Bible Study with Jairus – Numbers 35

Cities of Refuge


Levitical Cities: An Enlarged Replica of the Tabernacle

The first few verses of Numbers 35 present an interesting paradox. Numbers 35:4 says, “The pasturelands of the cities, which you shall give to the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around.”[1] However, verse five says, “You shall measure, outside the city, on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, the city being in the middle. This shall belong to them as pastureland for their cities.”

Which is it? One thousand or two thousand? These verses have puzzled rabbis and interpreters through the ages. The complicated explanations are too complex to include here.

The Holy Spirit showed me that the size, design, and layout of the cities of the Levites were probably proportional to the dimensions of the Tabernacle’s Holy of Holies and sanctuary. The tabernacle’s Holy of Holies and sanctuary was 10 X 30, and I surmise that the city pasturelands may have been 3000 X 1000.

During the wilderness wanderings, the tabernacle was always on the move. The tabernacle represented the presence of God. Upon entering the Promised land, the tabernacle stood still and resided in Shiloh. But this did not mean that the presence of God, represented by the tabernacle, was no longer with the Israelites during the expansion of the land. The size of their towns may have reminded them of the tabernacle, reminding them that God was with them.

As the Israelites were scattered through the land, living and fighting in various places, it would have been easy to forget that God’s presence was still with them. But God wanted to dwell among the Israelites. What should He do? The 42 cities inhabited by the Levites plus the 6 cities of refuge formed a giant replica of the tabernacle to remind them of his presence.

The different tribes of Levites had different responsibilities. The Kohathites carried items from the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies, while the Gershonites and Merarites carried the items from the outer courtyard (Numbers 3). Although they were all Levites, their service varied in scope. Similarly, all believers today are priests. With Jesus Christ, our High Priest, we serve our Heavenly Father. But level of maturity of each Christian varies greatly. Some serve in the outer courtyard, while others serve in the sanctuary. Among those who serve in the sanctuary, some are near the outer courtyard while some are near the Holy of Holies.

Archaeologists discovered that 1,000 square cubits is 202,500 square meters. Counting the size of the pasturelands around the cities, the cities would be even bigger. This was a very spacious city at the time; most cities at the time were not this big. However, this was God’s ideal design for the Levites. Just like the Israelites failed to expand into the full territory God gave them, the Levites may have failed to build their cities this big. However, God’s original plan was to give them large cities.

God longed to be with the Israelites. After talking about Levitical cities and cities of refuge, God says, “You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel” (vs. 34). Clearly, the Lord dwelt among the Israelites.

How did the Lord dwell among the Israelites? In addition to dwelling in the tabernacle at Shiloh, He also dwelt in every Levitical city. The high priest was a Levite who could enter the Holy of Holies and get close to God. If a high priest lived in a city, it could be compared to the Holy of Holies. That’s why I likened the cities of the Levites to the dimensions of the tabernacle. The pasturelands were measured in four directions (east, west, north and south). It’s as if there were four replicas of the Holy of Holies and the sanctuary. When fleeing to a city of refuge, the individual Israelite would see a picture of the Holy of Holies and the sanctuary facing them.

Levitical Cities: reminder of God’s presence

The time and place here are clearly indicated in the first verse of this chapter. Verse 1 says, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho…” Before Israel even crossed the Jordan River, God spoke to them in the plains of Moab by the Jordan River. Shiloh was on the west of the Jordan River. Probably after the Israelites crossed the Jordan River from the plains of Moab, the tabernacle remained at Shiloh until the ark was brought to Jerusalem.

The tabernacle was a picture of God’s presence. The Israelites carried the tabernacle through the wilderness and finally came to Canaan. In other words, the tabernacle was God’s presence among the Israelites. This presence was always with the Israelites on their journey. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10, Christ was the spiritual rock that accompanied the Israelites (1 Corinthians 10:4).

After the people arrived in the promised land, the tabernacle remained at Shiloh. It no longer moved along with the Israelites on their travels. The Israelites needed God’s presence, and God longed to be with the Israelites (Numbers 35:34). Now that the tabernacle did not move, God would show his continued presence through the establishment and expansion of the Levitical cities.

The Lord commanded Moses to give 42 cities and 6 cities of refuge to the Levites, three on the west side of the Jordan River and three on the east side of it. Please note that at this time, the tribes of Israel had not yet cast lots for their land assignments (Joshua 13-19). Even after the casting of lots, they didn’t get the lands right away. At the beginning of the book of Judges, Judah and the other tribes were still taking the land of the Canaanites after Joshua’s death. The Israelites were unsuccessful in driving out many Canaanites, and God was displeased (Judges 2:1-5). The Israelites were commanded to expand gradually to eventually occupy 42 Levitical cities. Not until Joshua chapter 20 did the Lord instruct Joshua to establish cities of refuge. Not until Joshua 21 do the Levites receive a total of 48 cities (42 cities plus 6 cities of refuge).

Perhaps every Levite city was a reminder of the tabernacle as the Israelite borders continued to expand. Although the Israelites could still come to the tabernacle of Shiloh and draw near to God, it was far from convenient. In the wilderness, the Levites, like the other twelve tribes of Israel, were camped near tent of meeting (Numbers 2:2). It was easy and convenient to draw near to God in the tent of meeting. But in the Promised Land, it was not as convenient to approach God through the Levites in the tent of meeting.

Let’s think about an example. After Caleb entered the Promised land, he had to fight during the day to occupy the land. At night, when he wanted to offer sacrifices to God through the Levites, he lived too far away from Shiloh to do so.

