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Lesson 13: Cities of Refuge *

Introduction: In the last chapters of Numbers we see that God is truly bringing His people into Canaan. Numbers chapter 33 contains the historical record of the journey from Egypt to Canaan. The journey now enters the history books and is no longer part of every day life. In Numbers chapter 34 we read what God set as the new boundaries for Israel. In Numbers chapter 35 God describes a system of justice, including the location of jails! Would you like a jail built in your back yard? Did you know that Israel had jails? Did you know that the ministers got to live with those accused of murder? Let's dive into our study of the Bible and find out more!

  1. Ministers and Murderers

    1. Read Numbers 35:1-3. What did we previously learn about the Levites? (The Levites were faithful to God when the rest of the Israelites were worshiping the golden calf at Mount Sinai. As a result, God put them in charge of the tabernacle and ministering to the community.)

      1. If the Levites are the "good guys," why did they get towns instead of sections of land? (Their pay (inheritance), according to Numbers 18:24, was to receive the tithes of the people and not any of the land.)

    2. Read Numbers 35:4-5. Why did they need limited pastureland? (Because the tithe included animals. So, they would have them for a limited amount of time before they ate them.)

      1. Why are the ministers not vegetarians? If that is the healthiest diet, and God has set up the system, why not have them eat only vegetables? (Since the animal sacrifice was to remind them of Jesus, it was not very practical for them to be vegetarians. Practical considerations trumped health considerations.)

    3. Read Numbers 35:6-8. The Levites get to live with people who have killed someone and they get to live among the rest of the tribes. Why do you think God planned it that way? Are there lessons here for modern ministers? (Someone who murdered or was accused of murder would be in the greatest need of spiritual advice. With regard to the non-lethal part of the population, the Levites were not to live in a colony separated from them. Instead, their towns were to be distributed throughout Israel. Ministers need to be among the people.)

    4. Read Numbers 35:9-11. Are these "cities of refuge" where all murders live (along with the Levites and their families)? (No. They are for those who "killed someone accidentally.")

    5. What do you consider to be an accidental killing? Would it include someone who was negligent? Someone who drove 50 miles an hour through a school zone while reading a text message on their cell phone? (Read Deuteronomy 19:4-6. The key is a lack of "malice aforethought." The killing was unintentional.)

      1. Was negligence involved in the ax death? Would a reasonable person would check the tightness of the ax head before swinging it around with others present? (That is the issue in negligence. If the answer is "yes, a reasonable person would check," the ax handler is negligent. If the answer is "no," the death is purely accidental. In either event the person is eligible for a city of refuge.)

    6. Read Numbers 35:12. Were the cities of refuge jails? Where they places where those accused of murder lived permanently? (If you look back at Deuteronomy 19:6 it refers to the avenger of blood pursuing the killer "in rage." These cities allowed tempers to cool down without anyone being killed in the meantime.)

      1. Who is the "avenger," and what does the avenger have to do with the city of refuge? (Read Genesis 9:5-6. The avenger was most likely a family member of the deceased who was following the Genesis statement about shedding the blood of someone who has shed the blood of another.)

    7. Look again at Numbers 35:12. How do you think this system of justice worked? (The city of refuge was not only a place for tempers to cool down, it was a place for those in authority sort out the intentional murders from those who accidentally or negligently killed someone. The avenger was not to kill the accused before things had been sorted out by a trial.)

    8. Read Numbers 35:13-15. Who is eligible to take advantage of a city of refuge? (Anyone. You might think an alien was not protected by Hebrew law. Those were the people most likely to suffer from an angry mob. God indicates that all are entitled to a fair trial.)

      1. What does the placement of the cities suggest? (They were equally available to all.)

  2. God's Jurisprudence

    1. Read Numbers 35:16-18. We just learned that "malice aforethought" is the key to separating those guilty of murder from those guilty of an accident. Have we now changed the rules? What does iron, stone or wood have to do with malice? (Striking someone with a deadly weapon in your hand reveals what is in your mind.)

    2. Read Numbers 35:20-21. Now we are back to malice aforethought. Is intentionally throwing something at someone the same as malice aforethought? How about a hostile punch? (Normally, malice aforethought means you planned to do someone harm. I think the hostile punch and intentional hurl broaden the definition of murder a little bit. It seems to include bouts of anger.)

    3. Read Numbers 35:22-23. Are these examples negligence or malic aforethought? What do you think is the key difference? ("Intent to harm.")

      1. Let's assume you are on a jury and the last few verses are jury instructions. Are they clear enough to you?

      2. Would you feel confident to judge a murder case? (I think God's instructions are very clear.)

      3. How similar are the laws in your country? (I have not been involved in criminal law for over thirty years, but these rules seem to reflect the common law murder rules in the United States. However, our "felony-murder" rules and "co-conspirator" rules cast a broader net than God's law.)

    4. What happens to those who negligently or accidentally kill someone? Are they free to go? (These people are described in Numbers 35:22-24, which we have just read. Let's read on: Numbers 35:25-28. What kind of sentence is this?

      1. Do you think this is fair? (The punishment fits the "crime." By accident or negligence a person has lost their life. The punishment is a limit on the killer's life measured by chance - how long will the High Priest live? It seems chance is involved on both sides: the death and the punishment.)

        1. How does this compare to the law of your country? (If a death is pure accident, we do not punish the killer at all.)

    5. We have discussed the rule of law, what are the proof requirements for murder? Let's read Numbers 35:30. Under this standard can a murderer be put to death based on a confession while in police custody? (No. One witness is not sufficient. God has a rule against self-incrimination.)

      1. How many witnesses are required? (Read Deuteronomy 17:6-7. Two or three.)

        1. Is this like saying "I'll sell you my car for $5,000-$6,000" and that means the price is $5,000?

        2. What effect does the "witnesses stone first" rule have on witness testimony? (This suggests that you need to have at least two strong witnesses. Someone who is unsure is not going to want to be part of the killing. If you have two weak witnesses, that is not enough.)

        3. Does this mean that under God's rule some murders will go free?

    6. Read Numbers 35:31-32. Do rich people operate under different rules of justice in God's system? (No. You cannot pay money to change the sentence.)

    7. Read Numbers 35:33-34. What is the reason for these rules? (They live in the presence of God.)

  3. God Shining Through

    1. What do these rules on killing, and specifically the last texts we read, teach us about our God? (He is a God of justice who protects life. We see this in the one rule of law for all and the fair trial through the cities of refuge system.)

    2. How can God's "lamb-substitute" system, His "Jesus-substitute" plan of salvation fit into a rule of law that both prohibits ransom ( Judges 35:31) and requires atonement through the death of the sinner ( Judges 35:33)? (Two things. First, we are talking about rules of life on earth, not eternal life. Second, Jesus is our Creator. He is not just another person offering to ransom our life. Jesus' sacrifice not only shows the terrible nature of sin, it shows how far God will go to save our life eternally.)

    3. Friend, we have a God of justice and mercy. Will you accept His mercy to avoid His justice? Why not give your heart to Him right now?

  4. Next Week: We start a new series on "Spiritual Gifts."

* Copr. 2009, Bruce N. Cameron, J.D. All scripture references are to the New International Version (NIV), copr. 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society, unless otherwise noted. Quotations from the NIV are used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. Suggested answers are found within parentheses. The lesson assumes the teacher uses a blackboard or some other visual aid.

© 2021 Bruce N. Cameron, J.D.
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