Sanctuary is a common theme throughout the Hebrew scriptures. We read about it over and over again. I’m going to examine a few examples of sanctuary – some direct and some indirect.
The first example is from Genesis 18. In this chapter, Abraham has been visited by three “men” – angels. Abraham shows them great hospitality – offering them rest, water, washing their feet, bread, and a calf from the herd made into a meal. In response, the three men announce that Sarah will conceive a child, even though she is well past the child bearing age.
Immediately after this, we hear of the men getting up and heading towards the city of Sodom, intending to destroy it. Many Christians believe Sodom was destroyed because of homosexual activity. The bible actually speaks about why it was destroyed in Ezekiel 16:49: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
In other words, this was a sin of withholding hospitality, a sin of hoarding, a sin of exploitation. The beginning of Genesis 18 is the picture of what good hospitality looks like – Abraham withholds nothing from these strangers and is rewarded by God. The people of Sodom are greedy, selfish, and arrogant, and as a result, God is ready to bring justice. We would also hear about their acts of violence through rape of strangers – a form of exploitation.
But getting back to the main point though, Abraham has a conversation with God in Genesis 18:22-33 – really more like a pleading with God. It starts like this: “Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” (Genesis 18:23-24) What is Abraham doing? He’s pleading with God that the city should not suffer the fate it deserves for violating God’s law. He is arguing for sanctuary, primarily for the people who are righteous. But one must notice that the unrighteous, undeserving, law breakers benefit from this sanctuary plea as well. To be clear, Abraham isn’t interested in saving them for their own sake, but rather because wiping out the unrighteous along with the righteous would be unjust to the righteous.
This raises the question around what sanctuary was intended to be for the ancient world, especially in Ancient Israel – and for who. Ann Deslandes wrote a great short summary of the meaning of sanctuary in ancient times, including in Roman culture. “In antiquity, sanctuary cities existed to ameliorate the harsher consequences of the law of the land (like blood vengeance for murder).”
Specifically we see references to sanctuary, or cities of refuge, in Joshua 20:
“Then the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, ‘Say to the Israelites, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person without intent or by mistake may flee there; they shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. The slayer shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city, and explain the case to the elders of that city; then the fugitive shall be taken into the city, and given a place, and shall remain with them. And if the avenger of blood is in pursuit, they shall not give up the slayer, because the neighbour was killed by mistake, there having been no enmity between them before. The slayer shall remain in that city until there is a trial before the congregation, until the death of the one who is high priest at the time: then the slayer may return home, to the town in which the deed was done.'” (Joshua 20:1-6).
Here we see that sanctuary is offered to a person who killed someone by accident. This is to save the person from a sort of revenge justice. Here, God tells the Israelites which cities will be cities of refuge, or sanctuary cities, for people to go and take refuge and be safe from punishment being doled out against them.
Scripture goes on to talk about the alien or stranger in the midst of the Israelites and the responsibilities of the Children of God in relation to these people. I listed several of these passages in a previous blog post.
Specifically, I want to highlight two verses from that list.
The first one being:
“‘When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. ‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Throughout Leviticus 19, the Lord is laying out the rules of justice – what you shall and shall not do. These range from sexual relations, to dietary laws, to family relations, and how a stranger is treated. In Leviticus 19:33-34 we hear that the stranger shall be treated just like an Israelite. In other words, they are to treated with hospitality and treated as a neighbor. This is about fulfilling the two great commandments – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. The reality of the ancient world is that strangers were often mistreated and exploited – think about how the residents of Sodom wanted to rape the strangers who came there. Here God is essentially telling the Israelites to offer sanctuary to the stranger – give them special protection. It isn’t in relation to a violation of the law, but rather, a way for the Israelite to carry out the great commandments.
The second passage is this, “The LORD protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, But He thwarts the way of the wicked.” (Psalm 146:9)
Throughout Psalm 146, the psalmist is writing words of praise for God and God’s help. Verses 5-9 describe the nature of God based on what God does.
