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Jerome Creach: At the core of Joshua 20 is the notion that the spilling of blood (which was understood in an almost magical sense as representative of life) by murder brought an imbalance (as well as an injustice) to the created order. It effected a kind of curse on the land (Deut. 19:10). As Numbers 35:33 states, “blood pollutes the land.” Bloodguilt could be averted, it was believed, by the action of an “avenger of blood,” an individual designated by the family of the dead person to seek “revenge” in the case of homicide (the avenger was probably the nearest relative to the deceased).

David Howard: In the Pentateuch, the Israelites were first instructed that six cities of refuge should be designated as safe havens where a man could flee if he accidentally killed someone. In Exod 21:12–14, the provision for this is placed at the beginning of the laws dealing with capital offenses: premeditated murder was to be punished by death (vv. 12, 14), but accidental killing was not (v. 13). In Num 35:9–29, provisions for this are spelled out in much more detail, including the Lord’s instructions that the Israelites should select six cities, three on each side of the Jordan (Num 35:9–15). Deuteronomy 4:41–43 reports that Moses did precisely that for the tribes east of the Jordan (three cities). In Deut 19:1–10, Moses gave instructions that the same should be done with three cities west of the Jordan. And we are told in Num 35:6 that these six cities were to be designated from among the cities to be allotted to the Levites.

The legislation concerning the cities of refuge shows, on the one hand, God’s mercy, in that those who killed accidentally could find a place of refuge. And yet, on the other hand, it also affirms the sanctity of human life, in that even an accidental death caused blood guilt that could be avenged if the killer did not go to a city of refuge. Furthermore, the killer who escaped to such a city was not free to return home until another death had taken place, that of the high priest (Num 35:25, 28).

Robert Hubbard: The ancient custom of blood revenge—retaliation in kind against a killer by the victim’s kin—stands in the background of Joshua 20. In Israel one duty of close male relatives was to avenge such deaths by killing the person thought responsible.  But a pattern of unrestrained retaliation poses a threat to the continuation of stable social order. Potentially, it may unleash an unending and possibly escalating cycle of tit-for-tat killings (see Lamech’s boast in Gen. 4:23–24). The provision of cities of refuge seeks to break that cycle of blood revenge. It protects someone who has killed a fellow Israelite from the “restorer of blood” (goʾel haddam), a male relative of the victim (e.g., his son, brother, etc.) out to avenge the death.

But verse 3 clarifies that it only applies to accidental and unintentional killings, ones done “by mistake” or “inadvertently” (Num. 35:11–15) and “without [prior] knowledge or forethought” (Deut. 4:42; 19:4). Deuteronomy 19:5–6 offers an illuminating example of what constitutes an accidental killing: when two Israelites are felling trees in a forest and one man’s axhead suddenly flies off, striking and killing his companion. In modern terms, the crime would equate to negligent homicide or manslaughter, not premeditated murder.

The act of killing nevertheless incurs blood-guilt and legitimates retaliation by the aggrieved family. Thus, Yahweh outlines the procedure to be followed to obviate the latter (vv. 4–6).

Campbell: Why cities of refuge were so important

The fact that these cities are discussed in four books of the Old Testament marks them as being of great importance. It is apparent that God wished to impress on Israel the sanctity of human life. To put an end to a person’s life, even if done unintentionally, is a serious thing, and the cities of refuge underscored this emphatically. In the ancient world blood revenge was widely practiced. The moment a person was killed, his nearest relative took responsibility for vengeance. This ancient rite of vendetta was often handed down from one generation to another so that increasingly larger numbers of innocent people died violently. The need in ancient Israel for the refuge that these special cities provided is evident. (The Bible Knowledge Commentary Old Testament)

Kenneth Gangel: The cities of refuge provided a demonstration of God’s grace without detracting from his law. Everywhere these cities appeared across the land they showed that God provided for people who made big mistakes and needed mercy in their lives.  These cities were needed throughout Israel to ensure that justice, not personal vengeance, was carried out.


