God made us to be emotional and to love justice. Our emotions motivate us to pursue justice. God also knows that our emotions can cloud our thinking such that vengeance is not based on justice. So, in the Old Testament, the Lord established cities of refuge. There, people who were guilty might find asylum until the truth could be fully known. Only then would retribution be inflicted on those found guilty (Exodus 21:12-14, Numbers 35:10-15, Deuteronomy 19:1-13, Joshua 20).
The undergirding principle of the cities of refuge is that our emotions must be harnessed by the truth as we seek justice. Facts must bridle our feelings. Only then will we love life the way we should.
The Old Testament laws of the cities of refuge deal specifically with manslaughter and murder – the greatest injustice that could be done because it involves taking a person’s life. The principle is to govern the way we deal with all lesser injustices, hurts, and losses. We may endure loss of life in our family, what we perceive to be a harsh word from a friend, or the disappearance of the candy bar we had stashed away to enjoy later. Whatever the case, God’s law is aiming for our hearts through these ancient laws.
In Deuteronomy 19, the Lord charged Israel to establish three or perhaps six cities as cities of refuge (v. 2, 8-9). They were to be distributed evenly throughout the land so that if a man accidentally killed someone else he could run to that city for asylum. The avenger of blood who was responsible to seek justice could not touch the man in this place of safety until the facts were known and guilt was determined (v. 4-6). When the facts of the case were established, then justice was to be done. Either the offender was to live in the case of an accidental death (v. 6) or be put to death in the case of premeditated murder in order to purge the guilt of innocent blood from the land (v. 11-13).
The text goes on to show that the Lord governs the land with his timeless, objective truth as illustrated by the ancient landmarks (v. 14). Then, to render justice in particular circumstances in time and space, the evidence of two or three witnesses would be necessary to convict a person of a crime (v. 15-21). When a man was found guilty, the avenger of blood was to be the first to take responsibility for the execution (v. 12, also Deuteronomy 13:9).
The general equity of these laws ought to be reflected in the laws of our land, and we see that in a variety of ways. But for now, let’s consider how these laws ought to govern our lives personally.
It is so easy for us to have a skewed view of reality when our feelings have been hurt. Sometimes, we look at a circumstance in our life and establish in our minds what the reality is. We impugn motives to others that are not true or fair. In no time at all, our jury of one condemns the other person as guilty. We are ready to avenge. It may not always be a matter of life or death, but we are ready to take a little bit of the life of a brother or sister – a pound of flesh, as it were – in retaliation for what we perceive they have taken from us. But just because one person is hurt or experiences loss does not mean that another person has sinned against him.
Sometimes witnesses come forward as we follow the instructions of Matthew 18:15-20, and we find that our charges are baseless, mistaken, or at least cannot be sustained by two or three witnesses. What then? God calls us to check our emotions and align our feelings with truth. Even when we feel certain we know the truth and simply could not substantiate it using God’s appointed structure, we are not to take revenge but rather to leave vengeance to God who promises that he will repay (Romans 12:19). Which one will we love more: what we feel is true? Or what is confirmed by due process as truth?
God’s design calls for truth to be known and for that truth to govern life. God has made us with emotions to seek right in the case of wrong, but he does not allow our perspective to justify vigilantism either in attitude or action.
The same principles hold for social justice movements of our day. We need to vigorously seek the truth where charges of injustice are brought. Feelings must be considered, but they cannot be the arbiter of truth. The Old Testament’s safe spaces were not designed to be places where people’s feelings could be protected. They were places designed to protect people from the feelings of others until the truth could be known. When the truth was known, justice was to be carried out in the name of the Lord who loves righteousness. Then, life was to move forward. Obviously, these principles are harder to apply than to articulate, but that difficulty does not invalidate timeless truth. Though societal structures should be altered as needed to help bring justice, they can only accomplish so much. Hearts must be changed for true and lasting change to be established. To that end we must pray.
Finally, while the truth of these laws is profoundly helpful in governing our lives, there is one great problem that these laws cannot address by themselves. We are all guilty. We deserve death because of our cosmic treason against God. We have no safe place left to ourselves. Consequently, we all die because God is the ultimate avenger of blood. Yet, the Hebrew word “avenger of blood” is also the word that means “redeemer.” God has redeemed his people by sending his Son, Jesus, as a substitute for his own. His blood was shed for sin in the greatest act of injustice the world has ever seen at the cross of Calvary, so that God might be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 4:21-24). In God’s economy, justice is always served.
The only lasting city of refuge is the city of our God established through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.