Authored by Marie Story
A friend recently told me something absolutely fascinating. He mentioned that in the Bible, Moses designated “cities of refuge” for criminals—specifically those who had unintentionally killed someone.(1) I was surprised at that bit of information. The Old Testament had always seemed like a lot of hard-and-fast laws, rules, and regulations—and a lot of death penalties—not much mercy involved. If you’ve ever tried reading through the Bible from start to finish, you’ll know what I mean—many people get stuck around Leviticus, as it’s hard to read through all the laws. It seems to be chock full of “don’t touch this, don’t do this, don’t eat that, or you’ll be guilty and will be seen as a criminal.” All pretty scary stuff, honestly.
All that to say, I was intrigued to hear about the cities of refuge and decided to read up on them.
In the book of Numbers, there is a brief mention of these cities of refuge.(2) Six cities were put under the charge of the tribe of Levites and were designated as cities of refuge. Moses himself set up three of these cities: Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan.(3) Later on, Joshua established three more: Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron.(4) The cities were easily accessible to all the people, and were set aside as safe havens.
The purpose for these cities was so that someone guilty of accidental manslaughter could run to a city of refuge and receive asylum. In Deuteronomy 19:5 God gave an example of the type of situation that could fall under this clause. It says, “For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life.”(5) These six Levitical cities functioned as a safe zone, or a buffer, to protect the criminal from anyone who might be out for revenge.
Cities of refuge provided criminals with an opportunity for a fair trial, where, if they were proven innocent, they could have a fresh start. They were built on the principle of protecting and providing for this type of fugitive. Even the city’s trade was regulated in such a way that prevented the wrong people from discovering fugitives and taking revenge. A criminal was automatically given housing—in some cases rent free. He was allowed to work and earn wages. He was even allowed to sit in positions of honor or authority in city government. Here’s the catch, though: To receive asylum, the criminal basically had to drop everything—job, home, possessions, etc.—and flee as quickly as possible to the nearest city of refuge and present himself at the gate. On arrival, he had to admit that he had committed a crime, and then throw himself at the mercy of the city.
As I read about the cities of refuge, it made me think about salvation and how it could be likened to a city of refuge—a place where sinners can run to, and find safety and forgiveness. Of course, the cities of refuge described in the Bible were only for those who had committed a certain type of crime, whereas salvation is offered to all, no matter what crime or sin or evil deed. Obviously the comparison between the two is not identical, but it did help me to see the beauty of salvation in a new light.
Reading this account in the Bible also provided something of a “light bulb moment” for me. I’ve always kind of thought of the Old Testament God as a God of “Thou shalt not … or you’ll be stoned and killed.” I have had a hard time relating to Him. Jesus is easier to relate to, of course, since He became human. There was just too much that I couldn’t understand about God the Father, though, too much that I couldn’t grasp, and honestly, too much that just seemed harsh and condemning. I guess I did view Him as the “big old guy in the sky with the lightning bolts.” But reading about the refuge cities that God ordained opened my eyes to the fact that God is a God of grace and a God of forgiveness.
It reminds me of the story of the prodigal son.(6) The younger son really screwed up. He wasted his dad’s money and ended up with nothing. It seems he certainly deserved whatever bad things happened to him, and I imagine that’s how he felt when he was eating slop with the pigs. He realized, though, that there was another option. He could run home, admit that he had made the wrong choices, and throw himself on his father’s mercy. When he did this, did his father throw him out? Did he lecture and punish him? No. The father welcomed him back, fed and clothed him, and allowed him to live under his roof again.
A verse that comes to mind is Proverbs 18:10: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower.”(8)—A tower that we can run to and be saved. Through salvation, Jesus has provided us with a strong tower, a city of refuge, where we can find forgiveness and a fresh start, a brand-new life.
However, it’s a choice that we need to make at some point in our life. It’s a choice between remaining in our current state where we carry the weight and shame of our sin, or the choice to run to the city of refuge that Jesus has promised us, where we can throw ourselves on His mercy, confess our sins, and receive His forgiveness.
Do you feel like a screw-up?—Maybe you’ve missed chances, made wrong choices, hurt others, or even hurt yourself—so much so that you feel there’s no way to fix it?
Or you could be on the other end of the spectrum—feeling that you’re not that bad. You’re generally pretty nice to people, you don’t cheat or lie or steal, and you feel you’re basically a pretty good person.
Whether our sins loom large and dark over us, or they seem fairly insignificant and petty, sin is sin. And when we sin, the only thing we deserve is punishment. Remember that Satan is the avenger, the “accuser of the saints.” He points out all our sins and wants us to pay the price. He’s out for blood, and he is justified in this—we are sinners, and we deserve punishment. Paul said that the payment for sin is death, but that God’s gift to us completely overcomes that because it is eternal life.(8) Jesus puts Himself between us and the punishment we deserve. He stands in the way to intercede for us.
God, in His love, has provided a way to be saved and forgiven. We just have to choose it. And once we’ve chosen to run to His city of refuge—to open our lives to His gift of salvation—we’re safe and secure forever. Once in, forever in. King David said in Psalm 62:2, “[God] alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will never be shaken.”(9)
This picture of salvation as a city of refuge is also something to think about when it comes to our witnessing and our perspective on others. It really doesn’t matter how bad we think others are, or how undeserving of a second chance they may appear to be—or even whether they seem to have their life together and don’t appear to need anything else. Jesus has made a city of refuge for them through salvation and He wants them to know about it, so that He can offer them protection and eternal life.
Through telling someone about Jesus and His love, we are in essence leading them to the door of this beautiful, protected refuge city, the door of salvation. Whether they enter or not is fully up to them. It is their choice. It is our job to show them, but it is their job to decide.
But imagine what their joy will be like once they do decide to enter and live in the refuge city of salvation. Imagine the forgiveness they will experience and the incredible relief as they come to the realization that all records of their wrongdoings and sins are washed away, and they’re free to start a new life with a new perspective and purpose.
Thinking about that makes me want to spread the news about this wonderful city! And I hope it helps you too in some way, whether with your witnessing or your personal perspective on salvation.
1 Deuteronomy 19:1–5.
2 Numbers 35:6, 11–12.
3 Deuteronomy 4:41–43.
4 Joshua 20.
5 New International Version.
6 Luke 15:11–32.
7 King James Version.
8 Romans 6:23.
9 New Living Translation.
Read by Florence McNair. Music by sindustry(CC). Copyright © 2011 by The Family International.