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The Christ in the Book of Numbers—Part 7: Cities of Refuge
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The Christ in the Book of Numbers—Part 7: Cities of Refuge

A Bible Study Series based on “The Christ in the Book of Numbers” by Shen Chuan Chen

Since ancient times, people have committed accidental killings, and the duty of any civilized society is to ensure there are means of expiation. Before the Israelites entered Canaan, God instructed Moses to appoint cities of refuge as a unique system for this purpose. Although unknown at the time, God had hidden the truth of salvation in these cities.

Prefiguration of Christ

Numbers 35 records God’s instructions to Moses to establish six cities of refuge as places of safety to anyone who accidentally killed another person. Within the regulations, God defined manslaughter and murder, and explained the process of asylum (Num 35:9–28). After the conquest of the Promised Land, Joshua implemented God’s command, establishing cities of refuge from north to south on both sides of the River Jordan (Josh 20). The name of each city had special significance in relation to Christ’s future salvation work.

Three Cities West of the River Jordan

Joshua established three cities of refuge on the west bank of the Jordan: Kedesh, Shechem and Kirjath Arba (Hebron) (Josh 20:7).

1.        Kedesh (north)

Kedesh was located in the north of Canaan, in the mountains of Naphtali, 20 km from the city of Tyre. It was also known as Kedesh in Galilee (Josh 20:7) or Kedesh in Naphtali (Judg 4:6). The meaning of Kedesh is “sacred place, sanctuary,”[1] derived from a root word meaning “to be holy, to sanctify.”[2]

The Bible says that Christ is holy (Jn 8:46; Heb 4:15, 7:26) and it is God’s will for us to be holy (1 Thess 4:7).

2.        Shechem (central)

The ancient city of Shechem was in central Canaan, near Mount Gerizim (Judg 9:7), in the hill country of Ephraim (Josh 20:7). It was probably located at the current city of Tell Balata, at the eastern end of the valley running between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, 50 km north of Jerusalem.[3] Shechem[4] means “ridge” or “neck (between the shoulders) as the place of burdens.”[5]

The name of the city is an apt description of Jesus’ salvation: He would bear the sins of man, along with His physical and spiritual burdens (Isa 53:4; Heb 9:28; 1 Pet 2:24).

3.        Kirjath Arba (south)

The ancient town of Kirjath Arba, better known as Hebron, was located in the mountains of Judah, between Beersheba and Jerusalem.[6] It is famous because many of Israel’s ancestors had resided there, including Abraham (Gen 13:18). The meaning of the town’s name is “community” or “alliance.”[7]

In terms of Christ’s salvation, we know that He established an alliance with us through His precious blood and joined us as one to Himself (Jn 17: 20–21; 1 Cor 6:17; Gal 3:27–28).

Three Cities East of the River Jordan

Joshua also established three cities of refuge on the east of the River Jordan: Golan, Ramoth and Bezer (Josh 20:8).

1.        Golan (north)

Golan was situated in Manasseh’s territory of Bashan (Deut 4:43). The precise location is uncertain, but it is possible that Sahem el-Jolan is the site of this ancient city.[8] Golan was given to the Gershonite Levites as their dwelling place (Josh 21:27; Num 35:2).

One meaning of Golan[9] is “captive.” It tells us that Christ was captured and led away, like a lamb to the slaughter, in order to set us free (Isa 53:7; Gal 5:1). Another meaning is “round,”[10] reminding us that the Lord constantly surrounds us with His grace and builds a protective hedge around us (Job 1:10; Ps 3:3, 34:7). Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).

2.        Ramoth (central)

The city of Ramoth in Gilead, also known as “Ramoth-Gilead,” was located in the central region. It was a city of the tribe of Gad, before it was allocated to the Merarite Levites (Josh 21:38).[11] The meaning of Ramoth[12] is “heights.”

