Later, just before he dies and Yahweh's people enter that land, Moses reminds them of these cities of refuge. When doing so, Moses gives Yahweh's people the reason for these cities: so that the blood of an innocent person may not be shed in the land that [Yahweh] your God is giving you as an inheritance, thereby bringing bloodguilt upon you (Deuteronomy 19:10).
After Yahweh's people had taken possession of the land under the leadership of Joshua, they did set aside six cities of refuge: one for each two tribes. These cities included Shechem of Ephraim and Hebron of Judah (Joshua 20:1-9).
So these cities are taken by Yahweh and transformed. They are still like all other cities built since the murderer Cain founded the first one: places of refuge from Yahweh and from the vengeance of others. But these cities are also something else: places of refuge for Yahweh lest innocent blood be shed. These six cities now have two natures: the original Olympian one but the new righteous one given to them by Yahweh.
These cities are to provide refuge to anyone who has killed another person unintentionally when the two had not been at enmity [hatred] before. As Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:21-2). Now these six cities are righteous places of refuge for people who had loved rather than hated their neighbor.
The [killer] shall remain in that city…until the death of the one who is high priest at the time: then the [killer] may return home, to the town in which the deed was done (Joshua 20:6). Amongst Yahweh's people, priests sacrificed animals for the forgiveness of sins. But no animal’s death could substitute for the death of a human. Nor could the life of the person who had accidentally killed another be taken. So it is the life of the high priest himself which redeems that of the person seeking refuge. Once the high priest redeems him, he may leave the city which both protected and imprisoned him. In this redemption the death of the high priest anticipates the greater saving significance of the death of Jesus.
(Today we continued our reflections on Jacques Ellul's The Meaning of the City [Eerdmans, pp. 90-94]. All biblical quotes were taken from the New Revised Standard Version.)
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