Numbers 35: Special Cities

God arranges cities to accommodate the Levites, who have no inheritance. We also learn about cities of refuge and discover an interesting link between poverty/destitution and violence.


God instructs the Israelites to create special cities, which would be inhabited by the Levites, who received no inheritance. In addition to the Levite cities, cities of refuge were also created as special cities, designed to provide refuge for those who were guilty of murder.

Levite Cities

Photocredit: Kean
Exactly 48 cities are given to the Levites. Both Numbers 35:4 and Numbers 35:5 discuss the suburbs of these cities and cause a little confusion. In verse 4, suburbs were defined from the wall of the city outward for 1000 cubits (1500 feet/457.2 meters). Verse 5 tells us that 2000 cubits (3000 feet/914.4 meters) were to be counted from the north, east, south, and west to define the midst of the city. When I first read this, I wondered if they were indeed talking about the same suburbs; it didn't make a lot of sense to me. Since 1000 cubits and 2000 cubits are not the same, I reread the verse to see if perhaps I was reading it wrong. However, it seems that both verse are referencing the suburbs of the cities.

After doing research to see how others interpreted this passage, I found a few commentaries that explained the area of the Levite cities. Many suggest the possibility of the suburbs existing in two parts, one that measured 1000 cubits and the other measuring 2000 cubits (3000 feet/914.4 meters) for a total suburb width of 3000 cubits (4500 feet/1371.6 meters). These scholars assert that the smaller section of land (1000 cubits) was for shepherds and outhouses, while the larger section was for the livestock.[1][2] The indicator that these scholars are on to something comes from the preciseness of of the verses. Numbers 35:4 says that they were measuring "from the wall of the city," which means the 1000 cubits is from just outside of the city wall outward. Conversely, Numbers 35:5 is talking about measuring from "without the city." This is not the same as measuring from the wall; "without the city" means outside of the city boundaries. Since the suburbs are a sub-section or association of the city, once the 1000 cubits of the first section of the suburbs was marked, the new border Moses refers to as "without the city" is the border 1000 cubits from the wall. There is no need to measure 3000 cubits from the wall because we already have the 1000 and because that 1000 cubits is to separate in usage than the other 2000. I think this process would be similar to zoning today.

The 12 tribes, who are responsible for giving this land to the Levites, are told to give according to what they have. Those who had much were to give much, while those who had less were to give less. This is something to remember as we go about our daily lives today. The more you have, the more you are expected to give.

Cities of Refuge

Of the 48 Levite cities created, 6 were to be cities of refuge: 3 to the east of the Jordan River and 3 to the west. The cities of refuge were for those accused of accidental murder. This person would be free from any avenger's attempt to kill him while in the city of refuge while he awaited his trial.

Moses provides us with examples to distinguish murders from the "manslayers" that were granted refuge. Anyone who killed someone with a weapon or in anger with the intent to harm the person (i.e. purposefully) was considered a murderer and sentenced to death. However, those who did so accidentally and without knowledge were to be judged and thus eligible to take refuge in one of the 6 cities. God specifies that those who committed murder by accident were to be delivered to a city of refuge unharmed and given sanctuary there until the death of the high priest.

If the manslayer decided to leave the boundaries of the city where he was taking refuge, the kin person of the victim was permitted to kill the manslayer to avenge the victim's death. After the death of the high priest, however, the manslayer could return to his home without fear of being killed.

Consequences & Satisfaction

Murder carried the death penalty, but multiple witnesses had to testify against the murderer. One person accusing a person of murder was not enough to condemn them to death. Clearly, if God had allowed a single witness to issue the fate of a person, people might have lied to get someone they didn't like or were jealous of out of the way. Brothers may lie to receive greater inheritances. It would have been a disaster!

The people were not to take satisfaction from the life of a murderer, which meant the murderer could not redeem himself with a fine.[4] In today's society many celebrities and the elite are able to get away with crimes by paying off the right people, but this passage is telling us that money cannot cover the cost of shed blood. Even a person who committed murder accidentally could not simply pay to avoid moving to a city of refuge.

Blood Defiles the Land

We already know that touching blood or dead bodies defiled a person, but near the end of Numbers 35, God tells us the blood spilled defiled the land as well. Only the blood of the person who shed the blood was able to cleanse the land.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the areas most known for war and violence are also the most destitute. Most countries with high homicide rates are also 3rd world countries in harsh climates. The 25 countries with the highest homicide rates are all 3rd world countries.[3] Also interesting is the fact that countries that have existed longer in violence are more destitute. This correlation permeates to low-income areas, even in nations such as the United States.

