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Cities Of Refuge And The Levites' Portion


God's instruction concerning cities of refuge was no afterthought. It was given even before Moses had received the two tables of the law on Sinai, and was enlarged and repeated long before the land began to be conquered (Ex. 21:12,13; Num. 35:9-34; Deut. 4:4043; 19:1-13). These cities were to be established as part of the administration of a people for God's own possession and the direction concerning them was part and parcel of the statutes and commandments of the Lord basic to such a grand calling. As such, there are in that instruction counterparts appr6priate to a called out and called together people for God in our own dispensation.

These cities and their teaching may of course be viewed as containing excellent illustrations of certain aspects of the grace of God to the sinner. Indeed, His grace to the sinner far exceeds the purpose of the cities of refuge, for it offers asylum to the guilty, something those cities could never do. However, our attention will concentrate on the view of those six cities as illustrations of God's provision for righteous judgement and justice among His people.

In both context and principle, the subject of the six cities is linked with an additional forty4wo cities which were also given to the priests and Levites both as part of divine care for those wholly dedicated to spiritual service, and provision of a hands-on association between the exponents of the law of God and those who were to receive it. Because of Levi's wickedness, his father, Jacob, had foretold the scattering of his tribe in Israel away back in Genesis 49:7, but the goodness of God and the obedience of Levi in Exodus 32:26 overruled in this scattering being for the blessing both of the tribe and all the people.


Four times in the book of Joshua the Holy Spirit adds special emphasis to matters discussed by introducing them with the words:

"The LORD spoke (or said) to Joshua "(1:1;4:1;4:15;20:1)

The commission of Joshua, the setting up of the stones of witness, the removal of the ark from Jordan, and the instruction about cities of refuge have their importance underscored in this way. Whatever this meant to Israel, it becomes significant to us today as the teaching of these matters is applied to the present people of God.

It was never the purpose of God to hide sin, nor to make light of even the appearance of sin. There must be atonement made even for an unsolved murder, and local elders must be identified with a protestation of innocence as they washed their hands over the body of a heifer whose neck they had broken over a flowing stream in a valley in the murder area (Deut. 21:1-8). A cleansing process was arranged, again through the sacrifice of a heifer, for a person who of necessity or involuntarily came in contact with a dead body or a grave. Association with death in any way was a defiling thing, and both the people and their land were defiled through the shedding of human blood. The intentional murderer must die. The accidental slayer, because there was neither hatred nor forethought involved in his action, was provided with a city of refuge. But even clear-cut cases of accidental death must come to trial before the elders of the slayer's own city.

The seriousness of bringing even accidental harm to another is demonstrated in that the slayer's own city was out of bounds unless this unwitting killer happened to outlive the high priest. From the date of his exoneration as a murderer, his freedom was limited by the walls of the city of refuge to which he had fled. No ransom could change his position, nor could money buy life for the man convicted of murder. The shedding of blood polluted the land, and this could not be condoned, for God dwelled in the land. No one must be condemned on the testimony of one person. Resident aliens, occasional travellers and citizens of whatever tribe were to be treated alike. God's justice is the same for all (Num. 15:15).

These standards for God's Old Testament people have their lessons for the present for a people gathered together in grace. Then as now things become wrong or unclean because the Word of God so designates them in His sight, even in the absence of personal guilt. Old Testament principles and occurrences are recorded for our instruction that through perseverance and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

It would seem from Deuteronomy 19:11-12 that the elders of a man's own city were responsible to deal with the offender's case. He would of course have stated his case to the elders of the city of refuge to which he had fled (Josh. 20:4): they would have granted asylum if there seemed to be a prima facie case for manslaughter rather than murder. In due course there would follow a hearing "before the congregation for judgement" (20:6), presumably in the man's

home city. If the verdict was manslaughter the congregation would send him back to the city of refuge to which he had fled (Num. 35:24,25). If the verdict was murder the elders of his own city had the right to extradite him from the city of refuge and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood (Deut. 19:12). Elders in both cities had their divinely given spheres of government and judgement. Yet they were responsible to cooperate in harmony with each other. They formed part of one national elderhood.

