Joshua 20: Cities of refuge

Joshua 20 establishes a policy that seems foreign to me: cities of refuge for people who unintentionally killed a neighbor. It just seems strange to me that someone would need to seek refuge for an accident, but in Semitic cultures such as ancient Israel, it was common practice that, if someone was killed, a family member would be expected to avenge his blood upon the person responsible, even if the death was an accident. My sense of justice screams, “It was an accident!” even if I can appreciate the pain and anguish caused by the death of a loved one.

At any rate, I guess that’s part and parcel of life. Cultural differences are to be expected here and there. But God’s sense of justice apparently agreed with me, so He established in this chapter a series of six “cities of refuge” spread across the promise land. These cities, already set aside for the priests to live in since their tribe, Levi, was to be given no inheritance of its own, were places where people could flee in the event of an accidental death and expect to receive a place to live and protection from the avenger of blood.

On the surface of it, the cities of refuge seem to be an almost trivial thing, and I must admit that every time I’ve read this chapter in the past, I’ve pretty much just skimmed over it. But today, as I read it again, two things strike me.

The first is that, before a person was admitted into the city of refuge and afforded its protection, “he [was] to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state his case before the elders of that city.” These elders formed, essentially, the city council, and it was their job to listen to the man’s case and decide whether or not the death was actually an accident and thus whether or not the man should be afforded the city’s refuge. In other words, even in these cities of refuge, justice was paramount.

How often do we forget that one of God’s central characteristics is His justice? We say that a loving God wouldn’t punish people. A merciful God wouldn’t allow death or suffering. A compassionate God wouldn’t… And the list goes on and on. But while God is loving, merciful, compassionate, and more, He is also just. His justice isn’t just overridden by those other facets. In fact, as I read in a recent article by Tim Keller, the truth is that, if we neglect the reality of God’s justice, we actually gut the meaning of more popular concepts such as love and grace and negate the need for things like faith.

Without justice, verses like Ephesians 2:8-9 would be meaningless. I mean, from what would we need to be saved if there were not drastic and eternal consequences for sin? What is the purpose of grace if there’s nothing wrong with us to make it the “unmerited favor” the dictionary defines it to be? And why would Jesus – the Son of God – needed to suffer, die on a cross and rise again so that we could choose to have faith in Him if there was no need?

No, justice is an essential component of God which we must not ignore. So it’s critical that, when someone showed up at the gate of these cities of refuge, the elders there were called upon to listen to the case, decide if there was evidence enough to believe the death had been inadvertent or accidental, and then act justly in response.

And the second thing that strikes me about this chapter is the time that the subject was to remain in the city of refuge. In vs 6, we read, “He is to stay in that city until he has stood trial before the assembly.” That sounds reasonable. The elders of the city of refuge were not to make the final verdict. That was reserved for an actual, fair trial. But then we read, “and until the death of the high priest who is serving at that time.” In other words, even if the official verdict of the assembly was that the subject was innocent, he was still expected to live in the city of refuge until the current high priest died. My question today is, “Why?” Why did an innocent man have to live in a city of refuge until the high priest died? I simply don’t get it.

So I guess I’m left with a question today. I don’t understand what’s going on. It’s a challenge, and I will be researching it as time allows over the next few days. If you have thoughts, comments, or even a definitive answer, leave a comment below.

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