Author: John Whitmarsh
From chapters 13-19 we have read about the division of the land into the inheritance given to each tribe. Two cities, in particular, have been allocated one to Caleb in chapter 14 and the second to Joshua at the end of chapter 19. Chapters 20 and 21 deal with the allocation of further cities with special emphasis on the tribe of Levi who were without an area of land but received 48 cities dispersed among the 12 tribes and their land. The first six of these cities were designated refuge cities. Why refuge cities? Why the need for refuge?
Refuge was required for the one who, unfortunately and accidentally, had slain a person. Such a man would have been running for his life from the one who had every right to avenge his brother's blood and death. He was in mortal danger. He needed a haven, a refuge. God graciously provided six such havens dispersed throughout the territories belonging to the twelve tribes. But why was the man on the run? Why was there this sentence that hung over him?
To answer this we have to go right back to the beginning of scripture. When God gave His first instructions that governed how His people should live there was no such thing as democracy or law enforcement officers (as in a police force). Neither was there an executioner nor a hangman. And yet God made provision that His people could live together in the book of Genesis. He was to be their ruler. There was a theocracy. The laws that governed the way by which people behaved were determined by God and He was the enforcer. That did not mean to say that God was without feeling or justice. These laws were not arbitrary. They were designed to enable mankind to live together and to get the best out of life. This is a vast subject and salient points are considered here by way of introduction.
By the time we come to Joshua 20 mankind has lived together for millennia. This chapter gives details of God's provision for the accidental slayer. Someone's premature death could be as a result of a number of things sickness, accident or, even, murder. Until the Mosaic law was given in Exodus 20, God was in sole charge of any vengeance that was to be shown to another as a result of a murder. 'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay.' We read in Genesis 4.13-15, 'And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me. And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.' God made it quite clear that men should not take the law into their own hands in this passage. There was to be no vigilante groups. There would be a seven fold vengeance taken upon that man (presumably not only would the man die but others in his family would also perish). Again this was no doubt further on in time from the moment that Cain slew Abel as any man's family would not have been large at that stage. This was deterrent enough for any to slay Cain.
In Genesis 9 God set up another law to govern the shedding of blood onto the cleansed earth. 'And surely the blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of a man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.' God had said to Cain that the voice of his brother's blood cried to Him from the ground. That principle still stood and still stands to this day. Whenever a murder is committed God hears the voice of that person's blood crying to Him from the ground. It calls out for justice. There is no mention in Genesis 9 of any distinction to be made between murder and manslaughter. We have to wait until after the law was given at Sinai for this. What is established in Genesis 9 is that the responsibility for dealing with death that came about by one man shedding another's blood devolved to men. The operative words in Genesis 9.6 are 'by man'. A further principle is established in that when blood is shed deliberately (again we find this out later in the scripture) then the perpetrator is to have his blood shed. Though the word 'death' is not mentioned in Genesis 9 loss of life is so that this shedding of blood does not refer to injury but to death. The principle is that the murderer forfeits his right to live. The one who has been murdered cannot see to it that justice is done but this responsibility falls upon the murdered person's brother.
Genesis teaches God's desire for humans to have respect for the sanctity of life. Men were not to go round killing each other. A meaningful deterrent had to be in place in order for society to function correctly. It wasn't that God wanted more bloodshed for the sake of it but that the deterrent should limit the number of murders and that justice should be done and seen to be done (again as a deterrent) should murder take place. Capital punishment (our modern term) is not considered by God to be legalized murder as some modern people think but an expression of justice and justified retribution. God has never revoked His institution of capital punishment.
As explained there are many reasons for a person's death. Not all premature death was murder. Death could be as the result of a tragic accident and God made it clear that such a slayer should not be treated in the same way as the murderer. These provisions that were made for the accidental manslayer are dealt with in the body of notes on this chapter. Passages in Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are considered and show that the avenger of blood was something that God sanctioned.
