World Wide Study Bible


a Bible passage

Click a verse to see commentary

Cities for the Levites


In the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2Command the Israelites to give, from the inheritance that they possess, towns for the Levites to live in; you shall also give to the Levites pasture lands surrounding the towns. 3The towns shall be theirs to live in, and their pasture lands shall be for their cattle, for their livestock, and for all their animals. 4The pasture lands of the towns, which you shall give to the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the town outward a thousand cubits all around. 5You shall measure, outside the town, for the east side two thousand cubits, for the south side two thousand cubits, for the west side two thousand cubits, and for the north side two thousand cubits, with the town in the middle; this shall belong to them as pasture land for their towns.

6 The towns that you give to the Levites shall include the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit a slayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two towns. 7The towns that you give to the Levites shall total forty-eight, with their pasture lands. 8And as for the towns that you shall give from the possession of the Israelites, 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 obtains, shall give of its towns to the Levites.

Cities of Refuge

9 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 10Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. 12The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation.

13 The cities that you designate shall be six cities of refuge for you: 14you shall designate three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. 15These six cities shall serve as refuge for the Israelites, for the resident or transient alien among them, so that anyone who kills a person without intent may flee there.

Concerning Murder and Blood Revenge

16 But anyone who strikes another with an iron object, and death ensues, is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. 17Or anyone who strikes another with a stone in hand that could cause death, and death ensues, is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. 18Or anyone who strikes another with a weapon of wood in hand that could cause death, and death ensues, is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. 19The avenger of blood is the one who shall put the murderer to death; when they meet, the avenger of blood shall execute the sentence. 20Likewise, if someone pushes another from hatred, or hurls something at another, lying in wait, and death ensues, 21or in enmity strikes another with the hand, and death ensues, then the one who struck the blow shall be put to death; that person is a murderer; the avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death, when they meet.

22 But if someone pushes another suddenly without enmity, or hurls any object without lying in wait, 23or, while handling any stone that could cause death, unintentionally drops it on another and death ensues, though they were not enemies, and no harm was intended, 24then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these ordinances; 25and the congregation shall rescue the slayer from the avenger of blood. Then the congregation shall send the slayer back to the original city of refuge. The slayer shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. 26But if the slayer shall at any time go outside the bounds of the original city of refuge, 27and is found by the avenger of blood outside the bounds of the city of refuge, and is killed by the avenger, no bloodguilt shall be incurred. 28For the slayer must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest; but after the death of the high priest the slayer may return home.

29 These things shall be a statute and ordinance for you throughout your generations wherever you live.

30 If anyone kills another, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness. 31Moreover you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer who is subject to the death penalty; a murderer must be put to death. 32Nor shall you accept ransom for one who has fled to a city of refuge, enabling the fugitive to return to live in the land before the death of the high priest. 33You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. 34You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell; for I the Lord dwell among the Israelites.

Select a resource above

1. And the Lord spake unto Moses. Although there was no inheritance assigned to the tribe of Levi, yet it was necessary that they should be supplied with dwelling-places. No lands were given then where they might sow and reap; but by way of compensation the tithes were a sufficient means of subsistence, even after deducting the tithes which were paid to the poor. God now, however, makes provision for their residences; and here we must carefully remark, that they were so distributed over the whole land, as to be, as it were, guards regularly posted for the preservation of the worship of God, lest any superstition should creep in, or the people should fall into gross contempt of God. For we know that they were chosen by Him, not only to attend to the ceremonies, but to be the interpreters of the law, and to cherish sincere piety among the people. Now if all had been placed in one station, it was dangerous lest the doctrine of the Law should immediately fall into oblivion through the whole land; and thus the other tribes should grow irreligious. Wherefore the incomparable goodness of God here shone forth, since their punishment was turned as it were into a reward of virtue, and their disgrace into honor; for this dispersion of the tribe of Levi had been foretold by the holy patriarch Jacob, (Genesis 46:7,) that their posterity should be scattered in that land, which Levi the father of their race had polluted by a detestable murder and wicked perfidy. God proved eventually that this prophecy, which proceeded from Him, did not fall to the ground unfulfilled; nevertheless, although the Levites were to be banished here and there in token of their disgrace, yet were they set in various parts of the land, that they might retain the other tribes under the yoke of the Law. It was then in God’s wonderful providence that they were rather placed in peculiar and fixed residences, than allowed to mingle themselves promiscuously with the rest of the people; for the cities which God assigned to them were so many schools, where they might better and more freely engage themselves in teaching the Law, and prepare themselves for performing the office of teaching. For if they had lived indiscriminately among the multitude, they were liable to contract many vices, as well as to neglect the study of the Law; but when they were thus collected into separate classes, such an union reminded them that they were divided from the people that they might devote themselves altogether to God. Besides, their cities were like lamps shining into the very furthest corners of the land. They were therefore fortified, as it were, by walls, lest the corruptions of the people should penetrate to them. Their association together also should have stimulated them mutually to exhort each other to confinehey, decent and modest manners, temperance, and other virtues worthy of God’s servants; whilst, if they fell into dissolute habits, they were the less excusable. Thus their cities were like watch towers in which they might keep guard, so as to drive impiety away from the borders of the holy land. Hence was the light of heavenly doctrine diffused; hence was the seed of life scattered; hence were the examples to be sought of holiness and universal integrity.

