Joshua 19-21 They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood

From Joshua 19-21

06 Joshua Jerichos Walls Fall thumb

When someone killed a man in the Old Testament, the next of kin was entitled to pursue the killer and avenge his death. If the deceased was killed accidently, that is if it was manslaughter. Then the manslayer could flee to a city of refuge. He fled there to escape the wrath of the avenger of blood. The gospel speaks of the wrath. The wrath of God. Have you fled somewhere to escape the LORD’s wrath?

This post is part of my bible in a year series.

Passage and Comments

The main battles have been won for the promised land. The land has been divided up and allocated to the various tribes. Now the cities of refuge have to be located.

20 Then the LORD said to Joshua, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 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. 4 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. (Josh 20.1-4)

06 Cities of refuge

“The towns of asylum (lit. “towns of the admittance or inclusion”) are a land grant in which the towns are given as a refuge to a particular class of person, those who commit accidental homicide.

In the case of a wrongful death, a blood avenger (lit. “kinsman redeemer of the blood”), the victim’s nearest male relative, would revenge the the killing of a clan relative in order to restore clan or familial wholeness (Num 35:12, 19–27; Deut 19:6, 12; Josh 20:2–3, 5, 9).

The right of asylum helped to limit the social damage of unrestrained blood vengeance or feuding.” (Younger, K.L.J., 2003. Joshua. In J. D. G. Dunn & J. W. Rogerson, eds. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, pp. 186–187.)

When the manslayer fled to the city of refuge he would have to explain why he should be protected. If they found him innocent then they would allow the person into their city and their protection.

If they found him guilty of murder, they would hand him over to the blood avenger to be executed.

There he would have to wait until he could be tried again.

5 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. 6 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.’ ” (Josh 20.5-6)


Even though he is not guilty of murder, the man still killed a person. This is where we get the term manslaughter.

The manslayer get tried again. This time by the ‘congregation’ for judgment. Presumably these were the various leaders of the tribes. Those given some sort of judicial power and authority. Again, if they find him guilty he will be handed over for judgment. If they find him innocent of the crime he still has to be punished.

His punishment is to stay in the city of refuge until the high priest has died of old age.

Then he may return home.

Elwell WA & Beitzel BJ 1988 Baker encyclopedia of the Bible
Elwell WA & Beitzel BJ 1988 Baker encyclopedia of the Bible

7 So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. 8 And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland, from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh.

9 These were the cities designated for all the people of Israel and for the stranger sojourning among them, that anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there, so that he might not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, till he stood before the congregation. (Josh 20.7-9)

There were six cities of refuge allocated about Israel. These are where the manslayers fled when they wanted to escape from the wrath of the blood avenger.

Story of Israel

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

A refuge is a safe retreat; a place of healing and renewal; also a stronghold from which to launch a counter-attack. In the Old Testament God alone is the true refuge of of his people (Dt 33:27; 1 Sa 2:2; 2 Sa 22:32; Ps 18:31; 46:1; 62:6–7).

Pictures used to depict God as a refuge include:

  • a fortress (Ps 28:8; 46:7; 48:3; 59:16; 62:2; 71:3; 91:2; 144:1–3),
  • a rock (2 Sam 22:2–3; Gen 49:24; Dt 32:4,15; 2 Sam 22:47; Ps 31:2; 94:22; Isa 26:4),
  • a shade (Ps 91:1; 121:5; So 2:3; Isa 25:4–5),
  • sheltering wings (Ps 57:1; Dt 32:10–11; Ruth 2:12; Ps 17:8; 36:7),
  • a shield (Gen 15:1; Dt 33:29; 2 Sam 22:31; Ps 3:3; 28:7; 84:11; Prov 30:5), and
  • a tower (Pr 18:10; Ps 61:3).

Story of Jesus

In the gospel, we are told about the wrath of God. The wrath of God is on all sinners who are in rebellion against the one true God.

So where do sinners find their refuge from God’s wrath? The one who comes from above.

31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (Jn 3.31-36)

Jesus is the son of God, he protects us from the wrath of God and gives us life. He is our refuge.

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