“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, where a person who has accidentally killed someone can flee for safety. In addition, give them forty-two other towns. In all, forty-eight towns with the surrounding pastureland will be given to the Levites. These towns will come from the property of the people of Israel. The larger tribes will give more towns to the Levites, while the smaller tribes will give fewer. Each tribe will give property in proportion to the size of its land.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel.
“When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, designate cities of refuge to which people can flee if they have killed someone accidentally. These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community. Designate six cities of refuge for yourselves, three on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west in the land of Canaan. These cities are for the protection of Israelites, foreigners living among you, and traveling merchants. Anyone who accidentally kills someone may flee there for safety.
“But if someone strikes and kills another person with a piece of iron, it is murder, and the murderer must be executed.”
Of the 48 cities given to the Levites, six were “cities of refuge.” Such cities were needed to ensure justice for everyone. Ancient customs of justice called for relatives of the victim to exact revenge in the event of murder (2 Samuel 14:7). If anyone died because of violence, murder was assumed, but the murder suspect was not automatically assumed guilty. The cities of refuge assured the accused that justice would be served. But if the person left the city, then he or she would be considered guilty and vulnerable to the vengeance of the victim’s family.
The cities of refuge represented God’s concern for justice in a culture that did not always protect the innocent. God’s people were to be intolerant of the sin, yet impartial toward the accused so that he or she could have a fair trial. These six cities of refuge were probably put under the Levites’ supervision because they would be the most impartial judges. The Levites would hold a preliminary hearing outside the gates while the accused person was protected inside the city until the time of his or her trial. If the killing was judged accidental, the person would stay in the city until the death of the high priest. After that time, the accused could go free and start a new life without worrying about avengers. If it was not accidental, the person would be delivered to the victim’s avengers. In this new justice system, God’s law and his mercy went hand in hand.
Have you been quick to judge someone without knowing all the facts? To overlook wrongdoing or to jump to conclusions about guilt are both unjust. Ask God to give you compassion for both the victim and accused and for the discipline to withhold judgment until the appropriate time. When someone is accused of wrongdoing, stand up for justice, protect those not proven guilty, and listen carefully to all sides of the story.