Yes, there were cities of refuge (Numbers 35:9-34)

In the book of Numbers, in chapter 35, we are told of the cities of refuge that were to be established in the Promised Land after the children of Israel crossed over the Jordan. This post is written to show how these point to Jesus and His sacrifice for sinners on the cross.

When we read this passage (Numbers 35:9-34), we can see that the Law prescribed six cities of refuge, places “that the manslayer who has killed any person unintentionally may flee there (35:11).”

THE VALUE OF THE CITIES OF REFUGE

Now, first, we should realize that these cities of refuge did not offer mercy to anyone who was guilty of murder, for there was no mercy under the Law.

“Anyone who has violated the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses (Hebrews 10:28).”

Instead, the cities of refuge simply prevented injustice by providing refuge in the extremely rare case of someone accidentally killing someone. In that case, the “manslayer,” the one who unintentionally killed someone, could flee to the city of refuge and would not be unjustly killed by the avenger of blood. The point is that this was not an act of mercy but was a provision in the Law that prevented injustice.

Second, we need to also consider how useful these cities of refuge were. I suppose if you and your friend went into the forest and the axe head slipped off your axe and struck your friend so that he died, and you knew about this obscure part of the Law that provided for cities of refuge for the manslayer, and you had the wherewithal to flee to the nearest city of refuge before the avenger of blood found you and killed you, then I suppose these cities of refuge would have been a very precious part of the Law to you. But as a practical matter, was any city of refuge ever used as a city of refuge? There is not one example of the use a city of refuge in the entire biblical record. Perhaps there was no use of this.

But think about it. How common is “unintentionally killing” someone? If you struck someone with an iron object, it was murder and you “shall surely be put to death (35:16).” If you struck him down with a stone, you are a murderer and “shall surely be put to death (35:17).” If you struck him with a wooden object, you are a murderer and “shall surely be put to death (35:18).” If you “pushed him of hatred, or threw something at him lying in wait, or struck him down with your hand, you are a murderer (35:20-21).” Guess what? “The blood avenger shall put the murderer to death (35:21).” So, I am having a hard time thinking of an occasion (other than the stray axe head) that could be classified as “unintentional killing.”

And then, even if you legitimately flee to the city of refuge because of unintentionally killing someone, you must stay there in that city of refuge “until the death of the high priest (35:25, 28).” If you do not stay within the city but wander beyond the border of that city before the death of the high priest, the blood avenger can kill you with impunity! So, these cities are of little practical use. But this was the best refuge that the Law had to offer, a provision of a place to flee when you were not deserving of punishment.

BUT WHAT REFUGE IS THERE FOR THE SINNER?

But what about the person who had committed a sin that was deserving of death? Where does this person flee? What provision is there in the Law for refuge for the sinner?

We have already seen that the one who was guilty of murder “shall surely be put to death” and, under the Law, there is no place of refuge for the murderer. But this was true for every sinner under the Law. For the one who sinned willfully, there was no sacrifice for sin,

“but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries (Hebrews 10:26-27).” “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).”

But this judgment is only just, for the Law requires obedience and threatens a just recompense for all disobedience.

“Every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense (Hebrews 2:2).”

What then is the sinner to do? If there is no city of refuge, is there also no hope? Where, then, does forgiveness lie? It is certainly not available under the Law, for when Paul is prosecuting the Jews, the legalists who embrace the Law and attempt to earn their righteousness by their obedience to the Law, he declares in Romans 2:2,

“And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”

God’s holiness evokes His wrath against all sin. God’s holy Law, therefore, demands justice and requires punishment. Sin surely requires, always requires a just recompense and the Law provides no refuge From God’s holy justice. So, again I ask, what is a sinner to do? Where is the place of refuge for the sinner?

REFUGE APART FROM THE LAW

This place of refuge is described in Romans 3:21-26, which begins

“But now, apart from the Law, a righteousness of God has been manifested (Romans 3:21).”

The old covenant, controlled by the Law, offered those who were not guilty of murder a city of refuge so that injustice would be prevented, but now, apart from the Law, the new covenant in Christ’s blood offers to every guilty sinner a Person of refuge “so that God would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).”

The cities of refuge, which were carefully established under the Law, were never intended to offer any forgiveness to anyone, but only offered physical protection to those who were not guilty. But the good news of the gospel, which was gloriously established at the cross, declares that faith in Jesus will bring complete forgiveness of all sins to every guilty sinner who will trust Christ as Lord and Savior, and that faith will guarantee them eternal life.

So, the next time you are in the book of Numbers and are reading about the cities of refuge in chapter 35, remember that these point to the cross and the eternal refuge of Christ.

SDG                 rmb                 6/14/2021                   #415

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