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This book continually directs Joshua back to the time he was helping Moses in the desert. This was behind the allocation of land to the tribes... promised to them by God, through Moses. The land has now been allocated and God reminds Joshua to appoint six cities of refuge: Golan, Ramoth, Bosor, Kedesh, Shechem and Hebron.

At that time, anyone who inadvertently killed another person could be tracked down and put to death (‘blood vengeance’). Because deliberate killing is first-degree murder, but inadvertent killing is manslaughter, God distinguished the two. If the killer was able to reach a city of refuge, he could claim asylum for a period of time. The six cities were all Levitical cities (out of 48 Levitical cities), and probably compare to the later time when churches used to allow asylum - sanctuary - for people escaping some civil strife in their lives. (The rules around murder and its judgment were far better than rules we have today).

When someone who had killed was safe in a city of refuge, investigations took place. For deliberate murder there was no such help – death had to be pronounced and executed. The avenger of blood (usually a relative of the dead person) was kept at bay and could not set-upon the killer. A trial was held and the congregation determined from the evidence if the death was deliberate (first-degree murder) or unintentional (manslaughter). If found not guilty of first-degree murder the accused could return to the city of refuge and live there until the high priest died. Then, the killer could return to his own home in safety. But, if he returned before the high priest died, the avenger of blood could kill him. Thus, the law was instituted to avoid undue bloodshed, and to maintain civil order.

Note that God’s law on first-degree murder still stands. He said that a nation that does not put a deliberate murderer to death was itself guilty of the blood he shed. So, it was, and still is, incumbent on all nations to observe God’s command, and to put a murderer to death, regardless of any repentance he might offer. In our own day, this even applies to killers who repent and become saved. I knew a Christian mother whose son committed murder, and agreed with God’s command, though it broke her heart. He was one of the last murderers to receive the death penalty in the UK.

As with all of God’s commands, we may not alter them nor escape them. To avoid their implementation is to disregard God in favour of human emotions and faulty thinking, especially if the one God condemns is a relative or friend.

Verses 1-6
  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.

God spoke to Joshua... now the land had been divided-up, Joshua had to make sure the cities of refuge were chosen. This was told to Joshua when Moses was alive. These cities would allow those who had committed manslaughter to find refuge in one of the six cities allocated for the purpose. They would be protected by the priests in these Levitical cities, and no ‘avenger of blood’ could enter to take revenge.

The principle behind this command still stands and should show itself in modern law. However, on a personal level, I believe prison should still apply to those whose whole life displays a desire to cause harm and do violence. Indeed, some who are of this nature should really be charged with first-degree murder if their ready violence becomes murderous. Also, in modern days, those who infect the innocent (such as unsuspecting wives or victims such as groomed children) with HIV should be charged not with manslaughter but with murder, for they know the virus is fatal.

Verses 7-9

  1. And they appointed Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Shechem in mount Ephraim, and Kirjatharba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

“They” (Joshua, high priest and elders of the tribes) appointed the six cities.

cities of refuge in Israel

Notice that they were distibuted fairly equally, so that each one could be reasonably accessed from any part of Israel. Also note that if caught by the avenger, the man who had killed would still have to have a trial. If found guilty of first degree murder, and not manslaughter, the avenger could put him to death. But, if not guilty of murder, the avenger could not touch him.


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Bible Theology Ministries - PO Box 415, Swansea, SA5 8YH
United Kingdom