4. And the suburbs of the cities. A discrepancy here appears, from whence a question arises; for Moses first limits the suburbs to a thousand cubits from the city in every direction; and then seems to extend them to two thousand. Some thus explain the difficulty, viz., that the parts nearest to the city were destined for cottages and gardens; and that then there was another space of a thousand cubits left free for their flocks and herds; but this seems only to be invented, in order to elude by the subterfuge the contradiction objected to. My own opinion rather is, that after Moses had given them a boundary of a thousand cubits on every side, he proceeds to shew the way in which they were to be measured, that thus he may obviate all the quarrels which might aria: from their neighbors. It is plain that, when he repeats the same thing twice, the latter verse is only an explanation of the former; and thus it would be absurd, that after having fixed a thousand cubits, he should immediately double that number. But it will be all very consistent, if this measurement be taken in a circuit; for if you draw a circle, and then a line from the center to the circumference, that line will be about a tenth part of the whole circumference; compare then the fourth part of the circle with the straight line which goes to the center, and it will be greater by one part and a half. But, if you leave a thousand cubits for the city, the two thousand cubits 199199     “Les huit mille coudees prinses aux quatre quatriers conviendront avec les mille coudees d’espace entre la ville, et les bornes des fanbourgs.” — Fr. The more common solution of this difficulty appears to be that suggested by Maimonides, viz., that besides the 1000 cubits allotted to the suburbs, 2000 more were added for fields and vineyards. Rosenmuller, however, demurs to this interpretation, which he does not consider the text will bear. I have translated C. word for word, but I believe his figures are wrong. It is probable that his theory is the same as that of Corn. a Lapide, which he thus more clearly propounds, “God seems here to comprise the city and its suburbs in a circle, so that the center should be the city, and the circumference should end at the distance of 1000 cubits on every side of the city walls. This circle He divides into four triangles, each of which is isosceles, i e., it, has its two sides equal, which are drawn from the center to the circumference. God, therefore, here commands, that the suburbs on every side should be extended a thousand cubits, and that the east side should be contained in two lines (each, of course, of 1000 cubits) drawn from the city to the circumference of the suburbs, which two lines comprehend that east side in the shape of a triangle;” and so also with the other sides, “so that the two lines drawn to the circumference of each side, which are the two equal sides of the triangle, should together contain 2000 cubits." in the four parts of the circumference will correspond with one thousand cubits from the city towards each of the boundaries.

It is afterwards prescribed, in accordance with equity, that a greater or less number of cities should be taken according to the size of the possessions belonging to each tribe; for, just as in paying tax or tribute, regard is had to each man’s means, so it was just that every tribe should contribute equitably in proportion to its abundance. As to the cities of refuge, I now omit to explain what their condition was, because this matter relates to the Sixth Commandment; only let us observe that the wretched exiles were entrusted to the care of the Levites, that they might be more safely guarded. Besides, it was probable that those who presided over holy things would be upright and honest judges, so as not to admit men indiscriminately out of hope of advantage, or from carelessness, but only to protect the innocent, after duly examining their case.

10. Speak unto the children of Israel God appointed the cities of refuge, not only to make distinction between sills of malice and error, but also lest innocent blood should be rashly shed. Thus far we have seen how severely He would have murder punished: but, inasmuch as it would have been by no means just that he, who had not willfully but accidentally killed his neighbor, should be hurried away to the same punishment, to which willful murderers were subjected, an exception is added here, in order that he might escape who had killed another ignorantly, and unintentionally. Although, as has been said, God had a, further object, viz., lest murder upon murder should be committed, and the land should thus be polluted. Let us now examine the details in order. Although at the outset He only mentions the cities on the other side of Jordan, still we gather from what follows, that six cities were chosen for this purpose, of which three were on this side Jordan. He would have them so situated, that every part of the country should have one of them in its neighborhood, lest the exile of the unhappy persons, who were guiltless, should be rendered more painful by the distance they would have to travel. We have already briefly pointed out 5252     See vol. 2 p. 251, on Numbers 35:6. that these cities were to be in the portions of Levi, in order that the dignity of the priesthood might the better protect the exiles, and also, because it was probable that there would be more prudence and serious feeling in the Levites, so that the refuge accorded to the innocent should not also shield the guilty.