This is the chapter in the book of Joshua that deals with the establishment of cities of refuge promised in Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy to the one who killed but did so unintentionally. The cities are named and their locations given. Three were on the one side of the river and three on the other. The three on the west side of the Jordan are described as being in the mountains. A straight line could be drawn between them. The line follows the spine of the country.
There are two ways to consider the word 'also'. It could mean that, just as God spoke to Moses about the cities of refuge, He also spoke to Joshua on the same matter. Alternatively it could refer solely to the narrative that is contained in the book of Joshua. The last time we read of the Lord speaking to Joshua in the book was at the beginning of chapter 13. This was to do with the division of the land and the borders of the territories. God now had something else to say to him that he was to convey to the children of Israel. This was to do with special cities for refuge and the Levites.
The last phrase is very interesting in that God is said to have spoken to the children of Israel by the hand of Moses!! Looking at the concordance and the meaning of the word suggests that God is speaking figuratively to refer to the power or strength of Moses. We need to know what God said by Moses.
Exodus 21 says, 'He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death. And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.'
Exodus 21 and 22 are chapters where mention is made of retribution and restitution. Punishment was to fit the crime (eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc.) and laws of restoration to make recompense for that which had been stolen are given. In Exodus 21 there was allowance made for death by accident. There was to be a place of refuge (though the term is not used in this passage) to which a man could flee should he have not intended to kill another person. The phrase 'lie not in wait' means that the man who has taken life did not do so willingly. His action was not premeditated. This aspect of lying in wait is explained further in the passage in Numbers 35 as there clear distinction is made between murder and what we would call manslaughter. As to the provision for the manslayer - in Exodus 21 it is a place. In Numbers 35 we are told that there were to be six cities. In Deuteronomy there were to be three cities plus three if the Lord enlarged their coast.
Numbers 35 says, 'And the LORD spake unto Moses in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho, saying, Command the children of Israel, that they give unto the Levites of the inheritance of their possession cities to dwell in; and ye shall give also unto the Levites suburbs for the cities round about them. And the cities shall they have to dwell in; and the suburbs of them shall be for their cattle, and for their goods, and for all their beasts. And the suburbs of the cities, which ye shall give unto the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city and outward a thousand cubits round about. And ye shall measure from without the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits and the city shall be in the midst: this shall be to them the suburbs of the cities. And among the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites there shall be six cities for refuge, which ye shall appoint for the manslayer, that he may flee thither: and to them ye shall add forty and two cities. So all the cities which ye shall give to the Levites shall be forty and eight cities: them shall ye give with their suburbs. And the cities which ye shall give shall be of the possession of the children of Israel: from them that have many ye shall give many; but from them that have few ye shall give few: every one shall give of his cities unto the Levites according to his inheritance which he inheriteth. And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come over Jordan into the land of Canaan; Then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. And they shall be unto you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment. And of these cities which ye shall give six cities shall ye have for refuge. Ye shall give three cities on this side Jordan, and three cities shall ye give in the land of Canaan, which shall be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that killeth any person unawares may flee thither. And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer: when he meeteth him, he shall slay him. But if he thrust him of hatred, or hurl at him by laying of wait, that he die; Or in enmity smite him with his hand, that he die: he that smote him shall surely be put to death; for he is a murderer: the revenger of blood shall slay the murderer, when he meeteth him. But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him any thing without laying of wait, Or with any stone, wherewith a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm: Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood according to these judgments: And the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil. But if the slayer shall at any time come without the border of the city of his refuge, whither he was fled; And the revenger of blood find him without the borders of the city of his refuge, and the revenger of blood kill the slayer; he shall not be guilty of blood: Because he should have remained in the city of his refuge until the death of the high priest: but after the death of the high priest the slayer shall return into the land of his possession. So these things shall be for a statute of judgment unto you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die. Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel.'