When the Lord Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people cried out, “Hosanna in the highest” (Mt 21:8–10). Jesus is our Lord in the highest, king above all kings and head over all things (Eph 1:22). He was lifted up and nailed to the cross, like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, so that people could look at Him and have their sins forgiven (Jn 3:14, 12:32). As such, Ramoth, the city of refuge, testified to two matters: Jesus would be the exalted Christ, and He would be crucified.

3.        Bezer (south)

The last city of refuge was Bezer in the south. Again, the exact location is uncertain, but the Bible mentions that it was on a plateau in the wilderness (Deut 4:43). It belonged to the tribe of Reuben before it was allocated to the Merarite Levites (1 Chr 6:78). The meaning of Bezer[13] is “inaccessible spot” (by virtue of height or fortification), from a root word meaning “mighty things” and “strong.”[14]

Apostle Paul says that Christ is the spiritual Rock in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:4). He is our fortress and guarantee. In perilous times, we can rely on Him to fight the enemy (Eph 6:10–17). Similarly, the prophet Isaiah says that Christ is our deliverer and reliance, and that His church is “the city that is sought out and not forsaken” (Isa 62:11–12).

In summary, hidden within the six cities of refuge was the message that Christ would come to bring His grace of salvation and become the refuge of sinners. Moreover, just as the manslayers were released upon the death of the high priest (Num 35:25), so man would be freed from his bondage to sin and the future wrath of God through the death of Jesus (1 Thess 1:10).

Refuge for Accidental Killers

In this section, we shall see how the cities of refuge foreshadowed the protection of Christ for sinners.

No One Is Free of Sin

In his epistle to the Romans, Paul explains the origin of sin and its effects.

From Adam onwards, all men have sinned. Sin reigns over the world and humanity is under its bondage (Rom 5:12–14). In the words of Elder John: “[T]he whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 Jn 5:19). Death of the body and soul is the price that man must pay; no one is exempt. No wonder, then, that Paul once lamented, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).

Despite the power of sin, many disbelieve its existence. Yet they cannot escape from its consequence, which is death. Furthermore, on the day of God’s righteous judgment, they will have to face His wrath and retribution (Rom 2:5–6). Even so, people in the world seem to have little or no inclination to seek out the path to life; instead, they are content to live as they please. Nevertheless, it is for such people that God has manifested His love (Rom 5:6–8).

Through His mercy, Jesus died and resurrected so that we could have the living hope of salvation (1 Pet 1:3). For this reason, we should tell everyone about the power and consequences of sin and how they can find protection in the spiritual city of refuge.

Apostle Paul says that the church is the body of Christ, “the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23). Indeed, Jesus Christ established the church as the spiritual city of refuge. The church is to warn people of their sins and to enable them to enter into God’s grace, to be redeemed, to put on Christ and to escape from spiritual death.

Flee to the City of Refuge

The relationship between God and man is based upon salvation, and indeed God’s sole plan for humanity is salvation. The cities of refuge foreshadowed that plan, and Christ became its substance, revealed to the believers in the New Testament period. If Jesus did not die for us, to become our refuge, we could not escape from God’s wrath in the future.

Before his conversion, the apostle Paul persecuted the church “ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim 1:13). However, after receiving God’s grace, he professed, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (1 Tim 1:15–16). Paul’s experience testifies to the mercy of Jesus: if Jesus could forgive him—the foremost of sinners—He would surely save others.

In ancient times, God established cities of refuge to shelter those guilty of accidental killing. Today, the true church established by the Lord Jesus Christ is our city of refuge, for she is the fullness of Christ (Eph 1:23); there is no other way for us to escape from sin, avoid spiritual death and receive the promised heavenly inheritance (Gal 3:26–29).

Distributed Evenly Throughout the Land

The six cities of refuge were distributed evenly throughout the land (Num 35:13–14), meaning that a fugitive only had to travel one or two days to find refuge.

Also, the path to deliverance in these cities had to be clearly marked out. The same principles apply to the salvation of Christ.

Jesus told Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). And before He ascended to heaven, He said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:16).

Apostle Paul told the church in Ephesus, “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph 1:13–14).

