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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 20

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Joshua 20:0


Cities of RefugeThe Cities of RefugeJoshua NamedCities of RefugeThe Cities of RefugeThe Cities of Refuge
Joshua 20:1-6Joshua 20:1-9Joshua 20:1-6Joshua 20:1-6Joshua 20:1-6
Joshua 20:7-9Joshua 20:7-9Joshua 20:7-9Joshua 20:7-9

READING CYCLE THREE (from “A Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired but it is the key to following the original author's intent which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


A. Joshua 20:0 and 21 are a discussion of the Levitical cities and the cities of refuge. There are forty-eight Levitical cities, six of which are cities of refuge; three in the trans-Jordan area and three in the Promised Land.

B. The cities of refuge were an attempt to bring fairness to the “eye for an eye,” limited revenge concept which was initiated within Israel. A city of refuge was a place where one could flee for safety if one had accidentally killed another person and where one could be protected from the aggressive actions of a near kinsmen (Go'el, BDB 145) of the person killed. There is another list of the Levitical cities found in 1 Chronicles 6:58-81 which has some basic differences. This is possibly due to the fact that the Israelis did not fully occupy their tribal allocations.

Verses 1-6

NASB (UPDATED TEXT): Joshua 20:1-6 1Then the LORD spoke to Joshua, saying, 2”Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'Designate the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3that the manslayer who kills any person unintentionally, without premeditation, may flee there, and they shall become your refuge from the avenger of blood. 4He shall flee to one of these cities, and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and state his case in the hearing of the elders of that city; and they shall take him into the city to them and give him a place, so that he may dwell among them. 5Now if the avenger of blood pursues him, then they shall not deliver the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor without premeditation and did not hate him beforehand. 6He shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, until the death of the one who is high priest in those days. Then the manslayer shall return to his own city and to his own house, to the city from which he fled.'“

Joshua 20:2 This verse has two commands from YHWH to Joshua.

1. “speak,” BDB 180, KB 210, Piel IMPERATIVE

2. “designate,” BDB 678, KB 733, Qal IMPERATIVE

These commands relate to previous revelation about these special cities of asylum and mercy.

1. Exodus 21:12-14

2. Numbers 35:10-28

3. Deuteronomy 19:1-13

No other culture in the ancient Near East has cities like these. They uniquely reflect the mercy of YHWH toward those who act without malice or forethought.

“cities of refuge” Originally those who were fleeing from hasty justice could grab the horns of the altar for safety (cf. Exodus 21:14; 1 Kings 1:50-53; 1 Kings 2:28-31). However, this system was replaced by having set cities within the Promised Land. Moses had already designated three cities in the trans-Jordan area (cf. Deuteronomy 4:41ff). There are several discussions in the Pentateuch related to the cities of refuge (cf. Exodus 21:12-14; Numbers 35:10-28; Deuteronomy 19:1-13). If a person killed a fellow Israelite by accident, he could flee to one of these six cities. There, a trial would be held (cf. Joshua 20:4). If innocent of premeditated murder, he still had to remain in the city until the death of the High Priest. If guilty of murder, he was turned over to the blood avenger of the family he violated for the immediate punishment of death (cf. Joshua 20:9).

Joshua 20:3 “who kills any person unintentionally, without premeditation” The entire sacrificial system was geared toward those who sinned in ignorance or passion. NIDOTTE, vol. 2, states, “the concept of 'unintentionally' or 'inadvertently' (Leviticus 4:2) is both strategic and problematic (cf. Leviticus 4:13, Leviticus 4:22, Leviticus 4:27; Leviticus 5:15, Leviticus 5:18; Leviticus 22:14; Numbers 15:22, Numbers 15:24-29). Because of it some scholars have concluded that the sin offering only treated inadvertent sin, that is, sins that were committed by mistake or sins which were done not knowing that the particular act was sinful (see Milgrom, 1991, 228-29). However, the word 'unintentionally' means basically 'in error' (the vb. means to commit an error, go astray). Although it can also mean that the error was unintentional or inadvertent (see e.g., Numbers 35:11, Numbers 35:15, Numbers 35:22-23; Joshua 20:3, Joshua 20:9), this is not necessarily the case (see 1 Samuel 26:21; Ecclesiastes 5:6)” (p. 94).

There was no sacrifice for high-handed, defiant, premeditated, or known sin (e.g., Psalms 51:17). This concept of intentionality (BDB 993) is referred to in Leviticus 4:2, Leviticus 4:22, Leviticus 4:27; Leviticus 5:15; Leviticus 22:14; Numbers 4:42; Numbers 15:27-31; and Joshua 19:4.

