1 Then the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. 4 He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. 5 And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. 6 And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’”
7 So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. 8 And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland, from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh. 9 These were the cities designated for all the people of Israel and for the stranger sojourning among them, that anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there, so that he might not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, till he stood before the congregation. – Joshua 20:1-9 ESV
God had given His people the land He had promised them. But they were not free to live in the land according to their own standards or apart from His divine law. He had provided them with His law while they were still in the wilderness and He had intended for them to take the law with them into the promised land, where it would determine the nature of their relationship with Him and with one another. And God, knowing the reality of man’s sin nature, had made provision for the inevitable presence of sin among His people. The entire sacrificial system was designed to provide atonement for their sins and restore them to a right relationship with God. And because the sacrificial system could not remove sin, it would be a permanent part of their communal experience for generations to come.
One of the sad realities the law was forced to address was the human potential for murder. Even though the Israelites were united in their common bond as children of God, they were sinners who were fully capable of turning on one another out of jealousy or motivated by anger, and willfully taking the life of a brother or sister. So, God had made provision for such acts of violence, telling Moses, “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:12 ESV). And God went on to clarify and qualify the conditions for putting a man to death for murder. His actions had to be premeditated.
“if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.” – Exodus 21:14 ESV
God knew that there would always be the potential for extenuating circumstances. In other words, there might be unforeseen issues at play that dictated whether the murder was willful or simply an accident. So, He had added an important addendum to His law, stating, “But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee” (Exodus 21:13 ESV). God had gone on to provide the people of Israel with detailed plans concerning this important aspect of His judicial system.
9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. 15 These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there. – Numbers 35:9-15 ESV
God had predetermined that the Israelites would designate six cities within the land of promise that would serve as places of refuge for anyone who committed murder. And these six cities, located strategically throughout the land, were intended to be easily reached by anyone who was guilty of murder. Within the confines of these cities, the guilty party was to be offered sanctuary and protection from anyone who might want to avenge the death of the victim. And it’s important to note that these six cities were among the 42 cities set aside for the tribe of Levi as their places of residence.
“The cities that you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities.” – Numbers 35:6 ESV
The one who committed the act of murder was allowed to seek refuge in one of these Levitical cities. As long as he was in the city, he was to be provided protection, until such time as the residents of the city were able to ascertain whether his act was accidental or premeditated. If it was determined that he had committed murder willfully, he was to be turned over to the “avenger” in order that he might be put to death. If evidence was produced that proved the murder was accidental, the guilty party was confined to the city of refuge for life or until the death of the high priest, at which time the prisoner was to be set free and absolved of all guilt. The death of the high priest acted as an atonement for the sin of the guilty party. But if the manslayer willingly left the protective confines of the city of refuge at any time, he would be fair game for the avenger. He took his life into his own hands. But as long as the guilty party placed his life in the hands of the Levites, he was safe. If he chose to leave the city, he forfeited his right to life.
The cities of refuge are a picture of the role that Christ was to eventually play in the life of each and every guilty sinner. The book of Hebrews provides us with a comforting reminder that we, as guilty sinners, can seek refuge in Christ, our high priest.
18 Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. 19 This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. 20 Jesus has already gone in there for us. He has become our eternal High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 6:18-20 NLT
We can run to Christ and find safety and protection from the condemnation of sin and death. And Paul would have us remember that our condemnation has been removed because of Christ’s death on our behalf.
1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. – Romans 8:1-2 NLT
Paul goes on to tell us that because we have sought refuge in Christ, we are freed from any and all accusations of guilt or any calls for our execution.
33 Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. 34 Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. – Romans 8:33-34 NLT
God knew His people were going to sin. That’s why He gave them His law and His sacrificial system. He also knew His people would commit murder, either willingly or accidentally. So, He provided cities of refuge. But notice that the only way the manslayer could be absolved of his guilt was through death. The high priest had to die. And the only way that sinners can be absolved of their guilt before God is through the death of the great High Priest, Jesus Christ. He gave His life so that we might have forgiveness of sin and be freed from condemnation. Jesus is our High Priest, in whom we find refuge. But we don’t just hide from our guilt and sin, we are completely freed from it because of what He has done on our behalf.
24 But because Jesus lives forever, his priesthood lasts forever. 25 Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf.
26 He is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin. He has been set apart from sinners and has been given the highest place of honor in heaven. 27 Unlike those other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices every day. They did this for their own sins first and then for the sins of the people. But Jesus did this once for all when he offered himself as the sacrifice for the people’s sins. 28 The law appointed high priests who were limited by human weakness. But after the law was given, God appointed his Son with an oath, and his Son has been made the perfect High Priest forever. – Hebrews 7:24-28 NLT
Jesus Christ, our refuge. His death set us free from our guilt and condemnation. And there is no one who can accuse us anymore.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
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.