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THE CITIES OF REFUGE
Joshua 20:2. Appoint out for you cities of refuge] Heb. “Appoint,” or “Give for you the cities of refuge.” The article, which is omitted in A.V., points to the fact that God had already commanded these cities to be set apart, as the verse itself proceeds to state. Since the intimation in Exodus 21:13, and the instructions in Numbers 35:0, these cities were a well-recognised part of the constitution. The word rendered “refuge” is from the root kâlat, “to contract,” “to draw together;” hence “to receive a fugitive to oneself.” [Gesen.]
Joshua 20:3. Unawares and unwittingly] i.e., “in ignorance” by mistake; “inadvertently,” by accident, without intention; perhaps, also, “suddenly” “impulsively,” and thus without the “knowledge” which would have come had time been taken for thought. The repeated notion in the Hebrew words is very emphatic, coming to much the same thing as the negative of our English form, “with malice aforethought.” This idea is fully expressed in Deuteronomy 4:42, “and hated him not in times past” (cf. Deuteronomy 19:4; Deuteronomy 19:6, marg.). A man might be slain by mere accident, by carelessness, by the “mistake” of an avenger pursuing the wrong person, and thus committing murder “in ignorance;” or death might ensue from a sudden assault, in passion, when there was no intention to slay. For all, who might so take life, these cities were to be a refuge. But they were to afford no permanent refuge for the “wilful murderer;” he was to be taken even from the altar of sanctuary, and put to death (Exodus 21:14; 1 Kings 2:28-34; 2 Kings 11:15).
Joshua 20:4. Shall stand at the entering of the gate, etc.] “This is not to be understood, as it is by Michaelis, as implying that the man was to stand outside the city gate, and there relate his cause to the elders, and that he was not to enter the city till they had declared him not guilty of premeditated murder; but the gate of the city means the forum, the public place of judgment in the city, where the elders were to hear and examine his statement.” [Keil.] “The open space at the gate of Eastern cities was like the Greek agora and the Roman forum, the usual place of public resort; hence the well-known phrase ‘judges within thy gates’ ” [Groser].
Joshua 20:6. Until the death of the high priest] It is added in Numbers 35:25, “which was anointed with the holy oil.” Thus, as Keil points out, the liberation was made to be dependent on the death of the anointed “mediator and representative of the people in the presence of God.” The stress laid on the official position of the high priest by this reference to the anointing oil seems clearly intended to prefigure the corresponding “deliverance of the captives,” which is effected by the death of the anointed Saviour.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Joshua 20:1-6
THE CUSTOM OF BLOOD-REVENGE
The custom of blood-revenge is undoubtedly very ancient among other nations than that of the Jews. The Arabs, the Persians, the Druses of Syria, the Abyssinians, the Circassians, and others, have long recognised this “law of blood,” which is said to remain in force even to the present day in certain parts of the East. Mahomet legislated concerning it in the Koran, and there is ample evidence of its existence previous to his time. The Asyla of the ancient Greeks and Romans present both an extension and a modification of the practice; shewing its application to other matters than blood, and limiting its duration otherwise than by the measure of a life, as known among the Jews. Thus it is said: “The temple of Diana, at Ephesus, was a refuge for debtors, and the tomb of Theseus for slaves. In order to people Rome, a celebrated asylum was opened by Romulus, between the mounts Palatine and Capitoline, for all sorts of persons indiscriminately, fugitive slaves, debtors, and criminals of every kind. It had a temple dedicated to the god Asylæus. It was by this means, and with such inhabitants, that Thebes, Athens, and Rome were first stocked. We even read of Asyla at Lyons and Vienne, among the ancient Gauls; and some of the cities in Germany have preserved this right to the present century. On the medals of several ancient cities, particularly in Syria, we meet with the inscription ΑΣΥΛΟΙ, to which is added IEPAI.”—[Lond. Encye. (1829), “Asyla.”]
