Posts Tagged ‘cities of refuge’

Deuteronomy 19:1-13

Cities of Refuge

I remember back in the dog days of summer when I was a kid that being outside from daylight til dark was a must. We wanted to be outside. Being stuck inside for any reason in the summertime was torture. We wanted to be outside. We wanted to be playing football, basketball or baseball. We wanted to exploring the woods. We wanted to be riding bikes all over town. We wanted to hang out with our friends. I remember one of the games that we would play was the old standard, “tag, you’re it” game. There were rules for the game, of course. There were always rules for every game, right?


In this game, all you need is a group of kids and a decent sized backyard. You get a group of kids together that could even include girls! You would establish a home base tree to start from. You use the rock, paper, scissors game to determine who is the first “it”. Then, at the home base tree, the first “it” must count to 10 while all the other game participants run away from the home base tree so that there is a good distance between the “it” person and them by the time the “it” person has gotten to the count of 10. Then, that person runs around and tries to tag (touch) someone else. If they succeed, the person they touch is now “it”. The new “it” must stop in his tracks, close his eyes, and count to 10 and the process repeats itself and repeats itself. One way to avoid being caught or tagged is that home base tree. If you were being chased, you could avoid the sentence of being “it” by making it to home base tree and touch it. You could stand there and continuously touch it. As long as you were touching the home base tree (or other object chosen as home base), the “it” person could not tag you and make you the new “it”. He would have to pass on you and move on and try to tag someone else. I was pretty good at tag because I was fast as a kid and had the ability to have elusive moves. If chased, I could use my speed and my moves to get back to home base tree pretty often. I hated being caught and made it. It felt so unjust to be it. Everyone running from you like you had a disease or something so I would always desperately try to make it back to home base tree where no one could touch you. This was a summertime game that  you could play all afternoon. The game continues until everyone is exhausted or bored or the ice cream truck came through the neighborhood! The canned music of the ice cream truck coming through the neighborhood would send us all scurrying to our houses to find a dollar bill from mom or dad or from our rooms. Tag would be over then and everyone would sit around eating their ice creams, ice cream sandwiches, drinking a slushee or icee. Good times!


It was that idea of a place of refuge that made me think of home base tree in the game of tag this morning as I read through today’s passage, Deuteronomy 19:1-13. Let’s read through it together now:


19 When the Lord your God has destroyed the nations whose land he is giving you, and when you have driven them out and settled in their towns and houses, 2 then set aside for yourselves three cities in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess. 3 Determine the distances involved and divide into three parts the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that a person who kills someone may flee for refuge to one of these cities.


4 This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. 5 For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. 6 Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. 7 This is why I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities.


8 If the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he promised on oath to your ancestors, and gives you the whole land he promised them, 9 because you carefully follow all these laws I command you today—to love the Lord your God and to walk always in obedience to him—then you are to set aside three more cities. 10 Do this so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land, which the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance, and so that you will not be guilty of bloodshed.


11 But if out of hate someone lies in wait, assaults and kills a neighbor, and then flees to one of these cities, 12 the killer shall be sent for by the town elders, be brought back from the city, and be handed over to the avenger of blood to die. 13 Show no pity. You must purge from Israel the guilt of shedding innocent blood, so that it may go well with you.


Every society must deal with murder. But how should society treat those who have accidently killed someone? God had an answer for the Israelites. Since revenge killings were common and swift in Moses’ day, God had the Israelites set apart several “cities of refuge” Anyone who claimed that a murder was accidental could flee to one of these cities until he could have a fair trial. If he was found innocent of intentional murder, he could remain in that city and be safe from those seeking revenge. These cities were the cities given to the Levite priests. These cities were chosen by God because the Levites could be impartial judges since they were not affected by inheritances, business deals, and greed. The Levites would hold preliminary hearing outside the cities gates while the accused person was kept safe inside the city until the time of trial. If the killing was judged accidental, the person would be allowed to stay in that city until the high priest of that city passed away. At that time, the previously accused would be allowed to go free from the city of refuge and he could start a new life without worrying about avengers. If the death was ruled to be intentional, the person would be delivered outside the city walls of the city of refuge to be executed by the avengers of the murdered person.


