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This next portion is called Mas’ei (Numbers 33-36), meaning “travels of.” And as a supplement of sorts to my last post, I’d like to focus on the cities of refuge in Numbers 35.

In the last entry, I established from Scripture that far from being bloodthirsty, God is actually concerned with human life and welfare. When the need arises, He does execute judgement, but only under specific conditions and with the explicit goal of punishing deliberate, excessive sin. Apart from that, His laws are geared toward the preservation of individual and societal wellbeing, both materially and spiritually; He doesn’t cause nor desire suffering for its own sake, and the cities of refuge are an excellent example of this.

… I remember, in fact, marvelling at this particular segment of Scripture when I first read it as a young believer, thinking how incredible it was that God would institute this kind of legislation for the sake of those who commit manslaughter. The morality that so clearly underpinned it amazed me, for here was a God who understood mercy… who didn’t advocate retribution or even the use of prisons for those who took a life by accident (unlike even the supposedly civilised Western societies of today).

In fact, if you look at the law as a whole, justice in God’s nation was supposed to be commensurate, yet considered… the process relational, even communal… its execution open and prompt, and the goal cleansing/restorative.

This is apparent in practically every piece of criminal legislation in the Torah. If someone committed pre-meditated murder, they had to pay for it with their own life; if they stole, they had to pay it back with interest; if someone got into serious debt, they worked it off and were released every 7 years (if not sooner); if they caused other kinds of harm, the closest suitable penalty/reparation was calculated and exacted. In ancient Israel, there were no gaols or life sentences, no interminable periods of labour/incarceration. Justice was sought, meted out, and matters had an end – in line with the character of a God who both judges sin to the full, and puts it behind Him.

So to explore the subject at hand, there were 6 cities of refuge in total. 3 were designated by Moses and located east of the Jordan (according to Deuteronomy 4:43, they were Bezer in the wilderness on the plateau for the Reubenites, Ramoth in Gilead for the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan for the Manassites); while the other 3 were west of the Jordan and appointed during the time of Joshua (Kedesh in Galilee in the mountains of Naphtali, Shechem in the mountains of Ephraim, and Kirjath Arba, or Hebron, in the mountains of Judah – Joshua 20:7).

To get an idea of their distribution, click on the map below once, then click again for a full-size view:

cities of refuge

As you can see, the cities were very evenly distributed throughout the land, so anyone guilty of manslaughter stood a good chance of reaching one of them in time if they were pursued. In fact, Deuteronomy 19:3-6 explicitly says, “You shall prepare roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the territory of your land which the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, that any manslayer may flee there … lest the avenger of blood, while his anger is hot, pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and kill him” – meaning God wanted the Israelites to locate the cities of refuge as strategically as possible, and build roads to make them accessible.

Deuteronomy 19:8-10 even says,

Now if the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you the land which He promised to give to your fathers, and if you keep all these commandments and do them, which I command you today, to love the Lord your God and to walk always in His ways, then you shall add three more cities for yourself besides these three, lest innocent blood be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and thus guilt of bloodshed be upon you.

This indicates that in God’s eyes, a manslayer was considered innocent rather than guilty, and worthy of protection from any grieving avengers who might seek to kill them for the death of a loved one. Thus if Israel’s territory expanded, additional havens were to be prepared so these individuals could make their escape. And when they arrived at one of these cities, this was to be their method of reception:

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. 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. 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. (Joshua 20:4-6)

Now, the notable thing about this law was the fact God didn’t prohibit an avenger from pursuing or killing a manslayer. He didn’t declare that if a manslayer was judged innocent, then he could leave his city of refuge, go home, and the avenger was no longer allowed to seek revenge. Rather, the manslayer was to enter a city of refuge as soon as he could, seek the protection of the elders of that city until a trial for him was held, and if he was found truly innocent of murder, then he had to return to the city of refuge and live there until the reigning High Priest died.

So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge where he had fled, and he shall remain there until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the manslayer at any time goes outside the limits of the city of refuge where he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood, because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession. (Numbers 35:25-28)

So on the one hand, the Israelites were commanded to protect those among them who were guilty of manslaughter. But on the other, it wasn’t a prison sentence – the manslayer was supposed to stay within the walls of his city of refuge, but apart from that, he was free to live a normal life. And he could try to leave if he really wanted to… though if he did, he was liable for his own life, for if he was caught by an avenger of the person he killed, he himself could be killed with no penalty to the avenger.

This tells us that God, though merciful, is not a God who just sweeps bloodshed under the carpet… even accidental bloodshed. In fact, He made His feelings on the matter very clear in Genesis 9:5-6,

Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man.

“Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.”

