6 Cities of Refuge – teaching about the salvation of Christ

When we look back in time we see that the laws and requirements of God had been given to Moses. Included amongst these requirements was the need for cities of refuge. So let’s read about the requirements of these cities of refuge in Numbers chapter 35.

Click here to read Numbers chapter 35.

Joshua was always scrupulously obedient to the requirements of God which were given to Moses. So he proceeded to carry out the law in relation to the Cities of Refuge. We can read about this in Joshua chapter 20.

Click here to read Joshua chapter 20.

So we can see from these two readings that in the case of deliberate murder, the Law permitted the Avenger of Blood to exact punishment, essentially a life for a life. But to guard against a miscarriage of justice, Cities of Refuge were appointed where the accused could flee so that his case could be considered properly away from the emotions that death always brings. These Cities of Refuge were designed to provide Divine protection for the manslayer. But the Law did make a clear distinction between premeditated murder and unintentional manslaughter.

There were six cities of refuge. The actual distribution of the cities of refuge was based on the geography of the area. To be of any use, a city of refuge had to be accessible. For this reason, three were placed on either side of the river Jordan. There were good roads leading to each city, which provided the easy access for all of Israel.

The nature of flesh

To start our consideration of the Cities of Refuge we need to firstly consider the nature of flesh. Paul in Romans gives a very good description of the spiritual aspect of the flesh. We can read about this chapter 8 and verses 5 to 8.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

So here Paul is talking about two principles operating in the believer’s life – these are the flesh and the spirit. He goes on to tell us that these two principles are at war with each other. But when Paul told us about this in the first century he wasn’t telling us about something new. For this war had been part of our existence since Adam and Eve. Under the law, all blood, even animal blood, had to be accounted for. So “the flesh” was to be always kept under observation, its activities were always to be monitored so that it would never gain the upper hand in its warfare against the Spirit. For example, if animals were killed for food, their blood was to be brought to the door of the tabernacle if it were close enough, or else it was to be poured out and covered with dust.

When a slaughtered animal’s blood was brought to the tabernacle, the priest would sprinkle the blood on the altar, this would demonstrate that death is the common lot of all creation, and it acknowledged the justice of God’s condemnation. So if this was the necessary with the blood of an animal, then how much more so for the blood of an human.

The blood of man

A man’s blood could be shed in two ways – on purpose or by accident. If someone was killed on purpose then it was murder. But what would be the action if someone was a murderer? Numbers chapter 35 and verse 19 gives us the answer.

The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. 

So the revenger of blood would come after the murderer and kill him. The principle behind this was explained to Noah when he left the ark. We can read about this in Genesis chapter 9 and verses 5 and 6.

Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. “ Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God he made man.

You will notice that towards the end of verse five there is the phrase “at the hand of every man’s brother”. Now this can be understood in two ways:

  1. It teaches that all men are brethren and, if one kills another, then God will require retribution. An example of this is when Cain was called to account for Abel’s death.
  2. The phrase can also show a man’s responsibility to avenge his brother’s death. When a man was murdered, a near kinsman avenged his blood. This is reinforced by the statement in verse six that whoever kills a man would himself be killed by man.
    But ofcourse not all men kill with intent. The principle laid out in verse six does not clearly distinguish between murder and accidental killing. So there was a serious risk that one who killed by accident would himself lose his life through a avenger of blood.

This is where the Cities of Refuge comes into play.

The cities of Refuge

To guard against a miscarriage of justice, Cities of Refuge were appointed where the accused could flee so that his case may be properly considered free from the emotionalism that death usually brings with it. The accused manslayer had to stand before the tribunal of the people. By doing this, two principles were achieved:

  1. The accused’s life was not put at risk by the arbitrary actions of the avenger of blood.
  2. The question of intent could be decided in an impartial court, so that the interests of the slain man’s family could also be safeguarded, for the cities of refuge were never intended to harbour murderers.

