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Allen Webster

Places of refuge have been used through the centuries in many different cultures. The Greeks and Romans had asyla; the Roman Catholics had "privileged altars." North American Indians had "white towns" (white representing peace, friendship, prosperity, happiness, and purity), which were asylums for manslayers and unfortunate captives. The Hawaiians had Puuhonua 0 Honaunau on the Kona coast of the Big Island. A popular tourist attraction today, in the days before Christianity came to the Islands, it was used for protection when lives were endangered by tribal wars or human sacrifice rituals.

Textual Background:  The idea of a city of refuge predates all of these cultures. It came from the mind of God, and was first instituted in Old Testament times so His people would have a place of sanctuary under certain conditions. Early on, God had promised: "And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee" (Exodus 21:13). God provided, not only for their ease at all times, but for their safety in times of danger.? In Numbers 35:6-28, Moses explained the place would be a "city of refuge" literally, "a city of intaking." In Deuteronomy 4:41-43, he appointed three cities on the side of Jordan he had led Israel to conquer.

Deuteronomy 19-21 contains laws designed to protect people, and to impress upon Israel the sanctity of human life. In Deuteronomy 19, Moses commanded them to appoint three additional refuge cities on the west side of Jordan when Joshua led them to settle that area. Deuteronomy 19 expands upon and supplements Numbers 35. Unique to Deuteronomy are three provisions:

    •preparing roads to the cities of refuge
    •the provision of additional cities if the territory was extended
    •the intervention of elders as representing the congregation.

Joshua 20:1-9 records Israel's obedience to Moses' instructions. Joshua gave orders to appoint these cities when Israel first conquered the land of Canaan (Joshua 20:2). This was seasonable because the land was just surveyed, and they were easily able to divide it into three parts (Deuteronomy 19:3).

Moral Background. In order to appreciate cities of refuge, we must understand God's view of the giving and taking of life. Man was created in God's image, after His likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). God breathed life into him so that man became "a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). Thus, life was a gift from God, and once taken life could never be restored by man.

If one man killed another, it would be either murder or manslaughter. Murder was killing another either because of an old grudge (premeditated, "hatred," Numbers 35:20, or "in enmity," 35:21), or a sudden passion (cf. Matthew 5:21-22), whether he used: an instrument of iron (Numbers 35:16), wood (35:18), or a stone (35:17, 20).3
Man has made many advancements, but he has not yet eradicated murder. In fact, in our world life is cheap—perhaps even less valued than in ancient civilizations.

    •The United States leads the developed nations in homicides, with 21.9 per 100,000 people. Scotland is second, with 5.0 per 100,000 people (http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/263 /24/3292)4.
    •The homicide rate among young American males is twenty times that of Western Europe and forty times that of Japan.
    •A study in The New England Journal of edicine makes the point that young males in Harlem are less likely to survive to the age of forty than their counterparts in Bangladesh.
    •Every decade, 200,000 people are murdered in the United States. 5

The law for murder in the Old Testament was strict: "The murderer shall surely be put to death" (Numbers 35:16-18). When Noah stepped out of the ark, God decreed: "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in --the image of God made he man" (Genesis 9:6). Blood defiled the hands that shed it (Deuteronomy 21:7; Proverbs 6:17) and even the land received it (Numbers 35:33; cf. Genesis 4:10; Psalm 106:38). It was so offensive to God that the land could not be cleansed except by the blood of the murderer: "So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it" (Numbers 35:33).6 Where wrong was done restitution had to be made; and since a murderer could not restore life, justice required his own life be forfeited in its place.

Where violence occurred, Moses' law required that the victim's nearest kin punish the offender in a way equal to what he had inflicted—"eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (Exodus 21:23; Leviticus 24:17-20; Numbers 35:19-21; Deuteronomy 19:12). This person was known as the "kinsman redeemer" or "avenger of blood." While the "eye for eye" law sounds harsh to modem ears, it set a high value on life and also served to limit the amount of vengeance that could be taken. It can be interpreted as "only an eye for an eye," or "nor more than an eye for an eye." In ancient cultures, it was not unusual for a feud to end in the death of a whole family. Cities of refuge helped transform a death from a family feud to a judicial matter settled by a group of elders.

(to read part 2, click here)

Glad Tidings of Good Things, Vol. 14, April 11, 2008, page 1