Arguing from the ancient and widely spread character of this practice of establishing cities of refuge, many theological writers have assumed that Moses found the custom already existing among surrounding nations, and that, because it was so deeply rooted in society, God instructed Moses to regulate it rather than to suddenly attempt its abolition. Thus it is frequently regarded as something which God found existing and tolerated, rather than something solemnly chosen and deliberately enforced. It has even been placed on a level with polygamy, which God long suffered, but never approved. Such a view strangely overlooks the real origin of “blood-revenge.” Instead of viewing it as a custom which the Jews adopted from barbarous nations around them, it is rather to be regarded as a practice which barbarous nations adopted from the Jews, and presently perverted. The real origin of the custom is as far back as in Genesis 9:5-6; and, rightly contemplated, is a solemn vindication of the sacredness of human life. It is by no means a cultivation of the spirit of a heathenish vengeance. Given, that God’s law said, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed,” how was that law to be carried out? At the time when it was given, there were no set places of judgment, and no selected judges; for men were not grouped in nations. There was no central authority around which the ever-dispersing tribes of Noah’s house could gather. Then, the family was the nation, and the head of the family the ruler. The patriarchs were their own family priests, and their own family judges. If this law were to be carried out at all, it must be carried out by the family itself. An aged and infirm man would not be fit for the task of pursuing and doing justice on a murderer; hence the solemn task fell, in more general terms, on some one suitable among “the next of kin.” The internal evidence of Scripture itself is altogether opposed to the superficial view of Divine toleration. Both among the Romans and Arabs the practice of ransoming even a wilful murderer was common. In the Koran special provision is made for thus settling such blood-feuds with “the price of blood.” So far from tolerating the avenging of blood, God expressly enjoined by Moses that the wilful murderer was on no account to be suffered to escape. He was to be taken even from God’s altar to be slain (Exodus 21:14), and ransom was strictly forbidden (Numbers 35:31; Numbers 35:33). The remark made on this passage in the Speaker’s Commentary justly estimates the superior morality of the Mosaic regulations: “The permission to make compensation for murders undoubtedly mitigates, in practice, the system of private retaliation; but it does so by sacrificing the principle which is the basis of that retaliation itself. Resting ultimately upon the law of God, that ‘Whosoever shed leth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed,’ it bids men rest content with a convenient evasion of that law, and converts the authority given to men to act as God’s ministers, in taking life for life, into a warrant for enabling the kinsman of a murdered man to make gain out of his murder.” Rightly interpreted, this custom of thus vindicating the blood of men wilfully slain was the expression of God’s justice, and no less an expression of the mercy which, using the best social machinery of the time, thus hastened to prevent the guilt of many would-be murderers, and to spare the lives of those who would have become their victims.
THE SACREDNESS OF HUMAN LIFE
I. The Lord’s care for human life. When we think of even a few of the things represented in the life of any individual man, we need not wonder that its Divine Maker has fenced it about with so jealous a care.
1. It is life fashioned in the likeness of God. He has made it “in His own image.” The life of man stands alone in the earth. There is nothing near to it. There is nothing which approaches it. In communion with myriads of its kind, human life is a bearable and thus a grand solitude; isolate it from such communion, and though it might be surrounded by a very ark of other life—“two of every kind”—the solitude would be awful. Science, so called, may prattle as it will about “development;” it is enough that in his heart no man believes the small poetical story. Given that man is banished from his fellows, there is no “next-of-kin” whom he can take into his confidence. Darwin himself would pine away and die. In all terrestrial creation there is not a soul outside his own family to whom a man can talk, unless it be in some, such imaginary intercourse as that in which a child holds fellowship with its doll. Put a man out from his own kind, and let him surround himself with what other life he may, he has to be talker and listener too. There is no other earthly life to which he can tell his secrets, or from which, in his keenest sorrows, he can beg a single tear of sympathy. But man can have fellowship with God. Every generation of men has found some men putting this to practical proof. Let scepticism sneer at prayer as it will, prayer has supported its millions. Men have turned to the great “likeness” of themselves above, and in their deepest sufferings they have “endured as seeing Him who is invisible.” Man is made in the image of God: man feels it is so; God says it is so. What wonder can it be that God guards such a life so sacredly? To slay life such as this, is to insult it in its Divine representative above. To take the life of a man is to offer scorn to that life in God (Genesis 9:6). Even the man-slaying beast was to be put to death when it thus, though unknowingly, did violence to life fashioned in the likeness of life’s infinite Author (Genesis 9:5; Exodus 21:28-29). This was not a blind vengeance on the poor beast, but a lesson of such significance and worth for man, that, properly learned, it alone was of more value than the life of the heedless brute which had offended.
