Joshua 20:1-9

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As we noticed last time, the material following verse 10 of chapter 18, details the allotment of the seven tribes whose allotment had not been assigned.

As we have been making our way through Joshua, we have been thinking most of the time about the pattern of salvation and the Christian’s way of faith and life during his or her pilgrimage to heaven, of which Canaan or the Promised Land was an enacted symbol or prophecy; what is called a “type” in biblical hermeneutics (a long word that refers to the principles of interpreting the Bible). This is not a stretch. The Bible itself very clearly and a number of times uses the Promised Land as an image of heaven. In thinking about the lessons of the book for the life of faith, we have spoken of the nature and necessity of faith and obedience, of presuming on the faithfulness of God, of the life-long battle with sin, of the importance of giving thanks to God and on and on.  This morning, however, we take a turn away from that subject to something else, a subject about which the Bible also has a great deal to say.

Text Comment

You will notice as we proceed that the cities of refuge, the subject of chapter 20 and the Levitical Cities, the subject of chapter 21, overlap. The cities of refuge were all Levitical Cities, a subset of the larger class. There were forty-eight Levitical cities out of which six were cities of refuge. Both types of cities were provided for in the Law of Moses. The cities of refuge are mentioned or described in greater detail in Exodus 21, Numbers 35, Deuteronomy 4 and 19.

v.3 The word the ESV translates “manslayer” can refer to those who kill with pre-meditation and those who kill accidently. [Howard, 382] In those days there was no police force. There were no jails and prisons. What was provided for was a system of law enforcement that did not make use of government police power. The apprehending and punishment of a murderer was the responsibility of the relative of the victim, someone who would care most to see that justice was done, here called “the avenger of blood.” Much, of course, remains unsaid: how the crime was discovered, how the identity of the perpetrator was determined, how the arrest was made, how a trial was conducted, how the verdict was reached, how the execution was carried out, and so on. Again, as with all the regulations of the law, look for the real interest enshrined in those regulations and put the best construction, not the worst, on the procedure. The point was to reach a just outcome in which the guilty were properly punished and the innocent protected and eventually acquitted. The law envisions two opposite extremes just what we find in human life today: a cold-blooded murderer being apprehended and executed for his crime, on the one hand, and, on the other, a relative seeking vengeance for the death of loved one even though the death was accidental or, at least, unpremeditated. The example used in the law is of a man chopping wood in the forest with another man. One man takes a great swing, the axe-head flies off, and hits the other man in the head, killing him instantly. A pure accident: unintended and unimagined. [Deut. 19:5-6]

Clearly it is also possible that the death occurred not as the result of an accident, nor even as the result of premeditated murder, but in a fight or brawl that broke out spontaneously. The man who did the killing, in other words, may be guilty of what we call manslaughter, but not of premeditated murder. And the law made a careful distinction between the two crimes and the punishment due them. It took into account and very carefully the nature of the crime and the motive of the one who committed it.

v.4       The process is stated very generally, but what it envisions is judges holding a preliminary hearing to determine whether the man should be allowed to remain under the protection of the city of refuge. This is not the trial; that will come later, as we will see.

v.5       However well-intentioned the system of justice executed by a family member was, it was subject to abuse, as is any system of criminal justice, and the City of Refuge was a means established in the law to limit those abuses. [de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 160] In the Near East still today, blood feuds are not uncommon. The Law demanded that the death of an Israelite be answered with justice. The land would be as contaminated by the execution of a killer – if he did not deserve to be executed – as by a murder that went unpunished. What is clear is that this law of asylum was designed to protect the innocent, not the guilty. The rights of the avenger were not abrogated by the provision of Cities of refuge. Indeed, if the man were declared guilty at law, the avenger then became an agent of the state, the state’s executioner. [Milgrom, Numbers, 291] But a person who sought refuge in the public judgment of the community was to be tried and, if found innocent, could live in one of the Cities of refuge there to remain beyond the reach of vengeance. The avenger of blood was not free to exact private vengeance. He was obliged to follow the law.

v.6       I cannot help but think that the fact that the death of the High Priest marked the end of the man’s exile, even the man who had in fact killed another innocently, accidentally, represents an uncanny association with the death of Jesus Christ, the High Priest, by which the sins of vast multitudes were atoned for. [Davis, 156; Howard, 386] But even accidental death was taken very seriously, as you see.

v.7       Now the six cities are listed, three west of the Jordan, three east of the river. The three cities are, in each case, located in the north, the middle, and the south of the country. No place in the land of Israel was more than a day’s journey to one of these cities; that is, they were easy to get to; an important property of a City of Refuge!

v.9       In other words until he had had his day in court.

