Reflections on Scripture

by Wayne Bandy

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Scripture Passage

      Joshua - Chapter 20 (Contemporary English Version)
    1. One day the LORD told Joshua:
    2. When Moses was still alive, I had him tell the Israelites about the Safe Towns. Now you tell them that it is time to set up these towns.
    3. If a person accidentally kills someone and the victim's relatives say it was murder, they might try to take revenge. Anyone accused of murder can run to one of the Safe Towns and be safe from the victim's relatives. The one needing protection will stand at the entrance to the town gate and explain to the town leaders what happened. Then the leaders will bring that person in and provide a place to live in their town.
    4. (SEE 20:3)
    5. One of the victim's relatives might come to the town, looking for revenge. But the town leaders must not simply hand over the person accused of murder. After all, the accused and the victim had been neighbors, not enemies.
    6. The citizens of that Safe Town must come together and hold a trial. They may decide that the victim was killed accidentally and that the accused is not guilty of murder. Everyone found not guilty must still live in the Safe Town until the high priest dies. Then they can go back to their own towns and their homes that they had to leave behind.
    7. The Israelites decided that the following three towns west of the Jordan River would be Safe Towns: Kedesh in Galilee in Naphtali's hill country, Shechem in Ephraim's hill country, and Kiriath-Arba in Judah's hill country. Kiriath-Arba is now called Hebron.
    8. The Israelites had already decided on the following three towns east of the Jordan River: Bezer in the desert flatlands of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead, which was a town that belonged to Gad, and Golan in Bashan, which belonged to Manasseh.
    9. These Safe Towns were set up, so that if Israelites or even foreigners who lived in Israel accidentally killed someone, they could run to one of these towns. There they would be safe until a trial could be held, even if one of the victim's relatives came looking for revenge.

Joshua - Chapter 20

Entered: March 28, 2007
In this chapter, the cities of refuge are designated. West of the Jordan Kedesh, Shechem, and Kiriath-arba were designated as cities of refuge, and on the east side it was Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan.

Entered: February 19, 2013

A provision of God's covenant with Israel was the designation of cities of refuge. They were a safe haven for those who accidentally killed someone. It was another point at which God's covenant broke with common tradition of the time. The exercise of vengeance at the killing of a relative was widespread at this time. Along with it was the rite of the vendetta in which this vengeance against one who had killed a relative was passed down from one generation to another. It gave rise to increasing violence and killing of innocent people.

God established a means of breaking this practice among His people through the cities of refuge. Once each tribe had received its allotment of land God reminded them to select these cities of refuge. Six were selected with three on the west of the Jordan and three on the east. If a person accidentally killed someone they were to immediately flee to the closest city of refuge for protection from the avenger of blood who was the closest relative of the one who had died and given responsibility to avenge the death. Arriving at one of these cities, the refugee could plead their case with the elders of the city and receive asylum. But receiving asylum guaranteed only temporary protection until a trial could be held to determine if the killing was truly accidental or was actually premediated murder. If it was murder a death sentence would be given. 

Though the cities of refuge provided asylum for those who killed someone accidentally it also became their prison. Should they go outside the city the avenger of blood was free to take his vengence, evidently without repercussion. So life was drastically changed for the one who accidentally killed another. Once the current high priest died the person was free to return to his home, but this might not happen for the remainder of his life.

The cities of refuge impressed upon Israel the sanctity of human life. Avengers of blood were no longer free to take the life of another without due process. In addition, the life of one who killed another, even though accidentally, did not remain unaltered. The taking of a life was costly.