2. It is life the taking of which is connected with much suffering. The more exalted life is, the more it suffers in death. Intelligent life suffers more than brute life; it can think on the unkindness and hate which propose to slay it, and thus, oven in a few moments of dying by violence, it can suffer murder in the sensitive mind as well as in the sensitive body. Thus the slain man suffers. The surviving relatives suffer proportionately. It is not merely the death but the murder of their loved one which such survivors mourn. God is very pitiful: He would spare men such woe.
3. It is life capable of vast progress. Being man, man can “develope.” Give him time and tutors and discipline, there is no knowing where unto his life may grow. The limit of what a man may become has not yet been discovered. There are such vast possibilities of penitence for the wicked, of generosity for the selfish, of knowledge for the ignorant, of usefulness for the useless, that he who would slay a fellow-man may well be held to be a foe to the universe. Only God knows what a life may become, and whether it is best that any particular life should be spared or taken. Who knows? the murderers that have been may have robbed the world of great philosophers, wise statesmen, generous philanthropists, useful writers, or saintly Christians. If the lives of men like John Howard, John Bunyan, John Milton, Isaac Newton, and William Wilberforce, had been taken just before the great works in which their names stand famous, how much the world would have lost I and how ignorant of the measure of that loss the World would have been!
4. Human life is life which has on earth only its beginning. A man’s life is only the portico to his individual eternity. If he be slain ere his life be given to God through Christ in penitence and faith, his eternity must be one of “destruction from the presence of the Lord.” If the murderer had let the life alone, the great Husbandman might soon have made it fruitful unto life everlasting. To cut a man off in his sins is an act of awful responsibility. He who murders may murder not only a body, but a human soul.
II. The merciful considerateness of the Lord for the man who might slay his fellow unintentionally. Manslaughter may be through carelessness, more or less culpable, or through a passionate assault in which there is no design to slay. The cities of refuge were, apparently, intended to afford security even to those guilty of homicide in the more aggravated form.
1. The unintentional manslayer was not to be put to death. His carelessness might have been gross, or his passion very blameworthy indeed; but God graciously discerned between such and those who intended to kill. Only the wilful murderer was to be delivered up to death.
2. The unintentional manslayer was to be imprisoned under pain of death. For the guilt of his carelessness, or the sin of his passion, he might be deprived of his liberty for many years. He could only regain his freedom at the death of the high priest. Thus manslaughter was severely punished.
3. It is possible that some intermediate penalty may have been inflicted in cases where the judges might deem it necessary. These laws are possibly not the full law given to Moses. They deal with the main features of the questions which they touch, but not with all the details which might arise. Probably much was purposely left to the discretion of the judges. Hence criminal neglect or passion might be met with a punishment short of death, and yet the refugees thus guilty might be more severely dealt with than others.
III. The purpose of the Lord that even the murderer should have a hearing. The facilities offered for the permanent escape of the unintentional homicide were equally available for the temporary security of the man who had committed murder wilfully.
1. The delay would afford the murderer time for repentance. Though human life must be protected, and those who take it must die, God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked.
2. The delay would tend to exercise a salutary influence on the avenger. Instead of slaying the murderer in the heat of passion, the goel would have time to think, and time to understand that God imposed upon him this dreadful task to teach a lesson, and not to license rage. The goel was to be “the redeemer of blood,” rather than one revenging it in a fury almost as horrible as the murder itself. The redeemer of blood was to rescue it from contempt before men. His solemn act, based as it was upon justice, was to reinstate the blood and the life of man, as deservedly priceless, in the estimation of society. God did not teach the “avenger” to play echo to murder.
