Understanding the Old Testament

Cities of the Levites

(All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible translation)

The Levites were unlike the other Israelite tribes in several ways. In the Israelite camp, the Levites camped around the Tabernacle. The Levites set up and transported the Tabernacle, and the members of other tribes were not permitted to come near the Tabernacle, on pain of death. (See Numbers 1:51.) And the Levites were entitled to the people’s tithes and offerings.

The Levites were also different in that they did not receive land in Canaan. Instead, they received forty-eight cities, along with pasture lands outside the cities for their flocks and herds. (Numbers 35:1-7) These cities were located within the territory of the other tribes. (Numbers 35:8)

Six of these forty-eight cities were designated as “cities of refuge.” Three cities of refuge were east of the Jordan River: Bezer (in the territory of Reuben), Ramoth-gilead (Gad), and Golan (Manasseh). (Joshua 20:8, Numbers 35:14) The other three were in Canaan, west of the Jordan: Kedesh (Naphtali), Shechem (Ephraim), and Kiriath-arba, also known as Hebron (Judah). (Joshua 20:7, Numbers 35:14)

These six cities provided a safe haven for anyone who had accidentally or unintentionally killed another person. The victim’s family members could not take revenge against the “manslayer” so long as he stayed within the city of refuge, and upon the death of the high priest he would be freed from this exile and could return home. (See Numbers 35:15, 22-28, and Joshua 20:1-6.) However, a city of refuge would not protect a murderer who killed someone intentionally or with premeditation. (Numbers 35:16-21 and 35:30-31)

Questions to ponder or discuss: Numbers 35:24 and Joshua 20:6 tell us that “the congregation” would judge whether the killer was a manslayer who was entitled to the protection of the city of refuge or a murderer who deserved to die. The Old Testament does not clarify exactly who “the congregation” was, but it seems clear that no single individual was responsible for the decision. What are the advantages of having a group make this decision rather than one person? Are there any disadvantages to this procedure?

.Copyright 2018 by Don Davidson

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