Anyway, we’re still in the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament of the Bible. At this point in the story, the Israelites have just obliterated the Midianite people, except for several thousand young virgin girls they kept alive as slaves. They are on the banks of the Jordan, getting ready to cross over into the land God had been promising their ancestors ever since Abraham’s days.
The heads of the Reuben and Gad tribes now come to Moses with a proposal. These two tribes have extensive herds, and they’ve noticed that the land they’re in is pretty good for grazing livestock. So their idea is that, since they’ve already conquered the fuck out of the inhabitants, they might as well stay there rather than crossing the Jordan with the rest of the Israelites. Moses is less than thrilled with this plan, since he wants the fighters from all the tribes to assist in conquering the promised land. So after a bit of haggling they reach an agreement: the Reubenite and Gadite women and children will remain behind, living in fortified cities, while the menfolk go to help in the conquest. Once the conquest is done with, the men will be allowed to return and settle down. Half of one of the other tribes (which gets referred to from here on as the half tribe of Manasseh) also takes this deal. A portion of the land, Gilead, still needed some Amorites kicked out, so they took care of that little detail as well.
Once that is dispensed with, the Bible pauses to give a “brief” (forty-nine verses) recap of all the places they had camped in their journey from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan. Then we get an order from God, delivered through Moses as per usual, that the Israelites are to completely drive out the inhabitants of the lands he’s giving them, and to destroy all of their shrines and idols. From there he moves on to delineating the borders of the lands they will inhabit. I won’t bore you with the details, since this isn’t a blog on Mideast politics.
After listing the names of all the tribal chiefs, we get some more on the Levites. Remember how it had been said several times before that the Levites wouldn’t get an inheritance of land? Well, that isn’t exactly true. God now orders that the tribes must give the Levites forty-eight cities, plus the land around them to use as pastureland, and that six of those cities will be used as “cities of refuge.”
The city of refuge is a concept that needs some explaining, but fortunately the Bible takes the time to explain the system. It has to do with the rules surrounding murder. Essentially, if someone committed a preplanned murder, then the victim’s next of kin are entitled to avenge the murder by killing him in return. But if someone killed somebody accidentally, he has the right to flee to one of the cities of refuge in order to avoid being killed. This is a death race of sorts, though, since if someone seeking to avenge the killing catches him before he gets there, they’re still allowed to kill him. If the killer manages to get to the city of refuge, the occupants of that city are obligated to keep him safe until they can put him on trial for the killing. If they rule against him, the avenger is allowed to kill him. If they rule in his favor, he’s spared from the avenger, but only as long as he remains in the city of refuge. If he sets foot outside the city, the avenger is allowed to kill him with impunity.
There is a sort of statute of limitations, however. Once whoever was high priest at the time the killer was given refuge dies, the killer is allowed to leave the city of refuge and return to his own property. Any would-be avengers are supposed to leave him alone. Using the death of the high priest as the limit seems like one of the weirdest (read, insane) rulings possible – it could mean that a killer is restricted to the city of refuge for anywhere between a day and sixty years, based on an event that has absolutely nothing to do with his crime or its severity.
God does specify that nobody can be put to death based on the testimony of only a single witness, but that once someone is convicted of murder the death penalty is the only possible option. No ransom can buy back the life of a convicted murderer.
Moving on from there, we get the last little story of Numbers. You recall earlier it was ruled that when a man dies without sons to inherit, his daughters can inherit instead? Well, some of the tribal heads actually thought about the implications, and came to Moses with a new wrinkle. They realized that if a woman inherited some land, then married a man from another tribe, and any sons she had would be considered members of her husband’s tribe, that meant that her land would be getting transferred from her father’s tribe to another one.
And Moses was like “Oh, shit! You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. Ummm… ok, God says that women who inherit their father’s land aren’t allowed to marry outside their tribe.” Funny how all-knowing God hadn’t thought of that when he made the original ruling.
So anyway, the daughters of Zelophehad (for whom the original ruling had been made) were good and dutiful girls, and married within their father’s tribe.
And that’s it! We’re done with Numbers. Next stop: Deuteronomy!