Joshua 20-21: The Cities

March 13, 2011 Series: Joshua: Lord's Army

Topic: Old Testament Passage: Joshua 1:9–1:9


When you come into the Land (Numbers 34-35)
With a finger in Joshua 20, we’re going to turn back two books to the last chapters of Numbers.  Before Joshua assumed leadership and led Israel into Canaan, the Promised Land, the prophet Moses commanded Joshua and the leaders of Israel what to do.  At the end of Numbers, the book  called  by Jews as “Rebellion in the Wilderness”, Moses describes a plan of attack, not for conquest, but for the putting things in order AFTER conquest.  Following the conquest, Joshua follows this plan just as Moses commanded by ESTABLISHING THE BOUNDARIES V. 34.1-2  The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Command the people of Israel, and say to them, When you enter the land of Canaan (this is the land that shall fall to you for an inheritance, the land of Canaan as defined by its borders),… IDENTIFYING THE LEADERS V. 34. 16-19 16 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “These are the names of the men who shall divide the land to you for inheritance: Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun. 18 You shall take one chief from every tribe to divide the land for inheritance. 19 These are the names of the men…AFFIRMING THE PRIESTHOOD V. 35.1-3  …2 “Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites some of the inheritance of their possession as cities for them to dwell in. And you shall give to the Levites pasturelands around the cities. 3 The cities shall be theirs to dwell in, and their pasturelands shall be for their cattle and for their livestock and for all their beasts
ESTABLISHING THE LAW V. 35.11… 11 then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge.

A Model to Follow
And in doing this, we are given a good model to follow in establishing our families and our churches.  We begin by determining our boundaries, what God has given to us to care for, steward, and live in.  And in our community, we identify the leadership, the roles and responsibilities.  As a priesthood of believers, we recognize that fulfilling our roles and responsibilities is not simply to have a fulfilling life, but all of it is an act of worship for God.  But we cannot worship without purity, and so with the Law of God written now on our hearts, all that we think, say, or do is submitted to the God’s Word.  And if anything gets out-of-wack, if our relationships become unhealthy or unfulfilling, one of those things has been lost.

The Cities of Refuge – God’s Law Instituted Following the distribution of the land which required the establishing of leadership, according to Moses, Chapters 20 and 21 bring the possession of the land to a close.  The actions record in this narrative bring us  back full circle, reminding us that the book of Joshua is about a war for the purity of worship in God’s people.  20.1-6 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. 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.’ ”

The cities of refuge were a commanded aspect of God’s Law.  The presence of sin in the land will have a spiritual impact on the people that will physically impact their life in the land.  The refusal to shed the blood of those guilty, and deserving punishment (such as murder), would be disobedience and only serve to condemn their own family under the wrath of God.  Similarly, the approval of shedding innocent blood would bring destructive consequences by the hand of God.  God provided cities for those who killed someone accidentally to flee.  If they fled to these “cities of refuge”, they could not be killed by the closest relative who, in the heat of the moment, would desire to murder the individual unjustly.  Scripture gives us an example of an “accidental” crime of this nature in Deuteronomy 19.4-7.  When a man goes with his neighbor and chops down at tree with an axe.  When the axe head flies off and kills his neighbor, he is allowed to flee to the city of refuge because he did not plan to kill them. 

Location, Location, Location

Cities of Refuge 
These “cities of refuge” are strategically placed by God on both sides of the Jordan.  There are six cities total, three on the eastern side of the Jordan and three on the Westside.  They are all strategically located in the North, Middle, and South, to make them easily accessible for anyone within the boundaries of Israel, Israelites or sojourner. The cities of refuge are not intended to escape justice, but vengeance, which is interesting considering how “vengeful” God seems to appear in the book of Joshua.

Justice & the Sanctity of Life
The book of Joshua is one of the most violent books of the Bible.  The first 10 chapters manifest wrath of a holy God against sin through the slaughter of men, women, and even children.  These disturbing narratives have given some cause to reject unjust God of the Old Testament, or Christianity all together.  It is against this brutal backdrop, that that cities of refuge stand.  Just when it seems God has little to no concern for human life, we see that God’s justice in fact ensures the sanctity of life.  It’s not that God is unjust, only that God is the one that defines justice in and outside of his family.  Outside of his family, the only justice is condemnation and judgment of sin.  Within his family, by grace through faith in Him as savior, we enter into the His community, a community that worships Him.  And it is within these boundaries that we experience the grace and mercy, while His justice ensures the sanctity of life for both the victim and the perpetrator.

Jesus our High Priest
We see God’s standard here (which has not changed) that for the one murdered, a life is required to atone for the sin.  If they are killed accidentally, there is still a consequence for the killer as death is still a result of sin.  The city is both a place of refuge and a place of exile.  He/she cannot assume their innocence and go about life as usual.  In many ways, the city is a prison where he’s required to remain and not leave, lest he lose his protection.  If he does step outside the boundaries, the manslayer (blood relative) may kill the man without guilt (Numbers 35.26-28).  The only way he can leave is if the current high priest dies, perhaps symbolizing an atonement of sorts and ultimately pointing us to Christ:   Hebrews 2.17 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 

The Cities of Levi – God’s Law Protected Through the cities of refuge we see God’s justice established and his law affirmed.  In chapter 21, we read about those charged with teaching and protecting that law: 21.1-3  Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites came to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua the son of Nun and to the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the people of Israel. 2 And they said to them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, “The Lord commanded through Moses that we be given cities to dwell in, along with their pasturelands for our livestock.” 3 So by command of the Lord the people of Israel gave to the Levites the following cities and pasturelands out of their inheritance.

