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Numbers 34:1-35:34

We are in the final chapters of the book and Israel is being readied for her entrance, at last, into the Promised Land. Chapter 34 delineates the boundaries of Canaan and chapter 35 is devoted to means of preserving the holiness of the land once it is occupied by Israel. Chapter 34 follows logically upon the previous paragraph in which Israel was commanded to displace the inhabitants of Canaan. That being so, it was necessary to know precisely what the boundaries of Canaan were.

Text Comment

v.2       Canaan was a recognized geographical area from at least the 15th century B.C. onwards. Indeed, the boundaries given in this chapter conform to the boundaries of what was then the Egyptian province of Canaan. [Milgrom, 284] Canaan is mentioned frequently in Egyptian texts of the period. The Egyptian references to Canaan from the period do not define the limits of the land as precisely as they are defined here but it is clear that the territory was the same. [Wenham, 231] As with the sites mentioned in the itinerary of the previous chapter, not all the place names in this description of Canaan can now be confidently identified.

In any case, this was the land the Lord gave them. He did not give them leave to become empire builders by taking land that did not belong to them. They were to be content with the land the Lord provided, a good land and plenty large enough as it was. [Brown, 295]

v.7       This is not the Mt. Hor mentioned earlier in Numbers (20:22-29), the mountain on which Aaron died, but a summit among the Lebanese mountains to the north of Galilee.

v.12     So Canaan does not include the land that was to be settled by Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh. It is an interesting and important detail that this account of the boundaries of Canaan so closely coincides with the boundaries of Canaan as can be gleaned by Egyptian sources of the period. That is evidence of the antiquity of this material because this view of Canaan would make no sense in later periods. [Wenham, 232, note]

v.29     Skip the reading of the names. There are only ten names as Reuben and Gad had already settled in the Transjordan. Only Caleb is mentioned elsewhere in the wilderness narrative. The names are archaic in form which also indicates the antiquity of this material. The representatives are listed in a roughly geographical order, from the most southern tribes to the most northern ones.

34:3     Instructions concerning the Levites regularly follow instructions concerning the other tribes. So after the allocation of land to the other tribes we have these comments about towns for the Levites to live in. Notice that the Levites were to be distributed throughout the Land. No Israelite should be far from the spiritual help and ministry of the Levites.

Pasturelands were communal property. Farmland, in contrast, was private property. So, in this sense, at least in regard to the pasturelands, the Levites were not granted an inheritance in the land that belonged personally to a particular individual or family. [Milgrom, 289]

v.8       We had already read in Numbers that the Levites would have no inheritance in the Promised Land (18:20, 23). That remains generally true even considering that the other tribes were to give to the Levites a few towns or villages. Even including the surrounding pasture land for cattle and flocks, the total amount of land assigned to the Levites – the 48 towns are listed by name in Joshua 21 – amounted to some 15 square miles according to the figures given here in vv. 4-5. That is, all of that land together amounted to one tenth of one per cent of the Land of Canaan. The towns or villages, remember, were in those days very small. Even cities in this early stage of Canaanite civilization, such as Jerusalem, covered only a few acres. The villages or towns would have been little more than a few houses grouped together.

v.15     Canaan is not only the Promised Land; it will become the Holy Land, sanctified by God’s presence among his people. In Leviticus 26:11 we read:
“I will put my dwelling place among you…”

As we will read in the last verse of the chapter, this fact about the land – that it is made holy by God’s presence – is what drives the various laws contained in this chapter. The shedding of blood pollutes whatever it touches. Shed in the right place, blood has the power to reconcile God to man, but shed in the wrong place and in the wrong way it has the opposite effect. So, when blood guilt occurs, it must be dealt with in the proper way.

As with all the other most important legislation, it applies to everyone living in the land: the alien as well as the Israelite.

v.21     Two features of these regulations call for comment. First, that murder is a capital crime is a teaching that runs right through the Bible. Murderers are to be executed because homicide is a form of deicide, man being made in the image of God as he is (Gen. 9:5-6). Murder is, in the nature of the case, premeditated, and the description of it in vv. 16-21 accents the intentional character of the crime. “With malice aforethought,” as the NIV has it in v. 20, or “with hostility” in v. 22. The point is that the perpetrator intended to harm his victim and was motivated by malice. Motive is what distinguishes homicide; not the weapon used or the circumstances of the victim’s death.