This is a good place to point out that the commandment “You shall not murder” (cf. Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17) does not mean “kill” (KJV), but do not commit “non-legal, premeditated murder” (BDB 953, cf. Exodus 21:12-14). There was legal premeditated killing.

1. blood avenger

2. holy war

3. judicial sentences

“refuge” This term (BDB 886) means “asylum.” It has no cognates, which means it was unique to Israel's judicial system. It is used about twenty times and always in connection with the cities of refuge. This new legal concept reveals the fairness and justice of YHWH. Motives make a difference! However, there are consequences to every act!

“the avenger of blood” This is the Hebrew term (BDB 145 I), which denoted a near relative who rendered aid to the family and avenged the family in a case of injury (cf. Numbers 35:19, Numbers 35:21, Numbers 35:24, Numbers 35:25, Numbers 35:27; Deuteronomy 19:6, Deuteronomy 19:12). The concept first appears in Joshua 20:4 and 9:5,6. The positive side can be seen in Ruth 3:13. It is also mentioned in Leviticus 25:25; Numbers 5:8 and Jeremiah 32:7.

Joshua 20:4 “he shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and state his case in the hearing of the elders of that city” Because of Joshua 20:4, these cities of refuge were not entirely inhabited by Levites or else there would have been no elders. Hebron, mentioned in Jos. 20:11, was a Levitical city and was also given to Caleb (cf. Joshua 14:13-15). The city gate was the place where the elders sat and administered justice. The elders of the city initially tried the man to see if he was worthy of being protected. From Joshua 20:6 he also had to go to trial before the entire congregation (cf. Numbers 35:12).

Joshua 20:5 “he struck his neighbor without premeditation and did not hate him beforehand” The concept of “neighbor” in the OT refers primarily to one's covenant partner. The OT talks a lot about one's responsibility in this area.

1. positively

a. love your neighbor - Leviticus 19:18 (Jesus' second most important command, Matthew 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27)

b. Jesus adds, “as yourself” - Matthew 22:39-40; Romans 13:9

2. negatively (Ten Commandments)

a. do not slander

b. do not give false witness

c. do not covet his property

d. do not steal from him

e. do not take his life

f. do not cheat financially - Deuteronomy 15:2; Deuteronomy 24:10

g. do not forsake a friend - Proverbs 27:0; Proverbs 10:0

h. do not hate - Leviticus 19:17

Joshua 20:6 “until the death of the one who was High Priest in those days” Even though the man was protected there still was a price to be paid for his actions: he was separated from his own tribal allocation and home (but not his immediate family) until the death of the High Priest (cf. Numbers 35:25). Part of the penalty was also the fact that the person had to live with the Levites and, therefore, would be trained in the way of the Law for these many years.

Verses 7-9

NASB (UPDATED TEXT): Joshua 20:7-9 7So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. 8Beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the plain from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh. 9These were the appointed cities for all the sons of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them, that whoever kills any person unintentionally may flee there, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood until he stands before the congregation.

Joshua 20:7 “set apart Kedesh in Galilee” This is a play on the Hebrew word “holy,” which means “set apart” (BDB 872, KB 1073, Hiphil IMPERFECT). It is the root of the name “Kedesh” (BDB 873). The word “holy” means “to be set apart by God for a specific purpose” (e.g., Jeremiah 1:5).

“Kedesh . . . Shechem . . .Hebron” These were centrally located cities. We learn from Deuteronomy 19:3 that the roads were made straight so the people could flee to these cities easily.

Joshua 20:8 “Bezer . . .Ramoth . . . Golan” These were the cities which Moses appointed on the eastern side of the Jordan.

Joshua 20:9

NASB“the appointed cities” NRSV“the cities designated” TEV“the cities of refuge chosen” NJB“the towns designated”

This term (BDB 558) is found only here in the OT and means “designated” or “appointed.” These cities were the fulfillment of divine revelatory mercy and were revealed to both Moses and Joshua.

“for the stranger who sojourns among them” This shows that God was concerned with more than just the people of Israel (cf. Leviticus 19:33-35; Deuteronomy 10:18-19, see Special Topic at Joshua 1:7). Also notice that the same unintentionality is the criteria.

“until he stands before the congregation” This refers to an appearance before a called judicial council (BDB 763), not a religious festival.


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

1. What is the difference between a Levitical city and a city of refuge?

2. What is the purpose of a city of refuge?

3. Who is the go'el or “avenger of blood”?

4. Does accidental killing have consequences?

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Joshua 20". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/joshua-20.html. 2021.
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