A few months ago, the rural congregation where my husband and I serve, opened the worship service with the song, Sanctuary. The prayerful refrain is repeated three times making it easy to remember. It goes like this:
Sanctuary brought to mind the ongoing debates about legal and illegal immigrants, the sanctuary cities , and the churches designated as sanctuaries in the US. Undocumented immigrants could find respite from civil and national authorities in sanctuary cities before being deported to their respective country of origin. Sanctuary cities — there are 300 or more throughout the United States — differ from the churches which have declared themselves to be a haven for undocumented immigrants.
While studying about sanctuary cities in preparation for this post, a remarkable story popped up in my news feed about a Jamaican couple — Oneita and Clive Thompson and their two children. This family received sanctuary over 14 years ago in the United States after escaping gang violence in their homeland. They found gainful employment in the United States, settled down, and raised their children.
Then the unimaginable happened. In 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents informed the Thompsons they were on a list to be deported back to Jamaica. Stunned with the prospect of deportation they sought sanctuary again — this time not within the nation they had come to love — but within the confines of two churches in Philadelphia, where “they ate, bathed, and slept cloistered inside.” Oneita shared “they could … [only] view the outside world [from] beyond the churches’ stained glass windows.” If they dared to wander outside the church building at any time they risked arrest and deportation.
After 843 days of seclusion just a few days before Christmas on December 21, 2020, a shift in governmental policy opened the possibility for a reprieve. Oneita and Clive tentatively ventured beyond the boundary of those sanctuary walls. Once again they strolled along the city streets without trepidation and congregated among communities which had earlier sought their expulsion.
Oneita and Clive Thompson’s story is just one story out of the many. President George Bush’s recent book, Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants, shines a light upon “the famous, to the not-so-famous” immigrants in our country. I believe it would serve us well to follow President Bush’s advise to speak more respectfully of immigrants.
A Human Sanctuary
The lyrical prayer drew me back to my pew in the country church nestled in the rolling countryside of Missouri. I turned my attention to its plea: “Prepare me to be sanctuary,” words exhorting me to examine my personal responsibility to be a pure, holy, human sanctuary.
I wondered what the songwriter had in mind when he penned the lyrics: “Lord, prepare ME to be a sanctuary?” The song raised other questions. For whom and for what purpose should I be a sanctuary? For myself, for others, for God? Am I a metaphorical sacred vessel in a material body that houses the divine presence? Or, was I simply expected to be hospitable by offering a physical and emotional safe-space for others? Couldn’t I, as a Christian, choose which to be? Seriously though, is it even possible for a person to be a pure and holy, tried and true sanctuary in today’s post-modern world? What risks was I willing to take to become a sanctuary during these unsettling times?
Those questions raced through my mind all the while the lyrics flowed from my lips!
Ancient Cities and the Deities that Protected Them
Sanctuary cities are not a modern concept. We read about cities of refuge in the Old Testament. They were discussed briefly in one of my OT classes at CCCB. 1 I was unfamiliar with this subject so I dug deeper to get more insight, hoping to see how I might be a sanctuary.
One thing I discovered is that the 21st century sanctuary-model operates on a different principle than that of the ancient past. The churches which hosted the Thompsons were practicing a form of the “primitive custom of hospitality” stemming from the belief that there is a “divine sanction” for people “to help one another.” 2 This easily brings to mind Jesus’s exhortation to love our neighbor as ourselves. We don’t need to be a Christ-follower to believe this. Apparently, even the pagans who loved their gods were expected to love their fellow human.
The idea supporting this is that the “foreigner is the guest of God, and fear of God demands that he be protected.” 3. The “first hostelries were in shadows of temples’ and many of the ‘hospices connected with synagogues and Christian places of pilgrimage are parallel to this pagan institution.” 4. Yet, the two principles are similar in one regard — both offer temporary asylum to an individual stuck in a life-threatening predicament. That is as close as the modern concept comes to that of the ancient practice.
Because the ancient understanding of the cosmos, humanity, and of reality is significantly different from ours, it is easy to misunderstand what the authors, of the Hebrew text were addressing. It is necessary to “remove cultural blinders” when studying the Biblical text, otherwise our contemporary views get in the way. 5 Important to my study on sanctuary is how did the ancient culture view the matter.
