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).
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,”
derived from a root word meaning “to be holy, to sanctify.”
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).
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
means “ridge” or “neck (between the shoulders) as the place of
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).
Kirjath Arba (south)
The ancient town of Kirjath Arba, better known as Hebron, was located in
the mountains of Judah, between Beersheba and Jerusalem.
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.”
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).
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.
Golan was given to the Gershonite Levites as their dwelling place (Josh
21:27; Num 35:2).
One meaning of Golan 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,”
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).
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).
The meaning of Ramoth
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.
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
“inaccessible spot” (by virtue of height or fortification), from a root
word meaning “mighty things” and “strong.”
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
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
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
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”
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”
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 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
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.