But even if the manslayer was found innocent of the crime and was vindicated he did not get off completely. He had to stay within the city of refuge for the rest of the life of the high priest. The other way was if he died himself. If the avenger of blood were to defy the law and take the manslayer’s life either inside the city of refuge, or outside it after the high priest’s death, then he would himself become a murderer. But if the avenger of blood found the manslayer outside the city of refuge before the high priest’s death, and took his life, then the dead man had brought about his own downfall, and the case was closed.

The defilement by blood

The provisions made for the innocent manslayer did have a spiritual significance. So for the remainder of this commentary we will find out what this significance is.

First of all let’s read Numbers chapter 35 and verses 32 to 33.

And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the priest. 33 So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.

It is saying in verse 33 that blood will defile the land. Now when we think about defilement we probably think of ceremonial defilement under the law of Moses. For under the law of Moses it was a sign of sin having entered that thing which is defiled. Whenever blood was shed, the sin which had contributed to the man’s death, and was represented by his blood, was absorbed by the land which was defiled as a consequence. Whenever life was violently terminated, even accidentally, the law required that this be seen to show the way in which sin destroys. As a result some sort of recompense was needed. A killer put himself on the side of sin, by killing someone. For even if he had killed someone accidentially, he has still taken someone’s life which is strictly the prerogative of sin. He had put a man to death, which normally only sin can do. So his actions had made him “sin” even if only accidentally.

Now if we take this to the next step, we know that since sin brings death, it must be destroyed, therefore the killer who has also brought death must also be killed.
This is verified by verse 33 of Numbers chapter 35 when it says:

“…The land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it”.

Now the use of the word “land” meant more than the physical surface of the earth – it also included the people. The defilement of sin, in the matter of taking life, was extended to the community. It was also the community that had the responsibility for its expiation (the act of atonement – amend for something done which was wrong). For example, if the death was through murder then Deuteronomy chapter 21 made it clear that the whole community would get involved. If a man was found slain and there was no clue as to who might be the killer, then the slain man’s blood would be expiated through the death of a heifer appointed for the purpose. This would be followed by the solemn renunciation of responsibility by the community which had dwelled nearest his body. So in the cases of taking of a life through murder the whole community was involved.

However if the taking of a life was by accident then the accidental manslayer could not, with justice, be put to death to expiate the blood of his victim. But there is a important principle that comes into play here. As the manslayer, fleed to one of the cities of refuge to be absolved from the responsibility of the “sin” of his actions, the same principle applies for those who seek refuge in Christ for identification with Christ absolves the sin.

The High Priest

The manslayer was to stay within the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. This concept indicates that the high priest represented all who sought refuge, and bore the iniquity of the spilled blood to his own grave. By doing this he released the manslayer from the burden of accountability. This is appropriate for two reasons:

  1. The high priest was head of the tribe of Levi.
  2. All the cities of refuge were Levitical cities. The activities of the cities of refuge therefore came under his responsibility.

Even more importantly, the high priest, as spiritual leader, represented purity and freedom from sin. One of his roles was to expiate innocently shed blood.

The names of the cities of Refuge

As mentioned at the start of this commentary there were six cities of refuge. Three were situated to the west of the Jordan River and three were situated to the east. The names of the six cities are significant and spell out the principles of salvation in Christ. They proclaim that the City of Refuge in other words, the Lord Jesus Christ will consecrate, sustain, unite in fellowship, protect, cheer and ultimately deliver all faithful believers.

Verse seven and eight of Joshua chapter twenty list out the six cities.

So they appointed Kedesh in Galilee, in the mountains of Naphtali, Shechem in the mountains of Ephraim, and Kirjath Arba (which is Hebron) in the mountains of Judah. 8 And on the other side of the Jordan, by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness on the plain, from the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh.

The first one listed is Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali. Kedesh means to sanctify, set apart, consecrate and therefore to make holy.

Shechem in Mount Ephraim. The word Shechem means between the shoulders or burden bearer.

