Joshua 20
Pulpit Commentary
The LORD also spake unto Joshua, saying,
Verse 1. - Cities of refuge. The original is more definite, the cities of refuge. So LXX. Whereof I spake to you. In Exodus 21:13; Numbers 35:9; Deuteronomy 19:2. Here, again, Joshua is represented as aware of the existence of the Pentateuch. It must, therefore, have existed in something like its present shape when the Book of Joshua was written. The words are partly quoted from Numbers and partly from Deuteronomy; another proof that these books were regarded as constituting one law, from the "hand of Moses," when Joshua was written.
Speak to the children of Israel, saying, Appoint out for you cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses:
That the slayer that killeth any person unawares and unwittingly may flee thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood.
Verse 3. - Unawares and unwittingly. Literally, in error, in not knowing. Numbers 35:16-18 and Deuteronomy 19:5, give a clear explanation of what is here meant. Knobel notices that the first of these expressions is found in Leviticus 4:2, and the second in Deuteronomy 4:42. The latter is "superfluous," and therefore a "filling up of the Deuteronomist." The "Deuteronomist" must have been very active in his "filling up." If he were really so lynx-eyed in a matter of style, it is a wonder that he was so careless, as we are told he is, in matters of fact. To more ordinary minds it would seem as if the author, familiar with the books of Moses, was quoting Deuteronomy for the precept, and Leviticus for the nature of the offence. The avenger of blood. The Hebrew word is worthy of notice. It is Goel; that is, literally, redeemer, one who buys back at the appointed price what has fallen into other hands, as a farm, a field, a slave, or anything consecrated to God. Hence, since the duly of such redemption, on the death of the owner, devolved upon the nearest relative, it came to mean "blood relation." Thus Boaz (Ruth 4:1, 6, 8) is called the Goel of Elimelech and his widow. In the present passage, the phrase "the redeemer (LXX. ἀγχιστεύων next of kin) of the blood" signifies the exactor of the only penalty which can satisfy justice, namely, the death of the murderer. So we are taught in Genesis 9:6; Exodus 21:12, 14; Leviticus 24:17, 21. This duty, which in civilised society belongs to the government, in uncivilised tribes is usually left to the relatives of the murdered man. Hence the terrible blood feuds which have raged between families for generations, and which are not only to be found among savage nations, but even in countries which lay claim to civilisation. In Ireland, for instance, it is not so long ago since one of these blood feuds in the county Tipperary had acquired such formidable proportions that the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church there were compelled to resort to a mission in order to put an end to it. A man had been killed nearly a century before in an affray which commenced about the age of a colt. His relatives felt bound to avenge the murder, and their vengeance was again deemed to require fresh vengeance, until faction fights between the "Three-Year-Olds" and the "Four-Year-Olds" had grown almost into petty wars. A thrilling story written by the late Prosper Merimee turns upon the Corsican vendetta, and so true is this story to life that in the very year (1879) in which these words were written an occurrence precisely similar, save in its termination, was reported in the daily journals to have taken place in that island. The only way in which the feud could be terminated was by summoning the representatives of the two families before the authorities and exacting an oath from them that they would cease their strife. It is no small corroboration of the Divine origin of the Mosaic law that we find here a provision for mitigating the evils of this rude code, and for at least delivering the accidental homicide from the penalty of this law of retaliation. Yet for the offence of wilful murder the penalties enjoined by the Jewish law were terribly severe. A deliberate violation of the sanctity of human life was an offence for which no palliation could be pleaded. No right of sanctuary was to be granted to him who had wantonly slain a fellow creature. "No satisfaction" was to be taken for his life (Numbers 35:31). "The land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, save by the blood of him that shed it" (ver. 33). Such provisions might be expected of a lawgiver who had laid down as the fundamental principle of humanity that man was created "in the image of God," after His likeness; that God had "breathed the breath of life" into him, and man had thus "become a living soul" (Genesis 1:27; Genesis 2:7). Such inward harmony is there between Moses' inspired revelations concerning God's purpose in creation, and the precepts he was commanded to deliver to the children of Israel.
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.
