Calvary Road Baptist Church


Exodus 21.13


I want to speak to you this morning about the cities of refuge. The cities of refuge were provided for in the Law of Moses as a unique way for the Jewish people to deal with cases of manslaughter, when someone accidentally caused the death of another person. The first allusion to cities of refuge is found when the children of Israel, only recently delivered from Egyptian bondage, were encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. There God gave to Moses the Law, and in that Law that would govern God’s chosen nation, was provision for the inadvertent taking of another’s life. Turn to Exodus 21.13, where mention is made of the provision that would be established once the people arrived in the land promised them: “And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.”

Later on, we are given the exact locations of what will turn out to be six safe hiding places known as cities of refuge. Though there are several passages that describe these cities of refuge, Numbers 35.6434 does as good a job as any of them to give us a picture of the way cities of refuge were to be employed:


4      And the suburbs of the cities, which ye shall give unto the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city and outward a thousand cubits round about.

5      And ye shall measure from without the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits; and the city shall be in the midst: this shall be to them the suburbs of the cities.

6      And among the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites there shall be six cities for refuge, which ye shall appoint for the manslayer that he may flee thither: and to them ye shall add forty and two cities.

7      So all the cities which ye shall give to the Levites shall be forty and eight cities: them shall ye give with their suburbs.

8      And the cities which ye shall give shall be of the possession of the children of Israel: from them that have many ye shall give many; but from them that have few ye shall give few: every one shall give of his cities unto the Levites according to his inheritance which he inheriteth.

9      And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

10     Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come over Jordan into the land of Canaan;

11     Then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares.

12     And they shall be unto you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.

13     And of these cities which ye shall give six cities shall ye have for refuge.

14     Ye shall give three cities on this side Jordan, and three cities shall ye give in the land of Canaan, which shall be cities of refuge.

15     These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that killeth any person unawares may flee thither.

16     And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.

17     And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.

18     Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.

19     The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer: when he meeteth him, he shall slay him.

20     But if he thrust him of hatred, or hurl at him by laying of wait, that he die;

21     Or in enmity smite him with his hand, that he die: he that smote him shall surely be put to death; for he is a murderer: the revenger of blood shall slay the murderer, when he meeteth him.

22     But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him any thing without laying of wait,

23     Or with any stone, wherewith a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm:

24     Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood according to these judgments:

25     And the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil.

26     But if the slayer shall at any time come without the border of the city of his refuge, whither he was fled;

27     And the revenger of blood find him without the borders of the city of his refuge, and the revenger of blood kill the slayer; he shall not be guilty of blood:

28     Because he should have remained in the city of his refuge until the death of the high priest: but after the death of the high priest the slayer shall return into the land of his possession.

29     So these things shall be for a statute of judgment unto you throughout your generations in all your dwellings.

30     Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.

31     Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death.

32     And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest.

33     So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.

34     Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel.


To review, there were a total of forty-eight Levitical cities, where all the priests of the tribe of Levi lived. Of those, God graciously provided six named cities that were designated cities of refuge. You will notice them pointed out on the map below: First, the cities of refuge were easily accessible. Two were on each side of the Jordan River in the north, two on each side of the Jordan River in the central region of the Promised Land, and two were on each side of the Jordan River in the south. The nearest one was no farther than one day’s travel from anywhere in the land. They were located not in the valleys but on the hills, visible to all. Next, the cities of refuge were appointed and selected long before they came into use, as we have seen. They were appointed while the children of Israel were still in the wilderness, before they had reached the land of promise. Third, the cities of refuge provided safety. The innocent man was kept within the walls until the high priest died. Then he was free to return to his loved ones. Finally, the cities of refuge were sufficient and perfect, as seen in the meanings of their names. Kadesh means sanctuary, or righteousness. Shechem means shoulder, which speaks of strength and the bearing of a burden. Hebron means fellowship. Bezer means fortress. Ramoth means exaltation. Golan means joy.[1]

Should a person in the Promised Land die as a result of any other person’s action, the smart thing for anyone responsible for that person’s death was to immediately run to the nearest city of refuge. I can assure you that every Jewish person knew where the closest city of refuge was located. The reason he had to run was to outpace the revenger of blood, the near relative of the person who lost his life. This is because the Law of Moses authorized the revenger of blood to kill on sight anyone in any way responsible for the death of his relative.

