In Numbers 35, there is an interesting passage in which the people of Israel are told by God to set up “cities of refuge,” here is how it reads:
35:9 The Lord said to Moses, 10 “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel.
“When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 designate cities of refuge to which people can flee if they have killed someone accidentally. 12 These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community. 13 Designate six cities of refuge for yourselves, 14 three on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west in the land of Canaan. 15 These cities are for the protection of Israelites, foreigners living among you, and traveling merchants. Anyone who accidentally kills someone may flee there for safety.
Now, there are a few things going on here that need to be explained or highlighted. First and foremost, these cities of refuge were set up to provide asylum for those who accidentally murdered someone. If the person purposefully committed murder, then they are to be put to death but the “family avenger” (this is the role of Boaz in his dealing with Ruth, the situation and duty was different, but the role was the same).
Second, because the “family avenger” will be zealous to do his duty, there must be a time of tempering and trial. The cities of refuge provide an opportunity for the trial to take place under the care and concern of the community and priest…not just the family who lost a loved one. Thus, if the murder is found to be intentional, the person is handed over to the family avenger for punishment; but if the murder is unintentional, then the person will be able to live in the city of refuge without fear of harm.
Third, the person must stay in the city of refuge to be safe. If a person murders someone unintentionally, they are safe in the city but they are not bound to the city. They may choose to leave, but when they do they put themselves in danger of being killed by the family avenger. Oh, and if the person is killed by the family avenger outside the city of refuge, there is no penalty for such an action. The only safe way out of the city of refuge for the murderer is if the high priest dies, then the murderer is released to roam where he or she wants to go.
Fourth, if you read this chapter in the Bible you will notice a high regard for the land that has to accept the blood of the murdered person. The problem is not only how people treat each other, but also that the “promised land” should not have to drink the blood of murdered individuals. The land itself is a witness to God’s promises fulfilled - both in providing them a place to call home and a place where God is present. Notice that no murder is seen as “innocent” but the level of guilt is differentiated by the terms - intentional or unintentional. The text reassures the people concerning these laws.
35:33 This will ensure that the land where you live will not be polluted, for murder pollutes the land. And no sacrifice except the execution of the murderer can purify the land from murder. 34 You must not defile the land where you live, for I live there myself. I am the Lord, who lives among the people of Israel.”
What can we take from this? Well, that is what has my head spinning. I have been thinking about how we react to criminals and the assumptions we make, and the way we go to social media to spew outrage and emotions. I often wonder what their families think and how justified immediate reactions are. I also read the descriptions of murders in this passage and obviously didn’t hear anything about firearms…just stones and wooden objects. So, while we have been innovative in how we kill each other, the results, reactions, and need for justice remains about the same. I think we need places of refuge in our lives, and they don’t entirely match the function of these ancient places, but maybe the thought behind them might be the same.
We need space to:
Not only do I need this but I need to extend a refuge to others; especially the foreigners living with me and those just traveling through.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.