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Doug Van Meter - 4 December 2022

The Sanctity of Life (Numbers 35:1–34)

As we approach Numbers 35, God’s people stood on the verge the Promised Land. They were to enter and, with God’s help, to transform it from a bad land into a holy land. But this would require certain precepts—such as those in Numbers 35. This chapter contains what appears to be archaic laws, but they were foundational to a just society in the Promised Land and have a great deal to teach god’s people in the 21st century. We will consider this chapter under three broad headings: 1. Provision for the Levites (vv. 1–8) 2. Protection and Punishment Under the Law (vv. 9–29) 3. Pollution of the Land (vv. 30–34).

Scripture References: Numbers 35:1-34

From Series: "Numbers Exposition"

An exposition of the book of Numbers by Doug Van Meter.

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This chapter could be titled, “The Sanctity of Life and the Salt of the Levites.” The chapter addresses issues of God’s justice with reference to both murder and manslaughter. This justice was to take place under the jurisdiction of the Levites, whom God scattered throughout the land of Israel. With the Levites instructing God’s people in God’s word, this bad land, which Israel was soon to inherit, was to become a holy land—God’s holy land (v. 36). And holiness includes a holy estimation of human life.

Often, when someone publicly reads scripture, he or she will end by saying, “This is the word of God,” which implies, “Hear and heed this authoritative word.” We are to take God’s word seriously—all of it. And as we do, our worldview will be transformed to God’s view. This was a huge responsibility of the Levites who were to read, expound, and apply God’s word to the congregation. They were to help the nation of Israel to think God’s thoughts after him. If Levites and laity were faithful, then truly Canaan would become a holy land. If not, it would remain an unclean land and God would withdraw his presence. This is the main idea behind Numbers 35, with particular reference to the sanctity of life.

God’s people were to value human life, informed by a proper valuation of their holy, creator, redeemer God. God’s people today have the same responsibility. We are to be prolife because we are pro-Lord. This requires instruction in God’s word and obedience to it.

What appears to be archaic laws are in many ways foundational to a just society and have been recognised by civilised societies throughout history, including our own. Though (unlike modern nations) Israel was a theocracy (where church and state were the same thing), there are nevertheless important principles here for Christians in a Republic in the 21st century. These principles should inform God’s people under the new covenant, regardless of the century in which it. But to glean for our good and to the glory of God, we will need to think. So let’s do so under these headings:

  1. Provision for the Levites (vv. 1–8)
  2. Protection and Punishment Under the Law (vv. 9–29)
  3. Pollution of the Land (vv. 30–34)

Provision for the Levites

The chapter opens with instruction regarding provision for the Levites:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel, and say to them, When you enter the land of Canaan (this is the land that shall fall to you for an inheritance, the land of Canaan as defined by its borders),  your south side shall be from the wilderness of Zin alongside Edom, and your southern border shall run from the end of the Salt Sea on the east. And your border shall turn south of the ascent of Akrabbim, and cross to Zin, and its limit shall be south of Kadesh-barnea. Then it shall go on to Hazar-addar, and pass along to Azmon. And the border shall turn from Azmon to the Brook of Egypt, and its limit shall be at the sea.


“For the western border, you shall have the Great Sea and its coast. This shall be your western border.


“This shall be your northern border: from the Great Sea you shall draw a line to Mount Hor. From Mount Hor you shall draw a line to Lebo-hamath, and the limit of the border shall be at Zedad.”

(Numbers 34:1–8)

Chapter 34 was about parameters as protection for purity of worship. Respect for these parameters (33:50–56) would equip Israel to fulfil her mission to be a light to the nations. Essential to this would be consistent instruction in the law of the Lord as carried out by the Levites (Deuteronomy 33:8–10; cf. Deuteronomy 4:1–9). This is the idea of Numbers 35. Though Moses, a unique Levite, who served, in a sense, as prophet, priest, and king was going to die, instruction in God’s word would and must continue.

The Levites were not given a land inheritance, for the Lord would be their inheritance (3:45). Words like “inherit,” “inheritance,” and “portion,” used with reference to land rights of the other tribes, are not used here. But obviously the Levites required provision for their livelihood. Though entitled to a portion of the sacrifices and the tithes (18:20–24), they would also need houses in which to live and pastures for their livestock. This law made this provision by gifting of 48 cities along with land for grazing.

These cities (or small villages) measured just shy of one square kilometre, which is about 100 hectares (for livestock and subsistence crops). The Levites could sell (and redeem) their houses, but the land could never be sold (Leviticus 25:32–34).

The tribes were to contribute these lands proportionately according to the size of their population and therefore according to the size of their land inheritance. Joshua 20-21 identify the 48 cities as well as the tribes that donated them. In total, they donated about 45 square kilometres, which amounted to about 0.1% of the land mass of the Promised Land. It was sufficient to sustain the tribe of Levi, as long as the people were faithful with their tithes and offerings. Perhaps better, it was sufficient as long as God’s people were faithful in their tabernacle worship and as long as the Levites held them accountable to this (see Malachi; cf. Nehemiah 13:10ff).

Because of the priority of biblical instruction in worship, God’s people were to materially support those who offered instruction. Failure to do so would result in a spiritually impoverished church. As Paul teaches in Galatians 6, a church gets what it pays for.

Disseminating the Instruction

The teaching of God’s law was central to the welfare of the nation and, for this reason, unlike tabernacle worship with its sacrifices, biblical instruction was to be decentralised throughout the tribes. It was not limited to the environs of the tabernacle. This was one major reasons behind the Lord’s command for the tribes to give a portion of their inheritance to the Levites in which they were to dwell and to raise their livestock. That is, the worship of God’s people was to reach beyond the centralised tabernacle, and therefore “the scattered presence of the Levites throughout the land of Israel suggests that the presence and holiness of God will likewise be distributed over the entire land” (Olson).

As the Levites faithfully stewarded this privilege, they would be a great blessing to the other tribes, instructing them in the way of Yahweh. As they settled among the tribes, they would be as salt and light (to use Jesus’ analogy [Matthew 5:13–16]) among the tribes, equipping them to live and worship faithfully within their prescribed parameters. Citing Keil, Wenham writes, “The Levites were distributed among Israel to remind them of their calling to be the holy people of God (Exodus 19:5–6; Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 33:9–10).” Cole helpfully summarises: “The organization of the ideal theocratic state as presented here in Numbers 35 was such that the Levites were to provide a constant visible presence whereby the peoples of the twelve tribes would be reminded actively and passively of the need for holiness and righteousness as the people of God before the nations of the world.”

Remembering that this Promised Land was to become a holy land, we realise the centrality of Torah instruction for the people of God. The word of God is what set Israel apart from false religions and corrupt worship. As the Levites instructed the people from God’s word, they would be equipped to live out their faith, including doing the hard things as recorded in 33:50–56. The Levites were to give themselves wholly to this work (hence the prohibition from owning land). Being in the priestly line, they were to equip the nation to fulfil their corporate priestly function before a holy God and before a watching and wicked world. In Paul’s words, the priests were literally called to help the nation to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). They were to help the nation to fulfil her mission, which involved teaching them to live differently. But they would need to be supported materially to do so. This support came from the people whom God had proportionally gifted.

Those with more were to give more, but those with less were likewise to support the important work of the Levites. It should be noted, as Plumer wrote long ago, “When we have given God all we have and are, we have simply given him his own.” This has a parallel under the new covenant.

The word of God makes the believer different (John 17:17). Therefore we need to be taught God’s word. And under the new covenant, each believer is a priest and is responsible to instruct one another (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 4:16–17). Yet there is a sense in which the Lord has supplied “Levites” to his people in the form of gifted teachers to instruct his people equipping them for mission (cf. Philippians 2:12–14).

These leaders are responsible in a unique way to give themselves wholly to instructing God’s people, to feed God’s people with the word of God. Ideally, they should be set apart to this work undistracted from caring for the “fields.” This is made possible by the faithful generosity of God’s people, in proportion with what the Lord has given to them (1 Corinthians 16:1–2; 2 Corinthians 8:12–15). The consequences are a healthy flock to the glory of God as others are brought into the fold.

