Cities of Refuge

God had given Moses a command that he should set up cities where people who had been party to the death of another person should have a place to go so that they could find refuge while they received a fair hearing for what had happened. Another person, presumably connected to the family who experienced the loss through the death of their family member, and referred to as the avenger of blood, may pursue them to the city of refuge, but in that place, the person should not be handed over to the avenger because he or she deserves to have a fair hearing.

Then the LORD said to Joshua: “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. When they flee to one of these cities, they are to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state their case before the elders of that city. Then the elders are to admit the fugitive into their city and provide a place to live among them. If the avenger of blood comes in pursuit, the elders must not surrender the fugitive, because the fugitive killed their neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. They are to stay in that city until they have stood trial before the assembly and until the death of the high priest who is serving at that time. Then they may go back to their own home in the town from which they fled.”

Joshua 20:1-6

The assumption was that the death was caused by accident, or unintentionally. This seems to be similar to the idea that a person could sin unintentionally, as we see in Leviticus 4 when God provided the sacrificial system to the Israelites. In these cases, the unintentional sin, or the unintentional death, should have a hearing before the judge. That situation should be understood fully and judged rightly, offering the opportunity for grace and mercy, even if repairations are also in order by the offending party. In any case, the person should not simply be left for the avenger to come and strike down the person’s life.

This does, of course, offer us echoes of our place in God. We have, in God, an avenger of blood because of his desire and requirement for justice for sin. As we sin, both against other people and against God’s commandments and in offense to his holiness and glory, our life is required. Blood is required…and nothing less.

But we also have in God a place of refuge. He has given us himself in Jesus Christ and he has taken our place by shedding his blood for us. Jesus is our refuge from the judgment of God that will come as an avenger. By placing our faith in him, we trust ourselves to God’s grace and mercy in Christ.

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