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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 20

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary


Chapters 13-21 The Division of the Land.

The division of the conquered land, and of some not yet conquered, is now outlined. But we must recognise what we mean by conquered. When ancient relatively minor kings moved into a land and conquered it they did not necessarily remain there or station troops there. They followed it up by demanding tribute. The question then was whether the conquest would hold. Would the people accept the position as subject people? That depended both on the strength of the king’s own forces and on the strength or weakness of the conquered people. It was a position that would have to be continually maintained by force.

That was also true in this case. Joshua had conquered the land. But settlement was a different matter. The conquered people might object, especially as they were to be driven out. In the terms of his times Canaan was conquered, but it was certainly not totally under Joshua’s control. He had not left occupying forces. The vacuum left by his invasion would soon be filled by returning refugees and those who had avoided his forces. Thus the conquest would need to be enforced, or otherwise. That was to be the task of the tribes Israel, partly by conquest and partly by slow infiltration. Canaan was a land of forests so that those who chose to do so could advance into a forested part of the land allocated to them and establish themselves there, cutting back the forest and setting up their settlements. This would cause minimal to the present inhabitants. As they then became more settled they could then expand. Others more belligerent could take over smaller cities and settle in them, taking over the fields round about them. Once they grew stronger they could then expand further. The benefit of what Joshua had done lay in the fact that they were now accepted, even if with hostility, as having a right to be in the land. They were a part of the landscape which it was best not to trifle with, because if they were trifled with they had brother tribes whom they could call on for assistance.

The descriptions of the division of the land partly reflect the efficiency of the different surveyors set to the task. Some gave full details of borders, others far sparser details while others merely named cities in the area.

Chapter 20 The Cities of Refuge Appointed.

This chapter tells of the renewal of the command to appoint cities of refuge so that they would be available for those who committed manslaughter ‘unwittingly’ to flee to. There they would find refuge from the avenger of blood. The orders are then carried out and cities appointed. To appreciate the importance of this we need to recognise the stress laid in those days, in all societies in the area, on the fact that it was the responsibility of the family to revenge the blood of a member of the family. It was felt that they should not rest until the family member was avenged. This had been so from earliest times (Genesis 4:14).

Verses 1-3

Chapter 20 The Cities of Refuge Appointed.

This chapter tells of the renewal of the command to appoint cities of refuge so that they would be available for those who committed manslaughter ‘unwittingly’ to flee to. There they would find refuge from the avenger of blood. The orders are then carried out and cities appointed. To appreciate the importance of this we need to recognise the stress laid in those days, in all societies in the area, on the fact that it was the responsibility of the family to revenge the blood of a member of the family. It was felt that they should not rest until the family member was avenged. This had been so from earliest times (Genesis 4:14).

Joshua 20:1-3

And YHWH spoke to Joshua, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘Assign for yourselves the cities of refuge of which I spoke to you by the hand of Moses, so that the manslayer who kills a person unwittingly and unawares may flee there. And they shall be to you for a refuge from the avenger of blood.’ ” ’

How God spoke to Joshua we are not told. It may be that it occurred in the Tent of Meeting where God communed with Joshua in some mystic way, for like Moses Joshua appears to have had special access into the presence of YHWH (Exodus 33:11). Or it may have been as he meditated on the Book of the Law (see Numbers 35:9-15; Deuteronomy 19:1-13). While the people were in the wilderness the right of sanctuary was obtainable at the altar (Exodus 21:14), a right later exercised by Adonijah and Joab (1 Kings 1:50-52; 1 Kings 2:28), although finally to no avail for they were found guilty. But once the people were spread through the land the altar was far away and it was necessary that closer sanctuary be provided to prevent blood vengeance on innocent men.

Thus YHWH had provide for the establishment of cities of refuge so that once a man reached such a city he was safe from family vengeance until the case had been heard before a proper court, at which point if he was found innocent he would be able to return to or remain in the city of refuge and be safe (Numbers 35:9-15; Deuteronomy 19:1-13). The refuge was for those who had killed accidentally, not for deliberate murder. To take blood vengeance on a man in a city of refuge was a heinous crime and made the perpetrator himself a murderer, whereas seemingly blood vengeance elsewhere did not. But the blood relative had the right to demand that there should be a trial.