Protection and Punishment Under the Law

The bulk of the chapter describes various protections and punishments under God’s law.

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.

(Numbers 35:9–29)

We might summarise this section as, “The sanctity of life: It’s not that complicated!” In fact, it is quite simple. Human bloodshed is a serious matter. It is never to be taken lightly. God holds a society accountable for how it responds both to murder and manslaughter.

When it comes to human bloodshed, whether intentional or unintentional, it is a matter that calls for justice—as defined by God. How the nation of Israel responded to murder and manslaughter revealed their covenantal commitment to Yahweh. How they viewed the sanctity of life revealed their worldview: It would reveal whether they truly worshipped him as the Lord of life. That is, if they disregarded the value of human life, they also disregarded the giver of that life. This was the rationale behind these laws concerning murder and manslaughter. And these matters, as we will see, were also related to the land and the Levites. The cities of refuge were uniquely to be places of justice. And who better to ensure justice then experts in God’s Torah?

As the Levites faithfully taught God’s law, the people would all be on the same page when it came to the sanctity of life. We can deduce that true worship is very much a matter of “civilisation.” That is, true worship shapes our worldview, which becomes evident in the lives we live and in the laws a society enacts. A society that kills its babies, its elderly, and its disabled is a society whose worship is perverse. And it is under the wrath of God, for as Rushdoony comments, “God makes it clear all through the Bible that he will not forget the shedding of blood and will exact vengeance on the nation that does not administer justice.”

A Place of Safety

This long passage was introduced briefly in the opening verses where cities of refuge were mentioned (v. 6). Among the 48 cities granted to the Levites, six were “cities of refuge” (literally, “cities of intaking”). These cities of refuge were places of asylum for those who had unintentionally taken the life of another human. They served as a place of safety from the “avenger” (v. 12), who might seek to enact the lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”).

The cities were scattered among the tribes, with one north, one central, and one south on each side of the Jordan (three on each side). Their location was an act of mercy as someone in need of such refuge could, within a short distance, find shelter there. Even those who indifferently and individualistically chose to live on the wrong side of the Jordan were provided refuge within short proximity. Truly God is gracious. And just.

Due Process

God provided substantial instruction concerning the legitimate use of these cities by those who were guilty of manslaughter. He also revealed his mandate that those guilty of murder were to be put to death, in most cases, at the hands of the “avenger.” This passage provides the rules of due process in such matters.

Though there is substantial instruction, this is not rocket science. The law is quite clear and simple. Allen comments, “As we think of the inordinately complicated system of modern jurisprudence concerning criminal, homicide law, the provisions of this section are rather clear and straightforward. They are based on the notions of evident intent. The manner of a man’s death may be suggestive of wilful intent or not.”


The word “avenger” is elsewhere translated as “kinsman redeemer.” “The ‘avenger of blood’ was a kinsman who redeemed the lost life of the individual by exacting the life of the murderer” (Cole). This, of course, was before the establishment of the monarchy, under which capital punishment would be carried out. But it should be noted that, under this legal system, established by God, it was the family that carried out justice, not the state. However, the congregation had a role to play as did the elders (including the Levites) in the cities of refuge (see chapters 12; 24–25). It should also be noted that any resident within the Promised Land had access to these cities and to biblical justice (v. 15). There was truly and fully an offer of justice for all.

As the one who caused bloodshed fled to a city of refuge, the city received him with the assumption of innocence. As the avenger then approached, he was informed that the city had given temporary safety to the one he was pursuing. A trial of sorts was held. From v. 25 it can be surmised that the trial was held in the place where the alleged crime was committed. Having heard evidence, including witnesses, the community made an authoritative verdict. If they concluded it was manslaughter (unintentional death), the defendant was returned to the city where he sought refuge, where he remained safe from the avenger of blood. In fact, if the avenger were to take his life, the avenger would be guilty of murder and would be put to death. He was safe, but not completely free.

