Summary: A look at the cities of refuge and the cities of the Levites and the lessons from there for today

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A Tale of Two Cities: Joshua 20/21

August 3/4, 2002


Though I haven’t read Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, I understand that the major plot lines revolve around the injustice of the rich French Aristocracy towards the peasants, in the period leading up to and including the French Revolution. One critical incident early in the book tells the story of a Marquis running over a peasant child with his carriage, killing the boy. The cruel Aristocrat expresses no regret, saying instead, “It is extraordinary to me that you people cannot take care of yourselves and your children. One or the other of you is for ever in the way. How do I know what injury you have done my horses?” (Book II, Chapter 7). This single incident of callousness and injustice fuels the revolutionary spirit in one of the main characters in the book, who goes on to fight for justice.

It is that same desire for justice that characterizes our look today at two cities in the Book of Joshua. Chapters 20 and 21 describe for us the establishment of two different types of cities for the people of Israel in the promised land. Chapter 20 describes the cities of refuge; chapter 21 describes the cities for the Levites.

Chapter 20:

Chapter 20 is quite brief, so let me read the whole 9 verses:

To understand what is happening here, we need to remember that the Israelites were just becoming a nation. There was no established legal code, no system of lawyers and judges, no elaborate rules dealing with every possible eventuality. They did have the Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy –, and all of the laws there, but they hadn’t yet put them into practice as a nation. One of the principles in those books of the law was the principle of retribution – the famous “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” idea of justice being the right to punish someone for doing something wrong by doing the same to them. This also applied to a situation where someone had been killed – the penalty for murder was death, and it was the responsibility of the family or the person who had been murdered to avenge that death (that is the person vs. 3 calls “the avenger of blood”).

But what if it was an accident? With no police enforcing the law, and with a system of justice based on retribution, you can see that there was a need for something else, and that is why we read about these cities of refuge. As I read, these were places to which you could flee if you had killed someone, and you would be guaranteed protection until a trial could be conducted fairly. The cities were spaced evenly throughout the land, so that they were reachable in about a day’s journey. It is interesting to note that this forms an important premise for our law today – the premise that one is considered innocent until proven guilty.

A God of Justice

This instruction of the Lord’s, at this time in the nation’s history, reveals something important about the character of God – and that is that He longs for Justice. The creation of the cities of refuge served an important link in the process, ensuring that a person could be safely protected until tried and convicted of a crime. We see that this is a high priority for God, demonstrating His heart for justice and fairness for people, especially in the face of a capital crime. Notice also that in verse 6 we read that the trial is to take place “before the assembly,” showing us that God had delegated the exercise of justice to His people – He trusted them to rule fairly and with due process. So we see both God’s heart for justice, and also that He has delegated responsibility for justice in our world to us. This is a key principle throughout Scripture – that as God’s people we are responsible to make sure that there is justice in our world, with a particular responsibility to ensure that the weak and powerless are treated justly. And it is a principle that still applies today, and that is still a part of our responsibility today.

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