3. The delay would thus be beneficial to all the nation. Men would have time to read the true character of justice, discerning in it the firmness of a mercy which could not spare, rather than a hungry appetite which would not be satisfied without its meal. Justice is the awful side of Love, and not the best side of hatred; it is Love looking out upon the multitude, weeping while she rightfully destroys the one in order to keep the many from destroying each other and themselves.
IV. The command given by the Lord, that the wilful murderer should be put to death. There was to be no place of refuge for those found thus guilty. These cities of refuge supply an effective answer to the occasional demand made by some for the abolition of capital punishment. The passage in Genesis, though sufficiently plain to most people, has been thought by some open to argument. Thus Dr. Kalisch, after assuming that Genesis 9:5-6, is a prehistoric invention of Moses rather than a command of God, and after representing Moses as “unquestionably and strongly averse to the barbarous custom of revenge of blood” (an aversion of which he does not even attempt to supply any evidence), proceeds to question whether the Mosaic law is decisive for or against “capital punishment.” On philological grounds, though he leaves the translation substantially unaltered, he says of the fifth verse: “Therefore the words, ‘I shall demand the soul of man from the brother of every one,’ do not allude to the custom of revenge of blood, according to which the nearest relative was bound to pursue the murderer, but to the legal punishment inflicted by the ordinary authorities.” That is simply saying that this law, thus formally promulgated so soon after the deluge, alludes to the law, or, in other words, to itself; and as Dr. Kalisch does not tell us who “the ordinary authorities” for the execution of the murderer were, he at least leaves room for the conclusion that they may have been the avengers, or redeemers of blood, themselves. With one family alive on the earth when this “legal punishment” was commanded to Noah, who else could these “ordinary authorities” have been? But these laboured exegetical efforts in the discussion of two verses in Genesis leave the cities of refuge still untouched. In those six cities we see God commanding that shelter shall be deliberately prepared for the unintentional manslayer; we see also that the wilful murderer, after being pronounced to be such, was just as deliberately excluded from any shelter whatever. He was beyond the reach of ransom. No price was allowed to be taken for the blood of his victim. Thus, whatever discussion may be raised on the meaning of a few words in a verse, these six cities calmly and sadly deny that exegesis of the heart which is offered by an unthoughtful mercy. The wisdom of mercy has so much regard for the multitude, that, though it gladly gives in the delay required for judgment an opportunity for the repentance of the one, it cannot spare him. It is just that he should die; it would be an injustice to living men, and unmerciful to them, if he did not die. The Scripture answer and the moral answer made to the demand for the abolition of capital punishment is very like that of the modern Italian statesman, “Let the assassins begin.”
V. The instruction of the Lord that the refuge afforded to the manslayer should be a refuge in the name of the Lord. The manslayer was undoubtedly held to have been guilty, though acquitted of murder. Even carelessness might be so culpable as to be judged worthy of punishment by death (Exodus 21:29). It is a mistake to suppose that “the stay in those cities was not deemed ignominious, but the effect of an inscrutable Divine decree.” Even the man who had taken life unwittingly had sinned more or less grievously, as each case itself would determine. For that sin the manslayer was for a short time exposed to death. Rescuing him from such exposure, God Himself would be the sanctuary. The Israelites should find safety alone in Jehovah. It was religion that was seen stretching forth her hands to protect the endangered life. This was the case before these cities were appointed. The manslayer fled for refuge to the altar of God (Exodus 21:13-14). So these cities of refuge are all Levitical cities. They were chosen without exception from the cities given as places of residence to the consecrated tribe. It was only in the mercy of Jehovah that there should be found a covert from human sin. Already the Lord was teaching His children the song: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The name of the Lord was the strong tower into which the righteous and the sinner must alike run for safety.
OUTLINES AND COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Joshua 20:1-3.—GOD A REFUGE FOR MAN, AND FOR ALL THE MAN.
