Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, May 19th, 2024
Partner with StudyLight.org as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries
Joshua 20

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



The cities of refuge have already been discussed in Numbers 35:9-33, in Deuteronomy 4:41-43, and in Deuteronomy 19. About the only information given in this chapter is that Joshua did as he was commanded and named the additional cities west of Jordan, enumerating the names of those and repeating the names given in Deuteronomy 4:43.

There is hardly anything in the Bible about which there is more misinformation than is the matter of these six cities of refuge. The basic assumption of critical scholars is dogmatically stated by Holmes:

“The cities of refuge were not appointed until after the reforms of Josiah in 621 B.C. In earlier times the refuge for the manslayer was the altar at the local sanctuary (Exodus 21:14). Deuteronomy says that Moses commanded the institution of these cities, and a later writer, ignorant of the exact standpoint of the Deuteronomic school, naturally concluded that Joshua carried out that command. Accordingly, he stated as fact what he thought should have happened… The standpoint of Deuteronomy was that the cities of refuge were to be appointed after the Temple of Solomon was built! This being so, there was no need for Joshua to appoint these cities.”(F1)

Such an impressive bundle of false statements contradicting the Holy Bible in half a dozen particulars should be received only by those who are willing to deify “the REVEREND Samuel Holmes” and all others like him, and to accept their UNPROVED ASSERTIONS as “the Word of God,” instead of what is written here!

The fiction that these cities of refuge were not appointed until the times of Josiah (621 B.C.) is, of course, FALSE. Three of the cities were appointed by Moses east of Jordan; and three were appointed by Joshua west of Jordan, as directed by God Himself (Joshua 20:1). That these cities were NOT in existence until the seventh century is a prime assertion of the critics, as Boling attempted to prove in this statement:

“There is not a single reference to either one of these institutions (the cities of refuge, or the Levitical cities) in the historical books of 1 and 2 Samuel , 1 and 2 Kings , , 1 and 2 Chronicles, and nowhere are they clearly presupposed.”(F2)

Apparently, Boling had never heard of the case of Abner, who following his unwilling and forced slaughter of Asahel, Joab’s brother, fled to Hebron (one of the cities of refuge), and how Joab followed him there, pretended friendship, maneuvered Abner just across the city line in the gate, just outside the city of refuge, and thrust a dagger through his heart. David himself followed the body of Abner through the streets crying, “Died Abner as a fool dieth”! Upon no other assumption whatever can it be affirmed that Abner died “as a fool,” except upon the presupposition that he simply allowed himself to be maneuvered to a location just outside the city of refuge, thus giving Joab the opportunity he wanted! The full record of all this is in 2 Samuel 2-3.

However, even if there did not exist any record of exactly how certain persons made use of any of these cities of refuge, that would not deny the existence of the institution and the appointment of these cities as revealed here. There are a hundred provisions of the Law of Moses which could be denied on the proposition that the Bible does not tell how some person, or persons, fulfilled or applied the law in specific cases. In the historical books, where are the examples of persons cleansed from leprosy? Where do we find the ashes of the red heifer applied? Who can cite a house that was purified from leprosy? etc.

Verses 1-6

“And Jehovah spake unto Joshua, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, saying, Assign you the cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by Moses, that the manslayer that killeth any person unwittingly and unawares may flee thither: and they shall be unto you for a refuge from the avenger of blood. And he shall flee unto one of these cities, and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city, and declare his case in the ears of the elders of that city; and they shall take him into the city unto them, and give him a place that he may dwell among them. And if the avenger of blood pursue after him, then they shall not deliver up the manslayer into his hands; because he smote his neighbor unawares, and hated him not beforetime. And he shall dwell in that city, until he stand before the congregation for judgment, until the death of the High Priest that shall be in those days: then shall the manslayer return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house, unto the city from whence he fled.”

It is clearly stated here that God spake to Joshua, reminding him of what God had already commanded Moses, and with the order to appoint the cities of refuge. Sons of the Devil will have to produce something more than their tumid arrogance and denial of this as sufficient inducement for believers to forsake what is written here in the Word of God.

See the passages in Deuteronomy and Numbers cited above for full discussion of the institution of the cities of refuge. The purpose of these was totally unlike the “sanctuary” doctrine of pagan altars and shrines, like that which made the half mile or so surrounding the city of Ephesus the greatest concentration of lawless and wicked men ever heard of on the face of the earth. The purpose of these cities was the protection, not of criminals generally, but of innocent men who had inadvertently, or accidentally, killed someone. This institution was designed to eliminate the blood feuds which abounded in antiquity, and which have persisted into modern times. This writer was present when the notorious Newton-Carlton feud of Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma culminated in the murder of a Deputy Sheriff in front of the J. C. Penny store just across from the Post Office there in 1926. Some thirty murders had at that time occurred in that feud. Fortunately, the feud ended at that time.

The mention of “stand before the congregation” in Joshua 20:6, is a reference to the judgment exercised by the congregation of the city of refuge. The manslayer could not leave that city, except to forfeit his life, and, from the way this is introduced following the theoretical appearance of the avenger of blood, it would appear that no such congregational judgment took place until the manslayer was accused by the avenger of blood, and who, in that case, would have had the right to produce witnesses. Upon the presumption that the manslayer would be acquitted, he then could live in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. If found guilty, he was, of course, handed over to the avenger of blood who had the right to execute him.

As in so many instances of O.T. institutions, it is the N.T. witness and application of them that certifies their Divine origin, and eloquently demonstrates the Divine inspiration that designed and created them. As the writer of Hebrews said, “We have a strong encouragement who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us, which we have as an anchor of the soul both sure and stedfast and entering into that which is within the veil” (Hebrews 6:18-19).

