Cities of Refuge

In the early history of the world, provision was made for the punishment of the murderer. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6), was the decree of Jehovah.

The one nearest of kin to the murdered man, usually executed the murderer; but lest in the excitement of the occasion undue haste should be exercised and individuals be slain who did not deserve death, God made provision that the murderer might flee and lay hold upon His altar. None could be taken from the altar without an examination, and if it was found that the murderer had presumptuously planned to kill the man, then he was taken from the altar and slain; otherwise his life was spared (Exodus 21:13, 14).

After the children of Israel entered the promised land, six cities were set apart as cities of refuge. These were conveniently located, three on each side of the river Jordan (Joshua 20:2, 7, 8). The roads leading to these cities were always to be kept in good repair, that the one fleeing before the avenger of blood might not be hindered in his flight (Deuteronomy 19:3). The cities were on elevated ground, and could be seen at a distance.

When the murderer reached the gate of the city of refuge, he declared “his cause in the ears of the elders of that city,” before he was given a place within (Joshua 20:3–5). His case was also tried by the judges of the city near where the murder was committed, and if it was not a premeditated murder, but the deed had been done accidentally or unintentionally, then the guilty man was restored again to the city of refuge whither he had fled (Numbers 35:12, 24, 25).

The Saviour refers to this judgment in Matthew 5:21. If at any time the slayer passed outside of the limit of his city of refuge, his life could be taken by the avenger of blood, “because he should have remained in the city of his refuge” (Numbers 35:26–28). The decree was, “He shall dwell in that city, … until the death of the high priest that shall be in those days: then shall the slayer return … unto his own house, unto the city from whence he fled” (Joshua 20:6).

Cities of refuge in Israel were far different from the asyla of the Greeks and Romans, which often served as a protection for the most profligate characters. The cities of refuge served as a protection for only those who had slain a person without enmity. The cities of refuge were cities belonging to the Levites, thus those confined within were under the best influence. They were associated with the religious teachers of Israel, and had every opportunity to reform their lives and establish righteous characters.

The instruction in regard to the cities of refuge was but a part of the great system of Levitical laws and ceremonies which taught the simple truths of the gospel of Christ. Tyndale says that “while there is a ‘starlight of Christ’ in all the Levitical ceremonies, there is in some so truly the ‘light of the broad day,’ that he cannot but believe that God had showed Moses the secrets of Christ and the very manner of His death beforehand.” Dr. Adam Clarke says the whole gospel could be preached from the particulars given of the cities of refuge.

Every time an Israelite looked upon one of the cities of refuge, God designed he should be reminded of Christ, the “tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion” (Micah 4:8), to Whom every sin-burdened soul could flee to shelter.

Satan, the accuser, is upon the track of every one; he as “a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8), But the person who forsakes sin and seeks righteousness stands securely sheltered by the atoning blood of Christ (Exodus 12:13; 1 John 1:7, 9).

Solomon, who was beset by temptations and sin, understood this when he wrote, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it and is safe” [Proverbs 18:10]. David knew what it was to dwell in the antitypical city of refuge when he said: “I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress; my God; in Him will I trust” (Psalm 91:2).

There could be no delay in seeking a city of refuge. As soon as the murder was committed, the murderer must flee at once; no family ties could hold him; his life depended upon his speedy flight to the city. O that all might learn the lesson, and instead of delaying and trying to quiet our accusing conscience, when we know we have sinned, flee at once to Christ, confess our sins, and dwell in the refuge Christ has prepared. He has made ample provision that all may “have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:18).

Anciently the one who had fled to the city, found life within its walls, but death awaited him if he passed beyond its boundary. The beloved disciple was familiar with this truth when he wrote: “This is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” (1 John 5:11, 12). It is not sufficient simply to believe in Christ; we must abide in Him if we ever hope to obtain life. God has promised to “hold thy right hand.” The one who abides within the refuge will feel and know His sheltering care, and when assailed by the enemy, may hear the Saviour saying, “Fear not, I will help thee” (Isaiah 41:13).