Culture has been defined in a variety of ways, particularly recently as culture has become a subject of concentrated study in the social sciences. A good definition of culture is a socially conveyed pattern of attitudes, beliefs, and behavior shaped, taught, and sustained by a particular people’s institutions, arts, cuisine, fashion, theories of education, and other products of human thought and work.

We speak of American culture, of popular culture, of high culture and low culture, even nowadays of a particular company’s corporate culture. We may remain hard-pressed to know precisely how to define culture, sweeping reality that it is, but we know generally what we mean by the term. Culture refers to the way a people think and behave and particularly in ways that are distinct to their group.

For example, there are certainly ways in which contemporary American culture is distinct from other cultures of the world. It is, in world history, almost uniquely individualistic. It has always been more individualistic than other cultures, but recent developments — feminism and the collapse of marriage in particular — have made it dramatically more individualistic. Social patterns of various kinds reveal how natural it has become for Americans to think of themselves without regard to their connections with others. Co-habitation rather than marriage — there may well be more single adults per capita in America today than in any other culture in the past history of the world! — the way married women are now encouraged to think of themselves apart from their marital status or motherhood, the way marriage and children are either invisible in American entertainment or caricatured, and so on; these are all markers of a growing individualism, human life defined by oneself and not in relationship to others. People forget that the motto of the so-called 60s counter-culture, the very culture that was eventually mainstreamed as American culture, was “do your own thing.” Personal preference is now generally accepted as the arbiter of right and wrong and that is individualism with a vengeance!

American culture is uniquely materialistic as well, the inevitable result, perhaps, of our great wealth. A new phenomenon, the American celebrity, illustrates this dramatically. Celebrities are never people who are advancing the frontiers of knowledge, or creating new cures for disease, or working at great sacrifice for the betterment of others. No, they are attractive and relatively young people, who dress in stylish clothes, live in opulent homes, visit exotic locales, and are able to get tickets to the most sought-after events. The American celebrity is a creation of a marketing industry whose job it is to advertise the things only a lot of money can buy. That they so often have little or nothing to commend them to the attention of others is utterly beside the point. In a materialistic culture, the hero is the one who has the most: whether money, girlfriends or boyfriends, looks, homes, cars, and all the rest. When the rest of the world looks at, for example, the Kardashians, rolling in money and fame because they “have it all” as we say, they’re understandable response is: “only in America.” That is the power of culture! But American young people take this entirely for granted. They can’t get enough information about people like this. They want to know what they’re doing next, who they’re marrying, who they’re dating, who they’re divorcing. This is the power of culture. It defines the normal for a particular community of human beings to the extent that what seems bizarre to others is unthinkingly accepted by us.

We could go on and on talking about American culture. It is as sexually licentious as any culture in the world. It spends more time and money entertaining itself than any culture in the history of the world. To be sure, there are some good things about American culture, perhaps most of which are the leftovers of older times, but when someone elsewhere in the world thinks of American culture, watching American television as they do, you can hardly blame them for thinking that Americans are materialistic, licentious, self-worshipping individualists who cannot seem to make a success out of their most important relationships.

But that’s culture: what is entirely normal to us may seem surpassingly strange to the outsider looking in. Culture it is a people’s pattern or way of life. Of course there are many people within a population who don’t share the thinking or the behavior of the population as a whole. Indeed perhaps the majority would insist that they are not licentious and materialistic individualists. But sooner or later a culture is formed by the people themselves, by the way they actually behave, by what they find it natural to do, by the arts they support, and by the social ideas they find credible. American materialism wouldn’t survive unless there were a great many American materialists. Americans know better than to self-identify as materialists, the long and deep influence of the Christian faith, not yet entirely spent in America today, may give them a guilty conscience about their materialism, but, as we say, actions speak louder than words.

But inevitable as culture is, there is and must be a Christian culture, which, in the nature of the case, must be a counter-culture. There must be a pattern of thought and behavior, of attitudes and ideas, of tastes that are peculiar to Christians. And there has been such a culture throughout the ages. When the church moved out into the Greco-Roman world, it created a culture of its own, utterly unlike the culture of the times. Christians didn’t expose their infants, they didn’t countenance abortion, they forbad illicit sexual relationships, they required fidelity in marriage, they began manumitting their slaves in large numbers and giving to slaves and former slaves positions of authority in their churches, they refused to participate in the pagan rites of Greco-Roman political and social life, but they paid their taxes, obeyed the state to the extent that such obedience did not conflict with their loyalty to God, and they took it upon themselves to care for the poor, both Christians and non-Christians alike. Christian fellowship or brotherhood was likewise something the world had never really seen; a unity based on a theological conviction and a message of love. Christians established institutions that were utterly unlike the institutions of the world around them; institutions that reinforced their culture in every Sunday’s liturgy, with the hymns they sang together, the prayers they prayed, the sermons they heard, and by the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There was a reason the Christians were referred to as the “third race.” They were not exemplars of the dominant culture; but neither were they Jewish, the culture from which they sprang. They were a people apart, strange to look upon for most people of the world of that day; hard to understand because they obviously thought so differently and acted so differently than everyone else. This was a culture people had not seen before. To be sure, the wore the same clothes and ate the same food as their fellow citizens, but in many far more significant ways they were a people apart.

