Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a country that had no standing army, no police, and no full-time judiciary? Wanda and I recently visited one of the few countries in the Western Hemisphere that has no standing army, Costa Rica. We thought it would be an interesting place to visit because it was rated as one of the world’s most happy places with the smallest negative environmental footprints.
We noticed that they were able to spend the money they saved on the military on education and health care. Their education system seems to encourage multilingualism, entrepreneurism and ecological balance. Everyone we met seemed to be proud of their country’s democratic institutions and its fiercely independent history.
The Bible’s story centers around a nation which had an opportunity to shape its future without needing an army or even a police force. When the nation was first established upon leaving Egypt and entering the land of Canaan, Israel’s judiciary was comprised of priests who learned law from God’s own teaching, ably assisted by the wisest elders of each clan.
Crime scenes were studied by local leaders, witnesses were interviewed. Guilt was established and punishment fit the crime. Property crimes and injury were handled by restitution. Murder was dealt with by capital punishment at the hands of the nearest male family member, referred to as the “avenger of blood,” or by the community if such a relative was unavailable.
Nobody stayed in jail at community expense. No taxes were raised for police enforcement or military protection. God had promised to protect the nation from foreign enemies so long as they honoured and obeyed him. Of course, history has taught us that they failed to live up to this ideal, but that is a story for another time.
Today I would like to talk about a unique provision of that law. What do you do in this system if you have accidentally killed someone? You know that a hot-headed family member will be looking for you with vengeance on his mind. What do you do until you can convince the authorities (and the avenger) that you are innocent of murder? On the other hand, does the avenger get justice for the accidental killing of his relative?
God had an unusual way of dealing with that possibility, as he instructs Moses:
9 Then the Lord said to Moses: 10 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, 11 select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. 12 They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that anyone accused of murder may not die before they stand trial before the assembly. Numbers 35:9-12 | NIV
Even the murderer has the right to a fair trial, and the guilty party is put to death. But what happens if the verdict is accidental death? We read later starting in verse 22:
22 “ ‘But if without enmity someone suddenly pushes another or throws something at them unintentionally 23 or, without seeing them, drops on them a stone heavy enough to kill them, and they die, then since that other person was not an enemy and no harm was intended, 24 the assembly must judge between the accused and the avenger of blood according to these regulations. 25 The assembly must protect the one accused of murder from the avenger of blood and send the accused back to the city of refuge to which they fled. The accused must stay there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.26 “ ‘But if the accused ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which they fled 27 and the avenger of blood finds them outside the city, the avenger of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder. 28 The accused must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest; only after the death of the high priest may they return to their own property. Numbers 35:22-28 | NIV
It ended up being almost 40 years later that they actually entered the Promised land, so Moses reminds them about all of the laws given at Mt. Sinai, including this instruction about the cities of refuge:
4 This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. 5 For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. 6 Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. 7 This is why I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities. Deuteronomy 19:4-7 | NIV
These cities were set aside literally to protect the innocent from death at the hands of vengeful relatives. On the other hand, it was not necessarily a picnic to stay in the city until the death of the high priest. Remember that this was an agrarian society. Imagine if a farmer even today had to conduct all of his or her business from within Regina, without ever setting foot on the farm for 20 years. That’s just a random number, but Israel’s priests tended to have long lives, often more than 100 years if the numbers for Aaron and his ancestors are correct in the books of Chronicles. You could conceivably never see your farm again if the high priest is young.
That was probably a good incentive to do a good occupational health and safety evaluation of your job site. All in all, however, staying in that city sure beat the alternative.
The idea of refuge is important in the law God gave to Israel. Believe it or not, Israelites were required to provide refuge to a surprising element of society. Witness this from the book of Deuteronomy:
15 If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. 16 Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 | NIV
Imagine that! Even slaves who had run away from their masters had the right to live in one of their towns without fear of being returned to an abusive master.
On a larger scale, Israel was intended to be a nation of refuge for the oppressed and powerless. This was one way they were to reflect God’s image: as a refuge. The Psalms often describe God in terms of being a refuge, such as in Psalm 9:
9 The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. 10 Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. Psalms 9:9-10 | NIV
22 The Lord will rescue his servants; no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned. Psalms 34:22 | NIV
The city of refuge is a reflection of God’s character as a protector of the innocent and oppressed. Notice what else these Psalms say: the oppressed and innocent must first seek his refuge. A city of refuge does me no good if I don’t make the journey and seek refuge with the city elders. As the proverb says:
12 The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty. Proverbs 27:12 | NIV
The key to eternal safety is to actively take refuge in the only One who can grant it: Jesus Christ the Son of God. On the night he was betrayed he told his disciples about a place he was preparing form them:
1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.” John 14:1-4 | NIV
Eventually the disciples figured out what that reference to them knowing the way to that place meant: Jesus himself was the way. Taking refuge in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is the only way to remain safe forever, no matter what the circumstances may be in your life.
Is life hard? For many, the answer is, “yes.” Was it easy for other believers before us? Let’s read what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says about what their expectations and experiences of this life were:
35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Hebrews 11:35-40 | NIV
What on earth could have possessed these people to endure all of those things and yet remain faithful to God? And what does that have to do with us living now?
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:13-16 | NIV
When we seek shelter in Jesus Christ, we seek the very God who invented refuge. He is refuge personified. He founded the country and city we long for and will bring it with him when he returns. Speaking of seeking shelter in Jesus, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says,
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Hebrews 12:22-24 | NIV
The Apostle John, writing to a group of churches in Asia Minor, says,
12 The one who is victorious (who overcomes) I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. Revelation 3:12 | NIV
When Jesus declares us innocent (by shedding his blood to cover our sins) we remain safe in the refuge of his eternal city. Since he remains alive forever, we are safe with him forever. There is no going back to old the world or the old ways for us. We must stay within the walls of his city, figuratively speaking. The Apostle John saw a vision that has inspired every later generation of Christians concerning Christ’s city.
2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:1-4 | NIV
He goes on later in the vision to say,
22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Revelation 21:22-27 | NIV
John is not the first to have seen visions of the New Jerusalem, Christ’s city of our refuge. Here is a message Isaiah the prophet was inspired to write:
1 In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: We have a strong city; God makes salvation its walls and ramparts.2 Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith. 3 You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. 4 Trust in the Lord forever,for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal. Isaiah 26:1-4 | NIV
No matter what, trust in the Lord Jesus forever. His city is our City of Refuge.