Joshua 20:1-9 – Cities of Refuge

Our text today begins with the words, “Then the Lord said to Joshua...appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses” (vs. 1).
  • What stands out about these words is what they say about the varied concerns of God’s redemptive history.

(1) God’s redemptive history is multifaceted.
  • OT Scripture reveals God’s concern for Israel, holiness, sin, and covenant – the obvious things.
  • But it also reveals God’s concern for the owner of a brothel (Rahab), a pagan capital city (Nineveh), farming cycles (Exo. 23:11), and “the manslayer who strikes any person without intent” (vs. 3).

(2) Every facet of God’s redemptive history has and/or will come to fruition.
  • In Numbers, God first expressed His will for the cities of refuge – Numbers 35:9ff.
  • In our text, the cities of refuge come to fruition.

(3) Every facet of God’s redemptive history fulfills a purpose.
  • And this is where I want to focus in today’s lesson.
  • What is the point of the cities of refuge?

Joshua 20:2 says, “which I spoke to you through Moses”.
  • God’s spoke to Moses about the cities of refuge in Exodus 21 and Numbers 35.

In Exodus, God revealed His will concerning a “place to which he [the manslayer] may flee”.
  • Exodus 21:12–13 (ESV) — 12 “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. 13 But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee.
  • Interestingly, this text contains a “God is Sovereign” view of accidental death.
    • God let him fall into his hand
  • "The theological assumption is that the death of the victim occurred by the intervention of Providence; thus, the manslayer was the unwitting agent" – Preston Mayes.

Exodus 21:14 goes on to make an important distinction between the murderer and the manslayer.
  • Exodus 21:14 (ESV) — 14 But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.
  • The murderer is to be subject to death, in contrast to the manslayer that is to be given refuge.

In Numbers 35 He provides more details of the murderer/manslayer distinction.
  • Numbers 35:21–24 (ESV) — 21b The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him. 22 “But if he pushed him suddenly without enmity, or hurled anything on him without lying in wait 23 or used a stone that could cause death, and without seeing him dropped it on him, so that he died, though he was not his enemy and did not seek his harm, 24 then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these rules.

BTW – The “place” alluded to in Exodus 21:14 that will give refuge to the manslayer is God’s altar.
  • In Numbers and Joshua the “place” that was formerly associated with God’s altar is associated with the cities of refuge.
  • “The exact relationship between the altar and the asylum city is never specified” – Preston Mayes.
  • However the practice of God’s altar as a specific place of refuge was not abandoned.
  • “This is illustrated by two episodes in 1 Kings, where Adonijah and Joab sought temporary refuge by clinging to the altar (1 Kgs 1:50–53; 2:28)” – David Howard.

Having understood the origin of the events in Joshua 20 we can now answer our question –
  • What is the point of the cities of refuge?

The answer will be found in three things:
  • (1) They are an expression of God’s grace
  • (2) They are a solution to bloodguilt
  • (3) They are part of, and point to the Gospel


Grace To the Manslayer:
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” (vs. 5).

If the manslayer is not guilty of murder, why does he need God’s grace for protection?
  • There are at least two reasons the “manslayer” needs God’s grace.

(1) “In the ancient world blood revenge was widely practiced. The moment a person was killed, his nearest relative took responsibility for vengeance” – BKC.
  • If the “manslayer” was not afforded protection, the “avenger of blood” had a right to take his life.
  • “The avenger of blood had a legal status in society to carry out society’s (i.e., God’s) judgments and was by no means one who was to exact private vengeance” – David Howard.
  • Our text acknowledges this practice.
  • They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood” (vs. 3).
  • And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand” (vs. 5).

(2) Also, “it must…be recognized that whenever an innocent man is slain, the law considers the slayer guilty in [some] measure” – Preston Mayes.
  • Why?
  • The sanctity of human life.

“The reason lies in the ultimate respect that the Scriptures have for human life and for the land as the dwelling place of Yahweh Himself. Shedding an innocent man's blood, even unintentionally, involved bloodguilt, and no manslayer was considered clear of this guilt.” – Preston Mayes.
  • This means the “manslayer” had blood on his hands – even if he didn’t commit murder.
  • Our text “affirms the sanctity of human life, in that even an accidental death caused blood guilt that could be avenged if the killer did not go to a city of refuge” – David Howard.
  • It “breathes the sanctity of human life—both the manslayer’s and the dead man’s” – Dale Davis.

BTW – The distinction between “manslayer” and murderer and the nature of the bloodguilt underlies an important principal.
  • All sin is not equal and judgment is meted out accordingly.
  • “This shows that the biblical legislation did make distinctions in degrees of guilt and that God’s law was sensitive to motives and intent of the heart, in providing more lenient treatment for what modern criminal codes call “manslaughter” (as opposed to premeditated murder)” – David Howard.

This principal will even be in effect at judgment –
  • Revelation 20:12 (ESV) — 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.

Grace To the Sojourner:
…and for the stranger sojourning among them, that anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there…” (vs. 9).