Well, that is what we find here in chapter 21, a piece of Israelite counter-culture. Canaan may have been a type or image of heaven, but it was also the place where Israel was to live a life utterly different from the life of the people around them. It was precisely because the Canaanites represented such a vastly different culture that the Lord had required the Israelites to dispossess them of the land. The reason was stated over and over again, in Numbers and in Deuteronomy and again in Joshua. Canaanite culture was toxic, but it was also attractive in three very important ways: it was radically sensual, it was undemanding, and it was conformist. Its worship was overtly sexual in tone and practice. (Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer could say, “Church ain’t shucks to the circus.” But nobody could say that in Canaan in the fourteenth century B.C. The circus had nothing on Canaanite worship!) Furthermore, Canaanite religion required little of its practitioners. You did your bit at the sanctuary and that was that. And, finally, it fit comfortably into the culture of the other peoples of the ancient near east. A culture that panders to desire, that requires little in return and does not require people to be different is always going to be attractive to sinful human beings. Who can deny this in America today?

In respect to the subject of our chapter Canaanite culture was not concerned for justice. The powerful abused the powerless and their right to do so was accepted as a simple fact of life. There were masters and there were slaves. The life of the poor was brutish and short. They lived for the benefit of their betters. You would not expect a culture that sacrificed its own children to appease the gods to be fastidious about protecting the rights of the accused.

But everything was going to be fundamentally different in Israel. There are a number of counter-cultural convictions on display here. First, there is the sanctity of human life. It was always to be a big deal when someone died and particularly when someone was killed in Israel. And the people of God were to be scrupulously careful to protect the sanctity of life, by the way in which any killing was adjudged and punished: both that of the man who had been killed, his life, and the man who had done the killing, his life. Both lives were sacred, both men were to be treated with justice. In the case of unintended death, even then the fact that a life had been taken was to be treated in the most serious way. Even the man who had killed accidentally had to remain in the city of refuge. If he did not, he could be killed by the avenger of blood. Life made in God’s image is always terribly sacred and nothing so enforces that impression as the fact that even the accidental taking of life had long term consequences. For such a man, the city of refuge was both an asylum and a prison until the death of the High Priest. [Butler in Davis, 155]

On the other hand, true justice distinguishes and weighs motivations and circumstances. All killings are not the same and true justice makes the appropriate distinctions. When people are killed, no matter how they die, there is a natural desire on the part of friends and family members to want vengeance. But the Bible does not allow private vengeance under any circumstances. As the Apostle Paul sums up the position of Holy Scripture, citing Proverbs 20:

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” [Rom. 12:19]

And even earlier than the book of Joshua, we read in Deuteronomy:

“Vengeance is mine, and recompense,” says the Lord. [32:35]

The avenger of blood, was therefore, thoroughly limited in what he was allowed to do. He could execute kill a killer only if the man were found guilty of what we would call today “first degree” murder or if the man had violated the law of asylum and left the city of refuge. If he killed a man who had not done either of those things, obviously he would himself have violated the sanctity of life and would be punished according to the same rules. [Howard, 385]The ancient world flowed with the blood of personal vengeance, but it was not to be found in Israel. When you stop to think about it, this is another of those features of Israelite life that was not only unprecedented in ancient near eastern life, but would have been frankly preposterous to the original inhabitants of Canaan.

So important were these principles that a system to protect the rights of the accused was established, these so-called cities of refuge. So important were the protections they offered that they were located within easy reach of any part of the land of Israel. These cities and the procedures set up for their use ensured that the guilty would be punished, but punished justly, with a punishment that fit the crime — the same principle that lies behind the famous biblical axiom “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – not two eyes for an eye, not two teeth for a tooth – and that those who were innocent of any actual crime would be protected from the avenger of blood, though confined within the city of refuge.

