For blood it defileth the land - The very land was considered as guilty till the blood of the murderer was shed in it. No wonder God is so particularly strict in his laws against murderers,
The Mosaic cities of refuge have in general been considered, not merely as civil institutions, but as types or representations of infinitely better things; and in this light St. Paul seems to have considered them and the altar of God, which was a place of general refuge, as it is pretty evident that he had them in view when writing the following words: "God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath; that by two immutable things, (his oath and promise), in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation who have Fled for Refuge to lay Hold upon the Hope set before us," Hebrews 6:17, Hebrews 6:18. Independently of this, it was a very wise political institute; and while the patriarchal law on this point continued in force, this law had a direct tendency to cool and moderate the spirit of revenge, to secure the proper accomplishment of the ends of justice, and to make way for every claim of mercy and equity. But this is not peculiar to the ordinance of the cities of refuge; every institution of God is distinguished in the same way, having his own glory, in the present and eternal welfare of man, immediately in view.
“When they had made an end of dividing the land,” and all the tribes had been allotted their inheritance. Joshua presented his claim. To him, as to Caleb, a special promise of inheritance had been given; yet he asked for no extensive province, but only a single city. “They gave him the city which he asked, ... and he built the city, and dwelt therein.” The name given to the city was Timnath-serah, “the portion that remains”—a standing testimony to the noble character and unselfish spirit of the conqueror, who, instead of being the first to appropriate the spoils of conquest, deferred his claim until the humblest of his people had been served. PP 515.1
Six of the cities assigned to the Levites—three on each side the Jordan—were appointed as cities of refuge, to which the manslayer might flee for safety. The appointment of these cities had been commanded by Moses, “that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. And they shall be unto you cities for refuge,” he said, “that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.” Numbers 35:11, 12. This merciful provision was rendered necessary by the ancient custom of private vengeance, by which the punishment of the murderer devolved on the nearest relative or the next heir of the deceased. In cases where guilt was clearly evident it was not necessary to wait for a trial by the magistrates. The avenger might pursue the criminal anywhere and put him to death wherever he should be found. The Lord did not see fit to abolish this custom at that time, but He made provision to ensure the safety of those who should take life unintentionally. PP 515.2
The cities of refuge were so distributed as to be within a half day's journey of every part of the land. The roads leading to them were always to be kept in good repair; all along the way signposts were to be erected bearing the word “Refuge” in plain, bold characters, that the fleeing one might not be delayed for a moment. Any person—Hebrew, stranger, or sojourner—might avail himself of this provision. But while the guiltless were not to be rashly slain, neither were the guilty to escape punishment. The case of the fugitive was to be fairly tried by the proper authorities, and only when found innocent of intentional murder was he to be protected in the city of refuge. The guilty were given up to the avenger. And those who were entitled to protection could receive it only on condition of remaining within the appointed refuge. Should one wander away beyond the prescribed limits, and be found by the avenger of blood, his life would pay the penalty of his disregard of the Lord's provision. At the death of the high priest, however, all who had sought shelter in the cities of refuge were at liberty to return to their possessions. PP 515.3Read in context »