Refuge to Resurrection

Torah Portion: Mattot/Massei (Numbers 30:1-36:13)
Gospel Reading: 1 Corinthians 15
Commentary by: Kelsey Bryant

One of the best Torah illustrations of the Gospel is found in Massei, the second of this week’s double parashot. Numbers 35:9-34 explains the vital institution of the cities of refuge…and supplies us a lot of food for thought about our redemption through Yeshua.

Verses 33-34 (NASB): “So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel.”

The killing of a human being needs to be atoned for, one way or another. It’s a principle Yahweh established when the world was starting over (Genesis 9:6). In Israel, unrequited bloodshed pollutes the land, and so it should by all means be avoided because Yahweh does not tolerate uncleanness where His holiness dwells.

It’s plain what should be done to someone who intentionally murders another (Numbers 35:16), but God in His mercy provides the cities of refuge to take care of someone who kills by accident. The unintentional killer can flee to the closest city of refuge (there are six of them in Israel, three on each side of the Jordan River) and remain there safe from all vengeance and punishment until the death of the current high priest.

Whoa. What does the high priest have to do with a manslaughter? Why should his death provide the final atonement needed to restore the unintentional killer to normal life? Perhaps because it’s the high priest’s job to atone for, represent, and stand in the gap for his people, whether that’s presiding over sacrifices, performing the Yom Kippur service, stemming a plague with incense (as Aaron did), or the special purpose here. He is supposed to be clean as much as possible (Leviticus 21:10-15). So the death of this pure man is the perfect substitute for the death of the manslayer.

The city of refuge and the death of the high priest work in tandem to atone. The manslayer does receive a penalty for his tragic negligence – he must leave his life and go, exiled, into the city of refuge. Exile is a type of death and consequence of sin. Recall how Israel’s disobedience got them exiled. And then consider Adam and Eve. God told them they would die if they sinned – and though they did not die immediately upon sinning, they were exiled from the Garden of Eden, from God’s holy presence.

Numbers Rabbah 23.13 says this about Adam and the cities of refuge: “What didst Thou do to him? Thou didst merely drive him from the Garden of Eden; as it says, So He drove out the man ([Gen 3:24]). Why was he driven out? Because he brought death upon future generations, and deserved to die immediately, but Thou didst have compassion upon him and didst drive him out, as is the fate of one who commits murder in error, such a man having to be an exile from his own home to the cities of refuge.”

First Corinthians 15:22 shares the same idea – “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” As a sinner, Adam exiled all of us…but our High Priest, by His death (and resurrection!), frees us from exile and returns us to our inheritance. The rest of 1 Corinthians 15 is an excellent chapter to read on the importance of resurrection.

Numbers Rabbah 23.13 also points out how God in His mercy commanded that the way to the cities of refuge be made clear so fugitives can easily reach them. Deuteronomy 19:3 says to “prepare a way for yourself…so that any manslayer may flee there.” The cities of refuge were very important to Yahweh, because He did not want anyone to perish who could be saved.

In this picture of the cities of refuge, Yeshua becomes many things. He is the man we sinners killed. Leaving the picture of exile for a moment and seeing the cities as a safe haven, He is the city of refuge we flee to, where we must stay to remain alive. His death, like the high priest’s, restores us to the eternal life God intended for us, which we lost in Adam.

Our restoration to life is so important to God that He has prepared a clear way for us to receive it. He teaches us how to repent and flee to the city of refuge He has provided in Yeshua. If you find yourself in sin of any kind, don’t let it separate you from God – use the path He’s provided in His Word. Pray. Confess. Seek the necessary steps to get back in fellowship. Yahweh will help you, because He desires your life!

*I'm indebted to Tony Robinson of Restoration Ministries for his writings on this topic in Massei.