Introduction: After giving the Sixth Commandment against murder, God required that mankind distinguish between premeditated murder and deaths that result from either accidental or negligent conduct. For those who had been falsely accused of first degree murder, God promised to appoint a place where the accused “could flee” to in order to receive a fair trial: “He who strikes a man so that he died shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die.” (Ex. 21:12-14). God later revealed to Moses the first three of six “cities of refuge” where the priests could give the accused protection and a fair trial (Nu. 35:1-34; Dt. 4:41-43; 19:1-13). After the Jews invaded the Promised Land, God revealed to Joshua the names of three additional cities (Josh. 20:1-9). If the Jews acted in faith to seize all of the lands promised to them, God promised to reveal three additional cities (Dt. 19:8-10).
The law written in our hearts. The concept of a place of refuge is something that God imprinted onto the hearts of mankind throughout the world (Jer. 31:33; Ro. 2:15). For example, long before Westerners arrived on the large island of Hawaii, the indigenous peoples set up a city of refuge called “Pu`uhonua” where an islander could flee to if he or she broke a law that carried the death penalty. There, the head priest could purify the refugee of any sin and later set the person free to begin a new life. As another example, many Christian countries have laws to grant asylum to those who are persecuted in their home countries for religious and other reasons.
Application today. With the modern development of courts and a civil and criminal justice system, it might be tempting to look at a city of refuge as an anachronism from a more primitive era. Yet, the principles behind the cities of refuge can and should serve as a guiding force in society and in your personal life. In Old Testament times, the priests administered both the cities and the trials. Today, any believer in Christ is part of God’s holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6). As one of God’s priests, there are seven principles behind these cities that can and should apply to your life. First, like the Levities who lived modestly in separated cities, Christians should live in the world but not of the world. Second, like the cities of refuge, Christian countries should be places of refuge and hope for the oppressed and persecuted. Third, the cities of refuge all foreshadowed Christ. You should therefore direct those who have sinned, feel persecuted or are under siege to find refuge in Christ, the one place where they will find true peace. Fourth, the cities were meant to be visible beacons of hope on the hills around the people. You should likewise fulfill your calling to be God’s light to others. You should also be a source of refuge and comfort for the oppressed, the depressed, and the brokenhearted. Fifth, the elders at the cities of refuge had to thoroughly investigate alleged wrongs. You likewise cannot turn a blind eye to injustice in the world around you. Sixth, the priests protected the rights of the accused by requiring two or more witnesses and a fair trial to prove a charge. You should likewise protect the rights of the accused, especially when others accuse you. You must also protect the rights of victims, unless you are the victim. Finally, justice requires that properly proven wrongs be punished. Just as God cannot ignore sin, nor should you. Jesus clarified that vengeance is not a personal matter. Through civil institutions, believers should insist that crimes be punished in proportion to the wrongs committed.
The command to live amongst the people, but within walled cities. The Levites were not given their own territory within Israel. They were instead given cities within the regions controlled by the other tribes. They were spread out to live amongst the nine and one half tribes within Israel and the two and a half tribes that decided to live outside the promised land. Yet, they lived within their own walled cities: “Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan opposite Jericho, saying, 2 ‘Command the sons of Israel that they give to the Levites from the inheritance of their possession cities to live in; and you shall give to the Levites pasture lands around the cities. 3 The cities shall be theirs to live in; and their pasture lands shall be for their cattle and for their equipment and for all their other animals. 4 ‘The pasture lands of the cities which you are to give to the Levites shall extend from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits around. 5 You shall also measure outside the city on the east side two thousand cubits, on the south side two thousand cubits, on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, with the city in the center. This shall become theirs as pasture lands for the cities.”’ (Nu. 35:1-5). They did not live in cities with other tribes. If God wanted the Levites to be truly integrated, He could have simply had them live in the cities of the other tributes. Likewise, if He had wanted the Levites completely separated from others, He could have had them live in their own territory. He instead chose the middle path for His priests. They needed to be a light to those around them. Yet, they needed some separation from the world to avoid becoming worldly or led astray in their walk. These same principles apply to believers today.