Levities Request
At Shiloh the Levites step forward to claim their inheritance. While in the wilderness, Moses had commanded that the tribe of Levi not receive an inheritance of land, BUT, that they would receive 48 cities amongst Israel, 42 plus the 6 cities of refuge.  Joshua 13.14 says that the “offerings by fire to the Lord God of Israel are their TRUE inheritance.” The inheritance of the Levites is an office, a role, a God-ordained and blessed responsibility and privilege.  The Levites are requesting what God has already promised.  As we can see, both Simeon and Levi were not given “normal inheritances” as foretold by the blessing of Jacob in Genesis 48, hundreds of years earlier.  Because of their angry and violent spirits, they are “divided in Jacob and scattered in Israel (Genesis 48.5-7).  Their anger was made evident in when their sister Dinah is seduced by the prince of Shechem. Levi and Simeon end up killing all the men of Shechem for defiling their sister.  Alas, in God’s sovereignty the cursing of God is transformed into a blessing for both Levi, all of Israel, and ultimately the world through the one true priest Jesus.

Role of the Levities
Without a specific inheritance, the Levites would not appear to have the means to provide for their families.  Though they had the “cities of refuge”, they did not have cities with pasture lands to grow crops, raise cattle, and make a living. But they didn’t need a regular portion. Their “regular” portion came through what the received as tithes from the rest of the tribes as commanded by Law, because they had spiritual responsibilities.  The spiritual welfare of Israel depended upon the service of the priests and Levites, and their material welfare depended upon the spiritual state of Israel—their faithfulness to give to God their first fruits.

Specifically, the responsibilities of the priest and Levites were to care for different parts of the Tabernacle including the Ark of the Covenant.  In chapter 21, we read that the 46 cities are divided among the three sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.  Each had specific responsibilities for the care of the tabernacle, the Merarites carried and care for the frames (hardware) of the tabernacle, the Gershonites the coverings, and the Kohathites the different instruments and furnishings (Numbers 3-4).   Their role should not be understood as janitorial, rather, it is described as one of guarding the Tabernacle that they might protect the people of Israel.  In essence, their chief role was to preserve purity of worship.  They did this by leading Israel in worship, by teaching Israel the Word of God, and by defending the truth of God against attacks, especially from sin within the community.  They were set apart for this role in dramatic fashion in at the incident of the Golden Calf, where they demonstrated their ZEAL and love for God:  Exodus 32.26-28  26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’ ” 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. 29 And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.”

Cities Among the Portions
And so we see that, as the Law of God is affirmed through the designation of cities of refuge with are LEVITICAL cities, God ensures that such laws will be upheld by the presence of the LEVITES throughout the land.  Not only does Levi not get a large portion of the land, the cities they do receive are spread out amongst all of the tribes. 

Levitical Cities

God ensures that the purity of worship is protected throughout the land.  Joshua 21.41-4541 The cities of the Levites in the midst of the possession of the people of Israel were in all forty-eight cities with their pasturelands. 42 These cities each had its pasturelands around it. So it was with all these cities.  Fruitfulness, joy, satisfaction, is only possible through the pure worship of God by His Word. That means that there is not a portion of your portion that is governed by God.  The worship of God cannot be a weekly penance for God to check off so that you can go and live your life for yourself.  There are too many people in church who don’t worship God, and too many people out of the church who think they do.  Without doubt, the tabernacle at Shiloh is important and special; there will be times and festivals where Israel will gather together in worship as part of sacred assembly in the presence of God.  God intends for us to worship together.  But he also intends for our worship to be evident throughout ALL of OUR PORTION.  The presence of the Levitical cities served as a reminder to the people that they lived, by grace, in God’s country.  Worship is a lifestyle and, because of sin, it is a dysfunctional one—we have a worship disorder.  And even if we succeed in figuring out the boundaries of our portion, even determining the roles and responsibilities within that portion, we will often fail in fighting for the purity of worship throughout the portion.  We end up building a great life, but as we live, we love other things more than we love God. 

Conclusion:  v. 43-45 Once the priesthood is scattered throughout the land, the writer praises God’s faithfulness to keep his promise.  43 Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. 44 And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. 45 Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.

What had God Promised?
In verse 45, the writer emphatically states that NOT ONE WORD of all the “good” promises failed—all came to pass.  The question is begged, what exactly had God promised?   

  • VERSE 43 - He promised to give the offspring of Abraham an inheritance of land. 
  • VERSE 44 - He promised that they would possess and dwell in the land.
  • VERSE 45  - He promised to drive out all of their enemies from the land. 
  • VERSE 45  - He promised give them rest in the land. 

One more promise
God makes promises to Abraham and NOTHING keeps God from fulfilling his promises.  And though God fulfilled his promises to Abraham’s offspring, the Bible says that the promises weren’t in fact too them.  Paul writes in Galatians 3.16  16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.  All of the promises to Israel, the portion, the dwelling, the victories, the rest pointed toward the true inheritance in Christ.  There is no genuine hope in LAND that dies, EARTHLY VICTORIES that are short lived, or HOMES that eventually fall apart.  In fact, apart from Christ you are promised one thing for our lack of faith, judgment.  But in Christ, there is no condemnation for your sin—God is faithful even IF we are faithless. In Christ, then there is an invaluable inheritance, a meaningful life, a victory from sin, and an eternal rest waiting for us.  Ephesians 1.1-14 11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Benediction  1Peter 1.3-8  3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

More in Joshua: Lord's Army

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Joshua 24: The Choice

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Joshua 23: The Charge

March 20, 2011

Joshua 22: The Breach