Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, July 24th, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
For 10¢ a day you can enjoy StudyLight.org ads
free while helping to build churches and support pastors in Uganda.
Click here to learn more!

Bible Commentaries
Joshua 20

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-9

4. Appointment of the Cities of Refuge

Joshua 20:0

a. The Command of God to Joshua

Joshua 20:1-6

1The Lord also [And Jehovah] spake unto Joshua, saying, Speak to the children 2[sons] of Israel, saying, Appoint out [Appoint] for you [the] cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses: 3that the slayer that killeth [smiteth] any person unawares [by mistake] and unwittingly, may flee thither and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood. 4And 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 [speak his words] 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. 5And if the avenger of blood pursue after him, then they shall not deliver the slayer up into his hand; because he smote his neighbor unwittingly, and hated him not beforetime. 6And 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.

b. Fulfillment of this Command

Joshua 20:7-9

7And they appointed [consecrated] Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Shechem in mount Ephraim, and Kirjath-arba, (which is Hebron) in the mountain of Judah. 8And on the other side [of the] Jordan by Jericho eastward, they assigned [appointed Joshua 20:2 ] Bezer in the wilderness upon the plain [the table land] 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. 9These were the cities appointed [prop. of appointment] for all the children of Israel, and for the stranger [sojourner] that sojourneth among them, that whosoever killeth [smiteth] any person at unawares [by mistake] might flee thither, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until he stood before the congregation.


Ch. 20 contains the designation of the free cities for homicides as Moses had already (Numbers 35:9-34; Deuteronomy 19:1-13) ordained. There were to be six of them (Numbers 35:6; Numbers 35:13; Deuteronomy 19:3-9) and they were taken from the number of the Levitical cities (Numbers 35:6). The way to them must be prepared (Deuteronomy 19:3), that the fugitive might as quickly as possible reach his asylum.

a. Joshua 20:1-6. God’s Command to Joshua, Joshua 20:1-2. Recollection of the ordinance established by God through Moses (Numbers 35:9 ff; Deuteronomy 19:5 ff., with which Genesis 9:5 ff., and Exodus 21:12-14 may be further compared). The cities are called ע׳ הַמִּקְלָט. The root קָלַט signifies (1.) to draw together, to contract ones self, (2.) to draw in, hence to receive (a fugitive), as in the Chal. (Gesen.) [The meaning of the noun comes near to asylum].

Joshua 20:3. In these cities the man-slayer (רוֹצֵחַ, from רָצָח, prop. “to break or crush in pieces”) might flee, yet only the one who smote (מַכֵּה) a soul by mistake (בִּשְׁגָגָח, from שָׁגַג, to go astray, to err,” for which in Numbers 35:22, בְּפֶתַע [in a twinkling] stands). Knobel remarks on בִּשְׁגָגָה, on Leviticus 4:2 : “This expression, as well as שׁגג and שגה, occurs in reference to transgressions of the divine law which are committed without consciousness of their being unlawful, and which are only afterwards recognized as sins (Joshua 20:13, 22, 27; 5:18; Joshua 22:14), e.g., of sins of the congregation without their knowledge (Numbers 15:24 ff.), or even of unlawful conduct which has resulted from some weakness, carelessness (Joshua 5:15), or which was occasioned by some unfortunate accident (Numbers 35:11; Numbers 35:15; Numbers 35:22 f.; Joshua 20:3; Joshua 20:9). Hence it stands in general for unpremeditated sins in opposition to בְּיָד רָמָה, i.e., violent intentional sins, which must be punished with death (Numbers 15:27-31), and could not be expiated with sacrifices.” Thus it is added here also, unwittingly (בִּבֶלִי־דַעַת, without his knowing it). Now for those who had slain any person by mistake, without intending it, these cities should be for a refuge from the avenger of blood. He is גּאֵֹל הַדָּם, LXX. ὁ� (ἀγχιστεύς, whence ἀγχιστεύω, is the nearest of kin, according to Ammonius the one entitled to the heirship, different from συγγενεῖς, who have no such right, and from οἰκεῖοι, related by marriage, Herod, 10:80. The word ἀγχιστεύω occurs frequently in the LXX. still also in Isæus, Orat. Att. ii. 11, and in Eurip. Trach. 243). Vulg.: ultor sanguinis.גָּאַל signifies properly to demand back, reclaim what belongs to one, hence, in connection with דָּם, to require, revenge the blood which has been stolen by the murderer. As such a reclamation in reference to real estate belonged to the family (Leviticus 25:35; Ruth 4:4-6), so that they alone had a right to repurchase it; so also the reclamation for the blood of a member of a family was a duty of the family, and they alone had a right in regard to it. Precisely so was it with the duty of marrying a brother’s widow (Deuteronomy 25:5; Matthew 22:23 ff.; Mark 12:19; Luke 20:28) which is expressed Ruth 3:13 by גָּאַל. On the custom itself of vengeance for blood [the vendetta], see the Theological and Ethical.

