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B'Midbar/Numbers 35:13 And the cities that you shall appoint: there shall be six cities for you.
Rashi comments that by this verse - "there shall be six cities of refuge" - qualifies the text in the following verse: "Three cities shall be designated beyond the Jordan, and the other three shall be designated in the land of Canaan" (v.14, JPS) to mean that all six cities must be set in operation together. Moshe designated three on the east of the Jordan - "Bezer, in the wilderness in the Tableland, belonging to the Reubenites; Ramoth, in Gilead, belonging to the Gadites; and Golan, in Bashan, belonging to the Manassites" (D'varim 4:43, JPS) - before our people entered the Land; Joshua designated the other three after the conquest - "So they set aside Kedesh in the hill country of Naphtali in Galilee, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba -- that is, Hebron -- in the country of Judah" (Joshua 20:7, JPS). Rashi has in mind the passage from the Mishnah where the Sages say, "[they do not afford refuge] until all six of them afford refuge at the same time" (m. Makkot 2:4). This is echoed by Rabbi Hirsch, who comments that "the institution of must come into force simultaneously in the whole Jewish domain" to emphasise that the cities of refuge are available to any inhabitant of the land, be they a native-born Israelite, a convert or a sojourner in the Land (v. 15) if they have killed someone by accident. Some commentators suggest that the verse "And when the L-RD your G-d enlarges your territory ... then you shall add three more towns to those three" (D'varim 19:8-9, JPS) can be read as saying that when the population rises, another three cities should be added to those west of the Jordan.
Rashi is also concerned that the number of cities on each side of the Jordan doesn't seem to match the residential population: "There were nine tribes in the Land of Canaan and here there were only two and a half". The Sages of the Talmud suggested that a disproportionate number of cities were needed on the east because there was a much higher incidence of murder and manslaughter east of the river, citing the text "Gilead is a city of evildoers, tracked up with blood" (Hosea 6:8, JPS) to say "Said Abaye: By reason that manslaying was rife in Gilead" (b. Makkot 9b). TheRamban, on the the other hand, points out that "the land of the [east] side of the Jordan was a very large land and required three cities of refuge just as the whole Land of Israel on the [west] side of the Jordan." To meet the requirements that everyone - who needed it - could get to a city of refuge, three were needed on each side of the river, regardless of the relative population density, because of the distances involved.
The (pronounced with the full qametz 'aah' sound rather than the shorter qametz hatuf 'o' - as in the English word 'hot' - sound because although a closed syllable, it is also the emphasised tone syllable), cities of refuge, were a device that HaShem ordained to provide a safe haven for those who had accidentally killed another person. The etymology of the word is both straightforward and obscure: a prefix is commonly added to verb roots to designate the place where an action takes place. An example of this is the root - to slaughter or sacrifice - which produces the noun - an altar - the place of sacrifice. The root is used sufficiently infrequently in the Hebrew Bible that Davidson offers only an Arabic "to contract" or an Aramaic "to receive" meaning. Jastrow lists "to cut" or "to kill" for rabbinic Hebrew; Brown-Driver-Briggs gives "to be stunted". The noun, though, has an undisputed meaning of "refuge" or "reception", indicating not only that someone could flee there to find refuge, but that they would be received or accepted there by the people of the cities.
The prophets speak on a number of occasions about G-d being a refuge. "For You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in distress, shelter from the storm, shade from the heat - for the blast from the ruthless was like a storm that could destroy a wall" (Isaiah 25:4, CJB), "ADONAI, my strength, my fortress, my refuge in time of trouble" (Jeremiah 16:19, CJB), "And the L-RD roars from Zion and utters His voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth tremble. But the L-RD is a refuge for His people and a stronghold to the sons of Israel" (Joel 4:16, NASB). The Psalmist makes use of the same image in very similar words: "The L-RD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my G-d, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold" (Psalm 18:2, NRSV), while Solomon also bring wisdom: "Fear of the L-RD is a stronghold, a refuge for a man's children" (Proverbs 14:26, JPS).
Yeshua welcomed all those who came to Him, seeking refuge or simply acceptance. The gospels do not record a single instance of Him turning away anyone who was truly seeking to know Him. Famously, He said, "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light" (Matthew 11:28-30, NASB). Matthew also applies the prophecy: "A battered reed He will not break off, and a smoldering wick He will not put out" (Matthew 12:20, NASB, from Isaiah 42:3 to Yeshua. He continues to be our refuge and strength: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand" (John 10:27-29, NASB). He is out security and our future, our vision and our purpose: "All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day" (John 6:37-39, NASB).
Further Study: Isaiah 42:1-3; Psalm 31:1-5
Application: Are you battered by the storms of this world and know that you need a refuge, a strong place to hide and find peace with G-d? Then look no further: Yeshua is the one for You. He is our city of refuge and He guarantees to receive us.
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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