This process reminded me of the game that we used to play when we were kids. In the game of tag, that home base tree was our city of refuge. It was the place that the “it” person could not touch you. You were safe there. No longer could “it” chase you down and transfer the disease of being “it” to you. It was a place where you could catch your breath from an afternoon running around your backyard all willy nilly at top speed. Tag can be a tiring game so that home base tree was a much-desired respite from the game. That home base tree was kind of like the cities of refuge that are the subject of today’s passage under review.


These cities of refuge in the Bible are a beautiful example of how God blends justice and mercy to His people. There was a trial where the merits of the case were considered by the high priest. The accused would meet his fate if found guilty or he would be allowed refuge in the high priest’s city so that he could start a new life afterwards if he were found innocent. These cities of refuge and their high priests hearing the evidence and making a decision are symbolic of what Jesus does for us.


Jesus is our city of refuge. We stand accused of sin that condemns us to death. But by calling upon His name as our Savior and Lord we are allowed to enter into His refuge and start a new life in Him. He is our home base tree. He sets us free to live in the freedom from being tagged by sin and becoming that “it” that adjudged and condemned by our sins. Jesus will also be the righteous judge one day when at the end of all things, He would come to judge the world. Those that are His will be brought into his city of refuge, his home base tree, and all others will be cast out into the fiery lake.


Is it not time for you to seek refuge in Jesus Christ? Is it not time for you to come into His city of refuge? Is it not time to come to Jesus’ home base tree? There is new life and new freedom in Jesus Christ! Come to Him now before it’s too late? Either at your death or at the end of all things, whichever comes first, you will stand trial for your sins (and each of us has many more sins than we want to count) and be cast out into the darkness and condemnation that awaits us in hell or will you take refuge in Jesus Christ and beg Him to cover you in His sinlessness? Will you take refuge in Jesus’ city? Will you touch his home base tree and be set free from being “it”?


Amen and Amen.

Deuteronomy 4:41-43

Eastern Cities of Refuge

When we were little and we did something to one of our siblings, we would run and hide behind our mom’s legs as we were being chased by our bigger, older sibling. Mom was home base. Mom was the demilitarized zone. She was the city of refuge. If your big brother had caught you, he would have pummeled and made you cry uncle or, even worse, apologize to him. If you made into mom’s line of sight and to her legs, the battle was over between you and your sibling. There would be no violence here today. Even if you had done something wrong, mean, or vicious to your sibling, there would be no retribution once you made to mom.


It was then that mom had to become a mediator as well as savior. She had to figure out what exactly happened among the cacophony of the two children presenting their cases at the exact same time. She finally has to scream, “Quiiiiieeeettttt!” And, then, when there were no voices speaking. She would ask the accusing child to state his/her case. Then, the accused child clinging to her leg had to state his/her case. There would be punishment of some sort but with mom, it typically would not be a whipping unless she caught you in the act of doing the crime. Usually, it involved the child in the right being allowed to go back out and play and the child in the wrong being required to stay inside the rest of the day. Or if the child in the wrong had done something particularly egregious, the worst punishment of all – being sent to your room and being told “to wait til your father gets home!” Oh that was the worst punishment of all. Having to wait for what seemed like eons of time. If we snuck out of the room and went back outside, mom’s refuge rules were all off. If your brother caught you outside the house, mom was probably standing at the window watching jungle justice be exacted by your brother or sister. However, if you stayed in the room like you were told, you were safe but, then, there was the justice of dads. They did not seem to give a rip about our excuses for why we had done what we had done. They were concerned only with the crime, the family rule that had been violated. We would pay for our crimes with dad. It would be a whipping. It would be, even worse, restrictions from things that we enjoyed doing. There would be punishment.