Kirjatharba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah.
Kirjatharba signifies City of the Four which typically points to the Holy City of the Age to come. For this Holy City we are told lies foursquare. Hebron means Joining or fellowship. So through Christ, a believer is inducted into the Foursquare city of the future, and enjoying Fellowship with the Father and the Son.

Bezer in the wilderness upon the plain out of the tribe of Reuben. Bezer signifies a fortified place and reuben is an exclaimation: See a son! So protection is afforded those who clearly see and understand the relationship of the Father and Son in its bearing.

Ramoth in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad. The word Ramoth is derived from raam signifying to be high, raised up, exalted. Gilead is derived from the word signifying, The Heap of Witness and Gad is company. So the name of this city promises elevation with the company of witnesses to the truth.

Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh.
Golan is said to be derived from Galah, to Remove, Deliver or Pass away. It could also be derived from gai signifying To rejoice. So it is rejoicing through deliverance.

The city of Refuge and the salvation of Christ

When we look at the rules involved with the cities of refuge we see that it is representative of the salvation of Christ.

RuleSpiritual application
1The manslayer in Israel accidentally committed an action that he would have avoided if he could have. So he had to flee to the city of refuge to protect himself. The high priest at the city of refuge would then intercede so that the manslayer would be protected from the normal consequence of his actions.In the same way, the believer became conscious of sin through actions that he would have avoided if only he could have. So he has to flee for refuge by covering himself with the sin-bearing name of Jesus in baptism. Jesus is high priest who through his intercession arranges for the sins of the believer to be passed over by God.
2Strictly speaking, the only way to make reparation for the sin of manslaughter was by spilling the blood of the manslayer – this was not a practical reality in the days of Israel. So the high priest took action under the law.What the high priest did symbolically under the law, Jesus, as our representative before God, actually did. He beared our iniquity in the shedding of his own blood. The blood shed at Calvary was the blood of Jesus. However, the flesh represented by his blood was the flesh of all others who would make a covenant by sacrifice with the God of Jesus.
3The manslayer could only leave the city of refuge after the death of the high priest.The believer can never leave the place of refuge as the high priest will die no more.
4The inhabitants of the cities of refuge were required to take in and look after those who came to them.In the same way, we who have fled to Christ must do our best to persuade others who will be overtaken by sin to lay hold upon the hope set before us.
5When the manslayer’s case was finally determined, it was the congregation’s place to pronounce judgement.In the same way today, it is the responsibility of the church to decide whether one who seeks for affiliation is genuinely seeking for refuge. We do this when we interview candidates for baptism.

Hebrews chapter 6 and verses 18 to 20 nicely summarise the spiritual side of the Cities of refuge.

that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

Paul is saying in these verses that as believers and sinners we flee for the safety of the city of refuge. This city of refuge represents the Lord Jesus Christ. For it here that we lay hold upon the hope set before us. It is this hope that will be anchor for us. We are like a ship, which is tossed in the tempestuous sea of life, but as long as we are attached to the rope and anchor we will be drawn to safety.

As it says towards the end of verse 19, “he enters into that within the veil”. In the past Aaron entered within the veil to the Most Holy Place before the presence of God. No one followed him. In Jesus Christ, we have a priest who has entered into Heaven itself, and who as yet, has not come out. Whilst he is in there, he represents man in the presence of God, and will ultimately bring them into immortality which is the state represented by the Most Holy Place.
As it says in the last part of verse twenty, Jesus was made the high priest for ever. So when we have come under the protection of Jesus as the great High Priest we will have his protection for ever.


The surprising thing when we look through the scriptures is that we can find no actual example recorded of someone actually using the cities of refuge. Yet despite this we see the appointment of these Cities was an act of grace and mercy which foreshadowed those characteristics manifested by the Lord. Unfortunately, in the symbolic application of the Cities of Refuge, comparatively few take heed of the offer of grace in Christ Jesus, and so are destroyed by the Avenger of blood, sin in the flesh.

Let each one of us commit ourselves to dwelling in the city of Refuge. For it is only here that we will live in safety both now and in the future.