The people of Israel were greatly blessed. They had the Lord God for their King, a wonderful land for their home, and a holy law for their guide, and yet they faced some of the same problems that society faces today. But human nature being what it is, nations will always have to deal with “man’s inhumanity to man,” because the heart of every problem is still the problem of the heart.
Laws are necessary to bring order to society, to restrain evil, and to help control behavior, but laws can never change the human heart. Only the grace of God can do that.
If this section of Scripture emphasizes anything, it’s that God holds human life precious and wants us to treat people fairly, for they are made in the image of God (Gen. 9:1-7).
God’s concept of justice and the value of life is illustrated by the provisions made for six cities of refuge to be designated after the conquest of Canaan.
Deuteronomy 4:41-43 (ESV)
41 Then Moses set apart three cities in the east beyond the Jordan,
42 that the manslayer might flee there, anyone who kills his neighbor unintentionally, without being at enmity with him in time past; he may flee to one of these cities and save his life:
43 Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland for the Reubenites, Ramoth in Gilead for the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan for the Manassites.
In the nomadic societies of Moses’ day, the possibility of an immediate blood revenge, carried out by the next of kin, sometimes prevented a proper trial. Jehovah’s concept of justice is first introduced in Exodus 21:12, 13: “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee.”
God’s wisdom is seen in His provisions for His creation. His provisions are realistic, for He knew offenses would come. He provided a way of escape for the innocent. The cities of refuge were provisions for justice. A regard for human life is far more important than a regard for private property.
God’s thoughtfulness for human life is impressive. No life was to be impatiently wasted. The entire nineteenth chapter deals with justice for the defenseless: justice for the unintentional killer (19:1–13), justice for the landowner (19:14), and justice for the accused (19:15–21).
THE PROVISION OF THE CITIES
Deuteronomy 19:1-13 (ESV)
1 “When the LORD your God cuts off the nations whose land the LORD your God is giving you, and you dispossess them and dwell in their cities and in their houses,
2 you shall set apart three cities for yourselves in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.
3 You shall measure the distances and divide into three parts the area of the land that the LORD your God gives you as a possession, so that any manslayer can flee to them.
The Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier called justice “the hope of all who suffer, the dread of all who wrong.” That’s the ideal, but it isn’t always achieved in real life. Without justice, society would fall apart, anarchy would take over, and it wouldn’t be safe for people to leave their homes. Israel didn’t have the elaborate police system we have today, so locating and punishing guilty criminals depended primarily on the elders and the judges. By singling out the “cities of refuge,” the Lord promoted justice in the land.
The cities of refuge were part of the distribution of the Promised Land among the twelve tribes of Israel. Only one tribe, the Levites, was not given land to develop. Instead, they were to be the priests of the Lord and the overseers of the tabernacle and all its rites and furnishings. Only the Levites could carry and set up the tabernacle (Numbers 2:5-13).
As the Levites were to have no territorial domain allocated to them like the other tribes in the conquest of Canaan, they were to be distributed throughout the land in certain cities appropriated to their use. Part of their inheritance consisted of forty-eight cities spread throughout the land (Numbers 35:6-7). Of these forty-eight cities, six were designated as cities of refuge. The cities were Kedesh, Shechem, Hebron, Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan (Joshua 20:7-8).
The Mosaic Law stated that anyone who committed a murder was to be put to death (Exodus 21:14). But for unintentional deaths, God set aside these cities to which the murderer could flee for refuge (Exodus 21:13). He would be safe from the avenger—the family member charged with avenging the victim’s death (Numbers 35:19)—until the case could go to trial.
The congregation would judge to find if the attacker acted unintentionally. If he did, he would return to the city of refuge and live there safely until the death of the high priest who was in office at the time of the trial, at which point he could return to his property. If the attacker left the city of refuge before the death of the high priest, however, the avenger would have the right to kill him (Numbers 35:24-28).
After Jehovah had cut off the enemies of Israel in Canaan and Israel was living in the cities and houses of the former inhabitants, Moses stipulated: You shall set aside three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord your God gives you to possess. You shall prepare the roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the territory of your land, which the Lord your God will give you as a possession, so that any manslayer may flee there (19:2, 3).
The first three cities were to be set apart in the midst of the land. They were to be within easy reach so that anyone who killed a man would be able to flee to them for temporary protection. Moses specified that these cities were to be equally spaced geographically. The land was to be divided into three parts, and the cities were to be placed in each area.
No part of the land would be more than thirty miles from one of these cities. They were to build roads to make them accessible for those in need of immediate sanctuary. It is emphasized that the Israelites should take care that a slayer who killed ignorantly was within easy reach of a city of refuge (19:3, 6).
