Chapter thirty-five addresses the Levites, who did not receive any of the land of Canaan as an inheritance for their tribe. Instead, God allotted the Levites forty-eight towns spread throughout the other tribes that they could live in (Numbers 35:1-8). The tribes with more land could afford to give more cities than those with less land, and the Levites were to have exclusive grazing rights around their cities for their herds (they did not own enough land for farming). This allowed all the citizens of Israel to have Levites near them to help arbitrate the Law when they could not get to the tabernacle and the priests.
Six of the forty-eight towns were designated as “towns of refuge.” The purpose of these towns was to provide a haven for someone who killed someone else unintentionally. In these cases, the killer could take refuge in one of these towns “until he has stood trial before the community” so that he could not be killed in revenge. Three of them had to be on each side of the Jordan River to cover the entire nation. If the killer was found to have committed murder, he would be executed under God’s Law, as stipulated in the detailed examples that follow (Numbers 35:16-21). Personal vengeance against a murderer was both allowed and encouraged, in order to quickly purge the sin from the land and nation. However, it was to be done quickly and openly, not in secret or by ambush, because this was no better than the original murder.
In case of accidental or even negligent manslaughter, the killer could go to a town of refuge to escape the avenger (Numbers 35:22-29). However, because a life was taken – even unintentionally – the killer had to remain in the town of refuge until the death of the current high priest. This was the consequence of taking someone’s life without malice as a reminder that all people are created in God’s image (Genesis 9:5-6). If he left the jurisdiction of that town, the avenger could kill him without consequence. There were no other available options – a murderer must be executed and an innocent killer must stay in the town of refuge (Numbers 35:30-34).