The cities of refuge were established back in the earliest years of the nation of Israel. They were established as ordered by God with the purpose of maintaining a righteous administration of justice in the government of Israel (Ex. 21:13-14; Josh. 20:1-6). Murder was a capital offence carrying the death penalty, but in the case of an accidental killing, the manslayer had the right to flee to a city of refuge to appeal his innocence.God established the death penalty (Gen. 9:6) and He has not repealed it, even in New Testament times. It was instituted for murder because man was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). When Saddam Hussein’s statue was defaced and destroyed, it was a sign of rebellion against the person it represented; and had Saddam remained in power, those responsible would have been executed. In the same way, when murder is committed the killer is not only sinning against the dead person, but he is also sinning against God in whose image that person was made. When we hear of a death occurring by the hand of another person, many questions come to mind. Is the killer guilty of murder or was it accidental homicide? Did the perpetrator kill to settle a debt or dispute? Was it a premeditated offence? Many accidents that cause a person’s death do occur, and in these cases there would have been no thought of hurting, let alone killing the other person. One of the biblical examples is of a man chopping wood when suddenly the axe head flew off and struck a fellow worker on the head, causing his death (Dt. 19:5). There was no malice and no thought of injuring his fellow worker, but the dead man’s brother had the right to become the “avenger of blood,” and could kill the offender according to the law. God, being just, made provision for situations like that, making it possible for the killer to present his case before the authorities and so be judged fairly. A sharp distinction was made between deliberate murder and involuntary manslaughter. This provision was available for both Israelites and Gentiles: “These six cities shall be for refuge for the sons of Israel, and for the alien and for the sojourner among them; that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there” (Num. 35:15 NASB). At the same time, God ordained the sanctity of life and established the basis for righteous judgment.
When a man accidentally killed someone, he needed to flee immediately to a city of refuge to stand trial before the congregation of that city (Num. 35:12). The dead person’s relative, who was the avenger, became the prosecutor during the trial. If the killer was found innocent of murder, he could remain in safety in that city until the death of the high priest. But if he was found guilty, the avenger of blood became the executioner after the trial, carrying out the death penalty (Dt. 19:11-12).
Six Cities Of Refuge
Six cities were set aside to handle cases of murder or manslaughter and were places of refuge for the accused. They were situated evenly in the country to make it possible for anyone fleeing an avenger to be able to get to one in the shortest possible time, so that their case could be judged by people who could calmly assess the circumstances and evidence presented and who were impartial to the anger of the hurting relative of the deceased. These cities had to be easy to get to and there were prepared roads which no doubt had clearly marked signposts to guide the person running. The Bible says, “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” (Dt. 19:3). There were three cities of refuge on the wilderness or east side of Jordan and three on the west side of the Jordan, evenly situated for easy access.
When a person was found to be innocent of murder he was saved from the death penalty and the wrath of the avenger, but he had to remain in the city of refuge. It was the place of safety for him until the death of the high priest at which time he was cleared and free to return to his home and to his loved ones.
The Names Of The Cities Of Refuge
It is always interesting to look at names in Scripture. They often describe the character or nature of the place or person. The names of these six cities also illustrate something about the character, person, and work of the Lord Jesus who is our place of refuge. We have been found guilty of death, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). But, “God is our refuge and strength” (Ps. 46:1). In Him we find salvation and security from the judgment against us. “By two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul” (Heb. 6:18-19).
The cities of refuge and the Lord Jesus have many similarities. Just as the cities of refuge were within easy reach for the fleeing person, so the Lord Jesus is near to all who call on Him. The Lord Jesus said, “The one who comes to Me, I will certainly not cast out” (Jn. 6:37). The cities of refuge and the Lord Jesus are open for all, and in both are found safety, provision, and peace in the knowledge that the “judgment” by the avenger can never touch those who take shelter there. Just as there were roads prepared for the fleeing person, so there is a narrow road that leads to life. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life” (Mt. 7:13-14). A major difference between the two is that only the innocent were secure in a city of refuge. Before God we are all guilty sinners, but all who are guilty and come to the Lord Jesus Christ in faith, find salvation and security in Him. The rescued person in the city of refuge was freed at the death of the high priest. Those in Christ have been brought into complete freedom by the death of our Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now let us briefly look at the names of the six cities and see how the significance of each name illustrates something for us about the Lord Jesus, our Refuge. We read: “So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. Beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the plain from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh. These were the appointed cities for all the sons of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them, that whoever kills any person unintentionally may flee there, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood until he stands before the congregation” (Josh. 20:7-9).
KEDESH, the first city, means “Holy.” The Lord Jesus is the Holy One – there was no sin in Him and as such He could be that perfect sacrifice for sin, without spot or stain. “For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Heb. 7:26-27).
SHECHEM follows and this name means “Shoulder.” This is one of the oldest cities mentioned in Scripture. You may remember that Abram rested under one of the oaks of Shechem when he first arrived in the land of the Canaanites (Gen. 12:6). It was a peaceful resting place and reminds us of the words of the Lord Jesus, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:28-29). The shoulder speaks of strength and we who were like lost sheep were carried to a place of peace and rest. “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’” (Lk. 15:5-6). He has taken our load of sin and now there is rest for us, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried” (Isa. 53:4).
HEBRON means “Fellowship” or “Friendship.” The one who is in Christ has been brought into fellowship with a loving Father. “Indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ,” (1 Jn. 1:3). We are able to enjoy fellowship in His presence: “And raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Man was separated from God because of sin, but in Christ we have been reconciled and brought into close fellowship with God.
BEZER on the east side of the Jordan means “Stronghold.” The Lord Jesus is the “Rock” of safety on which we can build our lives. “My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps. 18:2). The Lord Jesus told the parable about the two houses. One was built on the sand and the other on the rock. When the storm came and the river rose, the house on the sand was swept away because there was no firm foundation. Building our lives on the Rock, the Lord Jesus, gives us a firm foundation and all the storms of life, the attacks of the enemy, cannot prevail against us while we are in the place of refuge.
RAMOTH has the thought of “Exaltation.” We can rest secure on the One who has been exalted. Speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ, we read: “God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:9). As we get to know the One who is our “refuge and strength,” we will grow in our appreciation of Him more and more. This will lead us into deeper worship of this One who has been exalted. As the exalted One, He is acting on our behalf in heaven itself as our High Priest, Intercessor and Advocate. “Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:25-26). “O magnify the LORDwith me, and let us exalt His name together” (Ps. 34:3).
GOLAN means “Joy.” The angels announced to the shepherds that the coming of the Savior was “good tidings of great joy” (Lk. 2:10). “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8).
Israelis report that, “On the eastern shore of the Kinneret and continuing up into the north we have a mountainous region known as the Golan Heights. Its western border is the Yarden River and its southern border is the Yarmuk River. Brimming with flowing rivers, gushing waterfalls and bursting with beautiful blossoms, the Golan is filled with exquisite beauty. The rain and melted snow form glorious streams and rivers that run down into the Yarden and the Kinneret” (campsci.com). The melting snow and mountain springs supply Israel with one-third of its water. Those who have found refuge in the Lord Jesus will be lifted up to the heights of joy and pleasure and will be refreshed by those streams of living water as the Holy Spirit not only transforms our lives, but also stimulates our hearts with a deeper knowledge of the Lord Jesus. “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you” (Jn. 16:13-14). Jesus said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (Jn. 7:37-38).
Joy is something the Lord promised to His followers and when we are following Him those words will be fulfilled in our lives. “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (Jn. 15:11).
By Ian Taylor
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org