The Cities of Refuge - Part Two

THEME: The Need for Justice

This week’s lessons teach about the priestly cities of refuge, and how they point the way to our own refuge found only in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Joshua 20:1-3

Now what makes these cities of refuge so important? Well in order to understand why they were important, you have to understand something about the way in which justice was practiced in this society. If somebody would kill another person, whether accidentally or intentionally, the family of the one who was killed would get together and select one member of that family to be what was termed an “avenger of blood.” It became the sacred duty of that person so selected to pursue the one who had killed their relative and retaliate by killing the killer. 

This was a world, going back perhaps a long way before the actual giving of the Old Testament law, in which the basic maxim was this: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This means that if you cause me to lose the sight of my eye, I have the right to demand that you lose the sight of your eye. Or if I have a tooth knocked out in a fight, I have the right to demand that a tooth of yours be extracted. This principle is carried out even to a death, which is what the avenger of blood was charged to do. 

This might be a rather primitive system of justice, but it has something to commend it. For one thing, it takes life seriously. It also has a certain measure of retribution and fairness. But you would often have the case where the death of a person was not something that was premeditated with malice (what today we would call murder in the “first” or “second degree”). Instead, it was an accident (what we call “manslaughter”). That's to say, there’s no doubt that the individual was killed, but it was done without malice. And because it was accidental, in a case like that it is not justice to allow the avenger of blood to pursue the one who has done the killing. That would be to multiply injustice or to create an injustice of its own. 

This is where these cities of refuge came in. God appointed in the law that these six cities should be set up throughout the land, equally spaced, so whenever anything like this happened, a person who had unintentionally and accidentally killed another person would have a place to flee to. As soon as the accident happened, this man would get to one of these cities as fast as he could and upon arrival, stand in the gate. He was to present his case to the elders of the city, who were the Levitical priests, and explain what had happened. It says explicitly in these texts that if his case is just, they were to hear it. 

It was not a device by which a murderer could escape justice; but if his cause was just, if this really was an accidental killing, then they were not to turn him away. They were not to send him back to the avenger of blood who may perhaps, at that moment, have been on his heels. Rather, they were to receive him into the city and give him refuge. He was to stay there in safety, not going out until the death of the high priest who was serving at that time. And when the high priest died, then he was to go free in perfect safety. 

That's a very interesting institution, isn't it? When you begin to reflect on it, it tells you a number of very important things, the sort of things that we really ought to profit by in our own legal system. The first thing we see is that the establishing of these cities shows the great value that the Israelites placed on human life, in obedience to the revealed law of God. This value that is placed on human life is given by God on the basis that men and women are not just risen from the animals the way evolution would have us believe, but rather are made directly by God in His own image. In Genesis 9 God establishes capital punishment when he said to Noah and his sons, “He who sheds man’s blood by man also shall his blood be shed because man is made in the image of God. In the image of God, He made him.” 

What that means is that capital punishment is instituted, not because we don't value life but because human life in the image of God is so valuable that it must not be wantonly destroyed. And it’s exactly this same principle that comes into play here. On the one hand, the murderer is not to be excused. It says very clearly in the Old Testament, "When a person kills another intentionally, his life is to be forfeited." It’s to protect life. But at the same time and on the other hand, if this death is accidental, then the life of the one who killed another accidentally is to be spared. This puts a great value on human life. We’ve lost that today, and we’ve lost it in a very peculiar way. We’ve lost it when we as a society focus on the guilty person while the victim is forgotten. We end up treating the crime lightly when we say, "Well, it’s because we’re humanitarians. We don't want anybody to suffer too much for having done something wrong." And actually in that distorted perspective, we undermine the value of life that we think at that very moment we’re preserving. The Old Testament law didn't do that, and these cities of refuge helped establish that point. 


  • What was the legal situation in Israelite society that allowed for the role of the avenger of blood?   
  • What important thing do we learn from the institution of these cities of refuge?  From what theological point in Genesis 1 is this principle taken?  What contribution does Genesis 9 make to this whole idea?  


Are there any ways in which you recently did not treat other people as being made in God’s image and therefore as possessing great value?  What steps do you need to take to correct it? 

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