Cities of Refuge


It’s entirely possible that the author of Hebrews had Numbers 35 in the back of his mind when he wrote this:

God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. (Hebrews 6:18 NIV)

The cities of refuge described in Numbers 35 are typical of the hope we have in Jesus Christ. It might well be that the prophet Isaiah somehow understood this:

And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. (Isaiah 32:2 AV)

How can “a man,” specifically Jesus Christ, be like a city? Let’s take a look these cities of refuge within the context of Numbers 35.

Looking after the Levites

Instruct the people of Israel to give to the Levites as their inheritance certain cities and surrounding pasturelands. These cities are for their homes, and the surrounding lands for their cattle, flocks, and other livestock. (Numbers 35:2, 3 TLB)

The last three chapters of Numbers are important because they make it as clear as possible the extent of the land that God gave to Israel. They serve to underscore the eternal nature of God’s gift. God gave the land to Israel as an eternal possession. There’s a lot talk today about who actually owns the land present-day Israel is sitting on, but regardless of what politician says what to whom, that land belongs to Israel and nothing is going to alter that.

And then there were the Levites. You’ll recall that when Israel left Egypt, God took the firstborn of all life in Egypt except for those of the Israelites. Later on, Israel found out they owed God their firstborn. He asked for the Levites instead; they would all belong to Him. The Levites were to be dedicated to the service of God, as such they had to be treated differently. All the tribes of Israel were given their allotment of land except for the Levites. They were given cities to live in all across the Promised Land. This scattering of the Levites is fleshed out a little more in Joshua 21, but for now there is a lesson to be learned. In this action, God is literally scattering the savor of the Levites’ ministry all across the land. These people were privileged to not only walk close to God by serving Him in His sanctuary, but they also walked among the people. The Levites were a living example and reminder of God’s Covenant, Law, and testimony before the people. They also served as a constant reminder of the intimate relationship of God’s written Law and the workings of His grace. We’ll see that six of the Levite cities were designated as places of refuge for the one who accidentally killed another. That manslayer could run into one of these cities and plead to God for mercy.

God’s righteousness

In this way the land will not be polluted, for murder pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for murder except by the execution of the murderer. You shall not defile the land where you are going to live, for I, Jehovah, will be living there. (Numbers 35:33, 34 TLB)

The joining together of God’s righteousness and His grace is illustrated in a powerful way in the cities of refuge. These two verses give us the principles behind these special cities. When a human being was slain, whether on purpose or by accident, blood was shed. This was something God took very seriously. Shed blood polluted or defiled the entire land. The only way to cleanse the land of that awful blight was by executing (shedding the blood) of the murderer. This was vitally important because of the nature of God’s special relationship with Israel. God would be dwelling in the midst of the land. The defilement of murder needed to be removed from the land; provision for legal expiation needed to be made, or it would be impossible for God to remain in the land.

In other words, capital punishment as designed by God, was not primarily meant as a deterrent or as an expression of man’s justice, but of God’s righteousness. The Israelites were to learn something about the nature of God and man in this law. Killing an animal was acceptable but murdering a human was not because a human being, not an animal, is created in the image of God. When someone murders another person, he is not only murdering that fellow human being, but he is murdering the image of God. That’s why the ultimate price has to be paid, because murder is the ultimate crime against both man and God.

God’s grace

So God’s righteousness would be satisfied with His law of capital punishment. This, by the way, goes back further than Moses, to the days of Noah. The one law God gave Noah after the Flood was this:

And murder is forbidden. Man-killing animals must die, and any man who murders shall be killed; for to kill a man is to kill one made like God. (Genesis 9:5, 6 TLB)

The New Testament reiterates the right of the state in cases like this Romans 13:

For the policeman does not frighten people who are doing right; but those doing evil will always fear him. So if you don’t want to be afraid, keep the laws and you will get along well. The policeman is sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for he will have you punished. He is sent by God for that very purpose. (Romans 13:3, 4 TLB)

But what about an accidental killing? God’s solutions were the so-called cities of refuge.

In all, there were six cities so designated, three on each side of the Jordan River. A person guilty of manslaughter, not murder, could find a place of safety and refuge in any one of these cities. The question naturally arises: A refuge from whom?

If a relative of the dead man comes to kill him in revenge, the innocent slayer must not be released to him for the death was accidental. (Numbers 35:5 TLB)

While this sounds like a “familial bounty hunter,” this relative figures prominently in Hebrew law and history. He is goel, the Avenger of Blood. He was the representative from the victim’s family charged with making sure justice was carried out against the murderer of the family member.

This Avenger of Blood was allowed to track down the murderer and deliver him to the authorities for execution. This was providing the testimony of two or three eyewitnesses could confirm the guilt of the murderer.

However, never put a man to death on the testimony of only one witness; there must be at least two or three. The witnesses shall throw the first stones, and then all the people shall join in. In this way you will purge all evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 17:6, 7 TLB)

Obviously the Avenger of Blood was not omniscient. He could be wrong. What if the person he was tracking didn’t kill the relative on purpose? That person, then, could find safety in a city of refuge.

These cities will be places of protection from the dead man’s relatives who want to avenge his death; for the slayer must not be killed unless a fair trial establishes his guilt. (Numbers 35:12 TLB)

…then the people shall judge whether or not it was an accident, and whether or not to hand the killer over to the avenger of the dead man. If it is decided that it was accidental, then the people shall save the killer from the avenger; the killer shall be permitted to stay in the City of Refuge; and he must live there until the death of the High Priest. (Numbers 35:24, 25 TLB)

Why was the accidental murderer required to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest? The legal guilt of the unintentional slaying was ultimately expiated in the death of the high priest. Remember, the high priest was both the mediator and the representative of the people, so his death represented the legal justification of the accidental murderer. The scales of justice were balanced, expiation fulfilled, and the slayer was now free to return to his own home.

It’s a picture of Jesus

God’s system of justice is perfect. But there is much more at work here. The cities of refuge are really a perfect picture of Jesus Christ. The Bible applies this picture of the city of refuge to the believer finding refuge in God on more than one occasion. Here’s one that’s familiar to you:

God is our refuge and strength, a tested help in times of trouble. (Psalm 46:1 TLB)

The points of similarity between the cities of refuge and Jesus are stunning:

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are within easy reach of the needy person; they were of no use unless someone could get to the place of refuge. Jesus is “as close as the mention of His Name.”

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are open to all, not just the Israelite; no one needs to fear that they would be turned away from their place of refuge in their time of need. All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge became a place where the one in need would live; you didn’t come to a city of refuge in time of need just to look around.

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are the only alternative for the one in need; without this specific protection, they will be destroyed. Jesus is the only hope for the one being pursued by the Avenger of Blood.

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provide protection only within their boundaries; to go outside meant certain death.

With both Jesus and the cities of refuge, full freedom comes with the death of the High Priest.

You can see there are many points of similarity between the cities of refuge and Jesus Christ. But there is one, glaring, crucial distinction between the two: The cities of refuge only helped the innocent, but the guilty can come to Jesus and find refuge.

And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. (John 12:32 AV)

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