In Numbers 32 we have the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle down on the eastern side of the Jordan River. This came as a shock to Moses, and it explains some of his harsh language. It sounded like they were opting out, that they weren’t going to go with their brothers and help with the conquest. It was like Numbers 13-14 all over again! Moses doesn’t like that. However, the people assure him that’s not what they had in mind. They are going to go with their brothers to fight with them until the end of the war, but they wanted permission to come back and settle Transjordan. When that was explained, Moses agreed to it.
Numbers 33 records the stages of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Jordan. A lot of those places are associated with the great events in Moses’ life, and since this comes toward the end of his life, it may well be that this is a sort of obituary.
Numbers 34 records the boundaries of the land to be divided, and then Numbers 35 provides towns for the Levites and establishes six cities of refuge for those who were guilty of manslaughter.
Unlike the other tribes, neither the Levites nor the Simeonites were given a portion of the land for their tribal territory. The reason for that is very clear. Back in Genesis 49, when Jacob is pronouncing his final words on his sons, he passes a judgment upon Simeon and Levi. They will not inherit land at the time of the conquest because of their role in the massacre of the Shechemites (see Gen. 34:25-31). Jacob had prophesied that those two sons would be scattered in Jacob and dispersed in Israel (see Gen. 49:7). This happened in a very interesting way.
The descendants of Simeon settled in Judah’s territory. Because Judah was a strong tribe, and because Jerusalem was in Judah’s territory, the worship of God was kept the purest in that territory. Thus, through this association with Judah, Simeon was more or less kept faithful to God. What happened to Simeon was still a judgment. But in the hands of God, it nevertheless turned into a blessing.
Now the same thing is true of Levi, only in a more striking manner. Levi doesn’t get any tribal territory, but they were appointed as priests and those who took care of the tabernacle. Though they’re scattered throughout the land, they have this great honor of being the ones who are going to keep the memory of the true God alive and conduct the people in their worship. Moreover, this tribe produced some of the nation’s greatest leaders: Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, Eli, Ezra, and John the Baptist.
What an encouragement to us, especially if you have suffered as a result of someone else’s sin. The descendants of Simeon and Levi didn’t receive the land because of what their forefathers had done. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children frequently, as God says, even to the third and fourth generation. Sin has consequences. But if you’ve suffered because of someone else’s sin, particularly the sin of a parent, know that God is able to bring blessings out of judgment. The very thing that seems so hard to you—and which for a non-Christian might be entirely destructive—can in the hand of God be turned into a blessing for you. Don’t think that you are excluded from God’s favor. God sees a contrite heart and brings blessing.
Even if it is the case that you are suffering for your own sins, do not draw away from God but repent of the sin. Seek God’s face, and you’ll find that He is able to forgive you, restore you, and bring great blessing.
Now among the forty-eight cities that were given to the Levites, under the direction of God Moses singled out six as cities of refuge (see Num. 35). Three were on one side of the Jordan, and three were on the other. In that ancient time, in most places you have very rudimentary justice, if any justice at all. According to custom, if a person was killed the relatives of the victim would appoint an avenger of blood whose duty it was to seek out the one who had been responsible for the death of their relative and put him to death. In a situation of premeditated murder, this provided a kind of frontier justice to deal with a genuine crime. But in the case where the death was accidental, this was a great injustice. For example, if a man is out chopping wood with an axe, and his axehead flies off and kills his friend, then he is guilty of manslaughter. He knows that the relatives are going to get together and they are going to appoint somebody to go and get him. What’s he going to do? Is he going to wait around for his killer to come? Should he flee the country? There’s no justice in these options.
Thus, it was arranged that if somebody is guilty of manslaughter—that is, not premeditated murder but accidental killing—then they could run quickly to one of those cities, enter into it, and be safe. This is not meant to excuse murder. The person needed to appear before the elders and explain what happened, and if they decided that it really was an accident, then the man was allowed to stay in the city. He was protected there until the reigning high priest died, at which point he was free to go and nobody could touch him. But if the death was murder, not an accident, then he wasn’t allowed to come in. He was turned back so that vengeance could take place.