Cities of Refuge

Joshua 20

Jerry A Collins




*               Why did God establish cities of refuge?

*               What was the due process for the one taking refuge?

*               What is the relation of these cities to our lives today?


In several countries the practice of honor killings and blood feuds is documented today. In Pakistan, Jordan and Palestine, honor killing of women is especially prominent. Women in these and about 15 other countries are killed for immoral behavior including refusal of arranged marriages, demanding divorce, flirting, receiving phone calls from men, failing to even serve a meal on time. Often these deaths are recorded as suicide or accidental. Women attacked but not killed have been left maimed for life scarred by acid, mutilated, slashed and disfigured. Family members are called on to preserve or cleanse the family name by performing such acts. Another form of revenge is blood feuds. I will be traveling to Albania where this phenomena has surged since fall of communism in 1991. In this case it is predominantly men who are killed because of perceived violations of the code of honor. Honor is cleansed by killing a male member of the family of the original offender. Just between 1992-1996 5000 murders linked to vendettas. Today tens of thousands of men live in fear and seclusion in their homes with thousands of their children in hiding as possible targets. God deals with the issue of revenge killing as the people settle into the land of Israel in Joshua 20. Actually, this topic was addressed on 3 other occasions by God. (1) Ex 21:12-13 after announcing the 10 commandments, one of the first ordinances God gave was the future establishment of cities of refuge. (2) In Numbers 35:6-34 that the land should not be polluted or defiled by premeditated murder or revenge killings. So murder is a violation ultimately of God. (3) In Deut 19:1-14 cities of refuge established to protect one who unintentionally killed someone until due process established the innocence or guilt. If guilt then capital punishment. If innocent then city of refuge protected him. God understands the law of the jungle and He enacts provisions to keep it in check. After Adam and Eve disobeyed we read of the next sinthe murder of Abel by brother Cain in jealous rage. For 40 yrs of wandering and 7 more in conquest anytime someone accidentally killed someone he could seek refuge at the altar in the Tabernacle (Ex 21:12-14). This worked well since Tab always located in center of encampment and could immediately go there for protection. Any Israelite could flee there an find refuge. Once tribes settled in the land, they needed new places of refuge scattered among them. Six cities are chosen, places of compassion, where anyone who unintentionally killed someone could flee.


God established the course for judicial proceedings designed to safeguard the legal rights of an individual in His nation. He did this by designating these refuge cities.

1-3 God makes clear distinction between premeditated murder and accidental manslaughter. God is impressing upon his people the sanctity of human life. This person was to flee to the nearest city of refuge without delay. Jewish tradition says all roads leading to these cities were built like highways not footpaths and were to be kept in excellent condition with well marked signposts REFUGE! REFUGE! Runners were also stationed to guide the fugitives as they fled for their lives from any blood avengers.

4-6 Having arrived at the gate the person would (1) Present his case to the elders of that city vs 4. (2) A provisional decision then made to grant asylum till a trial held vs 4. (3) The blood avenger is then informed after enquiry that the death was by accident or a fit of passion and not premeditated so he is not delivered up to the avenger vs 5. (4) Proven innocent he then lives in that city until the death of the high priest. That could be many years. So involuntary manslaughter was something you wanted to carefully avoid. Basically he is forfeiting his freedom in order to save his life. The death of the High priest probably served as a statute of limitations which would end the fugitives exile. (5) He could then return home to his village or community a free man. The cities of refuge did not set aside capital punishment when someone was guilty of murder, rather cities of refuge were Gods way of allowing for both justice and mercy to prevail. Only the innocent were to be protected, not the guilty. Premeditated sin is worse than other sin because it involves our intention. It assumes we know what is sin--via the OT or Law of Moses, or in the NT via conviction of the HS--and do it anyway. But people who unknowingly sin or accused of something they claim to be innocent of should be informed about it not punished or disciplined. All people accused of anything who claim to be innocent should be assumed to be innocent until proven guilty vs 6.


God is not a vigilante and neither should be his followers. Tyranny is the abuse of the justice God commands His people to seek. The cities of refuge prevented this abuse

(1) By their strategic location. Three of the cities were outside the border of the land and three within the borders. All six were within the territory occupied by the people. So there was easy access for anybody seeking refuge. Israel is roughly the size of the State of Maryland so noone was ever far away from one of these cities.

(2) By their guaranteed safety for the one fleeing there. All the passages make it very clear that first the tabernacle altar and then later the cities of refuge were the only places an offender could flee to. There was no other place of guaranteed safety. If they ever went outside of the city once they got there, the city could do nothing to protect them from the avenger of blood looking for them to take their lives. But once they were there, their safety was guaranteed if they were proven innocent of a premeditated killing. This supported justice in decisions made.

(3) By their provision for anyone needing protection. Everyone was welcome in these cities of refuge. The same protection and provision and process was available to anyone needing it. So if someone working in his field and his ax head flies off the handle striking and killing his neighbor; or in fit of passion someone fights with his neighbor who unintentionally falls hits his head on a rock and dies (Deut 19:4-6) he is protected from an avengers emotional passionate anger who might not want to go to all of the trouble to find out the facts. The cities avoided the indiscriminate killing of someone not guilty of a capital crime. And that protection extended to anyone in need of it.

(1) We have instant access to God our refuge Psa 46:1. God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Have you ever needed to flee to Him? You have known the instant access we have to him for protection in desperate need. We invite others to this refuge in faith.

(2) In Christ is the only guarantee of spiritual and personal refuge available. Some being baptized today as testimony they have found that guaranteed place of refuge (Heb 10:28-29) the only hope offered to us. There is no guarantee for refuge and safety in any other name or religion or faith or performance. Only In Christ.

(3) Jesus offer of salvation and spiritual refuge is available to anyone and open to everybody. Jesus died for you, your sin. Rom 10: 12-13 for there is no distinctionfor everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. No matter your ethnic background, the kind of life you have lived to date. You are invited to come.