From the words of both Jesus and Paul, we understand that the path to salvation is now clearly marked for all to find. Those who approach the city of refuge—God’s church—need to enter the door with faith. Having faith means obeying Jesus to receive regeneration through water baptism and renewal through the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:5; Tit 3:5)—the only way to justification and sanctification.

Refuge for All

According to the Law of Moses, any Israelite, foreigner or sojourner who killed someone accidentally could seek asylum in the cities of refuge (Num 35:15). This point highlights the universal nature of God’s salvation, evident even in the Old Testament period. For example, from Noah’s story and the Book of Jonah, we learn that God’s grace extended to the Gentiles. Hence, God promised to Abraham, “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing…And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2–3).

God’s universal salvation plan was also repeatedly revealed through the prophets’ messages. Isaiah, for example, prophesied, “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it” (Isa 2:2). Also, Habakkuk said, “Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4). His words became the basis of the doctrine of justification by faith that was later expounded by Apostle Paul.

Paul understood the inclusive nature of God’s salvation grace, and he taught the believers, saying: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:27–29). Consequently, he became a proactive messenger to the Gentiles (Gal 2:7–8).

In summary, even though the Jews were entrusted with God’s truth from the days of old (Rom 3:1), God did not abandon the other nations; He extended His salvation grace to them. In the New Testament era, we, as Gentiles, have received this salvation directly from God through the spiritual city of refuge, which is His church. We have been liberated from the bondage of Satan, and this grace puts an end to punishment.

Those Who Leave Will Be Killed

Although a manslayer could find refuge and protection from the avenger of blood (a person nominated by the family of the deceased to take revenge), there was a crucial condition: he had to remain in the city (Num 35:26–27).

The city of refuge was the sole place of safety. However, the manslayer had to present his case to the elders and repent of his negligence. This process was important because human life is precious and any form of killing, even if accidental, could not be viewed lightly; the manslayer had a duty to ensure that such a thing would not happen again. Furthermore, because his life was at risk from potential avengers, he had to flee to the city of refuge without delay and not attempt to leave. It was only when the high priest passed away that he could safely return home (Num 35:28).

The above points offer several teachings. Firstly, the people of the world face judgment for their sins, and anyone who delays entering the city of refuge will be in danger of losing his life. Secondly, Jesus Christ is our high priest who bore the sins of mankind. On account of His death, we have obtained life and freedom. But we can only be assured of eternal life and safety if we remain in His love. If we fail to do so, we will once again find ourselves under the bondage of sin (2 Pet 2:20). We will no longer have access to grace or refuge. We should therefore depart from sin and treasure the salvation found within the city of refuge. It is there that we can wait for the high priest to deliver us from the sufferings of this life and take us to the eternal city, our heavenly home.


The law of God is both stringent and humane, evident from God’s regulations concerning the cities of refuge, which offered asylum to those who had killed accidentally. These cities highlight the careful planning, wisdom and grace behind God’s salvation. They also reveal that the spiritual city of refuge is His church. As Jesus Christ died to atone for our sins, we who have been redeemed by His blood must remain in the church and abide in His grace. We must also call upon the people of the world to enter the true church without delay, so that they can escape from God’s wrath and have the hope of eternal life.

[1] Strong’s reference number: H6943.

[2] Hebrew, qades. Strong’s reference number: H6942.

[3] “Shechem” in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Part 3 (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994).

[4] Strong’s reference number: H7927. The same as H7926.

[5] Strong’s reference number: H7926. Ibid.

[6] Merill F. Unger, “Hebron” in The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Golan” in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Part 1 (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994).

[9] Strong’s reference number: H1474. From golah (H1473), meaning “captive.”

[10] “Golan” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 2, D–G, ed., Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976).

[11] “Ramoth-Giliead” in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Part 3 (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994).

[12] Strong’s reference number: H7216.

[13] Strong’s reference number: H1221.

[14] Hebrew, batsar. Strong’s reference number: H1219.


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Author: Shen Chuan Chen