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Where Can You Find Refuge? Joshua 20

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Where Can You Find Refuge?

Joshua 20:1-9

Stephen Caswell © 1999

Where Can You Find Refuge?

A Place Of Refuge

Sometimes life goes by at a hectic pace. Your head starts spinning because of the endless activity. After living like this for a while you just want to stop and rest for a while. It is at times like these I just want to sit down and relax a while. Do you ever feel like getting away for a break? You just want to go the mountains or the beach where it is still and quiet. There you can find peace again. Today people call such places retreats or weekenders. These places are a refuge to people who are overworked. But a refuge is also a place of safety to someone that is in trouble. They provide peace and protection from anyone who would harm them. God appointed such places of refuge in the land of Israel.


Last Sunday we saw how that God divided the land amongst 7 tribes. All 12 tribes had now received a portion. The Levites inheritance was the Lord. In chapter 20 God appointed 6 cities of refuge in the land of Israel. In chapter 21 God makes these 6 cities, levitical cities, along with 42 others. The Levites were in fact given 48 cities and their surrounding pasture lands for their flocks. Now that Israel had received their land some of it was designated for special purposes. These 6 cities of refuge were to become an important part of Israel’s culture. As we look at the cities of refuge, there are 3 main points I want to address.

1. The Place

2. The Promise

3. The Purpose

Firstly The Place

a. Appointed

Joshua 20:1-2 The LORD also spoke to Joshua, saying, “ Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘ Appoint for yourselves cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses,  

God had spoken through Moses about them on a number of occasions. They are first mentioned in Exodus 21 at the giving of the law. Exodus 21:12-13 He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. God Himself appointed these cities in Israel. They were to be an integral part of their justice system. These cities belonged to the Levites, who were also involved in the communities justice. God values human life and requires that justice be maintained, yet at the same time, mercy.

b. Accessible

Joshua 20:7-8 So they appointed Kedesh in Galilee, in the mountains of Naphtali, Shechem in the mountains of Ephraim, and Kirjath Arba (which is Hebron) in the mountains of Judah. And on the other side of the Jordan, by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness on the plain, from the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh.

Throughout the Land

The six cities of refuge were distributed throughout the land of Israel. 3 were appointed by Moses on the east side of the Jordan River. Moses commanded Joshua to set aside 3 more on the west side of the Jordan. These cities were evenly spread through out the land. Everyone had access to a city of refuge. They were on both sides of the Jordan, from north to south. Israel kept the roads that lead to these cities in good condition. They also had clear sign posts along the way. This was to enable the man slayer easy access to the cities of refuge. The journey must not be too long lest the avenger of blood should overtake him on the way.


For Everyone  

Joshua 20:9 These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel and for the stranger who dwelt among them, that whoever killed a person accidentally might flee there, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood until he stood before the congregation. Verse 9 says that these cities were available to all. This included strangers who might dwell in Israel. There was to be no favouritism. God cared for all people and wanted all to receive mercy and justice. All had access to the cities of refuge.

Playing A Game Of Tiggy

I enjoy playing cricket with the kids in the backyard. I usually get the best scores of my cricket career in these games. But sometimes I play tiggy with them. Tiggy is a simple game as you all probably know. The person ‘ Up ‘ has to tig someone else and then they are in. There is a lot of running involved in the game. But when you get tired you can go to bar where you are safe from being tigged. You can rest there and catch your breath, since the person up cannot tig you on bar. It is like a refuge and everyone being chased can use it.


But how does this relate to us today? Do we need a place of refuge? Yes we do! We have all broken God’s law. Whether intentionally or unintentionally all are guilty. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. For the wages of sin is death.


But there is a place of refuge. God has appointed the cross as the place where sin is atoned for. John 12:32  “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all peoples to Myself.” Colossians 2:13-14  And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses,  having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Christ nailed the charges against us to His cross. The cross is the place where God judged sin.


