Chapters 13-21 are about the division of the land among the twelve tribes of Israel after the continuous fighting. Each tribe was to have an inheritance from the LORD, where the people would live and flourish and serve Godâ€™s purpose. Godâ€™s given inheritance is very important to each Christian. Ultimately our inheritance is the kingdom of God, which is eternal (1 Pe 1:4). In the description of dividing the land, there are three related stories. The first is about Caleb, who wholeheartedly followed the LORD and claimed Godâ€™s specific promise for him even after 45 years and was ready to fight to get the blessing. The second is about Joshua, who helped the people of Joseph to have the spirit of pioneering, with the words, â€œClear landâ€¦and its farthest limits will be yours.â€ The third is concerning the cities of refuges.
People are familiar with business cities like Toronto, political cities, cities of sightseeing, cities of education, and even cities of prison. However, they are unfamiliar with cities of refuge, But Godâ€™s chosen nation has the cities of refuge. And these cities are not for political refugees. They are for spiritual refugees. Through the study of cities of refuge, we can learn who God is and newly put our faith in him.
First, God sees oneâ€™s inner motive. Look at verses 1-3. â€œThen the LORD said to Joshua: â€˜Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood.â€ Here we see the words, â€œaccidentallyâ€ and â€œunintentionally.â€ Also, we see the same expression in verse 5, â€œâ€¦because he killed his neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethoughtâ€ and in verse 9, â€œ..who killed someone accidentlyâ€¦.â€ In this world, there is no one who knows anotherâ€™s heart. So there are many misunderstandings and misjudgments. We hear about some people who were wrongly imprisoned and came out of the prison after evidence showed they were not guilty. How tragic that is, especially when the person had to spend the long period of the prime time of his life because of the misjudgment! But to God there is no such a mistake. He does not judge only based on oneâ€™s outward behavior or mere spoken words. Isaiah 11:3b says of the Messiah, â€œHe will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears.â€ Our God knows oneâ€™s heart and inner motive accurately.
Double-mindedness and lying lips can work among people. There was a king of Israel, Ahab. He liked to listen to flattering lips of false prophets, and hated to hear truthful words, because they are painful to hear. There was a discussion in heaven about who would entice Ahab. One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward and said, â€œI will entice himâ€, meaning, â€œI will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophetsâ€ (1 Kings 22:20-22). When Ahab asked whether he had to go to a war, the false prophets said, â€œGo, for the LORD has given it into the kingâ€™s hand.â€ But the true prophet Micah said, â€œThe LORD has decreed disaster for you.â€ Ahab listened to the favourable words of the false prophet, went to battle and died miserably. We should know that there is a lying spirit that goes into people. We should watch out for lying spirits by having right motives. We need to make every effort to listen to what the Holy Spirit says. In his youth David tended his fatherâ€™s flock of sheep. At that time people did not pay attention to him. His brothers even despised him. But when he took care of the flock of sheep faithfully and sacrificially, even risking his life, God knew it and later raised him as the king of Israel from a shepherd boy. Because God knows our sincere hearts and inner motives, we have enough reason to live before him and by faith.
Second, God is merciful. Look at verses 1-3 again. â€œThen the LORD said to Joshua: â€˜Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood.â€ In our human society anyone who kills a person whether intentionally or unintentionally cannot be accepted. He is accused and condemned with no excuse. Homicide is the worst crime. After the deluge God said, â€œWhoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shedâ€ (Ge 9:6). And in the Ten Commandments, the first of â€œyou shall notâ€ is â€œYou shall not murderâ€ (Ex 20:13). It is because the LORD God is a holy God. He is righteous. He punishes criminals.
Yet, he understands sinners. In this world who can understand the one who killed a person accidentally â€“ his trauma, embarrassment, frustration and hopelessness? No doubt, a murderer has come to the end of his life. But God cares for even such a person, a worst kind of criminal in human eyes. What an interesting and significant command this is, â€œDesignate the cities of refugeâ€ in the Promised Land! It is so that anyone who kills a person may flee there and find protection. The LORD God is merciful and considerate. He truly understands and cares. Psalm 103:13 says, â€œAs a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.â€ Most people say, â€œI did not mean to do it.â€ Repentant sinners know that they sinned against their wishes. Jesus the Son of God became flesh, though vulnerable to the temptations, and lived among human beings so that he might understand us and sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb 4:15).
