For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4



 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2000 James Melough

20:1.  “The Lord also spake unto Joshua saying,”

20:2.  “ Speak to the children of Israel, saying, Appoint out for you cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses:”

The reference to this communication with Moses takes us back to Ex 21:13, where God said, “I will appoint thee a place whither he (the one who had accidentally killed another) shall flee,” and in De 4:41, in obedience to that command, “Moses severed three cities on this side Jordan toward the sunrising (i.e., the wilderness side, because they hadn’t yet entered Canaan); that the slayer might flee thither, which should kill his neighbor unawares ... and that fleeing unto one of these cities he might live.”

But in De 19:2 three more cities were to be chosen for the same purpose, on the Canaan side of Jordan, with the further command given in v.9, “If thou keep all these commandments to do them, which I command thee this day, to love the Lord thy God, and to walk ever in his ways; then shalt thou add three cities more for thee, beside these three.”  Thus there were six cities of refuge, three east of Jordan, and three west of the river, spaced throughout the land so that no one would ever be far from such a place of refuge.  But regarding the additional three referred to in De 19:9, which would have made a total of nine, there is no reference to the actual appointment of these final three cities, for the obvious reason that Israel failed to possess to its fullest extent the territory described in 1:4.

20:3.  “That the slayer that killeth any person unawares and unwittingly may flee thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood.”

20:4.  “And when he that doth flee unto one of those cities shall stand at the entering of the gate of the city, and shall declare his cause in the ears of the elders of that city, they shall take him into the city unto them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them.”

20:5.  “And if the avenger of blood pursue after him, then they shall not deliver the slayer up into his hand; because he smote his neighbor unwittingly, and hated him not before time.”

20:6.  “And he shall dwell in that city, until he stand before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the high priest that shall be in those days: then shall the slayer return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house, unto the city from whence he fled.”

The custom was that the next-of-kin of a murdered man was responsible to avenge the death by slaying the killer.  Where the killing was accidental, the manslayer could flee into one of those cities, and upon establishment of the fact that the killing was, in fact, accidental, he could remain in that city, and be safe from the avenger of blood as long as he remained within the city boundary; and upon the death of the high priest, he could then return in safety to his own city.  Where the trial revealed the killing to have been deliberate, there was no further refuge for the killer.  He then became the victim of the avenger of blood.

Almost invariably commentators have taken the manslayer’s refuge in one of these cities to be a type of the refuge the believer finds in the Lord Jesus Christ, and while such an application may be made, there are many factors against its being the correct interpretation.

The very fact of there being six such cities immediately stamps them with the character of incompleteness, for six is the biblical number of man, sin, weakness, failure, incompleteness, imperfection.  The restricted, conditional safety found by the manslayer in the city of refuge is a symbolic picture, not of salvation, but of the safety which man enjoys here on earth in the course of his life - up to the moment when he hears the Gospel.  The avenger of blood is the law.  It cannot execute its sentence while the man lives here in “the city of refuge,” i.e., lives on earth, nor can it touch him after he has availed himself of the freedom secured by the High Priest’s death.  He becomes subject to its sentence only when he goes beyond “the boundary of the city of refuge,” i.e., when he leaves earth, and goes out into eternity as an unbeliever.

Added to this is the fact that the refuge was conditional: the refugee must not go beyond the city boundary.  Furthermore it introduced the man to a less than ideal state: he was away from his family, and from his inheritance; in addition to which the restrictions upon his liberty were irksome in the extreme.  And finally there was the possibility that he himself might die before the high priest, so that he would never return to his family and inheritance.  Clearly this is far from being an ideal picture of the salvation which the believer finds in Christ.

Having demonstrated that this is not a picture of the safety enjoyed by those who have put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, it remains to determine what spiritual significance does attach to this portion of Scripture, for there can be no question that it hasn’t been recorded simply to gratify curiosity relative to the customs of another age.

