Joshua 20:1-9 (NIV) 1 Then the LORD said to Joshua: 2 “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, 3 so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. 4 “When he flees to one of these cities, he is to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state his case before the elders of that city. Then they are to admit him into their city and give him a place to live with them. 5 If the avenger of blood pursues him, they must not surrender the one accused, because he killed his neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. 6 He is to stay in that city until he has stood trial before the assembly and until the death of the high priest who is serving at that time. Then he may go back to his own home in the town from which he fled.” 7 So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. 8 On the east side of the Jordan of Jericho they designated Bezer in the desert on the plateau in the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead in the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan in the tribe of Manasseh. 9 Any of the Israelites or any alien living among them who killed someone accidentally could flee to these designated cities and not be killed by the avenger of blood prior to standing trial before the assembly.
On verses 1-9: When Moses was still leading the Israelites, long before Joshua and the Israelites stepped foot onto the promised land, God gave instructions to the Israelites to set up six towns as “cities of refuge” (v2, see also Numbers 35). What was the purpose of “cities of refuge”? Keep in mind that the Jewish law was based on the principle of “an eye for an eye”. Thus, according to the Jewish law, if one person killed another, the killer himself would need to be killed. The “avenger of blood” (v5) was the individual officially appointed to kill the killer. However, if the killer killed his victim unintentionally, the killer could run to a city of refuge for safety. As long as the killer was within the boundaries of the city of refuge, the avenger of blood could not touch him, until such time as he was put on trial and declared guilty of murder.
Here in verses 1-9 God reminds Joshua of the instructions God gave in Numbers 35 about setting up cities of refuge. Joshua goes ahead and names 6 towns as cities of refuge. In fact, if you look at the map available at http://www.bible.ca/maps/bible-maps-master-index-borders-twelve-12-tribes-israel-promised-land-joshua13-22-conquest-1400BC.htm, you’ll notice that these 6 cities of refuge were strategically located: 3 were situated west of the Jordan River, and the other 3 situated east of the Jordan River. That way, regardless of which side of the Jordan River you lived on, there was a city of refuge you could run to in the north, in the south, and in central Israel.
What can we learn from all this? The Israelites had a city of refuge that they could run to when they were in the worst kind of trouble and their lives were at risk. Similarly, God has provided us with a city of refuge to run to when we were in the worst of trouble and our lives were at risk. Our city of refuge is Jesus Christ. Like the avenger of blood, God’s wrath had every legal right to destroy us as punishment for our sins. But God sent Jesus Christ to be our city of refuge, so that by running to Jesus and hiding in Jesus, we would be saved from God’s wrath.
But Jesus is better than Joshua’s cities of refuge in a number of ways:
– Unlike the cities of refuge that Joshua set up, which could still take a long time for an Israelite to run to depending on where they were, you and I have instant access to Jesus our city of refuge every moment of the day.
– Unlike Joshua’s cities of refuge which could only protect you until you were declared guilty in a trial, Jesus our city of refuge protects us even when we are totally guilty. For though we are all guilty of sin, Jesus was declared guilty in our place, suffered God’s wrath in our stead and died the death we were supposed to die.
– Unlike Joshua’s cities of refuge where to enter you needed to plead your own case (v4), Jesus is not only our city of refuge. He is also our advocate who pleads our case on our behalf (1 John 2:1) so that we can enter Him, our city of refuge and be safe.
For all these reasons and more, Jesus is so much greater than any city of refuge Joshua ever set up. Praise God that in Jesus Christ we have the greatest city of refuge of all time.
Also, it is worth noting that all 6 cities of refuge were towns given to the Levites to live (Numbers 35:6). This is interesting, even fitting, for two reasons. First, Levi, the founding father of the tribe of Levi, was himself guilty of murder, having murdered an entire town of men as revenge for the rape of his sister (Genesis 34). Levi could have used one of those cities of refuge for himself. Second, the Levites were given the role of being priests for the entire nation. To think that those accused of committing the worst crimes would now be living in a town of priests!
Finally, did you know that one of the cities of refuge (Kiriath Arba, also known as Hebron – v7) was Caleb’s city (see Joshua 15:13). The fact that Caleb and his family were willing to let their own hometown be a refuge for refugees is telling of their compassionate and gracious hearts.\
Lord Jesus, thank You that You are my city of refuge, the One I run to and the One I hide in. Without Your protection, I would surely perish because of my sin at the hands of God’s wrath. Thank You for being the most important, most accessible, most effective and most gracious protection I will ever have. In Jesus’ name, AMEN!