Do you remember being a kid and playing games with safe zones? You know, like a place like in tag where if you reach it, then you can’t be tagged? In some variations of hide-and-seek, one of the strategies is to reach the home base once the seeker has left it.
We play a game with our teens called French and Indian War. In the game, the room is divided into two areas. Each team gets one of these areas, and as long as you stay your side of the dividing line, you’re safe. But once you cross that line you’re fair game to being tag. If you are tagged, then you go to jail, until you are either released by the Game Master, or one of your fellow teammates comes and tags your hand. If your teammate tags your hand, then both of you get to walk back to your safe zone without the threat of being tagged by your opponents. There’s more to the game, like the fact that you can pull your opponents across the dividing line in a human tug-o-war situation.
But it’s this idea of having a safe zone you can go into that I find interesting about kids’ games. In fact, for kids, these safe zones are so important that I’ve watched random ones pop up out of nowhere when one kid is chasing another. In fact, I’ve been a safe zone when kids are playing tag, because the tagger was about to tag the other kid, and they needed a place to call safe, and I was it.
Why is it so important that a kid have a safe zone? Isn’t it because, a safe zone can let you get your breath? You can reevaluate what’s going on so far? And most importantly, you can escape the person that’s after you?
Well it’s this idea of a safe zone that brings us back into the book of Joshua today, where will be coming to chapter 20 and looking at verses 1-9. And as we come back to Joshua chapter 20 verse 1, let’s catch up with where we’re at in the book so far.
Four weeks ago we looked at chapters 13-21 as a whole. In that week, we talked about how God used Joshua in his old age to do more work with the nation of Israel. God had Joshua divide the land between the tribes, and make sure that everyone was content in what they got. It was important for Joshua to do this, because he had the respect of the people for all the years he had fought on their behalf in the land of Canaan. And when Joshua was done with dividing the land, he recognized that God had fulfilled all his promises to the nation of Israel, even though there was still some work to be done. We walked away from that week with the understanding that we need to continue in the work God has for us, as he fulfills his promises in our lives.
Then for the next three weeks, we went back into those eight chapters and talked about three responses to Joshua dividing the land.
The first came from Caleb who was willing to face down the conflict that was ahead, and because of that, God gave Caleb’s land peace. It was from Caleb’s response that we talked about how we need to face conflict as early as possible to experience the peace of God as soon as we can.
The second response came from the Levites who understood that their inheritance wasn’t one of land, but rather a unique relationship with God. We learned from the Levites that we must accept the situations God has given us in this life, because they’re meant to bring us into closer relationship with him.
Then last week we talked about the people of Joseph, the two tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Even though, combined, they were the biggest tribes and they got the biggest allotment of land, they complained about the land being too small, and with too many difficult enemies. From their complaining response, we talked about how we need to not fall into the mindset of desiring an easy life, rather we need to embrace the life God has for us.
And with that, we’re caught up to where we’re at in the book of Joshua, with this week being the last week that we’re in that eight chapters that we covered four weeks ago.
So let’s finish up these eight chapters, by jumping into Joshua chapter 20, starting in verse 1.
1 Then the Lord said to Joshua: 2 “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, 3 so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. 4 When they flee to one of these cities, they are to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state their case before the elders of that city. Then the elders are to admit the fugitive into their city and provide a place to live among them. 5 If the avenger of blood comes in pursuit, the elders must not surrender the fugitive, because the fugitive killed their neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. 6 They are to stay in that city until they have stood trial before the assembly and until the death of the high priest who is serving at that time. Then they may go back to their own home in the town from which they fled.”
7 So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. 8 East of the Jordan (on the other side from Jericho) they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the plateau in the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead in the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan in the tribe of Manasseh. 9 Any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing among them who killed someone accidentally could flee to these designated cities and not be killed by the avenger of blood prior to standing trial before the assembly.
This is one of the shortest chapters in the book of Joshua and it talks about something that I think we might gloss. God has Joshua set up six Cities of Refuge for a purpose. In chapter 13 we see God setting up the political boundaries of both the nation of Israel as a whole, and the tribes of the nation individually. It’s interesting that the nation was confined to these political boundaries, because if God wanted to simply have a conquering empire, then there would be no reason for these boundaries in the first place.
But God’s purpose here is not to bring about a nation that was going to conquer the world, but rather a nation that was going to be set a part as a people uniquely following him. So in chapter 13 we see God constrain Israel’s boarders.
Then after God sets up the political boundaries, his first act is to institute one of the judicial practices that would be found in Israel. Now God doesn’t give us the details of all judicial practices for the nation of Israel here, because he has already done this in earlier books. Instead, he is focusing on the land and what it represents. The six Cities of Refuge represent the just system of law that God wants the people to follow.
Think about it. These six cites are placed with two at the the northern end of the nation, one on both sides of the Jordan River. Two in the middle of the nation, one on both sides of the Jordan River. And two on the souther end of the nation, again, one on both sides of the Jordan River. In other words, there is a City of Refuge within everyone’s reach. Meaning, everyone has access to these cities.
Even the cites that are set aside are interesting, because of which ones they are. Each of these six cites are not only geographically accessible, but they are also the cities that are controlled by the tribe of Levites. This implies that these cities would have the Law of God in their walls, and be a place where the Law of God would be most honored.