It’s a law established from the beginning of creation that when the blood of a human being is spilled, the earth is polluted and the blood cries out for justice (Genesis 4:10-11), because man came from the earth and is made in the image of God, and the destruction of this living image is an extremely serious thing. … Even animals, who don’t have the same kind of moral culpability before God as human beings do, are considered guilty if they take the life of a person. This is why under normal circumstances, anyone who kills another human being must pay with their own life. It is the only form of atonement that suffices for the sin of murder, for in the eyes of God, it’s not a matter of deterrence (as the argument so often goes whenever the death penalty is discussed in recent times) – but justice. He makes this very clear in Numbers 35:16-21,

But if he strikes him with an iron implement, so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he strikes him with a stone in the hand, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he strikes him with a wooden hand weapon, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death.

The avenger of blood himself shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. If he pushes him out of hatred or, while lying in wait, hurls something at him so that he dies, or in enmity he strikes him with his hand so that he dies, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.

Human life is sacred, and because of this, murder is one of the most serious sins a person can commit. If one is found guilty of it, one must pay the ultimate price. There is no arguing/reasoning/pleading/bribing your way out of it. According to the law, the courts had to judge carefully, and be absolutely certain that a person was indeed guilty of murder since his life hung in the balance – but if he was indeed tried and convicted, then he had to be handed over for execution, even if he fled to a city of refuge.

But if anyone hates his neighbor, lies in wait for him, rises against him and strikes him mortally, so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and bring him from there, and deliver him over to the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with you. (Deuteronomy 19:11-13)

God is both serious about preserving life, and taking it away when it is forfeit. This is why He established the law of the cities of refuge. On the one hand, He recognised that a manslayer is not guilty of murder because he didn’t take a life intentionally; but on the other, unintentional sin is still sin, and accidental bloodshed still entails certain consequences. Thus He didn’t enact a law preventing avengers of blood from pursuing or killing manslayers, because He recognised the legitimacy of their grief and the validity of their cause, since atonement is still required for the loss of a life.

So God couldn’t completely let a manslayer off the hook – but because such a person also deserved mercy, the way out was not to exact some kind of injury on him (which would be fundamentally unjust), but to provide protection for him, and an atonement which God Himself would deem acceptable. And since a life can only be atoned for with another life, someone else’s death was necessary to cover over the sin of manslaughter. And in a prophetic allusion to Yeshua, God therefore mandated in the Torah that manslayers could only walk free when the High Priest died.

… His death – the death of a holy, anointed, God-appointed individual – would atone for the bloodguilt of many. And if these people ventured to leave the city which God provided for their protection before that death occurred, then they were responsible for their own lives if they happened to fall into the hands of an avenger of blood: just as any Israelite who was caught outside of his house, away from the covering of the Passover lamb’s blood on the night Egypt’s firstborn were struck, was culpable for his own life… and just as any member of Rahab’s family who was found outside of her home, away from the protection of the scarlet cord, was guilty for his own neck when Israel swept through Jericho to conquer it.

This is how God solved the problem of accidental bloodshed in His nation equitably, without denying the iron necessity for atonement in the objective law of His creation, or the moral imperative to show mercy in an act of personal fairness to the individual. And He was adamant that these laws be observed strictly, so that justice would indeed be upheld in all quarters – for those suspected of murder, for the murdered, for the manslayer, and for the avenger of blood:

Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty. Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the priest.

So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel. (Numbers 35:30-34)

Thus the death penalty was God’s prescription for just atonement so the land wouldn’t be polluted by the violence of murder; and the cities of refuge, in turn, were instruments of mercy and containment so that the sin of accidental bloodshed, though unintended, would not be allowed to freely contaminate the land.

All this reveals a God whose character and principles are entirely self-consistent, and whose law is a study in that internal consistency – which, moreover, points us forward to the promise of Christ in self-referential, self-reinforcing patterns… in this case, the following passage in Galatians 3:

[The law] was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made … the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed.

When I read this, I can’t help seeing a picture of the cities of refuge in my mind… those appointed sites of legal mediation and safety where the occupants were confined by law because of their sins, and kept watchful and waiting for the promise of freedom which would be theirs when the High Priest died… living illustrations of the condition of the human race itself, subjected to corruption and futility through no direct fault of its own, but waiting for the redemption and liberation that would come when the Messiah Himself gave up His life for the world… a real-life rehearsal of the hope of creation, acted out even through the inadvertent transgressions of God’s own chosen nation.

… Truly His law is a tutor unto Christ, and redemptive in its purpose and message even in the smallest details. It’s quite amazing to contemplate, really.

Next week, we belatedly begin the book of Deuteronomy.