You hear nowadays many evangelicals casting doubt on the wisdom of the death penalty – and certainly there may be need to reform its practice – but of its biblical sanction there can be no doubt. Some Christians wish to argue that just as we are against abortion we ought to be against the death penalty. But murder and judicial execution are no more the same thing than kidnapping and legal imprisonment. What is more, a better argument could be made that it is precisely the loss of a sense of the sanctity of human life that has led both to the practice of abortion and an unwillingness to impose the death penalty in capital cases.

Second, in those days there was no police force. There were no jails and prisons. What we are given here is a system of private law enforcement because there was no organ of public law enforcement. The apprehending and punishment of a murderer was the responsibility of the relative of the victim, here called “the avenger of blood.” Much, of course, remains unsaid: how the crime was discovered, how the identity of the perpetrator was determined, how the arrest was made, how the execution was carried out, and so on. Again, as in all the regulations of the law, put the best, not the worst construction on the procedure: a first degree murderer being apprehended and then executed with the purpose being to see justice done.

It is worth noting that the term the NIV translates “avenger” is the term goel, also translated as “redeemer.” The goel, remember, also delivered his kinsmen from bondage to debt by paying what was due. It is a term, as you know, that is used of Yahweh, in regard to his people Israel, and so anticipates the ministry of the Lord Jesus, our near kinsman, who acted to deliver us from bondage. Here the goel provides justice for his extended family.

v.22     Clearly it is possible that such a death occurred not only as the result of an accident but in a fight or brawl that broke out spontaneously. The man who did the killing, in other words, may be guilty of manslaughter, but not premeditated murder. It is probably the man who committed manslaughter whose situation the Cities of Refuge were chiefly designed to address rather than the pure accident which causes someone’s death.

v.23     Again, the distinction is between an accident and an intentional killing. If the man was known to be on good terms with the victim and if it seems clear that the death was entirely unintentional, it is not murder and the man who caused the death is not guilty of the crime.

v.25     However well-intentioned the system of justice executed by a family member was, it was subject to abuse, as is any system of criminal justice, and the City of Refuge was a means established in the law to limit those abuses. [de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 160] In the Near East today, blood feuds are not uncommon. The Law demanded that the death of an Israelite be dealt with in justice. The land would be as contaminated by the execution of a killer – if he did not deserve to be executed – as by a murder that went unpunished. What is clear is that this law of asylum was designed to protect the innocent, not the guilty. The rights of the avenger were not abrogated by the provision of Cities of Refuge. Indeed, if the man were declared guilty at law, the avenger then became an agent of the state, the state’s executioner. [Milgrom, 291] A person who sought refuge in the public judgment of the community was to be tried and, if found innocent, could be escorted to one of the Cities of Refuge there to remain beyond the reach of vengeance until the death of the High Priest. If found guilty of premeditated murder, as we read in Deut. 19, the elders were to hand him over to the avenger of blood for execution. The assumption is that testimony would be taken, evidence gathered and assessed, and a judgment rendered by the court. These procedures are set out in more detail in Joshua 20: 1-4.

The fact that the man had to stay in the City of Refuge until the death of the High Priest indicates that, at least for the man guilty of manslaughter, his stay in the City was both protection and punishment. The punishment was a form of incarceration.

v.30     Here we have another instance of the law’s careful protection of the rights of the accused.

v.32     Neither murderers or manslaughterers could buy their freedom with a ransom. The taking of life is too serious for that! They had to suffer just punishment: murderers by execution, manslaughterers by confinement in the City of Refuge. Nothing could atone for murder; the criminal must be executed or the land would be polluted and the Lord’s presence driven from it. Only the death of the High Priest could atone for manslaughter, understandably thought to be an anticipation of the Lord’s ministry, dying for our sins and securing atonement on our behalf. I accept that, but we have here a type of the Lord’s atoning death only in a broad way; for clearly we are not meant to believe that the death of the Lord Jesus could atone for most sins but not for murder. In such a case David’s sin, for example, could not have been forgiven or any of those who conspired to murder the Lord or who participated in his execution.

v.34     The Levites were primarily responsible for ensuring the holiness of the people. The Cities of Refuge were all Levitical cities so it fell to them also to ensure that capital crimes were properly dealt with and that the guilty were punished.

This meant that it would continue to be true that the Levites would be dependent upon the tithe of the people, as we already read in 18:21-24.

