Bamidbar Thirty-Five: Cities of Refuge

So the land is being divided, but one tribe isn’t getting any of it: the Levites. Now, we hear about their inheritance. “Command the children of Israel that they shall give to the Levites from their hereditary possession cities in which to dwell, and you shall give the Levites open spaces around the cities. These cities shall be theirs for dwelling, and their open spaces shall be for their cattle, their property, and for all their needs (Numbers 35:2-3).” We are given the measurements of the open spaces around the cities, and understand that the Levites are not meant to suffer from lack of land. Rather, they are to have their needs taken care of so that they can take care of God’s needs.

All together, the Levites are to be given 48 cities. Amongst these 48 are six special ones, designated as cities of refuge. A city of refuge is a place where a person charged with murder can run to. “These cities shall serve you as a refuge from an avenger, so that the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation (Numbers 35:12).” However, there are conditions to being accepted as a refugee into one of these cities. A person has to have committed murder unintentionally. If he meant to commit the crime, he has to face his punishment, usually in the form of his own death. But if it happened accidentally, then judgment must take place. “The congregation shall protect the murderer from the hand of the blood avenger, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall remain there until the Kohen Gadol, who anointed him with sacred oil, dies (Numbers 35:25).” From this we learn that the refuge isn’t an eternal option. A person can come to escape revenge, but must face judgment eventually. It’s unclear to me why this is contingent on the death of the high priest, though.

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