City of Refuge

City of RefugeDoctrine of the City of Refuge

City” is the Noun IR, עִיר‎ in the Hebrew, and “refuge,” is the Noun MIQLAT, מִקְלָט that means, “refuge or asylum.” This word is only used for the appointed Cities of Refuge.

In cases amounting to unintentional taking of human life, it led to the appointment of six cities of refuge, Deut 4:42f, Joshua 20:1-9; 21:13, 21, 27, 32, 38; 1 Chron 6:57, 67, where the RATSACH or manslayer could “flee” to, so that he might be preserved from retributive assassination by the kinsman-redeemer, (“blood avenger”), or nearest male relative of the deceased. The Hebrew Verb used in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua for the flight of the manslayer to the City of Refuge is NUS, נוּס‎ that means, “to flee.”

Of the six cities, three were located on each side of the Jordan, and were set apart and placed in the hands of the Levites. They served as places of asylum for those that might shed blood unintentionally.

6 cities of refugeHere is a map of the six Cities of Refuge. They were arranged in such a manner that a person could reach one of them in usually a half day’s travel, but within a full day at most.

Grieving and angry relatives of the dead victim would tend to assume deliberate intent on the part of the manslayer and want to take revenge, even though the tragedy was completely accidental. Hence, Numbers 35, provides the measure of fairness and mercy by requiring a court hearing at the city where the fugitive had taken refuge. To prevent such a thing where possible, and to provide for a right administration of justice, these cities were instituted, and open highways were to be maintained leading to them, so that the manslayer would have an unobstructed course to the city gate.

If the evidence presented before the elders indicated no malicious intent, the would-be avenger was forbidden to touch him as long as he kept living in his city of refuge until the death of the current high priest serving at the Tabernacle (or Temple). This protected the refugee from assassination by some member of the clan of the deceased who might not be content with the finding of the trial court, and who might therefore take the law into his own hands to inflict revenge. The provision regarding the death of the current high priest has symbolic connection with the future death of the divine High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice atoned for all the sins of all mankind, no matter how guilty they had been.

A similar right of refuge seems to have been recognized in Israel when one would flee to the Tabernacle or temple and hold on to the horns of the altar for refuge, 1 Kings 1:50; 2:28.

Although this was a civil institution designed to protect those not guilty of death, as we have seen so many times when looking at the OT, we see typology in regards to the spiritual implications for us today. When thinking about the “Cities of Refuge,” we immediately think of taking refuge in Christ. In fact, the OT is filled with passages that call Jesus Christ our refuge.  There are well over 50 passages, many in Psalms of David.

As David said in Psa 143:9, “Deliver me, O LORD, from my enemies; I take refuge in You.”

Here “refuge” is the Verb KASH that means, “to cover, conceal, or hide.” Jesus Christ covers our sins regarding their just due payment. He conceals them from public view, and hides them for all of eternity. They are forgiven and forgotten.

In addition, 2 Sam 22:3, was written by David when he was being hunted by King Saul who intended to take his life.

2 Sam 22:3, “My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge; my savior, You save me from violence.”

Here we have two words for “refuge.” First we have, CHASAH, that means, “to seek refuge, to take shelter, to trust.” Then we have, MANOS that means, “refuge or place of escape.” This reminds us of Psa 32:7.

Psa 32:7, “You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.”

Then in Isa 25:4, it reads, “For You have been a defense for the helpless, A defense for the needy in his distress, A refuge, (MACHASEH, “refuge, shelter”), from the storm, a shade from the heat; For the breath of the ruthless Is like a rain storm against a wall.” Cf. Isa 4:6; 32:2.

YHWH, “the Lord,” is a Refuge, (MACHASEH), for the righteous in a number of senses.