Now we are likely to think that the bearing of this text upon our lives today has largely to do with the principles of jurisprudence, crime, and punishment. And, no doubt, those principles are important. It may be that Israel’s life was different in many ways than the life of a modern state. Surely we cannot say that the Lord is present in the United States or in Brazil or in China in the same way he was present in Israel when his tabernacle and temple were there. The punishment of a murderer does not have the same religious significance, the same bearing on the effectiveness of sacrificial worship, as it did in Israel. The land and the church of God are not so intimately related to one another now as then. A church in a country that is faithful to the Lord will not lose his presence because the land is defiled by unpunished crime.

But, all of that being said, it remains the case that premeditated murder is a crime punishable by death for reasons that are transcultural and transtemporal. Man is made in the image of God, on the one hand – the crime is very great – and justice, in its very nature, is a balancing of the scales: life for life.

But it is not only the punishment for first degree murder. There is so much else here. Note the careful distinction between crimes. An intentional killing is to be treated in a different way and punished more severely than a killing that takes place in the heat of the moment. The victim is dead in both cases, the perpetrator is guilty in both cases, but not of the same crime. Fundamental distinctions are to be made.

And then, though put very simply and more impressionistically and with less detail than we would be accustomed to, notice the concern to protect the rights of the accused. If you have but one witness to the crime it is quite possible that a man guilty of first degree murder might go free. The law anticipates that result, but takes care to be sure that an innocent man not be condemned to death as the result of a malicious witness. Call this the ancient way of getting off on a technicality: the prosecution couldn’t muster two witnesses. Everyone knew the fellow was guilty but his guilt could not be proved in a court of law.

And so on. The man had a right to his day in court. Cities of Refuge were placed strategically throughout Israel so that one of them would be comparatively easy to reach by anyone fleeing an avenger of blood. If the man were convicted only of manslaughter he was to be given free passage to the nearest City of Refuge where he would remain until the death of the High Priest. Any avenger who killed the man after his having been sentenced to remain in a City of Refuge would be guilty of murder himself and subject to execution. In an age before police departments and jails and a layered system of courts, with no fingerprints or DNA, care was taken to get the judgment right and to adjust the punishment to fit the crime. Is that not what everyone thinks is justice and is that not precisely what we hope for from our criminal justice system today, whether or not we get it?

Surely those principles apply to all human life because they are the principles of justice as those principles are derived from the nature of God’s justice which is perfect justice itself. Deny or refuse to practice these principles and the result will not be a more perfect justice, but the lack of justice altogether. That has been proved to the misery of human beings more times than anyone can count.

So, by all means, take note of the significance of this text for the foundations of jurisprudence and for certain principles of crime and punishment.

But I want to draw your attention to another feature of the text we read, this in chapter 34. There is not much excitement in a description of the boundaries of a country, unless, of course, you happen to be living in that country. The question of the boundaries of Israel has been the source of great contention and the cause of the deaths of unnumbered people over these past 50 years. Every day’s newspaper brings news of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and strife along the Israeli-Syrian or Israel-Lebanese border. The securing of the border between Israel and Egypt some years ago has brought peace to a part of the territory on which there had been violence for years. So, don’t tell me that boundaries are not interesting or important. Or don’t tell the billion Indians or the nearly 200 million Pakistanis who have been fighting over the border that divides the two countries in Kashmir for 60 years.

What is more, as we said, there is something to note in the fact that the boundaries of Canaan were, in fact, not only a description of Israel’s inheritance but a limitation of it. Israel was never to be an imperial power. Even at the height of her influence in the world, during the reigns of David and Solomon, she did not and was forbidden to have aspirations to gain control of other countries as the Egyptians had and as Assyria and Babylon, Greece and Rome eventually would. Israel was to enjoy and rest content with what the Lord had given her, nothing more, nothing less. There is surely a lesson in that for all of us today. Our economic and political culture is based on the acquisitive impulse. There is nothing wrong with acquiring more as the result of invention and industry, but there is something deeply wrong with the desire to acquire more in and of itself. And that distinction between result and intention, so fundamental to biblical ethics, is lost on most Americans and, alas, on a great many American Christians. The Puritans were inventive and industrious, in some ways they were great risk takers. Think, for example, of the Pilgrim Fathers. But at least the best of them were not motivated by the desire to acquire more. They wanted to be good stewards of what the Lord had given them; they wanted to provide for their families and for the church of God; they wanted to build new things in the world to the glory of God and to develop the new world for the kingdom of God. Many of them prospered but their personal prosperity was the after-effect of their cleverness and their industry, it was not the motive of it.