God also wants us to help non-believers, but to keep some separation. God also wants us to be an example and a light to others. He does not want us locked away in a monastery where no one can see us: “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden, nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matt. 5:14(b)-15). At the same time, He does not want us to become yoked to non-believers and the things of the world. “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14). He wants us to be present to help people, but only in the right context. For example, He would want you to help a non-believer who is distraught. But meeting alone with a person of the opposite gender over drinks is not the appropriate way to do that. Thus, we must help while also maintaining boundaries. Have you removed yourself from other people’s problems? Or, have you placed no boundaries on your interactions with others?
The limited land grants for God’s priests. The Levites were given cattle, goods, and land to provide for themselves (Nu. 35:3). God wanted them to be able to provide for themselves. Contrary to what some might think, He had nothing against His priests owning private property. Yet, He meant for them to live modestly. Thus, He put strict limits on the land that the priests could own surrounding their cities. The border around the Levite cities ranged between 1,000 to 3,000 cubits on each side (between 1,500 feet and 3,300 feet, or 450 meters and 900 meters) (Nu. 35:4-5). The famous rabbi Maimonides taught that the first 1,000 cubits were for the suburbs. The remaining 2,000 cubits were for grassing lands, farms, and vineyards. This effectively placed limits on the animal wealth that the Levites could accumulate from tithes. The size of their lands limited the number of animals that they could support. If they collected too much cattle from people’s tithes, the cattle would over-graze the land. This prevented the priests from becoming the dominant economic and political power. It also forced economic moderation on the priests. Centuries later, the lessons of this chapter were lost on God’s people. When wealth later became derived predominantly from money and not animals, believers failed to look for comparable limits on the accumulation of wealth. Thus, there is no check today on how wealthy a church can become or how much a church might pay a pastor. For example, in 1994, then Price Waterhouse audited the Vatican Bank and determined that the Church (excluding church real estate and art) had $40 billion in deposits, an estimated $1 billion in working capital and annual profits of $4 million. Likewise, in 1996, Time magazine estimated that the assets of the Mormon Church of Latter Days Saints (including real estate) to be $30 billion. Likewise, author Scott Thumma, a professor at Hartford Seminary, claimed in a book that the average megachurch income in 2007 was $6.5 million per year. The Bible proclaims that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;” (2 Tim. 3:16). If we really accept that all Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness”, the Church needs a modern version of God’s economic boundaries for Church wealth.
As God’s holy priesthood, we should also live modestly. We are God’s holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). Thus, we too should take these lessons to heart. God is not against us owning land. He also does not want to prevent us from earning a living. Wealth can also fund His ministries and provide for our spouses, children, and even grandchildren at the time of our deaths (Prov. 13:22). Yet, we must also look for checks and balances on the wealth that we accumulate. Solomon once prayed that God would give him neither riches nor poverty because he knew the extreme of either would pull him off his walk. “Keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.” (Prov. 30:8-9). Money itself is not evil. It is the love or coveting of money that is the root of many evils (1 Tim. 6:10). If your wealth or lack thereof has become a source of greed, envy, or covetousness, you must place limitations on yourself or give away some of your excess.