  1. Those who dwell in his protective shadow are safe from all the enemies of the righteous, Psa 91:2.
  2. There is no fear in the time of Divine wrath, Isa 4:6; Joel 3:16.
  3. The oppressed seek his shelter and protection, Psa 14:6; Isa 25:4; Jer 17:17.
  4. Anyone who builds a refuge on anything aside from YHWH is in trouble, as in the case of the elite of the northern kingdom of Israel, who built their refuge in lies, a shelter which YHWH would, in His righteous wrath, utterly destroy, Isa 28:15ff.
  5. In contrast, we are reminded, “In the fear of the Lord there is strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge,” Prov 14:26.

Psa 34:22, was written by David after he had fled from King Saul to a Philistine city, then faked madness to avoid being held accountable before the Philistine king, whose advisors wanted David dead due to his victories against them in the past.

Psa 34:22, “The Lord redeems the soul of His servants, and none of those who take refuge, (CHASAH), in Him will be condemned.”

Psa 62:7-8, “On God my salvation and my glory rest; The rock of my strength, my refuge, (MACHASEH), is in God. 8Trust in Him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.” Cf. Psa 46:1.

Many times, in the OT, the imagery of wings is given when showing the healing and protective nature of God. The Hebrew word for refuge is often times used in the same phrases with the word for wings. Psa 36:7, is one example but there are many more.

Psa 36:7, “How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge, (CHASAH), in the shadow of Your wings.” Cf. Psa 17:8; 57:1.

In Ruth 2:12, we have Boaz, the kinsman redeemer, (a type of Christ), talking to Ruth.

Ruth 2:12, “May the Lord reward your work, and your wages be full from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.”

In a sense, we are all like the manslayer, because ours sins put Jesus Christ on the Cross, unintentionally as that may be. Even though it is the path Jesus chose, if there was no sin, there would be no need for the Cross. Yet, Christ’s message is for us to run to Him without delay, to seek refuge in the redemption He accomplished at the Cross.

As in the times of Israel, it was pure foolishness to delay your journey to the nearest City of Refuge when the avenger of blood was seeking your life. And, in the same way, people today need to avoid delays and excuses in seeking Christ, especially due to guilt or a sense of spiritual inadequacy, and just run to His presence.

In Heb 6:17-18, believers, who have fled from the wrath due them because of their sins, have seized upon the hope which God the Father has offered in His Son, Jesus Christ. Since it is not yet fully realized, it is hope, (i.e., confident expectation).

Heb 6:17-18, “In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, So that by two unchangeable things, (God cannot lie and He fulfills His oaths / promises), in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us.”

“Refuge,” is the Greek Verb KATAPHEUGO, καταφεύγω that means, “to flee, to take refuge. It comes from the root word PHEUGO that means, “to flee or escape.” This word is used only here and in Acts 14:6, where Paul and his group fled for fear of their lives.

Just as the Cities of Refuge were a day’s journey or less away, safety for the manslayer was never far away, and so also, we know Christ is not far off. Safety and peace of mind for us is as close as a prayer.

As Jesus said in Mat 28:20 “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” These cities were also located in somewhat mountainous regions, on hilltops, so as to be easily seen from a distance. These cities had to be easily seen from a distance and in bad weather, fog, and darkness of night by the exhausted manslayer running for his life. For us, so often the whirlwind of life and its complications cloud our vision, yet Christ is still easily seen if we just look for Him.

Psa 43:3, “O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling places.”

In the NT, Jesus is the light of the world, to lead men out of darkness.

John 1:9, “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.”

John 8:12, “Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life”.”

John 12:46, “I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness.” Cf. John 3:19; 9:5; 11:9

2 Cor 4:4, “In whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

From non-biblical literature sources, it is said that the great gates of these Refuge Cities were never locked, but always left open, not a common practice for that era. How comforting it must have been for the fleeing fugitive to know he would immediately gain access to the safety of the city and not die at the hands of the avenger of blood, as he would, if stuck outside beating on the door.

