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Moses' fifth speech, Part 15, Cities of refuge

Feb 01, 2013

In measuring liability for sin, God’s law makes provision for mercy, based upon one’s level of authority, knowledge, and intent (Luke 12:47, 48). However, such mercy is placed in the hands of the victim, allowing the victim (or his guardian) discretion as led by the Spirit. In Deuteronomy 19, however, we find partial mercy actually built into the law in the case of accidental homicide. The guilty party is allowed to flee to a city of refuge, and this reduces the victim’s right to seek the life of the manslayer.

1 When the Lord your God cuts off the nations, whose land the Lord your God gives you, and you dispossess them and settle in their cities and in their houses, 2 you shall set aside three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord your God gives you to possess.

The first thing to note is that these cities of refuge could not be established while Israel was yet in the wilderness. When we contemplate the parallel between the church in the wilderness under Moses and the Pentecostal church in the wilderness since its establishment in Acts 2, we can see that this law applies fully only to the age yet to come. At the present time, however, like Israel of old, we may apply the law in a spiritual or personal manner and live accordingly.

So Moses prophesies that cities of refuge were to be established after God “cuts off the nations” and “you dispossess  them.” It is self-evident that Joshua could not and did not set up cities of refuge while Israel was still engaged in active warfare against the Canaanite nations. Neither did Joshua divide up the land for their tribal inheritances until the wars were finished.

The list of defeated kings is given in Joshua 12, and the inheritances were determined by lot in chapters 13-19. Then in chapter 20 Joshua set up the cities of refuge. The only difference was that in Deuteronomy Moses mentioned three cities, but Numbers 35:13 mentions six cities. Hence, Joshua set up six. The reason was that three tribes had settled on the east side of the Jordan River. So when Moses gave instruction for three cities, he was talking specifically about the land of Canaan itself. Joshua set up three cities of refuge in Canaan itself, but he set up another three across the Jordan (Joshua 20:8).

This hints of flexibility and practicality in the law, allowing for an increase in population and expansion of territory. This law finds a greater fulfillment in the Pentecostal age and still greater in the Tabernacles age. Ultimately, the New Jerusalem itself is one big City of Refuge. Jerusalem was called “the City of God” in Psalm 46:4, but the name Jerusalem is plural in the Hebrew language. It prophesies of two cities, one earthly and one heavenly, both of which can properly be called “the City of God.”

The only difference is that the earthly Jerusalem became corrupt and full of violence and bloodshed, causing the prophets to say, “woe to the bloody city” (Ezekiel 24:6; Nahum 3:1). Such bloodshed had disqualified it from being the City of God, and likewise it could never become a City of Refuge to escape from bloodshed. Paul tells us in Galatians 4 that it was, in fact, Hagar, whose children of the flesh were comparable to Ishmael. The angel said of Ishmael—even before his birth—that “he will be a wild donkey of a man, and his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him” (Genesis 16:12). In other words, such children would have continual blood feuds seeking revenge with no provision for cities of refuge. Such is the nature of the children of the flesh, regardless of their genealogy.

For this reason, the New Jerusalem is what the earthly Jerusalem might have been, if it had been possible for the flesh to comply fully with the will of God. But the earthly Jerusalem was unable to come into the New Covenant, for its leaders chose to remain under the Old Covenant and Mount Sinai in Arabia, the inheritance of Ishmael. Hence, the glory of God departed (Ezekiel 11:23) from that place, as it had departed Shiloh some centuries earlier.

The New Jerusalem, therefore, is the City of God that Abraham truly sought, “the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Abraham came as a refugee from Ur of the Chaldees, fleeing the wrath of Nimrod (as Jasher tells us). The book of Hebrews tells us that he sought a heavenly city (11:16), which was his true inheritance—not the earthly place known as Canaan. Therefore, while various branches of Ishmaelites fight over the old land, the inheritors of the Kingdom (Isaac) seek a greater city to inherit.

Abraham sought a whole country that was an earthly model and pattern of the heavenly Jerusalem. In a sense, that whole country was a city of refuge, but in that it was fleshly, it was destined to fail in that mission. It was established under the Old Covenant, which was not sufficient in establishing the true inheritance. In the end it had to give way to the heavenly city, based on the New Covenant, in order to bring in the full inheritance.