You can well imagine running to a city of refuge after a fatal accident, looking over your shoulder as a younger and faster man seeking revenge gained on you with each passing mile, determined to plunge the knife he held in his hand into your back. So long as the revenger caught you before you reached the city of refuge, he was permitted to take your life, while you were not permitted to either defend yourself against his attack or in any way harm him. After all, he was authorized to seek revenge for the loss of that person’s life at your hand. All you could do was run.

However, if you reached the city of refuge safely, the revenger could do nothing to you. The elders of the city would then preside over a trial to determine your guilt or innocence using the established rules of evidence. To find you guilty of any wrongdoing there had to be two eye witnesses, balancing the scales of justice in favor of the accused. If you had no proven involvement in anyone’s death, you were permitted to go free. However, if you were guilty of murder, or even the accidental death of another by means of an instrument of iron, a stone, or a weapon of wood (indicating that you had been foolish in your handling of a potentially lethal weapon), you would be executed.

Thus, if you threw a rock into the bushes and accidentally killed someone, or shot an arrow that accidentally hit and killed someone, you would be executed for not being more careful with a potentially deadly instrument. However, if it was established that you had not engaged in intentional homicide or the irresponsible accidental death of another, then you were sentenced for your part in that accidental death to confinement in the city of refuge until the high priest presently serving died, be it the sentence of a month, a year, or a decade. When the high priest died you were then free to return to your home and loved ones.

If your involvement in another’s death was purely accidental, and without the use of an instrument of iron, a stone, or a weapon of wood, and you were sentenced to confinement to the city of refuge, the revenger of blood was perfectly within his rights to take your life if he ever crossed paths with you outside the city, until the death of the high priest. For example: If you left the city to visit your dying mother before the high priest had died, the revenger of blood could kill you if he caught you outside the city, no matter the reason. In the Law of Moses, God authorized the revenger of blood to pursue the manslayer, and your safety as someone who accidentally took the life of another was guaranteed only within the limits of the city of refuge. Outside the city of refuge your life was forfeit.

Why are we dealing with the cities of refuge this morning? The cities of refuge are an example of what is called a type. A type is a divinely appointed illustration of some scriptural truth.[2] Sir Robert Anderson said, “The typology of the Old Testament is the very alphabet of the language in which the doctrine of the New Testament is written.”[3]

Let me give you one example of a type: Remember, in the Book of Genesis, when Jacob was fleeing his brother Esau, and one night he dreamed a dream of angels ascending to heaven and descending from heaven on a ladder? There is no other ladder found in the Bible. However, in John 1.51, the Lord Jesus Christ said these words to Nathaniel: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” Thus, Jesus identified the ladder in Jacob’s dream as a type of Him, the ladder by which a sinful man can reach a holy God. Jacob’s ladder is a type and Jesus is what is called the antitype.

Here is another example: Remember when God directed His prophet, Jonah, to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, and Jonah fled in the opposite direction by taking a ship to Tarshish?[4] I will let you read that small book in the Old Testament on your own for the details, but Jonah was thrown overboard in a raging storm and swallowed by a great fish God had prepared. Three days and nights later the fish vomited out Jonah on dry land.[5] More than six centuries later, the Lord Jesus Christ referred to the sign of the prophet Jonah, on two different occasions, as parallel to His own impending experience of being buried for three days and nights after His death and then being raised from the dead.[6] Thus, Jonah’s experience was a type of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

Thus, you see from these two examples what we see throughout the Old Testament with various types, vital New Testament doctrines wonderfully illustrated many centuries before the doctrines were ever concisely stated, establishing the validity and cohesiveness of God’s inspired and infallible Word. Cities of refuge illustrate important truths related to the salvation of our Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord.