It is always something to think about; always a question to put to ourselves. Why am I doing what I am doing? What do I hope to gain? The reason for things can so easily be lost and we can begin doing what we do for the reason everyone around us is doing it or for little or no reason at all. It is worth remembering, from time to time, that Israel was given the means of being a prosperous people when she was given the land of Canaan. But she was not given the means to be a fabulously wealthy people or the freedom continually to enlarge her nation. The boundaries of Canaan were both the size of the free gift and the limit of it. Israel, once she had displaced the Canaanites, was never to prosper at the expense of others.

But there is one more fascinating detail about these boundaries. Canaan as here defined is a larger territory than Israel ever managed to settle. Even in the heyday of David and Solomon she didn’t control the entirety of this territory. Of course, if you remember, most of the time she didn’t control large sections of Canaan. For example from the time of the conquest to the time of David, the coastal plain, the ten or fifteen miles from the shore of the Mediterranean Sea to the hill country was inhabited by the Philistines who were always a thorn in Israel’s side. In a similar way, the northernmost parts of Canaan, that these boundaries suggest stretched almost to Damascus, were never added to Israel at any point in her history.

This is a fact with at least two implications. First, we have here the evidence that the Lord offered more to his people than they ever obtained in this world. And is this not a principal lesson of the entire Bible. We who trust in the Lord have received only the smallest fraction of what has been promised to us. God has immeasurably more to give to his people than they presently can see. [Brown, 296] When you add to this thought the use of Canaan in the Bible as an image of eternal life, the Promised Land that stands for the Promised Land, it is all the more noteworthy that Canaan is here described as a territory greater than what Israel occupied even in the days of the Lord’s greatest blessing of his people. There is always more of the Lord’s goodness beckoning to us from the future.



As Wordsworth has it in a famous verse:

A man’s reach should exceed his grasp
Else what is heaven for.

It is something that we must remember on purpose – so greatly are we distracted by the present – but the Christian life as it is lived in this world is but a shadow of what it will someday be; the blessings we enjoy in this world, wonderful as they are, are but a token of the blessings to come; and heaven will make this earth seem small potatoes in comparison. Remembering that will clear our heads in so many ways. It will lessen the pull that the world and the things of this world have upon our hearts. It will encourage us when life is difficult and sad. It is but for a moment and our sorrows will soon be drowned in endless ecstasy. It will make us more grateful for our present blessings when we see them as also anticipations of greater things to come.

Second, this fact that the boundaries of Canaan exceed the boundaries of Israel at any point in her history are a reminder that, even in this world, there is always more of God’s grace to know, more experiences of his love and power to enjoy, more godliness to put on, and more fruit to bear.

The brute fact is that many of us get so far in the Christian life and never get any further. Some of you may be thinking that you have reached a plateau and can’t really tell that you have advanced in faith or godliness or Christian devotion and love in some years now. Whether or not that is true in your case, the fact is many Christians advance to a certain point and then stop. The coastal plain of your life is left in the Philistine’s hands and little effort is made to take possession of a territory that rightfully belongs to you.

But here is the lesson. When Israel failed to take full possession of the land, she did not keep almost all of it, she lost it all. By not pressing forward to take full possession of what the Lord had given her, she made peace with less and soon lost even that. By the end of the Old Testament Israel is so little in possession of Canaan that her territory has been reduced to the city of Jerusalem, by then a shadow of its former self, and its immediate suburbs. And from then on she was a client state of larger powers and lived in the Promised Land largely as a renter, not an owner.

You don’t get to enjoy half of God’s blessing while leaving the other half unsought. You are not free to content yourself with much less than the Lord has promised to give you. You must keep seeking to have it all, or he will take from you what you have. Is that not the meaning of the Lord’s famous and puzzling saying?

“Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” [Mark 4:25]

In other words, the one who really seizes the kingdom of God, grasps it with faith and love, and honors the Lord Jesus as Savior and Lord, will never cease to receive more and more from the Lord. The one who cares little and does little because the kingdom and its king mean little to him or to her, will not come away with less, but with nothing.

You know very well – every Lord’s Day in worship in this house you are reminded – that there is more territory that God has promised to you than you have ever explored, much less conquered and made your own. All of us, all the time, ought to be seeking to take possession of that whole wonderful life that our Savior has promised to us, enabled us to obtain, and called us to enjoy. Are you moving forward; taking more ground?

If the answer is no; then confess that to the Lord and get moving!