Places for Refuge and Provision


Joshua 20 and 21

Scripture Reader:  Shannon Robertson

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 Great Depression. The most difficult night of Thomas Dorsey’s life, though, came 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, by writing music, the  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.” 

As humans, we need to know that the Lord is with us when things have gone wrong. If we are honest, most of us have had a moment, or two, or three, when God’s mercy was all that got us through a tough spot. When the Israelites first left Egypt, it was a lawless, merciless time for them. It was like the “Wild West” on steroids. There was no law. There were justices, no juries, or police. Thus, God called Moses up to be with him on the top of Mount Sinai. There, he gave him the Ten Commandments and lots of others to take down to the Israelite people who were camped at the bottom of the mountain. Those rules were for law and order and the preservation of their society and so that justice and mercy could prevail. Included among those commands was God telling Moses that once the people settled in the Promised Land – a reality that would not come about for at least another 45 years – He would be designating “cities of refuge” to which individuals could flee following the death of another, finding mercy and safety there until such time that a court could decide if the person they had killed had been murdered or accidently put to death. God would be instituting these “cities of refuge” because He knew that vigilante, mob justice would otherwise prevail and so He said to Moses:                              

Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to

death. However, if it is not done intentionally, but God lets it happen, they are to flee to a place I will designate. (Exodus 21:12,13)

One year after that day, the Israelites were on the east side of the Jordan, and God gave more information about those cities to come:

Then the Lord said to Moses: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that anyone accused of murder may not die before they stand trial before the assembly. These six towns you give will be your cities of refuge. Give three on this side of the Jordan and three in Canaan as cities of refuge. These six towns will be a place of refuge for Israelites and for foreigners residing among them, so that anyone who has killed another accidentally can flee there.” (Numbers 35:9-15)

Unfortunately, the Israelites did not enter into the Promised Land at that time but instead wandered around the Sinai wilderness for another 39 years before finally returning to that spot on the east side of the Jordan River. At that point, God revealed to them the names of three of the cities of refuge which would be on the east side of the Jordan River in the land which the Israelites already knew as three of the tribes of Israel (Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh) had settled there:

Then Moses set aside three cities east of the Jordan, to which anyone who had killed a person could flee if they had unintentionally killed a neighbor without malice aforethought. They could flee into one of these cities and save their life. The cities were these: Bezer in the wilderness plateau, for the Reubenites; Ramoth in Gilead, for the Gadites; and Golan in Bashan, for the Manassites. (Deuteronomy 4:41-43)

The Israelites finally crossed over the Jordan River and went into the Promised Land of Canaan. It took them five years to recapture the entire land. All the land was divided up amongst the 12 tribes as we read last Sunday in chapters 12-19 of the Book of Joshua and now it was time to reveal which the three cities of refuge in the Promised Land itself.

Then the Lord said to Joshua: “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. When they flee to one of these cities, they are to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state their case before the elders of that city. Then the elders are to admit the fugitive into their city and provide a place to live among them. If the avenger of blood comes in pursuit, the elders must not surrender the fugitive, because the fugitive killed their neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. They are to stay in that city until they have stood trial before the assembly and until the death of the high priest who is serving at that time. Then they may go back to their own home in the town from which they fled.” 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. East of the Jordan (on the other side from Jericho) they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the plateau in the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead in the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan in the tribe of Manasseh. Any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing among them who killed someone accidentally could flee to these designated cities and not be killed by the avenger of blood prior to standing trial before the assembly. (Joshua 20:1-9)

Remember, up to this point, other than the first five books of the Bible, the so-called “Law of Moses” – there no legal code, or system of lawyers and judges, and no police force. The Law of Moses stated in the event of a clear-case murder, the law of retribution would be followed, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life” and it would be up to the family of the victim to carry out the capital punishment of the murderer. But what was to be done when a person hadn’t been murdered but their death was the result of negligence or accident? Could the family of the killed person do whatever they wanted to the one who had taken the life of their loved one? The answer was, “no.” The six “cities of refuge” system ensured mercy and the revolutionary principle of “being innocent until proven guilty”, a thing upon which our modern law is still based although social media and the muckraking “cancel culture” of our day are trying their best to overturn that ancient principle by instead slurring a person’s character so that now a person is often judged “guilty until proven innocent”.  

These six cities of refuge were in central places on both sides of the Jordan, easy to reach from anywhere in the land. Each was easily accessible with every highway in the land marked at crossroads with special signs which read, “Refuge!” as they pointed to the nearest “city of refuge”. These signposts were large enough so that a person running hard could easily read them. We can imagine a man running up the road and another man is pursuing him, sword out. The first man, seeing the sign and the big word, “Refuge”, flees to the city to find mercy and safety there. The gates of these cities were always left open, never locked. So long as the accused made it to the city and remained there, they were safe. Being on the outside of the city offered no legal hope or protection for them but once inside the city, the accused and the victim’s family would then both plead their cases before the city elders who would determine if the victim’s death had been accidental or intentional murder. If the death was deemed to be murder, the person was turned over to the victim’s family and they would put the person to death (“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life”) but if the death was deemed to have been accidental, then the killer was granted mercy and permitted to live. Thanks to the “cities of refuge” system, mercy was given a chance to prevail and mob or vigilante justice not allowed.

Now, in the Old Testament, Hebrew names usually had distinct meanings, in order to make a point. This is seen in the names of the six cities of refuge. Going through them one at a time, we see that

Kedesh was not only a city name; it also meant a “holy place” or “righteousness”.

As Christians, we know that when we come to Jesus Christ, we discover that it is His righteousness that has brought us mercy. 

Shechem was not only a city name; it also meant “shoulder”.

As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ is a resting place, a friend upon whose shoulder we can rest and lay our burdens. Jesus says,

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Hebron was not only a city name; it also meant “fellowship”.

As Christians, we know that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only real Hebron or fellowship for our souls as in him we have fellowship both with other believers and with God the Father, as well.

Bezer was not only a city name; it also meant a “stronghold” or “fortress”

As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ is our fortress that will never fall, a stronghold for us when we are without strength. When we flee to Jesus we will find a merciful stronghold which will never give way. No matter how helpless, in Jesus we are eternally safe for he is our Bezer.

Ramoth was not only a city name; it also meant “exalted” or “heights”

As Christians, we know that in heaven we will be exalted with Jesus Christ for all eternity. Sin may take us down but Christ lifts us up.  

Golan was not only a city name; it also meant “separated.”

As Christians, we know that while sin separates us from God and from others, Jesus Christ separated our sins and their effect from us when he took our sins upon himself in his death on the cross.

Jesus is our Kedesh (our righteousness), our Shechem (whose shoulder we can lean upon when we are weary), our Hebron (in whom we have lasting fellowship), our Bezer (our stronghold and fortress who will never collapse around us), our Ramoth (in whom we are exalted forever), and our Golan (who overcomes our separations). As a result, we understand what Moses meant when he wrote in Psalm 91:

I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91:2)

We can flee to God at any point for mercy and safety and refuge. Now, returning to the work of Jesus for a moment, we need to add that when the gospel of Jesus Christ was first being introduced by the apostle Paul to philosophers in Athens, Greece, those seekers of God had made an idol dedicated with an inscription on it that read, “to an unknown God”, and Paul explained to them that God was knowable to us all and that He came to earth in Jesus. As a result, Paul said,

He is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:27b)

God our refuge of mercy and safety is not too far away but close by and we can reach Him. We do so by running to Jesus, but it is important to know that being close to the city isn’t good enough. Paul admired the Greek philosophers but he did not hesitate to tell them that they needed to run to Jesus, to get inside him, to be in the city of refuge that Jesus represents and is, in order to find mercy and safety. Being close to the city isn’t good enough; they had to step inside it by putting their faith in Jesus Christ, but, once they did so, they would find, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews explains it so well:

We who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. (Hebrews 6:18b,19a)

That hope, that anchor for the soul, firm and secure, that merciful place of refuge, is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. And he promises:

All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. (John 6:37)

So, in review, the six cities of refuge were amazing displays of God’s merciful nature, but they pointed to Jesus for they were all temporary, having all disappeared in the desert sands and ruins. But Jesus remains. So, I proclaim to you this day:

Christ is better because He is nearer than any city of refuge.