Sacred Temple Space. John Walton explains how the Ancient Near Eastern cultures held to the principle that the power and presence of a deity or deities resides in temple spaces and/or within its surrounding city. “The concept of asylum and refuge is quite old. Babylonian and Hittite texts both speak of sacred space where all are to be protected. The inhabitants of the great temple cities of Nippur, Sippar and Babylon were granted special status because of the protection afforded by patron deities of these places.” 6. For the Babylonians and the Hittites the sacred, holy space extended beyond the temple compound to encompass the entire city. Egyptian asylum cities differed from the Babylonian and the Hittite cities. In Egyptian temples the sacred space was restricted to the actual physical space within the temple precinct. It did not extend beyond the temple to the entire city.
Each territory was controlled and protected by the deities worshiped in those regions. “Ancient Near Easterners assumed that the effectiveness of a god, including Yahweh, extended only to the boundaries of his or her nation of empire.” 7 Apparently, the gods of certain areas were restricted from trespassing upon another god’s territory. The story of Naaman, an Aramean military commander who had leprosy, and his encounter with the prophet Elisha reveals how the Aramean culture at least held that view. The story is found in 1 Kings 5.
Let me explain. After being healed in the river Jordan, which ran through Israelite territory, Naaman asked permission to load a cartload of dirt from the site. Why? He planned to build an altar to the God who healed him. In order to do so, he needed dirt from the Israelite region on which to build an altar back in the territory governed by the god Rimmon whom the Arameans worshiped. What a clever maneuver and a classic case of syncretism. But, this allowed Naaman to sacrifice to God in another god’s domain, while remaining under the protection of his nation’s god! Naaman’s “request represented the Near Eastern belief that deities were local gods who protected the land of their worshipers.” 8
Where did the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dwell? Was Moses presenting a truer sense of sacred, sanctuary space from that of the Egyptians when he penned the account of Eden where Elohim walked daily with its first inhabitants in the garden? How long might it take to remove 400 years of an idol-worshipping ideology from the newly redeemed children of God? Was the move from a moveable tabernacle to the stationary temple a capitulation to culture? Was this an attempt to stake out a territory for themselves where the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could dwell?
When David desired to build a temple, the prophet Nathan declared the words from God: “Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (2 Sam 7:7, NRSV). Even though Solomon built the grandest temple of all time in Jerusalem, his words of caution remind us that
Did a regional, divine presence keep the Thompsons safe in that sanctuary church? Did the God we Christian’s worship keep them safe?
Most people today are more comfortable keeping God or gods, if either exist at all — out there, out of mind — to do whatever it or they do from afar. That works well, until in desperation — like Naaman and the stories in Guidepost reveal — desperation compells us to cry out to the gods.
Blood, Death, and Life
For the Hebrew people, sanctuary cities were necessary on a different level. It was a matter of life and death. According to James Smith, “[t]aking a life, even accidentally, was a serious matter under the Law.” 9. “To take life (even unintentionally) was to attack the image of God (Gen 9:5–7), and therefore warranted death.” 10.
Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.Genesis 9:5-7
Prior to entering the Promised Land, if an Israelite accidentally killed another person, they ran to the altar inside the tabernacle to seek shelter from the avenger of blood (Ex 21:12, 13). After crossing the Jordan into Canaan, cities of refuge were established to protect anyone who accidentally caused the death of another (Num 35:10-34; Deut 20:1-3). The ancient centers of refuge were situated throughout the newly conquered Canaanite territory in six of the 48 “levitical towns” scattered throughout the land. 11.
The Promised Land was divided between the 12 tribes (sons) of Israel. The Levites — who functioned as the priests alongside the High Priest — did not inherit real estate like their brothers.
Instead their brothers were required to provide the Levite’s towns from their own territories where the Levites could live. The Levites were supported with portions of tithes and offerings from their non-Levitical brothers. Six refuge cities were strategically situated throughout the nation: three on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west of the river in the conquered land of Canaan.
Refuge for All from the Avenger of Blood
Immigrants arrive at our borders for various reason.. Fleeing the avenger of death is not one of them. The cities of refuge in the nation of Israel dealt specifically with one category of lawbreaking — accidental murder. Numbers 35:16-25 describes in detail the difference between the accidental murderer and the premeditated murderer. The premeditated murderer, unlike Cain, had no place to run to escape the avenger.