God’s grace extended beyond the Israelite to the sojourner.
  • The sojourner was a foreigner living in Israel – like Rahab and her household.
  • He was to enjoy “the same rights as the Jew” – Boice.
  • This practiced testified to “the oneness of the human race” as later testified to by Paul.
  • That this practice was in the OT “adds to the inclusive vision found in the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua” – David Howard.

BTW – Importantly, “Israel should not oppress [the sojourner] because they themselves were oppressed and know his soul (Ex 22:21 [H 20]; Deut 10:19). They were to love him as themselves (Lev 19:34)” – TWOT.
  • This is referring to Israel’s time in Egypt.


…a refuge from the avenger of blood” (vs. 3).
that he might not die by the hand of the avenger of blood…” (vs. 9).

An innocent human being had been killed.
  • This created a problem – blood had polluted God’s land.
  • “Both [murder and manslayer] incur bloodguilt and pollute the land, and both require atonement: murder by the execution of the murderer and manslaughter through the natural demise of the high priest” – Gordon Wenham.
  • Blood pollutes the land, whether that blood was shed via murder or manslaughter” – Dale Davis.

Preston Mayes puts the complexity of the problem as follows:
  • “Any shedding of innocent blood would defile the land in which Yahweh dwelled. The failure to execute a murderer would defile the land, for no other punishment was fitting for this crime. The execution of a manslayer would also pollute the land in which Yahweh dwelled, unless he was put to death because he left his city of refuge”.

Bloodguilt brought even more problems –
  • “If Israel failed to keep the land from being polluted, the implication of Numbers 35:34 is that Yahweh would no longer be with his people in the land and that Israel would no longer be successful in the land” – DOT:P.

Solution to Bloodguilt:
So how did the cities of refuge solve the bloodguilt problem?
  • 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” (vs. 6).

(1) Our text tells us that the “manslayer” is to make his case to the “congregation” at the city of refuge.
  • So his case is adjudicated, this is one way the problem of bloodguilt is addressed.
  • If they find him to be truthful he is to remain in the city of refuge.
  • Because of his bloodguilt the “manslayer” was still punished, in some measure.
  • “As Trent C. Butler says, the city is ‘at the same time refuge and prison’” – Dale Davis.

(2) The other way bloodguilt is addressed is given in the following stipulation –
  • He can only leave with “the death of him who is high priest” (vs. 6).
  • “The reasons behind this amnesty after the death of the high priest are not fully understood” – AYBD.

Bloodguilt Summary:
  • “The cities of refuge were, therefore, a provision that enabled Israel to keep the land. Without such a place, the avenger of blood would hunt the person down and kill the accused without any determination of guilt or innocence. If the accused was innocent and killed by the avenger of blood, this would pollute the land and lead to the loss of the land. This system was thus part of the Lord’s gracious provision that enabled a sinful people to live with a holy God” – DOT:P.

BTW – “The idea of asylum is not unique to the Hebrew tradition. Several ancient peoples, in the ancient Near East and elsewhere, had the idea that fugitives could gain sanctuary by proceeding to or fleeing to certain designated places” – AYBD.
  • But there was one distinction between Israel and its neighbors.
  • The distinction lays in “a basic difference in the evaluation of life and property” – Preston Mayes.
  • Israel’s neighbors allowed for economic or political solutions to the “manslayer” problem – Preston Mayes.
  • “Other ancient systems of law allowed the family of the victim to receive financial compensation from the murderer” – Preston Mayes.

Israel had no such option.
  • Numbers 35:32 (ESV) — 32 And you shall accept no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the high priest.
  • Life was priceless.

BTW 2 – The above expressions of God’s grace and how bloodguilt was handled seem to be in tension with the command to wipe out the Canaanites.
  • The tension seems all the more given that they are sandwiched within the Conquest texts.
  • How do we address this tension?


“In spite of the obvious differences, many have noted that Christ is indeed a refuge for us, like the refuge cities of Israel, and that many characteristics of these cities have spiritual parallels” – James Boice.
  • (1) “It was the duty of the Jews to clearly indicate the way to the cities of refuge” – Boice.
    • Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.
  • (2) “The doors of the cities of refuge were always unlocked” – Boice.
    • For God so loved the world…
  • (3) “The cities of refuge were not only for Jews but for people of all races” – Boice.
    • “Come to me all…”
  • (4) “If an ancient manslayer did not flee to one of the cities of refuge, there was no hope for him” – Boice.
    • “remain under God’s wrath”

The idea of refuge was not limited to the cities of refuge.
  • It pervades all of the OT.
  • It finds its most powerful expression when it is found in God.
  • Psalm 46:1–3 (ESV) — 1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
  • Psalm 62:6–7 (ESV) — 6 He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. 7 On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.
  • Psalm 18:2 (ESV) — 2 The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

How do we find refuge in Christ?
  • Answer – in our union with Christ.
  • Romans 8:1 (ESV) — 1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

This is why the author of Hebrews says:
  • Hebrews 6:18b (ESV) — 18b we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.
  • Christ is the “hope set before us”.