We are told in vv. 26–29 that he must remain within the one square kilometre of the city until the death of the high priest. Only then may he return to his home place. If at any time he was found by the avenger outside the city of refuge, the avenger was free to take his life. This highlights that justice is sometimes restrictive. It also highlights the seriousness of the sanctity of life.


The cities of refuge were not intended to provide shelter for a murderer. Due process kept this from being the case. If a murderer sought asylum, the avenger would appeal for a legal hearing, as we have seen. If convicted of murder, the avenger was to execute the murderer (v. 21).

The instructions clearly centre on intent. We see this in the description of the weapons used to kill the person (vv. 16–18), as well as with the use of the words “hatred” (v. 20), “lying in wait” (v. 20), and “enmity” (v. 21). Currid notes, “Verses 20–21 do not focus on the weapon used but on the intention of the heart.” In other words, murder starts in the heart and is then carried out by the hands. Our Lord Jesus Christ taught this truth.

In perhaps his most famous sermon Jesus warned, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ​‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21–22). Jesus equated hatred with murder. How many today are under God’s judgement for this sin? Your sin needs to be atoned for.

When a person was convicted of murder, they were to be condemned to die (vv. 16, 17, 18, 19, 21). Capital punishment is poetic justice in which the punishment for the crime is found within the crime itself (Currid).

Of course, many want to know whether today’s jurisprudence should uphold capital punishment. Some are unalterably opposed to this while many others simply assume it should be. I think the answer is more nuanced, as I will shortly argue. Regardless, the point is that the cities of refuge were not like the wrongheaded sanctuary cities in contemporary society. Crime was to be taken seriously, especially crime that effaced the sanctity of life.

Pollution of the Land

The chapter closes with instructions concerning the death penalty for murder.

“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.”

(Numbers 35:30–34)

The Sanctity of Life

The death penalty was commanded, though this verdict required more than one witness. Further, no ransom could be paid in exchange for this punishment. This guarded against bribery, inequity toward the rich, and enrichment by means of murder. Related to this, a person in a city of refuge must remain there until the death of the high priest. No ransom could substitute.

These instructions again highlight the principle of the sanctity of life. Human bloodshed—whether unintentional or intentional—must be atoned for, either by the death of the murderer or by the death of the high priest. God respects the sanctity of life (he determines it, defines it, and declares it), and therefore his people must also respect and promote the sanctity of life. This could not be any clearer in our text.

Failure to atone for human bloodshed would pollute the Promised Land, which would then cease to be God’s holy land, resulting in Israel being ejected from it (33:50–56). In other words, for God to happily dwell with Israel, both she and the land in which she lived were to be holy.

Along this line, this chapter could be titled, “The Support of the Levites and the Sanctity of Life.” It is interesting how these two themes are combined. At least one major connection is that being properly instructed about the Lord inevitably leads to a greater appreciation of the life he bestows. A society that is biblically ignorant or indifferent will be a society that does not respect human life. It will kill its babies and its elderly and its infirmed and will protect murderers. Eventually, apart from God’s mercifully intervention, it will be destroyed.

God’s people have always needed God’s instruction. As the Levites were tasked with this responsibility, so elders in the Israel of God today (the local church) need instruction from God’s word. Failure to lead from the book of God, or refusal to be led and fed by the book of God, is a serious failure with spiritually and socially catastrophic consequences.

Because God has determined the sanctity of human life, his precepts concerning its protection, including the punishment for violation, must be respected and obeyed. Allen appropriately applies the principle of this chapter when he writes,

If God is to be resident in the midst of his people, then the land may not be polluted. With all the attention we (rightly) give to issues of ecology and pollution in our own day, there is an act of pollution that far transcends the thrashing of rivers, the killing of lakes, the denuding of forests, and the spilling of oils to mar even the seas; this is the abuse of persons. The worst abuse of all is wrongful death. God will not draw near where blood is the polluting agent.

The Death Penalty Today?

