the Jewish Experience: Echoes and Reverberations (Lexington Books, 2015) and the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Biblical Law.




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