The idea of the avenger of blood is introduced here. Note that the word used here in the AV is the avenger or the revenger of blood. In Joshua 20 the word is exclusively the avenger of blood (three times). It is important to note that the word is the same in the Hebrew text. It is the word go'el which means the kinsman redeemer. This principle of the family member being the avenger of blood can be traced right back to Genesis 9 'at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man.' Perhaps it is wise to explain what the kinsman redeemer could redeem;
1. Leviticus 25.25, 'If thy brother be waxen poor, and hath sold away some of his possession, and if any of his kin come to redeem it, then shall he redeem that which his brother sold.' Redemption of property
2. Leviticus 25.47-49, 'And if a sojourner or stranger wax rich by thee, and thy brother that dwelleth by him wax poor, and sell himself unto the stranger or sojourner by thee, or to the stock of the stranger's family: After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him: Either his uncle, or his uncle's son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself.' Redemption of persons
3. The avenger (kinsman redeemer) of blood was the most perilous role of the kinsman redeemer. Though the slain man could not be brought back again to life the avenger is, in principle, buying back the slain man's life by avenging his shed blood. Redemption of blood
Note, too, that there is constant reference to the cities of refuge. In Deuteronomy 19 the phrase 'city of refuge' is never used. Numbers 35 explains that the death of the high priest signaled the end of the manslayer's time in the city of refuge for he could then return back to his home town.
At the beginning of the introduction to this chapter, Joshua 20, we mentioned about 48 cities for the Levites. This section of scripture also mentions the 6 cities with the 42 added to them. Thus the cities of refuge belonged to the Levites. This is a very important truth to retain in one's mind for the verse in Joshua 20 that speaks of the death of the high priest. The same principle is mentioned here in Numbers 35.
Deuteronomy 4.41-43 says, 'Then Moses severed three cities on this side Jordan toward the sunrising; That the slayer might flee thither, which should kill his neighbor unawares, and hated him not in times past; and that fleeing unto one of these cities he might live: Namely, Bezer in the wilderness, in the plain country, of the Reubenites; and Ramoth in Gilead, of the Gadites; and Golan in Bashan, of the Manassites.'
Deuteronomy 19 says, 'When the LORD thy God hath cut off the nations, whose land the LORD thy God giveth thee, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their cities, and in their houses; Thou shalt separate three cities for thee in the midst of thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it. Thou shalt prepare thee a way, and divide the coasts of thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to inherit, into three parts, that every slayer may flee thither. And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbour ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past; As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live: Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past. Wherefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt separate three cities for thee. And if the LORD thy God enlarge thy coast, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, and give thee all the land which he promised to give unto thy fathers; If thou shalt keep all these commandments to do them, which I command thee this day, to love the LORD thy God, and to walk ever in his ways; then shalt thou add three cities more for thee, beside these three: That innocent blood be not shed in thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and so blood be upon thee. But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities: Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee. Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour's landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it. One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established. If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.'
In Deuteronomy 19 there is an explanation given of what constituted manslaughter as opposed to murder. A specific example is given in the case of the axe head coming adrift and smiting a man so that he died. This death was not intentional but accidental. There was no premeditation. The man responsible in that he was wielding the faulty axe was considered the slayer in the chapter. There is also constant mention of the neighbourly aspect. Also we are told that a way had to be prepared to the city of refuge. There was to be no obstacle in the way of the one who was fleeing for safety.
Unawares mean through error (i.e. the axe head coming off the axe). The word is often translated 'ignorance'. This was inadvertence. Unwittingly means without knowledge or, we would say, premeditation. The conjunction that joins these two words is 'and' and not 'or'.
The operative word here, as in other passages, is 'flee'. Haste was required. The unfortunate man who had wielded the defective axe that had resulted in an accidental death could not grieve for what had happened. He had to flee for his life.
The idea in the refuge is 'taking in'. It is this very phrase that is used in verse 4. We use the term refugees and asylum seekers to describe displaced persons who have no where to go. Such people are often taken in by another country and afforded shelter. Many translations use the word asylum instead of refuge.
