Though many details in Numbers 35 are foreign to us, it also reminds us where much of our system of jurisprudence – prudent justice – comes from – the ancient law of God.
The law made a distinction between kinds of sin – there is premeditated murder, and there is manslaughter. Two different crimes, though a life was taken in each case (15-16ff).
The difference is to be adjudicated by means of a prosecutor (“the avenger of blood”), and a jury (“the congregation”) (22-25). This is because God insists that justice be done, and no more. The guilty must receive the just penalty, but the innocent must not be unjustly punished. And in all this, justice must not be perverted: the guilty cannot buy their way out of their sentence, or substitute someone else (32). You do the crime, you do the time.
This chapter represents, as far as I can tell, a basis for imprisonment as a punishment. But here is where things begin to differ from our present system.
The Levites were the priests of Israel. They were charged with teaching the people about the Law of God – the Torah. And so they were scattered among the people. Thus they were given 48 cities in which to live (7). And six of those cities were designated as “cities of refuge” (6).
If someone committed premeditated murder, their kin were allowed to kill the murderer, to atone for the death. It would still be judged, by the congregation. If it turned out that the “avenger of blood” had acted wrongly, killing one guilty only of manslaughter, then the avenger would be guilty of murder.
It’s About Value
Now, note the basis for this system: not to prevent further crime, or to rehabilitate the offender, but one of value. Man is made in the image of God, male and female, and that creation of God’s is uniquely called “very good”. It is a matter of the value of human life. And this value is imparted by the perspective of the Maker of the life.
Again, note that this applies to both sides: the one murdered is so valuable, that only the corresponding death of the murderer will satisfy justice. But in the case of manslaughter, the life killed must still be atoned for, and yet in a way that protects the value of the life of the manslayer.
I hope that you can see with me the sophistication of the ancient law. This is not simplistic barbarity. Life is treated with justice, protection and value, all at the same time, by accounting for the Maker of life, and the value He puts on His creation.
At this point we begin to see both the beauties of the system, and also its limitations. Modern systems of justice may claim to progress past this ancient system by excluding God, and constructing a system directed toward deterrence, or rehabilitation. But these “progressive” systems ultimately fail, either in justice, protection or the valuing of human life.
And yet, even the system in Numbers 35 still feels insufficient. In the case of manslaughter, the guilty one may go to a city of refuge, and there he will be protected from the avenger. Only when the high priest dies can he then be released. On the surface of it, it all has an arbitrary feel to it.
Yet we can detect the logic: in order for death to be atoned for, death must occur. Someone must stand in the place of the guilty, and die in their place. Someone of high rank, who can stand in place of any person, of any rank – the High Priest.
And again the logic turns on seeing things from God’s perspective. It’s God’s earth that’s polluted with the blood of those He values so much. It would be centuries later, and with so much more blood spilled, before another One would come, and serve as prophet, king, and High Priest, all at the same time, and die for the guilty, outside the city, at Calvary.
There’s Pollution, and Then There’s Pollution
Since that singular day in history, mankind has polluted the earth with yet still more blood. So much more. Our present generation is greatly concerned with polluting the ground with chemicals, but thinks nothing of polluting it with the blood of defenseless babies. We cry out for justice for disappearing species, but care little for the rising tide of blood from murder in our cities. We cry out for justice for blood spilled by police, but consume violence on our screens like so much candy.
God’s earth is polluted with so much blood, that it groans under its toxic stench. But one day this Prophet, Priest and King will return, no longer with grace, but in true justice. All will stand before His bench, and He will do right by everyone. And either we will pay for our blood, by our own necks, or by His. The names in his book will tell the story.
So now is the time – while there is still time – to repent, and to call our neighbors and city to repent. Faith in Christ is the only for true justice – to truly have all our sins justly payed for, and for the sinner to justly go free. Can you imagine that? Do you know that freedom – to walk away clean, washed of all your sins, all the guilt – and to know that the payment was just and full? That no Accuser has anything on you? That’s forgiveness. That’s life. Found only in Christ.