Joshua 20-21

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’” [1]

21 Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites came to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua the son of Nun and to the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the people of Israel. And they said to them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, “The Lord commanded through Moses that we be given cities to dwell in, along with their pasturelands for our livestock.” So by command of the Lord the people of Israel gave to the Levites the following cities and pasturelands out of their inheritance. [2]

Most people have some pride in the city in which they grew up. Every city and town, like every person, is special. You might be proud because of the weather and scenery, because of its special vibe, because of the friends you made, because you had a great high school football team, or even because some famous people were born and raised in your town. You might think back on it and remember it as a place where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

Sometimes our hometown pride is expressed in slogans. Dallas is called Big D. New York City is known as the Big Apple. Chicago is the Windy City. San Antonio is often called the Alamo City. Every town and city likes to create its own sense of distinction. Everyone is from somewhere, and everyone wants their “somewhere” to be special in some way.

That is an enormous difference between y’all and the people of Israel in the book of Joshua. They were from nowhere. Their parents had come out of Egypt, and they had grown up wandering around the wilderness outside of the land they were promised. Only Joshua and Caleb had survived God’s judgment of the previous generation’s sin of unbelief. For the first time in their lives, this generation of Israelites now had their own hometowns, their own sense of security and belonging, their own special places.

Aside from the fact that Israelites now have their own hometowns, they were given special cities that were special for quite distinct reasons. To be sure there was local pride in the many hundreds of cities and towns and villages in which the Jews now lived. You might have noticed something of Caleb’s special attachment with Hebron, the area once inhabited by giant warriors that frightened the previous generation of Israelites. No doubt Joshua was certainly proud of his hill country town of Timnath Serah.

But there were cities that were particularly special. They fell into two types. First, there were the 48 cities of the Levites. These were scattered throughout the land of the 12 tribes. Second, there were cities of refuge. There were three cities of refuge on the eastern side of the Jordan river and three on the western side. The cities of refuge are described in Joshua 20. The towns of the Levites are described in chapter 21.


These six cities of refuge were designated from among the 48 cities of the Levites. Again, Joshua is acting on the specific written commands of God, recorded in Numbers 35 and repeated in Deuteronomy 19. These cities are mentioned briefly twice more, in Exodus 21:12-13 and Deuteronomy 4:41-43.

These cities were a solution to a cultural problem in the ancient world, and to some extent in the Near East even today. It was a cultural custom according to which, if a member of a family or clan were killed by someone, intentionally or accidentally, the family would appoint one of its members to be an “avenger of blood” for his relative. In that world, the basic legal maxim was “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

If a member of a family was killed, it became the duty of the avenger to track down and kill the murderer. There was a certain primitive justice in this system. But we all know that people can be killed by accident, and if that were the situation, it would be an injustice if the avenger were allowed his vengeance over an unintended death. So God instructed Moses to establish cities of refuge into which the unintentional killer, not a true murderer, could flee for safety.

One example would be Numbers 35 which imagines a situation where two men are working together chopping wood. Suddenly, the head of one man’s axe flies off, striking and killing his co-worker. And avenger of blood could be appointed to kill the killer. But in this case, the manslayer would be innocent of any real evil. Instead of waiting patiently for his fate, having to flee the country like a fugitive, or going into hiding, he would immediately head for the nearest city of refuge before the avenger of blood could overtake him.

Arriving in the city of refuge, the man marked for death was to present himself to the elders, as the text here in Joshua shows. He was to state his case, explaining the nature of the accident. Then, if the elders of the city judged there was no malice in his actions and the death was truly accidental, the man would be admitted to the city where he could live in safety. He had to remain there until the death of the high priest serving at that time. After that, he could return home safely.

This was not an arrangement by which an intentional killer could avoid justice. The one who knowingly and intentionally murdered another was to be tried and executed. The city of refuge was designed to save someone guilty of manslaughter but innocent of murder. The cities of refuge emphasized the value of man, made in God’s image. The same principle that required death for an intentional and knowing murder, preserved the life of the merely negligent perpetrator.

After the great flood, in Genesis 9, God told Noah, “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.[3] Since people reflect the image of God, they are too valuable to be randomly destroyed. The principle is restated in Exodus 21, “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:12). By that same principle, no one should be put to death for unintentionally causing a death. Exodus goes on to say, “however, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate” (Exodus 21:13).