Kedesh in Naphtali, Shechem in Ephraim, and Hebron in Judah were set apart in Canaan as the first cities of refuge (Joshua 20:7). Provision was made in the law for more cities of refuge as Israel acquired more territory.
4 “This is the provision for the manslayer, who by fleeing there may save his life. If anyone kills his neighbor unintentionally without having hated him in the past—
5 as when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live,
6 lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and strike him fatally, though the man did not deserve to die, since he had not hated his neighbor in the past.
7 Therefore I command you, You shall set apart three cities.
8 And if the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he has sworn to your fathers, and gives you all the land that he promised to give to your fathers—
9 provided you are careful to keep all this commandment, which I command you today, by loving the LORD your God and by walking ever in his ways—then you shall add three other cities to these three,
10 As Israel’s territory was enlarged with the destruction of the two Amorite kings, three other cities were to be added to those found in Canaan. In 4:41–43, in a parenthetical statement, Moses, while Israel was on the plains of Moab, set apart three cities of refuge on the east side: “Bezer in the wilderness on the plateau for the Reubenites, and Ramoth in Gilead for the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan for the Manassites.”
THE PURPOSE OF THE CITIES
Moses revealed the primary purpose for the cities of refuge in these words: lest innocent blood be shed in your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.
11 “But if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities,
12 then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die.
13 Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you.
These sanctuaries were in no way to be an interference with the proper procedure of justice. The word “manslayer” or “slayer,” in 19:3, refers to intentional or unintentional killings. The term “manslayer” is the participle of the verb rasah, which seems to denote anti-social killing rather than killing in war or in the administration of justice.
The word “murder” does not seem to be an accurate translation, since rasah covers both cases of murder and of accidental killing. The cities of refuge would be open to either for temporary safety. They were not appointed to provide permanent asylum for the intentional manslayer, but they did assure that every man who killed his neighbor might find protection until the time of his trial.
The manslayer who fled to the city would live as one who killed his neighbor unintentionally or ignorantly and without any previous feelings of hatred toward his neighbor. To illustrate the difference between a willful murder and an unintentional murder, Moses gives an example in 19:5: As when a man goes into the forest with his friend to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down the tree, and the iron head slips off the handle and strikes his friend so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live.
THE PROTECTION OF THE CITIES
Murder was one of several capital crimes in Israel. Others were idolatry and sorcery (Lev. 20:1-6), blasphemy (24:10-16), violating the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36), willful and repeated disobedience to parents (Deut. 21:18-21; Ex. 21:15, 17), kidnapping (Ex. 21:16), bestiality (22:19), homosexuality (Lev. 20:13), adultery, and the rape of an engaged maiden (Deut. 22:22-27).
Israel was a theocracy and her laws were God’s laws. To break the law was to sin against the Lord and defile the land, and the people needed to understand the seriousness of such actions. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional but then reinstated it in 1976. Capital punishment may not restrain every would-be murderer from taking a life, but it does magnify the preciousness of human life as well as honor the law.
The cities of refuge offered protection “lest the avenger of blood pursue the manslayer in the heat of his anger, and overtake him, . . .” (19:6).
The avenger was the nearest male relative, the one responsible for redeeming a relative’s property (Leviticus 25:25), for marrying a relative’s widow and rearing children in the name of the deceased (Ruth 3:12, 13; 4:5–10), and for avenging the death of a relative (Numbers 35:19).
The kinsman was directed by law to pursue the manslayer and to seek the payment of life for life. It was not a feat which would be lightly undertaken. In fact, it was one of those duties which a person would shirk if he could.
It would take an individual who had courage and self-denial to fulfill this part of the Mosaic code.
This rough ministry of justice which was fulfilled by the avenger was needed in the early days. It strengthened the family ties. It fostered a spirit of brotherhood. It was a shield for the weak and defenseless.
Vengeance under the law seems dreadful to many of us because we live in an organized system of public justice. But if we were translated to some uncivilized country where each one is forced to fight for his own family, we would regard it less painfully. We must recognize it as a necessary assertion of judgment. “‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19) seems dreadful only to those who have not appreciated the need of a good and somewhat reliable civil justice.
This divine law of vengeance, through the avenger, was perfect in the sense that there was and could be no appeal. If one man had slain another, the presumption was that it had been maliciously done, and prompt vengeance was prepared for him. He needed to make a serious flight from the sudden reprisal that could come even “though he was not deserving of death” (19:6).
