The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation.
The cities that you designate shall be six cities of refuge for you: you shall designate three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall serve as refuge for the Israelites, for the resident or transient alien among them, so that anyone who kills a person without intent may flee there. (Numbers 35:9-15)
Revenge is a dish best served cold. In ancient Israel, there were no police officers, no detectives, no CSI, no FBI. Instead, family and friends were responsible for avenging the victim of a violent crime. Justice was dependent upon the victim’s family. Unfortunately, vigilante justice is notoriously imprecise. The wrong person all too frequently was fingered for a crime. Accidents were magnified into malevolence. An injured party was not interested in believing that the accused was innocent until proven guilty. They just wanted satisfaction: string him up now and ask questions later.
Therefore, God established refuges for those accused of violent crimes. An accused person could flee to any one of six cities where they would be protected from vengeance. Once there, the vengeful relatives could do nothing more than bring charges against the person before the city leadership. Ideally, those leaders could then dispassionately investigate the matter. If found not guilty, then the accused could stay in the city indefinitely, safe from a vengeful family, who might not be satisfied by a pronouncement of innocence. The law of refuge was the same, whether you were a citizen or not. God decided that justice was best served by those not lost in the heat of their emotions, so that only the guilty would actually be punished. Revenge is not just about making the victim feel better. All too often, our emotions can get in the way of what’s right. God wants to protect us, and those around us, from ourselves.