Q: #397. What was a "city of refuge" in the Bible?
A: A “city of refuge” in the Bible was a city that a person could go to if they unintentionally killed a person. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, God told them to designate 6 cities as cities of refuge. Each of these cities was found in land that was given to the priestly tribe of the Levites (48 total cities given). (*** Note: God did not designate any land in the Promised Land for the Levites, but instead, each of the tribes of Israel was told to give the Levites a portion of their allotment.) (See: Num 35:6-8, Deut 19:1-3) These cities of refuge were evenly scattered throughout the land of the Israelites so that no city was more than about 30 miles from a city of refuge (a day’s journey). Three cities of refuge were on the east side of the Jordan River, and three were on the west side (Num 35:14). On the east side were: Bezer, Ramath, and Golan (Deut 4:41-43), and on the west were: Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron (Josh 20:7).
***Note: (Deut 19:8-9) mentions that God made provision for 3 additional cities of refuge when the Israelites expanded their territory, however, it appears this never occurred.
Cities of refuge are discussed in 4 places in the Old Testament: (Num 35:6-34)(Deut 4:41-43)(Deut 19:1-13)(Josh 20:1-9). Let’s look at what these verses say.
(Num 35:11,15)(Josh 20:1-3,9) Cities of refuge were for a person (including non-Israelites) who killed another unintentionally.
(Num 35:12) They were a “refuge” from the “avenger.”
*** The “avenger” was the closest relative (son, father, brother) to the one who was slain (“avenger” = Heb. gaal meaning “to redeem, deliver, avenge, act as a kinsman: Strong’s). He was to “avenge” the death of his relative by seeking out, and killing the person who killed his relative.
(Josh 20:4) When arriving at the city of refuge after killing someone, the person was to “stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and state his case in the hearing of the elders of that city.” Then, he was to be taken into the city and protected from the “avenger of blood.”
***Note: Judges and leaders in the Old Testament often decided important legal matters at the gates of a city (see: Deut 16:18, 2 Sam 15:1-6, Ruth 4:1-12, Deut 21:18-21, Deut 25:7-10).
(Deut 19:11-13) If a man had committed intentional murder, and then entered a city of refuge, the elders of the city were to take him from the city and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he might die.
(Num 35:12,24-25)(Josh 20:6,9) A trial for the “manslayer” was to follow (possibly at the place where the killing happened). The “congregation” was to judge whether the killing was intentional or unintentional. If unintentional, he was to be sent back to the city of refuge (under protection) and stay there until the death of the current High Priest.
(Num 35:26-28) If the accused ever left the city of refuge (before the death of the High Priest), the “blood avenger” had the right to kill him. However, if he left after the death of the High Priest, he could not be killed by the “blood avenger.”
(Num 35:32) A person in the city of refuge could not pay “a ransom” to the family of his victim, and thereby leave the city.
In (Num 35:16-21), we are given some examples of what is NOT considered unintentional killing:
Killing someone by using an instrument of iron, a stone, a wooden object.
Pushing someone in hatred, throwing something at a person intentionally, or striking a person with a fist in enmity, which resulted in death.
If a person did these things, the “blood avenger” was to kill him.
Following, in (Num 35:22-23) we are then given a few examples of what an unintentional killing would be:
Pushing someone without enmity, throwing something at a person without “lying in wait,” or unintentionally dropping a stone on a person.
(Deut 19:4-6) adds that if two friends go into a forest to cut wood, and the axe head of one of the men slips off and kills the other, the killer is “not deserving of death.”
Many scholars see “cites of refuge” as a “type” (or picture) of Jesus Christ. In Christ, we find shelter and protection from our sins (Heb 6:18: “we… who have fled for refuge”). (Rom 6:23) says “For the wages of sin is death.” If we do not flee to Jesus (our place of refuge), we will fall into the hands of the “blood avenger” (Satan), and die.
*** God is spoken of as a “refuge” 16 times in 15 verses in the Psalms: i.e. (Ps 9:9)(Ps 46:1,7,11) (Ps 62:7-8)(Ps 71:7).