Immediately after the death of the friend, the slayer could be killed in a hasty decision while “the avenger of blood pursue[d] . . . in the heat of his anger” (19:6).
He had to bid a hasty adieu to his family and travel quickly for the nearest refuge city. He had to constantly be on guard because behind every bush and rock the avenger might be lurking in ambush.
The cities of refuge were Levitical cities which would give further security for the manslayer (Numbers 35:6). There would be men who knew the law and could apply it objectively.
The manslayer was able to come to the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. If the elders were satisfied that the death was unintentional, he would be provided with lodging, and they would not turn him over to the avenger of blood. There he would be protected from the relatives of the deceased who would otherwise seek revenge. If granted asylum, he would be expected to stay there.
If he were found elsewhere, the avenger of blood would be allowed to kill him. The manslayer lived in lonely exile until the death of the high priest. Upon the death of the high priest he could, if he chose, return to his own home (Numbers 35:25–28). The milder sentence, however, was preferable to a violent death. The opportunity was afforded of examining himself and of being penitent for his sins.
THE PRACTICE OF THE CITIES
The fugitive might yet be handed over to the executioner even though he arrived at the city. What the city of refuge gave was an opportunity for full investigation. It safeguarded a suspected man if he was innocent of a greater crime. It taught men to draw a clear line between unintentional injury and premeditated murder. It shielded the innocent from useless and needless death.
Trial of the escaped manslayer was provided, and the guilty were turned over to the avenger. God did not intend to provide protection for the one who killed out of greed, hate, or jealousy. A willful murderer was not granted asylum, but was surrendered to the elders of the slain man’s hometown. They were responsible for the final decision (9:12). The elders were in a position to decide the guilt of the man without being emotionally involved or influenced by a sense of loss. If the elders found him guilty, they delivered him to the kinsman who would exact blood revenge. The avenger of blood was the divine instrument designated by the law to carry out the death penalty.
CONCLUSION: OUR PROVISIONS IN CHRIST
The sojourn in the city of refuge corresponds spiritually to those who have taken themselves to Jesus under a sense of their sin and blood guiltiness to find under His wings protection from condemnation (Romans 8:1). If the manslayer had left the city of refuge, he would have still been liable to the avenger.
Likewise, one must abide in Christ or still be liable for his transgressions. “Life in Christ” is indicated by the sojourn in the city of refuge. But liberty through the death of Christ is indicated by the release at the death of the high priest (Hebrews 4:14–16; 6:18–20).
It takes many relations to bring out the truth as it is in Jesus. He is our avenger, as we have seen: “‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
He is our city of refuge. He is our high priest whose death secures the return from exile. While cities of refuge protected only the innocent or unintentional killer, Christ provides salvation for the penitent, even though guilty. Judgment is not removed.
There will be a day of reckoning and destruction of the wicked. There is a way of escape in Christ, to whom we flee in refuge. He is within reach of us all. As there was an equal number of cities on each side of the Jordan, so there is equal salvation to Jew and Gentile, bound and free. Each must avail himself of this escape. “Be saved from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:40).
The cities of refuge can be seen as types of Christ, in whom sinners find a refuge from the destroyer of our souls. Just as a person could seek refuge in the cities set up for that purpose, we flee to Christ for refuge:
Hebrews 6:18 (ESV) so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.
God confirmed his promise with an oath (6:17), because these two things are unchangeable. Why are they unchangeable? Because it is impossible for God to lie. God provides us security because of his own character. Patience is our part whereby we hold on to his promise with confidence.
The phrase “we who have fled to him for refuge” pictures a person who fled to one of the cities of refuge that provided protection for someone who accidentally killed another (Numbers 35). Christians also have fled for safety to the place of security and protection from the punishment against them. Christ provides the safest place, the hope we count on, the encouragement we need.
6:19-20 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.
We run to Christ to escape the danger we are in from the curse and condemnation of the law, from the wrath of God, and from an eternity in hell. Only Christ provides refuge from these things, and it is to Him alone that we must run. Just as the cities were open to all who fled to them for safety, it is Christ who provides safety to all who come to Him for refuge from sin and its punishment.
For the Christian, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalms 46:1). The first word in the verse directs us to the infinite, all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving, all holy, and just being. It is emphatically declared that, for troubled times, God is our refuge, our strength, and our help.
Who else can always be called on to understand and sustain in times of trouble? Is God a source of comfort for your troubles? Can you, with confidence, call Him to your aid? Or, due to your present state of rebellion and disobedience, is He your enemy?
What must you do to enlist Him on your side in order to assist you with your troubles? The Son of God said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavyladen, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light”