June 2, 2017

Cities of refuge and Jesus

Today’s devotional reminded me of an Old Testament seminary class in which the professor was so focused on Jesus Christ that he saw the Lord in every passage. First, I thought he just had a good imagination. As the class progressed, I became excited as I started to see the connections he was making.

This professor’s experience with Christ gave me a new view of the Old Testament. I could see how God used and even designed OT history, events, and people to point readers ahead to the Messiah that was to come. The NT even says: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he (Jesus) interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)  

I’ve no problem with seeing Jesus in OT details, but there is a danger in interpreting Bible passages according to personal experience. For instance, we just returned from a trip to Italy. Now, the red ribbon on my bulletin board reminds me of poppies I saw in Tuscany. The ribbon did not do that before our trip, nor for other people as it was not created to represent poppies. Instead, it represents a prize won, which most people would recognize, not a field of poppies.

Also, this ability to see Jesus in the OT comes from careful study, not from an overactive imagination. It is unwise to ‘read into’ Bible verses and come up with fanciful ideas. The classic is the person who was having a problem, read how Judas hung himself, then read, “Go and do likewise” then “Whatever you do, do it quickly.” This example is likely fiction, but it illustrates the danger of careless interpretation.

Today’s devotional is based on the following passage:

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’” So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland, from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh. These were the cities designated for all the people of Israel and for the stranger sojourning among them, that anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there, so that he might not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, till he stood before the congregation. (Joshua 20:1–9)

The author says: “The six cities of refuge which Joshua appointed in the land of Canaan were types of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even their names represent him.”

I had to check this out for myself using the Bible dictionaries on my computer program called “Logos.” Some of what I discovered matched the devotional writer’s findings, some did not and I found it a stretch to match them up with Jesus. I’m not saying there was no relationship between the names of these cities and Christ, but I could not see everything Fortner wrote about. My Exhaustive Dictionary of Bible Names said about these cities:

  • Kedesh = Sanctuary; holy place; (root = to be consecrated).
  • Shechem = Back; shoulder - literally, early rising; (root = the shoulder; the upper part of the back; a ridge of land). Diligence.
  • Hebron = Confederation; conjunction; alliance; associating; joining together; union; company.
  • Bezer = Gold ore; defense. Strong; gold one. Munition.
  • Ramoth = Heights; eminences; high places; (root = a lofty place). Coral.
  • Golan = Great exodus; exile; (root = a band of exiles). Their captivity; their rejoicing.

Careful Bible interpretation tries to determine what a passage meant to the original readers. In this case, the OT readers likely did not link the names of these cities to the promised Messiah. They may have marveled at their God who made this provision for fair trial if someone accidently killed another rather than being quickly killed by an avenger. However, the link to Jesus in the names is not clear.

Besides, it is only looking back that Jesus is seen as our refuge, also our holiness. He did tell a parable of a shepherd finding a lost sheep and carrying it home on his shoulders. He is the source of our unity, our strength and is our defense, and is in a lofty place. He is the one who brought Christians (a band of exiles) out of sin. However, all this is seen in hindsight. Could anyone see it back then in the names and meanings of those cities? Maybe God arranged that, yet there is no record — until when Luke said Jesus pointed to Himself in all of Scripture.

Jesus, I know You are pleased when You are so much in my thoughts that everything reminds me of You. At the same time, I am wary of interpreting the Bible using even a sanctified imagination. It seems better to study diligently what it says, interpret carefully what it means, and listen to the Holy Spirit so I know how to apply it to my life.

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