One of the most wonderful Old Testament types of Jesus and His saving work is found in the account of the cities of refuge mentioned in Numbers 35 and Joshua 20. The cities of refuge were appointed by God for the person who was guilty of manslaughter. Whenever someone accidentally killed another, he could flee for refuge to the place of God’s appointed safety. If he left the city, he would be killed by the Avenger of blood (i.e., the Goel or Kinsman Redeemer). The one who fled to the city for refuge had to remain there until the death of the High Priest. Once the High Priest died, the one who fled for refuge was set free.
When we come to Numbers 35 and Joshua 20, a number of interpretive challenges arise. Intermixed with the other details about the cities of refuge is a clear word about the guilt and punishment of one who intentionally murdered another. The one who intentionally murdered another was to suffer the punishment of the death penalty. This is on account of the fact that man is made in the image of God. To kill another image bearer is to raise an affront to God Himself. The distinction in this passage between one who murdered an image bearer and one who accidentally killed an image bearer raises a challenge. It might, on a cursory reading, seem as though God was teaching that those who commit unintentional sin are not deserving of avenging justice, but that those who have sinned with evil intent are the objects of avenging justice. However, close consideration of the details of these passages paint quite a different picture. Consider the following.
God gave the Levites 48 cities and the surrounding pasture, since they did not receive an inheritance with the other tribes. This was an undeserved grace of God. The Levites descended from Levi, who — together with his brother Simeon — had slaughtered the Shecham, Hamor, and the men of the city for what they had done to their sister Dina (Gen. 34:25). Instead of giving the Levites what they deserved, they received the bountiful mercy and grace of God. God set them apart to mediate between Himself and His people. This was the highest privilege for someone in the covenant community. In addition, the Levites were not to inherit any of the land, together with the other tribes, because they Lord would be their inheritance (Num. 18:25-26). Iain Duguid rightly notes, “Getting the opposite of what you deserve, or grace, is the central point of Numbers 35.”
Out of those 48 Levitical cities, God set apart 6 to be cities of refuge for someone who killed someone accidentally. Three of these cities were on the east of the Jordan and three on the west of the Jordan. This would be a place to shield the person who had shed blood from the avenging justice of the Avenger of Blood. The severity of the justice that God delegated to the Avenger of blood is due to the fact that whoever sheds man’s blood deserves to have his blood shed by man (Gen. 9:6). Since man is the image of God, shedding man’s blood (whether intentionally or unintentionally) requires a just penalty, namely death. This means that the one who murdered someone and the person who accidentally killed someone deserve the same punishment. At the end of Numbers 35, the Lord tells Moses that the shed blood pollutes the land. God could not dwell in an unclean place with His people. A sentence of justice had to be executed in response to the shedding of blood. While Numbers 35 teaches a principle of justice, God, in His mercy, also establishes His mercy in His provision of refuge cities. These were cities of mercy, depicting the mercy that sinners find in Christ.
Each of the cities of refuge were led by priests who functioned as elders. They were the ruling elders of each of these cities — representatives of the people within the city. The person who fled to a city of refuge had to remain in the city until the death of the High Priest. This was a principle of substitution that is meant to teach us about the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for sinners. Jesus is the city of refuge for sinners. All who flee to Him for safety from the guilt of their sin find rest for their souls and safety from the judgment of God.