Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
THE INHERITANCE OF LEVI.
(a) Six cities of refuge (Joshua 20).
(b) Forty-two other cities (Joshua 21).
(a) THE CITIES OF REFUGE.
(2) Appoint out for you cities of refuge.—The law in Numbers 35 appointed that the Levites should have (Joshua 20:6) six cities of refuge, and forty-two others. This connection is not always observed, but it has an important bearing on the institution here described. The law of the cities of refuge is given in full in Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19 (See Notes on those passages.)
(6) Until the death of the high priest.—The fact is familiar, and the meaning appears to be this: Man being the image of God, all offences against the person of man are offences against his Maker, and the shedding of man’s blood is the greatest of such offences. “The blood defileth the land, and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein but by the blood of him who shed it” (Numbers 35:33). If, however, the man-slayer did not intend to shed the blood of his neighbour, he is not worthy of death, and the Divine mercy provides a shelter wherein he may still live without offence to the Divine Majesty. Such a shelter is the city of refuge, a city of priests or Levites, whose office was to bear the iniquity of the children of Israel, to shield their brethren from the danger they incurred by the dwelling of Jehovah in the midst of them, “dwelling among them in the midst of their uncleanness.” Hence the man-slayer must always remain, as it were, under the shadow of the sin-bearing priest or Levite, that he might live, and not die for the innocent blood which he had unintentionally shed. But how could the death of the high priest set him free? Because the high priest was the representative of the whole nation. What the Levites were to all Israel, what the priests were to the Levites, that the high priest was to the priests, and through them to the nation: the individual sin-bearer for all. Into his hands came year by year “all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins,” and he presented a sin-offering for all.
While the high priest still lived he would still be legally tainted with this load of sin, for the law provides no forgiveness for a priest. But “he that is dead is justified from sin,” and at his death the load which was laid on the high priest might be held to have passed from him, for he had paid the last debt a man can pay on earth. But the high priest being justified, the sinners whom he represents are justified also, and therefore the man-slayers go free. The sentence we have often heard in the explanation of this fact, “Our High Priest can never die,” is beside the mark, for if He could never die, we must always remain marked criminals, in a species of restraint. Rather let us say, He has died, having borne our sins in His own body on the tree, that we may be free to serve Him, not in guilt and dread and bondage, but in liberty and life.
The LORD also spake unto Joshua, saying,