Each crime carried precise and separate penalties similar to today’s penalties for first, second, and third-degree homicides and for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. An unfortunate example is the current case of Minnesota vs Chauvin who was recently convicted of the murder of George Floyd. 12.
But here is one enormous difference from today. The family members of the victim were legally sanctioned to avenge the death of their loved one! In, fact, it was imperative that the murderer — the one who shed blood accidentally and the one who premeditated the death of another person — be put to death at the hands of the avenger of blood. Why? To cleanse the land from the shed blood. Only then would justice be served, or so it seemed.
Only the unintentional killer could escape the penalty of death at the hands of the avenger. If the slayer — again, the one who accidentally caused the death of another — could outrun the avenger of blood and push through the gates of the refuge city before being apprehended by the avenger — a door of hospitality opened to grant protection from the avenger’s mortal blow!
The avenger of blood may have been an enraged relative of the victim bent on killing the murderer. He may have been a governmental appointee who functioned as the avenger of blood on behalf of a community. Regardless of who avenged the murder — the execution was necessary for the premeditated murderer — because it was imperative to purge the land from the stain of innocent blood. 13
If the city elders heard the case and proved the victim’s death was indeed accidental, the slayer must remain inside the confines of the refuge city for the rest of his life. Only then could the slayer receive lifelong protection from the avenger of blood (see Num 35:9-28; Dt 19:1-13, Josh 20). Otherwise, if the slayer dared to venture outside the city at any time he became fair game for the avenger!
I found it remarkable to discover that each of the refuge cities operated as a shelter not just for the Hebrews, but for anyone — the Israelite, the foreigner, and sojourners who settled in their territory. Was there a test to determine which foreigners and which sojourners had the right to dwell within the conquered territory? I do not know.
ANYONE! Anyone residing within the Israelite territory who committed an accidental, unpremeditated death of another could seek asylum within one of the six cities (Ex 21:13). Could this practice be a partial provision of God’s people as a”kingdom of priests” (NIV) fulfilling their mission to be a blessing to surrounding peoples and nations (Gen 12:3a; Ex 19:5-6); Acts 3:25)? I like to think so. If today the Body of Christ is the priesthood of believers, then might it be possible that a nation invoking the name of God is taking that name in vain? Is it even possible for a nation to fulfill a mandate given to the Church?
High Priest and the Avenger
High cost for protection. There was a high cost to the slayer for his protection. The law had strict stipulations: the slayer must leave his tribe, property, and family to live in the refuge city — now a dependent upon the mercy and hospitality of that city. Similar to the couple from Jamaica who received sanctuary in the Philadelphia churches, the innocent slayer would be a quasi-prisoner within the confines of the refuge city. Perhaps immediate family members joined him there. The city paid a hefty price as well. Security to secure the slayer would be needed in the event an enraged family member or tribe took revenge upon the Levitical city.
Would the one who killed without malicious intent — ever be free to return home to his family, to reclaim the properties left behind? Would he ever be free to walk among his community without looking over his shoulders in fear of the approaching avenger?
The sentence for the slayer — the one who accidentally caused the death of another — dangled precariously upon the death of another — the current High Priest. It is a strange thing to comprehend and a bit ironic in my mind. Only after the death of the current High Priest — the one in office when the slayer murdered and moved into the sanctuary city — could the slayer leave the refuge city to roam freely without fear of retribution from the blood avenger — one life hanging in balance on another’s death.
If the High Priest was young we could assume the slayer’s detainment to be a long and painful one. Perhaps he would die in the refuge city long before being set free. On the other hand, if the Priest was elderly and frail nearing his own deathbed, the slayer could hope for a shorter detainment.
It is interesting to note how the Biblical text focuses primarily upon the murderer with little attention to the victims and the loss sustained by their families. We can imagine the emotional toll on the slayer, but what of the family of the one slain? If the stay in the sanctuary community was short, would the family believe justice had been served? If the sentence was longer, would that even satisfy the loss of their loved one? I doubt it.
God’s compassion and long-suffering towards humanity is revealed early on in Genesis. When sin enters Eden God’s love covers both Adam and Eve. (Gn 3:21). God’s mercy reached beyond Eden when extended to the first intentional murderer. Cain’s action fits the definition of a murderer perfectly.