Christians need to think through matters of biblical law and how they relate (or don’t) to non-theocratic political systems. There is increasing discussion about what is called theonomy, a term describing the application and moral obligation of a government to frame its laws in accordance with God’s old covenant laws. The so-called “Christian nationalism” that is currently a social media flashpoint in the United States relates to this.

I am not going to settle that debate here, but it is worth noting that those called to govern God’s nations (and every nation is God’s nation) are called to do so as God’s ministers, as his servants (Romans 13:1–7). Servants are to carry out the will of their master, and our Master has clearly revealed his will when it comes to such matters as murder.

The death penalty for murder is God’s revealed will. It is un ambiguous. It was revealed long before the Mosaic law (see Gen 9:6) and therefore to argue it away based on new covenant hermeneutics is wrongheaded and biblically and exegetically erroneous. However, this does not mean that it is a simple matter of re-legislating the execution of murderers. A whole lot needs to take place before the death penalty can be carried out justly—including the worship of the true God.

We run into great danger when we cherry-pick the old covenant. God’s laws were given to his people, who were commanded to love him wholeheartedly (Deuteronomy 6:4–9). Until a government is committed to loving Yahweh with all its heart, soul, mind, and strength and its neighbours as itself, there will be injustice. But adding another injustice—refusal to execute murderers—will not bring about more justice. As Duguid comments (in an American context), “The fact that in our society murderers often serve a punishment that is more in line with the Biblical standard for manslaughter than for murder is a shame on our nation. It is a sign of how lightly we value the life that they took.”

Brothers, sisters if we want a change in our criminal justice system—if we really want a criminal justice system—we need to pray and proclaim and practice love for God. We need to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if we never see the law of God becoming the law of the land, we need to be encouraged that one day no law will be necessary, for our Lord will make all things new. Let us therefore continue to be instructed by God’s word, prioritising this so we will grow in holiness and helpfulness to those around us being hurt by those who have no respect for the sanctity of life. If we truly hold to the principle of the sanctity of human life, we will do all we can to save lives from eternal condemnation, for that is no way to live, and it is certainly no way to die.

Jesus and the Cities of Refuge

The cities of refuge speak to us, by analogy, of the Lord Jesus Christ our High Priest, anointed by the Holy Spirit to be our atonement.

It has been argued by some that, when the asylum seeker died, atonement was considered as having been made for the bloodshed caused. The text does not say that. What it does say is that the asylum seeker was freed to return from the city of refuge upon the death of the high priest “who was anointed with the holy oil” (v. 25). “The clause ‘who has been anointed by the holy oil’ underlines the fact that the high priest has been set apart to this kind of ministry” (Ashley). In other words, only by the death of the one appointed by God as the mediator (Exodus 29) could atonement be made for unintentional bloodshed. “The high priest’s death was on behalf of the killer, as much as the priest offers sacrifices on behalf of the people elsewhere” (Ashley). The one died and another—one with blood on his or her hands—was set free. Sound familiar?

Consider one guilty of manslaughter. His conscience pained him as he was pursued by the avenger. Perhaps he was a resident alien, cut off from the covenants. Was there any hope? Ah! He remembered the cities of refuge. He knew that one was nearby. He asked for directions, and someone told him the good news that it was just around the corner. He ran to its gates—and they were open. He entered just as the avenger came breathlessly behind him. The gatekeeper announced that the guilty one had asylum. He rejoiced in his freedom, knowing that one day he would be completely free from the threat of death. When the high priest died. Can you make the connection?

We all have blood on our hands. We have all harmed others, both intentionally and unintentionally. We are therefore under the condemnation of God’s holy law. The soul that sins will die. But there is a way of escape, by the high priest who both died and rose to never die. Before the throne of God above is a strong and perfect plea. Will you repent and trust him alone for forgiveness? Will you flee to Christ? Will you join those who can say, “We who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:18). When you do, you will begin to see—truly for the first time—the sanctity of life.

Finally, our high priest died literally in the place of the murderer Barabbas (Luke 23:25). Even one guilty of murder can be redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ. Just as the apostle Paul. Hallelujah, what a Saviour!