“And the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil.”
Numbers 35:25 ESV
“For he must remain in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest, but after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession.”
Numbers 35:28 ESV
For the most part, what I thought I understood about Numbers 35 had more to do with church history and Disney cartoons than with the Bible. Let me explain.
Throughout the Middle Ages, even as late as the seventeenth century in England, robbers, thieves, and murderers could flee to the cathedral, grab hold of the ring on the door, and invoke the law of sanctuary, which would protect them from mob justice. Today, you can visit the museum at Durham cathedral, where, over the course of nearly 500 years, over 300 criminals found refuge.
Then, there’s Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quasimodo swinging down from the roof of the Cathedral, then rescuing Esmerelda from being burned at the stake, then landing back on the parapet and screaming SANCTUARY! SANCTUARY! as he held her unconscious body aloft before the cheering crowd.
Given my fear of heights, I wondered if Esmerelda would have been better off on the ground.
I am thankful for Tara Leigh Cobble’s Bible Recap podcast, because it wasn’t until she explained the detail about the death of the high priest that I really understood what a beautiful passage this is.
You see, death—any death, even an accidental one—had to be paid for. Verse 33 goes on to say, “blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.” But when the high priest died, his death paid the debt. Not just for one person in one city of refuge, but for every person who had shed innocent blood throughout Israel.
Numbers 35 is the first time in Scripture the word “refuge” is used. But it definitely is not the last. In 2 Samuel 22, David wrote, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.” (v. 2-4)
“Refuge” is a frequent word in Psalms (46 times), Proverbs (7 times) and the prophets (14 times). It became a dominant metaphor for God’s loving protection for His children.
Curiously, “refuge” is used once in the New Testament, by the author of Hebrews:
“we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”Hebrews 6:17-20
The author of Hebrews talks about two unchangeable things, and they are both in this passage:
- Jesus is the shelter to which we flee for refuge. Through Christ, we have strong encouragement to hold fast to the anchor of our soul.
- Jesus is the high priest who enters into the inner place behind the curtain, to make atonement for our sin.
Do you see it? Jesus is our Shelter and our Savior!
Our refuge and our Redeemer.
Our protection from sin and our propitiation for sin.
Our shield and our sacrifice.