In chapters 15-19, Joshua along with Eleazar the priest and the elders of the tribes apportion to each tribe the land which is to be theirs. As chapter 20 opens, we read:
Then the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, Designate the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who kills any person unintentionally, without premeditation, may flee there 20:1-2
What were these cities of refuge?
According to the Torah, in the the case of deliberate murder, the Law permitted the Avenger of Blood to exact punishment, essentially a life for a life. But to guard against a miscarriage of justice, Cities of Refuge were designed to provide Divine protection for the manslayer, making a clear distinction between premeditated murder and unintentional manslaughter.
There were six cities of refuge, based on the geography of the area. To be of any use, a city of refuge had to be accessible. For this reason, three were placed on either side of the river Jordan. There were good roads leading to each city, which provided the easy access for all of Israel.
A man’s blood could be shed in two ways – on purpose or by accident. If someone was killed on purpose, it was murder. But not all men kill with intent. What was to be done for them?
To guard against a miscarriage of justice, Cities of Refuge were established where the accused could flee so that his case may be properly considered free from the emotionalism surrounding the death of the person in question. So the accused manslayer had to stand before the tribunal of the people. By doing this, two principles were achieved:
- The accused’s life was not put at risk by the arbitrary actions of the avenger of blood. The question of intent could be decided in an impartial court, so that the interests of the slain man’s family could also be safeguarded, for the cities of refuge were never intended to harbor murderers. But even if the manslayer was found innocent of the crime and was vindicated he did not get off completely. He had to stay within the city of refuge for the rest of the life of the high priest. The other way was if he died himself.
- If the avenger of blood were to defy the law and take the manslayer’s life either inside the city of refuge, or outside it after the high priest’s death, then he would himself become a murderer. But if the avenger of blood found the manslayer outside the city of refuge before the high priest’s death, and took his life, then the dead man had brought about his own downfall, and the case was closed.
The provisions made for the innocent manslayer does have a spiritual significance.
Look at Numbers chapter 35 and verses 32 to 33.
And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the priest. 33 So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. (Numbers 35:32-33)
It is saying in verse 33 that blood will defile the land. Whenever blood was shed, the sin which had contributed to the man’s death, and was represented by his blood, was absorbed by the land which was defiled as a consequence.
Whenever life was violently terminated, even accidentally, the law had particular requirements so as to demonstrate a spiritual principle. God wanted to show that sin also leads to death. So the Torah’s treatment of a life terminated by another can show that in a similar way sin can also terminate a life. As a result, some sort of compensation or amends was needed for the death.
A killer put himself on the side of sin, by killing someone. For even if he had killed someone accidentally, he has still taken someone’s life which is strictly the prerogative of sin. He had put a man to death, which normally only sin can do. So his actions had made him “sin” even if only accidentally.
The manslayer was to stay within the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. This concept indicates that the high priest represented all who sought refuge, and bore the iniquity of the spilled blood to his own grave. By doing this he released the manslayer from the burden of accountability.
This is appropriate for two reasons:
1. The high priest was head of the tribe of Levi. All the cities of refuge were Levitical cities. The activities of the cities of refuge therefore came under his responsibility.
2.Even more importantly, the high priest, as spiritual leader, represented purity and freedom from sin. One of his roles was to atone for innocently shed blood.
It is not difficult to recognize God’s redemptive plan in the account of the cities of refuge. While the LORD does distinguish between premeditated, deliberate sin and sins of weakness, keep in mind that SIN is SIN, and there must be repentance, forgiveness and atonement. Since all mankind has sinned how comforting it is to know that in our times of falling short, He Whose mercies are new every morning, awaits our repentance that He might forgive us and restore our relationship with Him.
He also expects that we set our minds and hearts to learn from our failures and not continue to repeat them.