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The Appointment of Cities of Refuge
The allotment of the tribal inheritance is followed by the appointment of six cities of refuge previously provided and in part assigned by Moses, according to the terms of the Sinaitic law concerning manslaughter: cp. Exodus 21:13; Numbers 35:6. These are enumerated in the following order:—W. of Jordan: Kedesh (N.), Shechem (central), Hebron (S.); E. of Jordan: Bezer (S.), Ramoth-Gilead (central), Golan (N.). Geographical considerations must have had the first place; the six cities are so placed as to give nearly equal facilities of access from all parts of Palestine. But it is interesting to observe that the three western cities were ancient traditional sanctuaries. This is inferred from the name of Kedesh (= Holy) and known of the other two. The same may be true of the eastern cities also.
This chapter has a special interest as introducing us to a phase of Hebrew Law typical of many of the Mosaic ordinances. Moses was inspired not so much to produce a system entirely novel as to take up the Semitic customs already in existence, and regulate and purify them. So here, the primitive law of blood-revenge, which laid on the kin of the slain the duty of taking vengeance on the slayer, and which often failed to distinguish between intentional and unintentional homicide, is regulated by the formulation of a clear distinction corresponding to our ’wilful murder’ and ’manslaughter,’ and by the provision of definite asylums for the unintentional manslayer.
1-9. The Cities of Refuge.
2. Whereof I spake by the hand of Moses] cp. Exodus 21:13; Numbers 35:6.; Deuteronomy 4:41.
3. Unwittingly] manslaughter, as we should say, as distinct from murder. See the elaborate rules and distinctions drawn out in Numbers 35:16-23. Note that this is not the ordinary, almost universal, principle of ’Sanctuary,’ by which any criminal whatsoever could claim the protection of some holy place, as e.g. Joab tried to do (1 Kings 2:28), when he fled to the tabernacle and caught hold of the horns of the altar. It will be observed that Solomon did not respect the Sanctuary in that case.
9. Until he stood before the congregation] The purpose is to provide every homicide a fair trial: see Numbers 35:12, Numbers 35:24-25. If he is found guilty of murder, the City of Refuge is no sanctuary to him; if only of manslaughter (cp. Joshua 20:6), it is a safe asylum to him till the death of the high priest, after which he is free to return home.
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Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Joshua 20". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany