Chapter 17: Increasing the Cities of Refuge

Chapter 17
Increasing the Cities of Refuge


Moses concludes his remarks on cities of refuge in Deut. 19:7-10,

7 Therefore I command you, saying, “You shall set aside three cities for yourself.” 8 And if the Lord your God enlarges your territory, just as He has sworn to your fathers, and gives you all the land which He promised to give your fathers—9 if you carefully observe all this commandment, which I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in His ways always—then you shall add three more cities for yourself, besides these three.

Moses was giving his speech after Israel had conquered the land east of the Jordan, but it seems from his wording that the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh had not yet put in their request to inherit that territory.  Hence, Moses treats the addition of three more cities of refuge as a future possibility, rather than as an established fact. Perhaps this is indicated in the book of Numbers, where the tribes make their request in chapter 32 but the cities of refuge are revealed in chapter 35.

If so, the new increase in territory may have brought with it the need for another three cities of refuge. At any rate, Moses reminded Israel that God had promised to enlarge their territory as needed. This is the seed of prophecy which would be fulfilled later when the Kingdom of God should fill the whole earth.

The Earth as a City of Refuge

This expansion, Moses said, was according to what was promised to their fathers, and so it is consistent with the “better country, that is, a heavenly one” promised to Abraham (Heb. 11:16). This greater promise, however, was conditional upon their observance of the law of God. If the people did not “walk in His ways always” (Deut. 19:9), then the promise would be delayed. And we know that the full promise could not come except under the New Covenant, when God would write His laws in their hearts.

In the days of Joshua the people were sufficiently obedient to enter the Promised Land and to receive three more cities of refuge, but the book of Judges shows that after the death of Joshua, the next generation began to serve other gods. Their lawlessness prevented the expansion of the cities of refuge and delayed God’s plan to fill the whole earth with His glory. Hence, no more cities of refuge were added until the advent of the New Jerusalem, which in itself is an enlarged City of Refuge, having Jesus as its Priest-King.

A New Covenant Understanding

Deut. 19:10 tells us why God set up cities of refuge, saying,

10 So innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, and bloodguiltiness be on you.

This shows that these cities of refuge were designed to prevent innocent blood from being shed. It seems paradoxical that the law would uphold the right of the redeemer of blood to execute a man who unintentionally kills someone—but then to speak of executions as shedding innocent blood. Such executions even put “bloodguiltiness” upon the executioner!

This provision, however, strikes a balance between justice and mercy. It gives justice to the victim, but it also recognizes that accidents should not be judged by the death penalty. Hence, mercy is extended to the guilty man.

This can hardly be understood apart from a New Covenant understanding, where upholding one’s lawful rights might not be in accordance with the love and character of God. The redeemer of blood must be truly led by the Spirit in order to know the best course of action. It is not enough to know and uphold one’s lawful rights.

Can one act within one’s lawful rights and still be guilty before God? Yes, of course. Jesus said in Matt. 5:20,

20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus went to the cross rather than call twelve legions of angels to uphold His lawful rights (Matt. 26:53). So we learn from His example and from Moses’ words that there is a way of life that exceeds the boundaries of our lawful rights. This does not give anyone the right to violate anyone else’s rights, of course, for that would still be a sin against our neighbors. But we are never forced by the law to uphold our own rights. When our rights are violated, we are to be led by the Spirit and by love to determine our course of action.

Even Moses hinted at this in his conclusion about the cities of refuge, which were set up to protect innocent blood that might be shed unintentionally.

There are many who have despised the law on the grounds that we have been given a new law of love that replaces the law of Moses. This is not a proper view of the law. The law was given by the same unchanging God under both covenants. Love is at the center of every law, for all laws spring from the mind of the God of Love. The law was designed to uphold the natural rights of all men. It was designed to correct and restore the sinner, while compensating the victim for his losses. Judges were appointed to uphold those rights and to apply the law in all cases.

But the law could not command victims to forgive sin. Victims had to retain the right of compensation, for that was the extent of the law’s authority. Nonetheless, when we understand that the law will also uphold the authority of the victim to forgive—that being his natural right—then we begin to enter into the so-called “higher law” that is rooted in love.

The right to forgive does not put away the law itself, for it is not the duty of the victim to exact the full penalty owed to him by the sinner. If it were a duty, then any forgiveness would put away the law. But if it is a right, then the law upholds the victim’s right to forgive, and the law itself is not violated or put away.

Not understanding the law of victim’s rights has caused many to stumble on this point and to despise the law as an evil or unmerciful thing. But the law does not uphold evil for demanding that sinners pay compensation to their victims. Society would be chaotic without laws governing behavior, and no one would want to live in such a place. At the same time, a legalistic society, where men live by self-interest alone, seeking only the maximum penalty that they might lawfully extract from offenders, is not a land of happiness.

The ideal society is one in which the law is written in the hearts of all men. But until the New Covenant fully resides in the hearts and minds of men, the best we may hope for is a land where all men comply with the law by not victimizing others. But when they sin, they must be sentenced by the law to compensate their victims. Then the victims must be led by the Spirit to determine the best course of action that would reflect the mind of God and enlarge and enhance the Kingdom. Their disposition toward mercy is normally determined by the sinner’s repentance, combined with the need for restitution.

This, I believe, reflects the conditions of the Tabernacles Age to come. It will not yet be a perfect Kingdom, but the laws of God will be enforced, while men everywhere will be taught how to be led by the Spirit to reflect the mind of Christ and God’s heart of love.