Cities of Refuge (Joshua 20)
August 16, 2013
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In Joshua 20, we find Yahweh discussing an interesting element of the judicial system that He set up for the Israelites. Levites were His designated priestly mediators, and they were set apart by Him to have extra close communication with Him. Because God was supposed to be the Levites’ inheritance, they didn’t get their own state in the Promised Land like the other twelve tribes. Instead, each tribe was instructed to give up some towns in their territories for the Levites to live in. This meant the Levites were spread throughout the land, with some dwelling among each tribe. Of those Levite towns, six were to be designated as “cities of refuge” (see Num. 35:6-8). These were places for people to run to after they accidentally killed someone. How thorough of God to set a system in place for this particular dilemma. It doesn’t come up all the time, but when it does, it’s a major problem.
Suppose you’re plowing your field and you accidentally run your oxen right over a child who is sitting on the ground. The child is trampled on and killed. You feel terrible. Naturally the child’s father wants to hunt you down and kill you in revenge. What do you do? There are no police who can come arrest you and hide you in the safety of a jail cell until your trial. Everyone in the neighborhood is too shocked and upset to listen to your side of the story. You need a neutral third party that you can talk to. Your best chance is to flee to the nearest city of refuge.
“Upon reaching one of these cities, the one who caused the death will appear before the elders at the city gate and present his case. They must allow him to enter the city and give him a place to live among them. If the relatives of the victim come to avenge the killing, the leaders must not release the slayer to them, for he killed the other person unintentionally and without previous hostility. But the slayer must stay in that city and be tried by the local assembly, which will render a judgment. And he must continue to live in that city until the death of the high priest who was in office at the time of the accident. After that, he is free to return to his own home in the town from which he fled.” (Josh. 20:4-6)
Being misunderstood is one of the most painful experiences we have in this world. To have others judge us by our actions and project nasty motivations onto us is very frustrating. Have you ever accidentally hurt people only to be accused of injuring them on purpose? Have you ever had your sincere apology scorned or your calls blocked by someone you desperately wanted to reconcile with? Some of us have made mistakes that destroyed lives. Some of us have done damage we can’t ever repair. Some of us know that there are people in this world who intensely hate us and wish we were dead. The wonderful thing about God is that He always makes Himself available as our City of Refuge. When people reject us, He welcomes us. When people won’t listen, He already understands without us having to explain. As Christians, we will never experience God slamming a door in our face or trying to punish us for something we didn’t do. With Him, we are never misunderstood or mislabeled or unforgivable. And unlike the cities that the Jews ran to, God offers us more than temporary shelter from those who are angry at us. He stays by our side at all times, helping us cope with the pain of rejection and bringing spiritual blessings out of our mistakes. Because God loves us, other people’s anger can’t stop us. Because He is our Judge, the world’s assessment of us doesn’t matter.
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