I've been thinking a lot these days about the levitcal cities of refuge described at the end of the Book of Numbers (chpt 35).
In case it's been a while since you waded through the Book of Numbers, let me refresh your memory. It's right at the end of the desert wanderings, and the new generation of Israel is about to enter the Promised Land, Israel's ancient inheritance. So the Lord gives Moses instructions about the boundaries of Canaan, and some general directives on divvying up the land to the 12 tribes. Namely: they are to assign the land by lot to the nine and a half tribes of Israel entering Canaan (keeping in mind that two and a half tribes have already received their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan).
But then Numbers 35 reminds us that the tribe of Levi isn't going to be getting an allotment in Canaan because, as 18:20 has already indicated, Aaron (and by extension, the whole tribe of Levi with him) will have no inheritance in the land. Instead, the Lord himself is going to be the priestly tribe's inheritance among the Israelites. Rather than receiving a portion of the land, Levi is to receive simply "towns to live in from the inheritance of the [other] Israelites." These towns are scattered evenly throughout the Promised Land, seeding (in effect) a priestly presence in-and-among the whole people of God.
You can read in Joshua 20:1-9 how this command is carried out, but what strikes me here is that the Lord specifically identifies six of the Levitical towns as "cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone may flee." The idea is quite simple: in the case of murder, tribal codes of the sort especially prevalent among a nomadic society like Moses' Israel would require a blood relative to maintain tribal honour by avenging a murdered family member (see Genesis 34 for dark evidence that such codes were well known among nomadic Israelite society).
But such tribal customs and the violent blood feuds they inevitably perpetuate are deeply at odds with a civil society like the one Israel will become, as she stands at the threshold of the Promised Land and looks ahead to her future. In civil society, justice must be carried out by an impartial assembly according to a standard code of law; retaliation and vigilantianism has no place in a society governed by God's Shalom.
So God sets aside six of the Levitical towns as cities of refuge-- cities of asylum to which an accused killer can flee until he has stood trial and his case has been heard; and cities of shalom, where the innocent can escape the tribal custom of honour killings.
Now, I don't want to read too much into this, but here's what I can't get off my mind today: the priestly tribe had no inheritance in the land other than a special place in the Lord's plan to mediate his Shalom to the people. And with this inheritance came the cities of refuge; and with them came a calling to be a people among whom the accused found shelter, where the guilty found asylum and the harried found refuge until God's Shalom had obtained in their lives (in this case in the form of a fair and impartial trial).
And you can't reflect on all this very long before you remember that 1 Peter 2:5-9 specifically identifies followers of Jesus Christ as the priesthood of believers that the tribe of Levi prefigured and foreshadowed in the Old Testament. And if it's true, what Peter says about Christians there, and it's true what Numbers says about the inheritance of the priestly tribe here, then it would mean that in Christ we have inherited a calling to be "cities of refuge." Our communities are to be places where the accused, the guilty and the harried can find shelter so that the Shalom of God can obtain in their lives (in this case in the form of the unmerited, all-gracious justification of God through faith in Christ); what's more, this calling specifically and directly precludes any material inheritance "in the land" (i.e. the comfort, wealth, privilege and security that such an inheritance would have meant for an ancient Israelite).
And the obvious questions are staring me in the face: am I part of a community of faith that has traded in the wealth and security of its "inheritance in the land" for the privilege of being a "city of refuge" like this? And harder still: Am I willing to belong to such a community of faith? And hardest of all: what's my role in helping my church be the city of refuge that God in Numbers 35 is calling it to be?
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