Notes & Commentary:
Ver. 3. Cities, in all forty-eight, with a thousand paces round them. This land belonged to the community: but some built upon it, Josue xxi. 18., and 1 Paralipomenon vi. 60. The burial place for the Levites lay behind it. (Drusius) — In these cities alone, the Levites had houses and gardens of their own; others might live with them, and indeed the cities acknowledged other lords, as Hebron belonged to Caleb, Josue xiv. 14. The Levites were dispersed throughout the land, that they might instruct the people both by word and by example, Deuteronomy xxxiii. 10. They had a clear revenue without labour of husbandry, equivalent to any two of the other tribes. (Abulensis.) — Six of their cities were assigned for places of refuge, as they were the proper judges of the cases, in which murder may be excused, and to remind them that they ought to be very merciful. Hence arose the privileges, granted to some churches, of protecting those who fled to them for an asylum. That none might be hindered from enjoying this benefit, three of these cities were situated on each side of the Jordan, and at equal distances. (Salien)
Ver. 4. Paces. This is equivalent to 2000 cubits, (ver. 5,) or a sabbath day’s journey. (Selden, Jur. iii. 9.; St. Jerome, q. 9. ad algas.) Hebrew retains the same word, amma, “cubit,” in both verses: but some copies of the Septuagint, Philo, and Josephus, have “2000 cubits,” (Calmet) which Dr. Wall and Kennicott deem to be the original reading. (Haydock) — Bonfrere would also correct the Hebrew by the Vulgate, as a pace among the Greeks consisted of three feet, and a cubit of half that quantity. The geometric pace of the Romans contained five feet, and the sacred cubit of Villalpand, half as much; so that 2000 sacred cubits make 1000 geometric paces. Thus the Vulgate is perfectly consistent with itself. (Menochius) — Some imagine that Moses speaks of the common cubit here and of the sacred one, which was doubly as large, ver. 5. But this is not probable; and the distinction of cubits, (Calmet) at least in his days, (Haydock) is very uncertain. Perhaps Moses may first specify the depth of this space of ground from the wall, and afterwards its length, which would be doubly greater. (Calmet) See Servius on Jos. xxi. q. 8, &c. — The semidiameter was probably 1000 cubits. (Du Hamel)
Ver. 5. Sea. Hebrew simply, “on the west side 2000 cubits, and on the north side 2000 cubits, and the city in the midst. This shall be to them the suburbs of the city.”
Ver. 6. Cities. Maimonides pretends, that all the forty-eight cities of the Levites were asylums; though only six were bound to receive the fugitive gratis. Moses had promised a place of refuge, which he now grants, Exodus xxi. 13. The altar and temple enjoyed the like privilege: the latter even till its destruction. (Philo) — Josephus mentions only six cities of refuge. Those who could not be supposed to have killed a person designedly, were not obliged to flee to them; as, on the other hand, the murderer was not permitted to enter, if his malice were notorious, or his negligence extreme. (Rabbins ep. Selden, Jur. iv. 2.) To be secured at the altar of holocausts, it was necessary to touch the grate. If the judges declared that the person’s case was such as the law admitted, he was conducted away, under a strong guard, to one of the cities; or, if he were deemed unworthy, he was put to death, out of the holy place. The altar was commonly the refuge only of priests. Those who were not of Hebrew extraction, could not claim the rights of an asylum, according to the Rabbins. But the contrary seems to be asserted, ver. 15. The roads to the cities of refuge were to be kept in good repair, and in case more than six should be found necessary, three others might be appointed, Deuteronomy xix. 3, 8. This privilege is founded on the law of nature, which decrees that the life of the innocent man, who has had the misfortune to kill another, should not be taken away. Other nations extended this right to almost every crime, that the weak might have an opportunity of defending themselves. The sons of Hercules erected for this purpose the altar of mercy, at Athens. Some of the pagan temples could protect even the greatest criminals, as well as the innocent, who might fear oppression. Those of Apollo, at Delphos, of Bacchus, at Ephesus, &c., were very famous. See Marsham, Chron. sæc. 13. Tiberius found it necessary to recall these privileges among the Greeks, as they were greatly abused. (Tacitus, An. iii. 6.) But his decree was not much regarded. The Romans had their asylums also, at Naples, &c., where those who had been condemned to die, might be secure. Rome itself was an asylum for all strangers, as St. Augustine remarks, City of God i. The Christian emperors afforded the like privileges to our churches. But some who were guilty of the crimes of adultery, murder, heresy, &c., were deprived of the benefit. (Calmet) — Those who fled to the altar among the Jews were first to be purified; (Philo) and if they had committed murder publicly, like Joab, they were dragged away, 3 Kings ii. (Tirinus)
Ver. 12. Kinsman, the nearest relation, who was called the revenger of blood, (ver. 25, 27.; Haydock) or the redeemer, because it was his duty to see that justice was done to the deceased. When the person, who had involuntarily committed murder, arrived at the city, he was to make his appearance before the judges of it, and, if they thought his account satisfactory, they admitted him, but upon condition that he should take his trial before the judges and the people of that country, where the murder had taken place, (ver. 25., and Josue xx. 4, 9.; Tirinus) though some think that the judges of the city of refuge, passed sentence. (Masius; &c.) — If it proved favourable, he was bound to remain in the city, till the death of the high priest, otherwise the relations might kill him as an outlaw; as they might also if he was declared guilty. In case the murder were voluntary, the judges of the place where it was committed set to demand the criminal, Deuteronomy xix. 11.