God’s law for places of refuge. To ensure that the Promised Land would be a just and fair, God provided for places of refuge: “The cities which you shall give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, which you shall provide for the one who commits manslaughter to flee to; and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities. 7 The total number of the cities which you are to give to the Levites shall be forty-eight cities, together with their pasture lands. 8 As for the cities which you shall give them from the possession of the sons of Israel, you shall take more from the larger, and you shall take fewer from the smaller; each shall give some of his cities to the Levites in proportion to his inheritance which he possesses.” 9 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select for yourselves cities to be your cities of refuge, so that the one who commits manslaughter by killing a person unintentionally may flee there. 12 The cities shall [d]serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the one who commits manslaughter does not die until he stands before the congregation for trial. 13 So the cities which you are to provide shall be six cities of refuge for you. 14 You shall provide three cities across the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan; they are to be cities of refuge. 15 These six cities shall be a refuge for the sons of Israel, for the stranger, and for the foreign resident among them; so that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there. 16 ‘But if he struck him with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer must be put to death. 17 And if he struck him with a stone in the hand, by which he would die, and as a result he did die, he is a murderer; the murderer must be put to death. 18 Or if he struck him with a wooden object in the hand, by which he would die, and as a result he did die, he is a murderer; the murderer must be put to death. 19 The blood avenger himself shall put the murderer to death; he himself shall put him to death when he meets him. 20 Now if he pushed him in hatred, or he threw something at him with malicious intent, and as a result he died, 21 or if he struck him with his hand with hostility, and as a result he died, the one who struck him must be put to death; he is a murderer. The blood avenger shall put the murderer to death when he meets him. 22 ‘But if he pushed him suddenly, without hostility, or threw any object at him without malicious intent, 23 or had any deadly stone, and without looking he dropped it on him so that he died, while he was not his enemy nor was he seeking to harm him, 24 then the congregation shall judge between the one who fatally struck the victim and the blood avenger in accordance with these ordinances. 25 And the congregation shall save the one who committed manslaughter from the hand of the blood avenger, and the congregation shall return him to his city of refuge to which he fled; and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. 26 But if at any time he goes beyond the border of his city of refuge to which he flees, 27 and the blood avenger finds him outside the border of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger kills him, he will not be guilty of bloodshed, 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 one who committed manslaughter may return to the land of his property. 29 ‘These things shall be a statutory ordinance for you throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. 30 ‘If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses, but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. 31 Moreover, you shall not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer who is condemned to death, but he must be put to death. 32 And you shall not accept a ransom for one who has fled to his city of refuge, so that he may return to live in the land before the death of the priest. 33 So you shall not defile the land in which you live; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. 34 So you shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel.’” (Nu. 35:1-34). The cities of refuge foreshadow the refuge and justice that Jesus offers.
Laws providing for the six cities of refuge. God required that the “cities of refuge” be (1) spread throughout the populated areas; (2) have roads leading to the cities so that all could easily reach them; and (3) be built on hills for all to easily see them (Dt. 19:1-7). A person who killed another by accident or through negligence did not escape all consequences for their actions. If the person ever left the city of refuge, he or she did so at their own risk. No shelter existed outside the city. Thus, to stay safe, the person who committed manslaughter or second degree murder had to spend his or her life inside the city until the death of the high priest (Nu. 35:25; Josh. 20:6).
The Cities were lights of hope on hills for all to see. - According to the Jewish interpretative rules that for these cities, these cities had to be built on top of hills with white limestone that would reflect light for all to see. The rabbis also required that signposts point the way to each city with the Hebrew word “Miklat” for “Refuge”. The priests further kept the roads leading to the cities clear of any obstacles or debris. After any heavy rains, the roads had to be rebuilt. The priests further had to build bridges across any ravines that might exist. The priests also made sure that the gates to these cities were never closed.
The locations of the six cities of refuge. Before Moses died, God revealed to him the first three cities for the Jewish settlers be to the east and north of the Jordan River: “three cities across the Jordan to the east . . . Bezer in the wilderness on the plateau for the Reubenites, and Ramoth in Gilead for the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan for the Manassites.” (Dt. 4:41-43). These were all elevated places. People today will know one of these places as the “Golan Heights.” When Joshua completed his conquest of the Promised Land, God assigned the three additional cities. One was in “Kedesh,” in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali. The second was called “Shechem” in the hill country of Ephraim. Third was called “Kir'iath-ar'ba ” or “Hebron,” located in the hill country of Judah (Josh. 20:7). As set forth in the next section, each of these cities symbolized Christ. Also as set forth below, these cities also symbolized what God meant for His believers to be in the modern world.
The yet to be fulfilled promise of three additional cities of refuge. God also promised that He would create three additional cities of refuge if the Jews acted in faith and seized those lands that God had promised, which stretched all the way to the Euphrates River in modern day Iraq. “8 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. 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.” (Dt. 19:8-10). The Jews, however, never acted on faith to seize all the lands that God offered. Yet, His promises never go unfulfilled. He will identify these three cities during Jesus’ Millennial Reign. The number six symbolizes mankind. It was on the sixth day that God created mankind (Gen 1:26-31). The number nine symbolizes the fullness of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). The fullness of the Holy Spirit will shine forth as a beacon to all the nations when Christ dwells in the Promised Land during the Millennial Reign.
