Deuteronomy 19:3 (CSB)
3 You are to determine the distances and divide the land the Lord your God is granting you as an inheritance into three regions, so that anyone who commits manslaughter can flee to these cities.
This passage establishes the idea of “cities of refuge” in the promised land. It is interesting how God foresees the need for these “sanctuary cities” in the land he is giving to the Israelites, and there is plenty to note about this:
- Just because we are where God leads us, it doesn’t mean everything will be roses. People are going to die. We are cognizant of sin, and that one effect of sin is that people kill other people. But what we don’t always think about is that the effects of sin have leaked over into non-intended consequences. Just look at the hypothetical scenario Moses outlines in Deut. 19:5: this is not a premeditated (“previously hating”) thing, it is an accident. But even when the Israelites are in Canaan, following God’s commands, bad things are going to happen.
- God has a plan! Even though sin has crept into every nook and cranny, God has a plan to deal with it. Note that it is not prevention of every bad thing! That day will come, but it is not now. But God is all about protecting the innocent, and designed a system to do just that.
- Everything is not black and white. The hypothetical that Moses gives is pretty clear, but this command does not apply only to the situation of an ax head flying off a handle mid-chop. Obviously it establishes a principle, which is then to be applied to other circumstances. Just like the rest of God’s law, it is all about intent. And, thankfully, God provides guidance even for that through his Spirit!
- It’s about retribution, not revenge. Notice two things: 1) God creates a situation where the avenger will not be able to overtake the killer (Deut. 19:6-7), 2) The “elders of his city” are the ones to call for the return of a murderer (Deut. 19:12). Revenge, for this purpose, can be thought of as a personal vengeance, getting someone back for an act, while retribution is a legal punishment for an act. Revenge is an act of anger, retribution is an act of justice. God, being just, devised a system that facilitated justice, and protected us from taking sinful revenge.
Lord, thank you for your foresight and justice. We should not be fooled into thinking that being your child means nothing bad or terrible will ever happen to us, but it does mean we should trust in your ways and plans to handle those scenarios, as difficult as it might be. I am sorry for the times when my anger takes over, and seek only revenge. I pray for grace and mercy, a just heart, and sensitivity to your leading. Amen.