Joshua 20
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The LORD also spake unto Joshua, saying,
Ch. Joshua 20:1-6. The Divine Command respecting the Cities of Refuge

1. The Lord also spake unto Joshua] As soon as the Tribes had received the portion of their inheritance, the Lord directed that Joshua should carry out the injunctions which Moses had left respecting the Cities of Refuge for the accidental homicide.

Speak to the children of Israel, saying, Appoint out for you cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses:
2. cities of refuge] “The cityes of fugityues,” Wyclif. Prior to the Mosaic age, it was required of the nearest of kin, as a matter of duty, to avenge the death of a slain relative. He was called the Goel or Avenger, and together with his office inherited the property of the deceased. Sometimes a whole family took upon them this duty (2 Samuel 14:7). Among the Arab tribes of the present day, “any bloodshed whatever, whether wilful or accidental, laid the homicide open to the duteous revenge of the relatives and family of the slain person, who again in their turn were then similarly watched and hunted by the opposite party, until a family war of extermination had legally settled itself from generation to generation, without the least prospect of a peaceful termination.” It was the aim of the Mosaic Law, without altogether abolishing this long-established custom, to mitigate its evils as far as possible.

whereof I spake unto you] The general directions on this subject will be found in (a) Exodus 21:13; (b) Numbers 35:9 ff.; (c) Deuteronomy 19:2. The reference to them here is one of the numerous instances in which the book of Joshua presupposes the existence of the Pentateuch.

That the slayer that killeth any person unawares and unwittingly may flee thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood.
3. That the slayer that killeth any person unawares] In accordance with these regulations a wide distinction was made between the man who committed wilful murder, and one who slew another by mistake, in ignorance, and unintentionally. (a) In the former case the guilty criminal met with no compassion from the Mosaic Code. He was regarded as accursed. The horns of the altar were to be no refuge for him. He was to be dragged from them by force to suffer his doom, nor could rank or wealth exempt him from it (Numbers 35:31-32). (b) In the latter case, where life had been taken unawares, a more merciful system of legislation intervened. In contradistinction to the customs of the Greeks and Romans and even of the Middle Ages, which made places of sanctuary available to criminals of every kind, the Jewish Lawgiver reserved them for unintentional acts of murder, and for these alone. The distinguishing marks of such acts are clearly laid down in Numbers 35:25-34; Deuteronomy 19:4-6.

from the avenger of blood] “that he moue ascaap the wrath of the neiзboure, that is wreker of the blood,” Wyclif. The involuntary shedder of blood was permitted to take flight to a city of refuge.

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.
4. shall stand at the entering of the gate of the city] not i.e. outside the gate of the city, but in the forum, or public place of judgment. Comp. Ruth 4:1-2.

in the ears of the elders of that city] Before the fugitive could avail himself of the shelter conceded by the laws, he was to undergo a solemn trial, and make it appear to the satisfaction of the magistrates of the place (“the aldren of the citie,” Wyclif), where the homicide was committed, that it was purely accidental.

and give him a place] If he succeeded in so doing, the elders were to “give him a place,” i.e. receive him into the protection of the city, and permit him to reside there.

And if the avenger of blood pursue after him, then they shall not deliver the slayer up into his hand; because he smote his neighbour unwittingly, and hated him not beforetime.
5. And if the avenger of blood pursue] “And when the blood wreker him pursue,” Wyclif. The steps are now prescribed which were to be taken, in the event of the Avenger of Blood pursuing the homicide. He was not to be delivered up into his hands, but kept securely.

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.
6. until the death of the high priest] “To the tyme that the great priest dye,” Wyclif. The protection granted was provisional, until the manslayer and the pursuer could be duly heard by the assembly of the elders of the city where the occurrence took place, and the guilt or innocence of the former established. In the latter case the homicide was safely lodged in the City of Refuge until the death of the anointed High priest (Numbers 35:25).

then shall the slayer return] The death of the ruling High priest, “the head of the theocracy and representative of the whole people,” was regarded as of such importance that any other death was, so to speak, forgotten in consequence, and an amnesty ensued during which the manslayer was at liberty to return to his home. Thus as on the one hand by disallowing compensation by money in the case of wilful murder, the Jewish Law shewed a just regard for human life, and put the poor on the same footing as the rich, so on the other “the asylum afforded by Moses displayed the same benign regard for human life in respect of the homicide himself. Had no obstacle been put in the way of the Goel, instant death would have awaited any one who had the misfortune to occasion the death of another. By his wise arrangements, however, Moses interposed a seasonable delay, and enabled the manslayer to appeal to the laws and justice of his country. Momentary wrath could hardly execute its fell purposes, and a suitable refuge was provided for the guiltless and unfortunate.” Kitto’s Biblical Cyclopædia, i. p. 527.

And they appointed Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Shechem in mount Ephraim, and Kirjatharba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah.
7–9. The Selection of the Cities of Refuge

7. And they appointed] Rather, they sanctified, set apart for a sacred purpose. The Cities of Refuge were intended to preserve the People and the Land of Jehovah from blood-guiltiness. Hence the appointment to so high a purpose carried with it also the idea of solemn consecration. “They seuerden,” Wyclif translates it in the first edition, “thei ordeyneden” in the later edition. The cities selected were three on either side of the Jordan, almost equally remote from each other,

(a) On the West.

  (b) On the East.

1. Kedesh, in Naphtali.

  1. Golan, in Bashan.

2. Shechem, in Mount Ephraim.

  2. Ramoth-Gilead, in Gad.

3. Hebron, in Judah.

  3. Bezer, in Reuben.

It requires only to look at the map to see how wisely these spots were marked out, so as to make a “City of Refuge” easy of access from all parts of the land. They were chosen, it will be observed, out of the priestly and Levitical cities, as likely to be inhabited by the most intelligent part of the community. According to Maimonides, all the forty-eight Levitical cities (enumerated in the next Chapter) had the privilege of asylum, but these six cities were required to receive and lodge the homicide gratuitously.

Kedesh] was the most northerly city on the West. See above, Joshua 12:22.

in Galilee] In that part of the province afterwards called “Galilee.” This name which in the Roman age was applied to a large province, seems to have been originally confined to a little “circuit” or “region—Galil, Galilah, Galilæa—round Kedesh-Naphtali, in which were situated the twenty towns given by Solomon to Hiram, king of Tyre, as payment for the transportation of timber from Lebanon to Jerusalem (1 Kings 9:11).

Shechem] was the central city on the west of the Jordan; see above, ch. Joshua 8:30; and ch. Joshua 17:7; in Mount Ephraim. See above, ch. Joshua 17:15.

Kirjath-arba, which is Hebron] The most southerly of the selected cities on the west; see above, ch. Joshua 10:3, Joshua 14:15.

in the mountain of Judah] On this mountain-district, see above, ch. Joshua 11:21.

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.
8. Bezer] was the most southerly of the cities chosen on the east of the Jordan. It was in the same latitude as Jericho.

in the wilderness upon the plain] On or near the upland “downs” of Reuben, probably not far from Heshbon. With the other two cities on the east of Jordan Bezer had been selected by Moses for this purpose at the time of the conquest of Gilead and Bashan (Deuteronomy 4:43).

Ramoth in Gilead] is called Ramath-mizpeh in ch. Joshua 13:26. This town (= the heights of Gilead) was one of the great fortresses on the east of Jordan, and commanded the region of Argob and the towns of Jair (see above, ch. Joshua 13:26). It is probable also it was the spot where Jacob made his covenant with Laban (Genesis 31:43-53). For subsequent notices of it see (a) 1 Kings 4:13; (b) 1 Kings 15:17-22; (c) 2 Kings 9:14.

Golan in Bashan] was the most northerly city chosen on the east of the Jordan (Deuteronomy 4:43). Its very site is now unknown, though once a place of great power and influence, which gave its name to a province, Gaulanitis, east of Galilee, = the modern Jaulân. The district was once densely populated, but is now almost completely deserted.

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.
9. These were the cities appointed] “Civitates constitutæ,” Vulgate. “The citees ordeyned,” Wyclif.

for the stranger that sojourneth] “And to comlyngis that dwellen among hem;” Wyclif. Observe that the Mosaic Law applied its merciful provisions not only to the members of the Elect Nation, as though they were a sacred “caste,” but to the “stranger” also that sojourned among them. The existence of such a class of “naturalized foreigners” in Israel is easily accounted for:—

(a)  Themixed multitude” that came out of Egypt (Exodus 12:38) formed one element;

(b)  The remains of the Canaanites—never wholly extirpated—formed a second;

(c)  Captives taken in war formed a third;

(d)  Fugitives, hired servants, merchants formed a fourth. The census of these in Solomon’s time gave a return of 153,600 males (2 Chronicles 2:17), which was nearly equal to about a tenth of the whole population.

that whosoever killeth any person] Jewish commentators tell us how in later times, in order that the asylum offered to the involuntary homicide might be more secure, (a) the roads leading to the Cities of Refuge were always kept in thorough repair, and required to be at least 32 cubits broad; (b) all obstructions were removed that might stay the flier’s foot or hinder his speed; (c) no hillock was left, no river was allowed over which there was not a bridge; (d) at every turning there were posts erected bearing the words “Refuge,” “Refuge,” to guide the unhappy man in his flight; (e) when once settled in such a city the manslayer had a convenient habitation assigned to him, and the citizens were to teach him some trade in order that he might support himself.—See Kitto’s Biblical Cyclopædia, i. p. 527.

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