Vol. 7, No. 5
~ Page 4 ~
Imagine that you live in Old Testament times. Imagine too that you and a good friend have been working together in the woods when suddenly a terrible accident occurs. That ax you've been swinging over the past several hours splinters apart, flinging its stone head at your friend's temple. His death is instantaneous. There was no premeditation in the event; it just happened. It was unintentional, but your friend is dead nonetheless.
So what do you do? You obviously can't dial 911 because phones aren't in existence. Neither can you simply wait around for emergency authorities to arrive on the scene because your life is now in jeopardy. You see, once news of your friend's untimely death reaches his family's ears, their goel (pronounced "go-L") or avenger of blood1 (Numbers 35:19) will be in hot pursuit. It is his duty to hunt you down and kill you (Deuteronomy 19:4-6). Yes, even though your friend's death was an accident, as long as you are "out in the open," the goel has the legal right to take your life. That means that either you run or die.
You run to any one of six special cities (e.g., Golan, Ramoth, Bezer, Kedesh, Shechem and Hebron, Josh. 20:7-8), which God designated as sanctuary (Exodus 21:12-13). Each of these cities is strategically located so that regardless of where you live in Canaan, you can flee no more than a day's journey and find respite therein.2
Once you arrive, you present an abbreviated version of your "case" before the elders of that particular city. Assuming there is prima fascia (i.e., at first glance) evidence for your innocence, you are permitted to enter the city for the short term. When the goel arrives, a more formal trial is held to determine your standing. If at the conclusion of the proceedings you are found guilty of murder, then you will be turned over to the goel for immediate execution. If, however, you are found innocent, then the goel will be sent home and you will be offered the long-term lodging and protection that only a city of refuge can avail. You must remain there until the death of the high priest (Numbers 25:35).
The reason you must abide in this particular city is because security is found only in those half dozen municipalities that God set apart. "I will appoint for you a place where he may flee" (Exodus 21:13b; cf. Joshua 20:1-2). The cities of refuge were divinely appointed. They weren't the result of the combined wisdom of Israelite elders who thought that it might be a good idea to create safe havens. God himself decreed that there should be places to which a fugitive could run and be protected from the avenger of blood. These are the only places where your safety is guaranteed. To run to any other city scattered around Canaan would be foolhardy, because it cannot offer any protection.
Like the cities of refuge, God has appointed a specific place for your spiritual safety today--it's called the church (Ephesians 1:22-23; 1:1, 3-7; 3:10-11). It is the only place of real deliverance from the pursuit of sin and its consequences. There are hundreds of religious entities (i.e., cities) to which you might flee to today, but only the one set up by God affords real security for your soul (cf. Hebrews 6:18; Psalm 46:1; Romans 8:1; Matthew 11:28).
Are you tired of running from the sins in your life? Are you sheltered within the walls of divine protection? I urge you to flee to the city of God. If the Judgment finds you outside of the refuge found only in Christ and his church, you will perish (Romans 6:23; Galatians 3:27). Run, dear friend, run!
1 Also known as a "kinsman redeemer."
2 Roads were built to these cities thus making it easier for a manslayer to get to them. (Deuteronomy 19:3). Extra-biblical sources also suggest that at every crossroad along the way, special signs were posted to help direct the fugitive.