Now the purpose of the cities of refuge were to provide refuge for those who had killed someone accidentally. Deuteronomy 19:3-6 says,

3 You shall prepare the roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the territory of your land, which the Lord your God will give you as a possession, so that any manslayer may flee there. 4 Now this is the case of the manslayer who may flee there and live; when he kills his friend unintentionally, not hating him previously5 as when a man goes into the forest with his friend  to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down the tree, and the iron head slips off the handle and strikes his friend so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live; 6 lest the avenger of blood pursue the manslayer in the heat of his anger, and overtake him, because the way is long, and take his life, though he was not deserving of death, since he had not hated him previously.

The basic principle in this provision of the law is that the cities of refuge are set up for those who do not hate the ones that they kill by accident. In other words, if a man kills someone that he hates, it would be difficult for him to claim that it was an accident. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 4:8, “love covers a multitude of sins.” When one sins against another, love can motivate many to forgive the sin, and the law upholds the right of the victim to show such love. In the case of accidental homicide, the guilty party may not have to flee to a city of refuge, if there is love between them. A city of refuge is only necessary where the family of the victim has no love.

Moses specifically says that the manslayer who does not hate his victim is “not deserving of death, since he had not hated previously.” Nonetheless, the law recognizes that an innocent man has been killed, giving the victim’s family a legal right to execute the perpetrator under the provision, “life for life” (Exodus 21:23). Yet Moses appeals to love as well, showing once again that the law defines justice and rights, but leaves of the power of forgiveness in the hands of the victims.

A legalistic society, then, is not even Moses’ ideal way of life. Legalism demands rights and considers justice to be a duty. But the mind of God, as demonstrated by Jesus Christ, is motivated by love, and the law gladly upholds the victim’s right to forgive. But if there is no forgiveness, a manslayer may flee to the city of refuge and live there “until the death of the high priest” (Numbers 35:25).

Cities of refuge were necessary only because men were not always loving enough to be able to forgive, even when they knew that the death was accidental. In essence, a city of refuge was a refuge from the carnally minded, the unloving, and the vengeful citizens of Israel. In the big picture, the New Jerusalem is also a city of refuge to which believers may flee in the face of an unloving, vengeful world. With that perspective in mind, the songwriter wrote in times of persecution,

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

In Numbers 35 a lengthier explanation is given of the cities of refuge. We read in verses 26-28,

26 But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the border of his city of refuge to which he may flee, 27 and the blood avenger finds him outside the border of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood 28 because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest the manslayer shall return to the land of his possession.

The term “blood avenger” needs clarification as well. The word for “avenger” is ga’al, which means a redeemer. The word is used to describe one who restores to the owner what is rightfully his. In this case it is the state of peace or justice between disputing parties. The word “avenger” does not do justice to the term. It is simply the title of the parent or guardian or next of kin who is primarily responsible to represent the interests of an injured party and to see to it that justice or peace is established.

Such a position may involve personal vengeance, but only if the person is of that mindset. Others may be loving and gracious, if they are led by the Spirit. It was Moses’ hope that the blood avenger, or avenger of blood, would have the mind of Christ, but he knew that many would not utilize their right to forgive. Hence, cities of refuge were established, and the rule was that the manslayer must remain in his city until the death of the high priest. If he strayed from there, he might be killed, if the blood avenger chose to execute him.

Once the high priest had died, however, the right of the blood avenger ended, and the manslayer was restored to his inheritance. Our high priest is now Jesus Christ. When He died on the cross, all who had fled for refuge were released into their inheritance. This is another example of how the law prophesies of Christ, for His blood satisfied the law’s requirement and ended the manslayer’s imprisonment. We have all been temporarily disenfranchised from our inheritance due to sin, but the death of the high priest releases all to return to their inheritance.

Overall, we see that accidental homicide carried a limited liability, due to the lack of hatred, but even that liability ended with the death of Jesus Christ, our high priest.


This is the fifteenth part of a series titled "Moses' Fifth Speech." To view all parts, click the link below.

Moses' Fifth Speech


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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