16. And if he smite him with an instrument of iron. God appears to contradict Himself, when, a little further on, He absolves involuntary murderers, although they may have inflicted the wound with iron or with a stone; whilst here He absolutely declares that whosoever shall smite another with wood, or iron, or a stone, shall be guilty of death; but this is easily explained if we consider his meaning; for, after having pardoned the unintentional act (errori,) lest 5353     “De peur que cela ne tirast trop longue queue, et que les criminels en fissent couverture d’impunite, il exprime notamment les facons de tuer plus communes, quand on y va de guet-a-pens. Ainsi en nommant les instrumens, qui sont destinez, ou qu’on applique a mal faire,” etc.; for fear this should be carried too far, and that criminals should make it a ground for impunity, he expressly mentions the more ordinary kinds of deliberate murder. Thus, by naming the instruments, which are intended, or used for inflicting injuries, etc. — Fr. any should misconstrue this as affording impunity for crime, He at once anticipates them, and again inculcates what has been said before. By the express mention of iron, wood, and stone, He more dearly explains that no voluntary murders are to be pardoned; else, as laws are wont to be evaded by various subtleties, they would have endeavored, perhaps, to limit what had been said respecting the punishment of murderers to one single species of murder, viz., when a person had been slain with a sword. It is not, then, without cause that God condemns to death every kind of murderer, whether he have committed the crime with a weapon (of iron,) or by throwing a stone, or with a dub; since it is sufficient for his condemnation that he had conceived the intention to do the evil act. It is well known that 5454     Vide Digest. 48, tit. 8. In legem Corneliam de Sicariis, et Veneficiis, 1 Section 3. “Divus Hadrianus rescripsit, eum, qui hominem occidit, si non occidendi animo hoc admisit, absolvi posse: et qui hominem non occidit, sed vulneravit ut occidat, pro homicida damnandum: et ex re constituendum hoc.” — Ibid., 11 “Ulpianus, lib. 8, ad legem Juliam, et Papiam. Nihil interest, occidat quis, an causam mortis praebeat.” Vide item, Julii Pauli Recept. Sentent., lib. 5, tit. 23, Section 2. “Qui hominem occiderit, aliquando absolvitur. Et qui non occidit, in homicida damnatur. Consilium enim uniuscujusque, non factum puniendum est. Ideoque qui cum velit occidere, id casu aliquo perpetrare non potuerit, ut homicida punietur. Et is, qui casu jactu teli hominem imprudenter occiderit, absolvitur.” by the Lex Cornelia, whosoever had carried a weapon with the intention of killing a man was guilty; and Martianus cites the reply of Adrian, — He who has killed a man, if he did it not with the intention of killing him, may be absolved; and he who has not killed a man, but has wounded him with intention to kill him, is to be condemned as a murderer; as Paulus also teaches, that in the said Lex Cornelia, the evil intention (dolus) is taken for the deed. Another reply of Adrian is very true, That in crimes, the will and not the result must be regarded. Whence that saying of Ulpian, That there is no difference between the man who kills, and him who causes the death of another. Here, therefore, God had no other object than to cut off from murderers all handles for subterfuge, if they should be convicted of a wicked intention, especially when it resulted in an actual attempt; since there was no difference whether they had made use of a sword, or a mallet, or a stone.

