Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The Lord also spake unto Joshua, saying,

Speak to the children of Israel, saying, Appoint out for you cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses:

That the slayer that killeth any person unawares and unwittingly may flee thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood….

Joshua 20

Under Joshua the children of Israel had taken possession of the land of Canaan.

The land had been divided by lot to the twelve tribes, each one receiving its inheritance.

Now was the time for the appointment of the cities of refuge. The Lord had given detailed instructions concerning this through Moses. These details are recorded in Numbers 35 andDeuteronomy 19. Under Joshua these cities are now appointed.

In general we may say that these cities of refuge were havens of safety for those who accidentally killed a neighbor.

These cities served as types or pictures of a greater refuge, Jesus Christ, in whom both Old Testament Israel and the church of all ages find a refuge from all sin.

That this is true is evident from Hebrews 6:18, which speaks of the consolation of those “who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.” Notice, the New Testament saints flee for refuge. This is an obvious reference to the Old Testament cities of refuge. The New Testament saints flee for refuge, even as the Old Testament saints fled for refuge in the cities of refuge. They do this by fleeing to Jesus Christ, in whom they find the hope that is set before them. This makes the Old Testament cities of refuge a type or picture of the refuge we have in Jesus Christ.

To this refuge we must flee, as did the Old Testament saints when they fled to the cities of refuge.


Key to understanding the cities of refuge is the avenger of blood mentioned twice in this chapter.

The word “avenger” has the primary meaning of doing the part of a kinsman or relative. This was to redeem his near relative from difficulty or danger. The word is most often translated “redeemer.” An example of a person’s acting as a redeemer is the repurchasing of a field that a close relative had to sell in time of great need. Another example is the redeeming (or buying out of slavery) of a relative who sold himself into bondage in a time of poverty. It was the calling of everyone in Israel to be such a redeemer, should the opportunity arise.

In connection with the cities of refuge, we are talking about a redeemer who was a redeemer of blood. His work of redemption was to avenge the murder of a close relative.

Immediately after the flood, God informed Noah, “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (Gen. 9:6). This establishes the principle of capital punishment. One who takes the life of another must forfeit his own life.

In Israel the responsibility of slaying the murderer fell to the next of kin of the one slain. When a murder took place, a price had to be paid. The price was the life of the murderer. This price was to be exacted by the next of kin. In this way he acted as redeemer, not now to pay a price to help a close relative but to exact the price of the life of the one who murdered his relative.

As the term “avenger of blood” suggests, this was an act of vengeance. It was not, however, to be an act of personal revenge. This is repeatedly forbidden by the Lord in Scripture.Romans 12:19, for example, warns us, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” From this we conclude that the next of kin who shed the blood of the murderer was acting on behalf of God. He was executing the vengeance of God. Today God avenges the act of murder through the state. In Bible times He did this through the next of kin.

God also regulated how His vengeance was to be executed. He did this with the cities of refuge.

The cities of refuge were designed to protect those who had killed a neighbor unawares and unwittingly. The Lord made a distinction inNumbers 35 between the one who in hatred lay in wait to kill another, whether with a stone, a piece of iron, or a club, and the one who accidentally took the life of another whom he did not hate and whom he did not seek to harm. The latter were afforded refuge and safety in these cities of refuge. The former were not.

The Lord through Moses specified that, upon entering Canaan, the people must pick six cities of refuge. Before entering Canaan, those who accidentally killed a neighbor could find refuge at the altar of the tabernacle (Ex. 21:12-14). However, once the people of Israel were in Canaan, distance would render successful flight difficult for many. Therefore God specified that six cities of refuge be established in Canaan, three on each side of the Jordan River. Under Joshua Israel appointed Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Shechem in mount Ephraim, and Kirjath-arba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah. And on the other side Jordan by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness upon the plain out of the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh (Josh. 20:7, 8).

