NUMBERS 35 and 36
“Simeon and Levi are brothers—their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.” So prophesied Jacob their father in Genesis 49:5-7. It turned out – 500 years later – exactly as he said. The tribe of Simeon was dispersed within the allocation of Judah’s land (Joshua 19:1,9) and of course the descendants of Levi had no land inheritance of their own and were dispersed among 48 cities throughout Israel – cities donated from the other tribes’ inheritance. Levi did not own that land and were effectively God’s tenants! Therefore, when a true prophecy is given, it is always fulfilled – even if the fulfilment seems to take a very long time.
Six of these 48 cities (three either side of the Jordan) were designated as ‘Cities of Refuge’: they had higher security at their gates and a judicial process for dealing with murderers and manslaughter convicts. Whilst it was permitted to kill someone in battle, for an individual to kill civilians was deemed murder – and of course covered by the sixth commandment. Defining murder was therefore important, since a killer was innocent of that charge if they did so unintentionally; motive was the key factor, as it is today. Using a weapon indicated de facto an intentional motive. Having obvious enmity or anger whilst killing without a weapon was also deemed murder. The penalty was death in all cases, with no reprieve, no alternative financial compensation to relatives, and no commutation to enforced exile. A legally designated man called ‘The Avenger of Blood’ was appointed to enforce the judgment; there is some indication that this man was engaged by the victim’s family and that sometimes he ‘jumped the gun’ and executed an informal judgment before the court had sat.
Should the killing have been manslaughter then, to prevent an injustice by the ‘Avenger’, the killer could run to a City of Refuge and claim asylum (rather like entering a foreign embassy today); the rulers of that city would protect the claimant and begin judicial enquiries themselves, liaising with the original city where the crime was committed. Two independent witnesses had to testify to the murder – in which case the asylum seeker was handed back to the Avenger – but if not, then the sentence was commuted to manslaughter with an effective punishment of exile within the boundaries of that City of Refuge. It was only a life sentence if the killer was significantly older than the reigning High Priest! – since the latter’s death was the key to the killer’s release.
The inheritance issue raised previously by Zelophehad’s daughters raised a further question: if they inherited and then married men from another tribe, the inheritance would pass out of Manasseh’s tribe for good – and certainly by the time of the Jubilee. God therefore answered this by forbidding tribal intermarriage and decreeing that land inheritance must stay within a tribe for good.
Zelophehad would have been proud of such a faithful and honest set of daughters, who were concerned for their father, for the family name, and for the family’s inheritance. Such children are a gift from the Lord!