Application of the cities of refuge today. In most developed countries, the development of modern courts eliminates the need for a city of refuge to hold a fair trial. Yet, these protections do not exist throughout the world. Many people live in lands where the court systems are neither fair nor impartial. Many also live in lands where they are persecuted and killed for their religious beliefs. A nation has a right to set limits on the number of immigrants who come seeking economic opportunity. A nation also has the right to punish those who break immigration laws. Yet, Judeo-Christian nations can fulfill the principles behind these laws by being a refuge for those who are persecuted and in need of asylum.
(1) Christ is our refuge. These six cities of refuge all foreshadow Christ. It is to Christ that we “have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.” (Heb. 6:18). “The Lord also will be a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble;” (Ps. 9:9). “Each will be like a refuge from the wind and a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry country, like the shade of a huge rock in a parched land.” (Is. 32:2). The three cities on each side of the Jordan river symbolized the full presence of God (the Trinity) whether a person seeking refuge was a believer or not, God does not want any to perish. “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9). Are you looking to help people find their refuge in God’s eternal city? (Ps. 46:1; 91:2). Are you seeking refuge in Christ in your times of trial and tribulation?
(2) The six cities of refuge also individually represent Christ. The names of the six cities of refuge also individually symbolize what Christ provides when you seek refuge in Him:
God’s cities of refuge2
Kadesh – “Righteousness” – When you take refuge in Christ, He invites you to form a personal relationship with Him. Like the Psalmist, you can personally call Him “my redeemer” (Job 19:25), “my deliverer” or “my savior” (2 Sam. 22:3; Ps. 144:2; Na. 1:7). He is Jehovah-Maccaddeshem, “the Lord who sanctifies” (Ex. 31:13; Lev. 20:8). He is also Jehovah-Tsidkenu, “the Lord our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6; 33:16). When you take refuge in Christ, His blood will make you righteous.
Shechem – “Shoulder” The shoulder is one of the strongest muscles in the body. Jesus is likewise “the rock of our salvation” (Ps. 95:1; Dt. 32:3-4; Is. 26:4). You can call Him “my rock . . . my salvation” (Ps. 18:2), “my strength” (Ps. 28:7; Jer. 16:19), my “fortress” (Jer. 16:19), or my “refuge” (Jer. 16:19). When you take refuge in Christ, His strength gives you the power to do all things. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13).
Hebron - Fellowship - “[I]f we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another,” (1 Jo. 1:7). You can personally call God “our Father” (Matt. 6:9) and “Abba” (Ro. 8:15). He is your “living God” (Dan. 6:20), your “portion” (Ps. 73:26; 119:57), and your “Shiloh” (Gen 49:10). To show His fellowship with the Jews, God also called Himself “Yahweh Elohim Israel,” “The Lord, the God of Israel.” (Jud. 5:3; Isa. 17:6). He knocks at the door of your heart, looking to find fellowship with you when you take refuge in Him (Rev. 3:20). Jesus further offers a refuge from all your trials and suffering and misery: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28).
Bezer - Fortress - Jesus is also a shield from all your enemies and trials when you take refuge in Him: “He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him.” (Ps. 18:30; Prov. 30:5; 2 Sam 22:3, 31). You can call Him “my shield” (Ps. 28:7; Gen. 15:1), my “shade” (Ps. 121:5), my “hiding place” (Ps. 32:7), or my “song” (Ex. 15:2; Is. 12:2). When you take refuge in Him, you have this promise: ‘“No weapon that is formed against you will prosper; and every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their vindication is from Me,’ declares the LORD.” (Is. 54:17).
Ramoth - Heights - This name symbolizes just refuge from the enemy, but power through God over your enemy: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe.” (Prov. 18:10). “They will say of Me, ‘Only in the LORD are righteousness and strength.’” (Is. 45:24). Jesus is also Jehovah Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts or Lord of Armies. He towers over all as the King of all heaven and Earth (e.g., Ps. 24:9-10; 84:3; Is. 6:5; Hag. 1:5). He is also called El Shaddai, the God of the mountains, the Lord God Almighty or the All-Sufficient One (Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 43:14; 48:3; Ps. 91:1). From His high and mighty place, He is also the light of the world and a beacon of hope. “Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”’ (Jo. 8:12).