So fundamental were these principles of justice for the life of the people of God that the Lord required that, as we read in v. 9, they applied to sojourners as well, people who lived in the land but who were not Israelites. In Israel justice was for everyone. Nowhere else in the ancient world, but always in Israel! God’s people couldn’t secure justice for themselves while denying it to others. This may seem obvious and uncontroversial to a modern reader; it may seem an ingenious system to secure justice in a day before the existence of police departments and elaborate judicial systems. But this would not have seemed obvious or even proper to an ordinary citizen of the ancient near east. Vengeance for them was the natural way of life, as it continues to be in many parts of the world. How many times have we heard of so-called “honor killings” in the Muslim world today? And what is terrorism after all but mass private vengeance?

But here, in the 14th century before Christ, the common assumptions of that ancient world are swept away and we see emerging before our eyes what so many parts of the world today take for granted: a Christian culture of justice.

Of course, this was hardly the only way in which the life of the people of God was to be a counter-culture. The forsaking of idols — more than that, the mocking of them as non-existent things — was utterly unprecedented in that world and would have been thought deeply perverse. Monotheism was unknown in the ancient world. That there was but one living and true God, and that he was himself a God of holiness and love was the utterly revolutionary idea, from which every other element of biblical culture arose. The treatment of women, the laws of marriage and divorce, the requirement to care for the poor, it goes on and on. The connection between faith and ethics that is everywhere fundamental to Israel’s worldview was simply unheard of in the ancient world. The ancient gods didn’t care how you lived your life, only that you gave them gifts. They were as selfish, irresponsible, bloodthirsty, and sensual as any human being ever was.  But Yahweh was uninterested in your gifts if you didn’t live a life before him of obedience and love which was what he was really interested in. No one had ever heard that from Baal or Asherah or Marduk or Aton!

Now this biblical culture is another aspect of the story of the conquest of Canaan. The point was not simply to inherit some real estate. The point was to establish a way of life for the people of God that reflected Yahweh’s holiness and goodness, that brought his blessing and favor down upon the people generation after generation, and that bore witness to the reality of the view of the world taught in Holy Scripture.

Now since Pentecost, that biblical culture, that Christian culture reflecting the same convictions, the same concerns, and the same behaviors illustrated here in Joshua 20 has had to exist within other cultures. It exists in the faithful Christian community but not in the population at large. It never has. We understand that. It is our calling to be in the world but not of the world, to be a counter-culture.

But, alas, as happened again and again in Israel’s history, the Christian culture has too often been absorbed into the prevailing culture and has been compromised by it, so that the way of life of Christians becomes scarcely different from that of the surrounding culture. It was precisely to avoid that outcome that the Lord had demanded that the land be cleared of its Canaanite population. The failure to do so was to prove fatal to Israel’s spiritual life and testimony. It is the great question facing the American church in our time: will she remain distinctively Christian, living a distinctly Christian life with distinctly Christian attitudes and behaviors and thoughts and ideas or will she become more and more American. I’m afraid there are not enough Christians who realize that the two things are not at all the same thing!

But it is also essential to the world that the Christian culture remain vitally alive and visible. You’ve heard the old canard that Christians are too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good. There are many have argued that Christianity and its interest in personal salvation is “pie in the sky bye and bye.” That is, it is message about a future life of little use for this life and for this world. To which my seminary professor, Laird Harris, used to retort, “Well, it’s certainly better than no pie at all!” But, of course, as has been demonstrated often enough, biblical culture lived out in faithful Christian communities has been better for this world than any other influence — political, social, scientific, or religious. Virtually every principle that has exalted human life and contributed to human flourishing has been a gift to the world from the Christian faith. Even those who would never identify themselves as Christians borrow Christian concepts when they argue for the right and wrong of things: concepts such as the sanctity of life, justice, human rights, private property, and so on. The very ideas we find in Joshua 20 and elsewhere in the book, but which could not be found elsewhere in the world of that time or in much of our world in our own day. Do you have any idea how much the moral compass of the western world — even corrupted as it has become — is still a Christian moral compass, fundamentally different from the moral compass of so many other peoples alive in the world today?

The fact of the matter is that the Christian faith has always been about this world as well as the next, about life here as well as life there. Joshua 20 is a summons to us all to live as witnesses in this world to those truths that lie at the foundation of reality, because God is God and we are made in his image. We human beings have been granted life to live in a certain way, the right way, the way God has taught us in the law he has written on our hearts and the law he has enshrined in his Word, the very way, the very law, the very standard according to which he will judge us on the Great Day. We are to reflect his truth, his goodness, his holiness, his justice, and his love.

That is our calling. That was Israel’s calling in the world. When we live that way it is very good for us, it is very good for our children, and it is also very good for the world around us. You will never help a human being by living less obviously as an out and out Christian!