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God’s Word for You

Numbers 35:6-15 Spiritual numbers, physical care

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, February 7, 2022

6 The cities which you will give to the Levites will include six cities of refuge, which you will provide so that a person who has killed someone may flee there. In addition to these six cities, you will give them forty-two other cities. 7 All the cities which you are to give to the Levites will total forty-eight cities along with their pasturelands. 8 For the cities which you will transfer to the Levites from the property of the Israelites, you will take more cities from a larger tribe and fewer from a smaller tribe. Every tribe will give some of its cities to the Levites in proportion to the amount of assigned territory it has received.

God’s gentle love for his people is expressed in three ways in this passage. First, he loves his priests and Levites, the servants who do the work of the tabernacle and teach Israel the way to Christ. For them, God graciously commands cities, many cities, to be distributed throughout the land for them to live in. God commands forty-eight cities in all, which is twelve times four. Many commentators have tried to judge the symbolic meaning of “forty-eight” without taking into account other clear passages where symbolic and figurative numbers are explained. Twelve is the product of multiplying three and four. Three is the number of the Trinity, the number of God (Galatians 4:6; Matthew 28:19. Four is the number of the four winds and compass points (Jeremiah 49:36; Revelation 7:1): it is the number of the earth. When we multiply them, we arrive at God’s interaction with his creation and especially with man (Matthew 10:2; Revelation 22:2). When we take this product and multiply it once again by the ‘world’ number (four), we have God’s gracious blessing on the world and on Israel’s special place in the Promised Land. It is an idealized number of God’s love on Israel and on Israel’s priests in Canaan.

Secondly we see God’s love for his people by allowing the smaller tribes to supply fewer cities, in keeping with what they have to offer. Just as the servant is praised in Jesus’ parable of the talents for working with only two talents and for producing more (Matthew 25:22-23), so also God praises people who have a little less (less space, less abilities, less time, less resources) for using what they have to his glory: “You have been faithful with a few things” (Matthew 25:23).

Thirdly, we see God’s love for his people by giving those with more the opportunity to use the more that they have to his glory. This is another side of the Matthew 25 parable, where the man with five talents makes five more (Matthew 25:20), and is praised by God: “Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matthew 25:21).

The Levites and Priests were to be cared for in a special way, because “they were entrusted with the very words of God” (Romans 3:2). The rest of the tribes provided much of this care, smaller tribes gave smaller amounts, but no less compassion, no less love.

Cities of Refuge

9 The LORD told Moses 10 to speak to the Israelites and tell them this: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 you are to designate some cities to be cities of refuge for yourselves, so that a person who has killed someone by taking someone’s life unintentionally may flee there. 12 The cities will serve as a refuge for you from the avenger, so that a person who has killed someone will not die until he stands trial before the community. 13 The cities which you will set aside will serve as the six cities of refuge for you. 14 You are to set aside three cities east of the Jordan and three cities in the land of Canaan. They will serve as cities of refuge. 15 These six cities will serve as a refuge for Israelites, for resident aliens, and for temporary residents living among them so that everyone who has taken someone’s life unintentionally may flee there.

On the other end of our lives of sanctification is the concern for someone guilty of a terrible misfortune: accidentally killing another man. Theirs was another time, another era, a time with a great potential for violence. Some of the various laws illustrate this:

“Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally…” (Exodus 21:12-13).

“If without hostility someone suddenly shoves another or throws something on him unintentionally or, without seeing him, drops a stone on him that could kill him, and he dies…” (Numbers 35:16-17).

“If two men are fighting…” (Deuteronomy 25:11).

Such a culture would lead to accidents, and the Lord provided for such accidents with these six cities of refuge: three on the west side of the Jordan, and three on the east side. This was to keep the Kinsman-Redeemer of the victim from killing the accused until there was a trial.

We see an especially terrifying example of this after Cain intentionally murders his brother Abel. Even then the idea of a close relative taking revenge was clear. So when Cain contemplates the aftermath of his crime, he understands that the population of the entire world is made up of brothers and sisters of Abel. So Cain cries out in despair: “I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (Genesis 4:14). Cain wasn’t exaggerating. Everyone in the world at that time had the right to avenge Abel: “Whoever finds me will kill me” was exactly the case for him. This is what might have been on his mind when he began to build a city of his own (Genesis 4:17), a city he worked on, perhaps as a defense against revenge for Abel, but a city he may never have completed (Genesis 4:12).

These cities of refuge were for men and women guilty of what we would call manslaughter, an accidental death. To keep safe and alive until a trial, they could flee to one of these cities rather than run (as Moses had done, Exodus 2:15) to another country.

God’s plan for Israel was taking a definite shape. The land was no longer the subject of the people’s imagination. It was being defined; it had borders. It had regions for each of the tribes. Cities were being reserved for the righteous and for the outcasts.

God watches over us in many ways. Some of his plans are definite, and some less so. “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). Indeed, the Lord watches over you personally. He guards you day and night with his holy angels and with his powerful word. And he will let no one snatch you from his almighty, all-powerful hand (John 10:29).


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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