The Cities of Refuge (Deut. 19:1-10)
(Reprinted from Deuteronomy, 2008)
1. When the LORD thy God hath cut off the nations, whose land the LORD thy God giveth thee, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their cities, and in their houses;
2. Thou shalt separate three cities for thee in the midst of thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it.
3. Thou shalt prepare thee a way, and divide the coasts of thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to inherit, into three parts, that every slayer may flee thither.
4. And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbour ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past;
5. As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live:
6. Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past.
7. Wherefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt separate three cities for thee.
8. And if the LORD thy God enlarge thy coast, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, and give thee all the land which he promised to give unto thy fathers;
9. If thou shalt keep all these commandments to do them, which I command thee this day, to love the LORD thy God, and to walk ever in his ways; then shalt thou add three cities more for thee, beside these three:
10. That innocent blood be not shed in thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and so blood be upon thee. (Deuteronomy 19:1–10)
We have, in other contexts, dealt with the cities of refuge. Now we can apply their meaning to our world today. In vv. 9–10, we are told the meaning of this law. First, they are to love God by keeping His commandments, “to walk ever in his ways” (v. 9). The stress here again on the love of God and obedience to Him tells us that this is an important law. We cannot set it aside as inappropriate to our time. It is true that blood feuds no longer exist, except in rare areas, in the Christian world, but this does not exhaust the meaning of this law. The law remains, but its application may vary from age to age.
Second, God’s purpose in this law is justice, “that innocent blood be not shed in thy land” (v. 10). Justice is a perpetual concern, and we cannot treat a law pertaining to justice as obsolete. This law has a clear purpose, the protection of the innocent. Under normal circumstances, the function of the courts of law might take care of most cases, but, in every society, there are instances where the legal system fails: then some recourse is necessary to avoid injustice. Where injustice prevails in and through the justice system, the results are deadly. The instruments of justice are compromised; they become agencies of evil. This poisons the social order. We see it in our time in such statements as, “You can’t fight city hall.” The justice system is assumed to be corrupt and beyond redemption. If there is no appeal except within the system, cynicism and injustice prevail. We see today a very prevalent distrust and even contempt for our justice system. The courts on all levels are radically politicized and distrusted. They move in terms of technicalities, not in terms of justice, all too often. Even lawyers are commonly cynical about the system.
Third, God requires this law “that innocent blood be not shed in thy land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and so blood be upon thee” (v. 10). He reminds us that our land is an inheritance from Him, because all peoples and nations have their places and the bounds of their habitation as a gift from God; they exist by His grace (Acts 17:26–27). God can at any time dispossess any nation, people, or race. Because of His overlordship, God does not tolerate the shedding of innocent blood: sooner or later, His judgment follows. Men and nations may believe that some people’s blood can be shed without consequences because they see them as insignificant and trifling, but not so the Lord. He is mindful of all injustices, great and small.
Failure to protect innocent blood means guilt: if innocent blood is shed, there will be blood-guiltiness upon a people. God requires that justice prevail, and, where it does not, in God’s time that people is judged and set aside. Obviously, this means that this law is as relevant as ever, and God requires us to obey it and to put it into practice.
Failure to keep this law is arrogance, in that it is an assertion that our legal system provides the full measure of justice. This law militates against a self-contained legal system that assumes that it dispenses full and complete justice. This is a prevalent sin of state.
From the standpoint of humanism, dissatisfaction with the existing system has led to such agencies as the ombudsman. These have had minor benefits but a major defect: they do not have a definition of justice apart from a humanistic code. What good they accomplish is a relic of a Christian morality. The Marquis de Sade was right: without God, justice is a myth. For Karl Marx, the law and its justice merely represented a class interest. Marx was right in seeing that, if God be denied, law and its justice will inevitably reflect nothing more than some special interest. There will then be a struggle for power, with the victor imposing his will on the losers.
Because of the survival of Biblical law in Western nations, there are remnants of belief in an absolute justice, in God’s law. This makes the problem of establishing a naked power state more difficult than in Cambodia, China, or Vietnam. At the same time, the Western world is marked by a vehement hostility to God’s law. It is rightly recognized that it is irreconcilable with humanism and its legal systems.
The cities of refuge were religious centers in that they were to be governed by God’s law in dealing with refugees. We are told that the congregation was to decide in each case. The cities of refuge were all Levitical cities (Num. 35; Josh. 20–21). This meant that God’s clerisy, in assembly, determined in each instance whether or not the refugee deserved the protection of the city.
In the context of our time, we have a growing tyranny because of our growing power states. These states have no regard for God’s law. They are increasingly evil.
In a Christian state, there should be regional assemblies of appeal to which men may go, or to which they can appeal for a restraining order against the state. At present, we see many, many illegal seizures of money and property. We have seen innocent people murdered by agents of the state. The fact that some of these people have been heretical or unbelieving makes no difference: under God, they are to be given justice.
This is the meaning of this law concerning the cities of refuge. A Christian society must not only govern by God’s law, but it must also provide sanctuary and refuge from its own human limitations.
The cities of refuge mean that justice has priority over the affairs of state. The justice system needs an escape valve, a check on its failings. God is not content with pastoral justice. He demands that men and nations work for full justice, “that innocent blood be not shed.”
The implications of this law are routinely bypassed because they challenge the humanistic premises of our fallen world. Human justice is fallible, but, even more, the justice system can be evil. If a society has only man’s justice system to rely on, it sooner or later deteriorates into tyranny and evil.
Man needs a city of refuge as against man and his systems. For centuries, all churches were cities of refuge; the refugee was tried in terms of God’s law, and agents of state could present their case before the court, as could the refugee and his witnesses. The court’s decision was binding upon the crown and the state. There is now no escape from the state’s legal system, the cost of which is prohibitive. Those who refuse to accept God’s law in time shut the doors on justice. The anti-theonomists pay a heavy price for rejecting the law of God.
Topics: Biblical Commentary, Biblical Law, Justice, Theology