Joshua 20
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
The institution of cities of refuge interests us as at once an admirable instance of the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, and as an arrangement of gracious wisdom. In the absence of courts of law and any sufficient arrangement for the administration of justice, a system has uniformly arisen in all primitive tribes, and is found in many places today, of charging the nearest male relative with the duty of putting to death the murderer of his kinsman. The Vendetta, as it is termed, is still practised among the Arab tribes, and even survives vigorously in the island of Corsica. By it there was always a judge and an executive wherever there was a crime. And doubtless such a custom exercised a highly deterrent influence. At the same time a rough and ready system of punishment like this was incapable of being applied with that discrimination essentially necessary to justice. In the heat of revenge, or in the excitement and danger incident to what was regarded as the discharge of a kinsman's duty, men would often not inquire whether the death was the result of accident or of intention. It might chance that none bewailed the death more than him who committed it. But the rude law left the responsible kinsman no alternative. The one who slew might be his own relative, it might be that a blow of anger, not meant to kill, or some sheer accident, took away the life of one dear to him who struck the blow, or was the unhappy cause of the accident. But where blood had been shed, blood was to be shed. And so one fault and one bereavement not infrequently involved the commission of a greater fault, and the experience of a greater bereavement. In this position of things Moses stepped in. And in the legislation he gave on the subject there is much that is worthy of notice.

I. Observe, WHAT HE DID NOT PRESCRIBE. The payment of "damages" for a death inflicted has been a form in which the severity of these rules for the punishment of a murder has been mitigated. In Saxon times in England, blood money was continually offered and taken. In many other lands a fine has been laid on the murderer for the benefit of his family. The Koran permits such a compensation; and today, in some Arab tribes, a man may escape the penalty of murder if he can pay the fine which custom prescribes. But though such an alternative must have been familiar to Moses, it is not adopted by him. On the contrary, he expressly forbids the relatives to condone a crime by receiving any money payment for it: (see last chapter of Numbers). This is a very striking fact, for many would very much have preferred a law allowing the giving and receiving of such a fine, to the law actually given. His not adopting such a rule shows that Moses was apprehensive of the danger of conscience being dulled, and crime encouraged by any compromise effected between guilt on the one side, and greed on the other. Such a rule would always mitigate the abhorrence of crime; would make it safer for the rich to indulge their animosities, than for the poor to injure, by accident, a fellow man. Law, duty, self respect would be lowered. Life would be held less sacred. Instead of its being invested with a Divine sanction, and the destruction of it made an awful crime, it would appear as something worth so many pounds sterling, and men would indulge their taste for the murder of those they disliked, according to their judgment of what they could afford to pay. The poor substitute of a fine instead of the punishment of death is not only not accepted, but explicitly forbidden. And so far the legislation of Moses suggests that whatever course our criminal legislation may take in dealing with crime, it will do well to maintain the sanctity of life and to guard against such a method of dealing as would increase the crime that it should prevent. But observe, secondly, that while the sanctity of life is maintained.

II. JUSTICE IS SUBSTITUTED FOR REVENGE. The six cities of refuge were simply six cities of assize, where an authoritative verdict could be found as to whether the death was wilfully or unintentionally inflicted. The man who had taken a life claimed of the elders of the city (ver. 4) protection, and received it until his case was adjudicated on. He was tried before the congregation, the assembly of the adult citizens. As these were all Levites (the six cities of refuge being all of them Levitical cities) they were familiar with law, and had, probably, a little more moral culture than their non-Levitical brethren. A calm unbiassed "judgment by their peers" was thus provided forevery accused person - a tribunal too large to be moved by animus or corrupted by bribes. If on explicit evidence of two or three witnesses it proved to be a case of wilful murder, further asylum was denied him, and he was delivered to death. If it proved a case of either accident or manslaughter, the asylum was lengthened, and beneath the protection of God he was safe, as long as he kept within the precincts of the city and its suburbs. How admirable such an arrangement! A better court of judgment in such cases, than such a jury of two or three hundred honest men, could not be devised. It was costless; it was simple; it involved no delay. It restrained a universally recognised right, but did it so wisely and fairly none could complain. A provision of unconditional asylum, as it developed later in connection with religious buildings, has proved an unmitigated evil even in Christian lands, an encouragement to all crimes, promoting not morality, but only the cunning which committed them within easy reach of such sanctuary. This gave Israel, for the most important of all cases, a court of justice that protected innocence, that soothed revenge, that prevented blood feuds settling and growing to large dimensions. It is a lesson for us, as individuals, always to guard against our being carried away by passion, and to import into every quarrel it may be our unhappiness to fall into, the calm and unbiassed judgment of others. It may be our duty to others to prosecute or punish a criminal. But revenge is an unholy passion which has no sanction from on high. Lastly observe:

