Designating Cities of Refuge
“Then the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Say to the people of Israel, “Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood” ’ ” (vv. 1–3).- Joshua 20
Law and grace are utterly opposed to each other as means of salvation. We cannot obey the law of God perfectly, so we cannot be justified—declared righteous before God—by keeping the law (Rom. 3:20). Grace—God’s free gift—is grace only if salvation is based not on our keeping the law but on Christ (11:6; 2 Cor. 5:21).
Yet, though law and grace are mutually exclusive when it comes to receiving salvation, there is graciousness in the law. For example, the law is a gift of God’s grace in that God gave the law to show us our need of grace (Gal. 3:15–29). The law also shows its gracious character in the protections it offers. Consider the way the law protects those who kill another human being by accident. In cases where killing is not done with intent—cases that we might call manslaughter—the killer is afforded the chance to flee to a city of refuge where he will enjoy protection. The “avenger of blood”—a close relative who was tasked with punishing the killer—could not lawfully kill the person guilty of manslaughter as long as the killing was found to be unintentional and the killer remained in a city of refuge (Num. 35:9–34).
Joshua 20 tells us how Joshua designated the cities of refuge in Israel in keeping with the provisions of the law. Six cities are named, three on the west side of the Jordan River and three on the east side. No place in the land of Israel was more than one day’s journey from at least one of these cities, so God graciously provided ample opportunity for preserving the life of the one who killed without intent.
But the grace evident in this provision was not at the expense of justice. A person would not be admitted to the city merely by claiming that he was guilty of manslaughter. First, the elders gave the claimant an initial hearing to determine whether there was good evidence that he was guilty of manslaughter and not murder. Only then was the person admitted into the city of refuge (Josh. 20:4). He would then enjoy protection from the avenger of blood until a formal trial before the congregation. If he was found guilty only of manslaughter, his protection continued, and he had to live in the city until the high priest died (vv. 5–6). Death was still required to pay for the killing of the innocent person, for manslaughter is a form of killing, and God requires the lifeblood of killers (Gen. 9:6). But as the killing is unintentional in manslaughter, grace was shown to the killer. The high priest’s death was substituted, which points finally to Jesus, the perfect High Priest, who died for all the sins of His people (Heb. 2:17).
God showed grace without compromising the value of human life when He provided the cities of refuge for those who committed manslaughter. John Calvin comments that the “temporary exile [of the one guilty of manslaughter] clearly showed how precious human blood is in the sight of God.” When we do not support appropriate penalties for the taking of human life, we show disdain for other people and for the Lord in whose image we are made.
Passages for Further Study