In our own day also God has by His Spirit appointed elders to care for His flock (Acts 20:28). Paul writes to the Thessalonian church that they should appreciate men called to elderhood among them, and instructs these men also as to their care in guiding the flock of God:

Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men. See that no one repays another with evil... examine everything carefully... abstain from every form of evil (1 Thes. 5:12-22).

The clearly written criteria of Scripture, whether then or now, provide the guidance for judgement. The elderhood is one throughout all the churches of God, and in matters of judgement there must still be cooperation and unity. If a brother is excommunicated from a church of God for wrong-doing, that judgement is upheld by all other churches of God throughout the Fellowship of churches. As sin in Israel polluted God's dwelling place, eventually occasioning His leaving the house (Jer. 22:5; Mat. 23:38), 50 unjudged and uncorrected sin in our own day must threaten the removal of His presence from His people (Rev. 2:5; 3:16). Care to assure accuracy of testimony then and now is provided in the multiplicity of witnesses (Num. 35.30, Mat. 18.16, 2 Cor. 13.1).


To the six cities of refuge were added another forty-two cities (Num. 35:6), and all forty-eight were to be given to the tribe of Levi:

As for the cities which you shall give from the possession of the sons of Israel, you shall take more from the larger and you shall take less from the smaller; each shall give some of his cities to the Levites in proportion to his possession which he inherits (Num. 35:8).

This principle of giving is variously restated in the New Testament as a divine principle affecting God's care for those whom He has called to full-time service and for other purposes:

let each one of you put aside... as he may prosper (1 Cor. 16:2), and

... it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what

he does not have (2 Cor. 8:12).

Under the Law of Moses proportional giving was never just an option, but it is possible and laudable to exceed Old Testament requirements in our own giving (Mark 12:43; 2 Cor. 8:24). Noble Caleb demonstrates the attitude.

Hebron had been both a promise and a long-standing dream to him, and when opportunity was finally given he claimed the area with his sword, in spite of giants and his own great age. Then much of that hard-earned precious territory he willingly gave back to God to be a city for the Levites and a city of refuge (Josh. 14:7-13; 21:11-13). Its proximity to the temple and its great value made it a suitable city for Aaron's sons, the priests, who served in the courts of the Lord.

The tribe of Levi was without the inheritance that other tribes obtained, but the Lord who was their inheritance provided for their needs. No agricultural land was given to them, but pasture land surrounding their forty-eight cities was granted, perhaps a reminder both of the life which Israel had lived in the wilderness and of the nature of the shepherd care they must exercise as they moved among God's people teaching the doctrine of the Lord. Their basic income was the tithe of the nation (Num. 18:20). The parallel is that those who proclaim the gospel get their living from it (1 Cor. 9:7-14). The Levites, in turn, gave their tithe to the Lord for the priests (Num. 18:28). These both might raise their own animals for meat and for sacrifice.

The accommodation of the cities did not belong to Levi exclusively, but they shared with others of the tribes in which the cities were found, and with the alien and traveller, and with the fleer to refuge. "Among which the Spirit of God has made you overseers, to shepherd..." (Acts 20:28). As refuge was ever available, so also was the teaching of God to be near and available to all who would receive it. There was to be no partiality in this instruction, as Malachi 2:9 clearly shows. Yet the people being taught shared in the responsibility also:

For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts (Mat. 2:7).

God looked forward from Sinai to a day when Israel, beyond its wilderness wanderings would be at peace in the land of His promise. But further, He looked forward to our own day, granting in these instructions to Israel suitable teaching and illustration, for He dwells among a people now as then, and the basis of justice is God Himself, and the basis of His provision, His own beneficent character.