I. The cities of refuge as a manifestation of God’s care for our physical life.
II. The cities of refuge as an expression of God’s concern for the education of our moral feelings.
III. The cities of refuge as a symbol of God’s provision for our spiritual salvation.
Joshua 20:3.—“THE AVENGER OF BLOOD.” “The blood of a human being cries for revenge to heaven (Genesis 4:10; Hebrews 12:24).
“The soul of the slain raises its voice (Job 24:12; Revelation 6:9).
“The blood of the innocent victims hangs at the skirts of the murderer’s garments (Jeremiah 2:34).
“The blood is identical with the life of the individual (Psalms 94:21; Matthew 23:35).
“This latter view was not unfamiliar to other ancient nations; for, in the Egyptian hieroglyphics, the hawk, which was believed to feed upon blood alone, represents the human soul (Horapollo i. 7); Aristotle considered the blood as the seat of the soul (De Anim. i. 2); whilst Empedocles limited it to the blood of the heart; Virgil speaks of an effusion of the ‘purple soul’ (Æn. ix. 349); it was the doctrine of Critias that blood is the soul; and of Pythagoras, that the soul is nourished by the blood. The vital principle, or the soul (‘nephesh’), lies in an unsubstantial breath; it is invisible, and removes the organism after laws which will eternally remain a secret, known to the Creator alone: but as its visible representative the blood was considered, in which the physical power is concentrated; for a diminution of blood is attended with a decrease of the vital powers, and at last with dissolution and death. The breath is purely spiritual, and comes from God; the blood is a physical element, of earthly material; the former is indestructible, and escapes when the latter is shed; but as it has once been the medium through which the vigour of the soul manifested itself, it is an object of sacredness, and is, not inappropriately, itself called the soul (Leviticus 17:11). But it is remarkable that the Bible never attributes to the blood a higher mental power, nor does it ever identify the blood with the spirit (‘ruach’), but invariably represents it as the principle of physical life (‘nephesh’). Blood would defile the earth, if it remained unpunished.”—[M. M. Kalisch.]
Joshua 20:2-4. PREPARATION FOR MERCY AND JUDGMENT.
I. The Lord contemplating His people’s future. “Whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses.” This provision of the cities of refuge had long been thought of and purposed by God.
1. Divine outlook.
2. Divine preparation.
3. Divine patience.
II. The Lord judging men, not by the deed of the hand, but by the thought of the heart. “Unawares and unwittingly.” Men are too apt to look only on the acts which their fellows have done. God would have men ask how the acts were committed, and why.
III. The Lord committing His own judgment to the execution of men. “He shall declare his cause in the ears of the elders of that city; and they shall take,” etc.
1. God could have avenged the slain Himself. Had He been so minded, He could have carried out His own judgments. He would but have had to will, and the guilty would have suffered, or died, and the innocent would have been delivered.
2. God preferred that His people should execute His judgments. (a) Direct judgment would have made virtue mechanical. (b) If men executed the Lord’s decisions, they would better learn to approve them and sympathise with them.
IV. The Lord saving men in connection with the urgent efforts of the men themselves. Those who would benefit by the gracious provision of God must “flee unto one of those cities.” With the avenger of blood behind him, the pursued man might have to flee with all his powers. “Salvation is of the Lord,” but the Lord does not save the man who does not concern himself to be saved.
Joshua 20:6.—LIBERTY THROUGH THE DEATH OF THE HIGH PRIEST.
I. Condemnation coming through offence against God’s law. The condemnation was
(1) for an actual and great offence;
(2) it was after deliberate investigation and judgment;
(3) and it remained in force till release came after the manner of Divine appointment.
II. Pardon given through the death of God’s anointed High Priest.
1. Release came only through the death of the people’s anointed mediator. No other death would suffice. The death of the high priest was held to be efficacious, because he had been “anointed with the holy oil” (Numbers 35:25).
2. The death of one might thus become the release of many. Every refugee in each of the six cities would at once obtain his liberty.
