Seeking Refuge Audio
You may wonder what this short passage has to do with the conquest of the land. Is it just a bit of padding added in to make up the 250 pages requested by the publisher? Well, no, in fact it’s an important piece of civil ordering for the nation of Israel.
You often hear people complaining about the violence we see in the Old Testament. You may be one of those people. We cringe at the thought of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It all sounds so barbaric.
Yet, how do people deal with personal injuries inflicted on them by someone else in a world where there’s no police force, no criminal justice system, no courts? One way people deal with it is by the vendetta, seeking vengeance for an injury done to them. But a vendetta, as you probably know, soon becomes a blood feud. It’s often between two families or clans, begun because of an injury by one person to a member of the other family that needs to be avenged. But it easily escalates to the point where each injury is repaid by a greater injury. And the justice of the situation soon becomes irrelevant. You knock out my tooth and I’ll come back with my big brother and knock out two of yours. You kill my sheep and I’ll kill your cow. You kill my brother and I’ll kill your children. It’s like an episode from some crime series, except there’s no police force to help you. The only law is the law of the jungle. The stronger or the more organised will always win.
But what if you want to have a people who’ll live justly among themselves? What if you were God setting up a civil law for your newly formed nation? How would you do it?
God does it by not only giving his people moral laws - in the form of the ten commandments - he also gives them civil laws - how they’re to act as members of a community. So when he says an eye for an eye, he isn’t condoning violence. What he’s doing is limiting the degree of recompense that someone can rightly ask for in response to an injury. It wouldn’t have worked at that stage to say, as Jesus would say later, you must forgive your brother or sister 70 times 7, because they didn’t yet understand how much God was forgiving them. Nor did they have the Holy Spirit to help them live that way. So he gave them laws that limited their natural desire for vengeance.
There are, though, some crimes where the like for like response might be going too far; crimes like killing another person for example where the recompense would involve the spilling of someone else’s blood.
What if the death wasn’t on purpose, so it wasn’t murder? What if it was accidental - what we now call manslaughter? What should be done then?
Well then you’d need a system that allowed the guilty party to explain what happened, to show that it wasn’t premeditated. And that’s what we read about today.
As they were moving toward the promised land and God was preparing them for living in his land by giving them laws to live by, one of the provisions he made was a series of cities scattered through the land that were to be set up as “Cities of Refuge”.
When the land was divided up, each tribe was given a portion of the land to be their own; every tribe, that is, except the tribe of Levi. They weren’t given their own region because they were meant to minister to everyone in the land. But they did need somewhere to live, so God arranged for them to be given cities in each tribal region that would be their own, where they could raise their families and grow crops to live on. 48 cities in all and of these, 6 were to be designated cities of refuge. 3 on the east side of the Jordan and 3 on the west. These 6 cities were set aside for the specific purpose of providing refuge to someone who killed another person unwittingly.
The original instructions in Deut 19 and Numbers 35 make it clear the circumstances in which someone can claim sanctuary. There mustn’t be any previous trouble between the people involved so there’s no implication of premeditation. The sorts of situations allowed for are the sort of thing you can imagine yourself: you’re out in the woods cutting timber and the head flies off your axe and strikes the other person, killing him; you’re working on a hill top and you dislodge a rock and it rolls down a hill and strikes someone walking past; or you’re out hunting with a friend, and you accidentally hit your friend rather than the animal you were aiming at; all tragic situations that no-one could foresee or would want to happen. What do they do in such a case?
In the time when these instructions were given the family of the person killed would have sent someone called “the avenger of blood” to hunt down the slayer to claim recompense in the form of the life of the slayer. There was no court to appeal to. Judgement was in the hands of the victim’s family. But in this situation justice wouldn’t be done. So God sets up these cities as a place of refuge, as well as a place of detention for a fixed period of time. The person would be safe provided they stayed within the confines of the city until the current High Priest died.
These cities were to provide not just refuge but a court of the person’s peers who’d meet to judge whether the death was accidental or premeditated. The criteria for judging premeditation are clear: there needed to have been a weapon prepared for the murder, a motive - hatred or some previous antagonism between the two people, and a clear intent to injure the person. What’s more the accusation required two or more witnesses.
You may notice that the rules set up here are basically the same rules that apply today in a court of law, though we have done away with the death penalty. Witnesses must be called. Motive, intent, opportunity, method, all have to be assessed. And the punishment depends on the severity of the crime.