Everyone has access to the cross of Christ. In fact all are invited to come. Jesus Christ has made the cross a place of refuge, where all sinners can flee. Hebrews 6:17-18  

Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. Firstly we have seen that God has appointed a Place of Refuge.

Secondly The Promise

God’s promise to the manslayer was that he would receive protection, justice and mercy if he fled to the city of refuge. God provided a place, but the manslayer must go there and present his case. He must come to God’s appointed Place.


a. The Slayer Proceeds To The City

Joshua 20:3  ‘ that the slayer who kills a person accidentally or unintentionally may flee there; and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood.

The slayer is described as one who accidentally kills another person. Today we would call this manslaughter. In ancient times in the Middle East when a relative was killed it was the duty of the nearest of kin to avenge their death. The avenger of blood didn’t care if the death was accidental or not. He only wanted revenge for his loved one. This practice was also a part of Israelite culture. In New Guinea today pay back works the same way. In fact God’s Law did say a life for a life, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. However the Lord also provided mercy for those who had killed someone accidentally.

b. The Slayer Presents His Case

Joshua 20:4  ‘And when he flees to one of those cities, and stands at the entrance of the gate of the city, and declares his case in the hearing of the elders of that city, they shall take him into the city as one of them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them.

When the man slayer arrives at the city of refuge he was to come to the elders. Then he would present his case unto them. After hearing the case and determining it to be right they would receive him into the city and provide accommodation for him. They would provide this service until a trial had determined the case. Deuteronomy 19:4-5 give an example of this. And this is the case of the manslayer who flees there, that he may live: Whoever kills his neighbour unintentionally, not having hated him in time past — “ as when a man goes to the woods with his neighbour to cut timber, and his hand swings a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbour so that he dies — he shall flee to one of these cities and live;  

c. The Slayer Is Protected Until Trial

Joshua 20:5-6  ‘ Then if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not deliver the slayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbour unintentionally, but did not hate him beforehand. ‘And he shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the one who is high priest in those days. Then the slayer may return and come to his own city and his own house, to the city from which he fled. ’ ”

If the avenger of blood should come to the city where the manslayer is taking refuge the people must not hand the slayer over to him. The reason he is to be protected is because the death was accidental and there was no hatred on the part of the slayer. Because of this he is to be protected as if he was innocent until after the trial. The cities of refuge provided a higher standard of justice than anything that was practiced in the Middle East.

People Seeking Asylum In America

During the cold war people often fled from Russia and China to find freedom in the west. They would come to the free world and seek political asylum from the government. If accepted the government would look after them. Spies or military personal needed extra care so that they would remain safe. The government gave them a new identity and provided employment and accommodation. This was often in exchange for top secret information. The government gave them this assurance before their defection was finalised. They had an obligation to fulfil.


Again these things apply to us all. God has provided a place of refuge for all.


a & b. Proceed To The Cross & Confess Our Sin

But we must first come to the cross to find mercy. It is only as the sinner acknowledges his guilt to God and believes that Jesus Christ has borne his punishment on the cross can he be saved. There is no other place that our sins can be dealt with. Whoever comes to the cross and believes in Christ receives mercy. Romans 10:9-13 That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “ Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For “ whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” The name we confess is the Lord Jesus; the name Jesus means, " Jehovah Saves."

c. Protection From Punishment

We are safe from God’s judgement at the cross of Jesus Christ. Those who confess their sins to Christ receiving His salvation need not fear judgement. Their sin has been atoned for. John 3:18 “ He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. God promises all who believe in His Son that they will not be condemned.


