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What follows is an article based on the Sunday School class that I led on 10/9/2016 at First Presbyterian Church in Ocean City, New Jersey.  It was a pleasure to be able to lead so many people concerned about life to reflect on the theme of cities of refuge and innocent blood from books like Numbers and Deuteronomy to the gospel of Jesus Christ and thinking about application for today.  The audio included here runs for about 40 minutes and then we discussed ideas for further application for the next twenty.

Deuteronomy 19:1-13

First some background on cities of refuge.  Israel was to have three cities of refuge strategically located so that any manslayer can flee to them.  The purpose of a city of refuge is to save the life of an innocent manslayer.  The text invites us to imagine a situation where a man does not deserve to die but if he cannot flee to a nearby city of refuge he will.  An innocent manslayer might be a person who killed his neighbor unintentionally (never having hated him in the past) – for example, he is cutting wood and the head slips from an axe and strikes his neighbor.  Without a city of refuge an “avenger of blood” in hot anger might pursue this man who does not deserve to die and kill him.

A city of refuge was not designed to save the life of a guilty manslayer.  We are told, “if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die” (Deut 19:11-12).  The reason given by the text for handing over the guilty manslayer to the avenger of blood is to “purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you” (Deut 19:13).  Furthermore, when God gave the nation a larger territory then they would add three more cities of refuge “lest innocent blood be shed in your land…and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon you” (Deut 19:10).

Numbers 35:9-34

The earlier regulations concerning cities of refuge (cf. Numbers 35:9-34) were somewhat more detailed although Deuteronomy is more concerned with the distance one might need to flee.  Deuteronomy was concerned that the further one might need to flee the more likely the innocent person would be overtaken by an avenger of blood.  Thus the emphasis in Deuteronomy was on this concern of strategically locating the cities within the land.  Nevertheless, the purpose of a city of refuge in Numbers is “that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there” and thus these “cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger” (Num 35:11-12).  Thus the regulations in both Numbers and Deuteronomy have the same purpose.

Here in Numbers the emphasis is on due process – “that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment” (Num 35:12).
Moreover, the six cities of refuge (3 on each side of the Jordan River) were “for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there” (Num 35:15).  Numbers, therefore, makes it clear that God wanted to save the lives of innocent people regardless of whether they were citizens of Israel or not.  A sojourner is a foreigner who is living in your midst — someone we might say who is a permanent resident.  A stranger is a foreigner who is just visiting.

The text also gives several examples of guilty people who deserve to die for murder – striking down a person with an iron object, a stone tool, or a wooden tool.  Thrice the text says, “The murderer shall be put to death” (Num 35:16-18).  Summarizing the sentence for the first three examples, the text says, “The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death” (Num 35:19).

In a typical 3+1 wisdom pattern, Numbers then adds a fourth example that packs the punch: “And if he pushed him out of hatred or hurled something at him, lying in wait, so that he died, or in enmity struck him down with his hand, so that he died, then he who struck the blow shall be put to death.  He is a murderer.  The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.”  (Num 35:20-21).  This fourth example is actually three combined.

But, then the text turns the tables and discusses a person who should be rescued from the hand of the avenger of blood.  Reasons for a manslayer to be rescued were that he did it “without enmity,” “without lying in wait,” “without seeing him.”  The third of these examples was using a stone and without seeing him the manslayer accidentally dropped the stone on him so that he died, “though he was not his enemy and did not seek his harm” (Num 35:23).  He had no history of wanting to kill this person.

Numbers continues the theme of due process in 35:30ff saying that no one would be put to death on the testimony of only one witness and that a guilty manslayer could not buy his life back.  Moreover, the manslayer who killed without intent could not pay a ransom to leave the city of refuge early.  What we skipped over in Numbers 35 is a paragraph saying that the manslayer who killed without intent had to stay in the city of refuge until the high priest died.  Even though this manslayer did not mean to kill a person, they were not able to leave the city of refuge until the high priest died.  Even though they were innocent (to use the term from Deuteronomy), the manslayer had to stay.  An avenger of blood would not be guilty of blood if he killed the manslayer who did not stay in the city of refuge until the high priest died.  Therefore, even though this manslayer has been found “innocent” (to use the term from Deuteronomy), the manslayer’s life was forfeit until the death of the high priest (foreshadowing the need for Christ).  The innocent manslayer experienced a loss of time and money while waiting in the city of refuge until the high priest died.  What this will help him do I’m going to unpack with another example from Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 21:1-9

The elders of a city were invited to experience a similar kind of loss – though on a smaller scale – when there was an unsolved murder.  This was a loss of time and money, though not as long as waiting for the death of the high priest.

Deuteronomy 21:1-9 describes a scenario where a dead man’s body is found lying in the open country and his killer is unknown.  In such a situation the elders and judges would come out and measure the distance from the body to the surrounding cities and the closest city had the most responsibility.  The entire city would come to a halt in order to go through a ritual to help them feel something of the loss God knows.  This is also why the manslayer had to wait for the high priest to die before he could return home — he was to feel something of the loss that God knows.

In the situation of an unsolved death the elders would sacrifice a heifer that has never been worked and the neck of the heifer would be broken.  Then the elders of that closest city would wash their hands over the heifer and testify that they had not actively taken the life of this man nor had they passively watched it happen: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed” (Deut 21:7).

The last couple verses are instructive: “Accept atonement, O YHWH, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for” (Deut 21:8).  The elders of the city are praying asking for atonement even though they did not actively take the life of this person nor fail to stop it from happening.  “So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of YHWH” (Deut 21:9).