(:1-2a)  Divine Initiative

Then the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying,

2 ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying,’

A.  (:2b-3) Demonstration of God’s Mercy in Instances of Manslaughter

  1. (:2b)  Institution of the Cities of Refuge

Designate the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses,

Definition of “Refuge” — “the condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble.”

  1. (:3)  Intention Explained

“that the manslayer who kills any person unintentionally,

without premeditation, may flee there,

and they shall become your refuge from the avenger of blood.

David Howard: Even though there is an exception to the laws of capital punishment here, the deed itself is not condoned: the guilty one simply was to be spared death at the hands of an “avenger of blood.” He was still guilty, but the law treated him more leniently. This shows that the biblical legislation did make distinctions in degrees of guilt and that God’s law was sensitive to motives and intent of the heart, in providing more lenient treatment for what modern criminal codes call “manslaughter” (as opposed to premeditated murder).

Gordon Matties: The avenger of blood is the nearest relative who takes on responsibility for assuring that the process of justice prevails. Although avenger seems to imply a practice of retributive justice, the concern here is to limit inappropriate retribution. Terms related to the Hebrew word go’el, translated here as avenger, are used elsewhere in the OT to refer to God’s and others’ redeeming activity (Exod 6:6; 15:13; Pss 69:18; 72:14; 74:2; throughout Isa 40-66; Jer 31:11; Ruth 2:20; 3:9, 12; Lev 25:25-54). The go’el is also the next of kin responsible for “redeeming” the assets of the relative who has found himself in economic trouble (Lev 25:24, 25, 29, 48). In the case of murder, the person, now described as a redeemer of blood (AT), becomes responsible for assuring that justice is done. The implication is that the avenger of blood could exact retribution if the killer were to leave the city.

B.  (:4-6) Detailing of the Proper Utilization of the Cities of Refuge

  1. (:4)  Procedure Explained

And he shall flee to one of these cities,

and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and state his case in the hearing of the elders of that city;

and they shall take him into the city to them and give him a place,

so that he may dwell among them.

Robert Hubbard: Since a full trial follows (v. 6), this process amounts to a preliminary hearing to determine whether his case qualifies for asylum—that his actions might have been, in fact, accidental and unintentional.  Once satisfied, the elders may admit (lit., “gather”) him to the city and provide him a place to live during his long stay. . .  the city truly is his refuge against revenge. He may remain there, provided that a trial by a legal assembly in the city verifies his claim.  Presumably, an unverified claim would lead to his expulsion from the city and eventually land him in the hands of the restorer. If verified, the requirement to remain there rather than go free—in Koopmans’ words, “house arrest in the city of refuge”—probably constitutes just punishment for his life-taking act.

David Guzik: According to custom, the elders of the city spent much time at the gates of the city. When someone fleeing from an avenger of blood came to a city of refuge, he stated his case to the elders at the city gates.

  1. (:5) Procedure Justified

Now if the avenger of blood pursues him,

then they shall not deliver the manslayer into his hand,

because he struck his neighbor without premeditation

and did not hate him beforehand.

David Guzik: Israel had a sophisticated legal system, with judgments often based on intent and premeditation.

  1. (:6) Procedure Completed

a.  End Point Defined

And he shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment,

until the death of the one who is high priest in those days.

Peter Wallace: God is teaching his people the principle of substitutionary atonement. The high priest dies in your place. The high priest’s death is counted as your own!

b.  End of Exile Experienced

Then the manslayer shall return to his own city

and to his own house, to the city from which he fled.

David Howard: The one who fled was to state his case before the elders of the city who, according to Deut 19:12, had the power to return him to his original city and into the hands of the blood avenger. However, here the presumption is that he was innocent, and he was to be given a place to live. . .  since the high priest represented the sacrificial system, his death atoned for the sins of the manslayer.

Trent Butler: The court procedure is then spelled out (Num. 35:24–28). The assembly shall judge between the killer and the avenger of blood, rescuing the killer from the avenger of blood and returning him to the city of refuge to which he fled. This seems to imply that the jurisdiction lies not with the assembly in the city of refuge but with the assembly in the killer’s hometown or in the town where the crime was committed.