Jesus told us in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”

As mentioned above, we are told from Jewish literature that the roads to these cities were traveled and inspected by the elders once a year, and carefully repaired every spring after the rains and bad weather of the winter. Bridges were built or repaired where needed and every obstruction was removed. At every crossroads and turn were posted special signs stating “refuge” to guide the runner. We see by this, how easy the Lord intended the road to be by which we come to Him. It is similar to the ease of deliverance for the snake bitten Israelites, when they would simply turn towards the Brazen Serpent, cf, John 3:14. Likewise, the gracious promises given in the Gospels diligently remove the obstacles before us.

Remember what Christ told us in Mat 11:28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

Charles Spurgeon said about the roads to these cities and the road to Christ, “It is a road so hard that no self-righteous man can ever tread it, but so easy that every sinner, who knows himself to be a sinner, may by it find his way to heaven.”

Jewish tradition also tells us that runners educated in the Law of God were stationed along these roads to guide the fugitives to safety.

Ecc 4:10, “For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.”

What a blessing to the weary fugitive who may have lost his sense of direction or his desire to go on, to have someone who knows God’s ways encourage them onward and guide them to the place of refuge.

All of us have had moments in our spiritual walk where we lost our sense of direction or purpose, or just lacked the spirit to go onward, even though deep down we knew that we should. But God provided for these moments long before they came, and if you look back at them, I think you will realize that there was always someone there to guide you back on the path that leads to Christ.

It may have been your beloved spouse, a best friend, your mom or dad, perhaps a brother or sister, or a compassionate individual in the church, but whoever it was that ran with you in your spiritual walk and guided you back onto the beaten path when you were falling away, be very grateful to them and do not take them for granted. God was using them to preserve your spiritual life as the runners of old preserved the life of the manslayers. That is why we, as representatives of Christ, are called in Mat 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden”

Remember, these cities were only a temporary place of safety. Once the high priest died, they were free to return to their home cities where the avenger of blood had no legal right to pursue them. But if the avenger harbored a grudge, they might still be in danger for their lives. Yet, because of our position in Christ, He is our High Priest forever, who is also resurrected; never to die again. As such, experientially, we should never leave our place of spiritual refuge in Him; we are eternally secure in our salvation despite the daily battles within us with the sin nature.

City of Refuge Code:

Finally, when we look deeper into the Hebrew names of these six cities, we see a direct correlation to the character and nature of Christ, and what He accomplished for all of us “manslayers.”  We get the order of these cities from Joshua 20:7-8.

  • First, we have the city of QEDESH, (Kedesh). It is from the root Verb QADASH meaning, “to separate, set apart, to be holy, to consecrate,” implying the consecration of a person or thing to the worship or service of God. Hence it means to make or be holy, and therefore it implies holiness, the full consecration of a person to God. And this city was in “Galilee (district) in the hills of Naphtali (might wrestling).” Therefore, “the holy One comes from the place of wrestling.”

There are many passages in the OT that refer to Christ as, “The Holy One of Israel.” In the NT, we have John 6:69, “We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” 

  • Next, we have SHEKEM, (Shechem), that means, “shoulder.” It is from the root word SHAAKAM, meaning, “to be ready, forward, and diligent,” Hence Shechem means, “shoulder,” because of its readiness to bear burdens and sustain. From this we derive its metaphorical meaning of “government, or dominion.” This was in the “hills of Ephraim,” that means, “double fruit,” (i.e. He will save both Jews and Gentiles).

Isa 9:6, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

  • Thirdly, we have KIRATH (city of), ARABA known later as Hebron. Hebron is CHEBROWN that means, “a community or alliance.” It is from the root CHAABAR meaning. “to associate, join, conjoin, unite as friends.” Therefore, Hebron means, “fellowship or friendly association.” This was in the “hills of Judah,” which means “praised.”

John 15:15, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.”

Then crossing the Jordan, YARDEN, “the watering place,” (provision) into Jericho, YERICHO, “the place of fragrance,” (propitiation) we have the next three Cities of Refuge.