Verse 4. - And when he that doth flee unto one of those cities. This passage is in accordance with the instructions given in Numbers 35, but is not a quotation from it. The passage may be translated, "and he shall flee ... and shall stand." Shall declare his cause. Literally, shall speak. This was to be clone at the "gate of the city," the place where all legal business was transacted (see Ruth 4:1; 2 Samuel 15:2).
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.
Verse 5. - And if. Or, "and when." Deliver. Literally, cause to shut up (συγκλείσουσι, LXX.), implying the completeness of the deliverance, from which no escape was possible. And hated him not before time. Daun, cited in Keil's Commentary here, remarks on the difference between the Jewish law of sanctuary and that of the Greeks and Romans. The former was not designed to save the criminal from the penalty he had deserved, but only the victim of an accident from consequences far exceeding the offence. The Greeks and Romans, on the contrary, provided the real criminal with a mode of escape from a punishment which he had justly merited.
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.
Verse 6. - Until he stand before the congregation. That is, until he had had a fair trial. It was no object of the Jewish law to make a man a victim to passion. Until the death of the high priest. The further to protect the unwitting homicide from the consequences of an unjust revenge, he was, if innocent, to return to the city of refuge, and to dwell there until there was reasonable ground to suppose that the anger of the relatives of the slain man should have abated. This is clear from Numbers 35:24, 25. Why the period of the death of the high priest should have been fixed upon is not easy to explain. Keil thinks it is because the death of the high priest was typical of the death of Christ, and refers to Hebrews 9:14, 15. But the reference is not to the point. The high priest's death was in no sense typical of the death of Christ. His yearly entrance into the holy place once a year, on the Day of Atonement, was so typical. It might have been supposed that this yearly atonement would have been regarded as a propitiation for all the sins committed during the year. Certainly the fact that the high priest died the common death of all men, and the inauguration of his successor to fill his place could in no way be regarded as an atonement for sin. There is more force in Bahr's suggestion in his 'Symbolik' (2:52). The high priest, on this view, is the head of the theocracy, the representative of the covenant. He concentrates in his person (so Bahr puts it in another place - see vol. 2:13) the whole people of Israel in their religious aspect. His death, therefore, stands in a connection with the life of Israel which that of no other man could do. "It is," says Maimonides ('Moreh Nevochim,' 3.40), "the death of the most honoured and beloved man in all Israel. His death plunges the whole community into such distress that private sorrow is lost in the general affliction." Thus the covenant in a way recommences with the inauguration of the new high priest. Bahr complains that Philo has carried this view to an extravagant and fanciful extent. Hengstenberg ('Geschichte des Reiches Gottes,' vol. 2, sec. 3, p. 258) takes the same view as Maimonides, that the high priest's death was "a great calamity," affecting the whole nation.
And they appointed Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Shechem in mount Ephraim, and Kirjatharba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah.
Verse 7. - And they appointed. The original, which, strange to say, the LXX. and Vulgate, as well as our version, have neglected to render, is sanctified (heiligten, Luther). The selection is itself a proof that our author knew well what he was writing about. It is not likely that in the later times of Jewish history, when the law had been forgotten (2 Kings 22:8) and its precepts had long been in abeyance, that the institution of the city of refuge remained in full force. But we find three cities selected on each side of Jordan. Those on the west were in the tribe of Naphtali on the north, of Ephraim in the centre, and of Judah in the south. The same is the case with those on the other side Jordan. Thus every little detail of the narrative, when closely scrutinised, does but show more entirely how free this narrative is from the reproach so hastily cast upon it of being a loose and inaccurate compilation, attempted by a man who had not the slightest literary fitness for the task he had undertaken. A corroboration of this view may be found in the fact that all these cities were Levitical cities. Thus, as the crime of homicide was looked upon under the Mosaic law as a crime apart from all other crimes, inasmuch as it was an offence against the life which was God's gift, and man, who was God's image, so the offender who pleaded extenuating circumstances for his offence was placed, until his trial could be held, under the special protection of the Divine law. For "the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and men should seek the law at his mouth." It was the special privilege of the tribe of Levi to possess the "key of knowledge." It was to them that the duty of ascertaining the wilt of God by Urim and Thummim was assigned (Numbers 27:21). Thus a special acquaintance with the law (Deuteronomy 33:8), and a special fitness for deciding the difficult questions sometimes arising out of it, would naturally be found in the elders of those cities which had been set apart as cities of refuge. In Galilee. Hebrew, Hag-Galil, the circle. Here we have the masculine, as in Joshua 13:2; 17:17; 22:10, 11, the feminine form. This is the first place in Scripture in which the word Galil, or Galilee, is applied to this region. Gesenius regards it as having been originally a district of twenty towns round Kedesh in Naphtali. Such a region of twenty towns is mentioned in 1 Kings 9:11 (see also Isaiah 8:23; or, Isaiah 9:1 in our version). Kedesh has already been noticed (see also Joshua 21:32).