Golan - Joy – Jesus’ refuge provides more than just protection. His refuge is also a place of great joy: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh. 8:10). “[I]n Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” (Ps. 16:11). “[F]or the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Ro. 14:17). “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Ro. 15:13).
(3) Christ in the location and characteristics of each city. As stated above, Christ is the light of the world (Jo. 8:12). For the weary traveler looking for freedom from the yoke of sin, He burns as a beacon of hope. Like the roads to the cities of refuge, the roads to Christ are always clear. God’s Word is a light to keep you on the path to Jesus. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105). Likewise, just as the city gates were never closed, Christ is always available. You just need to point the way for others and pray.
(4) The cities symbolized the power of Christ to save us from judgment. We are all sinners (Rom. 3:23; Rom. 5:12; Ps. 58:3). The wages of our sin is death (Ro. 6:23). Just as the city of refuge allowed for the innocent or those who committed unintentional murder to escape death, Jesus Christ also offers a refuge from death (Rom. 10:9-10, 13; Jo. 5:24; 10:28-29). If you have ever been angry with your brother or called someone a fool, you have also committed an act of murder (Matt. 5:21-26; 1 Jo. 3:15-16). Likewise, if you have broken one of the laws, you are guilty of having broken them all (Jam. 2:10-11). The cities, however, protected only those people who were innocent of murder or those who had been killed through acts of negligence or by accident. By contrast, Christ is a refuge for any sinner, including murders. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jo. 1:9).
(5) The cities were available to all, just like Christ. God strategically placed the six cities throughout the lands on hills with open roads so that no one would need to travel far to find refuge. Jesus is also ready to accept any one who will believe in Him. Through the Bible, the path to Him is also clear and easy to find. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth.” (Lk. 3:5).
(6) A person who delayed in entering the city might face death. A person who failed to quickly avail himself of God’s means of protection might face death. For example, Saul’s commander Abner went to the refuge city of Hebron after killing a man named Asahel in self-defense in battle (2 Sam. 2:18-24). Yet, because he stepped outside the city gates, Joab, Asahel’s older brother and David’s commander, killed Abner before he could reenter (2 Sam. 3:27). David later remarked that Abner died as a fool for failing to stay within the protections that were available to him (2 Sam. 3:32-34). The same warning could be given to everyone. A person like Abner could only be saved by staying within the sanctuary of a city of refuge. There was no way for a convicted murder to pay a ransom for his or her own murder (Nu. 35:31-32). Like the cities of refuge, Jesus offers the exclusive means of salvation. Christ came to offer the ransom that people could not pay for their acts of murder (1 Tim. 2:5-6). “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). “For, ‘everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”’ (Ro. 10:12-3). You or your friends could die any day due to an accident. If you or your friends put off accepting Jesus as your refuge, you or your friends could die like Abner at the gates of the eternal city and be denied entry. You might be silent about Jesus to others out of fear that you might offend. Yet, are you doing them any real favors?
(7) Through Jesus’ death, you are no longer restricted to a place of refuge. A person convicted of manslaughter could not be freed until the death of the “high priest.” (Nu. 35:25, 32; Josh. 20:6). Jesus is our High Priest (Heb. 8:1). If you have “taken refuge” in Him (Heb. 6:18), His death released you from your eternal punishment before God: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom. 8:1-2). “If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” (Jo. 8:36). God further is not limited in what He can do with a murderer. Moses committed first degree murder against an Egyptian (Ex. 2:11-12). David sent Uriah to his death to have his wife Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). Paul also committed first degree murder against Christians (Acts 7:23-28; 9:1). These leaders were not limited in their ability to serve God. Knowing their crimes and the punishment for their crimes, they appreciated His mercy and grace that much more. If there is anything in your past that keeps you from serving, it is not from God. What are you doing to show your gratitude? If you are openly sinning, how grateful are you?
