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The Cities of Refuge
Then the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, 2“Say to the Israelites, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3so that anyone who kills a person without intent or by mistake may flee there; they shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. 4The slayer shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city, and explain the case to the elders of that city; then the fugitive shall be taken into the city, and given a place, and shall remain with them. 5And if the avenger of blood is in pursuit, they shall not give up the slayer, because the neighbor was killed by mistake, there having been no enmity between them before. 6The slayer shall remain in that city until there is a trial before the congregation, until the death of the one who is high priest at the time: then the slayer may return home, to the town in which the deed was done.’ ”
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. 8And 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. 9These were the cities designated for all the Israelites, and for the aliens residing among them, that anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there, so as not to die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until there was a trial before the congregation.
1. The Lord also spoke unto Joshua, etc In the fact of its not having occurred to their own minds, to designate the cities of refuge, till they were again reminded of it, their sluggishness appears to be indirectly censured. The divine command to that effect had been given beyond the Jordan. When the reason for it remained always equally valid, why do they wait? Why do they not give full effect to that which they had rightly begun? We may add, how important it was that there should be places of refuge for the innocent, in order that the land might not be polluted with blood. For if that remedy had not been provided, the kindred of those who had been killed would have doubled the evil, by proceeding without discrimination to avenge their death. It certainly did not become the people to be idle in guarding the land from stain and taint. 172172 Calvin is somewhat singular in holding that the message communicated to Joshua was an indirect censure of the Israelites, for not having previously of their own accord appointed cities of refuge. Other expositors think that till now the proper time of appointing them had not arrived, as it could not well precede, but rather behooved to be subsequent to the allocation of cities to the Levites, inasmuch as the nature of the case required that every city of refuge should be Levitical. — Ed. Hence we perceive how tardy men are, not only to perform their duty, but to provide for their own safety, unless the Lord frequently urge them, and prick them forward by the stimulus of exhortation. But that they sinned only from thoughtlessness, is apparent from this, that they are forthwith ready to obey, neither procrastinating nor creating obstacles or delays to a necessary matter, by disputing the propriety of it.
The nature of the asylum afforded by the cities of refuge has been already explained. It gave no impunity to voluntary murder, but if any one, by mistake, had slain a man, with whom he was not at enmity, he found a safe refuge by fleeing to one of these cities destined for that purpose. Thus God assisted the unfortunate, and prevented their suffering the punishment of an atrocious deed, when they had not been guilty of it. Meanwhile respect was so far paid to the feelings of the brethren and kindred of the deceased, that their sorrow was not increased by the constant presence of the persons who had caused their bereavement. Lastly, the people were accustomed to detest murder, since homicide, even when not culpable, was followed by exile from country and home, till the death of the high priest. For that temporary exile clearly showed how precious human blood is in the sight of God. Thus the law was just, equitable, and useful, as well in a public as in a private point of view. 173173 It may be observed in passing, how strikingly the humanity and wisdom conspicuous in the appointment of the Mosaic cities of refuge contrast with the manifold abuses and abominations to which the numerous asylums and sanctuaries of Popish countries have led. — Ed. But it is to be briefly observed, that everything is not here mentioned in order. For one who had accidentally killed a man might have remained in safety, by sisting himself before the court to plead his cause, and obtaining an acquittal, after due and thorough investigation, as we explained more fully in the books of Moses, when treating of this matter.
7. And they appointed Kedesh, etc The Hebrew word Kedesh here used, signifies also to fit and consecrate. Accordingly, I interpret, that cities were selected according as common use required. 174174 Latin, “Prout communis usus ferebat.” French, “Selon que le profit et l’utilite commune le requeroit;” “According as the common profit and utility required.” — Ed. Hence it is inferred that matters were well arranged so as to make private yield to public interest. Moreover, we shall see in the next chapter, that Ciriath-Arbah, which was afterwards called Hebron, was transferred to the Levites, though it had formerly been the property of Caleb. Hence appeared the rare, nay, the incomparable moderation of this aged saint, who readily gave up to others both the city and suburbs, which he had justly claimed as his right, the moment the lot showed that this was pleasing to God. It was necessary to advert briefly to this change, because the Lord was pleased that asylums should be found only in the Levitical cities, that their innocence might be defended with greater fidelity and authority.