How could the Israelites continue to offer sacrifices to God and approach God through the Levites? The 42 Levite cities and 6 cities of refuge were established among the tribes of Israel to make it easier for these Israelites to continue to come near to God through the Levites. Just like a modern-day military chaplain accompanies the troops on the battlefield, the Levites could continue serving the Israelites’ spiritual needs.

Although we know that sacrifices were restricted to the tabernacle and later the temple, that doesn’t mean that the Levites living among the people couldn’t minister to the other spiritual needs of the Israelites. For example, Moses prayed for Joshua while he was in battle, and Aaron and Hur helped Moses by holding up his hands. Though Hur is from the tribe of Judah and Joshua is from the tribe of Ephraim, Moses and Aaron are both from the tribe of Levi. In addition to handling the sacrifices, the Levites could also pray for the Israelites’ battles.

The cities of the Levites were not a replacement for the tabernacle (later, temple). They could not administer sacrifices or other services of the tabernacle. Rather, the Levitical cities, in a spiritual sense, could provide prayer and encouragement to the Israelites. In this way, the dwellings of the Levites represented the presence of God, which was necessary to assure victory to the Israelites.

A Spiritual Picture

The tabernacle is the most important spiritual picture in the Old Testament. Almost all spiritual truths and experiences can be explained by the metaphor of the tabernacle. For example, the tabernacle had three parts: the outer courtyard, the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies. These three areas represent the human body, soul, and spirit, respectively. If we apply this metaphor to the cities and pasturelands of the Levites, then the Israelites who lived outside the cities of the Levites lived in the outer courtyard. In the Old Testament tabernacle/temple, ordinary Jews could only enter the outer courtyard to worship God. There, the Levites helped them offer sacrifices. Only the Levites could enter the sanctuary, and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies.

The Israelites in each region were just ordinary Israelites living in the outer courtyard. But in the center of each region was a city of the Levites, representing the Holy of Holies. God was physically present with the Israelites by means of the Levites. On the surface, it would appear that the tribes of Israel showed mercy to the Levites by giving them land. But in reality, the Levites were a blessing to the Israelites. God chose the Levites to serve Him. Through them, God showed His presence to the Israelites.

Transition from Tabernacle to Temple

Even after the tabernacle came to rest at Shiloh, it would be many decades before the temple was built. God was waiting for the right time and for the right person to build the temple. Although David wanted to build the temple, God told him that he would not be able to do it because he was a man of war. However, David prepared countless materials, made plans, and hired human talent for Solomon’s future construction of the temple. During this transitional period, God’s presence may inhabit the cities of the Levites besides the tabernacle.

Christ is our city of refuge, and Levitical cities are a picture of God’s dwelling place in Christ. So, our guess that Levitical cities were proportional to the tabernacle is not entirely a guess.

Later, the Levites were not cared for by the Israelites. Some were homeless and had no food to eat. The book of Judges tells the story of a Levite who was taken care of by Micah of the hill country of Ephraim but later robbed by the tribe of Dan (Judges 17-18).

The Israelites were supposed to give a tenth of their goods to the Levites so that the Levites could draw near to God and bring God’s presence and blessing to the Israelites. This is a positive cycle. However, the history of the Israelites portrays a negative cycle. The Israelites did not take care of the Levites. The Levites did not draw close to God. And in the end, the Israelites collectively turned away from God and were disciplined by Him.

This negative cycle continued until 1 Samuel. Here, God specifically mentions that Eli’s two sons were priests (1 Samuel 1:3) that did not know the Lord (1 Samuel 2). Eli’s eyesight had begun to grow dim. The Bible says that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” (1 Samuel 3:1).

Later, while fighting the Philistines, the Israelites placed a superstitious trust in the Ark of the Covenant, thinking that with the presence of the Ark, they would surely win the battle. Unfortunately, not only did they lose the battle, but they also allowed the ark of God to be captured. The Israelites did not realize that God had already been with them through the cities of the Levites, and that they needed to practice taking care of the Levites to take care of their relationship with God. Their neglect of the Levites plus the fall of the Levites ultimately led to their defeat. Blind faith in the Ark is useless. Similarly, a Christian who never prays, never reads the Bible, and doesn’t pay attention to his spiritual life shouldn’t expect God to answer superstitious, last-minute crisis prayers.

Today, Christ is our City of Refuge and Immanuel

The pastureland surrounding the cities of refuge or outside of the Levite’s own pastureland may have been a little bigger. The larger pasture may represent the outer courtyard, where the bronze altar is set up and where sins can be covered. Imagine that a person who has accidentally killed someone is fleeing to the city of refuge. At the same time, a family member of the victim is chasing him down. It’s a very urgent situation. How far away from the city (2,000 cubits, 5,000 cubits, or 10,000 cubits) should the person who is fleeing be considered as entering it? There has to be a border, right? Perhaps the cities of refuge in ancient Israel had a larger pastureland. As long as you had entered this area, you were safe. But this is just my guess.

Today, every Christian and every home is a tabernacle and a city of Levites. We can all be a city of refuge. Our friends and relatives can flee to Christ (city of refuge) through us. The Levites were the leaders of the cities of refuge, and God dwelled among the cities through His invisible presence. Those who accidentally killed someone and fled to the city of the Levites were fleeing under the protection of God.

Similarly, today’s church represents the Levites. Sinners who flee to the safety of believers are fleeing to Christ, the city of refuge. We are the Levites today, and God is with us. The church is like a modern city of refuge. Back then, the Israelites fell away from God because they neglected the presence of God as mediated through the Levites. In the same way, believers today can fall away as they neglect God’s presence. May we all cherish the presence of Christ, Immanuel. Although we cannot see Him with our eyes, we know that He has promised to be with us every day until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

[1] All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.