Notes on Joshua, Chapter 20

by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)

Jos 20:1, KJV 1 The LORD also spake unto Joshua, saying,


This was most likely after the tribes had received their inheritances.

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:

See Numbers 35 for the words of the Lord to Moses regarding these cities of refuge. Even then, the Lord had stated there would be six of these cities but He did not give a location at that time, except for three on each side of the Jordan (Num. 35:14). Notice that the Lord, here, gives Israel the choice as to which cities they would designate as cities of refuge.

Something to remember is that these cities of refuge were not just for Israel. The “stranger, and . . . sojourner (Num. 35:15)” were also permitted to use these cities of refuge.

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.

This was accidental death, not pre-meditated murder. Num. 35:16-25 describe the two situations (either the other person died because of intent, or it was an accident). There were no other options.

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.

Here is supplemental information, not given in the Numbers 35 passage. Note that the “perpetrator” was supposed to find a city of refuge and explain what had happened. There is no mention of offerings or sacrifices in this case, interestingly.

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.

There was a difference between accidental death and pre-meditated murder. The “perpetrator” was guaranteed safety once he reached, and was admitted into, the city of refuge.

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.

Note that the guilty party was to dwell or remain in that city until he stood trial. Once he was found not guilty, apparently, of actual murder,

only accidental death or manslaughter; and once the high priest died, the guilty party was able to return to his original city. Seemingly no further action could be taken against him, so long as he remained in the city of refuge.

There is an important warning, though. Numbers 35:26-38 warn that if the guilty party left the city before the high priest had died, and if he met the “avenger” and was killed, the avenger would be acquitted. The guilty person should have stayed in the city where the “avenger” literally couldn’t touch him.

Seldom if ever was the use of these cities of refuge recorded in the Old Testament. Regardless, we have another picture of God’s mercy being shown to Israel and those living there.

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.

These cities were in the north (Kedesh), center (Shechem) and south (Hebron) of Canaan, now Israel, respectively. Note that each city is located in a mountain area.

Shechem was relatively close to several of the tribe;: Hebron, mostly close to Judah and Simeon; and Kedesh for the tribes living in the farthest northern parts of Israel’s new territory.

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.

Each tribe on the east side of Jordan received a city of refuge. Oddly enough, Ramoth-Gilead was almost a frontier or border city between Israel and Ammon. Ramoth-Gilead was the site of at least three major battles: one, where Ahab and Jehoshaphat battled Syria (Aram—1 Kings 22 and 2 Chron,18), later another battle with Israel and Judah combined against Syria/Aram (2 Kings 8-9). The third battle is recorded in 2 Chron. 22:5.

Bezer and Golan are seldom mentioned in the Old Testament.

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.

Note again that the cities of refuge were for all the people living in Israel, not just the descendants of Jacob and his twelve sons. What a picture of God’s mercy being extended to anyone who would seek the protections offered by the city of refuge!

Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV)

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