The Old Testament: Numbers IV – Towns of Refuge

As a server, I, along with most of the staff, worked with someone who I didn’t think was particularly bright.  This other employee, who was about my age, didn’t know any of the cultural references with which my generation would be familiar—icons like John Lennon, Picasso, and Shamu.  There might have been (unfortunately) a joke or two at this server’s expense over the years.

One day I was writing something and needed a particular word spelled.  I was pretty sure the word began with a ph but it didn’t look right. I asked another server, who also didn’t know.  We came up with a number of possible versions—none looked right (and since this was the 90s, we didn’t have a phone to check). The server whose name and gender I have withheld was standing at the computer and did an eye roll. Without a moment’s hesitation, this server spelled it for us: F-A-C-E-T-I-O-U-S. Walking away, this server gave a head shake that suggested we were both idiots.  I looked at the other server and we both had the same response: that couldn’t possibly be correct, could it?

I’d been wrong about my co-worker and it only took that one moment of intelligence to change my impression.

I had a similar experience with Numbers: The majority of Numbers is fraught with contradictions and brutal moments, but then the end arrives, and with it an impressive amount of progressive thinking.

Throughout Numbers, the tribes of Israel have been wandering the desert, inching closer and closer to their destination. They have one more hurdle to cross: the river Jordan.  Before taking that step and entering the Promised Land, Moses reminds the tribes of a series of laws and celebration schedules (including the intriguing idea of land redistribution every fifty years mentioned in Leviticus). But what really stands out in this section is the idea of Towns of Refuge.

Thus far, the Bible paints a violent picture of society during this era. This is typically handled in black and white terms—you killed someone, you die, etc. Here though, for the first time, context matters.

When someone killed someone else, he or she fled to one of these Towns of Refuge, which served as a neutral zone until cooler heads prevailed concerning the alleged crime.  This concept shows how the people understood a distinction between murder (on purpose) and manslaughter (by accident).  Even further, until all the facts of a situation could be determined in a trial (complete with multiple witnesses, not just one), the person was safe within the town limits.

Since apparently retribution was a big deal (the whole eye-for-an-eye issue), this system indicates a pretty advanced sense of right and wrong—look, circumstances matter; things are not always black and white.   When it seemed that no matter what was being said or why throughout much of the Old Testament thus far, this section shows that circumstances mattered.  People were being really smart—and humane—about something happening (especially involving something as serious as the loss of life).

Finishing Numbers left me with a sense that there is a very human, caring heart beating within these stories.

Up Next: Deuteronomy.  I’m trying not to picture an adult wearing cat makeup and dressed in tights when wondering what’s in store for me.

About virgowriter

Brad Windhauser has a Master's in English from Rutgers University (Camden campus) and an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He is an Associate Professor (Teaching/Instruction) in the English Department at Temple University. His short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Santa Fe Writer's Project Journal, Ray's Road Review, Philadelphia Review of Books, Northern Liberty Review, and Jonathan. His first novel, Regret (a gay-themed thriller set in Philadelphia) was published in 2007. You can read more about (and buy) it here: His second novel, The Intersection, is being published by Black Rose Writing September 2016. He is one of five regular contributors to On his solo blog, he is chronicling his experience as a gay writer reading the Bible for the first time: Follow his work at:
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