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Cities of Refuge – Where to Run When You’ve Done Nothing Wrong

God Still Provides Sanctuary When Others Misunderstand You.

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You did nothing wrong. Still, those with influence and a voice have chased you out with accusations as agonizing as they were outrageous. You needed a place of refuge to run.

Shechem, one of the Cities of Refuge

(Photo: Shechem, one of the Cities of Refuge. Courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

In ancient Israel, Cities of Refuge gave the innocent person a place of sanctuary so that those who presumed him guilty couldn’t harm him before the facts came to light.

Justice assumes innocence until proven guilty. This biblical principle has found a place in our own legal systems (at least in theory). But justice sometimes plays no part in verdicts. In truth, the ones with the power often get their way in this world—and justice has nothing to do with it.

Have you been misunderstood? Even though the particulars of God’s ancient law may seem outdated, the principle reveals His heart—and it still applies.

God still provides you a place to run.

The Purpose of the Cities of Refuge

Before God’s people ever entered the Promised Land, the Lord commanded them to designate six “cities of refuge” (Num. 35:6-34; Deut. 4:41-43; 19:2). After entering the land, God reiterated this command to Joshua (Josh. 20).

These cities had a specific purpose:

  • Any person who accidentally caused the death of someone else needed sanctuary until the facts came to light. Otherwise, a relative of the victim—the “avenger of blood”—might take justice into his own hands and kill the manslayer.
  • The locations of these cities of refuge—three in Israel (Kedesh, Shechem, Hebron) and three in trans-Jordan (Bezer, Ramoth-Gilead, Golan)—provided easy access to anyone who needed it.
  • If the elders and court determined the manslayer innocent, he would remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. Presumably, this offered a statute of limitations on the exile of the innocent fugitive.

God provided a place of refuge until justice showed them innocent. We can still apply the principle today.

Beersheba gate is an example of where elders would sit

(Photo: Beersheba gate is an example of where elders would sit. Courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

God Alone Slams the Gavel

Before we see ourselves from the perspective of the innocent, let’s apply the principle from the perspective of the avenger of blood. How?

How often does this occur in your mind?

  • An acquaintance you know loses his or her job. Do you assume they are at fault—or the employer?
  • You see a police officer stop someone on the highway. Do you presume the driver broke the law—or the officer got it wrong?
  • You hear an old friend got a divorce. Do you write off her character without knowing the facts?

There are always two sides of the story (and then there’s the truth). After all, how many times have you been misunderstood?

Even when the offense seems to be against us personally, as in the case of the avenger of blood, it’s best to make sure we get the facts straight before we slam the gavel and decry someone worthy of condemnation.

Wouldn’t we want the same done for us?

Where to Run When You’ve Done Nothing Wrong

Think about the last time you were misunderstood in a big way. (Maybe not for murder, but you get the idea.)

Few things feel tougher to choke down than false accusations. We’re not alone in those feelings:

  • Job’s close friends had him all wrong. That must have hurt more than the boils.
  • King David endured the undeserved curses of Shimei, who chose to vent his own pent up anger during the lowest moment in David’s life.
  • The religious leaders mistook Jesus as possessed by Satan and ultimately crucified the Lord. Talk about missing the truth!

Such untrue accusations wound us savagely. When those who should know us the best misunderstand us the worst, it feels like emotional sabotage and even betrayal.

But in the case of each of each of the three examples above, their responses to the unfair treatment offer us a model of how we can respond when innocently condemned:

But Jesus’ example sums it up best:

While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously. —1 Peter 2:23

Tell er-Rumeith, possible Ramoth Gilead, one of the Cities of Refuge

(Photo: Tell er-Rumeith, possible Ramoth Gilead, one of the Cities of Refuge. Courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

Balancing Fight and Flight

Of course, being wronged doesn’t mean we roll over and bear our tummies. We can and must repeatedly cry out to God for justice (Ps. 55:1-8; Luke 18:1-8).

We don’t merely lay back and mutter, “Oh, I’m just trusting God with this.” God gave us brains to think with as well as courts to appeal to and governments to enforce laws. But we also need to remember the limitations of our brains. We can try to pursue the logical and legal path, but we must submit these to sovereignty. God may have something else in mind neither logical nor legal. His mind, after all, takes logic to another level (see Isa. 55:8–9).

We see the next ten dominoes that will fall. God sees the next ten million.

The author of the book of Hebrews may have applied the principle of the cities of refuge when he wrote that God has made us a promise so that: “we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:18).

We can ease the burden of being misunderstood by knowing God knows the truth and will make things right in His time.

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