20:4 And when he that doth flee unto one of those cities shall stand at the entering of the gate of the city, and shall declare his cause in the ears of the elders of that city, they shall take him into the city unto them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them.
Again the word 'flee' is used. It is also to be found in verse 9 of this chapter. We also noted that it is to be found time and time again in the other passages that deal with the same subject (see above). The man could not flee to any city. He could not choose one of his own. He could not express his own will in this matter. God had determined the means of safety and security. He had provided the way. There may have been a way that seemed right to him but that way would have ended in death.
Provided that he was a genuine manslayer (see other passages to see what happened to the man who was a murderer and who sought a haven in the city of refuge) he was able to present his case to the elders of the refuge city who met in the gate of the same city and they would take him in. This was only a preliminary hearing and designed for the man's safety. There would have to be a hearing in front of the congregation for judgment (a court hearing see verse 6) to determine if the facts of the case matched the man's first statements to the elders. There was urgency in this first hearing that was designed to make the innocent man safe and secure.
The man had left home and loved ones to get to this city. Where would he live within the city? What would he do while he was there? Surely his mind would have been racing as he sat the gate of the city. Life was about to change.
The elders were to give him a place (to live in) within the city walls.
The elders were not allowed to deliver the man into the hands of the avenger of blood should he take up his right to pursue the man because the death was accidental. There was no premeditation. There was no lying in wait. There was no plan that accompanied this death. There was no hatred beforehand. The example given in scripture is that there was an accident at work that resulted in a colleague's death.
20:6 And he shall dwell in that city, until he stand before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the high priest that shall be in those days: then shall the slayer return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house, unto the city from whence he fled.
There were two things that signaled the end of the man's stay within the confines of the refuge city. The first was a court hearing. Presumably if he was found guilty of telling lies at the time that he appealed for a home within the city then his time in the city was at a close. This would have meant that, either the man was stoned for murder by the city members or that he was released from the city to be at the mercy of the family of the one he had murdered.
Kadesh or Kedesh means 'righteousness' or 'sanctuary' or, as mentioned in 10.41 (relating to Kadeshbarnea) and 15.23, 'holy place'. We first encountered this city as Kedesh in Joshua 12.22 for which see.
Shechem means 'shoulder' or 'ridge'. The first mention of this city in Joshua was in 17.2. It is mentioned a total of 62 times in scripture (all in the OT and the majority by the end of the book of Judges).
We have already read much about Hebron in the book of Joshua especially in chapters 10, 14 and 15. As explained earlier (see 10.2 - first mention in Joshua) the name means 'association'. Some give the meaning as 'fellowship'.
The tribes in which these three cities were found are given. These three were on the west side of the river Jordan. They were in the hill country but, no doubt, so high up into the mountains that they were inaccessible. They were prominent without being unreachable. They were cities set on a hill that could not be hid.
20:8 And on the other side Jordan by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness upon the plain out of the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh.
These three were on the other side of the river.
This is the first mention of Bezer in Joshua but it has been mentioned in Deuteronomy 4. It means 'inaccessible spot' but some give this as 'fortress'. Clearly Bezer did not live up to its name as an inaccessible spot. God made sure that these places could be reached. This city is described as being on the plain and is the only city to be so described.
Ramoth means 'heights'.
Golan means 'captive' but some give the meaning as 'joy'. We know Golan from the recent history of troubles between Israel and its neighbouring states that has often seen bloodshed in the Golan heights.
20:9 These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them, that whosoever killeth any person at unawares might flee thither, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until he stood before the congregation.
In verse 8 we read the verb 'assigned'. This word is used over 200 times in scripture but is seldom translated this way. Over 50 of the time it is translated 'give'. The word for 'appointed' is only ever used here in Joshua 20.9 and only ever relates to the establishment of these six cities.
Note the repetition of the fleeing and the need to stand before the congregation (see Numbers 35).