III. A CURIOUS PROVISION IN THE LAW. If innocent of wilful murder, the man had a right of asylum in the city. But leaving the city, he lost it, and might lawfully be slain. The nearness of living Levites was his protection. But the perpetual residence in the city of refuge was not enjoined. For when the high priest died, he could go back to his proper home and dwell there. The high priest was to be thought of - as an intercessor who had entered within the veil - beneath the protection of whose prayers all these refugees were sacred; and for them the whole land became one great place of refuge. THE DEATH OF ANOTHER HIGH PRIEST WAS AN ENTERING WITHIN THE VEIL, WHICH BENEFITS WITH DIVINE PROTECTION ALL WHO TAKE REFUGE IN THE DIVINELY APPOINTED PLACE. They by innocence got the benefit of his pleading - we by repentance. Are we all under the shadow of the heavenly Intercessor? - G.

The institution of the cities of refuge stands as a conspicuous memorial of the beneficent spirit of the Mosaic economy. It bore a resemblance to that right of asylum, or sanctuary, which in some form or other has found a place in the usage of all nations from the earliest times, but it was not liable to the same abuse. Every provision of the Mosaic economy enshrined some enduring principle. Some great moral lesson was intended to be impressed by it on the minds of the people. The institution changes or passes utterly away; the principle, the lesson, remains. Note here -

I. THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN LIFE. The institution bore striking witness to this. This was its root principle. It was intended as a check on that form of ferocity for which Oriental tribes have ever been remarkable - the thirst for vengeance in the shedding of blood. It threw a shield over an endangered life. This at once commends it to a radical instinct of our nature. God has implanted in our breasts an intuitive sense of the value of life. Not only the instinct of self preservation ("skin for skin," etc., Job 2:4), but something also that prompts to respect for the life of another. The most barbarous conditions of humanity are not altogether destitute of the traces of this. The natural effect of religion and civilisation is to develop it. Mainly on this instinct rests the admiration we feel for any marvellous triumph of surgical skill, for the rescue of imprisoned miners, or of a shipwrecked crew, or of a wounded comrade from the battlefield. It is not merely satisfaction in beholding consummate skill, resolute endurance, deeds of daring and self sacrifice - but in the fact that life is saved. The "vital spark," so mysterious in itself, and so mysteriously kindled, is kept from being extinguished. The humane spirit, the spirit in sympathy with humanity as such, feels just the same however feeble or apparently worthless and despicable the life may be. We don't stay to consider either its actual conditions or its latent possibilities; we only know that it is good to save it. There is no higher mark of Christian civilisation than the diffusion of a nobler sentiment as to the inherent value of human life. "The Son of Man came not to destroy men's lives, but to save them" (Luke 9:56). This fact has its manifest, though indirect, bearings on the question of man's immortality. If physical life is surrounded by such sanctions and safeguards, does it not at least suggest the indestructibility of the essential being of the man?

"That not one life shall be destroyed,
Or cast as rubbish on the void,
When God shall make the pile complete."

II. FORFEITURE OF LIFE. This principle of sanctity bears on the slain as well as on the slayer. If it shields the one, not less does it avenge the other. The right of asylum was based on the foregoing right of the Goel, the blood avenger (see Numbers 35:19, et seq., Deuteronomy 19:11-13). This was the outgrowth of the ancient law given to Noah, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6). And, again, to Moses at Sinai, "Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth," etc. (Exodus 21:23, 24). So severely was this rule to be applied, that no kind or measure of "satisfaction" could be taken for the forfeited life of the murderer (Numbers 35:31). Such was the Mosaic law. The gentler spirit of Christianity inculcates a different rule. As that softened and restrained the natural savagery of the olden times, so this brings in the reign of still nobler principles of moral and social life (Matthew 5:38, 89; Romans 12:19). It is questionable whether the teaching of Christ and his Apostles does not throw such an air of sanctity over the being of every man, and make restorative love rather than retributive justice the universal law, as completely to annul the old order of "life for life." At the same time the principle of retribution is in no way obliterated - less literal, less circumstantial, entrusted less to the hands of man, but not less real. The avenger still tracks the steps of the transgressor. He cannot escape "the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds" (Romans 2:5, 6). Vengeance may suffer even "the murderer to live," but he bears the penalty and the curse within. "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth," etc. (Galatians 6:7, 8.).

III. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SPIRIT ABOVE THE FORM OF EVERY DEED. The city of refuge was a provision for the protection of the manslayer from lawless and indiscriminate violence, that he might be subject to judicial inquiry as to the real meaning and intent of what he had done. He must be brought before tribunal of the people. The "congregation" must judge between the slayer and the avenger, and if it is shown that he was not the enemy of the man slain, nor "sought his harm," he shall be delivered (Numbers 35:22-25). Here was a striking witness to the principle that it is the spirit, the purpose, that determines the real quality of every deed. God is the "Searcher of hearts," and He would have man, according to the measure of his insight, estimate everything by what gives birth to it there. The "Sermon on the Mount" is a Divine lesson on the importance of the spirit above the form (Matthew 5:21, et seq.). The law of Christ is a "discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." It is the motive that determines the merit or demerit of every deed. God has given us no power infallibly to trace or weigh the motives of men, but as far as they are disclosed so let us judge.

IV. THE BLENDING OF JUSTICE WITH MERCY IN THE TREATMENT OF TRANSGRESSION. The city of refuge bore witness to the principle of equity between man and man, and equity is the qualification of law by reason and humanity. The manslayer, however innocent, must suffer for the ill that he has done, but safeguards are provided against his being subject to any flagrant wrong. Whatever it may cost him he must flee to the city, but it is not more than six miles distant and the way is clear. He loses his liberty, home, perhaps property, but he is safe. In all this there is a remarkable blending of regard for the majesty of law and the sanctity of social order, with kindly protection of human weakness.. It is full of instruction. A true social economy is the due balance of reciprocal rights, interests, etc. We deal righteously with each other only when mercy tempers justice, when law is interpreted liberally and applied with charity.

V. AN ANALOGY IS OFTEN INSTITUTED BETWEEN THE CITY OF REFUGE AND THE GOSPEL WAY OF SALVATION. There is an essential mark of difference between the two; the one was for the protection of the innocent, the other is God's provision for the redemption of the guilty. But they are alike in this, that they tell of shelter from the fatal stroke of the avenger. We are reminded how -

"All the lives that are were forfeit once,
And He who might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy." When He "maketh inquisition for blood," then shall it be found that "there is no condemnation for them that are in Christ Jesus," who have "fled for refuge to lay hold on the hope set before them." - W.

I. THE APPOINTMENT OF CITIES OF REFUGE EXEMPLIFIES UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES OF JUSTICE. We do not need such cities because we can attain the end they were set apart to accomplish by simpler means, but we are called to observe the principles they were instituted to maintain.

(1) The justice which brings retribution on offenders is natural and right. But this must be distinguished from vengeance. Justice seeks the honour of law and the maintenance of the public good. Vengeance aims only at the infliction of harm on the offender. The latter is unchristian and wicked.

(2) We should not be hasty in passing judgment. The city of refuge afforded time for evidence to be collected and a mature judgment to be formed. First impressions are often deceptive. Anger blinds judgment.

(3) It is well to refer our quarrels to the decision of others. The avenger of blood was required to refer his case to the congregation. Interested persons can rarely form impartial opinions. It is well to resort to Christian arbitration when differences cannot be settled amicably in private (Matthew 18:15-17).

(4) It is difficult to judge of the conduct of others, because of our uncertainty as to their motives. The man slayer may be a murderer or he may be innocently concerned in a pure accident. Thus he may be guiltless, while the person who inflicts no harm on another may be a murderer at heart. "Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer" (1 John 3:15). Guilt attaches to motives, not to outward acts. Therefore

(a) do not judge others needlessly (Matthew 7:1);

(b) when it is necessary to judge do not be deceived by outward appearance, but consider differences of motive (John 7:24).

II. THE APPOINTMENT OF CITIES OF REFUGE IS AN ILLUSTRATION OF GOD'S GRACE OF REDEMPTION. (1.) God provides a city of refuge in Christ. He is a refuge from the dangers that beset us, from the consequences of our own acts, from the indwelling power of sin.

(2) This refuge is for the most guilty. The Levitical cities were for the innocent; Christ is a refuge for the guilty. Men fled to them for justice; they flee to Christ for mercy (Matthew 9:12, 13).

