These cities have been in the news a lot recently in the contest between President Trump and those who oppose him. These two sides have conflicting viewpoints: one which seems to care nothing about the actual citizens of this once fair country, but values and protects those who flout her laws and sneak in, and the side which seeks the welfare of those citizens against the wishes of those who are here illegally. Now, I do understand at least some of the reasoning of those who sneak in, considering the mess that some of the other countries in this part of the world are in, but there are ways to enter this country legally. One of the reasons people sneak in is that we don’t have to build walls to keep people in, as some countries have done.
The purpose of this post, however, isn’t to comment on a bloated, bureaucratic and badly bent justice and/or immigration system, but to think about the concept of “justice” as it’s found in the Scripture, especially as it deals with “sanctuary cities”.
Yes, there really are “sanctuary cities” in the OT.
1. Their presence.
Where did the idea of “sanctuary cities” come from?
As Israel was preparing to enter the Promised Land for the first time, God gave instructions about these cities to Moses: And the LORD spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho,… Numbers 35:1, NKJV. See also Deuteronomy 19:1.
2. Their purpose.
First, we read in Numbers 35:15, These six cities shall be for refuge for the children of Israel, for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills a person accidentally may flee there, emphasis added.
These cities were given as a place of protection for those who unintentionally killed someone, as in the example given of men who were cutting down trees and an ax head slipped off its handle and killed one of the men. Even though the slaying was accidental and unpremeditated, there were still consequences. For more on this, see our post, “Bloodguilt,” from May 27, 2016.
In opposition to the “sanctuary cities” of our time, which seem meant to protect the guilty, the cities of refuge in the OT were designed to protect the innocent! There were no sprawling, expensive penitentiaries or jails in Israel; there was no provision for such a thing in the Mosaic Covenant. Instead of being protected and provided for, criminals were dealt with summarily, more often than not by a member of victim’s family. The sanctuary cities were provided for those who did not deserve to die.
Second, for those who were allowed to live in a city of refuge, there were certain restrictions. They couldn’t leave until the death of the high priest; his death was considered to have satisfied any requirement for justice. His death was imputed to them, as if they had died. If one of these citizens did leave before the time, and was slain in revenge, the one doing the killing did not suffer any consequence. The guilty were to be dealt with; the innocent were to be protected.
The reason for this? In Numbers 35:31, 32, God commanded Moses, “…you shall take no ransom for the life of a murdered who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the priest. So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it,” emphasis added.
According to this text, the blood of murder victims pollutes the land.
Now I freely admit that this OT provision was given to Israel, not to the U.S. At the same time, though we don’t live under the Old Testament law, there was a time in our history when such laws and provisions were considered. As that attention has waned, and we’ve been “freed” from such “puritanical” ideas, we have seen the resultant increase in crime and violence in our country. There is more to it than that, of course, but I wonder how polluted our country is in the sight of God, with our undue emphasis on “criminal rights” and the huge number of law-breakers who have been set free, many to repeat their crimes. In contrast to the mess we’ve developed protecting the “rights” of the criminal, the OT Law was concerned with the rights of the victim.
3. Placement in the community.
Ultimately, there would be six such cities, three on each side of the Jordan, and equally placed throughout the land. They were to be built so as to be seen from a long way away. In Deuteronomy 19:3, there were even to be roads built to these cities. I believe that I’ve read that these roads were to be kept in good repair and well-marked.
4. Permission to enter.
Though the Law was concerned with protecting the innocent, entrance into the city was not “automatic”. There were certain requirements.
Numbers 35:12 says, They shall be cities of refuge for you from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation in judgment.
Then, after some intervening instruction, v. 24 continues,
…then the congregation shall judge between manslayer and the avenger of blood according to these judgments. So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge where he had fled, and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil.
Note that it was “the congregation” which determined admittance to the city or denial. As we said, there was no expensive and bloated “judiciary” in Israel.
But what about those who were, indeed, guilty?
…You shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death, Numbers 35:31.
There were no lengthy “appeals,” no lawyers to gum up the works, no parole or probation, no “technicalities”. He was put to death. Immediately. Not after 20 or 30 or more years, where maybe he dies a natural death, after all. It didn’t even matter if the guilty person “showed remorse,” as is so often looked for in our society today. In our culture, for a criminal not to show remorse seems to be seen as almost worse than the crime(s) he committed.
