Intention and Impact from the Cities of Refuge

Timothy Isaiah Cho
3 min readDec 11, 2022

The following is from our church’s Racial Justice Reflections that are published monthly in our worship folder.

In Numbers 35:6–34, Joshua 20, and Deuteronomy 19:1–13, we read about a peculiar instruction for God’s people to designate cities of refuge. Prior to the cities of refuge, if a person was killed by the actions of another, it was common for the closest of kin to the victim to exact vengeance upon the accused perpetrator. The cities of refuge were created to prevent rash actions of vengeance. Anyone who had been accused of taking another person’s life could flee to one of these cities until some form of examination and investigation could occur.

While our cultural distance from the time of the cities of refuge may render us puzzled about the application to our present day, two truths are clear: God cares about the intention and impact of our actions.

In Deuteronomy 19:11–13, we see that intention matters. If the accused did in fact kill someone with the intention of murder, the cities of refuge were of no use to him or her. As Jesus tells us many years later, out of the heart come evil thoughts, including murder (Matthew 15:19), and even those who harbor anger towards others have committed murder in their hearts (Matthew 5:22). We may likely be familiar with this truth and how it applies to us.

But we may not be as familiar with the second truth, that God cares about the impact of our actions. In Numbers 35:25–28, we see what happens when someone unintentionally kills another person. Even though he or she did not harbor malice toward the victim, they are still held responsible in some way. They are required to stay within one of the cities of refuge until the death of the high priest. The life of an image-bearer was still taken, whether or not it was intentional. The impact of these actions mattered deeply to God.

This second truth applies in deep ways to us today. Perhaps you have heard people (including yourself!) respond with, “I didn’t mean to do that!” or “I didn’t mean to say that!” when told that they’ve done or said something hurtful. We’ve taken the first truth (God cares about intention) without taking stock of the second truth (God cares about impact).

As it applies to the realm of racial justice, we need to be open to words we have spoken or written or actions we’ve committed that have unintentionally impacted someone harmfully based on their race, ethnicity, nationality, or cultural background. As a community, we may have unintentionally created practices or systems that overly burden and create barriers for fellowship for people who look differently than the majority. God cares about the intention behind these things, but he also cares about the impact. The good news is that, in Jesus, we have the freedom to be able to own the impact of our actions and seek amends to bring about reconciliation and the peace of Christ. We don’t have to be defensive when someone tells us about the ways we may have hurt them, but we can be thankful that God has shown us a place where we can grow in using the impact of our actions toward healing and restoration.