What were these cities of refuge? Why were they built? What was their purpose? This article is intended to shed some light on these cities, in a running commentary form, as to their function and purpose. We will also discuss the similarities between these cities and our Lord Jesus Christ, and finally explore something very specific and interesting Jesus said while hanging on the cross that pertains to the details of these cities. But, before we examine Jesus’ statement we have to cover these cities first. Let’s begin our discussion by examining chapter 35 from the book of Numbers with the LORD speaking to Moses.
And the LORD spake unto Moses in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho, saying, Command the children of Israel, that they give unto the Levites of the inheritance of their possession cities to dwell in; and ye shall give also unto the Levites suburbs for the cities round about them. (v. 1-2)
The nation of Israel was divided into 12 tribes, plus the group of Levites who were the priests in charge of performing the duties involving the tabernacle. The land promised to Abraham (Genesis 15:7) was to be given to Israel as an inheritance, but the Levites had no land inheritance. And the LORD spake unto Aaron, Thou shalt have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt thou have any part among them: I am thy part and thine inheritance among the children of Israel. And, behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, even the service of the tabernacle of the congregation (Numbers 18:20-21). Since the Levites had no physical inheritance, and considering their daily agenda consisted of carrying out the law’s ordinances involving sacrifices and care of the tabernacle, the 12 tribes were supposed to give the Levites a tenth of their inheritance. This is where God’s tithe comes in.
And the cities shall they have to dwell in; and the suburbs of them shall be for their cattle, and for their goods, and for all their beasts. And the suburbs of the cities, which ye shall give unto the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city and outward a thousand cubits round about. And ye shall measure from without the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits; and the city shall be in the midst: this shall be to them the suburbs of the cities. (v. 3-5)
God made sure the Levites got ALL the tenth in Israel. He gave precise dimensions so there wouldn’t be any arguments later involving who was supposed to get what and why. God took care of the specifics.
And among the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites there shall be six cities for refuge, which ye shall appoint for the manslayer, that he may flee thither: and to them ye shall add forty and two cities. So all the cities which ye shall give to the Levites shall be forty and eight cities: them shall ye give with their suburbs. And the cities which ye shall give shall be of the possession of the children of Israel: from them that have many ye shall give many; but from them that have few ye shall give few: every one shall give of his cities unto the Levites according to his inheritance which he inheriteth. (v. 6-8)
So there were to be 48 total cities given to the Levites. Among those 48 there were to be 6 specifically seperated to refuge any manslayer – someone that kills someone else. Why would God allow refuge for someone that kills someone else? We have to keep reading to get the answer.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come over Jordan into the land of Canaan; Then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. And they shall be unto you cities for refuge from the avenger: that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment. And of these cities which ye shall give six cities shall ye have for refuge. Ye shall give three cities on this side Jordan, and three cities shall ye give in the land of Canaan, which shall be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that killeth any person unawares may flee thither. And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer: when he meeteth him, he shall slay him. But if he thrust him of hatred, or hurl at him by laying of wait, that he die; Or in enmity smite him with his hand, that he die: he that smote him shall surely be put to death; for he is a murderer: the revenger of blood shall slay the murderer, when he meeteth him. But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him any thing without laying of wait, Or with any stone, wherewith a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm: (v.9-23)
In summary, these cities are to only refuge those who killed someone else unawares, “accidentally” in other words. Under American law, this type of person would be someone who had committed manslaughter and not murder. It did not matter if you were an Israelite, a stranger, or someone sojourning (staying for a while before moving on) in the land. If someone killed another on accident, safety would be provided but not for murderers. Murderers would not be protected, but killed. Some people might not like the idea of capital punishment, but it is justified by God’s word in the Old Testament (here in Numbers, Genesis 9:6, and Deuteronomy 19:21) and even in the New Testament (Romans 13:1-4). The cities were to protect the killer from someone (the avenger) seeking vengence because of the person who was killed. An example of an avenger might be a family member who is extremely angered by the death of their kin. Deuteronomy 9:6 states perfectly that the cities were there lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him. However, a judgment would have to be made in order to determine if someone was guilty of murder or not. The verses above and below explain how to judge.
Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood according to these judgments (the examples given in the previous verses): And the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil. But if the slayer shall at any time come without the border of the city of his refuge, whither he was fled; And the revenger of blood find him without the borders of the city of his refuge, and the revenger of blood kill the slayer; he shall not be guilty of blood: Because he should have remained in the city of his refuge until the death of the high priest: but after the death of the high priest the slayer shall return into the land of his possession. So these things shall be for a statute of judgment unto you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die. (v. 24-30)
There would have to be a trial after someone was killed. The congregation would judge based on what the witnesses saw, and the circumstances of the event. one specific point God made was there had to be more than one witness. One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established (Deuteronomy 19:15). There was also one more thing God wanted to make sure of.
Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. (v.31-32)
God said the only thing that could satisfy what the murderer did was for him to be put to death. Nobody could pay money, serve prison time, beg for forgiveness, or anything else to satisfy his actions. The murderer must be put to death. Also, the person who didn’t commit murder should take no satisfaction in staying in the city of refuge because when the high priest dies he can return to his home town. That means nobody could buy the person’s land, sell the land, use the land, or anything else because the land was still his, and he would occupy it again upon the high priest’s death – see also Deuteronomy 19:14 in its context. I believe God thoroughly covered every detail. Amen.
Similarities to Jesus Christ
- THE WAY WAS PREPARED
According to Deuteronomy 19:3, a way had to be prepared so the slayer would have a route to flee to the city. Simply put, roads had to be created leading to these cities. Jesus said, I am the way unto the Father in John 14:6. on the cross of Calvery he finished preparing the way to the presence of God.
- OPEN TO ALL
As you read above from verses 9-23, the six cities were a refuge to the children of Israel, the strangers, and any person visiting/sojourning among them. The Lord said in 2 Peter 3:9 He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come unto repentance, and also that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life in John 3:16. Just as these cities were available to anyone, Jesus is available to anyone willing to believe in Him.
- THE onLY ALTERNATIVE
If you were to kill someone unawares, as the bible describes, your only alternative was to flee to one of the cities of refuge or be killed. From the way the passages read, it was guaranteed you would be killed if you didn’t flee. Similarly, Jesus said you would die in your sins if you did not believe on Him. I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins (John 3:18). So, for the cities it required fleeing to be saved, but as for Jesus you must believe to be saved.
- FREEDOM AT THE DEATH OF THE HIGH PRIEST
Verse 32 above showed how the slayer was to stay inside the security of the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. Upon his death, you were free from any threat of death by an avenger. Hebrews describes Jesus Christ as being our high priest, and upon His death on the cross he cried it is finished before dismissing his spirit. Our freedom from sin was then made possible. The penalty of our sin had been payed for by His death. We were bought by the price of His sacrifice in our place upon that tree, and there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Romans 8:1). WE ARE FREE, HALLELUJAH!
Jesus reduces the murder charges
The main lesson from Numbers 35 is simple: If you are a murderer you could not be forgiven, and the penalty for your crime is death. Jesus told the scribes and pharisees in John 8:44: Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. Then just a few chapters later, along with details from the other gospels, the religious leaders had Jesus murdered. There were no accusations brought to Pilate about Jesus, the people hired false witnesses to try and condemn Him but none of their statements agreed in detail, and a false trial was conducted in order to try and have Him killed. They were liars and murderers just like their father the devil. Now we know that Jesus was going to that cross no matter what events took place because that was determined before the foundation of the world – Ephesians 1:4, and Revelation 13:8. However, this does not excuse their actions, and because they committed murder they should also be put to death. But, as unbelievable as this may sound, Jesus testified they were not guilty of murder.
While hanging on the cross Jesus said a number of different things, and one of His statements relates specifically to murder. Something you have to understand is how these people had Jesus scourged, spit upon, crowned with thorns being forced into his scalp, mocked, and even had parts of His beard plucked out of His face. After He was hung on the cross the soldiers parted his raiment and cast lots to determine who got his vesture. Who could forgive such actions, and who could not see this was murder in the first degree. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). Not only did Jesus ask the Father to forgive them, but Jesus testified to their killing Him unawares as Numbers 35 describes. According to Him they weren’t murderers and by saying that He made it possible for them to be free from their actions. If that doesn’t testify to the grace and mercy of God Almighty I don’t know what does. According to John 18:4, Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to Him, and after all the false allegations and the physical abuse, He still showed love and compassion for these people. Not only did He die on that cross for you and me, but he died for them as well. What a saviour we have! He truly is holy, harmless, undefiled, seperate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens! Hebrews 7:26. Amen.
*All bible text comes from the Authorized King James Version and has been placed in this writing in bolded font. Where the text has been underlined, it is strictly for emphasis upon the writer’s discretion and is not intended to represent a change in the bible.*