Francis Schaeffer explains that because God exists and he has a character, we live in a moral universe. Murder breaks the law of the universe. This means that the murderer has true moral guilt before God, something our modern generation knows little to nothing about. And this guilt must be taken seriously by people because their Creator takes it seriously.[4]

These cities of refuge were open to gentiles living in Israel as well as to Jews. “These were the cities designated for all the people of Israel and for the stranger sojourning among them” (20:9). This shows us a genuinely universal code of justice. Many societies had a measure of justice for their own citizens while denying the protection of those laws to outsiders. This was not to be the case in Israel. The foreigner enjoyed the same rights as the Jew. So Israel testified to the oneness of the human race and to the subjugation of each person to the one true God.

This means the religious awareness of the Jewish people taught them that all persons are made by the one God and are made in his image. The Law given to Israel testified to the fact that the only proper foundation of any universal law is God’s character. The cities of refuge belonged to the Levites, meaning the refuge cities had something to do with God. The person taking refuge had to stay in the city until the death of the high priest so he would be reminded that this national law was related to God. The cities did not simply exist in a sociological vacuum. As God’s special people, the Israelites were to reflect the character of God, through keeping his Law. The same principle applies for the church, minus the ceremonial and civil laws of ancient Israel. [5]

It was not the job of Israel to move out and destroy all paganism in the world, it was only their duty to enforce the worship of the one true God within the borders of their land. And, as we noted, they failed to do even that. The same is true for the Church, it is not our job to take over the world and enforce God’s laws in it. It is our job to apply God’s Law to ourselves, individually and collectively as a church. So, the Apostle Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 5, “12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’[6] The world’s laws are relativistic. God’s law is fixed and absolute.


The cities also say a great deal as an illustration of the value of Christ’s work for sinners. It’s not a perfect illustration, of course. The cities of refuge were only available for those innocent of one specific real crime. None of us are innocent. We are all woefully guilty in God’s sight. We all deserve death. Though they were carefully arranged throughout the land, cities of refuge might be far from the poor fugitive, and if he managed to make it to one at all it would only be at the end of a desperate race.

But Christ is always at hand. He is available for refuge anywhere, anytime, anyplace, and in any situation. He is our refuge, like the refuge cities of Israel, and many of the characteristics of these cities have spiritual parallels. First, it was the duty of the Jews to clearly indicate the way to the cities of refuge. Deuteronomy 19:3 says that roads were to be built to these cities. Bridges were built over ravines so the fugitive could take the shortest route possible. The roads were carefully repaired each spring. At every crossroads, special signs read, “Refuge! Refuge!”

No one wanted a fugitive to take the wrong path. The signs were made large, so that even a man running hard could read them without stopping. This is a good parallel to the churches responsibility to make the way to Christ easily accessible to the lost. Apart from Christ, the unrepentant sinner is a dead man. Who will help him or her find the way to that city? We must build bridges, repair roads, and erect signs all leading to Jesus. Additionally, we must stand in the way and point this refuge out. We must never stop inviting, “This is the way! Here alone is safety!

The doors of the cities of refuge were always unlocked. That was an important and abnormal feature for an ancient town. In those days, towns locked their gates at night to protect their citizens from robbers, vandals, or any who would do harm to the residents. In times of war, the gates would always be locked. But not so for the cities of refuge. Those cities were always open, just as the arms of Christ are always open to receive any who will come to him. Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6: 37). The last chapter of the Bible reads, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17).

As the cities of refuge were open not only for Jews but for people of all races, this salvation available in Christ Jesus is for all. It does not matter who you are. You may be young or old. You may be a Jew or a gentile. You may be any race. You may be rich or poor, male, or female, educated or uneducated, advantaged or disadvantaged. It does not matter. The way of salvation is available. You need only to give up whatever delusions of safety to which you now cling, acknowledge your danger, and flee to Jesus.

Finally, if an ancient manslayer did not flee to one of the cities of refuge, there was no hope for him. There was no other provision in the law of Israel by which he might be saved. If he did not stay there, the avenger of blood would and could overtake him, and he would be slain. You too are pursued by an untiring and inescapable avenger: death, the wages of sin. You may live a long life, you may outlast everyone around you, but you will eventually be stricken down by this inevitable enemy. Perhaps it will be this year, this month, even within the very hour you hear this warning. You cannot escape this relentless enemy except by fleeing to Jesus, who said:

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; And whoever lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26).

Saint author of Hebrews was likely thinking of the cities of refuge when he wrote of those “who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to [them]” (Hebrews 6:18).