The task is less difficult than might at first appear.  The primary application is to Israel.  He is the manslayer, and the victim, Christ.  Note that in Acts 3:17 Peter assures the people, “I wot (know) that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.”  God, willing to view Israel’s murder of Christ as being accidental, done “through ignorance,” spared them for thirty-eight years, until A.D.70, permitting them to live as it were in the “city of refuge”, during which time He told them repeatedly that the death of their true High Priest made possible the remission of their sins, and their “return to their own city,” i.e., the enjoyment of millennial Canaan, the land “flowing with the milk and honey.”  The revelation brought by the Gospel, however, placed Israel in a different position.  She was then compelled to see His death as the means of her salvation, faith in it bringing her pardon, and enabling her to begin the journey home to her inheritance (first millennial Canaan, and then heaven); but refusal to acknowledge her guilt, and trust Him as her Messiah Savior,  made her then guilty, not of accidental, but of premeditated murder.

She refused to believe the good news that her High Priest had died on Calvary’s cross, thus making it possible for her to begin the journey back to her proper place, heaven.  God waited patiently for thirty-eight years (from A.D.32 till A.D.70), during which He pleaded with her to repent and be saved, but she refused, with the result that in A.D.70 she found herself without a “city of refuge.”  Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Jews forced to leave its shelter, to fall by the hand of the “avenger of blood” - Rome.  In the midst of that unbelieving nation, however, there was a small believing remnant, and they too left “the city of refuge,” but how different was their departure!  They left to begin the journey, which in spite of much tribulation, would eventually bring them to their “inheritance” - heaven.

It is instructive to note that those thirty-eight years of probabation were foreshadowed in Israel’s earlier history.  Two years after her deliverance from Egypt she came to the border of Canaan, and discouraged by the evil report of ten of the twelve spies who had been sent to reconnoiter the land, she refused to enter, with the result that during the following thirty-eight years that unbelieving generation died out, while a new generation grew up which did enter.  The type has been fulfilled during this present age.  The unbelieving generation (Israel) was dying out during the thirty-eight years from A.D.32 till A.D.70, but a new “generation”, the nucleus of the Church, grew up and gladly accepted the blessings forfeited by Israel’s unbelief.

Israel, however, is but the mirror in which God would have each man see himself.  The inheritance and home God wants man to enjoy is heaven, and while man lives here on earth he is separated from that inheritance and home, just as the manslayer in the city of refuge was separated from his earthly inheritance and home. 

The event that removed all restrictions, and restored the man to liberty, to his inheritance, his home and his family, was the death of the high priest.  But the “high priest” is Christ, and the Gospel is what corresponds to the announcement of the death of the earthly high priest. 

Let’s visualize the day when a messenger arrived in the city of refuge and announced that the high priest had died.  That messenger is the OT counterpart of the evangelist, for the message of the Gospel is that the death of Christ makes it possible for every believing sinner to start the journey home to heaven.  But not all welcome that news today, nor perhaps did every refugee within a city of refuge.  It is possible that with the passage of time the manslayer had established a new life in the city of refuge, and had no desire to return to his inheritance.  The news of the high priest’s death meant nothing to such a man.  Nor does the news of what is available through Christ’s death hold much appeal for the majority of men today.  They have become so settled down in this “city of refuge,” the world, that heaven holds no attraction for them.  It is as though the “High Priest” hadn’t died.

But for them, as for Israel, the Gospel changes their status.  The Israelite, hearing of the High Priest’s death, but refusing to return to his inheritance, then became guilty of disobeying God, for the Israelites were forbidden to abandon their inheritance.  He who hears the Gospel is compelled to see Christ’s death as his salvation; or, in rejecting Him as Savior, to become guilty of His wilful murder.  In Israel every killer was safe in the city of refuge until a fair trial revealed that the murder was deliberate.  Then the guilty man had no place of refuge.  He became fair prey for the avenger of blood.  So is it with the man who hears the Gospel, and refuses to trust in Christ.  His refusal denies him any refuge, and while he may elude the avenger for a few brief years of earthly life, he must inevitably keep that fatal appointment which takes his body to the grave, and his soul into hell.

It is worth noting that there is no record of any high priest ever having died voluntarily so that a manslayer might return to his own city; but that is exactly what the Lord Jesus Christ has done.  He came down here to this “city of refuge” for the sole purpose of dying, so that sinners might begin the journey home to heaven.

