Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Joshua 20

The cities of refuge (vs. 1-9)--This was a pretty important part of the Israelites judicial system simply because tribal revenge (personal vengeance) was extremely common in the ancient world. Most people/tribes did not have sophisticated law systems, and usually reciprocity was the means of justice--if you killed somebody in my family, regardless of the cause, then somebody in my family killed one of yours in return. That usually ended it; there were no Hatfield-McCoy type feuds. To mitigate that kind of injustice, Jehovah provided for cities of refuge "that the slayer who kills a person accidentally or unintentionally may flee there; and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood" (v. 3). Premeditated murder was dealt with capitally, of course, but this law relates to involuntary manslaughter. The "guilty" party fled to one of those cities and stood outside the gate, pleading his case to "the elders of that city" (v. 4). They were to take him in and protect, and "the avenger of blood"--the one seeking vengeance--could not touch him. The city of refuge didn't just accept the word of the killer; there was to be some sort of trial (v. 6), and if he was proven innocent, then he would stay in that city "until the death of the one who is high priest in those days" (v. 6; verse 9 mentions the same thought about a trial “before the congregation”). Then he could return to his own city and home.

There is some punishment involved here, even though the killing was not premeditated. The fact that the killer could lot live in his own home among his own people for a while was a form of retribution; human life was to be regarded as sacred and not to be taken lightly. So even involuntary manslaughter carried some penalty.

There were six cities appointed for refuge, located equally on both sides of the Jordan River, and they were spread pretty well throughout the land—west of the Jordan, there was a city in Naphtali (north), Ephraim (central), and Judah (south). On the eastern side of the Jordan, each of the three tribes, Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh contained a city of refuge (vs. 7-9). As far as I know, there is no historical evidence mentioning the use of the cities of refuge.

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