(3) This refuge is in our midst. The six cities of refuge were situated in convenient central positions at different points of the land, so that every Israelite might be within reach of one. Yet even this arrangement could not secure safety in all cases. Christ is in our midst. We have not to bring Him from heaven; He dwells among us. He is near and ready to receive us at any moment, None need perish on the road to Christ.

(4) This refuge must be entered to secure safety. It was vain for the fugitive Israelite merely to ran in the direction of the city, or even to be within sight of it, if he did not enter its precincts. It is useless for a man only to have inclinations towards Christianity, to know the truth of it, to begin to turn Christward. He must seek Christ and come to Him in trust and submission. As the fugitive must enter the city to be safe, so the sinner must be "in Christ" (Romans 8:1).

(5) It is dangerous to delay entering this refuge. While the fugitive stayed, the avenger of blood was upon him, "Now" is the appointed time. The opportunity may soon pass. - W.F.A.

The Book of Joshua supplements the Pentateuch. It tells Us of the execution of the behests contained in the law. Hence it preaches a continual lesson of obedience. How far do our lives exhibit a conformity of practice to gospel precepts? Surely God says to us, as to Joshua, "Be mindful of the commandment given by the hand of My servant."

I. A PREVALENT CUSTOM MODIFIED. The rights of kinsmen were various and strongly insisted on. The exaction of vengeance for the death of a relative was deemed among the most important of these rights. The nearest kinsman became the "avenger." To abrogate such an institution might have been impossible; at any rate, it was wisely ordained that particular rules should regulate its operation and soften its character. Legislation must ever have regard to the prevalent opinion, must not be too far in advance of the age. This principle of directing popular thoughts to more wholesome channels was recognised by the Church of the early centuries, when it sought to lead men away from orgies and revelries to joyous Christian festivals, and missionaries of modern days have adopted this plan with success. We may alter the ship's course even if we cannot absolutely check her progress. The modification of Goelism introduced

(1) Acknowledged the sanctity of human life.

(2) Distinguished between the quality and the matter of actions - a vital distinction in ethics, which regards the intention as well as the consequence of behaviour, before it can be censured or approved of. To slay a man unwittingly was not murder. On the other hand, Jesus Christ afterwards showed that the indulgence of an angry thought towards a brother is an infraction of the sixth commandment. So also 1 John 3:15.

(3) Placed this department of equity under the special supervision of the religious authorities. The places of refuge were chosen from the Levitical cities, whose rulers might be trusted to carry out the law in respect both of justice and of mercy. The unintentional man slayer was considered as the prisoner of the high priest, and on the death of the latter was released. Religion never looks more beautiful than when she wears her benign garb of mercy, protecting the helpless and friendless. It is part of her office to prevent injustice and oppression. The laws of God are deposited with the Church as a sacred trust for the benefit of mankind. How she perverts her functions when she employs her strength in bitter enmity and persecution!

II. POINTS OF RESEMBLANCE BETWEEN THE CITIES OF REFUGE AND THE SALVATION OFFERED IN THE GOSPEL, That the ordinances of the Israelites were a figure for the time to come, is in many places of the New Testament expressly affirmed (see 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11; Hebrews 9:9; Hebrews 10:1). And with great likelihood the words of Hebrews 11:18 have been supposed to refer to the very institution now under discussion.

(1) Easiness of access. The cities were so selected as to be scattered throughout the land at equal distances, no part of the country being remote from one of these centres. And Jesus Christ is nigh unto every one of us, a very present help in trouble. It need not take even half a day to reach Him, the heart may be surrendered to Him at once and find rest.

(2) The way readily known. The road to the nearest city of refuge was plainly indicated by the words "Refuge! Refuge!" written at each turning, and the way was always kept clear of obstacles (see Deuteronomy 19:8). "He that runneth can read" and understand the plan of salvation. Redemption freely offered in Christ, who died for sinners. Prophets and apostles point to Him, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God."

(3) Available forevery inhabitant. Equally for the stranger or sojourner and one born in the land (ver. 9). God is no respecter of persons. He gave His Son, that "whosoever believeth in Him should not perish." "Whosoever, will let him take the water of life freely."

