Monday, June 24, 2019

Cities of Refuge

"Build roads to them [the cities of refuge] and divide into three parts the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that anyone who kills a man may flee there" (Deuteronomy 19:3).

Continuing his discussion of justice, Moses reminded the people of the commands God had given them earlier (Numbers 35) concerning the cities of refuge. Placed within the land were to be six such cities, three on each side of the Jordan River. Highways connecting the cities to the towns of Israel were to be carefully maintained. The cities were to provide a place where people could flee when in trouble (Deuteronomy 19).

God’s land was holy and any time blood was shed on it the whole land became defiled. Consequently, the land would not yield its blessings. When blood was shed, deliberately or accidentally, an atonement had to be made. If a man were slain, an avenger of blood was called to track down the man-killer and bring him to justice. The avenger appointed was the slain man’s nearest male relative. It was his duty, whether he liked it or not, to ensure that atonement took place. It was not a matter of personal vengeance; the avenger was God’s appointed agent to gain atonement for bloodshed.

Suppose two friends were in the woods chopping wood and the axe-head flew off one man’s axe and killed his neighbor. It was the duty of the neighbor’s brother to prosecute the man-killer, even though it was an accident. The man-killer would run to the city of refuge. There the Levites who maintained the city would become his “defense attorneys.” The avenger was his court-appointed prosecutor and the elders of the “gate” would hear the trial. Our modern system of justice gained its roots here.

If the man was judged guilty of premeditated murder he would be turned out of the city of refuge and the avenger would see to it that he was put to death. If found innocent, the man was required to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. The death of the high priest atoned for the blood accidentally shed in the land, and at that time the man-killer was free to leave the city of refuge and the avenger was no longer responsible to pursue him.

In the New Testament, the magistrate was God’s appointed avenger (Romans 13:4). He was to investigate and prosecute all suspected crimes, protect the accused, provide him with a means of defense, and render justice.

The death of our Great High Priest cleansed the land once and for all. Accidental manslaughter is no longer to be avenged. Historically, the church building has functioned as a sanctuary for people being pursued by mobs. Magistrates were not allowed to bring weapons into the church. Is it possible for the church to function in this manner today?