“The avenger of blood” is literally ‘redeemer of blood’. The Hebrew is ‘goel had-dam’. A ‘goel’ is one who acts as next of kin, whether by marrying a kinsman’s widow (Ruth 3:12 on); by exacting a payment due to the deceased (Numbers 5:8); by buying a kinsman out of slavery; by buying back a field which had been sold through poverty (Leviticus 25:48; Leviticus 25:25) or by buying back an estate into the family (Jeremiah 32:7 on). As redeemer of blood he exacts recompense on behalf of the dead man. It was thus not seen as murder but as justice, a life for a life. Indeed to fail to do so would bring the family into disrepute.

Verse 4

And he shall flee to one of those cities, and shall stand at the entering of the gate of the city and declare his cause in the ears of the elders of that city, and they shall take him into the city to them, and give him a place, that he might dwell among them.’

The man seeking refuge would come to the gate of the city. It was in the square just inside the gate that all official public activity took place for it was the public meeting place. There the elders of the city would hear his case, and if they were satisfied that the man appeared innocent of deliberate murder, they would allow him in to take refuge there, and provide somewhere for him to live. It would appear that houses were assigned in such cities for such occasions.

The ‘elders of the city’ were the ruling men of the city who were also responsible for justice. They were usually, although not always, older men. They were always men of recognised status.

“They shall take him into the city to them.” The verb is used of a wife being taken into a home (2 Samuel 11:27), and a forsaken child being taken in by God (Psalms 27:10). It contains an element of welcome and protection.

Verse 5

And if the avenger of blood pursue after him, then they shall not deliver the manslayer up into his hand, because he smote his neighbour unwittingly, and did not hate him beforehand.’

The man who escapes to a city of refuge and claims innocency of intent must be protected until tried and only handed over to the avenger of blood if found guilty.

Verse 6

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 slayer return, and come to his own city, and to his own house, to the city from where he fled.’

The manslayer must eventually be tried. If found guilty of deliberate murder he is to be handed over to those who seek blood vengeance. If innocent he is to be allowed to remain in the city of refuge. But the death of the high priest finally provides for his release. On the death of the high priest his innocent manslaying is in some way expiated and blood vengeance must no longer be required. Such blood vengeance would then itself be looked on as murder. This suggests that the high priest is in some way seen as representing the whole of the people, and his death is therefore seen as substitutionary on their behalf in respect of non-deliberate sin.

Stand before the congregation.’ This suggests that their judgment is seen as carried out before all the people on whose behalf the elders act. Perhaps final ratification of the verdict was required by all the men of the city in such a case. Or it may even suggest that a final verdict was obtained at the Tabernacle at the great feasts when such a man was brought before YHWH for a final verdict.

“High priest.” The priest at the Tabernacle is usually called ‘the Priest’. High priest occurs in Numbers 35:25; Numbers 35:28; Leviticus 21:10. It was possibly at this stage not an official title but indicated the recognised leading priest at the sanctuary. He was the representative of the people and wore the holy garments. Such an official was also common in the surrounding nations so that there are no grounds for denying its authenticity here. His death was clearly seen as a hugely important event, even a sacrificial event, resulting in a general expiation for non-deliberate sin.

Verse 7

And they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriatharba, the same is Hebron, in the hill country of Judah.’

Three cities were set aside (see Deuteronomy 19:2), a complete number, one in each part of the land. Notice that all were in the hill country, a sign of genuineness and early date, for this was where at that stage the people were mainly settled. They were all ancient sanctuaries, Kedesh in the north, Shechem more central and Hebron in the south, which would more impress hot-headed avengers of blood. Kedesh is described exactly as there were a number of cities called Kedesh. For Galilee (meaning ‘region, district’) compare 1 Kings 9:11, ‘the land of Galilee’. This was an ancient name for an area in northern Israel. ‘The hill country of Ephraim’ covered the northern part of the central range including Benjamin, Ephraim and Manasseh, where Shechem was.

These cities of refuge stressed God’s strong concern for justice. Those who were innocent should be given a chance to prove it and not be subject to mob law and family vengeance. They were not strictly a type of Christ for Christ is a refuge for the penitent guilty whereas these were for the innocent. No man will be expelled from Christ. But they did stress mercy as well as justice.

Kiriath-arba (Hebron) was a city given to Caleb (see on Joshua 14:14-15), but like the man he was he was clearly willing for it to become a city of refuge, and indeed a Levitical city (Joshua 21:11). He believed in giving God the very best. Note again the prominence of the ancient name indicating early date.