III. Liberty that follows God’s pardon, and as such, liberty as full and complete as that enjoyed before the offence. Each offender would be as free to return, and as free in his home and in the city where it was situated, as if he had never transgressed. Thus does God look forward and prepare a way by which He may pass over our offences. He never passes over our better deeds. The service rendered by Nebuchadrezzar was not forgotten (Ezekiel 29:18-20). Even the cup of cold water is not to lose its reward. God concerns Himself to remember our services, but to blot out our sins. As in the ancient festival of the exodus, as in this liberation of these captives on the death of the high priest, and as in the glorious work of Calvary, the passovers of God never have to do with our services, often have to do with our sins, and always with our deliverance from Buffering and danger.
THE CITIES OF REFUGE AS AN ILLUSTRATION OF THE WORK OF CHRIST.
“I. There were several cities of refuge, and they were so appointed in several parts of the country, that the manslayer, wherever he dwelt in the land of Israel, might, in half a day, reach one or other of them; so, though there is but one Christ appointed for our refuge, yet, wherever we are, He is a refuge at hand, a very present help; for the word is nigh us, and Christ in the word.
“II. The manslayer was safe in any of these cities; so in Christ, believers that flee to Him, and rest in Him, are protected from the wrath of God and the curse of the law. ‘There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.’
“III. They were all Levites’ cities. It was kindness to the poor prisoner, that, though he might not go up to the place where the ark was, yet he was in the midst of Levites who would teach him the good knowledge of the Lord. So it is the work of ministers of the gospel to bid sinners welcome to Christ, and to assist and counsel those who, through Christ, are in Him.
“IV. Even strangers and sojourners, though they were not native Israelites, might take the benefit of these cities of refuge. So in Christ Jesus no difference is made between Greek and Jew. Even the sons of the stranger that by faith flee to Christ shall be safe in Him.
“V. Even the suburbs or borders of the city were a sufficient security to the offender. So there is virtue even in the hem of Christ’s garment for the healing and saving of poor sinners. If we cannot reach to a full assurance, we may comfort ourselves in a good hope through grace.
“VI. The protection which the manslayer found in the city of refuge was not owing to the strength of its walls, or gates, or bars, but purely to the Divine appointment. So it is the word of the gospel that gives souls safety in Christ; ‘for Him hath God the Father sealed.’
“VII. If the offender were ever caught straggling without the borders of his city of refuge, or stealing home to his own house again, he lost the benefit of his protection, and lay exposed to the avenger of blood. So those that are in Christ must abide in Christ; for it is at their peril if they forsake Him and wander from Him. Drawing back is to perdition.”—[Matt., Henry.]
THE MORAL INFLUENCE OF ACCEPTING PECUNIARY RANSOM FOR A MURDERER
“The punishment of murder by a pecuniary fine, which is admitted by the Mohammedan law, would not only be revolting to all feelings of justice, but it would be extremely dangerous for the safety of society; it would destroy the equality of the rich and the poor before the law, and would necessarily lead to a fatal deterioration of public morality.”—[Kalisch.]
THE LAW OF RETALIATION
“It will be evident that what some have so highly extolled for its equity, the lex talionis, or law of retaliation, can never be, in all cases, an adequate or permanent rule of punishment. In some cases, indeed, it seems to be dictated by natural reason; as in the cases of conspiracies to do an injury, or false accusations of the innocent; to which we may add the law of the Jews and Egyptians mentioned by Josephus and Diodorus Siculus, that whoever, without sufficient cause, was found with any mortal poison in his possession, should himself be obliged to take it. But in general the difference of persons, place, time, provocation, or other circumstances, may enhance or mitigate the offence; and in such cases retaliation can never be a proper measure of justice … There are very many crimes that will in no shape admit of these penalties, without manifest absurdity and wickedness. Theft cannot be punished by theft, defamation by defamation, forgery by forgery, and the like; and we may add that those instances wherein retaliation appears to be used, even by the Divine authority, do not really proceed upon the rule of exact retribution, by doing to the criminal the same hurt he has done to his neighbour, and no more; but this correspondence between the crime and punishment is a consequence from some other principle. Death is punished with death as the appropriate manner of visiting an offence of the highest enormity, but not as an equivalent, for that would be expiation, and not punishment. Nor is death always an equivalent for death; the execution of a needy, decrepit assassin is a poor satisfaction for the murder of a nobleman in the bloom of his youth, and full enjoyment of his friends, his honours, and his fortune. But the reason on which this sentence is grounded seems to be that this is the highest penalty that man can inflict, and tends most to the security of mankind, by removing one murderer from the earth, and setting a dreadful example to deter others: so that even this grand instance proceeds upon other principles than those of retaliation.
