Ruminations on Numbers 35.
On the set of the western movie “Rust” on Thursday, October 21, Alec Baldwin was practicing removing his gun from the holster and pointing it at the camera in preparation for a scene in the movie. Suddenly the gun discharged, killing the director of photography, Halyna Hutchins, and wounding the director Joel Souza who was directly behind her. The gun had been certified as “cold” i.e. not containing real ammunition before being given to Mr. Baldwin. Horrifying, apparently accidental, but a wife and mother lost her life.
In the Torah in B’midbar (Numbers) 35 God gave explicit instructions on how Israel was to respond to accidental killing. The Levites were allotted 48 cities spread throughout the land of Israel with some in each tribe as they were not given a tribal territory of their own. Six of these Levitical cities were specially designated as cities of refuge. Three of these were on the west side of the Jordan and three were on the east. This was to allow easy access for anyone who might need to flee to their protection.
When a person killed someone they had to flee to a city of refuge where the congregation would be called to determine if the killing were intentional thus murder or accidental in what we might term manslaughter. If the congregation found the killer guilty of murder—intentional, planned and malicious—he was turned over to the avenger of blood who would kill him. If he was found innocent of intentional malfeasance he was sent back to the city of refuge where he would be safe. The killer was required to live in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. If he ever ventured outside the city the avenger of blood could slay him with no repercussions. The killer could not pay a ransom to shorten his stay—for safety he had to live in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest.
The killer, if designated a murderer, had to die, there was no recourse nor forgiveness. 35: 33 ‘So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.’ The only justice for murder is the slaying of the one who committed murder. We find this idea also in Genesis 9: 6 Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.
God makes plain in the text that this is a perpetual obligation. Numbers 35: 29 These things shall be for a statutory ordinance to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings.
Today, if the killing of Halyna Hutchins had taken place in ancient Israel Mr Baldwin would have been compelled to flee to a city of refuge. If found innocent of intentional harm he would then live in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest.
It is pretty easy to read this passage and pass it off as irrelevant. For at least two reasons: 1- most Christians don’t believe Yeshua (Jesus) when he said he didn’t come to destroy the law or the prophets 2- none of us would ever kill anyone and if we did accidentally, our culture assures us we did nothing wrong and deserve no punishment.
The Bible does not hold to the view that intent determines guilt. Halyna Hutchins is dead regardless of Alec Baldwin’s intent. She is made in the image of her creator and her death carries vast importance with that creator.
For those who follow Yeshua (Jesus) and accept him as their Redeemer and Savior this passage carries great weight. One of the things Yeshua did (any in many ways the ancient sages agree with him) was dig deep into the intent of the law (Torah) and how our behavior relates to it. In Matthew 5 he reminds his listeners that the Torah tells us that those who murder are subject to judgment. But, he goes on to say, that anyone who is angry with his brother is subject to judgment. Those who call their brother a fool are in danger of the fires of hell. In other words, Yeshua is linking anger, slander and hatred to murder. In 1 John 3:15 the apostle corroborates Yeshua’s point by affirming that whoever hates his brother is a murderer. In rabbinical tradition one who indulges in lashon hara (evil speech) murders three people—himself, his listener and the one being spoken of.
We probably have all said something inadvertently that really injured someone. Off-the-cuff criticism, snide insults, angry retaliation often lead to angry words and damaged feelings that in Yeshua’s description render us subject to judgment.
How do we run to the city of refuge? What does that mean today? Psalm 91 One who dwells in the shelter of the Most High Will lodge in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, My God in whom I trust!” Yeshua promises in John 6:37 “whoever comes to me I will never cast out!”
So we come to the shelter of the “Most High” and surrender to his provision and enter His city. Hebrews 12: 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Yeshua, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.
We discover two powerful truths as we enter our “city of refuge.” First our high priest has died. By coming to the city and accepting his sacrifice and atoning death we are set free to return home. Second the sprinkled blood does speak better than the blood of Abel. Abel’s blood cried out for justice. Justice can only come for Abel with the shedding of the blood of Cain, his murderer. The sprinkled blood of Yeshua satisfies our bloodguiltiness before the law. By shedding his blood he meets the demand of the law for the shedding of blood of the guilty party. When we accept his sacrifice in our behalf his blood purchases our freedom as expiation for the land has been made “by the blood of him who shed it.” Isaiah 53: 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.
Thus we find that for the person who comes to the Lord with a truly repentant heart, provision has been made for the unintentional damage we do to each other and forgiveness when the hurt is intentional and malicious. Psalm 46: 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, The holy dwelling places of the Most High.
May we all find our way to the city of refuge.
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