However, it was that idea of running and hiding behind mom that came to mind when I thought about these cities of refuge that are first mentioned in Numbers 35, but are again mentioned here in Deuteronomy 4:41-43:


41 Then Moses set aside three cities east of the Jordan, 42 to which anyone who had killed a person could flee if they had unintentionally killed a neighbor without malice aforethought. They could flee into one of these cities and save their life. 43 The cities were these: Bezer in the wilderness plateau, for the Reubenites; Ramoth in Gilead, for the Gadites; and Golan in Bashan, for the Manassites.


The Mosaic Law stated that anyone who committed a murder was to be put to death (Exodus 21:14). But for unintentional deaths, God set aside these cities to which the murderer could flee for refuge (Exodus 21:13). He would be safe from the avenger—the family member charged with avenging the victim’s death (Numbers 35:19)—until the case could go to trial. The congregation would judge to find if the attacker acted unintentionally. If he did, he would return to the city of refuge and live there safely until the death of the high priest who was in office at the time of the trial, at which point he could return to his property. If the attacker left the city of refuge before the death of the high priest, however, the avenger would have the right to kill him (Numbers 35:24-28).


The establishment of those privileged sanctuaries among the cities of the Levites is probably traceable to the idea that the Levites would be the most suitable and impartial judges, that their presence and counsels might calm or restrain the stormy passions of the blood avenger. By their consecration as priests, the Levites were mediators between the Israelites and God. As such, they would have been gifted to calmly mediate between the attacker and the victim’s family, ensuring that no further bloodshed would occur.


So, as you can see, there is a similarity between being able to make it to your mom’s legs when you were a kid and the cities of refuge for Israelites. If you could just make it to mom, there would be not butt-whoopin’ by your sibling. She was a safe haven. Mom was the UN peacekeeping force. All hostilities must end in mom’s line of sight. Once there, the chase was over. The lust for vengeance would end at mom’s feet. We would then have to present our cases to her and she would adjudge what punishment would be deserved. Not you and not me, but mom. That is what these cities of refuge were like. If the accused could just get there before their accuser could get to them then there would be no vengeance killing. However, as part of making it to the city of refuge, the accused would have to remain “in the house”, inside the city of refuge until the high priest died. The accused avoided being brutalized for vengeance but there was the having to stay inside the city of refuge for what could be a long time, if the high priest was relatively young.


According to, these cities of refuge are also symbolic of what Christ is to us. Sinners find a refuge from the destroyer of our souls. Just as the guilty person sought refuge in the cities set up for that purpose, we flee to Christ for refuge from sin (Hebrews 6:18). We run to Christ to escape the danger we are in from the curse and condemnation of the law, from of the wrath of God, and from an eternity in hell. Only Christ provides refuge from these things, and it is to Him alone that we must run. Just as the cities were open to all who fled to them for safety, it is Christ who provides safety to all who come to Him for refuge from sin and its punishment.


Just as with the cities of refuge, there is no disputing our crimes, our sins. They are well documented before God. We may spend years of our lives justifying them as OK. But God’s law is God’s law and there is justice to be exacted for our crimes. Our sins, even one, prevent us from living in the presence of God for eternity. Our sins, even one, condemn us to the deserved punishment of hell, where there is gnashing of teeth, burning of flesh, despair, hopelessness, and the utter darkness of separation from God. That’s what we deserve when we commit the crime of sin, even just one crime of sin not to mention that we are repeat offenders of God’s law on a daily basis. It is only through the saving grace of Jesus Christ, our city of refuge, that if we abide in Him that we are set free from the punishment and wrath of God against our sin. It is through Him that we are set free from our just and deserved punishment. He has already take the punishment we deserve when He was crucified, dead and buried. It is through His resurrection that our sins have been laid to rest in the grave and no longer cast a pall of judgment over us. We are set free to live in the knowledge that Jesus is the reason that we are no longer condemned. We can walk in the newness of light.


Amen and Amen.