In today’s Chronological Bible reading, we come across one of my favorite topics in the Old Testament: the cities of refuge. These were six cities in ancient Israel that were set apart as “safe havens” for people who committed murder or manslaughter. Something about the conditions set forward in Numbers 35:9-34 strikes me as meaningful for our lives as disciples of Jesus.
Here’s the process. If someone killed someone else, then the nearest male relative of the deceased was the “avenger of blood” – he was allowed to track down and kill the original killer to exact revenge and justice for his dead relative. After all, the ancient custom was “an eye for an eye.” The punishment had to fit the crime. (By the way, check out what Jesus said about this practice in Matthew 5:38-42. Would Jesus support the death penalty? That’s a topic for another time.)
Obviously, a killer would want to stay away from this “avenger of blood.” So six cities in Israel were set apart as “cities of refuge,” supposedly no more than 20 miles (or a good day’s run) away from any settled part of the Promised Land. The killer could flee to any of those towns for safety.
Once there, the killer told his or her story to the city elders, who then granted asylum until the elders from the deceased’s hometown arrive to extradite the killer (under protection) back to the deceased’s hometown. Then the case was heard and judgment was prescribed:
If the killer was found guilty, then he or she was released to the avenger of blood, who would exact revenge and retribution by killing the killer.
If the killer was found innocent, then he or she was escorted back to the city of refuge, where he or she had to stay until the death of the High Priest of Israel. After that, the killer went free, and the avenger of blood could no longer seek revenge for the death of his relative.
Notice that in either case, guilt or innocence, death is required for the remission of that sin!
And when the killer has been found innocent of premeditated murder, it takes the death of the High Priest to remove the killer’s guilt!
Does this sound familiar? Think of our situation today. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Yet in Jesus Christ, we have been declared innocent: this is the gift of forgiveness! It’s not that we have not sinned; instead, the punishment for our sins has been applied to someone else, namely, Jesus our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-15). The death of this One has absolved the guilt of many. Sin requires payment, and we can go free because of the death of our High Priest.
Friends, we have new life in Jesus Christ. Give thanks for that gift, and be mindful of the great sacrifice which Jesus made on our behalf, as we approach our annual remembrance of his death and resurrection.