Type and antitype application of Old Testament truth
We know from New Testament scripture that this chapter presents a type, a picture, figure of the Lord Jesus. The Lord is the antitype or one that is foreshadowed by or identified with an earlier symbol or type. Hebrews 6.18-20 clearly states, 'That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; Whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.' We know that the language used for the text of the Old Testament is different from the New. When translated into the English that is used in the Authorised Version the phrase that is used in Joshua, 'that he may flee thither' referring to the cities of refuge, is used in Hebrews 'fled for refuge'. The Christians in the NT passage had very quickly fled for safety. Once they realised that they were in danger they fled. Once they realised the urgency of the situation in which they were found they fled for refuge. They knew that they were sinners in the hand of an angry God and that they needed to be saved and secure from impending judgment and justice. They had fled to lay hold upon the hope set before them. Fancy fleeing to lay hold on hope. Surely there needed to be something more safe and secure than hope? Hope in the New Testament is not the same as hope in our modern language. We speak of hope and there is an element (sometimes more than an element!!) of doubt associated with it. This hope is an anchor of the soul that is not only sure but stedfast. There is no mention of a city in Hebrews 6 but there is mention of a person. He is the hope of Hebrews 6. I Timothy 1.1, 'Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Saviour, and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope.'
We have sinned and not only through omission or ignorance. So much of what we have has been deliberate and willful disobedience of known truth. We were born sinners and that could not be helped. One has well said that it is not our fault that we were born this way but it is our fault that we stay this way. As we grow older and reach an age where we can make a choice regarding sin, we all choose to sin. As sinners there is a sentence of death upon our heads. We are not necessarily in immediate mortal danger as the manslayer that was running for his life but our situation is far worse than the physical circumstances in Joshua 20 - we are certainly in eternal danger as long as we remain in our sin. We know that in the natural course of events we all die. What many are not prepared to believe is that every single person born into this world is in eternal danger.
We are in desperate trouble and desperate need. The avenger of blood is in hot pursuit. God's standards of righteousness must be maintained and He will see to it that justice will be done and seen to be done. Be sure of that. God is the one who has been offended and He will see to it that these offences are justly punished.
What can we do? There is no city provided to which we can flee. And yet in this picture from the Old Testament God is making it clear that a refuge has been provided for us not in a city but in a Person. The way by which He became the kinsman redeemer was not by avenging for blood but by shedding Hs own blood on the cross. To do He had to become a Man. Hebrews 2.14-15 says, 'Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.' He became a Man with a view to suffering and dying as a Man. The one who had been offended was the one who was prepared to pay the price for sin, to become the sacrifice, that the offender (not just the innocent manslayer now but all those who had sinned wilfully and were guilty) might forever go free. The manslayer was in a safe and secure haven but, in a sense, incarcerated until such time that the high priest died and then he was free to go back to his home. Hebrews 6 finishes by telling us that our high priest is never going to die. We are safe and secure without being incarcerated forever. This is not of our doing. He is not of our provision. It is God's goodness and grace that gave of heaven's best for sinners who had offended him.
God has provided not a place of refuge for the guilty soul, nor six places spread throughout the land, but a Person of refuge in the Lord Jesus. Just as Kedesh spoke of sanctuary, Shechem of strength, Hebron of social acceptance, Bezer of security, Ramoth of standing, Golan of service so the Lord Jesus is made these things unto us.
The roads to the cities of refuge were not impassable. They were not inaccessible, unreachable. The gates were ever open. Many other roads in the land may have been impassable but not these. The Lord Jesus is accessible. At all times. He has never turned one away yet. It is not just the innocent who are received by Him for none of us would be saved. It is the whosoever and whatsoever he or she has done. Murderers have been saved.
The manslayer who reached the gates of the refuge city and had not been caught by the pursuer would have been daft to sit still and think, 'What will my family think? What will my friends think? This is going to change my life. Am I ready for this?' He was in danger and delay could have meant death. It is also daft to sit and think the same questions whenever it is that we feel that we are in eternal danger and that we can have safety and security in the Saviour, the Refuge.