But why would God even need such cities in the first place? Why have specific cities set aside so that accused murders would have a place to go and hide out? Well let’s think about it in our own lives. When someone commits a detrimental action against us, don’t we tend to say we want justice? But really, when we say we want justice, what we really mean is we want vengeance?
Now some people think that the two are the same, but the motivation behind them is what sets them apart. Justice is the desire for the truth to come out, and equal punishment to the crime be dealt to those who are truly guilty. Vengeance on the other hand, is a desire to inflict punishment onto someone else to satisfy a pain that has occurred to us.
These cities represent the need for a just hearing of the accused. The stated purpose of these cities is for a person who accidentally kills another to have their case heard by an unbiased jury. If these cities were not available, there could be a temptation to have biased people convict an innocent person. So these cities echo God’s desire to have just judgment happen between his people.
In this case, a person seeking vengeance against another who acted innocently, will not be able to enact the punishment they want. Because if they found that person who killed their love one without intention, they would be adding to the tragedy, rather than allowing justice to work itself out. The person seeking vengeance against the innocent person who committed the killing, would now be the true murder.
This is why God sets up a place where impartial judges could weigh the situation and give a just judgement. Now if the jury finds the person did in fact murder the victim, then they can turn that person over to be justly dealt with. But this jury was to be impartial, and therefore able to make such a decision.
So by God setting up these Cities of Refuge, God is curtailing the desire we have for vengeance, so that justice will happen instead.
And it’s this idea of needing vengeance that God speaks to on several occasions; the most known is from Deuteronomy 32:35, which the Apostle Paul references in the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Romans.
Paul recognizes our desire for vengeance and he tells us that God has a deeper desire for justice instead. And it’s by justice that we are to live. So Paul takes the opposite approach to vengeance and calls us to a life of seeking good to those who would hurt us.
Listen to what Paul says in the seventeenth verse of chapter 12 in Romans. “17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Paul is echoing God’s desire that we seek justice and allow punishment to be given by the only person who can rightly do so, and that’s God himself. Because even when we think that we have 100% of the information needed, we still cannot fathom every possibility that there is. And yet, we tend to take vengeance at the drop of a hat. When we hear our reputation has been tarnished. When we hear that someone has gossiped and slandered us. When we’ve done something good for another person, and that person stabs us in the back. Our first reaction is to seek vengeance against them. And yet, all that leads to is self gratification, and destroyed relationships.
The exact opposite of why Jesus came. Jesus came to restore, not only our relationship with God himself, but with each other as well. Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love God with everything, and to love others as ourselves (Mark12:29-31). How many of us, when someone accuses us of something or drags our name through the mud, want our side of the situation to be heard? We don’t want our name, our reputation, our lives destroyed by lies. And so we seek to hurt the person that has hurt us.
This past week, I heard that someone has been spreading rumors about the youth ministry. Telling parents that they shouldn’t let their children come to our church because we let the teens do whatever they want. Sex, drugs, running amok, you name it, we let it happen. Now my first reaction was indignation, because this person has never been to a teen wreck night, so they wouldn’t know what goes on anyway. And all the thoughts about how I could get back at this person flooded my mind. But then the Holy Spirit reminded me that God has called me beyond this type of reaction. I am not to seek vengeance, but rather to allow God to work.
See, vengeance says, I want my self gratification, but God calls us away from vengeance and ourselves, to doing good when evil is done to us.
Jesus’ words on the cross were not ones of vengeance, but ones of reconciliation, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)”
God is calling us to this same attitude of refuge. Of turning away from vengeance and and turning towards forgiveness.
And how do we do this? How do we begin to move away from vengeance and into forgiveness?
We start with the understanding of sin. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he was able to forgive, because he understood the depth of sin that had it’s hold on the people. And instead of it driving him to enact vengeance upon the people, which were specifically told he could, he spoke forgiveness.
When we understand how easily it is for sin to control people’s lives, then we will begin to move away from vengeance and begin to live in forgiveness. And the best place to start understanding sin, is to recognize it in our own lives.
We need to become honest with the sin in our lives, we need to be honest with the struggles and failings that we deal with. We need to be honest with the times we cause trouble in other people’s lives. Because when we open up about our sin, and we’re truthful about how we struggle, when someone else sins against us, we understand that they too are dealing with sin’s control over their lives. When someone gossips and spreads lies about me, it’s because they have not dealt with their sin, and it’s in control of them. And when we recognize this, the compassion of God will begin to fill our hearts and minds, and we will begin to leave vengeance behind.
But until we are willing to confront our own sin, our need for vengeance will always be a struggle will have. And instead of cities of refuge, we will be cities of violence and injustice.
So today, as we sing the song, “Judge of the Secrets”, I want us to take a moment and be honest. What sin are you struggling with right now? What injustice have you done in another’s life. Or what injustice has been done to you, that you are wanting to take vengeance on?
I want to challenge you to write it down on a piece of paper and bring it to the table and throw it in the bowl (If you are reading this, take it and throw it in the trash). And when you throw it in, pray, “Lord, let me be ever mindful of my struggle with sin, that I will not be led into vengeance, but to extend to others the forgiveness you have extended to me through Jesus. Amen.”
Let us be a people that repay evil with good, and love instead of vengeance. Amen.