Violence & Poverty

Violence is most common in low-income areas. Many today suggest that poverty is the cause of the violence; the theory is that when there is a lack of resources people fight over the resources. If you don't have food, you are more likely to steal food and if you get caught stealing the food you are more likely to shoot the person who caught you to avoid losing the food. Similarly, if you live in such an area you are more likely to be robbed, and thus more likely to engage in violence to protect your goods.

A caveat, however, is that these scenarios don't have to (and don't always) play out in this form. In previous chapters, God commanded the Israelites to leave some of the field unharvested for those who did not have. The wealthy are not to hoard all of the goods subjugating the poor to desperation. Furthermore, when it is found that someone is in need, we are to help them in any way we can. Thus, the owner may offer the thief a job in exchange for him forgoing theft in the future. If the owner cannot afford to give the thief a job or part with the item, perhaps he could find him employment. While the situation of being in poverty is difficult because you often have the poor robbing the poor due to the rich being inattentive to the situation of the poor, God's point is that murder is not the solution. By continuing the cycle of bloodshed, the destitution continues.

Part of this issue coming to fulfillment is seen in gang wars. When a gang shoots a member of another gang, the other gang often retaliates by shooting someone from the attacking gang. The issue is that, likely, the whole gang is complicit in the murder so the death of the entire gang is needed to pay the debt of the blood spilled. However, it is unlikely that the attacked gang with kill all the members of the attacking gang. Furthermore, the attacking gang will view their own action as justified and view the retaliation as an attack in which they are further justified in responding. Thus, you have cycles of people killing each other in chaos and confusion which only brings fear into the surrounding areas. The community suffers from the constant bloodshed, not just due to fear, but because people won't want to shop in that section of town (loss of money), property values plummet (more loss of money), youth are pulled into the conflict and unable to focus on education or trades that would turn around the poverty status of the community. While poverty may inspire violence, the violence also inspires continued poverty. It is quite the heartbreaking cycle.

We pay for these outbursts of violence nationally as well. Notice that America's deficit only grew after the declaration of the war on terror. We see that the South, which was built on the blood of African slaves, is still poorer than the North.

Destitute Lands

Another interesting thing to think about is the climate of the land around the world. Both scientifically and Biblically, we know that people originated somewhere either in Northern Africa or the Middle East. School lesson teach about the first civilizations which were located in the Fertile Crescent. For those who have forgotten this lesson, the Fertile Crescent was a moon shaped region from the Nile in Egypt, through Israel, curving back through today's Syria and Iraq. According to science and secular history, this was the land rich enough to foster stationary life.[5] According to the Bible the Garden of Eden was located somewhere in the midst of this land. So, both believers and non-believers agree that this land was some type of paradise. Yet, when I hear the names Egypt, Israel, Syria, and Iraq, I think of desert land (and war), not a tropical paradise. National Geographic confirms our tendency to associate these countries with desert land. As of 2001, only 10% of the ecosystem that caused scientists to label the area a "Fertile Crescent" is left.[6]

One might argue that these lands are close to the equator, thus, as the Earth becomes hotter those regions would suffer the most. However, the Fertile Crescent is at a similar latitude as the southern United States. Also, the Amazon Rainforest, which is still going strong, is closer to the equator than the Sahara desert. However, the area in which the Amazon Rainforest is located has been inhabited for a lesser period of time and while the countries around that region may be considered 3rd world countries that have high homicide rates, violence has been occurring over a much smaller window of time in these areas. The Middle East (including Northern Africa) has been effected by war for most of humanity's existence. God has already told us that blood defiles the land, so it stands to reason that the death of 90% of the ecosystem stems from the constant warfare.

Interestingly, there are also more deserts in Africa, Asia, and Europe than in the Americas. On top of that, there are more deserts in the United States, where there were mass killings of Native Americans, than in South America.[7] Despite the heinous acts committed in slavery, there are no deserts in the Deep South of the United States, however, the poorest states in the nation are all former slave states.[8][9]


  1. "Numbers 35:4 Commentary". Bible Hub. 2016
  2. Coffman, James Burton. "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible: Numbers 35".; Abilene Christian University Press. Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999
  3. Habarta, Peter. "25 Countries With The Highest Murder Rates In the World". List 25. January 2015
  4. Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible. pg. 296. 2014
  5. "Fertile Crescent". Encyclopædia Britannica. September 2015
  6. "Ancient Fertile Crescent Almost Gone, Satellite Images Show". National Geographic. May 2001
  7. "List of Deserts". Wikipedia. 2016
  8. Bertrand, Natasha. "The 10 Poorest States In America". Business Insider. December 2014
  9. Florida Center for Instructional Technology. "Freedom States and Slavery States, 1854". Maps ETC; University of South Florida. Tampa, Florida, USA. 2009

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