  • Fourth, we have Bezer, BETSER that means, “ore of gold or silver.” It is from the root BAATSAR meaning, “to restrain, enclose, shut up, or encompass within a wall.” Therefore, Bezer means, “the goods or treasures secured within the wall, a fortified place, fortress or stronghold.” This was from the, “tribe of Reuben” that means, “Behold a son!”

Psa 18:2, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”

  • Fifth, we have Ramoth, RA’MOTH that means, “heights.” It comes from the root RA’AM meaning, “to be raised, made high or exalted.” Therefore, Ramoth means, “high places or eminences.” This was in Gilead, “the hill of testimony,” as Jesus was crucified on the hill of Golgatha, the hill of skulls. This was the place of the, “tribe of Gad,” that means, “fortune come.”

Heb 7:26, “For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens.”

Phil 2:8-10, “Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”

Luke 1:69, “And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of David His servant.”

John 3:14, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

Luke 9:22, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day.”

  • Finally, we have Golan, GOWLAN that means, “captive or exile.” It comes from the root GOLA meaning the same plus “to remove or removing,” This was in the, “tribe of Manasseh,” that means, “who makes forget.” Combined it means make the “captives forget,” or to free the captives. Metaphorically it means, “to forgive their sins.”

This reminds us of the victory at the Cross, where Jesus subsequently led the triumphant procession to heaven. As He will also do for the Church Age believer, at the Rapture or Resurrection of the Church.

Eph 4:8, “Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men”.”

It is awesome to see the entire gospel message contained in the meaning of these six Hebrew cities, given to Israel almost 1500 years before the NT was written. Although they focus on the character and nature of the person of Christ, there is a direct meaning in what Christ is saying to us through them as well.

  1. QEDESH: To be made holy.
  2. SH’KEM: To bear a burden, sustain.
  3. CHEBROWN: To join and unite as friends.
  4. BETSER: To encompass within a wall.
  5. RA’MOTH: To be raised up and exalted.
  6. GOWLAN: Remove the exiles, set the captives free.

Therefore, the “Refuge City Code,” from Joshua 20:7-8, says about Christ, our refuge:

KEDESH: The holy One who comes from the place of wrestling (those who reject Him).
SHEKEM: Is ready to shoulder the burdens, (save from their sins), both Jews and Gentiles.
HEBRON: Joining the two into one body as His friends to His praise.
Crossing the Jordan into Jericho: He will water (provide) for them as “the place of fragrance,” (propitiation) of God the Father.
BEZER: As a treasure, we are eternally secure in the Son of God.
RAMOTH: He will be exalted, seated at the right hand of God, as a result of the Cross, forever.
GOLAN: Because He freed the captives having forgotten (i.e., forgiven) their sins.

“The holy One, who comes from the place of those who reject Him, is ready to save from their sins, both Jews and Gentiles, joining the two into one body as His friends, to His praise. He will provide for them as the propitiation of God the Father. As a treasure, they will be eternally secure in the Son of God, as He will be exalted, seated at the right hand of God, as a result of the Cross, forever, because He freed the captives having forgotten (i.e., forgiven) their sins.”

Likewise, being ourselves manslayers of Christ, Christ is saying to each of us:

“If you run to me and seek my presence, I will consecrate you and make you holy. I will bear your burdens, sustain you in all your trials, and call you to my side as an intimate friend. When you are attacked by Satan and the evils of this world, I will shield you behind an impenetrable wall. I will raise you up in glory at the right hand of my throne, as I have freed you from the slave market of sin.”

The rise of crime and violence in a society or nation indicates national degeneration and the approach of historical catastrophe in the form of the Fifth Cycle of Discipline, Jer 4:31. This pattern of degeneration is developed into the destruction of the client nation. Hosea 4:1-6.

Hosea 4:1-2, “Listen to the word of the LORD, O sons of Israel, for the LORD has a case against the inhabitants of the land, Because there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land. 2There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed.”

Hosea 4:6, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge, (Bible Doctrine in the soul). Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest, (nation). Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.”

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