Joshua 20:2, 3: The Establishment of the Cities of Refuge

Discipleship Course on the Book of Revelation

Verse 2:[1] Speak to the children of Israel, saying, (Ex. 21:13; Num. 35:6, 11, 14; Deut. 19:2, 9) Appoint out for you cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses…

[Separate cities] Hebrew: Give to yourselves cities,[2] etc. The to yourselves is an elegent redundancy, according to the usage of the language. Thus, faciamus nobis, let us make for ourselves;[3] vide tibi, see for yourself; and Plautus, quid ego tibi deliqui, in what have I offended you? (Drusius). Unless you prefer to think that by it is signified that the law of the cities of refuge pertains only to Israelites (Masius). Others: Give from yourselves (Junius and Tremellius). But I judge that there is no ellipsis of from here. See a similar example in Joshua 18:4[4] (Piscator).

[Cities of fugitives] [Concerning these Masius has here many things, which ὡς ἐν συνόψει, as in a synopsis, you will find on Numbers 35 and on Deuteronomy 19. Now, what things from him were omitted there, you will find inscribed in this chapter.] In this place (says Tirinus), (it is necessary to proceed) against Andrew Masius, who in hatred of wickedness and a zeal for righteousness appears to disapprove of Christian places of refuge (Tirinus). [But let us hear Masius’ opinion from his own mouth.] The places of refuge (says he) that God set apart were protecting guiltless manslayers. But men, partly in the lust for glory, so that they might magnify their own majesty, others in imprudent Religious belief, have established the right of ἀσυλίας/ asylum in the presence of statues, shrines, and cemeteries, before Bishops, and I do not know where they do not. Moreover, there they protect the most wicked men; which is altogether unworthy of the laws of God, and more agreeable to the institutes of Romulus. See Exodus 21:14. And who would endure God Himself being made the patron of a murderer? or Princes, to whom it has belonged to punish the wicked, being their protectors? So they also expose all men, even the best, to the lust of malefactors; since there is no greater enticement to sin than the hope of impunity (Masius). [Thus Masius. Against whom Tirinus sets the following arguments for Christian places of refuge.] 1. Thus the majesty of God is displayed, when the places dedicated to Him are held so inviolable that even if injury be incurred by men, or even the public and private good demand punishment, nevertheless on account of reverence for those places the man that is in them is secure. 2. Thus a greater opinion of Divine things is procured for the common people. 3. Thus consideration is given to the innocence of many, especially in wars, and a time is given for repentance (Tirinus). [It is not difficult for any judicious man to resolve this quarrel, and to discern whose arguments are of greater weight and moment. But it does not belong to me to insert an opinion.]

Cities of refuge, whereof I spake, etc.: The possessions being now divided among you, do you reserve some of them for the use which I have commanded.


Verse 3:[5] That the slayer that killeth any person unawares and unwittingly may flee thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood.

[He that smites unwittingly, בִּשְׁגָגָ֖ה בִּבְלִי־דָ֑עַת] This is not ταυτολογία, a tautology; but, with the sense of everything doubled, as far as it is able to be done, protection for wicked murders is precluded (Masius). Perhaps the expression is ἐν παραλλήλου, in parallel, whereby two ἰσοδυναμοῦντα, equivalent things, are joined together; as when we say, clay mud, earth of dust, etc. (Drusius). They translate it, through ignorance (or, error [Pagnine, Junius and Tremellius, Castalio, Arabic, Jonathan), without knowledge (Vatablus, similarly Montanus, Munster, Arabic, Pagnine), that is, unintentionally, and with no attention given (Vatablus). Hadrian answers well, in maleficiis voluntatem spectari, non exitum, in crimes attention is to be given to the intention, not the result.[6] For it is in us by nature, that an evil intention have we in hatred; a good intention, even if it goes astray, not likewise (Masius). Yet manslaying is such an awful matter that even those that had done it unintentionally and unknowingly were nevertheless supposed to have need of certain expiatory rites, whereby they might be rest from the terror their conscience. Hence the Areopagites were wont to pronounce judgment of a year’s exile (Masius on verse 6).

Unawares and unwittingly; Hebrew, through ignorance, or error, or mistake, and without knowledge; the same thing twice repeated, to cut off all the claims and expectations that wilful murderers might have of protection here; and God having declared that such should be taken even from his altar, that they might be killed, Exodus 21:14; and accordingly Joab was by Solomon’s order killed even at the altar, 1 Kings 2:28-31, 34. It is the more strange and impudent that any Christians should make their sanctuaries give protection to such persons whom God hath so expressly excepted from it, which the papists do; and their doctors are not ashamed to defend it upon frivolous reasons.

