The Cities of Refuge audio (10MB)
You often hear people complaining about the violence we see in the Old Testament. 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 something like murder in a world where there’s no police force, no criminal justice system, no penal code? One way people deal with it is by the vendetta, seeking vengeance equal to the injury done. But a vendetta, as you probably know, soon becomes a blood feud. It’s usually 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 underbelly except there are no police watching to catch you out. 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 then?
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 also some crimes that are too great for weak human beings to forgive. Crimes like murder for example; spilling of someone’s blood.
But what if the murder isn’t on purpose. What if it’s accidental - what we now call manslaughter? What should be done then?
Well then you’d need a system that allows 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 “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 at the same time they needed 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, like the boy up near Wangaratta last week, and you accidentally hit your friend rather than the rabbit you were aiming at; all tragic situations that no-one could foresee or would want to happen. What do you do?
In the time when these instructions were given the family of the person killed would have sent someone out 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 there was no justice in such a situation. So God sets up these cities as a place of refuge.
These cities are to provide not just refuge but a court of the person’s peers who would meet to judge whether the death was accidental or premeditated. The criteria for judging premeditation are clear: there’d be a weapon prepared for the murder, a motive - hatred or the like, 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, 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.
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 alien, God’s grace was to be extended to citizen and visitor alike. The justice to be applied here is rooted in the character of God, not in the nationality of the offender. 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 taking of blood, was something that God takes very seriously, much more seriously, can I say, than I think we take it today. (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.”
God’s concern over the murder 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 God.” Again, we’ve lost this concept in our modern humanist world. There’s no sense that killing another human being breaks a universal moral law. Of course we see this lack in the debates over abortion and euthanasia. As complex as those debates are they’re so often seen as questions of practicality. The moral question rarely arises. But that’s exactly what we find here. To spill the blood of another person has huge moral implications: it pollutes the land in which you live. If the death was murder it requires cleansing.
Finally, we need to think about how the provision of these cities reflects on 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 relevant to us today?
Let me suggest some similarities 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.
Are you getting the picture? 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 as those who know that we deserve God’s judgement, yet are forgiven because Jesus has paid the price.