Imagine yourself a young man of the tribe of Judah in the days before David was the king, tending your father’s flock of sheep with a friend from a nearby family that was related by marriage. Though you and the other young man are not blood relatives, you are very good friends, and always look forward to the approach of the feast days when the two of you travel with your fathers to Shechem, where the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant are located. Being young, healthy, and full of energy, the two of you are fond of hunting together with your slings and also with your bows and arrows, running races to see who is faster that day, but most of all wrestling. You really enjoy pitting your strength and agility against your evenly matched friend in a surprise wrestling match, begun without notice when one of you throws the other to the ground and the battle is on.

One day, however, when your friend thinks he has surprised you by sneaking up on you quietly, you are prepared to fend off his attack and you succeed in throwing him to the ground when he jumps you. However, he is caught so completely off guard that he hits the ground with a dreadful thud and lies motionless, not even breathing. At first you think he is pretending. Then you are terribly concerned for your best friend’s welfare. Gradually, when you realize that he has somehow died from the hard fall, you are overwhelmed with fear. You know his protective older brother is a fierce warrior, and is a veteran of many battles against the Philistines. When that man finds out his baby brother has died at your hand, no matter that it was an accident, he will come after you and he will kill you. You are no match for so seasoned a warrior.

Taking stock, you stand up and look around to see if there is anyone nearby, check to make sure you have enough water, and start to run. If you run hard, giving it all you have, it will still take you a full day to reach Hebron, the city of refuge. There is no time to get a message to your father. You have no opportunity to say goodbye to your mother. To spend time crying over the loss of your best friend, or shedding tears because you are afraid of dying, is out of the question. To delay means to die. Even if you do not delay, your friend’s brother has much more endurance than you do. If he catches you, he will kill you without hesitation.

Another problem, of course, is the amount of daylight left. Hebron is the nearest city of refuge, situated where it can easily be seen during the daylight hours. However, because most people go to bed as soon as the sun goes down, so they can rise up before dawn the next morning to get as much work done as possible before the heat of the day, it will be difficult to find your way after dark. There will be no light from camp fires or lamps. You may take a wrong turn. You may miss a sign marking the way. You are in great danger, and your fear is taking as much of a toll on your energy as does your running over the uneven terrain along the goat paths.

In the back of your mind as you run, you rehearse the events of your life. You try hard to remember the survival lessons your father has taught you. You are mindful of your mother’s tender insistence that you do exactly as your father has trained you. You also wish that you had paid closer attention on those infrequent journeys with your father to Hebron, because the way seems at times unfamiliar. However, to think too much of father and mother, to dwell too much on your fear, may cause you to make a silly mistake that will take you off the clearly marked path to Hebron. You must hurry to the city of refuge. Your only safety is in the city of refuge. You will live if you can reach the city of refuge. Once there you can mourn your friend’s loss. Once there you can feel sorry for what has happened. After you safely arrive you can send for your loved ones. The question is, will you reach the city of refuge before the revenger of blood reaches you?

As with Jacob’s ladder, and the sign of Jonah, and with other events that we have not taken the time to briefly consider, the details surrounding the city of refuge and the urgent need to safely arrive there before the revenger of blood catches you, is much like the salvation a sinner finds if he can but come to Christ in time.

Consider three things in connection with the cities of refuge as they relate to the salvation of Jesus:




Paul makes this very clear in Romans 12.19, where he alludes to Deuteronomy 32.25, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”

You may find this a bit puzzling, wondering why the Christian should not seek vengeance against a wrong done to him, but the Jewish man living under the Law of Moses was perfectly within his rights to seek vengeance when someone took the life of a kinsman. However, if you recognize that under the Law of Moses, God is seeking vengeance against one who has done wrong, only He has chosen to use a human instrument, the revenger of blood, to accomplish His purpose.

That typology in the Old Testament speaks to a spiritual truth clearly explained in the New Testament. As the Jewish manslayer in days gone by had broken the Law of Moses, so every sinner has sinned against God. First John 3.4 declares, “sin is the transgression of the law.” “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God,” Romans 3.23. Then there is Romans 6.23, which reads, “For the wages of sin is death.”

How does God react in the face of sins committed against His august majesty? What is His reaction when the fist is raised in rebellion against Him? “God is angry with the wicked every day,” Psalm 7.11. “. . . our God is a consuming fire,” Hebrews 12.29. Therefore, while He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” Second Peter 2.3, He has determined that “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”[7]

Thus, my unsaved friend, where you had the revenger of blood pursuing the manslayer to catch him before he was safely inside the city of refuge as an Old Testament type, the New Testament shows God to be the antitype. If there is an encounter between you, the fleeing sinner, and God, before your arrival at the city of refuge, you will perish without hope of deliverance.




As the cities of refuge were on hills, visible from every angle, the Lord Jesus Christ was lifted up on Calvary’s cross as the sinner’s Substitute.

As the cities of refuge were appointed and selected well in advance of them coming into use, so was Jesus Christ the long-promised Savior sent to deliver sinners from our sins. He was promised in Genesis 3.15, but actual plans had been made in the counsel chambers of heaven before the foundation of the world, First Peter 1.20.

As those six cities provided safety from the revenger of blood, so the Lord Jesus Christ is the place of safe refuge from the wrath of God. However, while the manslayer had to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, our Great High Priest has conquered death, having risen from the dead to die no more.

Finally, as those cities of refuge were sufficient and perfect to provide the deliverance of the manslayer from the punishment of the revenger of blood, so the Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient to deliver us from the wrath of God. Hebrews 7.25 reads, “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.”

Therefore, you see that the Lord Jesus Christ is the antitype of the Old Testament city of refuge. Perfectly situated, easy to get to, within the reach of any man, able to provide safety and security. As the cities of refuge provided physical safety, so the Lord Jesus Christ provides perfect safety for your eternal and undying soul.




What good was a city of refuge to the manslayer who did not flee there for safety from the revenger of blood? What safety was a city of refuge for the manslayer who was chased down on his way to the city of refuge by the revenger of blood? When you are not in the place of safety, protected from the legal and just consequences of your actions, you suffer the full and just punishment of the Law.

Thus, had our young Jewish sheep herder been caught by the older brother of the best friend who accidentally died at his hand, he would have been rightly, properly, legally, and appropriately punished under the Law for his actions, however unintended. He would have been slain.

How much more deserving are you of God’s punishment for your sins against Him should you and God cross paths before you come to the safety that can only be found in Christ? You see, safety is not found in good intentions. Neither is safety found in good deeds. The only place where safety for the soul can be found is Jesus Christ, your city of refuge.

Fortunate it is for you, then, that the Lord Jesus Christ is not hard to find. He is perfectly situated on high at the Father’s right hand, so anyone with the eye of faith can simply look to Him and live, or come to Him in a moment and be saved. However, you must come to Him, or else you will perish. And you can come to Him, since, as with the cities of refuge, the way is well marked and the gates are always open.

All that is required is that you take note of the danger you are in, the urgency of the hour, and the importance that you act . . . now! No time to get a message to dad. No time to say anything to mom. “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”[8]


So, what will you do? Will you dawdle? Will you distract yourself? Will you justify doing nothing by insisting that you are somehow not ready? Would protesting that he was not ready to die have helped that young shepherd when his friend’s older brother caught up with him? No.

Since you do not know how close God is to apprehending you, and since you have no idea what lies in store for you in the future, I have a suggestion in light of a consideration of what will happen if you are set upon before you reach the city of refuge, before you make it to Christ.

My suggestion is that you flee to Christ, flee from your sins, flee from the wrath of God, right now. God said, “I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.” That place is Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Flee now. Flee to Jesus.

[1] J. Edwin Hartill, Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1947), pages 54-55.

[2] Ibid., page 48.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jonah 1

[5] Jonah 2.10

[6] Matthew 12.38-41; 16.4

[7] Ezekiel 18.4, 20

[8] James 4.4

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