Joshua 20 – The Cities of Refuge
A. God commands the appointment of six cities of refuge.
1. (1-3) A place of refuge from the avenger of blood.
The LORD also spoke to Joshua, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Appoint for yourselves cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the slayer who kills a person accidentally or unintentionally may flee there; and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood.’”
a. Appoint for yourselves cities of refuge: God now tells Joshua to fulfill what the LORD had commanded through Moses in Numbers 35 – the appointment of six cities of refuge.
b. That the slayer who kills a person accidentally or unintentionally may flee there: The purpose of the cities of refuge was to protect the slayer who kills any person accidentally or unintentionally. They were to protect someone in the case of manslaughter as opposed to murder.
c. And they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood: Such a person needed protection against the avenger of blood. The Hebrew word for this phrase is goel, and in this context means the representative from the victim’s family charged with making sure justice is carried out against the murderer of the family member.
i. God had a passion to make sure that murderers were punished in ancient Israel, and in that culture, the final responsibility for justice rested with the designated goel (avenger of blood) in the family.
ii. The principle for capital punishment goes back to Genesis 9:6: Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man. The state’s right to use the sword of execution is also stated in the New Testament (Romans 13:3-4).
iii. God said also that unpunished murderers defiled the land: Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death…. So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel (Numbers 35:31, 35:33-34).
iv. How long will our nation be polluted by the stain of unpunished murders? Not too many years ago, over one year in Los Angeles County, there was an average of more than five murders a day. The blood of the slain cries out before God.
d. Refuge from the avenger of blood: The avenger of blood tracked down the murderer, and if necessary, delivered him over to the authorities for execution. This was providing the testimony of two or three eyewitnesses could confirm the guilt of the murderer according to Deuteronomy 17:6-7.
e. Refuge from the avenger of blood: Since the avenger of blood might set himself against a person guilty of manslaughter (accidental or unintentional killing) instead of murder, the cities of refuge were established to protect the person innocent of murder.
2. (4) Entrance into the city of refuge.
And when he flees to one of those cities, and stands at the entrance of the gate of the city, and declares his case in the hearing of the elders of that city, they shall take him into the city as one of them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them.
a. And declares his case in the hearing of the elders of that city: According to custom, the elders of the city spent much time at the gates of the city. When someone fleeing from an avenger of blood came to a city of refuge, he stated his case to the elders at the city gates.
b. They shall take him into the city as one of them: After explaining the case, the fleeing person could expect to find protection within the walls of the city of refuge, though he would have to stay there, and live in the city, to enjoy that protection.
3. (5) Protection against the avenger of blood.
Then if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not deliver the slayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unintentionally, but did not hate him beforehand.
a. They shall not deliver the slayer into his hand: The leaders of a city of refuge were obliged to protect the one who had fled to the city. The avenger of blood had no legal standing to deliver the slayer over to execution.
b. Because he struck his neighbor unintentionally, but did not hate him beforehand: Israel had a sophisticated legal system, with judgments often based on intent and premeditation.
4. (6) Freedom for the slayer.
And he shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the one who is high priest in those days. Then the slayer may return and come to his own city and his own house, to the city from which he fled.
a. He shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the one who is high priest in those days: To be protected against the avenger of blood, the slayer had to stay within the walls of the city of refuge until his case was fully heard by the proper authorities, and until the death of the standing high priest.
b. Then the slayer may return and come to his own city: After being declared innocent of murder by the proper authorities, and after the death of the standing high priest, the slayer could go back to his home and be protected against the wrath of the avenger of blood.
B. Six cities selected for cities of refuge.
1. (7-8) The appointment of six cities.
So they appointed Kedesh in Galilee, in the mountains of Naphtali, Shechem in the mountains of Ephraim, and Kirjath Arba (which is Hebron) in the mountains of Judah. And on the other side of the Jordan, by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness on the plain, from the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh.
a. So they appointed: On a map, we see that the cities of refuge were well spaced throughout the country. No matter where you were in Israel, you were not very far from a city of refuge.
b. They assigned: Deuteronomy 19:2-3 tells us that proper roads were to be built and maintained to these cities of refuge. The city was not much good to the slayer if he could not get to it quickly.
2. (9) The purpose for the cities of refuge is again stated.
These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel and for the stranger who dwelt among them, that whoever killed a person accidentally might flee there, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood until he stood before the congregation.
a. For all the children of Israel and for the stranger who dwelt among them: The cities of refuge were not only for the benefit of the Israelite but also for the stranger who dwelt among them. God’s justice applied to all without partiality.
3. The cities of refuge as a picture of Jesus.
a. The Bible applies this picture of the city of refuge to the believer finding refuge in God on more than one occasion:
i. Psalm 46:1: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. More than 15 other times, the Psalms speak of God as our refuge.
ii. Hebrews 6:18: That by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.
b. Points of similarity between the cities of refuge and our refuge in Jesus.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are within easy reach of the needy person; they are of no use unless someone could get to the place of refuge.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are open to all, not just the Israelite; no one needs to fear that they would be turned away from their place of refuge in their time of need.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge become a place where the one in need can live; you didn’t come to a city of refuge in time of need just to look around.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are the only alternative for the one in need; without this specific protection, they will be destroyed.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provide protection only within their boundaries; to go outside means death.
· With both Jesus and the cities of refuge, full freedom comes with the death of the High Priest.
c. A crucial distinction between the cities of refuge and our refuge in Jesus.
· The cities of refuge only helped the innocent, but the guilty can come to Jesus and find refuge.