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Click here to read Joshua 20-21 on BibleGateway.com

refugeLet’s admit it; sometimes reading the Old Testament is more tedious than uplifting. It’s hard to get too inspired by the various types of mold the Israelites had to clean, the number of tassels each robe should have, and the seemingly endless list of begats throughout the Old Testament. However, sometimes these longs lists can bring something to light that we may miss, so perhaps we can grin and bear it on occasion and try to hear what God is saying.

Joshua 20-21 is one of these passages – just this ridiculously long list of cities (and their pastureland – apparently a huge deal). So let’s look at what’s really going on.


Joshua 20 sets up what are called “cities of refuge.” In most ancient cultures – and frankly, a lot of modern ones – if someone murdered or hurt one of your relatives, you were legally allowed and obligated to seek vengeance. In some ways, the Bible allows this within certain limits (such as the community doles out punishment, not the aggrieved person). However, the cities of refuge were setup as a way to prevent this sort of retaliation for accidental manslaughter. If you killed someone while speeding on your donkey, you could flee to one of these cities and (if the city council accepted your request) you were protected there.

This is an interesting aspect to our view of Israelite society, because it adds a dimension of mercy to the conception of brutality that a lot of people have about the Old Testament. Were punishments severe? Certainly from our modern point of view, but remember this is before prisons; what was to be done to discourage crime? Yet even within this brutality, there was understanding for accidents, and a place for the truly innocent to seek protection.


Chapter 21 deals with towns for the Levites. Unlike the other tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi did not get its own land. Tribes like Judah and Manessah got sizable pieces of land, almost nations unto themselves. Why not Levi? All they got were some cities here and there.

The answer has to do with Levi’s unique place in Israel’s religious life. The Levites were the priests; a hereditary family that was responsible to God for the piety of the entire nation. So rather than concentrating all of that in one place, God chose to spread them out among the people. All the Israelites were relatively close to a religious center at all times; they had someone to remind them what the Law of God said, what sacrifices they needed to perform, and how much God loved them as a people.

These lists of cities may seem kind of pointless to us today, but they actually show an aspect of God that might otherwise be missing from our experience. God demands justice, but also provides for mercy. God provides for his people, and yet He wants to be close to them. In a few short chapters, we see a more complete picture of who God is.

That’s probably worth a little tediousness, don’t you think?

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