Joshua 20:4. More particular directions, not given in the passages of the Pentateuch, how the man-slayer should proceed on his arrival at the free city. He must remain standing at the entering of the gate of the city, i.e. ante portam (Vulg.), and state his case before the ears of the elders of that city. Then they shall gather him (יאָסְפוּ) into the city, and shall give him a place, that he may dwell among them, i.e. assign to him a habitation.

Joshua 20:5-6. He might not be delivered to the avenger of blood, but might, according to Joshua 20:6, to the congregation, that is, as appears from Numbers 35:24 ff., to the congregation of his own city, who should hold judgment upon him, and either, if they found him guilty, give him up to the avenger of blood, or, if they esteemed him innocent, send him back to the city of refuge, where he must remain until the death of the anointed high-priest (Numbers 35:25), that is, of the ruling high-priest. After the death of the latter there follows, somewhat as upon the death of an anointed prince, an amnesty and the man-slayer is at liberty to return to his home. If, however, he presumptuously leaves his asylum sooner, he is exposed to the anger of the avenger. (Numbers 35:26; Numbers 35:28).

b. Joshua 20:7-9. Fulfillment of this Command, Joshua 20:7. They consecrated to this use six cities. הִקְדִּישׁ, as Keil rightly notices, is not merely to set apart, but to set apart something to a holy destination from the remaining mass of things. “The free cities” as Ranke says (Untersuch. über den Pentateuch, ii. 316, apud Keil, pp. 363), “are intended to keep the people and land of Jehovah pure from blood guiltiness. They exist as a monument of Jehovah’s love for his chosen.” Hence not cities at random but Levitical cities were chosen (Numbers 35:6).

Kedesh in Galilee. Joshua 12:22; Joshua 19:37. נָּלִיל, from נָּלַל, signifies a ring, Esther 1:6; Song of Solomon 5:14, then circle, section of land, like כִּכָּר. In particular it is a circuit of twenty cities (1 Kings 9:11) in the tribe of Naphtali, הַגָּלִיל, within whose borders many heathen still dwelt, and hence called, Isaiah 8:13, גּ׳ הַגּו̇ים (comp. Matthew 4:15, Γαλιλαία τῶν ἐθνῶν). From it the name Galilee, which occurs in the translation here and in Joshua 21:32, has been formed. Shechem, Joshua 17:7. Kirjatharba, Joshua 15:13. The three cities of refuge west of the Jordan thus lay so distributed that one (Kedesh) was found in the north, one (Shechem) in the centre, and one (Kirjath-arba = Hebron) in the southern part of the land.

Joshua 20:8. East of the Jordan there are likewise three which Moses had already (Deuteronomy 4:41-43) established.

Bezer, perhaps identical with Bozra (Jeremiah 48:24), but not to be identified more particularly, although we may, as Knobel remarks on Numbers 32:33, compare the place of ruins Burazin, some way east of Heshbon in the plain (Robinson, App. p. 170), or Berza (Robinson, ibid.).

Ramoth in Gilead, the same city which is called, Joshua 13:26, Ramath-Mizpeh,1 now, as was shown at the place cited (comp. also Knobel on Numbers 32:42, p. 183), es-Salt, and therefore not to be placed so far northward as on Menke’s Map iii.; comp. Genesis 31:49.

