Numbers 35 deals with the place for the Levites. This tribe consisted of those who cared for the Temple and God’s work. They didn’t receive their own inheritance – but were given a place by the other tribes. Moses instructs the tribes as God gives him the direction. They were to give 6 cities that would serve as safe havens across the Promised Land. These cities were a place for people to go and remain safe until they could be tried for murder before the congregation. There was also to be 42 other cities contributed to the Levites across the land for them to live. And God not only required the cities, but also the land outside for pasture to care for the livestock the Levites were to manage.
So these folks have journeyed 40 years to get to this place of almost entering the Promised Land and now are asked to give away some of it before they even enter. Probably a bit of frustration there, but they all know the place of the Levites in their lives. It was an important job. God doesn’t tell them any more than they are to provide these “in proportion to the inheritance that it inherits” – so the larger tribes were to give more and the smaller less.
The rest of the chapter talks about the way they were to deal with murder. It is obvious from reading that there are two classes of that crime – murder committed with intent, and murder that is accidental. The punishment for an intentional killing was to be death. It doesn’t appear to be a long drawn out process. If you kill someone intentionally you were to die. If you accidentally killed someone “without lying in wait” – that is where the safe haven cities came into play. You could flee there and remain safe so “the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood”. Wouldn’t that liven up a church business meeting?
One key to the process was the number of witnesses involved. “If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness”. One person’s word was not higher than another’s. It required multiple witnesses to put someone to death. And the other key fact was that money couldn’t buy you freedom. “Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death”. It was a level playing field – guilt knew no price. This was important stuff to God. Moses sets the expectations and gives the rules.