In ancient Israel the one who had fled for refuge could not spend part of his time outside the city, and the remainder within its sheltering walls. There was no safety at any time outside the city. Likewise, our only safety is to dwell “in the secret place of the Most High,” and “abide under the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1). No man can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). We cannot give the world and its pleasures the best of our time and thought, and hope to be sheltered from the final consequences of sin. We will receive our “wages,” or final reward, from the master we serve. If the best of our life is spent in the service of the world, we place ourselves outside the antitypical city of refuge, and will finally receive the “wages,”—death, which will be given every one who takes the world as his master (Romans 6:23).

When the high priest died, those who had fled to the cities of refuge during his term of office could return to their homes. They were free forever from the avenger of blood, and he could no longer harm them lawfully (Number 35:25).

Every high priest was a type of Christ, our High Priest. The earthly priest ceased to be high priest when he died. Our High Priest never dies; but the time will come when He will lay aside His priestly robes, and clothe Himself in a vesture upon which will be written the name, “King of kings, and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).

No longer will He plead the cause of His people before the throne of God, for each case will have been decided for eternity. To those who have confessed every sin and remained cleansed by the blood of Christ, He will say, “Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” They will then go to their own inheritance with no fear of the avenger of blood, for the righteous will be forever beyond the power of Satan (Jeremiah 31:16, 17).

Satan has usurped authority over this world. He haunts the steps of every son and daughter of Adam. But God always has had a refuge in the earth. Abel dwelt securely within its sacred precincts (Hebrews 11:4), and Job realized its sheltering power when Satan assailed him with his fiercest temptations (Job 1:10).

The weakest child of God, who lives continually within this refuge, can never be overthrown by the enemy of souls; for the angels of God encamp around such a one to deliver him (Psalm 34:7; John 10:29).

This refuge is illustrated by many symbols throughout the Bible, each one revealing some special feature of God’s protecting care. Jesus, as He wept over those who had refused His love said: “How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not” (Luke 13:34)!

Happy is the soul who can say in every time of temptation, “Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped. Our Help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:7, 8). [All emphasis author’s.]

The Cross and Its Shadow, Stephen N. Haskell, 258–265. Copyright 1914 by Stephen N. Haskell; facsimile Reproduction 1984 by The Review and Herald Publishing Association.


Cities of Refuge
Type Antitype
Joshua 20:2, 3; Deuteronomy 19:4, 5. The cities were to be a shelter for all who slew any one unaware or unwittingly.


Deuteronomy 19:2–4. The roads were to be kept open, in good condition, that none be hindered in fleeing to the city.

Revelation 22:16, 17; John 7:37; 1 John 1:7. Christ is the only refuge in this world from sin and destruction.


1 Corinthians 11:1; Malachi 2:8. God designs that His people should be examples for the world to copy; but when they sin, they become stumbling-blocks in the way of others.

Joshua 20:3, 4. The one who fled for refuge confessed his sin at the gate of the city, and if he had not premeditated the murder, he was received. 1 John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Deuteronomy 19:11–13. If the murderer hated the one he had slain and planned the murder, then he was not received into the city, but was given over to the avenger of blood. Matthew 7:21–23; Hebrews 10:26–29; 12:16, 17. Some may through fear of punishment come with only lip service, while in their hearts they are cherishing sin; such will not be accepted.
Numbers 35:24, 25. Being received into the city did not forever settle the fate of the murderer. He must stand in judgment before the congregation, and there his destiny was decided. Acts 17:31; Revelation 3:5. Every one will be judged before the judgment bar of God for the deeds done in the body.
Numbers 35:26, 27. Within the city was life, outside the city was death. 1 John 5:11, 12. “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.”
Joshua 20:6; Numbers 35:28. After “the death of the high priest that shall be in those days,” the slayer might return to “the land of his possession.” Matthew 25:34. When Christ lays aside His priestly robes and reigns as king, then all, who abide in Him, will receive their inheritance in the earth made new.