Sometimes, it is difficult to know the right thing to do.
Earlier, in Numbers 15, a man was discovered gathering wood on the Sabbath day – a clear violation of Sabbath law. But while the facts of the case were obvious (he was gathering wood, and it was the Sabbath day), the circumstances were not so clear. Did he know it was the Sabbath? Was there an emergency requiring this gathering of wood? The circumstances were so questionable that the man was brought to Moses to determine his proper fate. The Lord decided, and he was put to death.
In capital crimes, sometimes the circumstances are not clear. Since the Old Testament provided for quick justice, there was a need for a way to slow things down until all the facts could be ascertained. That was the purpose of the “cities of refuge.” A guilty person could not avoid justice in a city of refuge – but an innocent person could go there, marshal evidence and witnesses in his favor, tell his side of the story, and find a receptive and just hearing.
There were to be at least six cities of refuge, and Israel was to make sure good roads were available to ensure easy access.
Still, even an innocent verdict in a capital crime didn’t mean total freedom for the accused. He had to stay in the City of Refuge until the death of the High Priest.
The rules regarding the cities of refuge provided time for reflection and consideration in matters of justice. But they also were reminders that taking a life, even accidentally, was a serious matter with long term consequences. God was emphasizing the value of human life.