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If you have read Deuteronomy, you may have read about the cities of refuge in the Bible. These cities of refuge were designated for to the Levite tribe in the Old Testament and provided asylum for perpetrators of accidental or unintentional manslaughter.
“cities of intaking” מקלט ערי
The Cities of Refuge also offered asylum to foreigners.
See below for a printable study guide on the cities of refuge in the Bible
Divinely appointed and subject to Mosaic Law, the cities of refuge offered offenders refuge and protection from retribution of the avenging family until their case went to trial.
What is the Origin of the Cities of Refuge in the Bible?
The cities of refuge in the Bible were part of the allocation of the Promised Land for the twelve tribes of Israel. One tribe, however, the Levites, were not given their own land. Instead, they were to be the Holy priests and the overseers of the tabernacle with all its rites and furnishings. Only the Levites could move and set up the tabernacle.
At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him.) – Deuteronomy 10:8-9
As the Levites were to have no allocated land like the other tribes in the land of milk and honey, Canaan, the Levites were to live in certain cities appointed to them for their use. Part of their inheritance consisted of forty-eight cities spread throughout the land.
The cities that you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities. All the cities that you give to the Levites shall be forty-eight, with their pasturelands. –
Of the forty-eight cities given to them, six were designated as cities of refuge. The cities were Kedesh, Shechem, Hebron, Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan.
So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland, from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh. –
The Mosaic Law commanded that anyone who committed a murder was to be put to death (Exodus 21:14). However, for accidental or unintentional deaths, the Lord set aside these cities of refuge where the slayer could flee for refuge (Exodus 21:13). He would be safe from the “avenger”—the family member responsible for avenging the victim’s death (Numbers 35:19), at least until the case went to trial.
But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. –
The Levites would judge to determine if the murderer acted intentionally or unintentionally. If he acted unintentionally, he would return to the city of refuge and live there safely until the death of the high priest who was in office at the time of the trial, at which point he could return to his home or town.
If the slayer left the city of refuge before the death of the high priest, however, the family avenger would have the right to kill him.
then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these rules. And the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the boundaries of his city of refuge to which he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the boundaries of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood. For he must remain in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest, but after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession. –
The idea behind the cities of refuge in the Bible with the Levites judging is most likely due to the idea that the Levites would be the most suitable and impartial judges, that their presence and counsels might calm or restrain the stormy passions of the blood avenger. By their consecration as priests, the Levites were mediators between the Israelites and God. As such, they would have been gifted to calmly mediate between the attacker and the victim’s family, ensuring that no further bloodshed would occur.
The Levites were the only tribe who had been appointed by God to serve Him as His priests.
The Definition of Murder in the Bible
In biblical law, an intentional murder is to be killed by the people or “state” (capital punishment). However, there is a biblical difference between manslaughter which is killing someone without malice, intention or forethought, and intentionally killing someone.
The “Avenger of blood” = go-el had-am = kinsman redeemer
A kinsman redeemer is the person who has legal right to fulfil an obligation. The most famous story in the Bible of a kinsman redeemer is Boaz who “avenged” Elimelech’s death when he married Ruth.
“This is the provision for the manslayer, who by fleeing there may save his life. If anyone kills his neighbor unintentionally without having hated him in the past— as when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live –
Names and Territories of Tribes and the Cities of Refuge
The names of the six cities of refuge and the tribal territories they were located in:
– Kadesh– in Naphtali
– Shechem– in West Manasseh
– Hebron– in Judah
– Golan– in East Manasseh
– Ramoth – Gilead in Gad
– Bezer– in Rueben
Where were the Cities of Refuge Located?
The six Cities of Refuge were distributed throughout the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south, along both sides of the Jordan River. Kadesh, Shechem, and Hebron were to the west of the Jordan River; Golan, Ramoth-Gilead, and Bezer were to the east of the Jordan River.
There are six cities where a person who has committed accidental murder may flee for safety. Seven in scripture is a number of perfection or completion. There are six cities here because they only protect the physical life and not the spiritual life.
The cities were strategically placed in the territories so that a slayer could easily reach one of the cities of refuge within a day or less of travel.
There were roads leading to the six cities to assist fugitives in reaching the cities of refuge. In addition, there were signs which read Miklat meaning “Refuge.”
How did the Cities of Refuge in the Bible Protect Fugitives?
In Joshua 20, God gave Joshua detailed instructions for the Israelites in regard to how the cities of refuge should function.
Joshua 20 is a short chapter and is entirely focused on the cities of refuge. It lays out the rules and expectations associated with a city of refuge, names the six cities of refuge, requires a trial before the community to decide the fate of a killer, mentions the role of the death of the high priest, and includes the “alien” or “sojourner” (gēr) among those who can seek refuge in the cities
When a killing took place where someone unintentionally killed someone, the perpetrator was to flee to one of these six Cities of Refuge. When they arrived, they were to stand in front of the gate and plead their case to the elders of the city, who were required to admit the fugitive inside their gates and offer them asylum.
If a person approached the gates of a city of refuge and demanded “blood justice” from an offender that was being protected inside, the elders were forbidden to surrender the perpetrator in question into the avenger’s hands.
The fugitive was allowed to live in the city of refuge until their case came to trial before the congregation. If the High Priest ruled in favor of the fugitive, he was allowed to live in the city of refuge until the death of the same High Priest who had acquitted him, died. After which, the offender was free to return to his own home.
If the offender left the protection of the city before the death of the High Priest, then the one who sought vengeance had the right to kill him without being guilty of murder.
But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the boundaries of his city of refuge to which he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the boundaries of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood. –
Is there an Equivalent of the Cities of Refuge in the Bible for Us Today?
The cities of refuge can be seen as a foreshadow of God’s plan for our salvation through Jesus Christ.
Through His death on the cross, Jesus offers us protection from eternal death and separation from God if we confess our sins and take refuge in Him.
so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. –
He is our High Priest who acquits us from the condemnation of the law.
The cities of refuge are a parallel with Jesus, in whom sinners can find refuge from the destroyer of our souls, Satan. Just as the guilty person sought refuge in the cities of refuge in the Bible, we can flee to Jesus for refuge from sin.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned. –
Our Refuge in Heaven
We also can rest knowing that we will have eternal refuge in heaven with the Lord our God.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son –
Click the image below for a printable PDF with questions for deeper study on cities of refuge in the Bible.
Here’s a short video on the cities of refuge in the Bible which you may enjoy:
You may enjoy one of these recommended resources:
This is book one in the series. I have read all four and they are excellent. Here are the other three books in the series:
Book 2: Shelter of the Most High
Book 3: Until the Mountains Fall
Book 4: Like Flames in the Night
Have you ever studied the cities of refuge in the Bible? What are your takeaways? How do the cities of refuge apply to your life today?
For a study on the doing everything for the glory of the Lord, see this post.
Because He Lives,