The institution of the cities of refuge, together with the rules prescribed for the guidance of those who sought an asylum within their walls, was an important provision, for securing justice as well as mercy.
What were the rules?
- If you did the unspeakable - you had 6 choices. Your job was to get to the nearest one. BTW I learned that the routes to these cities were always clear. There were no roadblocks in escaping to one of these cities.
- At the gate, the murderer stated his business. What brought you here? The attacker told their story to the elders of the city.
- The elders then welcomed the attacker into the city and gave him a place that he may dwell among them.
- If the attacker was pursued by an avenger (for e.g. the victim's family) the attacker was protected in the city. The avenger was not allowed in.
- Once the heat wore off, at some point the attacker stood before the congregation for judgment. If he left the City of Refuge he forfeited all protection.
- Once the High priest died, the attacker could return to his home city (with no fear of retribution) because the priest had anointed him since he was now a citizen of the city. The murderer was no longer viewed as a murderer. (Joshua 20:1-6) The High Priest bore the attacker's guilt; this was established in the Law and was recognized and acknowledged by the Israelites.
What struck me as I read about the cities of refuge was that God thought about everything; grace and mercy were built into the law. What we consider the worse crime - taking of another life, allowed for refuge and forgiveness. Imagine what this would look like today - our prisons would not be overcrowded, the prison pipeline would be severely reduced, the mindset around the crimes would be different, refuge, redemption, and forgiveness would have real meaning for all of us who aren't perfect. Instead, in our attempts to do right we have thrown away individuals for lesser than manslaughter. This is grievous.
Interestingly, the surprising thing when we look through the scriptures is that we can find no actual example recorded of someone actually using the cities of refuge. A city of refuge was available just in case an act of murder was committed unwittingly. We all needed a way out...just in case. The creation and designation of these cities were an act of grace. We all have a way out - God surely became that way out for all of us.
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Romans 3:23 [NLT]
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Romans 5:6 [NLT]
May His thinking permeate our thoughts so that we can exercise His wisdom in governing our lives and our land.