Running for refuge: Numbers 35


Today’s reading: Numbers 35-36

Blood feud. Picture the Hatfields and McCoys. Consider the long hatred between modern Israel and some of its neighbors. Someone gets hurt or killed, and the family won’t rest until the other side suffers a similar loss. Ancient Israel made this practice of retribution the responsibility of the Goel or avenger. Remember the kinsman-redeemer? This is the same man, but now he must seek revenge rather than redemption. You’ve heard, and perhaps seen first-hand, how this can cause an unending cycle of violence. In wisdom God establishes a better plan: the cities of refuge.

‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly. These six towns you give will be your cities of refuge. Give three on this side of the Jordan and three in Canaan as cities of refuge. These six towns will be a place of refuge for Israelites, aliens and any other people living among them, so that anyone who has killed another accidentally can flee there. Numbers 35:10-15

Note that these refuges are established for those who commit non-premeditated murder or who cause accidental death. Anyone accused of murder could flee to the refuge city for a hearing, but the law assumes that the man who purposefully commits murder will be found guilty and be executed. Guilt must be proven by the testimony of two or more witnesses. And what happens to the man who caused death but did not commit premeditated murder? He is spared but must remain in the city. If he leaves the city he may be lawfully executed by the Goel/avenger. Only when the high priest dies can the accused leave the city and be free from attack by the avenger.

Consider the benefits of this plan:
–the accused receives a hearing
–the accused is removed from the community that sought his life
–action is postponed so that passions can cool
–there is an opportunity for redemption/release

Through all this procedure God maintains the high value of life. He condemns purposeful killing, and the consequences of accidental death are not ignored. God says that shedding blood defiles and pollutes the land. Once again, his law show us something important about his character.

In years to come the Israelites came to see God himself as their refuge. For those of us who live under his covenant of grace, Jesus has become our city of refuge where we run to find escape from the death penalty of our sin. But our waiting is over, for the great high priest has already died to set us free.

“To the city of refuge!” This is a picture of the road to Christ Jesus. It is no roundabout road of the law; it is no obeying this, that, and the other; it is a straight road: “Believe, and live.” It is a road so hard, that no self-righteous man can ever tread it, but so easy, that every sinner, who knows himself to be a sinner may by it find his way to heaven. No sooner did the man-slayer reach the outworks of the city than he was safe; it was not necessary for him to pass far within the walls, but the suburbs themselves were sufficient protection. Learn hence, that if you do but touch the hem of Christ’s garment, you shall be made whole; if you do but lay hold upon him with “faith as a grain of mustard seed,” you are safe. Only waste no time, loiter not by the way, for the avenger of blood is swift of foot; and it may be he is at your heels at this still hour of eventide. Charles Spurgeon