Ver. 18. If, &c. Hebrew, “or he smite him with a wooden weapon, (wherewith he may die,) and he die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death.” The two former verses are expressed in the same awful manner, intimating that the weapon must be of such a nature that it might easily give a mortal wound, and also that the effect really followed. In these cases, if the person could not clear himself, no refuge or reprieve was allowed. (Haydock) — But the deceased must have been killed upon the spot, otherwise the person who struck him could only be required to pay a fine, Exodus xxi. 19. (Menochius)
Ver. 19. Him, with impunity. If the judges have passed sentence, he shall be obliged to put it in execution, ver. 21, 31. (St. Augustine, q. 65.) (Estius) — The laws of Athens required also that a relation should put the murderer to death, though the deceased were even of servile condition. (Demost.) — Those of Rome condemned the involuntary manslayer to retire for a year, and afterwards to appease some one of the relations, and to offer the sacrifices, and submit to the usual purifications. Even at the present day, the Persians and Arabs deliver the murderer to be slain by the kinsmen of the deceased, after sentence has been passed by the judges.
Ver. 21. Kill him. It seems when the case was evident, he was not only permitted, but commanded to punish the criminal. (Bonfrere) (Deuteronomy xix. 12.) (Menochius)
Ver. 25. Delivered. Hebrew, “the multitude shall deliver the slayer.” It seems the judges pronounced sentence, according to the votes of the people assembled; (Calmet) or the plurality of voices among the 21 judges decided the matter. (Grotius) (Haydock) — High priest. This mystically signified that our deliverance was to be effected by the death of Christ, the high priest and the anointed of God. (Challoner) — He rescued us from the hand of the revenger, the devil. (Theodoret, q. 50, 51.) — Before his death, the way to our true country was not open, nor secure. (St. Gregory, hom 6. in Ezec.) (Worthington) — By this law, Moses shewed a horror for murder, and the respect due to the person of the high priest, during whose life even the involuntary murderer was obliged to keep himself retired in a city of refuge. (Masius) — At the death of the pontiff, all Israel put on mourning, so that private injuries were to be forgotten, when the public had such cause for sorrow; and in the mean time the vengeance of kinsmen would relent. (Maimonides; More. iii. 40.) — Murder was punished by the Greeks, in the days of Homer, with banishment, though sometimes this was remitted by the relations, for a sum of money. (Iliad ix.) (Calmet)
Ver. 27. Him. Custom explained this law, as giving leave to any person to inflict the punishment upon the wandering murderer, though the relation seem only to be specified. (Grotius) — Some think, that to kill such a person was still criminal in the sight of God. But others believe that, as he had forfeited the privilege of an asylum, by absenting himself from it, (Calmet) the law subjected him to the same rigour, with which he might have been treated before he came thither; (ver. 19.; Haydock) and provided proper moderation were observed, and malicious revenge avoided, no guilt would attach to him, who executed the implied sentence of death. The Jews observe, that God allows us to revenge another sooner than ourselves, as there is less danger of excess or of delusion. (Calmet)
Ver. 30. Man. A person might be tried on such evidence, Deuteronomy xix. 15.
