I received the following question:

In Joshua 20, what exactly happened in the cities of refuge?  Was it an actual town where people lived, worked, enjoyed?  What wouldn’t the avenger go there to avenge?

The cities of refuge as outlined in Joshua 20 and elsewhere were places of refuge for the manslayer. This is all outlined in Numbers 35.

9. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 10. “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11. then you shall appoint cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person accidentally may flee there.

This tells us that basically, these cities were meant for those who had killed someone, but had done so accidentally. The law laid down by God in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man,” would apply to such a person. However, because he had done so accidentally, there would be grace for him. In our day, we would call this “accidental manslaughter.”

12. They shall be cities of refuge for you from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation in judgment.

We see here that this is not a way for any murderer to escape, just because he claims it was an accident. However, it is to see to it that he gets to have a fair trial, and plead his case that the death was accidental.

13. And of the cities which you give, you shall have six cities of refuge. 14. You shall appoint three cities on this side of the Jordan, and three cities you shall appoint in the land of Canaan, which will be cities of refuge. 15. These six cities shall be for refuge for the children of Israel, for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills a person accidentally may flee there.

So there were to be six of these cities, strategically placed throughout Israel, so that one would always be accessible when the accidental manslayer needed it. Yet we see that they are, indeed, real cities with real inhabitants. There certainly were residents in these cities who were not manslayers. There were people who lived and grew up in these cities, and others who earned their livelihoods there. They had city leaders and residents and so forth. Yet they would always be somewhat characterized by this unique truth, and one would have to think that the residence there of former manslayers was a characteristic of these towns that couldn’t be missed. Not only so, but they would have trials there for those who claimed to have done manslaying accidentally. This would all very much affect the life of these towns.

16. ‘But if he strikes him with an iron implement, so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. 17. And if he strikes him with a stone in the hand, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. 18. Or if he strikes him with a wooden hand weapon, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death.

If the death was the result of a fatal blow, however, he is to be accounted as a murderer. Just because he argues that he did not mean to kill him, he is not off the hook. If he struck him such a blow whereby one could die, and he did die, then he is a murderer, and justice must be done. The murderer must be executed.

19. The avenger of blood himself shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. 20. If he pushes him out of hatred or, while lying in wait, hurls something at him so that he dies, 21. or in enmity he strikes him with his hand so that he dies, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.

Now we have this matter of the avenger of blood. The word here in Hebrew is actually ga’al, and it elsewhere is translated “redeemer.” For example, the “kinsman-redeemer” of the book of Ruth is this same word, ga’al. In this case, of course, it is the redeemer of blood. This person seems to have the same close relationship as the kinsman redeemer of Ruth, only instead of his job being to redeem the family land or to redeem the dead man’s wife, his job is to redeem the person’s blood by executing the ultimate penalty on the murderer. This redeemed the dead person by bringing justice upon him. This is very interesting, because it is a very different and much more personal system of capital punishment than we have in our society.

This shows us that it is this avenger’s duty to meet the manslayer and execute him. If the manslayer flees to a city of refuge, however, the ga’al is not to execute him there, but rather go there to see to it that he is tried for his crime. If the manslayer is found to have done so accidentally, he is to forfeit his claim to his blood and leave him to live there in peace. He is only bound to execute the manslayer at that point if he leaves his city of refuge before the time appointed.

22. ‘However, if he pushes him suddenly without enmity, or throws anything at him without lying in wait, 23. or uses a stone, by which a man could die, throwing it at him without seeing him, so that he dies, while he was not his enemy or seeking his harm, 24. then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood according to these judgments.

If any common accident happens, however, such as these described, the manslayer is not to be killed, since he did not mean to strike the other at all, and the whole thing was an accident.

25. So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge where he had fled, and he shall remain there until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. 26. But if the manslayer at any time goes outside the limits of the city of refuge where he fled, 27. and the avenger of blood finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood, 28. because he should have remained 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.

This reveals that the manslayer’s sojourn in the city of refuge is not just until he has a fair trial. When the death is found to be accidental, he is allowed to remain in the city of refuge. However, he must remain there until the death of the high priest. If at any time he leaves there before that time, he can be executed, and his death is on his own head.

This demonstrates that even accidental death brings guilt of blood on a person. Life is precious, and it cannot be brought back just because one is sorry. This would encourage carefulness, but it also illustrates a great principle. That is, that the death of a certain High Priest would be the thing that ultimately could take away the blood guilt of a person. It was not the death of those human high priests of the past, of course. That was just an illustration. The death of Jesus Christ was the death that ultimately would take away the penalty of sin, even that of manslaughter. Therefore, the accidental manslayer had to remain in the city until that time.

Now we might think that this is mighty hard on the accidental manslayer, since he didn’t mean to kill the other person. Well, not as hard as on the person who is dead, I suppose. But ultimately he is allowed to live even after killing someone, and his city of refuge becomes a symbol of dwelling in God’s grace.

This whole thing seems strange to us, I suppose, but remember that many customs are quite strange if you are not used to them. This was God writing customs for them, and they were to become expected and commonplace for them. Ultimately, this turned the sad reality of accidental deaths into a beautiful picture of dwelling in the grace of God, and the death of the great High Priest that brings redemption to us all.