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.
Verse 8. - By Jericho eastward. Or, eastward of Jericho. This, of course, only refers to Bezer. The plain. The Mishor, or table land (see Joshua 3:16; Joshua 9:1, and notes). Our version, by its renderings, obscures the beautiful precision with which our historian never fails to hit off the physical geography of the country. Thus, the plain of Bashan, Gilead, and Reuben is always the Mishor; the strip of land between the mountains and the Mediterranean is always the Shephelah; the depression of the Jordan Valley and the country south of the Dead Sea is invariably the Arabah; wide plains shut in between ranges of hills or situated on their slopes are distinguished by the title of Emek; while narrow waterless ravines are known by the name of Ge. We may quote here the emphatic words with which Canon Tristram concludes his 'Land of Israel,' "While on matters of science the inspired writers speak in the ordinary language of their times (the only language which could have been understood), I can bear testimony to the minute truth of innumerable incidental allusions in Holy Writ to the facts of nature, of climate, of geographical position - corroborations of Scripture which, though trifling in themselves, reach to minute details that prove the writers to have lived when and where they are asserted to have lived; which attest their scrupulous accuracy in recording what they saw and observed around them; and which, therefore, must increase our confidence in their veracity, where we cannot have the like means of testing it. I can find no discrepancies between their geographical or physical statements and the evidence of present facts. I can find no standpoint here for the keenest advocate against the full inspiration of the scriptural record. The Holy Land not only elucidates but bears witness to the truth of the Holy Book." Ramoth in Gilead. See Joshua 13:26, where it is called Ramoth Mizpeh; also Joshua 21:38. All these cities of refuge were Levitical cities. It is famous as the headquarters of Jehu's rebellion, in which he clearly had the support of the priestly party (2 Kings 9.). The key to his subsequent conduct is found in this fact. His "zeal for the Lord," displayed so ostentatiously to Jonadab, who we may suppose, as being of the "family of the scribes," to have become identified with the Levites (cf. 1 Chronicles 2:55 with Judges 1:16, and 1 Chronicles 27:32 with Ezra 7:12, Jeremiah 8:8), was simply a stroke of policy, to bind to his interest the sacerdotal party, to whom,with the army, he owed his throne. Just such a policy commended itself to the worldly wisdom of our own Lancastrian princes, and led to the enactment of the infamous statute de heretico comburendo in the fifteenth century. Jehu, we find, was contented with the one vast sacrifice of idolaters, for whom he cared nothing, and gave himself no further trouble to secure purity of worship for his people. The one great value of the geographical and political details in the book of Joshua is that when carefully studied they supply us with the key to many a mystery in the after history of Israel, which, but for their aid, we should scarcely have unravelled.
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.
Verse 9. - Appointed. Or, of refuge or resort. Our version has followed the LXX. and Vulgate here. Greek, unawares; Hebrew, in error or inadvertently, as above. Matthew Henry's note on the cities of refuge is worthy of remark. He says, "I delight not in quibbling on names, yet am willing to take notice of these." Thus Kedesh, he reminds us, is holy. Shechem, a shoulder, reminding us of Him upon whose shoulder the government was to be. Hebron is fellowship, recalling the fellowship we have in Christ. Bezer is a fortification, reminding us of God our stronghold (later criticism, however, gives another derivation to this unusual word, which in Job 22:24, 25, means the ore of a precious metal), Ramoth is height or exaltation, and to such exaltation we are called in Jesus Christ. Lastly, Golan is exultation, so says Matthew Henry, deriving it from גִיל or גוּל. But Gesenius derives it with equal probability from גלה "to make bare," hence to lead into captivity.

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