The word for ‘set aside’ is ‘sanctified’ (the same root as Kedesh). The cities were set apart by God for the purposes of justice and mercy (the name of the city may have influenced the verb used).

Verse 8

And beyond the Jordan of Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness, in the tableland 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.’

Provision for a further three cities was necessary because of the Transjordan tribes. These additional cities were also provided for in the Law (Deuteronomy 19:9) and resulted from the fact that Transjordan was additional to the land of promise. Thus the emphasis on ‘three’ is emphatic depicting essential completeness of provision. By the time of Numbers 35:6 the number was fixed at six because the occupation of Transjordan was then known. These latter three cities were in fact initially set apart by Moses (Deuteronomy 4:41-43). The verb ‘assigned’ = ‘given’ may signify the secondary nature of their choice as an afterthought, or may simply be an alternative to prevent repetition.

“The Jordan of Jericho eastward.” An unusual designation. It describes the land eastward of the Jordan. It indicates a time when the Jordan could be defined in relationship to Jericho which would be prominent in the minds of the earliest settlers and confirms an early date for the passage (but see 1 Chronicles 6:78 which, however, probably had this passage in mind. Note the mention of Bezer).

Bezer was in the territory of Reuben on the tableland in the south of Transjordan. Ramoth was central and Golan to the north. Bezer (see Joshua 21:38) is possibly Umm el-Amad‘ and is mentioned on the Moabite Stone. Ramoth in Gilead later features regularly in the conflicts with Syria. It is possibly Tell Ramith. Golan in Bashan (see Joshua 21:27) is of uncertain location although Sahm el-Jolan, twenty seven kilometres (seventeen miles) east of the Sea of Chinnereth had been suggested. The district of Gaulanitis was named after it many centuries later.

Verse 9

These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them, that whoever kills any person unwittingly might flee there, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood until he stood before the congregation.’

The provision was for the sojourner as well as for true Israelite. A sojourner was a foreigner who came to live among Israel but did not wish to submit to circumcision and direct response to the covenant. He did not want directly to become an Israelite and dedicated worshipper of YHWH. His residence was not permanent, he ‘sojourned’. It was always open to him to become an Israelite if he so wished (Exodus 12:48-49; Numbers 9:14), as the mixed multitude had before him (Exodus 12:38).

The sojourner was expected to conform to local customs (Exodus 20:10), was not to be taken advantage of (Exodus 22:21; Exodus 23:9; Deuteronomy 1:16) and was commended to the charity of his neighbours (Deuteronomy 24:19; Deuteronomy 26:13), but his children could be made bondmen (Leviticus 25:45) and he could be lent money at interest (Deuteronomy 20:0), unlike true Israelites. The law in general applied to him, especially the law of like for like (Leviticus 24:22). Like Israelites he was not to offer offerings or sacrifices except at the door of the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 17:9).

The point we should note here is the certainty that the avenger of blood would be pursuing the manslayer to kill him. It was a sacred duty. Thus was provision made to ensure that the innocent received a fair trial. He was, however, necessarily punished by being confined to the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. ‘Before the congregation.’ That is he was in some way judged by the whole of Israel, probably through their representatives, either the city authorities, the tribal authorities or the priests at the sanctuary before YHWH.

Chapter 21 The Establishment of the Levites Throughout Israel.

This chapter contains the approach of the Levites to the leaders, to have cities and suburbs given to them in accordance with the command of God by Moses. Grants were made by lot out of the different tribes, details of which are given. The chapter is concludes by observing, that God gave Israel all the land of Canaan, and gave them rest in it, according to his promise, and that nothing failed of all that God had promised.

We do not know the time scale for all these events. The first conquests had taken around five to seven years (based on the age of Caleb which was in round numbers - Joshua 14:10). The further surveying of the land and its division according to the size of the tribes must then have taken quite some time, and we must leave time for advancement and settlement, the cutting down of forests, the establishing of the people in various parts of the land, the reconquest of cities, and the discovery that while the conquest had been a success, in that it had enabled this settlement, there remained yet much to be done.

At what stage Joshua 20:0 and Joshua 21:0 occurred we are not told. But it is clear that the central sanctuary was now set up at Shiloh and was regularly visited by the tribes. We need not doubt that under Joshua the regular feasts were held and the covenant constantly renewed, with the regular sacrifices being offered. Israel were becoming established in the land.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Joshua 20". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/joshua-20.html. 2013.
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