Summer movies are often the stories of heroes; whether real-life or Marvel®, both are super. These stories inspire as they entertain us. The problem is, most of the time, we are content with letting someone else be the hero. We are too busy, too passive, too self-absorbed, or too afraid of what would happen if we got involved; and so the people around us stay unknown to us and do not receive the help they need. The result is preconceived biases that isolate us from one another and a lack of care and compassion for those who need a place of refuge and relief.
God had a different plan when he delivered the people of Israel from Egyptian slavery; the Promised Land was not just abundant in its produce; God desired it to be a place that experienced his blessing and justice in everyday life. Therefore, God architected into the fabric of Israel’s new land a structure of justice and mercy: places of refuge. In the book of Joshua, nestled quietly in the midst of lists of boundary lines, is a discussion of 6 towns placed strategically around the new nation; these were to be cities of refuge (Joshua 20). These very important cities were called to care for the accused, and they provide inspiration for how we are to live, work, and minister today.
A Place of Refuge Provides Protection for the Accused and “Condemned” (Joshua 20:1-3)
God tells Joshua to fulfill what the Lord had commanded through Moses in Numbers 35 and repeated in Deuteronomy 19: the appointment of six cities of refuge to be places where someone who had accidently killed someone could flee before an avenger of the deceased member’s family sought revenge disguised as justice. If you lived in one of these cities, you had no choice; it was a ministry of the city to provide refuge to the “manslayer.”
Notice who it was that sought refuge: not the victim, but the offender who committed the action: someone who had killed “any person without intent or unknowingly…” (verse 3). In other words: accidentally and unintentionally. Israel had a sophisticated legal system, with judgments often based on intent and premeditation. Moses’ father-in-law instructed Moses to set up a system of judges (Exod. 18), established throughout Israel, to give justice to those who were victimized in legitimate crimes and injustices.
This sparing of the accused’s life may lead some to think God does not care for those who have been wronged. However, when you look at the whole of Scripture you see God has special consideration for justice to be served. Two particular circumstances that grieved God were unpunished wrongdoers and the mistreatment of the vulnerable. God said that unpunished murderers defiled the land:
Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death … So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel. (Numbers 35:31, 35:33-34)
God provided extra protection for those who were most vulnerable – the widow and
orphan, those who were marginalized by society. God cares that the poor and weak are given justice:
You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. (Exod. 22:22-4)
God is interested in true justice not revenge, so cities of refuge were needed. Through the establishment of the cities of refuge, God was looking out for the accused who have already been condemned in the court of public opinion.
Caring for the Accused and “Condemned” (Joshua 20:4-6)
God’s instructions to care for the accused had consequences for the caregivers; if we are to create a place of refuge – we too must be willing to accept these consequences.
Caring for the accused will be inconvenient. The elders of the city were to gather to listen to the manslayer plead his case for the accidental killing (verse 4a). Imagine being one of those leaders, busy with your own plans – having to stop what you are doing to listen to a stranger who has fled to your city. Once the leaders had determined the individual was innocent of intentional murder, they were “to admit him into their city and give him a place to live with them” (verse 4b). Remember this person fled without planning for this trip, the members of the city would have to sacrificially give of their resources in order to provide the manslayer a place to live with them.
My wife, Debbie, and I have often had people live with us throughout our marriage – while still inconvenient at times, we chose to have them live with us, so the inconvenience is of little issue; we wanted this person to be part of our family for that season. The inconvenience for the city of refuge cannot be underestimated and yet this was what was required in the call to care for the accused.
Cities of refuge had no choice in who was coming to stay with them; protection came at a cost. Caring for the accused requires involvement. Verse 5 describes the predictable situation of the avenger coming to seek their form of “justice.” Imagine that scene: the avenger won’t be calm, they won’t be willing to listen - they will be angry, seeking revenge for the death of their loved one, so they may be violent, shouting, and trying to get at the accused. The people of the city had to stand up for the accused and continue to provide protection. Why? Because the person had been accused but had not been condemned (not found guilty). This involvement continued for the length of the life of the ruling high priest; therefore this could be a very long commitment for the city of refuge to stand up for the manslayer who had to leave extended family, a business, friends; everything the accused had been working towards was put on an extended “pause.”
Accessible and Available to Anyone Living in Israel (Joshua 20:7-9)
God designed the cities of refuge to be accessible for all the population of Israel, as three cities were placed on the west side of the Jordan River and three on the east side of the Jordan River (verses 7-8). No matter where someone was in Israel, they were not very far from a city of refuge: about a day’s journey. Interestingly, Scripture records that the only roads built within the Promised Land were the roads that led toward the cities of refuge (Deut. 19:3). Lastly the cities of refuge were available to anyone, even the foreigner (verse 9). This class of individuals was thought to have different rights and therefore often treated differently. To summarize, these designated cities were meant to provide refuge to anyone accused so that everyone could have a fair trial. For a person living in a city of refuge, the key was to not jump to conclusions regarding someone until hearing their story.
In the same way – Christ followers today are called to care for the accused and condemned. Whether its our churches, places of work and even in our homes – imagine how different our communities and society would be if we treated all people with the same principles. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are you willing to be inconvenienced for someone else?
- Are you willing to listen to someone without jumping to conclusions?
- Are you willing to stand with someone who is vulnerable to the attacks of others?
How should you and I treat the people around us?
- To those who have been marginalized = stand with them.
- To those who have been wounded and suffered loss = mourn with them.
- To those who have been accused and already “condemned” = listen to them.
Our answers to these questions will indicate how willing and ready we are to transform our homes, places of work, and churches into places of refuge in which all may seek and find help.
Perhaps the starting point is to remember the reality that we were the accused and condemned; we were all guilty - condemned by our sin and Satan has every right to shame us. Yet Jesus stands with us. It is when I view myself and all people in the shadow of the cross - recognizing it is God who provides the true refuge needed - that I may find the inspiration to step up to help someone in need. May truth in the song “At the cross” provide hope for all the accused:
I know a place, a wonderful place
Where accused and condemned
Find mercy and grace
Where the wrongs we have done
And the wrongs done to us
Were nailed there with him
There on the cross