Having said all that, and lest there be a thought that Israel wasn’t really to care about guilt or innocence, life or death, and though Israel didn’t have the legal apparatus that has developed in our country, there was still to be a thorough investigation:
One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established. If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, then both men in the controversy shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. And the judges make diligent inquiry, and, indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you. And those who remain shall hear and fear, and hereafter they shall not again commit such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity: life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Deuteronomy 19:15-21, emphasis added.
“Diligent inquiry” was to be made, and severe penalties were to be carried out for false witnessing and lying. The ninth commandment was to be enforced. (And a person can tell the truth and still be a “false witness”. That’s why God didn’t say, “Thou shalt not lie.”) Evil was to be put away, not coddled, not rehabilitated. The importance of this is seen in the fact that this idea of evil being “put away,” that is, actually gotten rid of and not just hidden away, occurs eleven (11) times in the Old Testament. There was to be no such thing as “rehabilitation.” Life was to be lived lawfully the first time, not the next time.
What does all this have do with us centuries later?
We don’t live under the Mosaic Law. As Gentiles, we never have. “The church” never has been under the Mosaic Law, in spite of those who have tried to put us under it. I do thank God for the Reformers – Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and all the others. Considering the times in which they lived, I’m surprised that they were able to recover as much of the truth of Scripture as they did. At the same time, I wish they would have returned to the original church fathers in the New Testament, and not just stopped with Origen and other “church fathers” a couple of centuries later.
Having said that, we do live under the Moral Law. What’s the difference? The Mosaic Law is the Moral Law given to a specific set of circumstances and people, namely to the nation of Israel. It was to be their constitution and bylaws, as it were, as they settled into the land God promised their fathers. This does not mean that we may live as we wish without fear of consequences, both now and in eternity. We still cannot murder or commit adultery. Paul taught that God put the Moral Law, the concept of “right and wrong,” in the hearts and minds of every single person who ever lived, Romans 2:14-16. This concept may not necessarily agree with the Scriptural teachings on such, but it is still there. None of us ever lives up even to that imperfect understanding of right and wrong, let alone to the perfect revelation of it in the Word of God. Because of that failure, each of us is guilty in the sight of God. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Romans 3:23. Each of us, therefore, is already under the sentence of death, Romans 6:23.
Is there, then, no hope for us? We’re all guilty. We all deserve to die, both now and eternally in a state of separation from God, in hell, which is the “second death,” Revelation 20:11-15, especially v. 14.
There are no longer any “cities of refuge.” Even though some of the cities may still exist in Israel, their function in that regard has ceased.
There is, however, a place of refuge.
Hebrews 6:17, 18 refers to such a place and says that …God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.
There is no longer a city of refuge; there is, however, still a place of refuge.
This place is found in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. His life prepared the righteousness we need to stand in the presence of God, and His death paid for the sins of all those who come to Him by faith. He is the place of refuge. He alone. Further, the OT city of refuge could do nothing about the sinfulness of its inhabitants, innocent thought they might be in a particular instance. The Lord Jesus came not only to pay the penalty for sin; He came to take care of sin itself. The angel told Joseph, “He shall save His people from their sin, Matthew, Matthew 1:21. Ultimately, this refers to the nation of Israel. For the certainty of this, read Ezekiel 37, though the promise to Israel continues through the end of the book. Only by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus does that promise extend to Gentiles in, and through, the “church”. And imperfect as we in the church may still be in this life, He has promised us that there is coming a time when we shall be like Him, for [they] shall see Him as He is, 1 John 3:2. I long for that time. To be able to serve and honor God as He deserves!
“Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” Revelation 22:20.
Oh, listen, do you know this place of refuge? Have your sins been taken care of? Is the Lord Jesus your hope of heaven, or are you trusting something you have done? We live in troubled times. They may get worse, they may get better. But they will come to an end, and we will stand before the God Who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. People may belittle and despise and dispute the things of God now, but then….
…there will be no doubt! But it will be too late!
Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation, 2 Corinthians 6:2, emphasis added.
Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, Acts 16:31.