Be a light, a source of God’s justice for those around you. God gave the Levites a total of 48 cities (Nu. 35:7). God spread the 42 of the 48 cities in Canaan (Josh. 21). They corresponded to the 42 stations in the wilderness between Egypt and Jordan (Nu. 33:3-49). They also corresponded to the 42 names in the genealogy from Abraham to Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17). Yet, the Levites were not given their own territory within Israel. They were instead given cities within the regions controlled by the other tribes. They were spread out to live amongst the nine and one half tribes within Israel and the two and a half tribes that decided to live outside the Promised Land. Yet, as stated previously, they lived within their own walled cities (Nu. 35:5). They did not live in cities with other tribes. They needed to be a light to those around them. They also needed to be a source of protection for the rights of the accused. God also wants you to be an example and a light to others. He does not want you to be locked away in a monastery where no one can see you: “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden, nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matt. 5:14(b)-15). God spread out the Levites to “teach [God’s] ordinances to Jacob.” (Dt. 33:10). If they were concentrated in their own territory they could not do this easily. Like the Levites, God scatters believers amongst non-believers in your neighborhood, your school and your place of work. You are likewise commanded to teach the Word to those around you. You should also share the lessons from your own road to redemption, your road to Emmaus where you met Christ (Lk. 24:13-35). Many people are still walking in circles in the wilderness looking for a way out. The six cities of refuge symbolize your duty to be a source of refuge and comfort to our fellow mankind. They symbolize your duty to be a source of light and refuge to people in distress wherever they are (Matt. 25:36).
Be a refuge for the oppressed and the imprisoned. The cities of refuge also became prisons for those convicted of manslaughter, which is murder without the element of premeditated intent. Unless you are someone like Paul (Eph. 3:1), a prison may not be where God intends for you to be. Yet, there are people in prisons in need of comfort. ‘“…naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’” (Matt. 25:36). Jesus asks us: “And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt. 5:47). Are you reaching out and giving comfort to the oppressed and imprisoned? Or, do you focus only on yourself, family, and friends?
Seek justice for others. In addition to being a refuge, you should advocate for the poor, the disadvantaged, and against social injustice (Prov. 28:5; Jer, 22:3; Ezek. 18:21; Micah 6:8; Zeck. 7:9; Matt. 23:23). On the Day of Judgment, Jesus will ask each person what they did for the poor and the needy: “I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40). In James 1:27, you are also told that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Likewise, in Micah 6:8, you are told that God expects us to: “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” In Isaiah 1:17, you are further told to “learn to do good, seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow.” This is not limited to public officials, law enforcement officials, and judges. How will you answer Jesus when asked what you have done with your talents to help the poor, and the oppressed?
Laws regarding confirming witnesses. Because the cities of refuge were also meant to be places where trials would be held, Moses restated God’s Law regarding the type of proof needed to confirm a crime of premeditated murder: “If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses, but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” (Nu. 35:30). “On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.” (Dt. 17:6). “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” (Dt. 19:15). Prior to this time in Israel’s history, formal courts did not exist. Thus, tribal families took upon themselves to fulfill the role of avenging wrongs against their own. As one might expect, this system became abused over time. No one applied the same standards. Some would kill based upon one person’s mere allegation. Some would also kill based upon an accidental death. God created the cities of refuge to ensure fair trials for those accused of murder. The requirement for two or more witnesses was to ensure that the innocent were not falsely convicted. Capital punishment is today criticized because innocent people die based upon the testimony of one witness. Would these problems exist if governments used God’s standards of due process for capital crimes?
If you confirm a wrong against you, forgive your enemy. Jesus tells us that if you hate someone, you have committed an act of “murder.” (Matt. 5:21-22; 1 Jo. 3:15). One who speaks ill or slanders others, also has a “depraved heart” (Mk. 7:22-32). Your flesh may prompt you to defend yourself when others make accusations against you. Yet, before you react, you should first confirm an alleged wrong against you with two witnesses: “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” (Prov. 29:11). Only after confirming a matter with the alleged accuser or through two witnesses, can you address the alleged wrong in kindness with the goal of restoring the brother or sister by following the steps in the Bible (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1). After confronting a brother or sister in love, you should then forgive the person that caused you harm. If you do not forgive others for their wrongs against you, God cannot forgive you (Matt. 6:15; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). Are you holding grudges against others? Are you judging others based upon gossip and rumors?
