When diving into the Old Testament, I commonly get asked about some of the things God told the Israelites to do as people wonder if God still wants us to live and act the way He told Israel to live and act. I understand our culture today is not the same as the culture of ancient Israel, but the God of the Old Testament is still the same.
Cities of Refuge
For example, in the book of Joshua, God tells the Israelites as they take control of the Promised Land that they are to establish six cities of refuge (Joshua 20:1-3). The concept of having a place of refuge continues the direction God gave Moses in Exodus 21:12-13 before the Israelites entered the Promised Land.
Those who know Scripture well may see a connection between the word refuge and God. In the book of Psalms, God is often described as our refuge. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
So, what are these cities God told Joshua to designate? These cities are for persons who committed manslaughter NOT murder. The Mosaic Law stated that anyone who committed a murder was to be put to death (Exodus 21:14). But for unintentional deaths, God set aside these cities where the one guilty of manslaughter could flee for refuge (Exodus 21:13).
Refuge From Who?
A person fleeing to a city of refuge would be safe from the avenger of blood. What’s an avenger of blood? The avenger of blood is legally responsible for carrying out vengeance when a family member has been murdered. It is the avenger of blood’s responsibility to ensure the family of the person killed receives justice.
The avenger of blood is usually the nearest male relative of the murdered person. This family executioner seeks justice by killing the individual responsible for the death of his relative.
Examples of Avenger of Blood in Scripture
- Gideon became the avenger of blood for his brothers who had been murdered on Mount Tabor by the Midianite kings Zebah and Zalmunna (Judges 8:18-21).
- Joab avenged the blood of his brother Asahel (2 Samuel 3:27-30).
- The men of Gibeon avenged the deaths of their countrymen at the hands of Saul by executing seven of the king’s sons (2 Samuel 21:1-9).
- King Amaziah put to death the officials who assassinated his father (2 Kings 14:5-6).
A point I find fascinating in the book of Joshua is still a lesson that is valid today. When Israel was told to conquer the Promised Land, they were given strict orders to cleanse the land of all the people living there (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). Fulfilling this command includes the stories of Jericho and Ai and some other cities. God commanded the Israelites to drive out the many nations once they had entered the Promised Land. He said once you have defeated them, then you must destroy them. Israel was not to make treaties with those foreign nations, nor were they to intermarry with them (Deuteronomy 7:1-3).
But, here’s the dilemma, why did God first say to rid the land of foreigners, but now God says to establish cities of refuge to allow foreigners in? God never contradicts Himself, nor does He ever change, so how are you and I to understand what God wants?
Answering this dilemma leads us directly to the heart and character of a holy God. He knew if Israel did not thoroughly remove the foreign nations, Israel would eventually yield to these foreigners’ beliefs and end up worshipping false gods.
Therefore, like ancient Israel, we are still called to cleanse ourselves of ungodliness. What God commanded many years ago, He still commands today. Just as Israel was not to merge with other nations, believers are not to allow the ways of the world to seduce them into ungodliness. However, as Israel would welcome individuals seeking refuge, so too is the Church to welcome any individual truly seeking refuge from a wicked world.
This justice system — the avenger of blood — is no longer practiced, but the concept of having a place of refuge is still alive and well. The cities of refuge can be seen as a foreshadowing of Jesus, in whom sinners can take refuge. Just as a person in Joshua’s day could seek refuge, we can flee to Christ for refuge (Hebrews 6:18).
The Ancient Cities of Refuge as a Picture of Jesus
Once we understand we are not to embrace the world’s carnal ways yet welcome any individual looking to escape the darkness, we can better understand God’s reason for the original cities of refuge. They are a foreshadowing of Christ.
Here are some points of similarity between the cities of refuge and our refuge in Jesus.
- Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are easily accessible for those seeking refuge.
- Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are open to all in their most desperate time of need. Therefore, no one needs to fear being turned away if they sincerely seek refuge.
- Both Jesus and the cities of refuge offer escape and protection from the one who seeks after them with the intent of putting them to death.
- Both Jesus and the cities of refuge offer safety, but if one decides to forgo that safety and to live by their strength and effort, destruction will follow.
- Both Jesus and the cities of refuge become a safe haven where the one in need can live until one can safely go home.
A crucial distinction between the cities of refuge and our refuge in Jesus is the ancient cities of refuge were designed only to help those who were declared innocent, but the refuge Jesus offers is for all, especially the guilty.
Maranatha, Lord Jesus!