Earlier this week, we saw how land should be distributed among all the tribes save one – the Levites. As we learned in Numbers 18, the Levites do not get to inherit land. Since this would put their livelihoods in quite some question in an agricultural society, they are instead to be provided for through sacrifices – a cultic spin on taxation.

It’s interesting to speculate as to why this might be the case. My armchair musings provided the following:

  • An non-landed tribal group found an alternative way of supporting themselves by cornering the religion market (which would also help to explain the repeated warnings against anyone other than a Levite approaching sacred objects – talk about job security!).
  • A deliberate effort to prevent too much power collecting in the hands of a single tribe (essentially forcing the Levites to play with a handicap).
  • A symbolic way of showing that the Levites do not live as other tribes do – bound to the land and able to pass their patch of it on to their children. Rather, they are consecrated, belonging to God. They cannot pass on their inheritance because, in a way, they are already dead (in the sense of being removed from the mundane world).
  • They had lost their land (or never had any) long before the composition date of these stories, and had developed an origin story for their tribe that involved imaginings of an intentional divine plan.
  • Some messy combination of the above.

Regardless of the reasons for the arrangement, the Levites still need somewhere to live. For this reason, God decrees that the Levites be given 48 cities (including land surrounding the cities for their animals). These cities are to be given equitably by each of the tribes (many from the big tribes, a few from the smaller tribes).

Cities of refuge

Among the Levite cities, six should be special cities of refuge – three in Canaan, and three on the other side of the Jordan.

Cities of Refuge, published 1901 by the Providence Lithograph Company

Cities of Refuge, published 1901 by the Providence Lithograph Company

If someone murders another person, they can flee to one of the cities of refuge and be safe while they await trial – “the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation in judgement” (v.12).

If it’s found that the person did commit murder, he shall be put to death. If it was an accident, “though he was not his enemy, and did not seek his harm” (v.23), he must still be punished – in a way. His punishment is that he must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. This is because “blood pollutes the land” (v.33) – which is where, I assume, the connection to the high priest comes in. It seems that the death of one high priest and the anointing of a replacement performs some kind of cleansing magics on the land, thereby negating whatever impurity was caused by the manslaughter.

Regardless of whether the killing was intentional or accidental, if the “avenger” of the victim finds the perp outside of a city of refuge, it’s open season.

Back to the judgement of the congregation, two witnesses are required to prove intentional guilt. “No person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness [only]” (v.30).

Another interesting feature of this decree is that there is no legal way out for someone who has been convicted of murder. He cannot ransom himself – only the death penalty will do.

So there’s a lot that’s pretty cool about this chapter. Obviously, in a modern civil society, this stuff is completely bonkytonk. But within the historical and cultural context, it strikes me as a pretty creative – and progressive – way of negotiating between the needs of a stable society and the desires of a tribal culture.

I can imagine the uproar it might cause in a milieu where “an eye for an eye” rules, and where kin is supposed to avenge kin. And here’s these priests saying “hmm, actually, we were kinda thinking that this could be a safe zone and we do this, like, trial thing?”

Also, the specific prohibition on buying one’s way out of retribution tries to address the fact that the very powerful are rarely held accountable for their crimes because of the danger involved in opposing them – a problem that we still very much have today. I doubt that this chapter put even so much as a dent in the injustices of the criminal justice system, but it shows me that someone saw it, recognized it, and tried to fix it. That, I think, matters.

That’s not to say that it’s all peaches and roses, though. There are also passages like v.19 (“The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death’ when he meets him, he shall put him to death” – implying that the kinsman in charge of exacting vengeance has no option to show mercy) that seem to reinforce the tribal way.