Capital punishment also requires a trial by jury. In the Old Testament, a family or tribal member who tried to avenge the death of another family or tribal member was called a “blood avenger.” In cases involving death, God required that an impartial jury in a neutral city of refuge judge between the blood avenger and the accused: “[T]hen the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the blood avenger according to these ordinances. The congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the blood avenger, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he fled. . .” (Nu. 35:24-35). The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, like the Sixth Commandment, requires the right to an impartial jury for a criminal offense. People celebrate this as a great achievement of secular mankind. But where is true credit due?
Laws regarding false testimony. In addition to requiring the testimony of more than one witness and a fair trial to convict someone in a city of refuge, God’s due process required protections to guard against perjury or false testimony that might harm the innocent: “16 If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, 17 then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days. 18 The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. 20 The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you.” (Dt. 19:16-20). Perjury violated the Ninth Commandment (Ex. 20:16; Dt. 5:20). Divine justice does not exist when authorities ignore and fail to prosecute perjury. If a perjurer faced the same penalty as the falsely accused, a perjurer might think twice before giving false testimony. Today, perjury is rampant in government forms, insurance claims, civil litigation, and in trials. Few perjurers are ever prosecuted because of scarce time and resources amongst prosecutors. Have you been honest with your statements to others?
God requires capital punishment for first degree murder. The cities of refuge did not create a refuge for those convicted of first degree murder. If properly convicted based upon the sworn testimony of at least two witnesses and an impartial jury, God allowed an appointed member of the deceased person’s family to act as His “avenger” to execute His divine judgment: “11 But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, 12 then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. 13 You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you.” (Dt. 19:11-13; Ro. 13:1-4). Throughout the Old Testament, God repeatedly commanded that properly convicted first degree murderers be put to death: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” (Gen. 9:6). “So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. 'And you shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel.’” (Nu. 35:33-34). Today, many Christians think that capital punishment is immoral. Yet, if someone is convicted in a fair trial with at least two witnesses, that view is not consistent with God’s Law. If we allow “blood to pollute the land” by failing to properly punish intentional murder, should we expect God’s blessings?
Laws of proportionality. For divine justice to exist, crimes that have been proven cannot be ignored by society. Crimes must be punished in proportion to the offense committed: “21 Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Dt. 19:21). "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." (Ex. 21:24-25). In addition to punishment, God always required that a tortfeasor or criminal pay restitution to the person (Ex. 22:1-5; Lev. 7:1-10). If you have committed a wrong, divine justice requires that you make your victim whole. Saying that you are sorry to God does not restore your victim.
Punishments for wrongdoing must not be executed outside the criminal justice system. God allowed for punishment of a “life to a life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Ex. 21:24-25). Jesus, however, tells us not to resist evil and to instead turn cheek (Matt. 5:38-43). Jesus was not dismissing the Old Testament law as an inferior standard of morality. Instead, He was distinguishing between the responsibility of the state and the individual. You are not allowed to avenge personal wrongs (Lev. 19:18; Rom. 12:19). Instead, God uses His appointed leaders in government as His “avengers” against evil in the world. “for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” (Rom. 13:4).
A just God must punish wrongs. God requires punishment for murders (Ex. 21:12-14), kidnappers (Ex. 21:16), batterers (Ex. 21:18), thieves (Ex. 22:1-4; 22:7-15), those who commit property crimes (Ex. 21:28-36; 22), rapists (Ex. 22:16-17), sorcerers (Ex. 22:18), those who practice bestiality (Ex. 22:19), idolaters (Ex. 22:20), perjurers and slanderers (Ex. 23:1-3, 7), oppressors of foreigners (Ex. 22:21; 23:9), oppressors of borrowers (Ex. 22:25-27), oppressors of widows and orphans (Ex. 22:22-24), the disobedient and disrespectful (Ex. 21:15, 17; 22:28-31), the unkind (Ex. 23:4-5), and the corrupt (Ex. 23:8). Some believe that a loving God would never punish His own children. Yet, He is also just (Jer. 9:24; Is. 30:18). He would not be just if He did not judge wrongs. If you have trouble accepting this, would you want to live in a society where wrongdoers were not judged.