Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Matot-Mas‘ei 5769/ July 18, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Adjacent Passages in Parashat Mas‘ei


Yonah Bar-Maoz


Department of Bible and  Mikraot Gedolot Ha-Keter


Understanding the placement of the commandments (semikhut parshiot) in the Torah is a weighty undertaking.   In our reading the question arises as to why the laws concerning a murderer are elaborated in a passage adjacent to the account of conquering the land, which precedes it, and the petition of the Josephites regarding loss of part of their inheritance, which follows it.

Lust for Land

This juxtaposition of passages raises two possibilities.  One is that lust for possessions leads people to murder, and the principal possession that the Israelites had during the period of conquest was land.   This is illustrated by the fictional story of the woman from Tekoa, in II Samuel chapter 14, which alludes to brothers quarreling over land and to attempts by members of the clan to enlarge their holdings at the expense of other family members, going even so far as to be indifferent to the life of another, so strong was their desire to obtain the inheritance (II Sam. 14:5-7):

The king asked her, “What troubles you?”  And she answered, “Alas, I am a widow, my husband is dead.  Your maidservant had two sons.  The two of them came to blows out in the fields where there was no one to stop them, and one of them struck the other and killed him.   Then the whole clan confronted your maidservant and said, ‘Hand over the one who killed his brother, that we may put him to death for the slaying of his brother, even though we wipe out the heir.’  Thus they would quench the last ember remaining to me, and leave my husband without name or remnant upon the earth.”

The similarity between this story and that of Cain and Abel leads to the idea that the first murder in the history of mankind may have been the result of a quarrel over land, as well.  This idea is presented in the following midrash (Genesis Rabbah, Vilna edition, ch. 22, par. 7):

Cain said to his brother Abeland when they were in the field, etc.  What were they discussing?  They were saying, “Come, let us divide the world.”  One took all the land, the other took all the movable property.   One said to the other, “The land that you are standing on is mine”; the other said, “The clothing you are wearing is mine.”  “Take it off,” said the one; “Get off my land,” said the other.  And the outcome of this was that Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

Taking this story together with the story of the vineyard of Naboth the Carmelite (I Kings 21), in which King Ahab took advantage of his status in order to take possession of a plot of land which he desired, even at the cost of the lives of the previous owners, we see the logic of placing the laws concerning murder and cities of refuge where they are in this week’s reading.

Ibn Ezra [1] must have had in mind such a perception of the lust for land when he explained why the proscription against encroaching on your countryman’s boundaries is juxtaposed to the laws of murder in Deuteronomy 19:14:   You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks … This passage is placed next to [the passage on the laws of the murderer] because moving landmarks can lead to quarrels, blows, and murder.”

However, we may offer another interpretation to explain the placement of all the explicit references to cities of refuge and the laws pertaining to murderers, not only here in Numbers but in other parashot as well. [2] This explanation relies on the juxtaposition of the passage pertaining to the ritual of breaking a heifer’s neck in Deut. 21 following the rules of conducting warfare in the preceding chapter 20.  Ibn Ezra, who often dealt with juxtapositions in the Torah, finds the common element to reside in the word for “corpse” (Heb. halal), which is used in the heifer passage (Deut. 21:1-9). Since people are engaged in warfare in ch. 20, it stands to reason that a corpse might be found on the field. [3]

Devaluating Life

On a deeper level, it was not coincidental that the Torah spoke of a corpse slain by the sword in juxtaposition to the laws of warfare.  Inherent in war there is great moral danger:  one easily becomes accustomed to taking human life.  According to the Netziv, even a single act of bloodshed has a pernicious effect on the human soul.   This can be seen in his interpretation of the covenant of peace which G-d made with Phinehas (Num. 25:12):

As a reward for assuaging the Lord’s wrath and fury he was blessed with the trait of peacefulness, that he not deal strictly or arouse anger; since the nature of the act that he committed, slaying a person by his own hand, tends to leave a strong mark on the killer even afterwards. Having done it for the sake of Heaven, Pinehas received the blessing that he always be calm and peaceful, so that this matter not become a hindrance to him.