So the provision of these cities was a precursor of our modern court system which of course has its genesis in a Christian setting.
Notice, too, the instructions he gives them for siting the cities: “set aside for yourselves three cities centrally located in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess. 3Build roads to them and divide into three parts the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that anyone who kills [someone] may flee there.” (Deu 19:2-3)
Apparently not only were these cities built with roads leading to them, but there were bridges built to allow a quick crossing of ravines. And at every intersection there were signs saying “Refuge! Refuge!” so the person didn’t need to stop and work out which way to go. And the roads were repaired every spring after the rains and bad weather of winter to ensure that they remained usable.
It’s a fantastic provision, isn’t it, for an age where instant vengeance was the expectation?
But it’s even better than that. Listen to what we read in Numbers 35: “14you shall designate three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. 15These six cities shall serve as refuge for the Israelites, for the resident or transient alien among them, so that anyone who kills a person without intent may flee there.”
This provision was for all people, not just the Israelites. Here was universal justice. Unlike other nations where there was one law for the citizen and another for the undocumented immigrant, (illegal maritime arrival?) God’s grace was to be extended to citizen and foreigner alike. You see, the justice to be applied here is rooted in the character of God, not in the nationality of the offender. As we saw a couple of weeks ago, anyone who lived in God’s land received the blessings that came with it.
The last thing to notice about this provision was that it was never meant to protect a murderer. Murder, the deliberate taking of blood, was something that God takes very seriously. (Num 35:31-34 NRSV) “Moreover you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer who is subject to the death penalty; a murderer must be put to death. 32Nor shall you accept ransom for one who has fled to a city of refuge, enabling the fugitive to return to live in the land before the death of the high priest. 33You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. 34You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the Israelites.” Notice that even the person who’s killed someone accidentally has to spend a period of time confined to the City of Refuge, a time determined by the lifetime of the current High Priest, because the land has been polluted by the blood that’s been spilt.
God’s concern over the killing of another human being was due to the fact that every person is made in the image of God. The great outcry against murder in the Bible is not about a human loss, as great as that may be. No, it’s this: “You have slain an image-bearer of Go d.” (Gen 9:6) Again, we’ve lost this concept in our modern humanist world. There’s rarely a suggestion that killing another human being breaks a universal moral law or is an offense to God. Of course we see this lack in the debates over abortion and euthanasia. These are very complex debates but they’re so often arguments over personal rights with pragmatic and utilitarian presuppositions. The moral and ethical arguments are often downplayed or even dismissed. But what we find here is that to spill the blood of another person had huge moral implications: it polluted the land in which they lived. If the death was murder it required cleansing. Equally to take vengeance on someone who wasn’t guilty of murder would also pollute the land.
Now we no longer live in the Promised Land, so our situation is different. We now have police forces, a court system and gaols for punishing offenders, not to mention ever-improving forensic sciences which make these cities unnecessary. So we need to think about what the provision of these cities teaches us as Christians. Why has God left us with all this detail? Why do we need to study it? Is it just an historical oddity or is it still relevant to us today?
Let me suggest some similarities and comparisons between then and now that might help us.
These cities were there to provide a way of escape for someone whose life was otherwise forfeit. The way to them was clearly marked and easily accessible. They were open to all people irrespective of race, class or gender. In them a person would find care and provision for them to live until the time came for them to be freed. And outside the city there was no salvation.
What does that remind you of? I hope it reminds you of the gospel. You see, these cities prefigure Christ in whom alone is our salvation; yet with one difference.
These cities were only for the innocent. The murderer would find no rescue there. But with Christ it’s different. He rescues all people whether or not they’re innocent. How does he manage that? He’s allowed his blood to be spilt to pay for all the sins we’ve committed, so we no longer need to pay for them ourselves.
Christ is the eternal city of refuge for all who’ll come to him for protection and refuge. He’s the one who says “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” We can come to him; we can invite him into our lives, not as those who are innocent, but just as we are, as those who know that we fall short of God’s standards, yet are forgiven because Jesus has paid the price.
The other thing to reflect on is what Jesus said in that section of the Sermon on the Mount I quoted earlier: “38“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matt 5:38-40). Paul expands on that in Rom 12: “19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Not only do we now have a legal system to defend our civil rights, as we find in the next chapter of Romans, but we have a God who has forgiven us and calls on us to show the same grace and mercy to others that he’s shown to us.