The Torah portion for today describes a rather strange phenomenon that doesn’t exist today in this form. The institution of Cities of Refuge was implemented by God to show mercy in a world where sometimes mercy and a second chance was in short supply.
Thomas Dorsey was a black jazz musician from Atlanta who was known in the early 1920’s for the suggestive lyrics he combined with original music. Then God touched his life and in 1926 he gave up the suggestive music and began to write spiritual music. In 1932 times were hard for Dorsey as they were for nearly everyone trying to survive the depression. Perhaps it was because of his past music and his also his musical style some said his music was too worldly. The most difficult night of his life came one night in St. Louis when he received a telegram telling him that his pregnant wife had suddenly died. Dorsey was filled with grief and his faith was shaken, but instead of wallowing in self-pity, he expressed his agony the only way he knew how. He wrote this song. . .
Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand.
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light; Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.
In spite of Dorsey’s checkered past he experienced God’s presence during that crises. That song which came out of his pain and grief has comforted and challenged thousands of people since then because if we are honest, most of us have had a moment, or two or three when God’s presence was all that could get us through.
Let’s be honest about something else as well, we don’t really deserve all God’s faithfulness, because if we are honest, all of us will have to admit we haven’t always been faithful to Him.
I know that about you because I haven’t always been faithful either. But I’m glad to tell you this morning that, “God Gives Second Chances.” I’ll show you what I mean. Let’s read our Joshua 20 together this morning.
In addition to our Torah Portion, we see in Joshua 20:1-9 how the Cities of Refuge were put into law.
Then Adonai spoke to Joshua saying, (2) “Speak to Bnei-Yisrael saying, ‘Designate your cities of refuge, about which I spoke to you through Moses. (3) So the manslayer who kills any person by mistake and without premeditation may flee there. They will be your refuge from the avenger of blood. (4) When one flees to one of those cities, he must stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and state his case in the hearing of the elders of that city. Then they are to take him into their city and give him a place to live among them.
(5) Now if the blood avenger pursues him, then they will not hand the manslayer over to him, since he killed his neighbor without premeditation and did not hate him beforehand. (6) So he will stay in that city until he can stand trial before the congregation, or until the death of the kohen gadol in those days. Then the manslayer may return to his own city and to his own house, to the city from which he had fled.’” (7)
So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. (8) Across the Jordan east of Jericho, they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland from the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh. (9) These were the appointed cities for all Bnei-Yisrael and for the outsider who is dwelling among them, so that whoever kills any person unintentionally might flee there and not die by the hand of the blood avenger, before standing trial before the congregation.
Here is a map of the cities as set up by Joshua.
In the ancient middle east the laws of the land were somewhat primitive by today’s standards. The ancient law was called LEX TALIONIS and basically it was the law of retribution. It’s the old “eye for and eye, and tooth for a tooth” mentality. That sentiment still exists to some degree in the Muslim areas of the world today.
The law went something like this. If you were working with someone and unintentionally killed that person, then his clansmen (sometimes called the avenger of blood) could apprehend you and put you to death. Today we would call that involuntary manslaughter. An example would be a negligent driver texting or perhaps impaired by alcohol getting into an automobile and crashing it into another vehicle or a tree resulting in the death of someone else. The penalty today can be severe, but it is never the death penalty.
God gave Israel a way to mitigate the customs of the land while still maintaining the idea that life is precious and the taking of life, even accidentally is serious. Life was hard in those days. Just because a baby made it all the way to birth didn’t mean that it would survive to adulthood. Disease and lack of adequate food often took its toll on family life. So the idea of losing one’s life due to the negligence of another was particularly odious. You can see why this practice was in effect.
But God is a merciful God. He set up these cities so that one who was involved in a deadly encounter could flee to there and find refuge. There were some conditions though that helped prevent the cities of refuge from becoming the refuge of murderers. The party had to present his case to the town council. Then if his case was compelling enough and didn’t involve actual malice aforethought, or as we would say, the death was not premeditated, the individual was granted a temporary asylum until a proper trial could be conducted or until the High Priest died.
If the person was tried and found guilty of murder rather than manslaughter, then he was turned over to the avenger and put to death. However, if the city leaders found that he had no malice or intent to cause the death of another person, he would be granted asylum.
What that meant was that the person had to stay within the confines of the city. If he left the city walls, then he was no longer protected. So we can see that even though there is mercy, there still are consequences.
What does all this have to do with us today? There are no cities of refuge, although there is a movement afoot to become sanctuary cities. Sanctuary cities are nothing more than attempts by the Democrat party to shelter lawbreakers until such time that they can somehow either legally or illegally vote and preserve the power base of the Democrats.
No, we have a much better refuge than that. We have Yeshua HaMashiach as our refuge. When we have fallen short, and we all do, we can go to the Son of God, our refuge and find forgiveness. We can find peace. We can find a second chance. Even though, because of what we have done, we have consequences, we can find refuge.
God made a way that his banished can find an opportunity to have right standing before the Almighty.
The cities of refuge were established before they were needed. Yeshua was slain before the foundations of the earth. God knew that we would need a savior.
The cities of refuge were available to Jew and gentile alike. Salvation from Yeshua is available to all. Whosoever.
The cities of refuge were always open to those who needed it. Yeshua is always available to meet the needs of those in trouble.
Do you need a place of refuge today? He’s waiting for you. In ancient Israel, a man had to stay in the city until the High Priest died. He was safe. Our High Priest is alive forever more and will not die. So we have refuge as long as we stay anchored in Him.