The purpose of these laws was to keep innocent blood from being shed in the land and to purge the guilt of innocent blood that was shed in the land.
Both actively taking innocent life and passively watching it happen bring bloodguilt on the land, but even if you do neither the people closest are still stained with bloodguilt.

The Gospel

The answer to this bloodguilt is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jesus died not only for the guilty, but also the innocent: “From oppression and violence He redeems their life, and precious is their blood in His sight” (Psalm 72:14).  We have been saying innocent not as a synonym for sinless, for in that sense we are all guilty, but as in harmless (we often use the word innocent this way for children) and not deserving the death penalty from others.

The innocent (and even sinless) Jesus died to take away our bloodguilt for what we have done, failed to do, and for our part in living in a world where these things take place.  Jesus forgives us for failing to speak out, failing to feel His heartbreak, failing to do what we can to prevent the death of the innocent, and for words that support death, callous disregard for the preciousness of life, and the taking of life.  We all need the gospel.  It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that purges bloodguilt.  Only blood can atone for the shedding of innocent blood.

It has been estimated that one-third of all American women have had or will have had at least one abortion by age 45.  Thus when you share the gospel today you are nearly guaranteed to be speaking to someone who is either directly or indirectly dealing with the bloodguilt of abortion.  John Ensor says, “To think of abortion as a secondary issue—or worse, a merely political issue—is to fundamentally misunderstand the defining experience of our times.  It also means that we fundamentally fail to see the central truth that the cross alone can cleanse the conscience from the debilitating effects of bloodguilt.”  Sharing his own story of helping a woman who had an abortion, he says, “Then I told her that I too was once convicted about my own guilt regarding the shedding of innocent blood.  I never did anything to stop it.  I allowed it to happen and did not care enough to even try to stop it.  So I, too, was guilty.”
Then he says, “She asked me what I did about it.”  But he explained that there was nothing he could do about it. He needed a miracle, just like she did.
Then he told her that there is no forgiveness for shedding innocent blood other than by the shedding of innocent blood and spoke of Christ and God’s grace.

Creating Cities of Refuge

If someone close to you was murdered then everything in your life would come to a stop for a funeral and grieving.  None of this happens when a stranger is murdered, but if we don’t feel this loss somehow then we become less feeling – desensitized to death – and make peace with death.  Deuteronomy 21 answered this through a ritual with a heifer, we can answer this through a funeral for the children lost by abortion.  Furthermore, we can find some way to experience something of a loss for the children who have died near us – even if it is only financial or time loss.  Giving to a local crisis pregnancy center and giving to Presbyterians Pro-Life is one way that we can.  Giving of our time in such work is another.  This allows us a little glimpse of the loss that God feels.

We do not meet many people in our culture marked by the bloodguilt of an avenger of blood taking innocent life.  But everyday we see people in our society who are marked by the bloodguilt of abortion.  Churches can be a modern city of refuge for all stained by this guilt to come and find atonement in Christ.  We too need this atonement for we live in this land.

In these modern cities of refuge we can point to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the innocent blood of Abel (cf. Heb 12:24).  Innocent Abel had been murdered by his guilty brother.  But Innocent and sinless Jesus’ blood speaks a better word.  We get to bring good news to the guilty AND to rescue the innocent.

Imagine if every Reformed church were a city of refuge for innocent preborn children.  The priority should be to make sure that no preborn child has to go very far to find a crisis pregnancy center or some kind of city of refuge.  Remember that the further the innocent manslayer had to flee the more likely the avenger of blood might overtake him or her.  Likewise, the more abortion clinics the baby has to pass before reaching a city of refuge the less likely the mother can be talked into a place of safety for her and her child.

Imagine if every Reformed church made praying for innocent preborn children a priority and then took action to save innocent preborn children.  The early church saved children left to die from exposure and raised them in orphanages.  Cities of refuge today might start orphanages, encourage adoption by members, but also equip mothers to raise their children from the womb into the future.

Presbyterians Pro-Life (PPL) not only wants churches to say the right things about innocent life but to equip churches to be cities of refuge in this world.  This world does not hear the blood crying from the ground and is desensitized to death surrounding us.  We can speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and we can make a difference.

John Ensor suggests that we start by learning to think clearly – he suggests reading certain books and listening to some sermons by John Piper that combine the themes of racism and abortion.  I would suggest reading Innocent Blood by John Ensor.  It is a short read but compelling and much of my thinking in these slides I owe to his book.  I would also suggest that you take the time to read the Presbyterians Pro-Life e-newsletters and to familiarize yourself with the resources on and read/listen to them.

John Ensor then says, “Then begin to act,” and he lists first prayer.  He suggests joining 40 Days for Life in your community, but at least pray the PPL prayer calendar.  Then he suggests the second step is to testify.  This is not just for those who have experienced abortion, but we are all able to testify.  This is why I shared his own testimony.  Ensor says, “Men and women who break the silence and shame that comes with paying for or submitting to abortion glorify the gospel, call others out of their own shame, and give hope to young people who are secretly on the precipice themselves.”

The other practical steps to help save lives that Ensor lists are serving and supporting the Pregnancy Help movement and then to connect people to the help they need.  Option Line is a hotline that will help expectant mothers to get help for them and their child.  The website says you can call 1-800-712-4357 or text “HELPLINE” to 313131.

The killing of preborn children is the shedding of innocent blood and we cannot just stand by and watch it happen nor can we avert our eyes so that we can claim not to have seen it.  Let’s think about how we might be cities of refuge for the crisis that confronts the church today.

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