Joshua 16–20: Divisions & Cities of Refuge

Read the Bible in 2023 ◊ Week 4: Tuesday

So they finished dividing the land.
Then Yahweh spoke to Joshua, saying,
“Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘Designate the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you by the hand of Moses, that the manslayer who strikes down any person unintentionally, without premeditation, may flee there, and they shall become for you as a refuge from the avenger of blood.’”
Joshua 19:20b, 20:15 LSB

The division of the land of Canaan by the twelve tribes of Israel that began in Joshua 13 (see last week’s Joshua 11–15: Conquer & Divide), continues in today’s Bible reading of Joshua 16–20. This reading comes the day after the reading in Genesis 12–15, in which God promised this land to Abram’s descendants. (I do love the way Bible readings in Coley’s plan dovetail together!). This is why Israel is called The Promised Land. As God told Abram, after their sojourn in Egypt, his descendants are here.

Below are the references for the lands of the tribes. At the end of chapter 17, Joshua exhorts Ephraim and Manasseh to finish taking their land; at the beginning of chapter 18, he must exhort the remaining seven tribes to take theirs.

Caleb and Joshua are also listed in the inheritances. Of the twelve sent by Moses to spy out Canaan, they were the only two who did not rebel against God, but trusted Him to deliver the land into their hand (cf. Numbers 13:1–14:38).

Remember that because the priests for the nation of Israel come from the tribe of Levi, this tribe is not allotted its own territory (cf. Deuteronomy 18:1–8). In Joshua 21, the Levites will be given cities scattered within the lands of the other tribes.

Click the image for a larger map.

East of the Jordan (cf. 13:31):

Joshua 13:15–23: Reuben
Joshua 13:24–28: Gad
Joshua 13:29–31: Manasseh
(half-tribe son of Joseph: Joshua 16:4)

West of the Jordan:

Joshua 14:6–15: Caleb

Joshua 15:1–12: Judah
Joshua 15:13–19: Caleb
Joshua 15:20–63: Judah

Joshua 16:4–9: Ephraim
(half-tribe son of Joseph: Joshua 16:4)

Joshua 17:1–18: Manasseh
(half-tribe son of Joseph: Joshua 16:4)

Joshua 18:11-28: Benjamin

Joshua 19:1–9: Simeon
Joshua 19:10–16: Zebulun
Joshua 19:17–23: Issachar
Joshua 19:24–31: Asher
Joshua 19:32–38: Naphtali
Joshua 19:39–48: Dan
Joshua 19:49–51: Joshua

In chapter 20, six cities of refuge are designated for those who unintentionally kill someone. Anyone guilty of manslaughter could flee to one of these cities to take refuge there from an avenger of blood.

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. Now beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the plain from the tribe of Reuben and Ramoth in Gilead from the tribe of Gad and Golan in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh. These were the appointed cities for all the sons of Israel and for the sojourner who sojourns among them, that whoever strikes down any person unintentionally may flee there and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood until he stands before the congregation.
Joshua 20:7–9 LSB

There were three cities of refuge on each side of the Jordan River. If you look at the tribal locations on the map above, you can see they were scattered over the land to give someone a chance to be able to flee to one in time to prevent their life being taken before the case was heard. This Blue Letter Bible map of the Cities of Refuge has a circle around each city. The area within the circle is about a day’s journey or less to that city.

Hugh Blair explains:

“The regulations until he has stood before the congregation for judgment and until the death of him who is high priest at the time, are to be interpreted, as in clearly seen from Nu. 35:24, 25, as meaning that the man­slayer was to stay in the city of refuge until he had been taken back to his own city to be tried by the congregation: if proved guilty of murder, he would be handed over to the avenger of blood, but if proved innocent of intent to kill, he would be taken back to the city of refuge, there to remain until the death of the existing high priest. The death of the high priest, as the only regular national official at the time, marked the end of a definite period.”1

I’ve always found the cities of refuge fascinating. They are a wonderful evidence of God’s justice, com­passion, and wisdom; they reveal who He is. Francis Schaeffer comments,

“It is really beautiful that the cities were available not only for the children of Israel but also for both the non-Israelites who were living permanently in the land and those who were merely passing through. This was entirely new to the heathen world. Here was real justice—a universal and civil code that pertained equally to the citizen and stranger. This justice was not rooted in the notion of a superior people but in the character of God; therefore, it pertained to all men…

“Let us notice some facts about the cities of refuge. First, they were in central places on both sides of the Jordan, so they were easy to reach from any place in the country. God expressly commanded that roads were to be made to these cities (Deut. 19:3). From nonbiblical sources we can add some further detail about the highways. They were carefully repaired every spring, after the rains and bad weather of winter. Further, bridges were built where needed so that a man did not have to run down into a ravine but could go straight across, taking the shortest possible route to the city. At every crossroad were special signs which said, “Refuge! Refuge!” and pointed in the direction of the city. They had to be large enough so that a man running hard could easily read them.

“We can picture the man coming up the road. Another man is pursuing him, sword out. The first man, having no time to use a magnifying glass, approaches the sign and sees the big words, “Refuge! Refuge!” He runs to the city and is safe.

“Secondly, the cities of refuge were open to all—to the Israelite, the stranger and the sojourner.

“Third, from nonbiblical sources we hear that the great doors of the cities were never locked. We can see why. Otherwise a man might die while beating on the door.

“Fourth, these sources also tell us that each city of refuge was stocked with food. It was a sufficient refuge, then, not only providing legal protection but also meeting a man’s needs once he was inside.

“Fifth, we know from the Bible itself, of course, that if a killer did not flee to a city of refuge there was no help for him.”2

Schaeffer closes this chapter with these words:

“We are not like a man who runs to a city of refuge and is acquitted after a trial because he is innocent. We are guilty. If you are still a non-Christian, run to Christ, for God’s own promises say, “Refuge! Refuge!” If we are Christians, we should take Christ as our sufficient refuge in bringing specific sins under the work of Christ and in all the vicissitudes of life, this moment and moment by moment through the whole of our lives.”3


Silvesterzug Laterne: Bk muc. (CC BY-SA 4.0).
The Twelve Tribes of Israel: Richardprins. (CC BY-SA 3.0). GFDL-1.2-or-later.
Fleeing to the City of Refuge as in Numbers 35:11–28: illustration from page 173 of Charles Foster, The Story of the Bible, Philadelphia: A.J. Homan Co., 1884. Public Domain.
1Hugh J. Blair, “Joshua,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds. (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1970) 248.
2,3Francis Schaeffer, “The Cities of Refuge,” Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1975) 191–192, 196–197; 200.

I’m using Michael Coley’s Bible reading plan (one page PDF to print) to read through the Bible in 2023. Each day my posts are on different books because he divides Bible readings into seven categories, one for each day of the week: Epistles, The Law, History, Psalms, Poetry, Prophecy and Gospels. There’s more information on his plan and others at Read the Bible in 2023.

Copyright ©2011–2023 Iwana Carpenter

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