The foolish theory that these cities of refuge were connected with the old pagan laws of “sanctuary at altars,” etc., is not, as alleged by Holmes and others, “revealed in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21:14).”(F3) A careful reading of that place shows that God’s altar was not a place of protection for the guilty. (See my comment on this in Vol. 2 of the Pentateuchal series, pp. 307-309.) The habit of fleeing to some altar on the part of the guilty persisted, and Joab himself was dragged from between the horns of the altar in Jerusalem and executed for his murder of Abner (1 Kings 2:28-31).

The great typical meaning of the cities of refuge is:

(1) A place of refuge is provided for sinners in Christ.

(2) Safety is in him, not anywhere else; and not out of him.

(3) Safety continues only so long as the saved continue to be in Christ. Person must abide in him to be saved (John 15:6).

(4) The safety continued throughout the life of the High Priest. Safety continues for repentant sinners throughout the dispensation of the reign of Christ. The connection of the life of the High Priest with the safety provide here is an emphasis upon the typical nature of the Jewish High Priest. (See my extensive comments on this in Exodus (Vol. 2 of the Pentateuchal series, pp. xxiv, xxv).)

Verses 7-9

“And they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill-country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill-country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (the same is Hebron) in the hill-country of Judah. And beyond the Jordan at Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness in 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. These were the appointed cities for all the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourned among them, that whosoever killeth any person unwittingly might flee thither, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until he stood before the congregation.”

What Bible student ever failed to memorize the names of these cities of refuge? That they occupied an important place in the religious and judicial system of the Hebrews cannot be successfully denied. These cities were among the most important in Israel. They were centrally located. There were definite rules enforced for keeping the roads open and in repair for access to these cities, and proper directions were placed in all needed places and intersections to insure the ability of the manslayer to arrive safely at the nearest city of refuge.

Many of the older commentators, such as Adam Clarke and Matthew Henry also pointed out that the very names of these cities significantly pointed to the salvation of sinners:

KEDESH. This name means sanctified, or holy,(F4) that being the original meaning of the word, which later also came to mean “a sanctuary,”(F5) or “sacred place.”(F6) It was precisely this word that came to mean the sacred female prostitutes of paganism, the [~qedeshah] and their male counterparts, the [~qedesh]; only, in their cases, the word is spelled with a “q.” Of course, that constituted the illegal and shameful usurpation of a HOLY word for UNHOLY and IMMORAL purposes. Nevertheless, in its true meaning it appropriately typifies the “sanctified in Christ,” the “holy brethren” of the N.T.

HEBRON. Several meanings of this word are: community or alliance,(F7) league or confederacy,(F8) or fellowship.(F9) It is not difficult to see the application of this term to the community of believers in Christ. Because of its elevation at a height of 3,040 feet above sea level, the highest location of a city in Palestine, it also was an exalted place, even as God’s church is exalted above all other human endeavors.

SHECHEM. The word means “shoulder,”(F10) with the typical meaning of burden-bearer, or the carrier of great responsibility as in Isaiah, “The government shall be upon his shoulder” (Isaiah 9:6). The burden and responsibility for all forgiven sins rests upon the shoulder of our Lord. “He carried my sins with him there.”(F11)

BEZER. This word means “fortress,”(F12) a word repeatedly and consistently applied to the stronghold of Christianity in all ages. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” the great Lutheran hymn being a well-known example.

RAMOTH GILEAD. “Ramoth means `heights’.”(F13) Actually, this meaning pertained to all of the cities of refuge. They were situated on significant elevations to assure their visibility to all who sought them. Appropriately enough, the church herself was called by the Lord Jesus Christ, “A city set upon a hill that cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). The double name Ramoth Gilead brings into focus the area noted for its production of a healing balm, known and used everywhere in antiquity. The spiritual counterpart of this is apparent in the great spiritual song, “There is a balm in Gilead, that heals the sin-sick soul.”

GOLAN. There are two names applied to this place: (1) “It means `to remove’ or `to pass away’, hence, a `transmigration’ or `passage’.”(F14) It is not hard to see that the collective meaning of all these terms is “sanctified” or “set apart.” Dozens of references in the N.T. to the sanctification of God’s people confirm the typical appropriateness of the name of this city of refuge. (2) The other meaning, also mentioned by Clarke, was stated by Matthew Henry to be “joy or exultation,”(F15) an exceedingly appropriate type of the joy of the Redeemed, who are described thus by Isaiah:

“The ransomed of Jehovah shall return and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isaiah 35:10).”

We conclude this study of the cities of refuge with the following lines selected from a homily by E. De Pressense:

“The establishment of the cities of refuge is an admiral emblem of the Church. The Church is a City set upon a hill whose gates stand open day and night to those whom the law condemns. Only those to whom the Church is open are not exclusively those who have transgressed unwittingly, as was the case then. All who have broken the law of God, even with open eyes, may find shelter there, on the one condition that they enter by the door, of which Jesus said, `I am the door, and no man cometh unto the Father but by me’ (John 10:7)”(F16)

Nor should it be overlooked that the great necessity for the sinful soul-seeking redemption is that he most certainly should enter. Enter what? Enter Christ, enter the Church which is his spiritual body. Enter by the door which is Christ, that is, as Christ has appointed. And how do persons enter him? Turn and read from the Holy Text itself: Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 12:13; and Galatians 3:27. The Holy Scriptures announce no other means of anyone’s entering Christ.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joshua 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/joshua-20.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
Ads FreeProfile