Thirdly The Purpose

Joshua 20:6 ‘And he shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the one who is high priest in those days. Then the slayer may return and come to his own city and his own house, to the city from which he fled. ’ ”

a. Provided Both Justice and Mercy

The purpose of this procedure was to bring justice and mercy together. Life is a precious gift and to take life is a serious thing. Even in the case of manslaughter it was still considered a serious matter. The person who killed someone by accident did not get off scot free. He had to live away from home for some time. He still faced trial and even if proven innocent was put through much inconvenience. The intention of the law was upheld whilst mercy was provided for the innocent. The sixth commandment says Thou shall not kill. The real intention of this commandment is, Thou shalt not murder. Because killing can  happen at other times without murder taking place. Such as war and capital punishment. This is also the reason God provided the cities of refuge to maintain justice and yet show mercy for those who accidentally kill.

b. Penalised The Guilty

If the slayer was guilty of murder and yet fled to a city of refuge, he did not go unpunished. Deuteronomy 19:11-13 But if anyone hates his neighbour, lies in wait for him, rises against him and strikes him mortally, so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, “ then the elders of his city shall send and bring him from there, and deliver him over to the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. ” Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with you. Justice was metered out to him. The avenger of blood was summoned and he took the life of the murderer. God commanded this action to limit the shedding of innocent blood in the land.

c. Pardoned The Innocent

When the manslayer was proven innocent of the crime he was acquitted. He was protected from the punishment served on murderers. But he had to remain in the city of refuge or risk his life being taken by the avenger of blood. If the avenger of blood caught him outside of the city of refuge he was entitled to kill him. This caused people to realise that even the accidental death of another was a serious thing.

When the high priest died the manslayer could return to his home and live there in safety. The avenger of blood could no longer touch him. It was as if the death of the high priest had paid for the innocent blood that had been shed. Someone had to pay for the blood of person who died. The high priest became the substitute for the man slayer. Now the manslayer had a full pardon and could enjoy his inheritance with his family again. In this way both mercy and justice had been satisfied. A life had been given for a life.

Ronald Biggs In Rio Dejenero

Probably most people here know of the great train robbery in Britain. A large amount of money was stolen by the robbers and several men were killed. Most of the criminals were caught but one fled to South America. Ronald Biggs took refuge in Rio Dejenero and still lives there. The Brithish Government knows where he lives but can’t touch him. He is protected by the government of Brazil. They cannot extradite him or administer justice. However, God’s justice doesn’t work this way. He won’t allow sinners to go unpunished. The punishment for sin must be administered. However He will pardon all who have their debt paid by another, a substitute.


This is a beautiful illustration of what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us through the cross.

We need a refuge from judgement. Jesus said, Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.

a. Provided Both Justice And Mercy

The purpose of the cross was to fulfil God’s justice toward mankind, since He cannot wink at sin. On the cross where God’s justice was applied, His mercy and grace abounded also. In the cross of Jesus Christ we see God’s righteous punishment of sin and mercy toward sinners at the same time. The Psalmist sought God’s salvation. Psalm 85:7-10 Show us Your mercy, LORD, And grant us Your salvation. I will hear what God the LORD will speak, For He will speak peace To His people and to His saints; But let them not turn back to folly. Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him, That glory may dwell in our land. Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed. God brought truth and justice together with mercy on the cross. He has made peace with man and yet maintained righteousness at the same time. This is because Jesus bore the punishment for our sin. He has paid the debt that we owe God for our sin. Sin has been paid for. God’s justice is satisfied.


b. Penalised The Guilty

To those who reject God’s salvation they will be punished for their guilt. Everyone needs the mercy of God. No one has kept God’s laws. All are worthy of death. Have you come to the place of refuge and received God’s mercy? Have you come to the cross of Christ and confessed your sin? If not God’s wrath abides upon you! You will receive the wages of sin, and this is death!

c. Pardoned The Just

The cross is a place of refuge only for those who come there in repentance. Those who flee there also believe in Jesus Christ calling upon Him for mercy. All who come to Jesus Christ for salvation will find it. He is gracious and merciful to those who call upon Him. If you don't know Jesus Christ as your Saviour can I encourage you to receive Him today.


Hebrews 13:20-21  Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

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