It is interesting to me that during such archaic times, God specifically laid out some structure for governance and justice. Chapter 35 describes the instructions God gave Moses for dividing out the inheritance of the Promised Land to the tribes. And in the midst of this, God explains His plans for cities of refuge. Now, I love the notes in my Study Bible, and I love the historical background. I have a high value for historical context, and enjoy history in general. But there are times that I feel like we short change some of the spiritual significance of things because the historical significance overshadows. And I feel like this passage can easily be in that category. The notes in my study Bible point out that the system of cities of refuge ensure a trial and not immediate vengeance, and also that this passage shows a development of a more sophisticated justice system and a movement away from the archaic one. Both are practically true. But I think there are some deeper spiritual lessons here that we might miss. This passage has deep undertones of the Gospel. I hope it sheds new light, as it has for me.
1. God has a place for everyone in His family. Now, to be clear- this is not universalist. God has a clear order set up for His family that must be followed. There are not multiple ways to join God’s family, but He accepts all kinds of people into it. And this passage is specifically talking about people accused, or guilty, of murder or manslaughter. There are many other examples in the Bible that back up the idea that you can have a terrible past, but still be radically transformed by God and join His family. Paul is one of the easiest examples to see this in. But long before then, there are undertones of the same idea in this chapter. The first thing that is significant to me is that God did not instruct Moses to kick out those in this boat. Yes, there is a piece of it that is allowing those responsible to face justice. But I the same way, God could have instructed Moses to build the cities of refuge outside the Promised Land, but He didn’t. He didn’t make the Promised Land a place where only seemingly perfect people got to live.
2. God has a heart for the accused. What’s more amazing to me than where God sent the accused to live, was with who He sent them to live. God sent the messiest people to live with the holiest. While He set apart the Levites and asked them to live set apart lives, He put them in charge of the cities of refuge. He didn’t isolate His holiest of children, but designed His system where the holiest were responsible for the ones that were too sinful to live with the rest of His people. I’m sure this system was as much for the Israelites as it was for the accused. But I can’t imagine the rejection that one would feel going to live in a city of refuge. The shame… The fear… The grief… The brokenness. And it literally almost brings me to tears to think that in the midst of setting up a justice system for murderers, that the Lord designed it so the world’s worst were sent to live with His holiest. Do you remember what we’ve already learned about the Levites? They could touch the things of the temple that others would drop dead if they even saw them. These. These were the ones whose cities they went to live. Sounds a lot like Jesus, huh? He was constantly ruffling the feathers of the religious around Him because He hung with those deemed too messy to associate with.
3. God works on a very different system. The Promised Land was literally an inheritance for God’s children. It is what He gave His children for being His children. The other 11 tribes got portions of land, and then each tribe gave a portion to the Levites to have towns. Practically, this made it so the Levites were spread all over, not just in one location. And it was out of these towns that the cities of refuge came. Those cities of accused murderers. These cities were part of the Levites inheritance! They inherited the care of the messiest outcasts. Part of their inheritance was these broken people. Now we have seen multiple times the correlation between the roles and responsibilities of the OT Levites to believers today. So if we play a modern levitical role, than part of our inheritance is also those broken, outcast and accused. They are part of the inheritance that God has left us to care for and steward.