The general thought connected with these cities of refuge appears to be that which has to do with our responsibility in the Gospel, for while each city provided a place of refuge for the manslayer, it must not be forgotten that those cities belonged to Israelites, themselves types of believers.  The lesson is clear: here on this earth, given to us, but not yet possessed, and providing a city of refuge for sinners, we are responsible to be witnesses to them that the spiritual truths embodied in the meanings of these names are not mere shibboleths on our lips, but living realities governing our lives. 

20:7.  “And they appointed Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Shechem in mount Ephraim, and Kirjath-arba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah.”

As always in the OT, the spiritual lesson is conveyed in the meanings of the names of the people and places involved.

Kedesh means a sanctuary; Galilee, a circuit as enclosed, or rolled around; and Naphtali, my wrestling: my tortuosity.

As noted already, the cities of refuge represent various aspects of the safety enjoyed by the sinner here on earth.  The message of Kedesh is clear: in the selection of this city to be the first of the cities of refuge, God would remind men that life here on earth is to them what Kedesh was to every man guilty of having shed the blood of another.  We caused Christ’s death.  Had we not sinned, He need not have died.  But Kedesh was a sanctuary only until the manslayer heard of the death of the high priest.  Then he was responsible to begin the journey to his own city.  So is it here on earth.  Those who hear the Gospel - the good news that the true High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, has died for our sins - are responsible to believe it, and by trusting Him as Savior, begin the journey to their own city, heaven.

Whatever other lesson may be connected with Galilee, one obvious one is that this world, which affords a sanctuary for the sinner only during his brief earthly life, is not going to offer that safety for ever.  The ceaseless circuit of the years brings every man to the day when he must leave this sanctuary, and go out into eternity either as a believer to enter “his own city,” or as an unbeliever, guilty, condemned, to enter hell, and then for all eternity, the lake of fire.

But the location of Kedesh is further specified: it was in mount Naphtali, my wrestling: my tortuosity.  The spiritual message isn’t difficult to read.  This world is also the place of man’s tortuous wrestling, certainly with the circumstances of life, but more particularly a wrestling with himself when confronted with the facts of the Gospel.  The voice of a convicted conscience warns him of the need to save his soul by trusting in Christ, but the voice of Satan, through the appeal of earthly things such as money, popularity, pleasure, ease, etc., leaves him torn between these things immediately available, and the distant prospect of what he thinks to be heaven’s uncertain blessings.  Only eternity will reveal the multitudes who have died in the midst of that wrestling, hesitating between two opinions, by default not trusting Christ, thereby choosing hell and the lake of fire.

God would have sinners see in us those  whose lives are the demonstration of the truth that through faith in Christ, we have entered, not into a mere earthly sanctuary, but into one that is eternal.  He would have us demonstrate that within the circuit of the flying years our wrestling is not for earth’s fleeting riches, but against the unseen forces of darkness for eternal treasure.

The second city of refuge was Shechem, shoulder literally early rising: diligence, in mount Ephraim, double ash-heap: I shall be doubly fruitful. 

It is the first place mentioned in connection with Abraham after he entered Canaan, a fact which makes interpretation of this type relatively easy in view of what is recorded in Lk 15:5 concerning the recovery of the lost sheep, “And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders.”  Abraham’s entering Canaan represents the moment of conversion, and Canaan represents the realm of faith.  The pardoned sinner finds himself spiritually in  “Canaan,” at “Shechem shoulder,”  on the shoulder of the Good Shepherd, the place of security and strength.  “I give unto them eternal life: and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.  My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.  I and my Father are one” Jn 10:28-30.

The sinner comes to that place, however, only as he exercises the “early rising” or “diligence” of which Shechem also speaks to press into the kingdom in spite of all Satan’s attempts to prevent his leaving the broad way that leads to destruction, and his entering in at the “strait (narrow) gate” that leads to eternal life.

“in mount Ephraim.”  Since a mountain is the Biblical symbol of a king and/or kingdom, this reference to the “mount” speaks of the change that accompanies conversion.  The believer moves out of the kingdom of Satan into the higher kingdom of God. But its being specifically the mount of Ephraim reminds us, that as believers, we are brought into that kingdom which is far above all the petty things of earth, in order to produce fruit for God’s glory, and our own eternal reward.  There is no contradiction between the two meanings of Ephraim, for the ash-heap measured the size and importance of the city: the bigger the ash-heap, the bigger and richer the city.  Nor is that fact irrelevant to the matter of spiritual fruitfulness, for the fact is that our spiritual wealth will be in direct proportion to the extent that we are willing to count earthly things as being fit only for the ash-heap.  This is the declaration of Paul, “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.  Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,” Php 3:7-8.