The regulations that the Lord laid down for refuge in these cities were simple. One who fled to one of the cities of refuge was to receive temporary asylum until he could appear before the congregation to substantiate that he was innocent of premeditated murder. If found guilty of such murder, he was given over to the avenger of blood to be slain. If the congregation determined that he had killed another by accident, the fugitive was received into the city. He was to stay there until the death of the high priest. Were the avenger of blood to encounter the fugitive outside the city, he could legally kill him. After the death of the high priest the fugitive could return home a “free” man. He could not be redeemed by payment to the family whose member he had accidentally killed. Only the death of the high priest could redeem him.


All this points to a greater refuge in Jesus Christ.

To understand Jesus as our great refuge, we must bear in mind that God is the Avenger of blood. Through Moses God said of Himself, “I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me” (Deut. 32:41). Now, normally, the vengeance of God is spoken of in Scripture in the context of God’s taking revenge on the wicked for what they have done to His beloved people. But we may not forget that, by nature, the elect church is also the enemy of God. She forms the heart of the human race that fell in Adam. The original sin of man corrupted her as well, so that she is depraved and defiled with sin. In her natural state she is no different than the world. She is the enemy of God, filled with hate, able only to break every commandment of God. By her sin she dishonors and offends the living God. She also does great injury to her fellow man.

God is a just God, who must and will take vengeance on the sin of His church. Let’s not overlook this. God is the God of all goodness and perfection. He is the light, and in Him is no darkness at all. To maintain Himself as such, God must show His complete disapproval against sin, all sin, even the sin of His beloved church. He does this by punishing their sin to the extreme. For God to do anything less than this would be to deny Himself and His goodness. Consequently, God is the Avenger of blood against all those who fall into sin. He takes vengeance on all those who through sin dishonor Him and injure their neighbor.

But God has provided a refuge for His people in Jesus Christ.

In addition to being the Avenger of blood, God is the Redeemer of the church.

He is this because He is the next of kin. God has eternally chosen the church as His own. He has even ordained the church to be His family, his sons and daughters. This makes Him their next of kin. As the next of kin, the Lord obligates Himself to redeem His people from the vengeance of His own justice.

In this case redemption requires the payment of a price. The price is not silver and gold. That would be an easy thing for the Lord to pay, since all the silver and gold are His. No, He must find someone who will stand in the place of His beloved church, stand before Him with the guilt of His people and bear all the vengeance of His wrath against their sin. There is only one who can do this—His only begotten Son in our flesh. And so, in His great love and mercy for His church, God sent His only begotten Son into our flesh. Upon His Son He poured out the vials of His wrath and vengeance. All His life long, but especially at the cross, the Son endured this wrath until it was all gone. There is now no more vengeance of wrath left for the church. She is free from all vengeance.

This saving, redeeming work of Christ on the cross was typified in the Old Testament by the death of the high priest. Only when the high priest died was the manslayer in the Old Testament finally free from the avenger of blood. This looked ahead to the death of a greater High Priest, whose death would forever free the church from the great Avenger.

In keeping with the nature of Old Testament types, what the church has in Christ is much greater than what she had in the Old Testament cities of refuge. With the cities of refuge it was only the person not guilty of premeditated murder who found refuge. In Christ one can find refuge from the Avenger for murder and sin of every kind.


To find safety from the avenger of blood in the Old Testament, one had to flee to the nearest city of refuge. If the avenger of blood could catch him, he could rightfully kill the manslayer before he was able to reach a city of refuge. And should the manslayer stray outside the city after receiving refuge, he could legally be slain by the avenger of blood. It was only the foolhardy who failed to flee to the city of refuge or who left it before the death of the high priest.

In like manner must we flee to the refuge God has given the church in Jesus Christ.

We flee to this great refuge by faith. True faith leads one to a godly sorrow over sin, to a proper confession of sin, and then to cling to the cross to lay hold of Christ’s payment for sin. This is how we flee to the refuge of God.

Let us flee to God’s refuge daily.

Those who are foolish enough not to flee to this refuge will be pursued by the great Avenger of blood and be destroyed.

Those who flee to this refuge in the wisdom of faith will find safety and the hope of eternal life.