These chapters bring us to the edge of the Promised Land, and set the scene for its conquest and resettling – with all the questions that raises for us today.
But at their heart is a vision of a nation made up of different tribes, all living alongside one another, sharing the land according to their needs and providing for those whose work or other circumstance (like the Levites) keep them from being able to provide for themselves from the land.
It’s not to be a society divided by wealth and poverty, or by divisions over worship and faith – that’s one of the key reasons for the harsh commands to drive out the current inhabitants, so that their ways should not tempt the Israelites to go astray.
Nor is it to be dominated by tribe and clan loyalties. The laws about the cities of refuge and the treatment of those who commit manslaughter rather than deliberate murder, or who cause death by sheer accident, run against the whole culture of vendetta and feud which characterises so many tribal societies – even where those tribes are now wealthy and respectable families in societies which in many ways seem ‘modern’.
Perhaps there’s something for us to take on board not only in the rejection of inequality as a basis for society but also in the commands that leave room for error and accident – even with grave consequences – and bar us from setting one family or group against another.