The sinners to whom we preach the Gospel will be little impressed if they see us clinging to the very same worthless things we are telling them they must give up in order to enter the kingdom.

“and Kirjath-arba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah.”  Kirjath-arba means city of four,” and as noted in previous studies, it had an interesting and instructive history.  To recap briefly: in Canaanite hands it was the city of a king called Arba four, who is described in Jsh 15:13 as the father of Anak, neck-chain: long-necked, this father and son combining to present a symbolic picture of the men of earth, and the bondage in which they are held by pride.

Captured by Caleb a dog: whole-hearted, its name was changed to Hebron communion.  Caleb represents that humble spirit which is willing to occupy the low place of a mere dog, but which is whole-hearted in its zeal for God.  His capture of Kirjath-arba, and its change of name to Hebron, speak of the annihilation of pride which must take place before there can be communion with God.

The appointment of Hebron as the third city of refuge points to the fact that there can be no communion with God until all pride is abandoned.

“in the mountain of Judah.”

Judah means he will be praised, and as the name of the tribe to which Hebron belonged, the lesson being taught is that communion and praise cannot be separated. 

These Gospel truths will make little impression on the unconverted if they see in us, proud men and women whose communion is more with the world than with God, and from whose lips come expressions of doubt, fear, worry, complaint, etc., rather than the praise that should be the response of the redeemed heart for God’s “unspeakable gift.”

20:8.  “And on the other side Jordan by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness upon the plain out of the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh.”

As noted in our studies of the early chapters of Joshua, the portions assigned to the two and a half tribes on the east or wilderness side of Jordan represent all the spiritual blessings we have as believers, but with the emphasis upon those blessings as they affect our everyday lives - our jobs, our families, etc.  The portion that is ours in Christ enables us to walk in the enjoyment of peace even in the midst of adversity, loss, bereavement, etc.

The portions assigned on the western or Canaan side of Jordan, however, represent those same blessings, not in relation to everyday living, but rather as something to be enjoyed in our spirits, and altogether apart from the things that make up our daily living.  They represent, for example, the pleasure derived just from the study of the Word; from being made sharers of God’s counsels; from anticipation of the Rapture; anticipation of entering heaven and seeing the Lord face to face; anticipation of reigning with Christ, etc.  These, and a host of similar intangible pleasures, are the counterpart of the portions assigned the tribes on the Canaan side of Jordan.

The cities of refuge assigned on the wilderness side of Jordan, are meant to teach us lessons relative to the earthly and practical benefits of salvation, just as those on the Canaan side would teach us lessons relative to the spiritual value of salvation.

Jordan represents death - our death with Christ, and also the actual death that ends our earthly journey and transports us to heaven; and in the present context the latter is clearly the death being emphasized.  The lessons have to do with experiences here on earth, on this side of physical death.  Jericho, meaning fragrance, we have already seen to represent the glory and grandeur of the world as perceived by man; and significantly it is “eastward,” the direction that speaks of sin and departure from God, an apt description of this evil world in which man’s lot is cast, but in which a gracious God provides him with “a city of refuge,” a period of grace in which to save himself from hell, and fit himself for heaven, by trusting in Christ as his Savior.

Bezer, meaning munition, is the first city of refuge east of Jordan, and the meaning here is not the modern, but the archaic one, i.e., rampart or defence.  The lesson is easily read.  Here on earth the sinner is “in Bezer,” he is protected by the rampart of grace until the moment when he rejects Christ as his Savior.  Then his defence is gone.  There is no hope for the man who rejects the Savior.

Now we see why it is said to be “by Jericho.”  It is here in the world represented by Jericho that God has provided a “Bezer” for sinners.  And its being further described as “in the wilderness” adds the reminder that this world, seen by sin-blinded eyes as a place of magnificence and splendor, is in reality a spiritual wilderness, eventually to be destroyed by the judgment of God.