This assembly returns the killer to the city of refuge. There the killer remains “until the death of the high priest who anointed him with holy oil” (Num 35:25). The killer is not permitted to leave the territory of the city of refuge. Should he do so, the avenger of blood may kill him without guilt. When the priest dies, the killer may return to his land and his possessions.

Van Parunak: v.6 anticipates two circumstances under which he may leave the city:

  • when he comes before the congregation for judgment. Apparently, subsequent to his initial arrival, there might be a more formal trial, at which the elders of his city (Deut 19:12) would bring the required multiple witnesses. If this trial found him guilty, he would be put back out of the protection of the city, delivered to the avenger of blood.
  • Otherwise, after the death of the High Priest the avenger’s claims no longer have any hold, and he is free to return home.


Adrian Rogers: As you look and see where the Lord put the cities of refuge, if you know anything of the map of Israel, you know that they were strategically placed: some were in the east; some were in the west; some were in the north; some were in the south, and some in the center. Why? Because if they’re a city of refuge, they have got to be close. If a person is in danger, he needs a hiding place. That hiding place—he must be very near. So, they have laws in ancient Israel concerning the cities of refuge. The road to the city of refuge had to be wide. If there were rivers, the rivers had to have bridges. Those bridges were carefully inspected and regularly inspected. If there were obstacles on those roads, those obstacles had to be removed. And, the priests and the Levites would go out and inspect the roads to the city of refuge. And, every time there was a crossroad where there might be any confusion, they would write a sign in big Hebrew letters, “MIKLOT,” (miqlat) which means “refuge” and “a signpost.” A wayfaring man, nor a fool, could not miss his way on to the city of refuge (Isaiah 35:8). It had to be wide open. It had to be near. It had to be clear and always open. (Excerpt from When Great Men Die Like Fools)

A.  (:7) Three Cities West of the Jordan

  1. Kedesh

So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali

  1. Shechem

and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim,

  1. Kiriath-arba (Hebron)

and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah.

David Thompson: Only three cities were designated cities of refuge on the west side of the Jordan:

1)  Kedesh – Holiness

2)  Shechem – Strength

3)  Kiriath-arba (Hebron) – Communion

B.  (:8) Three Cities East of the Jordan

Robert Hubbard: the Israelites also officially recognize the three east-bank cities authorized by Moses.

  1. Bezer

And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the plain from the tribe of Reuben,

  1. Ramoth

and Ramoth in Gilead from the tribe of Gad,

  1. Golan

and Golan in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh.

David Thompson: Three cities were designated on the east side of the Jordan:

1)  Bezer – Fortification

2)  Ramoth – Exaltation

3)  Golan – Joy

David Howard: The list here is south to north:

(1)  Bezer was on the desert plateau east of the Dead Sea, in Reubenite territory;

(2)  Ramoth in Gilead, east of the Jordan, in Gad’s territory; and

(3)  Golan in Bashan, east of the Sea of Kinnereth (Galilee), in eastern Manasseh’s territory.

No place in the land was more than a day’s journey from one of these cities. All six of these cities are mentioned again in the next chapter, since they also were Levitical cities. Despite their importance here and in the Pentateuch, however, they do not appear again in the Old Testament.


A.  Places Designated as Cities of Refuge

These were the appointed cities

for all the sons of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them,

B.  Purpose of the Institution

that whoever kills any person unintentionally may flee there,

and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood

until he stands before the congregation.

Robert Hubbard: Verse 9 reiterates the purpose of the institution—to provide one who has inadvertently taken a life a fair trial (i.e., mercy) rather than to abandon him (unjustly) to blood revenge. As does Numbers 35:15, the instruction extends the merciful protection also to aliens living permanently among the Israelites. This reflects the “inclusive vision” of the book, a vision that reckons aliens as part of Israel’s covenant community (Josh. 8:33, 35) and also grants Rahab and the Gibeonites special status (chs. 2; 9).