“When the Lord your God destroys the nations whose land he is giving you, you will take over their land and settle in their towns and homes. Then you must set apart three cities of refuge in the land the Lord your God is giving you. Survey the territory, and divide the land the Lord your God is giving you into three districts, with one of these cities in each district. Then anyone who has killed someone can flee to one of the cities of refuge for safety.
“If someone kills another person unintentionally, without previous hostility, the slayer may flee to any of these cities to live in safety. For example, suppose someone goes into the forest with a neighbor to cut wood. And suppose one of them swings an ax to chop down a tree, and the ax head flies off the handle, killing the other person. In such cases, the slayer may flee to one of the cities of refuge to live in safety.
“If the distance to the nearest city of refuge is too far, an enraged avenger might be able to chase down and kill the person who caused the death. Then the slayer would die unfairly, since he had never shown hostility toward the person who died. That is why I am commanding you to set aside three cities of refuge.
“And if the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he swore to your ancestors, and gives you all the land he promised them, you must designate three additional cities of refuge. (He will give you this land if you are careful to obey all the commands I have given you—if you always love the Lord your God and walk in his ways.) That way you will prevent the death of innocent people in the land the Lord your God is giving you as your special possession. You will not be held responsible for the death of innocent people.”
Every society must deal with the problem of murder. But how should society treat those who have innocently or accidentally killed someone? God had an answer for the Israelites. Since revenge was common and swift in Moses’ day, God had the Israelites set apart several “cities of refuge.” Anyone who claimed to have accidentally killed someone could flee to one of these cities until he or she could have a fair trial. If the accused was found innocent of murder, he or she could remain in that city and be safe from those seeking revenge. This provision is a beautiful example of how God blended his justice and mercy toward his people.
Today, we hear that a person is “innocent until proven guilty.” That’s good, but we don’t always act that way. Instead, we often assume the worst about a person. And we want to exact revenge. Here we learn that while God expects wrongdoing to be punished, it must be tempered with mercy. And at all times, the innocent should be protected.
A lot of people call for justice at many levels in society and around the world. This is a good thing. But it can be easy to overlook the justice and mercy we need in our personal lives. Many of our relationships need justice and mercy in them. If we ignore justice there, we cannot expect to see justice at broader levels. What justice and mercy do you need to bring into your personal life? Are there relationships you need to make right?