Christ is better because He offers Permanent Refuge.

Christ is better because He died for the guilty.

When he was the Vice-President of the USA, George Bush represented his country at the funeral of the former leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev. Remember that Brezhnev was a communist and that his nation was officially atheistic and that any display of faith would be a sign of disrespect to the atheistic views of that nation. As George Bush sat watching, he was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Leonid Brezhnev’s widow. She stood motionless by the coffin of her deceased husband until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid to close it, Brezhnev’s widow performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed: she reached down into the coffin and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest. There in the citadel of that great, secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all and who had openly mocked the existence of God, was proclaiming that she hoped that her husband had been wrong about God. She hoped that there was another life beyond the one her husband had just died in, and, in the making of the sign of the cross on his chest, Mrs. Brezhnev was stating that the only hope for eternal life was represented by Jesus who died on the cross, and she was begging that same Jesus to have mercy on her husband’s soul. As Christians, we should always be pointing at Jesus and crying out, “Refuge!” making the way to him clear, knowing that he will accept any who come into his city of refuge.

Now, just before, we conclude our sermon for today, we need to look briefly at the next chapter, chapter 21, of the Book of Joshua, for it also tells us about God’s great mercy. You will remember that the land of Canaan had first promised by God to Abraham, who moved him from Mesopotamia (today’s nation of Iraq) to the land of Canaan (today’s nation of Israel). Abraham and his wife Sarah settled there, and they had a son Isaac, who had a son Jacob. God renamed that grandson of Abraham and son Israel, Jacob, “Israel”, which means, “he wrestles with God”. Jacob/Israel had 12 sons and they moved to Egypt. The families of those 12 sons of Jacob/Israel lived in Egypt for 400 years and they grew in number, marking themselves by their cousin clans into 12 distinct tribes. When, 400 years later, God brought them all back to the Promised Land of Canaan, and it was time to divide up the Promised Land, God told the descendants of the tribe of Levi that their tribe would not be counted as one of Israel’s 12 tribes and so they would not be receiving any inheritance of land. Instead, He told them, “as my priests you are blessed because I am your inheritance”. Well, they weren’t all thrilled with that, so God told them to not worry and that he would look after them, even though they wouldn’t be getting their own land. Then, it was decided that the descendants of Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, were so numerous that Joseph’s name would be excluded from the list of the 12 tribes of Israel and the names of each of his two sons included. Thus, the 12 tribes of Israel would be comprised of 10 sons of Jacob and 2 sons of Joseph. But, what about the tribe of Levi? How would they yet be provided for by God? Chapter 21 gives us the answer to that question.  

Now the family heads of the Levites approached Eleazar the priest, Joshua son of Nun, and the heads of the other tribal families of Israel at Shiloh in Canaan and said to them, “The Lord commanded through Moses that you give us towns to live in, with pasturelands for our livestock.” So, as the Lord had commanded, the Israelites gave the Levites the following towns and pasturelands out of their own inheritance. The towns of the Levites in the territory held by the Israelites were forty-eight in all, together with their pasturelands. Each of these towns had pasturelands surrounding it; this was true for all these towns. So, the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their ancestors, and they took possession of it and settled there. The Lord gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their ancestors. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled. (Joshua 21:1-3,41-45)

Every single one of the Lord’s good promises was fulfilled. God was merciful to the Levites. He was merciful to those falsely accused of murder. He is merciful to us, at all times, today, through Jesus.  Amen.

Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, help me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I’m alone. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, and lead me home. When my way grows drear, precious Lord, linger near. When my light is almost gone, Hear my cry, hear my call. Hold my hand lest I fall. Lord, take my hand, and, precious Lord, lead me home. When the darkness appears and the night draws near, and the day is almost gone. At the river I stand, guide my feet, Lord, and hold my hand. Lord, take my hand, precious Lord, and lead me home. Amen.

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