Moses has begun to remind the people of Israel of how they should respond to the Law: that they are to be obedient and reverent regarding it, they are not to add to or subtract from it, and they must never forget to tell their children about it.
Now, before he gets into the specific commands of the Law, there is a parenthetical statement about an action he took after giving that speech:
Deut. 4:41-43 Then Moses set apart three cities across the Jordan to the east, that a manslayer might flee there, who unintentionally slew his neighbor without having enmity toward him in time past; and by fleeing to one of these cities he might live: BEH-tser in the wilderness on the plateau for the Reubenites, and Raw-MOTH in Ghil-AWD for the Gadites, and Go-LAWN in Baw-SHAWN for the Manassites.
The Israelites have not yet crossed over the Jordan westward into the Promised Land, but they have taken possession of the land of the Amorites, which Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh requested for their inheritance.
Here we read that Moses set apart three cities in this area as "Cities of Refuge." This was not Moses' own idea, but was in fact following the command of God, which had been given back in Numbers 35:
Num. 35:14 "You shall give three cities across the Jordan and three cities in the land of Canaan; they are to be cities of refuge."
Although many people have never heard of the cities of refuge, they are a significant topic, figuring prominently in the Old Testament. Detailed descriptions of them can be found in Numbers 35:9-28, Deuteronomy 19:1-13, and Joshua 20:1-9. There is much to learn in this study - both about them and from them.
The cities of refuge were designated as places to which a manslayer might run. What does that mean? In many of those ancient cultures, a premature death - whether it be through accident or murder - was expected to be avenged by a family member. It was believed that the family member, called "the avenger of blood," was obligated by honor to track down the killer and kill him.
The cities of refuge were places...
Josh. 20:3 that the manslayer who kills any person unintentionally, without premeditation, may flee there, and they shall become your refuge from the avenger of blood.
Now, as we saw here in verse 42, the manslayer is not a murderer. He is someone who unintentionally and accidentally kills his neighbor. For example,
Num. 35:22-24 ...if he pushed him suddenly without enmity, or threw something at him without lying in wait, or with any deadly object of stone, and without seeing it dropped on him so that he died, while he was not his enemy nor seeking his injury, then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the blood avenger according to these ordinances.
Another example is given in Deuteronomy 19...
Deut. 19:4-5 ...when he kills his friend unintentionally, not hating him previously - as when a man goes into the forest with his friend to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down the tree, and the iron head slips off the handle and strikes his friend so that he dies - he may flee to one of these cities and live
However, someone who purposefully caused the death of another human being was to be killed. God's Law said of the killer...
Num. 35:16-21 ...if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. If he struck him down with a stone in the hand, by which he will die, and as a result he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he struck him with a wooden object in the hand, by which he might die, and as a result he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. The blood avenger himself shall put the murderer to death; he shall put him to death when he meets him. If he pushed him of hatred, or threw something at him lying in wait and as a result he died, or if he struck him down with his hand in enmity, and as a result he died, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death, he is a murderer; the blood avenger shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.
So you can see it clearly specified that the cities of refuge were neither a legal loophole nor a shelter for murderers, but rather a place of safety for someone who unintentionally caused a death.
The reason that the Lord had them designate the cities of refuge was...
Deut. 19:10 "So innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, and bloodguiltiness be on you."
It is important to note that God is not sqeamish about instituting, administering, or commanding the death penalty. It has been in place since the days that Noah's ark rested on Mount Ararat, when He said,
Gen. 9:6 "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed..."
And it is commanded in the law:
Ex. 21:23 ...you shall appoint as a penalty life for life
However, unfair judgments, unjust judges, and the spilling of innocent blood are unacceptable abominations to Him. Many times, people who debate in defense of the death penalty say that the occasional person put to death but later found innocent is a unfortunate but acceptable casualty in our war against crime. Not so. Spilling innocent blood brings guilt upon a nation.
Before putting someone to death, we have an obligation to make sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that the person is in fact guilty.
Now, when the manslayer reached the city of refuge, he would receive a fair trial, with his case being heard by both judge and jury.
First of all, he was to...
