“The Accident”… THE CITIES OF REFUGE, Part 1.


And the Lord said to Moses,
“Tell the people that when they arrive in the land,
Cities of Refuge shall be designated for anyone to flee
into if he has killed someone accidentally.

–Numbers 35:9-11 (TLB)



Two hundred years ago…

…if you were traveling through the great Alpine passes leading from Switzerland into Italy” you would observe close by the roadside, at regular distances, a number of plain, square buildings. On these (sometimes it was over the doorway, sometimes on the side) would be inscribed the words –“Refuge No. 1,” “Refuge No. 2,” “Refuge No. 3,” etc. I think there were twenty altogether. I was told, on inquiry, they were intended as shelters for any helpless travelers who might be overtaken by the sudden storms which so often sweep down from the snow-white mountains surrounding the pass. These “Refuges,” during the summer were empty, for even in that elevated region, the land looked bright and green. The Alpine Rhododendron would be blooming, with its pink blossom, and close by stray patches of winter’s snow would still fill the ridges and hollows in the higher parts of the pass. Seldom during summer were travelers exposed to any peril from an Alpine storms.  It is different, however, in winter or spring, when the avalanches come tumbling from the heights, or the snow comes drifting in huge masses over that wonderful road.

Many shivering wayfarers have fled with thankful hearts into these shelters. Some have been carried to them, in a state of unconsciousness, by unknown benefactors, and on gradually awaking, have blessed the kind hearts and hands which have saved them from certain death, and are now ministering to their necessities. By others, alas! They have been rescued too late, and they have been conveyed to these shelters only to die.

When passing those Alpine “Shelters,” it is difficult not to be reminded of those wonderful “Cities of Refuge” which God had graciously provided in Palestine for the unfortunate manslayer.

It sometimes happened, in the land of Canaan, as in our own country, that a Hebrew, without any evil purpose, would cause the death of a brother Hebrew. He did not intend to inflict any injury; it was the result only of an unhappy accident.  But, nevertheless, to show God’s hatred of the shedding of blood, he was liable, by the Levitical law, to be killed by the Avenger, or “Goel,” “the person nearest related to the murdered man. If he wished to escape with his life, his only chance of safety was to flee to one of these Refuge-cities. It mattered not what his age, or name, or station in life was. He might be young or old, prince or noble, priest or prophet, he was exposed every moment to death, unless he availed himself of the offered shelter. There was no time for delay. He must betake himself to instant flight. To linger might be to perish.

Do you not think with pity of the unhappy fugitive, obliged thus suddenly to leave his home and all he most loved on earth?  If  he had caused the death while working in his vineyard, then the pruning-hook must be left to rust on the branch –he had to flee! If he was ploughing with his yoke of oxen, then they must be left lowing in the furrow. If he was busied in his harvest-field, then the sheaves must be left unbound, and the reapers receive their wages from another’s hands. If he was returning home fatigued at evening after the toils of the day, and longing for rest and supper, he dare give no “sleep to his eyes, nor slumber to his eyelids.”

His child may be lying in sickness at his cottage, but it would endanger him to return to clasp his sick child and his other little ones in his embrace, and bid them a fond farewell. He may have no time to change his clothes or take even his money or staff. The Avenger of blood may be in the adjoining street, or in the dwelling next door. Another hour may be fatal;” “Skin for skin, all that a man hath will he give for his life.” Off he speeds in breathless haste–now along the level road–now up the steep ascent–with his breast heaving, and drops of perspiration standing on his forehead. Friends may meet, but “with a wave of the hand, and shouting “Goel! Goel!” he rushes on with fleet footstep. Parched with thirst in the hot noonday, he turns a longing eye on the ripe grapes that are banging in purple clusters on the wayside, or on the water trickling down the narrow ravine. But he dare not pause. Knowing full well that the Avenger is in close pursuit, he hurries on as fast as he can.

Happy sight, when he sees at last, on some mountain slope, the longed-for shelter! Happy is he, when the gates of the city close him in.

A few moments before, had he been overtaken on the mountain-top by his pursuer, he might have been heard to cry out, in the bitterness of despair, “Hast thou found, me, 0 mine enemy?”  Now, safe within the secure shelter, he can rejoicingly exclaim, even with the Avenger standing close by, “0 thou enemy, destructions are come to a perpetual end.”

These Cities of Refuge form one of the Old Testament pictures of the sinner and of the coming gospel salvation.

This was the way God took to teach the Jewish people great gospel truths. Just as we know that youthful readers like a book all the better when it has pictures in it; so God taught the early church, when it was in a state of “childhood” by means of similar “pictures” or types; and City of Refuge was one of them.

It represented, and still represents, the sinner who has broken the Divine law as pursued by an avenger; Justice following with drawn sword, exclaiming,The soul that sins it must die.” 

Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not escape unpunished.”

This is a picture, which also applies to every one without exception, rich and poor, parent and child, master and servant; “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”  But a glorious CITY, “salvation its walls and bulwarks,” opens its gates. The sinner is urged to “escape into the city;” to “linger not in the plain;” to “flee for his life, or he will be consumed.” That city is Jesus, the sinner’s Refuge and the sinner’s Friend. Once within its walls, no enemy can touch him, no sword can terrify him. He can triumphantly exclaim, “Who shall separate me from the love of Christ?”

Dear friends, it is because I know this City of Refuge is open for even the youngest of you, that I now write these pages. It is because I believe and know that many of you have obeyed the Savior’s invitation, and have already entered this happy City, that I ask you to come and hear while I speak to you about it. I believe and know that many of you understand that you are sinners, and need a Savior. You have been taught by God’s own “Word and Spirit that you have broken His holy law, and have thereby exposed yourself to eternal death. But now you are now safe within the Gospel Shelter.

The “enemy” is “stilled.” The “avenger” has sheathed his sword.


Written by John Ross Macduff.
Published in 1865.
Edited for thought and sense.


Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage:  John Ross Macduff  (23 May 1818 – 30 April 1895) was a Scottish divine and a prolific author of religious essays. Born in Bonhard, Scone, Perthshire, Macduff was educated at the University of Edinburgh, and was ordained as minister of Kettins, a parish in Forfarshire in 1843.  He returned to St Madoes, a parish in Perthshire in 1849,  which he left to take charge of Sandyford, a new church in Glasgow. He preached there for fifteen years (until 1870), and then went to live in Chislehurst, Kent, in order to focus entirely on writing. His best known books were: “The Prophet of Fire”; “Memories of Bethany”: “Memories of Gennesaret”; “The Shepherd and His Flock “: “Sunset on the Hebrew Mountains “; “Comfort Ye”; “The Golden Gospel”; “Morning and Night Watches”; “The Bow in the Cloud”; “The Story of a Dewdrop”; and “The Story of a Shell.” Macduff died in Chislehurst.