Look at verse 4. â€œWhen 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...â€ Here we see that the one who killed should have a humble yet positive attitude. He should not just expect somebody to come to him and welcome him and speak for him. Standing in the entrance of the city gate, he should clearly state his case before the elders of that city. It is like we should humbly come to the presence of God and positively present our request to him. When the one who fled stated his case, the elders of that city are to admit him into their city and give him a place to live with them. They should not let him wait in the entrance of the city gate or confine him in a certain place until the verdict is made. They are to admit him into their city and give him a place of living first, although any decision has not yet been made by the elders. This is also an expression of Godâ€™s merciful heart for the one who fled to the city.
Look at verse 5. â€œIf the avenger of blood pursues him, they must not surrender the one accused, because he killed his neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought.â€ Fleeing and pursuing is like a movie scene. But this is a spiritual reality. A fleer should be swift and faster than a pursuer. The fleer should not worry about being surrendered, because again God understands his unintentional and unpremeditated act and prepares the environment.
Look at verse 6. â€œHe 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.â€ The one accused should believe a fair trial and the mercy of God. The words, â€œuntil the death of the high priest, who is serving at that time,â€ draw our attention. The one who fled would have a question after the trial, â€˜until when I had to stay here.â€ Certainly, he would not stay there permanently. As years had passed by, no doubt he must have yearned to go back to his own home, where his family members were wearily waiting for him. If the time of staying had prolonged without a definite time, how frustrating it would be! Staying in the city of refuge without being killed was Godâ€™s mercy and grace, but for how long? God said that he was to stay there until the death of the high priest. Afterward he could go back to his own home in the town from which he fled. If he came back as he wanted before the death of the high priest, then he would have no right to claim any protection in his hometown. There would be a possibility for him to be killed by the accuser of blood. No one could be responsible for that, because he came back illegally. But when he returned by keeping the time set for him, he would have the full right to be protected in his hometown after coming back from the city of refuge. However, why is the return dependent on the death of the high priest? Why is it not after a definite time of, say, 3, 5, or 10 years? We donâ€™t know how the death of the high priest was related to the criminalâ€™s permanent release. Anyhow, God made this law, as if the death of the high priest is the price of the personâ€™s complete release for his freedom to live in his own home town. On his return and throughout his life, the man must have been so thankful for Godâ€™s mercy through the death of the high priest.
Hebrews 2:17 says, â€œFor this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.â€ Jesus came as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron, for the Levitical priesthood could not be perfect. He died as a ransom for many. Because of his death we are set free from all our sins and guilt and guilty conscience and all the consequences of sin. Hebrews 9:14 says, â€œHow much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!â€ So the author of Hebrews encourages us, saying, â€œLet us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of needâ€ (Heb 4:16). Again he says, â€œTherefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faithâ€¦â€ (Heb 10:19-22). Through the study of Joshua God taught us a challenging and pioneering spirit and a conquering spirit. These spirits are very important in life. The book of Joshua also teaches us a fleeing spirit. It is not a negative spirit, if one flees to a right place. Life should be external and internal, outward and inward. Fleeing to a right place is for our internal life. Without it our life is very vulnerable because of the invisible pursuer. We need the fleeing spirit every day: positively and confidently flee to the place of Godâ€™s mercy and grace through our Lord Jesus Christ. Praise God for this grace.
Look at verses 7 and 8. â€œSo 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. 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.â€ There were six cities of refuge, not just one, and these cities were scattered all over the land of Israel. It also shows Godâ€™s mindfulness for the one accused. If there was only one place to flee, he could be caught by the accuser of blood in the course of fleeing a long way. But by designating six places, these cities of refuge would be fully available to anyone accused after killing unintentionally.
Look at verse 9. â€œAny of the Israelites or any alien living among them who killed someone accidentally could feel to these designated cities and not be killed by the avenger of blood prior to standing trial before the assembly.â€ This mercy of God reaches even to any alien living among the Israelites.
We thank and praise God who is righteous and merciful. He commanded the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land and also told them to designate cities of refuge so that they might live in his mercy and grace and as his holy people and be a blessing to others. Thank God for pouring out his mercy and grace upon us through his Son Jesus Christ, who gave his life for us as the high priest. May we flee to the throne of God with confidence time and again until his grace and mercy abound in us and overflow to others and so we can live as his chosen people.