Chapter 21 is the final chapter in the book dealing with the distribution of the people of Israel in the land. In it, 48 special cities are apportioned to the Levites. These were scattered throughout the land so the benefit of the Levites presence, service, and teaching could be widely available. The Levites were a wonderful example of God turning what was originally a curse into a blessing.

As we read last week in Genesis 49, Jacob had harsh words for Simeon and Levi, his second and third sons. He said, “I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel” (Genesis 49:7). Years before that moment, these two brothers led a massacre of the Shechemites, which Jacob said had made him “a stench to the Canaanites” (Genesis 34:30). Being scattered throughout the promised land was a punishment, a way of saying they were to receive no inheritance.

In Simeon’s case, this was fulfilled by having his descendants live in Judah’s territory, as we noted in chapter 12. It was punishment, but it was a punishment mixed with blessing since Judah remained close to the things of God throughout its long history and Simeon inevitably benefited from Judah’s faithfulness. One example of that would be although the northern Kingdom of Israel, containing 10 of the 12 tribes, fell to the Assyrians in 721 BC, Judah (which contained Simeon) endured until 587 BC (more than 100 additional years). Even in judgment, Simeon was blessed.

Levi’s case is even more striking. Levi was scattered throughout Israel in the 48 Levitical cities. In addition, the Levites traveled back and forth to Shiloh to perform their duties in tabernacle worship. Later, they would travel to Jerusalem to perform the same duties in the temple. Although the descendants of Levi had no land of their own, they were given the great honor to be made priests. They had no portion of the land because their portion was YHWH himself.

Additionally, they produced great leaders among the people. With the exception of the tribe of Judah, which produced most of the kings, the tribe of Levi contributed more distinguished leaders to Israel than any other. Moses was a Levite. He was born in Egypt during the greatest oppression of the Jewish people. He had godly parents. He was more highly educated than anyone else of his day. He had a position of great privilege and power in the royal court of Egypt. But he did not side with the Egyptians. He sided with his own people. St Author of Hebrews tells us:

24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them. [7]

Aaron was a Levite. He was Moses’ brother and was given special duties as the high priest of Israel. 1st Chronicles 23:13 tells us, “Aaron was set apart, he and his descendants forever, to consecrate the most holy things, to offer sacrifices before the Lord, to minister before him and to pronounce blessings in his name forever.

Phinehas, the third high priest, served faithfully for 19 years. He is chiefly remembered for an incident recorded in Numbers 25. The Israelites had fallen into immorality with the women of Moab, who had invited the men to the sacrificial orgies dedicated to their demon gods. God sent a plague upon the people of Israel. Phinehas took offense to this wickedness. When he spied an Israelite man taking a Moabite woman into his tent, he grabbed his spear, followed them, and drove a spear through both offenders, ending the plague and receiving praise from God for his covenant faithfulness (Numbers 25:12-13).

Eli was a Levite. He lived to be 98 years old and was a priest in Shiloh. He served as a judge in Israel for 40 years (1st Samuel 4:12-18). Ezra was a Levite. He was a distinguished scribe who served with Nehemiah at the time of the return of the Israelites from Babylon. He authored the book of Ezra, the first of the post captivity writings.

John the Baptist was a Levite. He was the son of Zacharias, who was a priest in the division of Abijah, and of Elizabeth, who was in the line of descent from Aaron (Luke 1:5). God called John to be the forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ in fulfillment of the last words of the Old Testament: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4: 5, 6). Jesus highly praised John, saying, “I tell you the truth: among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).

We should be greatly encouraged in the stories of Levi and his offspring. In the scattering of Levi we see God’s righteous judgment on sin. But we also see judgment turned to blessing upon blessing. God is in the reclamation and salvage business. If you are suffering from what others have done, perhaps from the sin of a parent, as the descendants of Simeon and Levi suffered for the sin of their parents, do not think you are excluded from God’s favor or that it is impossible for you to gain God’s favor again.

God can put children through hard training for the sin of their fathers “to the third and 4th generation of those who hate [him]” (Exodus 20:5). But he also brings blessing out of evil where he sees repentance (Exodus 32:14; Jeremiah 18:8; 26:3, 13; Joel 2:13). Do not despair if you are suffering under the heavy burdens of your own sins. If you are suffering the effects of your sins, draw near to God, repent, and trust in him. He is far more ready to forgive than you are to come to him.

Paul encourages us with these words:

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. [8]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jos 20:1–6.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jos 21:1–3.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 9:5–6.

[4] Schaeffer, Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History, 194–95.

[5] Schaeffer, 193.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 5:12–13.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 11:24–28.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eph 3:14–21.