The dreadful experience my wife endured as a child during the World War II Allied bombing of Berlin has given me a deeper appreciation for Old Testament cities of refuge.
The experience of war was thoroughly terrifying for her. She tells of spending two weeks in an underground bunker as the conflict raged above. The sounds, the smells, the concussion of ord- nance, the intense heat of the bunker walls, the trembling of the ground beneath them. Then, silence . . . and waiting. She speaks too of finding comfort and encouragement in the companionship of neighbors in those uncomfortable quarters.
Her shelter stored adequate supplies of drinking water and basic food items essential in sustaining them while in the refuge. And the bunker provided more-than-sufficient protection right in the midst of the chaos. Their safety was assured, their needs met, as they remained in the bunker. It wasn’t enough to know about or simply be near the bunker. Protection meant stepping inside the bunker and remaining behind its strong walls.
For me the bunker relates directly to the Old Testament city of refuge. God instructed Joshua to select three cities on each side of the river Jordan to be cities of refuge, “that the manslayer who kills any person accidentally may flee there. They shall be cities of refuge for you from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation in judgment. . . . You shall appoint three cities on this side of the Jordan, and three cities you shall appoint in the land of Canaan” (Num. 35:10-14).
In times when “life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut. 19:21; see also Ex. 21:24), those cities were the only hope of survival for many innocent people. Access needed to be always open for one who by accident might have wounded another to death.
Roads leading to refuge cities needed to be clear and well maintained. Nothing was to delay a fugitive’s safe and prompt arrival. And the cities were strategically situated so that none of them was more than a half-day’s journey from any location.
Once legitimately in, no one could be attacked inside the city, or thrown out of the city.
Refugee status was protected, of all things, by the life of the high priest: an accused person, tried and found not guilty of deliberate murder, was still imperiled if they stepped outside the protective precincts of their city of refuge. Only upon the death of the high priest could anyone who was known to have taken the life of another walk free.
What amazing lessons of salvation those cities teach! Humanity, sinners all, doomed to eternal death (Rom. 6:23), may find escape from our sentence only by the death of our High Priest. His name is Jesus (Heb. 3:1). And those who acknowl- edge Him are, by His death, delivered from doom, reconciled to God (Rom. 5:10), and safe forever in heaven’s love (John 3:16).
The way to those cities—Hebron, Golan, Kedesh, etc.—needed to be kept clear. But salvation’s boulevard is clearer and swifter than them all. Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, is present to us at every moment. In Him we have already arrived, for He is the way to life, and the way of life (John 14:6). Whoever has Jesus has life (1 John 5:12).
God be praised for the infinite bounty of spiritual lessons we may learn through Old Testament types and symbols. They include this compelling message of those ancient cities: sinner though I be, I’m safe in Jesus; not “near” Him; not informed about Him; simply in Him: in Jesus. For there’s “no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
Lee Schappell, a retired businessman, enjoys ministry to local personal-care homes with the New Earth Band. He resides, with his wife, Elsa, in Reading, Pennsylvania.