Cities of Refuge

In Numbers 35, the people were to establish six cities of refuge for anyone who accidentally killed another person to flee to once they had entered the Promised Land.  These 6 cities plus an additional 42 cities were where the Levites lived.  Three were east of the Jordan River and three others were in the land of Canaan.  These cities were not only for the people of Israel to flee to for refuge but they were also for the foreigners and resident aliens among them.

According to Joshua 20:7-8, the cities of refuge were:

  • Kadesh in Galilee, in the mountains of Naphtali
  • Shechem in the mountains of Ephraim
  • Kirjath Arba (Hebron) in the mountains of Judah
  • Bezer in the wilderness on the plain, from the tribe of Reuben
  • Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad
  • Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh

These cities were not for murderers but for those who had unintentionally committed manslaughter.  In each case, it had to be determined whether or not the victim’s death was intentional or unintentional.  Obviously, an intentional death is always murder.  Whenever hostility, anger, or hatred resulted in a death of a person, God considers the death to be murder.  There is no such thing as temporary insanity or any other excuses for murder.  Most of the time, shoving someone or the use of some kind of implement during a struggle that results in death would be considered murder; although, there may be some bizarre occasions when that is not the case.

If the killer reaches the nearest city of refuge prior to a trial, the city leaders are to hear his side of the story, give him a place to stay, and protect him until his trial.  The killer’s own community is to judge between the killer and the next-of-kin avenger and prevent the avenger from killing the defendant if he is only found guilty of manslaughter so he can be safely returned to the city of refuge to which he originally fled. 

Any person found guilty of manslaughter is to stay in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest.  After that, he may return to the land he owns without fear of death.  If the manslayer leaves the city of refuge prior to the death of the High Priest, the kinsman redeemer (next-of-kin avenger) may avenge his relative’s death upon meeting him without being guilty of the man’s blood.

It is possible for the kinsman redeemer to slay the killer prior to his standing trial before the community or before reaching a city of refuge.  If he makes it to the city of refuge and eventually goes to trial, the testimony of two witnesses is required in order to put the killer to death.  One witness is insufficient.  If the killer stands trial and is found guilty of murder, it is the responsibility of the kinsman redeemer to kill him.  A ransom can’t be accepted to spare his life or to allow him to return to his land prior to the death of the High Priest.

The blood of a murder victim defiles the land of Israel and only the blood of the murderer can atone (cover) it.  For this reason, the Lord commanded His people not to defile the land by committing murder.

We see various snapshots of Christ in the commandment regarding the cities of refuge. 

  • The cities themselves represent Jesus who is our refuge and strength and present help in time of trouble. 
  • Jesus hears our cries and knows the truth of our circumstances. 
  • The Lord is our strong tower, sword, and shield.  He protects us from those who seek to kill and destroy us.
  • There is no amount of money that can be paid to free someone from the penalty of death or to allow that person to spend eternity with the Lord because only blood can provide atonement.
  •  Jesus died for our sins including the sin of murder so we wouldn’t have to face the penalty of sin which is death.
  • Because of the death of Jesus our High Priest, we can repent of our sins and restore our broken relationship with Him. 
  • Since Jesus has done this for us, we are free to claim our inheritance in the Promised Land and to spend eternity with Him forever.

When it is time, Jesus, our Kinsman Redeemer will come again in the future to avenge the death of the martyrs!  The substitutionary blood of Christ and the blood of those who killed God’s people will fully atone the land of Israel.

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