Cain schemed, plotted, premeditated, and slaughtered his own brother. It seems that God’s compassion — to cover a multitude of sins, so to speak — is the underlying core to the concept of refuge cities.
Had Cain lived under those later laws he could have been put to death at the hands of one of his family members. If anyone had the right to avenge the blood of Abel, no doubt it would have been God. Instead, we see how God gives Cain a reprieve by sending him far from God’s presence.
Either way, the one dwelling in the sanctuary city paid a price — dwelling in the liminal space between what was before and what is to come. He is free to live — to exist — free from the blood avenger, but not free enough to live as freely and as independently as before — a monumental price to pay for one accidental slip of the hand that caused the death of another. That one unintentional act caused the death of another and brought about life-altering consequences.
In order to save your life, you must lose your life. And only after the High Priest dies will you be free to fully live again. I doubt I need to draw out the many parallels to our own life.
One sin brought death. The wages of sin is death, as Paul argues in Romans 3:28.
In a way, I think this exploration to understand the role of sanctuary cities in the Old Testament gives insight into the first couples act that consequently led to the death of humanity. Was their action – that led to the death and bloodshed – a premeditated act? The deceived woman gave food to Adam. He ate without hesitation. Was theirs a premeditation to kill and murder? Regardless of their heart and motive, the consequences to themselves and the rest of humanity was and continues to be monumental.
Death is part of every lived-experience. Death stalks everyone. Fear of dying causes us to do some crazy things to escape what is eventually unescapable.
Being Sanctuary Today
Thankfully there is a Sanctuary City available to each and every one who is willing to outrun the avenger of blood to that city for refuge.
Yes, you must lose your old life to gain this new one. Yes, it is a liminal space — offering life now with full life later. And yes! This life rests fully upon Jesus, the one and only perfect High Priest, who died, was resurrected, and who now “serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle”.
I still wonder what the author of the song, “Lord, Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary” had in mind?
The song unfortunately calls me to be a solitary sanctuary, reinforcing an ongoing individualistic mindset. But we live within community.
Obviously there is only one true sanctuary — the one not made by hands (Heb 9:24). So what kind of sanctuary am I to be?
Yes, I am a vessel for God’s presence. I must commit myself to becoming that pure, holy, sanctuary where the Holy Spirit dwells, a metaphorical type of tabernacle on the move. However, in the here and now, I live as a physical embodiment of Christ’s love to others.
What if instead of singing, “prepare me to be a sanctuary” we sing “prepare us to be a sanctuary”?
Better still, let’s raise our voices loud and sing, “Prepare the church – the corporate Body – to be a sanctuary!”
What if we saw ourselves belonging to a larger community — the global church — with the purpose to be a safe place, a sanctuary city, where the gospel message brings liberation and belonging for those with no place of their own?
Next time you sing Lord, Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary in the worship service – close your eyes and ask yourself this:
When the one running from the avenger of death reaches out to me, will they find sanctuary in my presence or the doors of my heart slammed shut in their face?
Then ask the same question about your local church.
When the one fleeing the avenger of death stumbles into our gates will they find the doors to the sanctuary bolted tight to protect those already within from those without?
Or will they be welcomed with open arms, their parched souls and emaciated bodies refreshed with the Living Water and the Bread of Heaven?
If the latter my friend, we have something to sing about!
- Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri
- Gustav Stahlin, “Xenos, Xenia, Xenizō, Xenodocheō, Philoxenia, Philoxenos,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 1.
- TDNT, pg. 17
- Ibid., pg. 19
- “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible” by Brandon J. O’Brien and E. Randolph Richards is a helpful resource.
- Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), Dt 19:2–3.
- Brandon L. Fredenburg, Ezekiel, The College Press NIV Commentary, (Joplin: College Press Publishing Company, 2002), 19.
- Jesse C. Long, Jr., 1 & 2 Kings, College Press NIV Commentary, pg. 326.
- James E. Smith, The Pentateuch (2nd ed.; Old Testament Survey Series; Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1993), 516.
- Leonard J. Coppes, “2026 קלט,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 799.
- Leonard J. Coppes, “2026 קלט,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 800
- James E. Smith, The Pentateuch (2nd ed.; Old Testament Survey Series; Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1993), 516