Ver. 32. Cities. Hebrew, “you shall take no money to retire to a city of refuge, to return into his own country, till the death of the priest.” The Septuagint supply, “you shall take no redemption money, to permit (a voluntary murderer) to flee into a city of refuge, (nor of an involuntary one,) to return,” &c. (Grotius) — The banished, may refer to people of the former description, who had gone away to screen themselves from persecution. But they could never be allowed to inhabit the country any more. Their presence would seem to defile it. (Haydock) — “You shall not take money of him who has fled to a city of refuge, to suffer him to return home.” (Chaldean)
Ver. 33. Defile not. To inspire a greater horror for murder, the earth was represented as defiled by blood, and only to be purified by the death of the criminal. Without shedding of blood, there is no remission, Hebrews ix. 22. (Haydock) — On the same principle, our churches, &c., are deemed profane, when murder, or some great indecencies, have been committed in them, so that they require a fresh consecration. (Calmet)
Bible Text & Cross-references:
Cities are appointed for the Levites. Of which six are to be the cities of refuge.
1 And the Lord spoke *these things also to Moses, in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan, over-against Jericho:
2 *Command the children of Israel, that they give to the Levites out of their possessions,
3 Cities to dwell in, and their suburbs round about: that they may abide in the towns, and the suburbs may be for their cattle and beasts:
4 Which suburbs shall reach from the walls of the cities outward, a thousand paces on every side:
5 Toward the east shall be two thousand cubits: and toward the south in like manner shall be two thousand cubits: toward the sea also, which looketh to the west, shall be the same extent: and the north side shall be bounded with the like limits. And the cities shall be in the midst, and the suburbs without.
6 *And among the cities, which you shall give to the Levites, six shall be separated for refuge to fugitives, that he who hath shed blood may flee to them: and besides these there shall be other forty-two cities,
7 That is, in all forty-eight, with their suburbs.
8 And of these cities which shall be given out of the possessions of the children of Israel, from them that have more, more shall be taken: and from them that have less, fewer. Each shall give towns to the Levites according to the extent of their inheritance.
9 The Lord said to Moses:
10 Speak to the children of Israel, and thou shalt say to them: When you shall have passed over the Jordan into the land of Chanaan,
11 Determine what cities shall be for the refuge of fugitives, who have shed blood against their will.
12 And when the fugitive shall be in them, the kinsman of him that is slain may not have power to kill him, until he stand before the multitude, and his cause be judged.
13 *And of those cities, that are separated for the refuge of fugitives,
14 Three shall be beyond the Jordan, and three in the land of Chanaan,
15 As well for the children of Israel as for strangers and sojourners, that he may flee to them, who hath shed blood against his will.
16 If any man strike with iron, and he die that was struck: he shall be guilty of murder, and he himself shall die.
17 If he throw a stone, and he that is struck die: he shall be punished in the same manner.
18 If he that is struck with wood, die: he shall be revenged by the blood of him that struck him.
19 The kinsman of him that was slain, shall kill the murderer: as soon as he apprehendeth him, he shall kill him.
20 *If through hatred any one push a man, or fling any thing at him with ill design:
21 Or being his enemy, strike him with his hand, and he die: the striker shall be guilty of murder: the kinsman of him that was slain, as soon as he findeth him, shall kill him.
22 But if by chance-medley, and without hatred,
23 And enmity, he do any of these things,
24 And this be proved in the hearing of the people, and the cause be debated between him that struck, and the next of kin:
25 The innocent shall be delivered from the hand of the revenger, and shall be brought back by sentence into the city, to which he had fled, and he shall abide there until the death of the high priest, that is anointed with the holy oil.
26 If the murderer be found without the limits of the cities that are appointed for the banished,
27 And be struck by him that is the avenger of blood: he shall not be guilty that killed him.
28 For the fugitive ought to have stayed in the city until the death of the high priest: and after he is dead, then shall the manslayer return to his own country.
29 These things shall be perpetual, and for an ordinance in all your dwellings.
30 The murderer shall be punished by witnesses: none shall be condemned upon the evidence of one man.
31 You shall not take money of him that is guilty of blood, but he shall die forthwith.
32 The banished and fugitives before the death of the high priest may by no means return into their own cities.
33 Defile not the land of your habitation, which is stained with the blood of the innocent: neither can it otherwise be expiated, but by his blood that hath shed the blood of another.
34 And thus shall your possession be cleansed, myself abiding with you. For I am the Lord that dwell among the children of Israel.
1: Year of the World 2553.
2: Josue xxi. 2.
6: Deuteronomy xix. 2.; Josue xx. 2.
13: Deuteronomy iv. 41.; Josue xx. 7. and 8.
20: Deuteronomy xix. 11.