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THE SIX CITIES OF REFUGE, Joshua 20:1-9.
The sentiment of justice impels uncultivated men to the immediate infliction of punishment upon those who give offence to that sentiment by a wrong act, especially the act of taking human life. But a man may accidentally and innocently slay his fellow-man. The safeguard of law is therefore needed that vengeance may not hastily wreak itself on the guiltless. In ordinary cases in highly civilized lands there is such a respect for law that the manslayer is screened from summary punishment, and is entrusted to the courts for trial. But where the veneration for law is not strong, (especially as was the case among the Hebrews, who had so recently been in the house of bondage,) where might and not right is the law, the slayer of a brother man would not be safe in the hands of his outraged and excited neighbours. Hence cities of refuge at convenient distances were appointed. In the wilderness, and up to this time in Canaan, the tabernacle of the Lord seems, from Exodus 21:14, to have answered for a place of refuge for the man guilty of homicide; but in the time of Moses commandment was given by God to appoint such cities of refuge in the Land of Canaan. See notes on Numbers 35:9-34.
3. Unawares and unwittingly The design of the city of refuge was not to screen criminals, but to afford an opportunity to all accused of so grave a charge to show the absence of a guilty intent. In order to do this the guilty must be temporarily received as well as the innocent.
Avenger of blood The next of kin, or the Goel, as he is styled in the Hebrew, and still called in the East. In Genesis 9:5, Jehovah says, “Your blood in return for the lifeblood which you have shed will I require.” He here expresses his estimate of the sacredness of human life. The avenger of blood is his agent for searching out and punishing murder. In the absence of magistrates and tribunals, one man in each family was required to act as a sheriff for the redress of his kindred and the protection of the body politic. In ancient Greece the land was regarded as defiled and accursed of the gods so long as a murderer dwelt therein unpunished.
4. Gate of the city The tribunal of justice, the forum, was at the city gate. The refugee was not kept out of the city till his innocence was proved, but he was permitted to enter, and to relate his cause, and to receive the protection of the city, for this is the meaning of the clause, they shall take him into the city unto them. He must at the earliest possible moment be recognized as a fugitive, or the purpose of his flight may be defeated. This recognition he is entitled to have till his case can be examined by the local authorities. The Rabbins relate how every possible facility was to be afforded to the refugee. “The roads to these cities were to be kept in good repair; no hillock was left, no river nor stream was allowed over which there was not a bridge; the road was to be at least thirty-two cubits broad, (three rods,) and every kind of obstruction was to be removed that might hurt the foot or hinder the speed of the fugitive. At every turning or branching of roads posts were erected bearing the words, REFUGE! REFUGE! to guide the fugitive in his flight; so benign and considerate was the provision made for the benefit of the accidental slayer of his fellow-man.” Bush. Infinitely greater pains has God taken to lead guilty souls to the refuge of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. He has opened this refuge, built a highway to it from every human soul, sent his Spirit to enlighten every eye, and his heralds to cry in every ear, “This is the way; walk ye therein.” This way is not for the innocent but for the guilty.
6. Until he stand before the congregation The local authorities shall summon him and the Goel to appear before them for a judicial inquest and verdict. The congregation or jury was to hear both sides, and to decide whether the deed proceeded from malice or was accidental. If he was condemned he was to be executed; but if he was acquitted he was not set at liberty, but was sent back to live in the refuge till the death of the High Priest. Here we see the superiority of this system of protection over the pagan asylum of the altar, in the temple of some god, which shielded the guilty and the innocent alike.
Until the death of the high priest This does not mean that the death of the High Priest takes place at the same time with the summons to trial. The only occasions on which an innocent manslayer may leave the refuge are, 1st, temporarily, for a trial where the manslaying occurred; and 2d, permanently, at the death of the High Priest.
Why should he be released when the High Priest dies? Probably because he was anointed as the representative and mediator of the people, who alone was able to offer annual expiation for the whole people. His death, therefore, may be regarded as an atonement prefiguring the death of our heavenly High Priest, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot unto God. Hebrews 9:14-15.
7. Appointed Hebrews, They sanctified; set apart to a sacred use, so that all the fugitives were impressed with the thought that when within these cities they were surrounded by the munitions of Jehovah’s especial mercy. None but Levitical cities were chosen. Since the object of the refuge was distinctly religious, to preserve the land from blood-guiltiness, it was not proper that a secular city should be chosen. They were very carefully distributed throughout the whole land. The two and a half tribes east of the Jordan had as many as the western tribes, because they were scattered over a territory nearly as large.
Kedesh See on Joshua 12:22.
Shechem See on Joshua 17:7.
Hebron Joshua 10:3, note.
8. By Jericho Literally, Beyond Jordan, Jericho eastward. The sense is, the side of Jordan opposite from Jericho. These eastern cities were appointed by Moses. See at Deuteronomy 4:41-43. On Ramoth, see Joshua 13:26, note. The sites of the other two cities are now unknown.
9. And for the stranger A fore-shadowing of the provision for the salvation of the Gentiles through Christ. And not die by the hand of the avenger of blood. There was one important condition which must be constantly fulfilled the fugitive must not venture beyond the borders of his refuge (Numbers 35:27) until the death of the High Priest. Thus must the pardoned sinner by faith abide beneath the shelter of the atoning blood, or be irretrievably lost. Hebrews 6:6. These safeguards against interminable and bloody feuds are in striking contrast with the blood-revenge still existing in the East under Mohammedan law. “Two villages have disputed about a stray goat; there was first tremendous shouting, especially among the women, urging on their husbands and brothers to fight; then in a moment of excitement weapons were used, and blood was shed; and blood calls for blood. Thus every member of the family to the remotest degree is kept in constant dread. He stalks about, armed, at all hours and in all places with his goats on the mountain-side, with his donkey on the road, with his plough in the field; in seed-time and harvest, summer and winter, heat and cold. Imagination makes the ‘ avenger of blood’ follow him like a shadow, ever watchful for an unguarded moment to fall upon him. Many a family has this blood-revenge compelled to flee from house and home, and seek refuge among strangers; many a village it has left desolate, for none will live where the sentence of death hangs constantly over them. In the Koran this fearful law is commended: ‘O true believers, the law of retaliation is ordained to you for the slain; the free shall die for the free.’” Dr. Porter’s “Syria and Palestine.”
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Joshua 20". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany