JOSHUA 20
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[Yehoshua 20 Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB)]

The Cities of Refuge 

1 Yahweh also spake unto Joshua [Yehoshua], saying,

2 Speak to the children of Israel [Bnei Yisroel], saying, Appoint out [Designate] for you cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses [yad Moshe]:

These verses should be considered together with Ex. 21:12-14; Num. 35:6-34; Deut. 4:41-43; 19:1-13.

Before Israel entered the Promised Land, Yahweh had given instructions concerning six cities which were to be designated to fulfil a special purpose. They became known as the cities of refuge. There were to be three such cities on each side of Jordan. Those chosen on the west were Kedesh, Shechem and Hebron. On the east were Bezer, Ramoth and Golan. This is the order in which the names are recorded in this chapter.

And the order is not without significance. The meanings of the names illustrate this:

Kedesh -"set apart" or "make holy"

Shechem -Lit., "between the shoulders" - the part of the beast where the major weight was borne - thus "the burden-bearer" or "that which supports"

Hebron -"join in fellowship"

Bezer -"protect"

Ramoth - 'elevation"

Golan -"deliver so as to cause to rejoice"

The number of cities was most appropriate. It was the sixth commandment which said: "Thou shalt not kill". Six is the Biblical number which symbolically represents man. He was created on the sixth day (Gen. 1:24-31). Also the "man of sin" can be recognised by the number "666", which speaks of mankind in his most ungodly state (Rev. 13:18).

The reason for choosing "six" cities of refuge appears to have been to draw attention to man: to his needs; and to the hopelessness of his position, apart from the extension of divine mercy. That the cities of refuge typify the Lord Jesus Christ, and his ability to save men from their sins providing they meet the terms and conditions which God has revealed, cannot be doubted. *



3 That the slayer that killeth any person [nefesh] unawares and unwittingly may flee thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood [Go'el HaDahm].

Understandably, under the Law of Moses, the taking of human life was regarded with the utmost seriousness. There is a profound reason for this. Irrespective of whether the murdered person was of a godly character or not, a divine principle was irreversibly broken with the

taking of a human life. Man had been created in the ''image" and after the "likeness" of God. The reason for this was that man might learn to think and act in harmony with his Creator, thus becoming a manifestation of God's character. If this process is sufficiently developed in men and women, they will become manifestations of the One who has given them life and breath.

Such men and women who respond to the guiding hand of their Creator will ultimately receive the priceless gift of divine nature. When an individual destroys a fellow human being, he effectively makes it impossible for that process to be developed or completed in the one whose life is taken. Hence, in Yahweh's eyes, one of the greatest crimes a man may commit is to destroy one of his fellows.

Because of this principle, the Law allowed no refuge for one found guilty of deliberate or premeditated murder. Such a killer was not fit to live, and his life was forfeit (Ex. 21:12; Num. 35:31).

However, the Law did provide an element of mercy because of the inherent weakness in human nature. If it were found that a manslayer had inflicted death upon his victim due to negligence, or through a genuine accident, he was to "flee unto one of those cities and live" (Deut. 19:5).



4 And when he that doth flee unto one of those cities shall stand at the entering [petach] of the gate of the city [ sha'ar ha'ir], and shall declare his cause in the ears of the elders [zekenim] of that city, they shall take [admit] him into the city [ Iri] unto them, and give him a place [ makom], that he may dwell among them.

First the elders would here his plea of accidental killing. If admitted to the refuge city a further tribunal would be required at which the congregation would come to a final judgement, allowing him to remain if found innocent of murder (v6)

God revealed how such difficult matters were to be handled by the Israelites. "Yahweh spake", reminding them of earlier instructions: that they were to "set out for you the cities of refuge" (Roth.). The "manslayer" (Roth.) who had "accidently, unwittingly" taken

the life of another (J.B.) was to "flee" to the nearest city of refuge that he might avoid the wrath of "the blood-redeemer" (Roth.). The Hebrew word was commonly used to define a redeemer (cp. occ, Ruth 4:4, four times; v.6, three times).

Arriving at the city, the "manslayer" was to "stand at the entering of the gate". In other words, he had no automatic right of entry into the city. This was of profound significance. Firstly, it was necessary for him to "declare his cause in the ears of the elders of that city. . .". Similarly, all who seek "refuge" in Christ cannot "enter" without first pleading for entrance, through an adequate confession of the faith and by means of the waters of baptism.




5 And if the avenger of blood [Go'el HaDahm] pursue after him, then they shall not deliver [surrender] the slayer up into his hand [yad]; because he smote his neighbour unwittingly, and hated him not [not with malice against him] beforetime.

Such provisions in the Law showed that Yahweh would prefer men to exercise even-handed justice, rather than vengeance. And justice was to be blended with mercy. The carrying out of vengeance is a divine prerogative, not a human one (Deut. 32:35, 41, 43; Judg. 11:36;

Ps. 94:1; Rom. 12:19, etc.).



6 And he shall dwell in that city, until he stand before the congregation for judgment [HaEdah L'Mishpat], and until the death of the high priest [Mot of the HaKohen] that shall be in those days: then shall the slayer return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house [bais], unto the city [Ir] from whence he fled.

His house remained his property while he lived in the refuge city. He returned to it following the death of the high priest.

There, the manslayer was to remain for an indeterminate period of time. Why indeterminate? Because he could not depart from the city until the death of the high priest. So long as he conformed to this law, the next-of-kin of the deceased were not permitted to exact vengeance

for the death of their relative. However, if the killer left the city before the death of the high priest, he would find himself totally at the mercy of the "avenger", who was empowered by the Law to exact retribution with impunity (Num. 35:26-28).

If the high priest was of advanced age, it was reasonable to assume that the manslayer might anticipate only a limited confinement within the city of refuge. But if the high priest was relatively young, the period of restriction might be of considerable duration. Yet, who could really tell? Whether young or old, every Believer must face the question: "What is your life?" - and must answer accordingly: "It is even a vapour. . ." (Jas. 4:14).

Since all six cities of refuge were Levitical cities, it is implied that the elders would have been Levites; thus, the case of the "manslayer" was to be judged strictly in accordance with the principles of the Law (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 17:8-11; Mal. 2:7).

The wisdom of the Word was to be the deciding factor in passing judgment upon the "manslayer". If the elders were satisfied that the appellant had smitten "his neighbour unwittingly" they would grant him an entrance into the city. However, the one seeking mercy had to face a further examination. Having persuaded the elders that he had presented a reasonable case, he was then to "stand before the congregation for judgment".

Such a trial would obviate any immediate swiftness of action, resulting from quickly aroused passions or emotions of the moment. The wisdom and fairness of such a procedure is obvious. Similarly, all who present their case for redemption before the Son of Man will be assessed upon the basis of a perfect balance between justice and mercy. *

*Bro John Ullman - Joshua His Life and Times