When the earth was still new and the stain of sin still fresh on its face, God made provision for the punishment of murder. In Genesis 9:6 God declared “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed”
The proclamation was a deterrent against sin. A way to preserve a race, fast spiraling into an ever-widening abyss of lawlessness, spurred on by wanton bloodlust. Usually, the sentence of retribution was carried out by the nearest relatives of the recently deceased man.
But God in His mercy made provision for the preservation of those who did not deserve this exacting sentence. There would be times when murder, instead of being premeditated or even a rash act of unbridled anger, was a genuine accident. In such instances God allowed the perpetrator to lay hold upon his altar. No one could be pried from the altar without a fair trial and this provided a measure of protection.
When the children of Israel entered the promised land six cities were allocated as cities of refuge to shelter those who had been wrongfully accused or who had accidentally committed a crime.
These cities were located three on each side of the river Jordan and the roads leading to these cities were always clear and kept in good repair. The cities were also placed on high ground and were clearly visible at a distance which meant that the accused, running from the avenger in pursuit could see the city while he was still a good way off and make a beeline for it.
When the murderer stumbled up to the gates of the city he would call out to whomever was at the gates and quickly communicate his case. It would have been a charged scene; the murderer, sweating, panting, wracked with guilt and fear, hastily blurting out the highlights of what had just transpired, one eye cocked over his shoulder watching for the avenger while the other eye watched the faces of the elders of the city who stood before him.
He was given refuge inside the city of refuge until his case was tried before the judges of the nearest city. If after his trial he was found innocent and it was established beyond a shadow of a doubt that the murder he had committed was not premeditated he would then be taken back to the city of refuge and offered a permanent place there.
However, if at any time the slayer left the confines of the city then his life could justifiably be taken by the avenger of blood. He was essentially trapped within the confines of the city if he wanted to live. He was required to live within the city walls until the death of the high priest at which time he was allowed to return home.
Jewish cities of refuge were vastly different from their Greek and Roman counterparts. Known as asyla, these haunts generally offered refuge to criminals regardless of whether they were guilty or not. Ultimately asyla turned into criminal communes, sheltering the worst criminals of the empire.
The Jewish cities of refuge were under the jurisdiction of the Levites. This meant that those who were sheltered within its walls were under the influence of the spiritual teachers of the nation and were given an opportunity to turn their lives around.
Beyond this, the cities of refuge served as a reminder of the refuge that every sinner can find in Jesus. Every time an Israelite saw one of these cities they were to be reminded of Jesus who was a city of refuge for every sin-sick soul.
Writing about this Solomon declared “the name of the Lord is a strong tower, the righteous runneth into it and is safe” (Proverbs 18:10)
Writing about cities of refuge Stephen Haskell says “the weakest child of God, who lives continually within this refuge (Jesus) can never be overthrown by the enemy of souls; for the angels of God encamp around such a one to deliver him”
In moments of despair, when our sins overwhelm us and guilt seems to crash over our souls may we always remember to look to Jesus, who is our refuge and our fortress. In Him, may we find the rest and safety we crave.