When Old Testament believers read their Bibles, they were asking the same two questions that we ask when we read the Old Testament:
1. What does the passage reveal about God?
2. What does this passage reveal about the coming Savior?
They knew they were not just reading a national history about themselves and their ancient ancestors. They knew they were reading about God and their promised Messiah.
Let’s take these two questions to the Old Testament passages that describe the cities of refuge (Numbers 35, Deuteronomy 19, Joshua 20). These were six cities in Israel that God designated as places where anyone who accidentally killed someone could run for safety from the family members who wanted to exact vengeance upon them.
What would the Israelites learn about God and the coming Savior from reading about these cities?
1. God is just: Blood-shedding was to be punished: by death if deliberate, by exile in the refuge cities if accidental.
2. God is merciful: God’s provision of these safe places reveals him as far more merciful to the killer than the dead man’s relatives who chased him there and who often lingered at the city gates for the least chance to kill him.
3. God is sovereign: God decides the way of deliverance. He chose which six cities would be safe places. No other city would do.
4. God desires to save: God chose the locations so that each city would be within a day’s journey of most Israelites. He also ordered that the highways be kept clear, open, and well signposted.
5. God is available: The city gates were never to be closed but to be open all hours and to all-comers, to Gentiles as well as to Israelites.
6. God guarantees salvation: As long as the killer stayed within the city gates, he was guaranteed safety. It wasn’t enough to know this, the offender had to get to and stay in the city.
7. God frees through the death of the mediator: The only way for the killer to eventually be freed from exile was when the high priest died. What a moment for all these killers in all these cities when news came that the high priest had died and so freed them to return home to their families in safety.
When I preach from Old Testament passages like this, I often find it helpful not only to explain the passage, but to describe the experience of someone in that situation.
Surely we can use a bit of sanctified imagination to picture and portray someone who accidentally kills, remembers this passage, starts running without a thought of home, doesn’t stop until he gets within the city gates, enjoys the increasing sense of thankful wonder as he experiences the safety God has provided, talks to other refugees about their experience and what they learned about God and the Savior, prayerfully studies the passages as never before, longs for the liberating death of the mediator, etc.
These are rich, graphic, vivid, and memorable displays of the God of Israel, and ultimately of the coming Savior who far exceeds and excels these cities as a place of refuge for all kinds of condemned sinners.