19. The revenger 5555     “Propinquus sanguinis.” — Lat. of blood himself. When God commanded that murderers should suffer death, He required that they should be condemned by the judges after due trial; but it seems to savor somewhat of barbarism, that he should now permit the relative of the dead man to take vengeance; for it is a very bad precedent to give the power of the sword to private individuals, and this too in their own cause. It; was indeed formerly permitted, as we shall see in its proper place, to put to death robbers by night, as also it was lawful for the husband, or the father, of a ravished woman to kill the adulterer caught in the fact; but it is absurd that the law should allow a person to avenge the death of his brother. But it is not to be supposed that this license was ever accorded by God, that a man might neglect the public authorities, and inflict punishment on his brothers murderer, wherever he should meet him; for this would have been to give the reins to sudden anger, so that blood would be added to blood. Wherefore it is probable that the danger of this is here denounced, rather than the gate opened to private vengeance; as if it had been said, that unless a provision were made for the innocent, the fury of those whose kindred had been slain, could hardly be restrained; not because it was lawful for them to render violence for violence, but because they would not consider it a crime, and impunity would prove a stimulus even to them, if their just indignation should be pardoned. It must be understood, then, that when a man had been maliciously and willfully killed, a death inflicted by his relative in vengeance was not punished; because it was hard that a man should be capitally condemned as a criminal, who had only slain a murderer already exposed to capital punishment, under the impulse of that love towards his own blood, which is naturally implanted in all. This, however, was tolerated, and not approved of, because, as I have already said, punishments are to be inflicted by public judgment, and not by private will. But, since this indulgence was conceded on account of the people’s hardness of heart, God here reminds them how needful it was to provide an asylum for the innocent, because all murderers would else have been indiscriminately attacked. In short, a comparison is made between the guilty and the innocent, for, unless a just distinction had been drawn, all alike would have been exposed to death. The murderer, he says, is worthy of death, if, perchance, he is met by the kinsman of the man murdered. A remedy is, therefore, to be provided, lest one who is not criminal should accidentally receive the same punishment. Hence, at length it is gathered that a distinction is made between one and the other, by a lawful trial. The mode of procedure is also prescribed, viz., that the congregation should acquit the man who has killed another unwittingly. But because there is some perplexity in the words, it must be observed, that as soon as a person had slain another, he immediately betook himself to the place of refuge, and there declared that he sought shelter. After this declaration, it was open for the relatives of the dead man to lay their accusation, and then, after both parties were heard, judgment was pronounced. Otherwise there is a manifest contradiction in the context, since it is presently added; they “shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled,” whence it appears that, after the exile had presented himself to state his case, and to clear himself, it was usual that a day should be appointed, upon which his accusers should come forward. The sum is, that the murderer should nowhere find refuge, except he were acquitted of his crime. This was an excellent precaution, lest the same punishment should be inflicted upon mischance and criminality, whilst 5656     The Fr. gives a different turn to this sentence; “que pour obvier a un nouveau meurtre en bannissant pour un temps celuy, qui avoit tue quelqu’un par erreur;” as well as to prevent a fresh murder, by banishing, for a time, the person who had killed another unintentionally. at the same time, by the temporary banishment it was testified how carefully bloodshed was to be avoided. God likewise spared the eyes of those whose brother had been killed, lest their grief should be kept alive by continually beholding (the person who had killed him; 5757     Added from Fr. ) and this we gather from verse 26, where impunity is conceded to the relations, if they had caught and killed out of the boundaries of his refuge the man, whose duty it was to withdraw himself; not because the fury of their indignation was excused before God, but because it would else have been difficult to restrain the strong desire of vengeance proceeding from the feelings of human nature.

28. Because he should have remained in the city of his refuge. The period of banishment is prescribed, “until the death of the high-priest,” because it would have been anything but humane that all hopes of restoration should have been cut off from the unhappy exile; and, when a new priest succeeded to reconcile the people to God, this renewal of grace was to propitiate all offenses. Wherefore it was not unreasonable that God should entirely restore those who were only punished for inadvertency.

30. Whoso killeth any person, He now returns to willful murderers, whom he will not have spared, but yet not given over to punishment unless convicted by legal proofs. Literally it is, Whoso smiteth a soul, at the mouth of witnesses he shall slay him that slayeth: and this sentence is obscure, from its brevity, unless a noun be supplied before the second verb; and this may be understood either of the judges or the accuser. In the substance, however, there is no ambiguity, viz., that no one should be condemned unless he be lawfully convicted. Moreover, He declares that one witness would be insufficient, inasmuch as it would be most unjust that a man’s life should be at the mercy of a single tongue. I have already adduced a similar passage, 5858     Deuteronomy 17:6. See ante, p. 45. in which Moses gave instructions that no capital causes was to be decided except at the mouth of two or three witnesses: and, because such declarations are of general application, I have purposely assigned to them a separate place. Now again, in referring to the condemnation of murderers, he takes occasion to state that two witnesses are required, since nothing is more likely to occur than that the innocent should be overwhelmed by calumnies and perjury, if it depended on the testimony of any single individual. But, when two are brought forward, it may be discovered in many ways, as has been said, whether there is any falsehood; for, if examined separately, they will scarcely accord in all particulars. But, whilst sure proof is required, in order to the punishment of guilt, so, when the murder is proved, God sternly requires, and commands that it should not remain unpunished. He expressly forbids that the right of refuge should be purchasable, since it would else have been in danger of being a shield for many crimes. When, therefore, He forbids a satisfaction to be taken from any one, who would betake himself to a city of refuge, His object is, that no one should enjoy this benefit, until his innocence was fully established; lest the mercy, whereby the innocent were succored, should be open to bribery.

33. So ye shall not pollute the land. In this concluding sentence, He again reminds them that, unless they should exercise severe justice against murderers, they would be guilty of sin against God; because the land stained with human blood is polluted, and lying under His curse, until expiation has been made. Again, since God dwells in the land of Canaan, having chosen His abode among the children of Israel, his sanctity is also profaned. The sum is, that, in every respect, care should be taken lest the land, which is sacred to God, should be contaminated by bloodshed.