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God’s Word for You

Numbers 35:22-29 Malice and innocence

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, February 9, 2022

22 But if a person pushes someone suddenly without hostility or throws any object at him without malicious intent, 23 or if without looking he drops a stone on someone big enough to kill him and that person dies, since that person was not his enemy, and he did not seek to harm him, 24 the community will judge between the killer and the avenger of blood according to these ordinances. 25 The community will deliver the person who has killed someone from the hand of the avenger of blood. Then the community will take him back to his city of refuge, to which he had fled. He must live there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.

God, in his compassion, turns now from murder to manslaughter. A sample of the very same circumstances as were viewed as murder are now seen in the light of unintentional harm: a push (recall verse 20) or a thrown object (also verse 20), a dropped stone (verse 17). The key terms here are “without hostility,” “without malicious intent,” “without looking,” “not his enemy,” and “did not seek to harm him.” The reader must be careful not to superimpose current legal definitions over these statements, and simply read the text as the Word of God.

1, Without hostility. This is the word “enmity” (‘evah)  from Genesis 3:15, the hatred caused by sin between Satan and God’s people. This illustrates the accidental ending of a life without hatred.

2, Without malicious intent. This term, tsediah, means to “lie in wait.” This is the devil’s constant sin regarding God’s people and you in particular: Sin is “crouching at your door.” Do not behave this way toward God’s creation.

3, Without looking. This is the simple act of negligence; making a mistake. Sometimes we work with heavy or dangerous objects. If I am setting up a tall ladder, using all precautions, but the ground is soft, the ladder might tip over and strike someone, killing them. I did not try to make this happen. The specific example used by the Lord is a man dropping a stone without looking (that is, tossing a stone from a hill or the roof of a building). We should use precautions, but the Lord acknowledges that mistakes can happen.

4, Not his enemy. The word oyev, “enemy,” is a common one in the Bible. It’s actually a participle (an action verb turned into a noun), and we find it in Moses (Exodus 15:8; Leviticus 26:25; Deuteronomy 32:27,42), the history books (Ezra 8:31), the Psalms (Psalms 8:2, 64:1, 89:22, 106:10, 143:3) and the prophets (Jeremiah 30;14, 31:16; Hosea 8:3), but it is especially commonplace in the early parts of Lamentations (Lamentations 1:9, 1:16, 2:3, 2:7, 2:17). Most human beings would never attempt to kill someone who was not their enemy, and would even go to great lengths to avoid killing. The fact that some people have a complete disregard for human life is an aberration that some think of as a profound psychological mystery, but which is the result of sin in the world.

In the ancient apocryphal story of Susanna (sometimes said to be the first detective story ever written), two Jewish elders turn on the woman they lusted after when she rejects their advances. In their eyes, she becomes their enemy because (due to her purity and moral uprightness) she could expose them as sinners. Therefore they seek to kill her by telling a lie about her that would sentence her to death (Susanna 1:36-40). They became her enemies, and suddenly saw her as nothing else but a threat and an enemy even though she was completely innocent.

5, Seek to harm. This is a verb in the versatile piel stem. Here the force of the piel is to do something again and again, either with strenuous activity or multiple occurrences of the same act. To seek is to “do and do and do,” or lay plans to do. We see various examples of seeking in a neutral or positive sense throughout the Bible: God seeking “godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15), but in a murderous sense as well: “The man who is seeking your life is seeking mine also” (1 Samuel 22:23).

26 But if the person who has killed someone ever goes outside of the border of the city of refuge to which he has fled, 27 and the avenger of blood finds him outside of the border of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the person who has killed someone, the avenger will not be guilty of bloodshed, 28 because the person who has killed someone should have stayed in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest he may return to the land that is his possession. 29 These things will be a legal statute for you throughout your generations wherever you live.

The rule of the city of refuge was simple and absolute: a man who accidentally killed someone could flee to one of Israel’s six cities of refuge. There were two in the far north, in Galilee and on the other side of the lake, two in the central lands on both sides of the Jordan, and two in the south. For anyone accused or afraid, one of these cities would be within walking distance of a single day or at most, two days. Once there, he would have to remain there within the city limits or its borders (that is, its surrounding fields). If he left and was encountered by the “avenger of blood,” that man could kill him and be within his legal rights. The duration of the accused man’s stay in the city of refuge was the lifetime of the current high priest. When the old priest died and a new one was consecrated, he could leave the city and return home without fear.

There is one account that reflects this law in the Bible, although it brings up some questions. In the days of King Solomon, a man named Shimei (who had cursed David during Absalom’s rebellion) was commanded never to leave the city of Jerusalem (1 Kings 2:36-37), but when he did just three years later, his life was forfeit (1 Kings 2:46). He had been guilty of spewing hatred and malice at the king, and David had commanded Solomon not to consider him innocent (1 Kings 2:9).

The Lord is compassionate, but he is also just. The blood of the dead cries out to him (Genesis 4:10). He takes into consideration what would be justice for the dead man and also whether the killer intended the act or not. “The Lord is righteous; he loves justice” (Psalm 11:7). But we also remember with humility and everlasting thanks that the Lord has had compassion on us sinners. “The sins I have committed are more in number than the sand of the sea; my transgressions are multiplied, O Lord, they are multiplied! I am not worthy to look up and see the height of heaven because of the multitude of my sins.” But surely God is good (Psalm 73:1), and his forgiveness covers over all of our sins (Psalm 103:3). Because he is merciful, we will live.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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