(4) The gates always open. We learn this from Maimonides, as also that the rulers of the city furnished the refugee with shelter and food so long as he remained with them. Jesus "ever liveth to make intercession for those who come unto God by Him." No sinner need fear lest the door of mercy should be shut against him. There are no specially appointed days for obtaining relief. It is always, "now is the accepted time." God will not allow one of His little ones to perish. "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all other things shall be added unto you." Several other particulars might be mentioned, such as that even the suburbs of the city were a refuge (Numbers 35:26, 27), like as to touch the hem of Christ's garment heals the sick; and the cities saved by virtue of God's appointment, not so much by reason of their natural strength, even as God hath set forth Christ to be a propitiation through faith in His blood. But let us note -


(1) Accessible even to the guilty. In fact, there are no innocent ones, "all have sinned." The Apostle called attention to the mercy and longsuffering of Jesus Christ, who "came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief" (1 Timothy 1:15). "The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin." Ho! ye despairing ones, there is hope for you. And ye who are polluted with stains of deepest dye, you may be "clothed in white robes," and to you there shall be "therefore now no condemnation."

(2) The refuge no confinement, but rather enlargement of liberty. The man-slayer was unable to follow his ordinary avocation or to resume his wonted place until the death of the high priest. Our Saviour has been already slain as the victim, and is entered as High Priest into the holiest of all; hence there is no period of waiting for us, but instant pardon and deliverance from thraldom. The busy man goes to business with lighter heart, and the mother, troubled with domestic cares, has obtained ease and rest by casting her burden upon the Lord.

CONCLUSION. Flee to this refuge! Delay, and the footstep of the avenger shall be heard close behind you, and fear shall paralyse your flight. "Satan hath desired to have you;" but haste to the Saviour, let His strong arms protect you, and sheltered 'neath His smile your panting heart shall cease tumultuously to beat. And if you have won Christ and are "found in Him," not having your own righteousness, how secure and peaceful you may be. What rejoicing should be yours! To be tormented with doubt while you are in such a stronghold is foolish, and impairs the glory of the salvation Christ hath wrought. "Neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand." - A.

We know how strictly the law of Moses applied the avenging law. He who had killed was himself to be killed. The nearest relation of the victim had the right, and it was his duty, to pursue the offender. He was the avenger of blood. The law, under its original form, made no distinction between a murder committed purposely and of premeditation, and an unintentional murder. It may well be said that in this respect it was the inexorable law of the letter which killeth.

I. The establishment of cities of refuge, intended to serve as a sanctuary to the murderer who had killed some one by accident, IS LIKE THE FIRST STEP TOWARDS THE NEW LEGISLATION WHICH DEALS RATHER WITH THE INTENTION THAN WITH THE ACT, and is aimed primarily at the heart. The last commandment of the Decalogue, which prohibits covetousness, carries the Divine law into the inner region of the moral life, showing that its scope is far wider than the sphere of outward action or speech. The man who has unintentionally committed murder, finds in the city of refuge a means of escaping the vengeance of the pursuer. This provision is in itself a protest against the Pharisaic spirit which based its judgment upon the outward act alone. The new covenant gives yet riffler application to the same moral principle, when it declares that hatred in the heart involves the moral guilt of murder, as lust does of adultery.

II. The establishment of cities of refuge is AN ADMIRABLE EMBLEM OF THE CHURCH. The Church is the city set upon a hill, whose gates stand open day and night to those whom the law condemns. Only those to whom it offers shelter are not exclusively persons who have transgressed unwittingly, as was the case with the Israelitish cities; all who have broken the law of God, even with open eyes, may there find shelter, on the one condition that they enter by the door. "I am the door," says Jesus Christ, "no man cometh unto the Father but by me" (John 10:7). This is a strait gate - so strait that none can pass through it except on bended knees and laying aside every weight. By repentance and faith everything that is of self and sin must be abjured. But so soon as these conditions are fulfilled, the door is opened. No one is too great a sinner to enter there. Publicans and harlots, all the sorrowful and sinful, let them hasten, arise and enter in. The city of refuge is open for all. The Church of the middle ages restored in a literal sense the Jewish custom of having cities of refuge. It opened its sanctuaries to murderers and spread over them the shield of its protection. This was called the privilege of sanctuary; but it became a grave abuse. Let us cleave to the one great privilege of finding refuge in the true Church built upon the great Cornerstone. The old cities of refuge promised safety from the avenging arm of the inflexible law. We have a further pledge of our safety in the blood that was shed for our sins, in the redeeming sacrifice by which our debt was paid. Sheltered beneath this outspread wing of everlasting love, we are safe from the condemnation of the righteous law which we have broken. - E. DE P.

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