Sunday, May 03, 2009

Cities of Refuge: Dt 19:1-2

"When the Lord your God cuts off the nations, whose land the Lord your God gives you, and you dispossess them and settle in their cities and in their houses, you shall set aside three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord your God gives you to possess." (Deuteronomy 19:1-2)
There are three principles pertaining to good government that we can draw from the laws pertaining to the cities of refuge. The first principle is the importance of the rule of law. God intended that the nation of Israel be a nation ruled by laws rather than a nation ruled by vigilantism. "Otherwise the avenger of blood might pursue the manslayer in the heat of his anger, and overtake him, because the way is long, and take his life, though he was not deserving of death, since he had not hated him previously." (Deuteronomy 19:6) God established for Israel a complete system of laws, judges, and courts. It was never His intent that people should take the law into their own hands. Vigilantism is the result of a weak or inaccessible government that is inconsistent with good government.

The second principle is Government's role to protect innocence. "Now this is the case of the manslayer who may flee there and live: when he kills his friend unintentionally, not hating him previously -- as when a man goes into the forest with his friend to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down the tree, and the iron head slips off the handle and strikes his friend so that he dies -- he may flee to one of these cities and live." (Deuteronomy 19:4-5) Government not only has a responsibility to punish the guilty but also to protect the innocent. It is the necessity of good government to provide the means for the protection of the innocent. This can take various forms; for the nation of Israel it included three cities where the innocent could seek refuge and sanctuary. However, whatever the form, it was important that these means were accessible to the innocent. "because the way is long" (Deuteronomy 19:6) Justice that is out of reach of the innocent is justice denied.

The final principle is that, when government fails to provide for the protection of innocence, then government is at fault. "So innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, and bloodguiltiness be on you." (Deuteronomy 19:10) Should government fail to provide for the protection of innocence, then the blood of the innocent is required of the government, not from the "avenger of blood". I find it curious that God does not impute sin to the avenger of blood but rather applies it to the government that failed to provide the means for the protection of innocence. Even in the case where the innocent failed to take hold of the protections afforded him, the avenger of blood was still not held guilty. "But if the manslayer at any time goes beyond the border of his city of refuge to which he may flee, and the blood avenger finds him outside the border of his city of refuge , and the blood avenger kills the manslayer, he will not be guilty of blood because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest." (Numbers 35:26-28) In my country this is not the case, the blood avenger would be held guilty, at least on some level, for taking the law into their own hands. However, these scriptures make me think that perhaps some exception should be made for blood avengers in the cases where the government system failed either to protect the innocent or to condemn the guilty.

David Robison

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