Cities of Refuge by Abidan Shah, PhD

CITIES OF REFUGE by Dr. Shah, Clearview Church, Henderson, NC

Introduction: How many of ya’ll remember playing “Duck, Duck, Goose” growing up. Everyone sits in a circle, facing inside, and the one who is “it” walks around saying “duck, duck, duck.” Then, suddenly, he/she stops and shouts “goose” and starts running. This means that the person who got tagged is the new “it” and must start chasing the person who now must run and sit where the “it” was sitting. Kids love to play that game. Our message today is quite similar to that game, but with a twist – when the “it” catches the person, they have to kill him! Today’s message is titled “Cities of Refuge.” Main point: The living true God is a god of justice and mercy. While his justice chases us down to punish us, his mercy opens the gate of refuge through his Son, Jesus Christ. God also wants us to be a people of justice and mercy. We all need places of refuge where we can go to regularly and find compassion. 

Joshua 20       1 The LORD also spoke to Joshua, saying, 2 “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Appoint for yourselves cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 that the slayer who kills a person accidentally or unintentionally may flee there; and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood.

Context: God instructed the people of Israel to establish “Cities of Refuge” when they came into the Promised Land. Six times we find it mentioned in the Old Testament, First, he talked about them to Moses, as found in Exodus 21:13Numbers 35:9-15Deuteronomy 4:41-43; and 19:1-13. Then, he reminded Joshua, Moses’ successor, to do the same in Joshua 20:1-9 (the passage we just read). Then the cities of refuge were also mentioned in 1 Chronicles 6:57, 67We don’t know when the custom began that if someone were to kill one of your family members, then one of your family members was obligated to chase down that person and take their life. We know that it goes back even before the flood because Cain mentioned it. When God judged Cain for killing his brother, one of his punishments was that he would be “a fugitive and a vagabond…on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). Listen to Cain’s response in verse 14 “Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.” That’s when God said in verse 15 “‘… whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the LORD set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.” In other words, even in God’s justice, there was mercy.

So also, when time came for the people of Israel to enter the Promised Land, God instructed them to establish 6 cities of refuge in the land where “the slayer who kills a person accidentally or unintentionally may flee there.” Keep in mind that these are not for intentional killing but unintentional. For example: Deuteronomy 19:5 “as when a man goes to the woods with his neighbor to cut timber, and his hand swings a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he shall flee to one of these cities and live.” These were to be 3 of these cities (“hare Hammiqlat”) on the east side of Jordan and 3 on the west. On the east side were Bezer from the tribe of Reuben, about 8 miles northeast of Medeba; Ramoth Gilead from the tribe of Gad, about 25 miles east-southeast of the Sea of Galilee; and Golan from the tribe of Manasseh, about 20 miles east of the Sea of Galilee. On the west side of the Jordan were Kedesh from the tribe of Naphtali, about 15 miles north of the Sea of Galilee (some discrepancy there about its exact location); Shechem from the tribe of Ephraim, about 20 miles west of the Jordan; and Kirjath Arba or Hebron from the tribe of Judah, about 19 miles south of Jerusalem. Something very important to remember is that these were not ordinary cities. These were Levitical cities. The Levites did not get any land after entering the Promised Land. One reason was a sin by their ancestor, but it was also because they were to be the priests for the people, leading them in the way of God. They were allotted 48 cities which were spread out all over Israel to be an easy access to all people. Out of these 48 cities, six were to be the cities of refuge.

Back to Joshua 20:4 “And when he flees to one of those cities, and stands at the entrance of the gate of the city, and declares his case in the hearing of the elders of that city, they shall take him into the city as one of them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them.” The Mishnah (Jewish Oral tradition) and the Talmud (along with the Gemara/Rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah) give some extra information about these cities. According to Bava Batra 100a:11-100b:1, “The standard width of a road that goes from city to city is eight cubits (12 feet). The standard width of a public thoroughfare is sixteen cubits (24 feet). A road leading to one of the cities of refuge must be at least thirty-two cubits wide” (48 feet). According to Makkot 10b:1-4, “Refuge was written on signs at every crossroads marking the path to a city of refuge, so that the unintentional murderer would identify the route to the city of refuge and turn to go there.”According to Rambam (Moses Maimonides), Mishneh Torah, “The court is obligated to straighten the roads to the cities of refuge, to repair them and broaden them. They must remove all impediments and obstacles… bridges should be built (over all natural barriers) so as not to delay one who is fleeing to [the city of refuge].” Joshua 20:5 “Then if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not deliver the slayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unintentionally, but did not hate him beforehand.”

Let me pause here and make some applications:

  1. Isn’t God wonderful? He cares about us and finds ways to show us mercy. Are we people of mercy? Is our church a city of refuge? Don’t confuse these with the sanctuary cities of today. We all need a place of refuge.

But there are deeper applications here:

  • We are all unintentional and accidental murderers against God. That is “Original Sin.” It all began in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and sin came in. Romans 5:12 “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
  • We are being chased by the avenger of blood (go’el haddam). People think that the avenger is Satan. Yes, he wants to steal, kill, and destroy, but the true avenger is the justice and holiness of God. God will not compromise his holiness. If he did, the entire heavens and earth will collapse. Romans 5:18 “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation…”
  • We are welcomed into the city of refuge, which is salvation through Jesus Christ. You cannot run to just any city. It must be the City of Refuge. So also, Jesus is our only refuge. Hebrews 6:18 “…we…have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.” We are to run to Jesus! The road has been prepared and directions have been given. In fact, you don’t even have to plead your case at the gates!
  • We cannot pay our way in or pay to stay in. Numbers 35:32 And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge…” This is the free provision of God for all, not just the Israelite but also for the foreigner. Joshua 20:9 “These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel and for the stranger who dwelt among them…” Salvation is for all.

Joshua 20:6 “And he shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the one who is high priest in those days. Then the slayer may return and come to his own city and his own house, to the city from which he fled.’ ”

What does the death of the High Priest have to do with the freedom of the unintentional killer? Exodus 28.      36 “You shall also make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet: HOLINESS TO THE Lord. 37 And you shall put it on a blue cord, that it may be on the turban; it shall be on the front of the turban. 38 So it shall be on Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things which the children of Israel hallow in all their holy gifts; and it shall always be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD.” The high priest was to bear symbolically the iniquity of the holy things as a representative of the people. In a sense, his death made atonement for the sins of the people. We know that no human can ever do that for anyone. Hebrews 9      11 But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. 12Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, 14how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? 15And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

In his justice, the “wages of sin is death,” but, in his mercy, the “gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Are world needs cities of refuge? Do we look at people as fleeing and ourselves as the cities of refuge? Is our church a city of refuge? That’s why we have Sunday School, Men and Women’s Bible study groups, men and women’s Prayer group. That’s why we need our circle groups. That’s why we need small groups, even for kids and students.

Are you saved? Is Jesus your refuge?

Romans 10.       8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.

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