“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”
We hear about God being a God who executes justice for the oppressed and gives food for the hungry. God sets the prisoners free and heals. And God watches over the stranger and the exploited. Sounds an awful lot like Matthew 25, doesn’t it?
Often the stranger is mentioned in conjunction with the orphan and widow in contrast to the wicked. In other words, God recognizes that the stranger needs extra protection, just like the orphan and widow. In this sense, the stranger is under God’s sanctuary protection, just like the orphan and widow.
When we look elsewhere in Scripture, we come to 1 Samuel 19. Here we read about Jonathan interceding for David – or you could say offering sanctuary to David.
“Saul spoke to his son Jonathan and to all his servants about killing David. But Saul’s son Jonathan took great delight in David. Jonathan told David, ‘My father Saul is trying to kill you; therefore be on guard tomorrow morning; stay in a secret place and hide yourself. I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where you are, and I will speak to my father about you; if I learn anything I will tell you.’ Jonathan spoke well of David to his father Saul, saying to him, ‘The king should not sin against his servant David, because he has not sinned against you, and because his deeds have been of good service to you; for he took his life in his hand when he attacked the Philistine, and the Lord brought about a great victory for all Israel. You saw it, and rejoiced; why then will you sin against an innocent person by killing David without cause?’” (1 Samuel 19:1-5)
Jonathan is risking a lot here. He has continued to maintain his friendship with David, in spite of the fact that the king wants David dead. Jonathan is offering sanctuary in the sense that he is not turning in David, but pleading to Saul on David’s behalf. In essence, he is keeping David safe in direct violation of Saul, the king’s demands.
The last example I’m going to bring up is from the book of Daniel. Chapters 3 and 6 are retelling of the same thing, told through different stories. On the surface, these stories don’t seem to have anything to do with sanctuary, but a deeper reading will show that they are very much about sanctuary.
In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego, faithful worshipers of Yahweh, refuse to worship the golden statue created by Nebuchadnezzar. The punishment is to be thrown into the fiery furnace.
“Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace to be heated up seven times more than was customary, and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counsellors, ‘Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?’ They answered the king, ‘True, O king.’ He replied, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.’” (Daniel 3:19-25)
How is a fiery furnace a sanctuary? A few ways. Remember that a sanctuary is a holy place – where God dwells. In this story, we hear the king acknowledge that it looks like the fourth man in the fire, “has the appearance of a god.”
Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego are standing in the presence of an angel who protects them – offering them sanctuary from the punishment that was assigned to them for violating the king and his law. And the fiery furnace changes from an instrument of death into a purifying fire. Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego are unharmed because they are righteous. The men who throw them in the fire die – the unrighteous are burned away. That which is unholy cannot stand in the place that is holy.
Daniel 6 mirrors chapter 3. In this case the king is Darius, and the faithful follower of Yahweh is Daniel. Daniel gets in trouble for worshiping Yahweh. Darius’ advisors are jealous of Daniel and turn him in for violating one of the edicts of Darius. The punishment is throwing Daniel into the lion’s den.
In the morning, Darius goes to find out if Daniel survived the night with the lions and Daniel responds by saying: “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no wrong.’” (Daniel 6:22) God goes to Daniel and provides him sanctuary – protecting him from Darius and Darius’ laws. The end result is similar to the previous story. Daniel is unscathed while the advisors of Darius find themselves judged impure and end up being thrown into the lion’s den and dying as a result. The righteous find sanctuary while the unrighteous are judged and suffer the punishment they intended unjustly for the righteous.
As you can see from these few Scripture references, in many of these cases, sanctuary is offered to someone who violates a law. In other cases, sanctuary is offered to someone who is considered part of a group of people that deserve protection.
Guilt before the law isn’t the basis of consideration as to why someone receives sanctuary though. Rather, this has more to do with fulfilling the two great commandments – Loving the Lord with all of your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. God compels us to provide sanctuary in order to fulfill these two great commandments.
My next post will have us look at sanctuary in relation to the New Testament.