This chapter begins by addressing the Levites and because they were given no inheritance of land, God was their inheritance, Numbers 18:20, However, they were given cities in which to live and pasture lands that surrounded the cities.
There were to be a total of 48 cities for the Levites, six cities of refuge, and 42 additional cities.
Cities of refuge were established in reference to the civil laws of the nation and six of the cities were given to the Levites. There were three on the west side of the Jordan and three were on the east side.
Coffman, in his commentary, gives us a useful summary.
Kedesh in Galilee from the tribe of Naphtali.
Shechem from the tribe of Ephraim.
Hebron, Kiriath-Arba, from the tribe of Judah.
Bezer from the tribe of Reuben.
Ramoth-Gilead of the tribe of Gad.
Golan in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh.
The cities are mentioned in Exodus 21 / Numbers 35 / Deuteronomy 19 / Joshua 20. Roads leading to these cities were kept in excellent condition, with signposts reading, ‘Refuge! Refuge!’ The cities were no more than half a day’s journey from any other city, Joshua 20:7-8.
The cities were in central locations where they could easily be reached from any part of the country. The cities of refuge were open to all and the doors into the cities were never locked. The cities were stocked with food and there was no protection if a man did not flee to a city of refuge.
Christ is easy to reach and Christ is open to all. Christ never locks His gates and Christ is a totally sufficient refuge. If we do not flee to Christ, there is no help for us.
Back then cities of refuge had meaning to their names, Shechem means, shoulder or back or strength, Hebron means fellowship, Kedesh means holy, sanctuary, Golan means joy, exultation, Ramoth means high, exalted and Bezer means fortification, stronghold. Now, what do you need in your life by way of a place of refuge?
These cities were places where someone who accidentally killed someone else could flee for safety from the vengeance of a near kinsman of the person who was accidentally killed.
The principle behind these cities is based on the law of the avenger who could avenge the death of a relative who was killed. The next of kin had the right to avenge the death of a relative.
Unless the avenging relative acted out of the heat of the moment when a relative was accidentally killed, the attacker could escape to a city of refuge until a judgment could be made, Genesis 9:6.
In these verses, we read about the classifications for those who had a right to flee to the cities of refuge. There was a difference between manslaughter, that is someone who accidentally killed someone else, and an actual murderer. The difference between the two is based upon intent.
The murderer was someone who intentionally killed someone else, whereas the manslaughterer was someone who had no such intent, but unintentionally did kill someone. Only those who accidentally killed someone were able to flee to the cities of refuge. Other laws applied to the one who intentionally murdered someone else.
If someone was killed by using a weapon, a weapon made of iron, stone or wood, then this would be classed as murder. If a murder took place, the avenger could kill the murderer on the spot. This same law applied to those who out of hatred killed another.
Anyone who killed someone accidentally was dealt with differently. They could flee to the city of refuge in order to escape the vengeance of a near relative. However, if anyone exercised the privilege of escaping to a refuge city, they had to stay in the city until the high priest died.
If that same person who killed someone accidentally decided to go outside of the city of refuge before the high priest died, then the near relative of the one who was killed could kill them without any guilt.
If the high priest died, the one who accidentally killed someone could return to his family, and the near relative had no right to avenge the death of his relative.
Notice that capital punishment could only be carried out when more than one witness could testify to the fact that murder was committed, Deuteronomy 17:6-7.
No amount of money could be paid to free the one who was guilty of murder, and neither could any amount of money be paid in order that any who accidentally killed someone could leave a city of refuge before the death of the high priest.
The death penalty was given in order to keep society pure from the sickness of murderers. Once someone murders someone else, then the land is defiled by those who have no value for life.
The death penalty, therefore, was God’s way of keeping society clean from moral decay in reference to anyone who had no value for life, Genesis 9:6.