Its being in the territory of Reuben see ye, a son, declares a further truth, for as Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben represents man in his natural state, unfit for heaven, and requiring to be born again through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  All men are spiritual “Reubens” - they need to be born again; and it is for them that God has provided “Bezer,” a period of grace in which to repent and trust in Christ, so that those who are now the children of Satan Jn 8:44, might become the sons of God 1 Jn 3:1-2.

“Ramoth in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad” is the second city of refuge east of Jordan.  Ramoth means heights: coral; Gilead, heap of witness: rolling for ever; and Gad, an invader: a troop: fortune.

The two meanings of Ramoth heights and coral, are not as disparate as might at first appear, for coral was high in value, see Strong’s Concordance.  As representative of an aspect of the grace extended to man in which to repent and trust the Savior, Ramoth would appear to speak of the high value God sets upon a human soul, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mk 8:36.  God in His grace would have man learn the value of his soul, and in learning that value, learn also the imperative of trusting Christ as the only way to save that precious soul from eternal ruin.

Gilead heap of witness: rolling for ever speaks of Calvary, for Calvary is the witness, not only to God’s love, but also to man’s ruin; and the value of the work so perfectly completed there will “roll for ever,” not only before God, but also before redeemed and lost alike, evoking the eternal worship of the one, and the eternal remorse of the other.  It is here on earth, in the “Gilead” of God’s grace, that He would have men learn the value of Christ’s death, and the imperative of trusting Him as Savior.

Its being in the territory of Gad, an invader: a troop: fortune, is also easily deciphered.  Here on earth, where God so graciously provides a period of grace in which men may save themselves, is also the sphere of the malignant activity of the invader, Satan, and his troops of evil spirits, bent upon the destruction of men’s souls.  In the present context, therefore, fortune is to be understood in the sense of destiny: fate: providence.  That period of grace provided by a God Who is unwilling that any should perish, is a veritable time of destiny.  In it man responds to the appeal of the Gospel, or the allurement of Satan, and his response determines the eternal destiny of his soul.

The third city is “Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh.”  Golan means their captivity: rejoicing; Bashan, the shame of them: the fertile: the one in sleep; and Manasseh, causing to forget.

All of these meanings are easily interpreted.  Here on earth, where God has graciously provided a “city of refuge,” a time of grace given men in which to choose whether they will accept Christ as Savior, is also the place of their captivity to sin and Satan; but to those who trust Christ, it becomes the place of their rejoicing.

Bashan adds further details relative to men in their natural state: their sinful deeds make their state one of shame; while the condition of humanity in its rebellion against God declares all too loudly how fertile man has been in producing evil.  But in the midst of all his evil activity man is as “one in sleep.”  In his spiritually dead state, he is oblivious both of his condition, and of the awful future that awaits him, unless he trusts in Christ.

The significance of its being in the territory of Manasseh is also easily read: the period of grace given sinners here on earth is a time in which Satan would cause them to forget the warnings of Scripture, e.g., “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment,” Heb 9:27.  Faith in Christ, however, introduces the believer into that happy state in which he can emulate Paul who wrote, “This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” Php 3:13-14.

20:9.  “These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them, that whosoever killeth any person at unawares might flee thither, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until he stood before the congregation.”

Inasmuch as the cities furnished a refuge for Israel, and for the strangers among them, God would remind us that Jew and Gentile alike need a Savior, and He has demonstrated His love for both in that He has given His Son to die for both.

As noted already, Christ is the One Whom men, in their blindness, have killed; but the measureless grace of God is such that for Jew and Gentile alike, He is willing to count that slaying an act committed “unawares,” see Ac 3:17.  But the manslayer’s flight to a city of refuge was followed by a trial to determine whether the murder had been accidental.  Where it was found to have been deliberate, the guilty killer was handed over to die by the hand of the avenger of blood.  This is the symbolic foreshadowing of the truth that once a man has been presented with the Gospel, and then refuses to accept Christ as Savior, he becomes  guilty, not of accidental, but of deliberate murder.  He then becomes the one to whom Heb 10:26-27 applies, “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.” 

It is not men’s sins that consign them to hell and the lake of fire: it is refusal to accept God’s pardon, a pardon He is able to offer on a righteous basis, only because of Christ’s death.

[Joshua 21]



     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough