After seven chapters about dividing the land, Joshua 20–21 focuses on two types of cities in Israel—cities of refuge (ch. 20) and cities of Levites (ch. 21). From the role of these cities, we learn a great deal about God and his plans for his people—both in Israel and today. Here are ten things about Joshua 20–21.
1. Joshua 20–21 are unified with Joshua 13–19.
While many commentators legitimately distinguish the distribution of the cities in Joshua 20–21 from the distribution of the land, the order of the chapters shows us how Joshua 20–21 provides balance to a chiastic structure that ranges from Joshua 13–21.
A Introduction (13:1) – Joshua was old and advanced in years
B1 Remaining Lands (13:2–7)
B2a Eastern Lands with Moses (13:8–33)
B2b Western Lands with Joshua (14:1–5)
C Caleb (14:6–15) – Son of Judah Receives the Future Royal City of Hebron
D1 Judah (15:1–63) – The Greatest Emphasis is Placed on Judah
D2 Joseph (16:1–17:18) – Ephraim and Half of Manasseh
E Levi (18:1–10) – The Center of Israel’s Worship at Shiloh
D1’ Benjamin/Simeon (18:11–19:9) – 2 tribes associated with Judah
D2’ Five (19:10–48) – 5 tribes associated with Joseph
C’ Joshua (19:49–51) – Son of Ephraim
B1’ The Cities of Refuge (20:1–9)
B2a’ The Levitical Cities Outlined (21:1–8) – Primary Focus on Sons of Aaron
B2b’ The 48 Levitical Cities Listed (21:9–42) – Primary Focus on Aaron and Hebron (vv. 9–19)
A’ Conclusion (21:43–45) — All that God had promised the forefathers has been fulfilled
The importance of this literary structure is what comes in the middle, namely the arrangement of the land around the tabernacle (Josh 18:1–10). From this central feature, we are keyed to see how the association of Aaron with Hebron foreshadows the later connection between David and the priesthood. Moreover, the role of the Levitical cities helps us to understand how the whole nation was blessed by the Levitical priesthood and how the Levites directed the attention of the people to God’s dwelling place.
In what follows, we will see how these priestly themes recur in Joshua 20–21.
2. The Cities of Refuge are God’s idea to promote mercy and justice in Israel.
Joshua 20 begins with a fresh word from the Lord. For the first time since Joshua 13:1, God speaks. And his words repeat an instruction found four times in the Law of Moses. Going back to Exodus 21:13, the Lord had spoken repeatedly about the need for cities of refuge (cf. Num. 35:6, 11–14; Deut. 4:41–43; 19:2–9). And now in Joshua 20, six cities are chosen and appointed in the land.
Importantly, these cities are meant to promote mercy and justice. In truth, they are not blanket protections for wrong-doers; they are cities intended to make sure a fair trial is given to one who sheds blood. Recognizing the difference between murderers and manslayers, these cities provided shelter for the one who killed another person. Yet, the shelter was contingent upon a trial.
In truth, to collect the full purpose of these cities, we need to see a multitude of steps:
(1) When a homicide occurs, the offender flees to one of six designated cities of refuge (Josh. 20:7-8) and receives provisional safety from the pursuing “avenger of blood” (Num. 35:6, 12). The underlying assumption is that a convicted murderer must be put to death (Exod. 21:12; Lev. 24:17), and a ransom for a murderer’s crime cannot be paid (Num. 35:31–32).
(2) Elders of the city return the offender to the town where the killing has occurred, and the offender is judged before the “assembly” (Num. 35:24—25). Although not specifically stated, the jury may have been constituted of elders from the city of refuge and elders from the offender’s town.
(3) If it is determined that the homicide is accidental, “without malice aforethought” (Deut. 4:42; Josh. 20:5), the slayer receives sanctuary in the city of refuge (Num. 35:25). If the homicide is deemed murder, the slayer is handed over to the avenger to be executed (Num. 35:21; Deut. 19:11-12).
(4) If the homicide is accidental, the slayer must remain in the city of refuge or be subject to the avenger (Num. 35:26–27). Only at the death of the high priest may the slayer return home, free from the retribution of the avenger (Num. 35:25, 28; Josh. 20:6). (Ken Mathews, Joshua, 144–45)
3. God’s justice trains people to live justly.
If God’s laws promote mercy and justice, they also teach God’s people how to exercise justice with mercy and mercy that doesn’t deny the law. Truly, this combination of mercy and justice requires wisdom. But wisdom is the very thing which the law gives and the law produces, when the people of God put into practice these laws.
Therefore, with respect to the cities of refuge, we find the involvement of the whole community.
- Those who accidentally shed blood, learn to seek shelter from appointed cities.
- Elders of the refuge city must learn how to discern the motive of the action and determine if the death penalty is appropriate. This will also require the testimony of multiple witnesses (cf. Deut. 19:15–21).
- If the man is deemed to be a murderer, he is sent back to his city, for that city and its elders to carry out the execution.
- By contrast, if his actions were unintentional, he is permitted to remain in the city of refuge. This “prison sentence” gives the man life, but under strict guidelines.
- This prison sentence esteems the value of the individual who was killed, but it prevents unneccessary bloodshed via vigilante justice.
- The Levites are involved in this process, as each city of refuge is also a Levitical city. This means that the Levites, as teachers of the Law, must continue to teach the elders how to apply the Law.
- And last, the high priest is involved, for his death is what sets the prisoner free.
In all of these ways, or rather through all of these people, justice and mercy is exercised in Israel. In fact, when we put these people and actions in place, we can see how the various cities were joined together. In order, the whole nation depended on the ministry of the high priest, followed by the teaching of the Levites, carried out by the elders of various towns, and applied among individuals—some seeking mercy, others called upon to exercise justice. Through various lines of justice and mercy, therefore, the people of God worked to display the wisdom of God.
4. Motives Matter.
In Joshua 20:2–3 we read, “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.”
In these words, we discover that in the case where a man accidentally kills another, he is not be punished for the accidental death. Deuteronomy 19:4–6 makes this absolutely clear,
This is the provision for the manslayer, who by fleeing there may save his life. If anyone kills his neighbor unintentionally without having hated him in the past— 5 as when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live, 6 lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and strike him fatally, though the man did not deserve to die, since he had not hated his neighbor in the past
Applying these words without citing them in full, we discover that why someone does something is as important as the end result. Indeed, as God looks at the heart of a man (1 Sam. 16:7), so the Law of Moses calls Israel to do the same. Certainly, we cannot know the heart of man like God does, but motives matter, and the cities of refuge make that plain.
5. Legal Representation also matters.
The other part of justice in Joshua 20 relates to those who kill someone intentionally. As the Law of Moses makes clear, those who shed blood do not deserve to live. Deuteronomy 19:11–13 puts it this way,
“But if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, 12 then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. 13 Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you.
The value of life is so great to God, that anyone who takes a life on purpose does not deserve to live. This principle of justice goes back to Genesis 9:5–6 and is fleshed out in the Law of Moses. While some may argue that such acts of violence should be met with restorative justice (education, not execution), this is not what Scripture teaches. Deuteronomy 19:13 even says, “Your eye shall not pity him . . .” Retributive justice in the form of capital punishment is what the Law required for hateful, intentional killing.
Still, this commission to exercise justice does not come without four important protections. First, the decision to execute a murderer is not decided by or carried out by the “avenger of blood.” As Joshua 20:5 frames it, “If the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand.” This caveat protects the accused from justice that takes place outside the “court of law.” Second, the place where the man stands judgment is the “gate of the city,” where he must “explain his case to the elders of that city” (v. 4). In Israel, the city gate is the place where legal matters were solved. So this location indicates a formal trial, not just the spontaneous decision of some others.
Third, the congregation is called to decide the matter and whether or not to stone the man. Again, this protects the man from the judgment of one biased individual. Fourth, this judgment depends upon the testimony of multiple witnesses. As Deuteronomy 19:15–21 instructs,
A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. 16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
As you can see, Joshua 20 depends heavily on Deuteronomy 19. And as you can also see, faithful application of Deuteronomy 19 takes a great deal of wisdom. Yet, this is the entire purpose of God’s law. When Israel entered the land, their faithful exercise of God’s Word made them more like their Lord. In time, they would prove to be unfaithful, but that is not a reflection on God’s law but their disobedient hearts.
In the Law of Moses, God gave sufficient wisdom for Israel to seek mercy and justice. And a central way they learned mercy and justice came in the cities of refuge and the detailed specifications of handling bloodshed. In a fallen world, this still applies today. However, because the church does not carry the sword of the state, there is great discontinuity between Israel’s theocratic response to sin and ours. As 1 Corinthians 5 applies the language of “purging the evil person from among you” (v. 13), we find that the church’s application of capital punishment is excommunication, not execution.
6. Like Israel, local churches are meant to reflect the light of God’s wisdom through their mercy and justice.
Deuteronomy 4 gives a very clear explanation of why Israel is meant to keep the Law. In verses 5–6, the Lord says,
See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
In these verses, which are aimed at Israel’s entrance into the land, we discover that Israel’s obedience to the Law showcases the wisdom of God, such that the nations will be drawn to Israel and to Israel’s God.
Today, the church through their union with Christ has taken the same position. As Jesus calls the church to be a city set on a hill (Matt. 5:13–16), he identifies his followers as those who will take up Israel’s mantle and display his wisdom to the nations. Indeed, this is what Paul says in Ephesians 3, when he describes the mystery of Jew and Gentile unified in the church of Jesus Christ. Likewise, 1 Peter 2 tells us that the church is to a holy nation and kingdom of priests, whose obedience to God testifies to the power of the gospel.
While it would take too much space to explain all the ways that the Christ’s new covenant people fulfill the call of Israel, it is important to observe the way that Israel’s call to grow in wisdom, justice, and mercy, is also applied to the church. Indeed, because the gospel is essentially the revelation of God’s mercy to sinful humans, the church should be the chief exponent and example of mercy. Similarly, because the church has experienced God as just and the justifier, we should also be a people whose righteousness is observed in personal actions and inter-personal relations.
Truly, churches display God’s wisdom as they become a communities of grace and truth, mercy and justice. When local churches bear these fruit of the Spirit, they prove the presence of God in their midst. And importantly, it is the presence of both mercy and justice that displays the work of the gospel. For manmade communities can establish unrighteous leniency (think of revisionist evangelicals who promote LGBT concerns), while other culturally-driven communities can strive for justice at the expense of blood-bought mercy (think of the social gospel) In contrast to all compromised forms of Christianity, only a community created by the gospel can exhibit justice and mercy.
Nonetheless, this is what the Spirit of God creates. And thus, churches can learn from God’s design for Israel what his intentions are for his people today. In the church, we learn how to be merciful as we have received mercy, and we learn how to walk righteously in the truth we have received from God. Even more, we learn how to exercise justice with mercy, both in church discipline that leads to restoration and in church discipline that leads to excommunication.
Remembering that mercy and justice are attributes we must seek today, we discover how the wisdom of God displayed in Israel’s cities of refuge impels us to make our churches refuges. This may mean that we stand with members who are accused by the world, and it may mean publicly defending them from the modern equivalent of the “avenger of blood.” But it may also mean that we call out members for their sins, and sometimes it means reporting members to the police in situations of abuse.
Pursuing mercy and justice is no easy thing, and it takes the wisdom of God to avoid leniency, on one hand, and injustice, on the other. Yet, this is our calling and one that will prove the faith of those communities who are built on the gospel. Accordingly, the cities of refuge in Joshua 20 supplies the Christian church with wisdom for seeking justice and mercy today.
7. The history of Israel informs the order of the towns.
After setting in place six cities of refuge in Joshua 20, Joshua 21 lists 48 Levitical towns. Interestingly, this chapter is divided into two sections, which list the towns in two parallel ways. First, the cities are outlined in verses 1–8. Second, the individual cities are listed in the same order in verses 9–42.
What is the order? In both sections, the order proceeds from most important Levitical clan to least important. It also follows the geographical arrangement, from those cities closest to the tabernacle to those furthest away.
- The Sons of Aaron from the Tribe of Kohath (21:4, 9–19)
- The Rest of the Kohathites (21:5, 20–26)
- The Gershonites (21:6, 27–33)
- The Merarites (21:7, 34–40)
These names come from the three sons of Levi—Kohath, Gershon, and Merari (Num. 3:17; cf. Gen. 46:11; Ex. 6:16). In Numbers 3 their offspring, numbering in the thousands, are given specific duties within the tabernacle. In assistance to Aaron and his sons, the Gershonites dwelt behind the tabernacle to the West and carried the curtains of the tabernacle (Num. 3:21–26); the Kohathites dwelt South of tabernacle and carried the tabernacle furniture (Num. 3:27–32); and the Merarites dwelt to the North of the Tabernacle and carried the frames and bases of the tabernacle (Num. 3:33–37). Leading their brothers, the priests (i.e, the sons of Aaron) dwelt in front of the tabernacle to the East (Num. 3:38–39), Moreover, as we saw in Joshua 3, these sons carried the ark of the covenant itself.
What is striking about Joshua 21 is the way it continues the arrangement of Numbers 3. In both instances, the priests, the sons of Aaron, have the preeminent location, the place closest to the ark. Likewise, the proximity of the other Levitical clans to the tabernacle in the land relates to the proximity of the Levites service in the tabernacle. In other words, the Kohathites who carried the tabernacle furniture had the preeminent role among the Levites. Similarly, the Kohathites will be placed nearest to the tabernacle—both to Shiloh and Jerusalem. Interestingly, and by decision of the Lord (by the drawing of lots), the Kohathites are given cities in places nearest to Jerusalem, the ultimate resting place for God’s mercy seat. By contrast, the Gershonites and the Merarites are given towns in places further removed from the tabernacle (See “Dividing the Land” in The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, 393)
Overall, we discover the significance of the Levitical cities by comparing Joshua 21 to the past and the future. This means the history of the Levites in Numbers 3 gives a rational for the placement of the various tribes. And this arrangement in Numbers 3 and Joshua 21 is further confirmed in the future, when David brings the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6) and the construction of the temple in that city (1 Kings 3–8). Just like Joshua 13–21 centers on the tabernacle (see #1), so does the rest of Israel’s history!
8. No Levitical cities are placed in Simeon.
As the map above indicates, there are no Levitical cities in Simeon’s territory. Though Simeon is mentioned in Joshua 21:4, 9, Simeon is conflated with Judah in verses 9 and 16. Moreover, the exact locations may be debated, these nine tribes are generally associated with Judah, not Simeon.
Because our new covenant minds are not trained to miss one of Israel’s tribes, or know the exact location of each tribe, this geographical oddity may not pose much of a problem. Yet, when we consider the history of Levi, there is something revealing about this decision. In Genesis 49, Jacob essentially curses Simeon and Levi when he blesses all of his sons. Verses 5–7 read,
5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6 Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.
As the ensuing history goes, Levi becomes the tribe who uses their swords to defend the house of the Lord (see Exod. 32:25–28; Deut. 33:8–11). They do not possess their own land; they are scattered throughout the nation. This was the original curse they received because of their actions with Shechem in Genesis 34.
As we discover in Joshua, however, the landlessness of the Levites actually proves to be a greater blessing, because their service to the Lord is a greater inheritance (see Josh. 13:14, 33; 14:3; 18:7). In this way, Levi, while possessing no land, has a place in every tribe except Simeon. And the reason for this absence seems to be intentional, not accidental. Namely, to prevent another act of violence concocted by Simeon and Levi (as seen in Genesis 34), there are no Levites given to this tribe directly. Rather, like Levi the sons of Simeon will be absorbed into Israel. The beginning of this is seen in Joshua 21:16. While this fulfills the curse of Jacob in Genesis 49, it also results in a blessing. By absorption into Judah, the sons of Simeon will remain in the land with Judah, when the northern tribes divide themselves from David’s heir.
From these turns of history, we see a pattern that recurs in redemptive history—what the sons of Israel intend for evil, God brings for good. Thus, the fact that Levi has no towns in Simeon does not mean a total loss. Rather, it is the first of many ways that God is driving the Simeonites to identify with Judah, even by seeking aid from the Levitical cities in their lands.
9. The city of Hebron foreshadows the coming convergence of the priests and kings.
The priestly nature of Joshua 21 is evident in the detailed attention to the Levites and their position around the tabernacle. However, the main priestly focus comes in Aaron and his placement in and around Hebron. Joshua 21 takes eleven verses on this subject, more than on any other city, or tribe, or person. This attention deserves our consideration, and from these verses we can make 7 observations.
- The history. Hebron was the previously occupied by the Anakim. Hence, this great city, ruled by men of renown, took serious work to conquer. The mention of the Anakim highlights the greatness of the one(s) who took this city.
- The conqueror. Caleb received this city when he volunteered in faith to take the city from the Anakim. In Joshua 14 twelve verses were dedicated to faithful capture of this city (vv. 6–15). In that context, Caleb’s faith marked him out, and it would continue to mark out this city.
- The topographical height. As verse 11 indicates this city is in the hill country. Whereas all the other cities are mentioned with their pastureland, this city is highlighted as being a height. In other words, topographically it sits above the rest of the cities.
- The size. Unlike the other cities, verse 12 indicates that Hebron had villages surrounding it. This observation further signifies the greatness of this city in Judah.
- The priestly occupants. Aaron and his descendants live in Hebron. In fact, this point is stressed in a multitude of ways in the passage. First, verse 10 identifies the tribes of Judah and Simeon as giving land to the sons of Aaron. Second, Aaron himself is given a place in Hebron.
- The proximity to Shiloh. Like all the cities of refuge cities, Hebron is also a Levitical city. But this city stands closest to the tabernacle. Even more, because only six of the 48 Levitical cities were cities of refuge, this feature distinguishes Hebron.
- David’s royal city. Finally, if Hebron’s greatness began with Caleb, it increased when David became king. Indeed, 2 Samuel 2:1–4 records the anointing of David as king in Israel. Though Jerusalem would be his final destination of his kingdom, David served for seven years as king in Hebron (2 Sam. 2:11; 1 Kgs. 2:11). Thus, the history of this city is important for understanding David and his “priestly” kingdom.
Indeed, the placement of Aaron and his sons at Hebron gives further indication of the kind of king David was. He was not a king like the nations who took plunder for himself; he was a king who protected and supported the priesthood. Though, as son of Judah, he could not be a priest, it is worth observing that the priests of Aaron dwelt among Judah, and specifically in Hebron and surrounding towns. This may even explain how David, as a son of Judah, could be related to John the Baptist, a son of Aaron. Just as Aaron’s wife was from the tribe of Judah (Exod. 6:23), so it seems there would continue to be a close association of priests and kings in the history of Israel because the priests lived in Judah.
Going forward this close proximity would result in David (and his sons) protection and support of the priesthood. It would ensure the priests taught the sons of David the law (cf Deut. 17:15–20). And at this juncture in redemptive history, it also foreshadows the movement of the ark from Shiloh to Jerusalem in the coming generations.
10. The Levitical cities indicate the kind of discipline and teaching that the church should exhibit today.
In Joshua 13–21 the sons of Levi find prominence in the superlative nature of their inheritance, in their service at the tabernacle, and in their placement throughout the country. In all of these ways, these chapters show Israel’s dependence on the priests and Levites, and the role these figures will play in the future of Israel. At the same time, their service to the Lord and their fellow Israelites highlights at least three truths for the contemporary church.
First, the greater number of Levitical cities (48) as opposed to refuge cities (6) suggests that formative discipline should outweigh corrective discipline. Indeed, in Israel at this time, the Law of Moses would need to be passed down to every generation. We know this often did not happen (read Judges 2), but this was the intention and the ideal. The Levites were given to make sure this happened (see Mal. 2:5–7).
Today, this ideal continues in the church. Formative church discipline (i.e., the faithful instruction of God’s word, along with correction and reproof) is the primary “discipline” in the church. Corrective church discipline (and excommunication) is always the last move a church makes, and only in cases of unrepentant sin. In the number of Levitical cities compared to refuge cities, we find a type of this pattern—constructive teaching should is normative; corrective discipline should is the necessary, but (hopefully) more uncommon, practice.
Second, commissioned as teachers of the Law and stationed throughout the country, the Levites assisted their brothers, the priests, by instructing the people and preparing them for worship. Put differently, these Levites would function as local “pastors” teaching the Word of God.
Today, this role is not restricted to a certain class of saints (the clergy, for instance), this is something we all must do. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Likewise, Paul says in Romans 15:14, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.”
What’s striking about this second passage is the way Paul goes on to speak of his ministry in priestly terms. Truly, because we have a high priest who sits at God’s right hand, and we have the Spirit of Truth and the full revelation of God in the Bible, all members of God’s body are now able to know the Lord and to encourage others to do the same. This was not the case under the old covenant, as Jeremiah 31:31–34 makes plain. In Israel, the priests and Levites had the responsibility to teach the people (cf. Mal. 2:1–9), and placement of Levitical cities was intended to propagate this teaching. Today, churches serve this purpose, where every member of the church is priest to another. This is what the priesthood of believers is, which is a new covenant reality and not something possible under the old covenant.
Third, the role of the priests and Levites in Israel was to train elders and the rest of the people in the cities to do what is right. Yes, there were things in Israel that only the priests and Levites could do (mostly associated with the tabernacle / temple), however, this does not mean the people were entirely passive. As a kingdom with priests who taught them and (ideally) modeled righteousness before them, Israel was tasked with listening to the priests, so they could walk in righteousness.
Indeed, this process has been democratized under the new covenant. Still, the place of spiritual leaders does remain in the church. Only, leadership under Christ is recognized by maturity and godliness, not Levitical ancestry. For this reason, the New Testament does not cancel out the gift of teaching, rather it affirms it and creates the office of the pastor to continue this ministry.
In this way, the New Testament both affirms the fact that every member of the church is a priest to one another, and in complementary fashion, the New Testament calls for specific men to serve as pastors / elders in the local church. These qualified men (see 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5) are to teach the people with the word of God like the priests of old. Only, they are not to stand removed from the people, like the priests and Levites did; they are to be among the sheep and to equip the saints for their works of service.
Clearly, the way of the new covenant community is in a far better position than Israel. However, we can also see how the Levitical cities in the land function as types and shadows of local churches today. This is clearly not by accident, but according to the good and perfect plan of God whose word never fails but always comes to completion (cf. Joshua 21:43–45).
Soli Deo Gloria, ds