Summary: God's grace extends to those who need it. He provides for those who have inadvertently killed another
You often hear people complaining about the violence we see in the Old Testament. We cringe at the thought of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It all sounds so barbaric.
Yet, how do people deal with something like murder in a world where there’s no police force, no criminal justice system, no penal code? One way people deal with it is by the vendetta, seeking vengeance equal to the injury done. But a vendetta, as you probably know, soon becomes a blood feud. It’s usually between two families or clans, begun because of an injury by one person to a member of the other family that needs to be avenged. But it easily escalates to the point where each injury is repaid by a greater injury. And the justice of the situation soon becomes irrelevant. You knock out my tooth and I’ll come back with my big brother and knock out two of yours. You kill my sheep and I’ll kill your cow. You kill my brother and I’ll kill your children. It’s like an episode from underbelly except there are no police watching to catch you out. The only law is the law of the jungle. The stronger or the more organised will always win.
But what if you want to have a people who’ll live justly among themselves? What if you were God setting up a civil law for your newly formed nation? How would you do it then?
God does it by not only giving his people moral laws - in the form of the ten commandments - he also gives them civil laws - how they’re to act as members of a community. So when he says an eye for an eye, he isn’t condoning violence. What he’s doing is limiting the degree of recompense that someone can rightly ask for in response to an injury. It wouldn’t have worked at that stage to say, as Jesus would say later, you must forgive your brother or sister 70 times 7, because they didn’t yet understand how much God was forgiving them. Nor did they have the Holy Spirit to help them live that way. So he gave them laws that limited their natural desire for vengeance.
There are also some crimes that are too great for weak human beings to forgive. Crimes like murder for example; spilling of someone’s blood.
But what if the murder isn’t on purpose. What if it’s accidental - what we now call manslaughter? What should be done then?
Well then you’d need a system that allows the guilty party to explain what happened, to show that it wasn’t premeditated. And that’s what we read about today.
As they were moving toward the promised land and God was preparing them for living in his land by giving them laws to live by, one of the provisions he made was a series of cities scattered through the land that were to be “Cities of Refuge”.
When the land was divided up, each tribe was given a portion of the land to be their own; every tribe, that is, except the tribe of Levi. They weren’t given their own region because they were meant to minister to everyone in the land. But at the same time they needed somewhere to live. So God arranged for them to be given cities in each tribal region that would be their own, where they could raise their families and grow crops to live on. 48 cities in all, and of these 6 were to be designated cities of refuge. 3 on the east side of the Jordan and 3 on the west. These 6 cities were set aside for the specific purpose of providing refuge to someone who killed another person unwittingly.
The original instructions in Deut 19 and Numbers 35 make it clear the circumstances in which someone can claim sanctuary. There mustn’t be any previous trouble between the people involved so there’s no implication of premeditation. The sorts of situations allowed for are the sort of thing you can imagine yourself: you’re out in the woods cutting timber and the head flies off your axe and strikes the other person, killing him; you’re working on a hill top and you dislodge a rock and it rolls down a hill and strikes someone walking past; or you’re out hunting with a friend, like the boy up near Wangaratta last week, and you accidentally hit your friend rather than the rabbit you were aiming at; all tragic situations that no-one could foresee or would want to happen. What do you do?
In the time when these instructions were given the family of the person killed would have sent someone out to claim recompense in the form of the life of the slayer. There was no court to appeal to. Judgement was in the hands of the victim’s family. But there was no justice in such a situation. So God sets up these cities as a place of refuge.