[Who is the avenger of blood, מִגֹּאֵ֖ל הַדָּֽם׃] From the defender of blood (Masius, Junius and Tremellius), supplying, that, of that blood (Junius and Tremellius), which was poured out in bloody murder (Junius). The Septuagint renders it agreeably, ἀγχιστεύοντα τὸ αἷμα, one avenging blood by right of near relation: That is, in just the same way as if the blood of slain man, oppressed by the hand of a murderer, were released by vengeance unto liberty. But vengeance was permitted only to those that just grief impelled (Masius). The Hebraic expression is to be noted, one near of blood, in the place of near to the one killed (Vatablus). Question: Why were the cities of refuge established for homicides alone, but not likewise for thefts, sacrileges, or adulteries? Responses: 1. The danger was not the same in the later as in the former, lest, while the matter is examined by the Judge, they incur a grave injury from someone (Estius). 2. There are hardly any other sins ever joined with innocence, but they are accomplished by zeal, will, and attention given: But God did not at all will that the wicked will be left unpunished (Masius).

The avenger of blood; the kinsman, who had right or power to demand or take vengeance of the slaughter.

[1] Hebrew: דַּבֵּ֛ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר תְּנ֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־עָרֵ֣י הַמִּקְלָ֔ט אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֥רְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃

[2] Hebrew: תְּנ֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־עָרֵ֣י.

[3] For example, Genesis 11:4.

[4] Joshua 18:4a:  “Give out from among you three men (הָב֥וּ לָכֶ֛ם שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה אֲנָשִׁ֖ים) for each tribe: and I will send them, and they shall rise, and go through the land…”

[5] Hebrew: לָנ֥וּס שָׁ֙מָּה֙ רוֹצֵ֔חַ מַכֵּה־נֶ֥פֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָ֖ה בִּבְלִי־דָ֑עַת וְהָי֤וּ לָכֶם֙ לְמִקְלָ֔ט מִגֹּאֵ֖ל הַדָּֽם׃

[6] Digest 48.

2 thoughts on “Joshua 20:2, 3: The Establishment of the Cities of Refuge

  1. Matthew Henry: ‘Orders are given for the appointing of these cities (Joshua 20:2), and very seasonably at this time when the land was newly surveyed, and so they were the better able to divide the coasts of it into three parts, as God had directed them, in order to the more convenient situation of these cities of refuge, Deuteronomy 19:3. Yet it is probable that it was not done till after the Levites had their portion assigned them in the next chapter, because the cities of refuge were all to be Levites’ cities. As soon as ever God had given them cities of rest, he bade them appoint cities of refuge, to which none of them knew but they might be glad to escape. Thus God provided, not only for their ease at all times, but for their safety in times of danger, and such times we must expect and prepare for in this world. And it intimates what God’s spiritual Israel have and shall have, in Christ and heaven, not only rest to repose themselves in, but refuge to secure themselves in. And we cannot think these cities of refuge would have been so often and so much spoken of in the law of Moses, and have had so much care taken about them (when the intention of them might have been effectually answered, as it is in our law, by authorizing the courts of judgment to protect and acquit the manslayer in all those cases wherein he was to have privilege of sanctuary), if they were not designed to typify the relief which the gospel provides for poor penitent sinners, and their protection from the curse of the law and the wrath of God, in our Lord Jesus, to whom believers flee for refuge (Hebrews 6:18), and in whom they are found (Philippians 3:9) as in a sanctuary, where they are privileged from arrests, and there is now no condemnation to them, Romans 8:1.’

  2. Spurgeon’s “Morning and Evening”: ‘”Your refuge from the avenger of blood.”—Joshua 20:3

    It is said that in the land of Canaan, cities of refuge were so arranged, that any man might reach one of them within half a day at the utmost. Even so the word of our salvation is near to us; Jesus is a present Saviour, and the way to him is short; it is but a simple renunciation of our own merit, and a laying hold of Jesus, to be our all in all. With regard to the roads to the city of refuge, we are told that they were strictly preserved, every river was bridged, and every obstruction removed, so that the man who fled might find an easy passage to the city. Once a year the elders went along the roads and saw to their order, so that nothing might impede the flight of any one, and cause him, through delay, to be overtaken and slain. How graciously do the promises of the gospel remove stumbling blocks from the way! Wherever there were byroads and turnings, there were fixed up hand-posts, with the inscription upon them—”To the city of refuge!” This is a picture of the road to Christ Jesus. It is no roundabout road of the law; it is no obeying this, that, and the other; it is a straight road: “Believe, and live” [cf. 1 Timothy 1:16]. It is a road so hard, that no self-righteous man can ever tread it, but so easy, that every sinner, who knows himself to be a sinner may by it find his way to heaven. No sooner did the manslayer reach the outworks of the city than he was safe; it was not necessary for him to pass far within the walls, but the suburbs themselves were sufficient protection. Learn hence, that if you do but touch the hem of Christ’s garment, you shall be made whole [Matthew 14:36]; if you do but lay hold upon him with “faith as a grain of mustard seed” [Matthew 17:20], you are safe.

    “A little genuine grace ensures
    The death of all our sins.”

    Only waste no time, loiter not by the way, for the avenger of blood is swift of foot; and it may be he is at your heels at this still hour of eventide.’

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