If this is so in the case of a single act of murder, how much more so as a result of war.   Frequent killing, acquired expertise, and the availability of weapons create a strong temptation to solve conflicts by total annihilation of the source of the controversy.  The Bible lends expression to the cynicism with which loss of human life is treated when one grows accustomed to bloodshed.   Even someone who generally was sensitive to human life and concerned to preserve it was drawn into the general attitude of his surroundings.  King David, whose reaction to news of several soldiers having fallen on the battlefield was greatly feared by Joab, responded coldheartedly:   “Whereupon David said to the messenger, ‘Give Joab this message:  Do not be distressed about the matter.  The sword always takes its toll’” (II Sam. 11:25).

The conquest of the lands of Sihon and Og in the 40th year after the exodus from Egypt was likely to affect the moral fiber of the people and their sensitivity to the value of human life, and therefore they needed to be reminded of the gravity of the matter.  Hence Moses hurried to set aside cities of refuge on the eastern bank of the Jordan, even though in practice they would not take in murderers until the warriors from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh returned from conquering the west bank of the Jordan (Deut. 4:41-43): [4]

Then Moses set aside three cities on the east side of the Jordan to which a manslayer could escape, one who unwittingly slew a fellow man without having been hostile to him in the past; he could flee to one of these cities and live:   Bezer in the wilderness in the Tableland, belonging to the Reubenites; Ramoth, in Gilead, belonging to the Gadites; and Golan, in Bashan, belonging to the Manassites.

At this juncture the laws were given concerning the cities of refuge mentioned in Parashat Mas‘ei – following the battles on the east side of the Jordan and the war against Midian, and before the battles on the western bank of the Jordan.   Alongside the rejoicing at having arrived in the Promised Land, when all would find their place in the tribal land allotted them, there was a distinct danger that the process of conquest would have a pernicious impact.  Therefore the Torah warns us (Num. 35:33-34):

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.  You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people.

Polluting the land, as we are told in another source, has dire consequences:   “So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you” (Lev. 18:28).  That is to say, all our efforts to conquer the land will be in vain if we do not assiduously safeguard the principles of morality and the value of human life in our society after the conquest.

This is the reason the passage on cities of refuge and the laws concerning murder, in Deuteronomy 19, preceded the laws concerning warfare, in Deuteronomy 20.   In order to buttress this idea, the passage describing what should be done when a corpse is found in the countryside, in Deuteronomy 21, is juxtaposed to these texts, thus shaking up the society and sharpening their sensibilities, which had become dulled by the necessity of taking human life in wartime.


[1] This interpretation is not self-evident.  Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel, for example, mentions Ibn Ezra’s interpretation and immediately adds the remark:  “More to the point regarding the reason for the juxtaposition is that, having commanded that cities be set aside, he then cautioned them to avoid jealousy and encroachment on others’ boundaries so that they not reduce the size of the cities of refuge, moving their boundaries.”  He continues with another possibility for explaining the juxtaposition of texts.

[2]The laws of murder in Parashat Mishpatim do not fit in with the principle presented here, for they are part of a comprehensive and unified law code, without narrative or philosophical material interspersed, and the ordering of the commandments there is systematic, from the easy case to the difficult one.  For example, cf. the commentary Kli Yakar by R. Solomon Ephraim Luntschitz (Ex. 21:12), who notes their arrangement according to the Ten Commandments.

[3] Ibn Ezra to Deut. 21:1 reads:   If … someone slain is found lying in the open – this was said in the context of war with the enemy:   if a person is fighting another, and someone slain is found in the land of Israel, and one does not know who slew him.”

[4] The greater number of cities of refuge on the eastern side of the Jordan can be explained by the constant necessity of those dwelling there to protect themselves against invaders from the wilderness the entire length of their eastern border, aside from the constant threat of Ammon and Moab.   This constant need to cope with threats led to Gilead being called “a city of evildoers, tracked up with blood” (Hosea 6:8).