Josh. 20:4 ...stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and state his case in the hearing of the elders of that city; and they shall take him into the city to them and give him a place, so that he may dwell among them.
Then, he would...
Num. 35:12 "...not die until he stands before the congregation for trial."
So the cities of refuge were a place that the defendant could be safe from unjust and murderous avengers of blood. He would have his case heard in a preliminary fashion by the elders, and then in completeness by the congregation.
It was also the people's responsibility to insure that the way to the city was clear and accessible:
Deut. 19:3 "You shall prepare the roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the territory of your land which the LORD your God will give you as a possession, so that any manslayer may flee there."
The roads had to be clearly marked, kept up, and free from obstruction.
The cities of refuge were not for the Jews only, but Joshua clarified that they were...
Josh. 20:9 ...for all the sons of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them...
At first glance, one of the rules regarding the cities of refuge can be a bit difficult to understand. The rule states that the city became the person's home.
Num. 35:24-28 then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the blood avenger according to these ordinances. The congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the blood avenger, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he fled; and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the manslayer at any time goes beyond the border of his city of refuge to which he may flee, and the blood avenger finds him outside the border of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger kills the manslayer, he will not be guilty of blood because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest the manslayer shall return to the land of his possession.
If the congregation decided that the incident was in fact an accident, the manslayer had to live in the city of refuge - it would become his home. If he ventured back out into the world, the avenger could hunt him down and kill him.
The only occassion for the manslayer's citizenship to return to his place in the outside world would be the death of the high priest.
Geographically, there were to be six cities of refuge: three east of the Jordan, and three to the west. To the west would be KEH-desh, Shek-EM, and Kheb-RONE. And to the east, we have just witnessed Moses appointing BEH-tser, Raw-MOTH, and Go-LAWN.
By this time, you are undoubtedly asking yourself, "Why have we spent so much time on such a seemingly small and relatively obscure subject?" Because Paul told us that
Rom. 15:4 ...whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction...
And Jesus instructed the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27) that all the Scriptures speak of Him, including Moses and all the prophets.
Thus, as we study this topic, we should not be surprised to discover that this is yet another prophetic picture of Jesus Christ contained within the Old Testament. The cities of refuge represent Jesus.
First of all, just like the manslayer, every sinner is facing death, because
Rom. 6:23 ...the wages of sin is death...
The blood avenger, the devil, is after us, accusing us, wanting to kill us.
1Pet. 5:8 ...Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
Anyone, anywhere can run to Jesus for salvation. Not only the Israelites, but everyone - whether Jew or Gentile.
Rom. 9:24-26 ...He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. As He says also in Hosea, "I WILL CALL THOSE WHO WERE NOT MY PEOPLE, 'MY PEOPLE,' AND HER WHO WAS NOT BELOVED, BELOVED.' AND IT SHALL BE THAT IN THE PLACE WHERE IT WAS SAID TO THEM, 'YOU ARE NOT MY PEOPLE,' THERE THEY SHALL BE CALLED SONS OF THE LIVING GOD."
As current inhabitants of the city - believers in Christ - we need to insure that the road is prepared, maintained, and free from stumbling blocks, making sure that every sinner knows the way to Him.
There were to be six cities. Six is the number of man, which Jesus had to become to die for our sins.
1Tim. 2:5 ...one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
Each of the names of the cities also pointed to Christ:
- KEH-desh means "holy place."
Heb. 10:19 ...we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus
- Shek-EM means "shoulder."
Is. 9:6 For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
- Kheb-RON means "fellowship."
1Cor. 1:9 ...you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
- BEH-tser means "fortress."
Psa. 18:2 The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge...
- Raw-MOTH means "exaltation."
Acts 5:31 "He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins."
- Go-LAWN means "their rejoicing."
Psa. 5:11 ...Let all who take refuge in You be glad, let them ever sing for joy; And may You shelter them, that those who love Your name may exult in You.
Lastly, we will remain in the our city of refuge until the death of our great High Priest. Fortunately, we will never leave, because our High Priest will never die again:
Heb. 7:17 For it is attested of Him, "YOU ARE A PRIEST FOREVER ACCORDING TO THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK."
So we will be safely in Christ forever, because He has already died, and lives forever and ever