Feb. 26 Reading: Numbers 35-36 Commentary

Below is our Numbers 35-36 commentary from our Beginning to End Bible reading program. You can find an email link at the end of this page to share your thoughts or comments with us.

Key Verse(s):

“Command the Israelites to give the Levites towns to live in from the inheritance the Israelites will possess. And give them pasturelands around the towns. Then they will have towns to live in and pasturelands for the cattle they own and all their other animals.”(Num. 35:2-3)

Numbers 35

The book of Numbers closes with God again showing care and consideration for the needs of the people. In Numbers 35, we read about him designating cities for the Levites to live in and setting up six “cities of refuge” in various parts of the land.

Levite Cities

commentaryGod chose men from the tribe of Levi to serve at the tabernacle. These men and their families did not inherit any land among the rest of the tribes. Their inheritance was to serve the Lord all their days.

However, they still needed a place to live to take care of their families and their livestock. Instead of having them live all in one place, God decided to distribute them throughout the land into 48 different cities (v. 7). God also granted them use of common land outside the city to take care of their animals (vv. 3-5).

Joshua 21 names the exact cities designated for the Levites. Six of them became cities of refuge (see below). (A map of Levitical cities and cities of refuge is provided here.)

At first glance, this may seem like an odd arrangement. However, this actually fulfilled part of a prophecy on Simeon and Levi from their massacre of the men of Shechem (Gen. 34). As punishment, God (through Jacob) said that he would “divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:5-7). So that happens here for the tribe of Levi. (Most historians believe the tribe of Simeon assimilated into the tribe of Judah or migrated into other tribes.)

In a way, it turns out to be a blessing in disguise for the people. Instead of being in a central location, the Levites were spread throughout the nation. Remember that the Levites had shown their zeal for the Lord in the golden calf incident, rallying to Moses’ side to rid the camp of those who sinned (Exodus 32). Now, they would be able to show the same devotion to the Lord by serving the people’s spiritual needs in their specific region.

Cities of Refuge

In addition to the Levite cities, God commanded Moses to set up specific cities to which people could flee if they had accidentally killed someone (v. 11). These were called cities of refuge. Three were set up to the east and west of the Jordan River. But why did these need to be set up in the first place? 

In that ancient culture, the established penalty for taking a life was death. The death was typically avenged by the family of the person who was killed. There were no repercussions for the avenger since that was the custom of the time. 

But there had to be a way to protect innocent people before a trial and to protect those who had not committed premediated murder. So God selected six of the Levitical cities that served as safe havens. The person guilty of unintentional killing could go to one of these cites and be safe.

They would stay there and await their trial before the congregation where the evidence could be heard. This prevented someone from taking matters into their own hands and exacting justice or vengeance on the person without due process.

City of Refuge Regulations

God outlines a host of circumstances of intentional and unintentional deaths (vv. 16-23) and what the response of the congregation should be in each case. Additionally, God told Moses the specific provisions for seeking refuge. They were:

1. The killing had to be accidental (vv. 16-21).

2. The person had to go immediately to the city of refuge. One could only be safe if they were within the city walls. They were not considered safe if they chose to leave the city (vv. 26-28).

3. There was a statute of limitations on the avenger. Once the high priest died, the person was safe to leave the city and could not be slain (vv. 25, 28).

4. This law applied to citizens and foreigners (v. 15).

5. One could not pay a ransom to absolve oneself of murder (v. 31).

Numbers 36

Zelophehad’s daughters come back to the forefront in Numbers 36, the last chapter of this book. In Numbers 27, they brought a request to Moses about inheriting their father’s land because he had died in the wilderness with no sons. God gave Moses permission to grant their request and the land passed to them.

That was an unusual decision in that time, for women typically did not inherit land. But God saw their circumstance as valid and upended the traditional order of things with his command.

Now, certain chiefs of several families are concerned about the possible complications with this decision. There concern reads as such:

“When the Lord commanded my lord to give the land as an inheritance to the Israelites by lot, he ordered you to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. Now suppose they marry men from other Israelite tribes; then their inheritance will be taken from our ancestral inheritance and added to that of the tribe they marry into. And so part of the inheritance allotted to us will be taken away. When the Year of Jubilee for the Israelites comes, their inheritance will be added to that of the tribe into which they marry, and their property will be taken from the tribal inheritance of our ancestors.” (Num 36:2-4)

Follow that? In essence, they worried that the inheritances of multiple families would get mixed together. It would be impossible for the tribes to know who owned what.

God had a solution for this as well. He commanded that, in this type of circumstance, the woman could marry but only within their own tribe. This way, the land would not change hands from tribe to tribe (vv. 6-8). The daughters of Zelophehad obeyed and did exactly as the Lord commanded (vv. 10-12).

Questions to Consider:

God gets your unusual or difficult circumstance. Nothing surprises him about where you are at or what you are going through.

The book of Numbers concludes with God providing cover for people who find themselves in unusual circumstances. It shows he is aware of all types of scenarios that could occur in one’s life. Are you willing to trust in his plan no matter how oddly it seems your life is turning out?

What other points would you want to know about in our Numbers 35-36 commentary? Email us here with questions or comments.