“We may remark that it was once attempted to introduce into England the law of retaliation as a punishment for such only as preferred malicious accusations against others; it being enacted by Stat. 37, Edw. III., c. 18, that such as preferred any suggestions to the king’s great council should put in sureties of taliation; that is, to incur the same pain that the other should have had, in case the suggestions were found untrue. But, after one year’s experience, this punishment of taliation was rejected, and imprisonment adopted in its stead.”—[Stephen’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.]
THE SUPPOSED PROMINENCE OF THE CITIES OF REFUGE
“I somewhere read, when young, that these cities were situated on commanding heights, so as to be visible at a great distance; but this one (Kedesh-Naphtali), at least, is hid away under the mountain, and cannot be seen until one is close upon it. The idea, though common and even ancient, is certainty a mistake. Nablûs and Hebron, the other two cities west of the Jordan, lie in low valleys, and it is evident that the selection was made without reference to elevation.”—[The Land and the Book.]
Was it not well that these cities should be placed upon the plain, or in the valley, rather than upon a hill? The roads to these cities were ordered to be kept with special care, and the direction in which they lay is said to have been indicated by guide-posts. Each Israelite would thus have no difficulty in finding his adjacent sanctuary. The breath and strength of the runner are to be considered, as well as his knowledge. Pursued by the impassioned avenger, and dispirited by fear, it might be all important to the manslayer that in the last mile of his flight, when exhausted and spent, he should not find the city set upon a hill, up which, even in that condition, be must still flee for safety.
Joshua 20:7. And they appointed] Marg., “sanctified.” These cities were consecrated, as holy, to the sacred work of preserving life. Hence, only Levitical cities were chosen. Life was to be thus preserved in connection with religion Whether fleeing to the altar of sanctuary or the city of sanctuary, the Israelites were to learn to cry, “God is a refuge for us.” Kadesh] “Sanctuary,” a deriv. from the same root as the word just noticed. Kedesh is to be distinguished from the city of this name in the south of Judah (chap. Joshua 15:23). and likewise from the Kedesh of the Gershonite Levites, in Issachar (cf. 1 Chronicles 6:72; 1 Chronicles 6:76), though this Kedesh of Naphtali was given to the same Levitical family. Shechem … and Hebron] It will be seen that the three cities of refuge on the west of Jordan, thus chosen, were as conveniently placed as possible. Kedesh was not in the extreme north, nor Hebron in the extreme south, while Shechem was in the very midst of the land; each city, also, lay in a good central position as between the line of the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.
Joshua 20:8. On the other side Jordan] Moses had already appointed the three cities for the eastern territory (Deuteronomy 4:41-43). Bezer] called by the LXX. and Vulg. “Besor.” From 1 Chronicles 6:78, we learn that it was given to the Merarites, and that it was opposite to Jericho. Ramoth in Gilead] So also in Deuteronomy 4:43; 1 Kings 22:3; elsewhere Ramoth-Gilead. Probably identical with the Ramath-Mizpeh of chap. Joshua 13:26. Golan] = “exile.” According to Josephus, as quoted by Gesenius, it was near to the sea of Galilee, and gave its name to the region afterwards known as Gaulanitis, now Jaulân.
Joshua 20:9. Until he stood before the congregation] No homicide who could reach one of these cities was to be delivered up till he had obtained a hearing; those innocent of wilful murder were to be afforded an asylum in the city, till the death of the high priest rendered them free to depart; but those who were guilty of taking life deliberately, after this had been so decided, were given over to the avenger of blood.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Joshua 20". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
Eve of Ascension