Cities of refuge were places to which people accused of murder could flee to be protected until the time of their trial (Numbers 35:12). Since the time of Noah, God required that anyone who committed murder be put to death (Genesis 9:6). The Mosaic Law was instituted in a time when Israel was transitioning from a nomadic community with tribal law to a more settled community with civil law. This civil law would include the use of trials and judges. Cities of refuge were cities to which a person who had unintentionally killed someone could flee and be protected from family members of the victim ("avengers of blood") who may have wanted to kill them while awaiting their trial. If at the trial, the killer was found guilty of intentional murder, he would be put to death by the avenger as prescribed in Exodus 21:14 and Numbers 35:16–21. However, if the trial proved that the death had been unintentional (manslaughter rather than murder), the killer would be free to live out his days there and would only be safe to return to his home city when the high priest died and general immunity was granted to everyone (Numbers 35:25).
What were cities of refuge in the Old Testament?
So where were these cities and who lived there? When the tribes of Israel came into the Promised Land, God divided the land among them, with the exception of one tribe that did not receive a territory—the Levites. The Levites were to be priests and act as mediators between the Israelites and God, so they were given forty-eight cities throughout the Promised Land within all the other tribes' territories (Numbers 35:7–8). The cities of refuge were six of those forty-eight Levite cities. From north to south they were: Kedesh, Golan, Ramoth, Shechem, Bezer, and Hebron (Joshua 20:7–8). Because the Levites were the God-appointed mediators in Israel's relationship with Him, they were particularly equipped to be mediators in these legal matters and to protect those who sought refuge.
These cities of refuge foreshadowed God's plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. As we recognize our guilt, we flee to Jesus as a refuge. As Psalm 34:22 says, "The LORD redeems the life of His servants; none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned." Turning to God and taking refuge in Him for forgiveness of our sins is what gives us freedom from the threat of eternal death. Second Corinthians 5:19 and 21 say, "In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them… so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Jesus's work on the cross allows us to be protected from the threat of eternal death if we take refuge in Him. The cities of refuge in the Old Testament are a beautiful illustration of God's desire to save those who recognize their own sin.
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