Then Moses set apart three cities in the east beyond the Jordan, 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: Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland for the Reubenites, Ramoth in Gilead for the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan for the Manassites.
This is the law that Moses set before the people of Israel. These are the testimonies, the statutes, and the rules, which Moses spoke to the people of Israel when they came out of Egypt, beyond the Jordan in the valley opposite Beth-peor, in the land of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon, whom Moses and the people of Israel defeated when they came out of Egypt. And they took possession of his land and the land of Og, the king of Bashan, the two kings of the Amorites, who lived to the east beyond the Jordan; from Aroer, which is on the edge of the Valley of the Arnon, as far as Mount Sirion (that is, Hermon), together with all the Arabah on the east side of the Jordan as far as the Sea of the Arabah, under the slopes of Pisgah. – Deuteronomy 4:41-49 ESV
Moses wrapped up his history lesson regarding God’s faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness with a final word of challenge:
“Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.” – Deuteronomy 4:40 ESV
While Moses would not be leading the people into the land of Canaan, he still desired that they fulfill the will of God and enjoy all the blessings God had in store for them as part of the promise He made to Abraham.
The conquering of the region east of the Jordan River, sometimes referred to as the Transjordan, was complete. The two tribes of Gad and Reuben, along with half the tribe of Mannasah, were already beginning to make themselves at home in the towns and villages they had taken as plunder from the Amorites. Moses had allowed these three tribes to settle east of the Jordan because they had vowed to fight alongside the rest of the tribes until the land of Canaan was conquered and fully settled.
Almost as if he was trying to remind the three tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Mannasah of their unbroken relationship with Israel, Moses designates three cities of refuge within their territory. The creation of these cities was an essential part of God’s plan for the Israelites. We know from the book of Numbers, that God had a specific purpose for these cities. They would be partly located on either side of the Jordan and would be occupied by the tribe of Levi. God had set apart the Levites and given them the responsibility to care for and transport the tabernacle. They would be allotted no land in Canaan but were to receive 48 cities, located within the boundaries of the other tribes. Six of these were to be cities of refuge.
“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, where a person who has accidentally killed someone can flee for safety. In addition, give them forty-two other towns. In all, forty-eight towns with the surrounding pastureland will be given to the Levites. These towns will come from the property of the people of Israel. The larger tribes will give more towns to the Levites, while the smaller tribes will give fewer. Each tribe will give property in proportion to the size of its land.” – Numbers 35:6-8 NLT
God knows His creation well. He was fully aware of what was going to happen when the people of Israel settled in the land. While He had set them apart as His own, He knew they were incapable of living holy lives. Which is why He had given them the sacrificial system. It was a gracious and undeserved gift from God that provided a means for having their inevitable sins forgiven and their relationship with Him restored. They were going to sin. The Law, given by God, provided a non-negotiable code of conduct meant to express His expectations and expose any violators of those expectations as guilty.
One of the ten commandments God had given to the people of Israel was a prohibition against murder. This was a clear reference to premeditated murder, the taking of someone else’s life out of anger or revenge. But what about those cases in which a life was taken accidentally? God had a plan for that, and it involved the cities of refuge.
“Anyone who assaults and kills another person must be put to death. But if it was simply an accident permitted by God, I will appoint a place of refuge where the slayer can run for safety.” – Exodus 21:12-13 NLT
But if anyone committed premeditated murder, the penalty was to be death.
“However, if someone deliberately kills another person, then the slayer must be dragged even from my altar and be put to death.” – Exodus 21:14 NLT
So, God provided a plan for protecting the innocent and to prevent the unnecessary taking of life. He knew that the natural response of someone who’s loved one had been murdered, either willingly or accidentally, would be to seek revenge. But, in order to prevent the avenger from killing an innocent individual, God provided these six cities as places where the murderer could seek asylum.
“…designate cities of refuge to which people can flee if they have killed someone accidentally. These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community. Designate six cities of refuge for yourselves, three on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west in the land of Canaan. These cities are for the protection of Israelites, foreigners living among you, and traveling merchants. Anyone who accidentally kills someone may flee there for safety.” – Numbers 35:11-15 NLT
God was in no way minimizing the taking a human life. Even in the cases of accidental, un-premeditated murder, there was still a consequence associated with the act. The guilty party was to remain in the city of refuse for the rest of their life, or until the death of the high priest, in which case they were to be released as a free man. As long as they remained within the walls of the city, they were protected from the avenger. But if they ever ventured outside, their assylum was waived and they became fair game for anyone seeking vengeance.
God knew that sin would be inevitable and unavoidable for the people of Israel. And the Law was designed to expose all that God considered to be a sin. Any violation of His Law was a sin. Any failure to live up to His holy standards was a sin. And every one of the people of Israel would be guilty of sin. But they could find refuge in God. The individual who accidentally took the life of another had a place where he could find rescue and relief for his crime. The man or woman who sinned against God could find forgiveness and cleansing through the sacrificial system.
God was never surprised by the sinfulness of mankind. In fact, He had planned for mankind’s redemption long before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the garden. He had formulated His plan for providing refuge from the guilt of sin even before He created the universe into which sin came. Paul points this out in his letter to the Ephesians.
Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. – Ephesians 1:4-5 NLT
And the apostle Peter tells us that God had planned for Jesus, His Son, to become our refuge long before the world was ever made. Before sin ever entered the scene, God had prepared for His Son to become a city of refuge for sinful mankind.
God chose him as your ransom long before the world began… – 1 Peter1:20 NLT
The Israelites had not yet entered the land of promise. The three tribes had not fully taken possession of the land east of the Jordan. But God was making preparations for the sins of His people by providing cities of refuge.
God was not light on sin. The sacrificial system revealed just how seriously He took any transgressions of His Law. Death was required. Blood had to be spilled. The innocent had to die in the place of the guilty. As the author of Hebrews states, “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). And just prior to that statement, we read, “according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT).
So, as Moses prepares to review God’s Law to the people of Israel, it will serve as a sobering reminder that their inevitable breaking of the Law was going to require the shedding of blood. Their transgressions would demand an atoning sacrifice. Holiness was going to be difficult, but it was also going to be costly. Failure to obey God’s Law was going to come with a stiff penalty: Death. And escape from that penalty was going to require that someone satisfy the just demands of a holy God. But God provided a means for the guilty to find refuge. They could find help and hope in the mercy of God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.