2 When Moses was still alive, I had him tell the Israelites about the Safe Towns. Now you tell them that it is time to set up these towns. 3-4 If a person accidentally kills someone and the victim’s relatives say it was murder, they might try to take revenge. Anyone accused of murder can run to one of the Safe Towns and be safe from the victim’s relatives. The one needing protection will stand at the entrance to the town gate and explain to the town leaders what happened. Then the leaders will bring that person in and provide a place to live in their town.
5 One of the victim’s relatives might come to the town, looking for revenge. But the town leaders must not simply hand over the person accused of murder. After all, the accused and the victim had been neighbours, not enemies. 6 The citizens of that Safe Town must come together and hold a trial. They may decide that the victim was killed accidentally and that the accused is not guilty of murder.
Everyone found not guilty must still live in the Safe Town until the high priest dies. Then they can go back to their own towns and their homes that they had to leave behind.
We have a phrase in our legal system which is ‘innocent until proven guilty’. The phrase originates right here, in this idea of a safe town.
The Israelites are moving into the land of Israel after forty years of wandering in the desert. As that happens, God reminds Joshua – the leader of the people – about God’s promise. The promise is that God will provide safe towns.
This isn’t today in Canada. This is ancient Palestine: a world where death is punishable by death. And in this world, God reminds Joshua that these safe towns are there to protect people. To protect them from sure and certain retribution. To protect them until they can have a fair trial and be given the chance of being found ‘not guilty’.
These towns are almost like ‘justice communities’. The purpose of these communities is to provide protection for the accused until they can come to trial. They are there to offer judge and jury for criminal cases involving death. And they are a place for those who are found guilty of manslaughter to live out their sentence.
Can you imagine?
Can you imagine what it was like to be chosen to live in one of these towns? What it was like to see someone running as fast as they could, headed straight for your home? What it might feel like to watch them come towards you looking dishevelled and wild-eyed? Can you see the panic in their eyes?
Can you imagine what it is like to stand at the city gates as a leader of that town? To listen to the person’s story? Listen as a breathless, dusty person tries to explain in halting gasps how it was never supposed to happen? How their friend or neighbour or cousin or whoever was never supposed to die? How they were just trying to gather the sheep or move the stone? Trying to dig the well or harvest the grain and then something happened that they never expected? How the next thing they knew the other person was dead?
Can you imagine the moment when the town leader brings one of these refugees to your home? You’re the next available home of hospitality, so the leader comes up the street and knocks at your door. They sit down with you and ask you to provide shelter, food, water, clean clothes for this person? This person whose innocence has yet to be decided and who will stay with you indefinitely?
Radical Idea: Radical God
It’s a radical idea: that you can be safe even though someone else is dead because of you. That you can be known: that your story can be properly heard and examined before a verdict is handed down. That your life still has value: that you may have to live apart from your family and your friends for a period of time for your own safety, but that even that would have a statute of limitations, and eventually all would be restored.
Can you imagine the kind of God who would come up with this kind of a radical idea?
- Can you imagine being chosen to live in one of these towns?
- What would it be like to welcome those who had killed someone? To live beside them, knowing that the only reason they had to be in your town or community was because someone else had died?
- What would it be like to extend hospitality – food, shelter and participation in your community – to someone who has blood on their hands?
- If this is God’s heart for those who have killed someone, than what does it tell us about God’s heart for us, or God’s heart for those around us who we may be judging as ‘beyond’ God’s love and compassion?
- What would it take for you to decide to be a ‘safe place’ for someone who has a hard story to tell?
- What would it require for you to work to create a ‘safe town’ or a ‘safe community’ for those who feel like their past means they don’t deserve to be part of life anymore?
This summer we are looking at ‘stories you missed’ in the Bible. Feel free to check out the other stories in the series here.