Chapter 15: Cities of Refuge

Chapter 15
Cities of Refuge


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 City of God

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 might properly be called “the City of God.”

The 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). 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” (Gen. 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. The earthly Jerusalem proved itself to be “Hagar,” as Paul says, for it killed the prophets and the Messiah Himself.

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” (Heb. 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 city in the land of 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 because 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 that the children of “Sarah” might obtain the inheritance.

Refuge for Accidental Killing

Now the purpose of the cities of refuge were to provide refuge for those who had killed someone accidentally. Deut. 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. In such cases, the family of the victim would be in no mood to forgive him.

1 Peter 4:8 says, “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 or refuses to forgive.

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” (Ex. 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” (Num. 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?

Cities of refuge, then, play an important role in establishing justice and mercy as the foundation of Kingdom government.