Golan in the country of Gaulanitis (Jaulan) not yet discovered by modern travellers, but in the time of Eusebius and Jerome called a κώμη μεγίστη and villa prœgrandis. Since Ramoth in Gilead lay in the middle of the land, Bezer probably in the south, and Golan in the north, there seems to have been a similarly fit distribution of the cities to that which we have noticed in West Palestine. But while they were enumerated there from north to south, these are mentioned, as in Deuteronomy 4:43, in the opposite order.

Joshua 20:9. These were the cities appointed,—עָרֵי הַמּוּעָדָה, the Vulgate, rightly: civitates constitutœ, cities of appointment (from יָעַד, to appoint), i.e., which were appointed in order that every one. … might flee thither; Kimchi, inaccurately; urbes congregationis (with reference to the signification of יָעַד, in Niph.); Gesen., not precisely: urbes asyli, for in that view they are called, Joshua 20:3, עָרֵי הַמִּקֻלָט. Luther [and Eng. Vers.] translated quite rightly: these were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel, etc.


So long as no organized commonwealth exists among a people, a common consciousness of right develops itself first in that sphere of society which is immediately given by the divine order of nature—the family. It will therefore interpose when the right of one of the members is violated, whether in the loss of material goods through robbery, or by injury to body and life. So we find vengeance for blood, not only among the Hebrews, Arabs, Persians, but also among the Greeks, with the Germanic and Slavic peoples, in the infancy of their development, as now among savage nations. The theocratic legislation found the custom existing, and sought, without attempting to abolish, to restrain it. This purpose was served by the free cities, as also by the other restricting appointments in the passages of the law quoted above, as well as in this passage. It deserves to be carefully considered also, that according to the view of the O. T., in a case of manslaughter, not merely the family to which the slain man belonged was injured, but God himself in whose image man was created (Genesis 9:6). On this account the real avenger of blood, as is said just before, is God himself (Genesis 9:5; Psalms 9:13; 2 Chronicles 24:22). He avenges the murdered man even on brutes (Genesis 9:5; Exodus 21:28-29). Since God is wronged in intentional murder, even the altar itself affords no protection to the slayer (Exodus 21:14), ransom is not allowed (Numbers 35:31), the land even is defiled and cannot be purified from the blood which has been shed in it, without the blood of him who has spilled it (Numbers 35:33). The legislation of the O. T. is, therefore, on this side, much stricter than the Greek, Roman, or German idea of right. These allowed ransom, and regarded consecrated places as places of asylum even for the intentional murderer (comp. Winer, Realw., art. “Freistatt”). On the other hand, it appears much more humane and equitable in regarding God himself as the proper avenger (see Genesis 9:5 ff., and comp. Lange on the passage), in distinguishing between premeditated and unintentional homicide, and in requiring punishment of the perpetrator only, not at all of his relations. Comp. on this subject the art. “Bluträcher” by Oehler in Herzog’s Realencyk. 2:260 ff, also Winer, art. “Bluträcher,” Keil, Com. on Josh. in loc., [and Smith’s Dict. of the Bible, arts. “Blood, Avenger of,” and “Cities of Refuge.”—Tr.]


The chapter is suitable to be treated as a Bible lesson, to show, with reference to the passages Genesis 9:5 ff; Exodus 21:12-14; Numbers 35:9 ff; Deuteronomy 19:1 ff, how solemnly and strictly, and at the same time how justly and mildly, the O. T. legislation spoke concerning violence to human life; how it in part clung still to the patriarchal institutions, but in part prepared for a better order; in particular, how this arrangement for free cities put a check on family revenge, and endless, bloody quarrels. For the practical application, the following comments of Starke give hints: The name of the Lord is a strong tower and safe refuge; the righteous flee thereto and are protected, Proverbs 18:19; Psalms 18:2-3.—The blood of a man is highly esteemed before God; he who sheds it has God’s wrath upon him, Genesis 4:10; Genesis 9:6; Galatians 5:21; Revelation 22:15.—God has no pleasure in sin, Psalms 5:5, nor delight in the death of the sinner, Ezekiel 18:23-24.


[1][Osborn’s large map makes them distinct places.—Tr.]

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Joshua 20". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/joshua-20.html. 1857-84.
Ads FreeProfile