Let’s turn to the 20th chapter of the book of Joshua.
We’re almost to the end of this book. I think we may have one more lesson left in it.
Joshua and all Israel have entered the Promise Land of Canaan. They’ve conquered all their enemies – all who opposed them. Last lesson we saw that land being divided up among the tribes of Israel and possessed by them.
Today we’ll study 2 chapters – chapters 20 and 21. We’re still talking about dividing and possessing the land, in a way. But we’re not talking about large contiguous land masses being doled out to each tribe now. No. Today we’ll be focusing on two chapters that discuss cities and who gets them and what they’re to be used for. We’re going to talk about cities in ancient Israel for 45 minutes or so here in Sunday School today. So all of you who have been earnestly desiring an in-depth study of lists of cities, your wish has finally been granted! But seriously I trust this will be an interesting lesson, once we get over the fact that we’re just going to be talking about cities the whole time. I still believe and have been convinced more and more through our Sunday School studies that nothing in Scripture is boring, if you understand it™.
Now in these 2 chapters we see 2 main topics covered. In chapter 20 Israel sets aside cities to be cities of refuge. And then chapter 21 tells us about the Levites receiving their cities and pasture lands. So, I suppose we could call this lesson A Tale of Two Chapters about Cities.
So, to start, let’s read about the cities of refuge. We’ll read 20:1-6.
[Joshua 20:1 ¶ The LORD also spake unto Joshua, saying, 2 Speak to the children of Israel, saying, Appoint out for you cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses: 3 That the slayer that killeth any person unawares and unwittingly may flee thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood. 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. 5 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. 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.]
In Old Testament Israel there was no prison system. In the case of homicide, if it was premeditated or done out of hatred, that would be considered murder. The murderer would be put to death. But if the homicide happened accidentally or if it didn’t happen out of hatred, something else was required. That’s where the cities of refuge come in. The manslayer could flee there and be safe. But why would the manslayer need to be safe? Because there’s this character called the avenger of blood. Who is he? He’s someone who apparently would have been pretty unhappy that the manslayer killed the person he killed. Perhaps the avenger of blood was a relative of the victim. And this avenger of blood would seek to put the manslayer to death. That’s why the manslayer needed a city of refuge – to hide from this guy.
So here’s how this was supposed to work. The manslayer accidentally kills someone. He then flees to one of the cities of refuge so that the avenger of blood doesn’t kill him in retribution. What happened, by the way, if the avenger killed the manslayer? We have no reason to believe that there would be any punishment for the avenger. OK, so the manslayer makes it to a city of refuge. What then? The elders come to the gate of the city and listen to the manslayer’s case. If it passes their test they let the guy in. He stays there until the whole congregation can hear his case. I assume that the congregation could find him guilty of murder and execute him or they could affirm that he indeed did not commit murder and let him live in the city of refuge. At this point the manslayer needs to stay in the city or else if the avenger of blood found him outside the city he could kill him. Assuming that the manslayer stayed inside his city he would remain there until the death of the high priest of his day. And when the high priest died then the manslayer could leave the city of refuge and return to his own city from which he had come.
So that’s the idea behind the cities of refuge and the need for them. Let’s see which cities were designated by the people of Israel to be cities of refuge. Verses 7 through 9.
[7 ¶ And they appointed Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Shechem in mount Ephraim, and Kirjatharba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah. 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. 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.]
So cities within the land of six tribes were chosen. Verse 7 mentions the three cities to the west of the Jordan River. The narrator starts with the northern-most city of refuge in that area – Kedesh. Then going south we have Shechem which is in the middle of the land. Last we see Hebron – Caleb’s city – in the south in Judah’s territory.
Then verse 8 brings us over the Jordan River to the east side of it. But instead of starting on the north it starts on the south with Bezer in Reuben, the southernmost tribe east of Jordan. Then we see Ramoth in Gad which is in the middle of the country sort of parallel to Shechem on the other side of the Jordan. And last we see Golan on the north of the land that belonged to the eastern tribes. Something interesting to note is that these three cities on the east of the Jordan River were already designated as cities of refuge by Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 4.
And that’s chapter 20. The cities of refuge. Next is chapter 21 where we see the Levites getting their cities and pasture lands.