from WL Worcester (H Blackmer, ed.), 
The Sower.  Helps to the Study of the Bible in Home and Sunday School
(Boston: Massachusetts New-Church Union, n.d.)

Table of Contents


Lesson 13

Joshua 20; 21:1-8: Cities of Refuge

The Story


When the land of Canaan was divided among the tribes and each tribe found its home, no part of the land was given to the tribe of Levi. Why was this? Because the priests were of this tribe and they were needed in all the tribes, to care for the things of worship. Moses had said that this should be so; and now we learn that forty-eight cities scattered through the tribes were given to the Levites with the land about the cities.

And another thing was done, which had been commanded by Moses. Six of the Levite cities were appointed and called cities of refuge. It had been a custom, if anyone killed another, that the nearest relative of the person killed should kill the one who did the wrong. This person was called the avenger of blood, and this hasty punishment might be very unjust, for the first killing might have been an accident which might happen in many ways, as by the slipping of an ax head from the handle when people were cutting wood together. (Deut. 19:4-6) The person who killed another might have had no evil purpose and no intention of doing harm. If so, that person was not to blame. It was to protect such people that the cities of refuge were appointed. One who had killed another might flee to one of these cities and be safe until it was decided whether the killing was intentional or accidental. If it was intentional, the killer was punished, but if not, he or she could stay in the city of refuge and be safe. Three cities of refuge were appointed in the land of Canaan: Hebron in the south, Shechem in the middle of the land, and Kedesh in the north near Hazor and Lake Merom. And there were three more cities of refuge in the country beyond Jordan, in the south, the middle and the north. There were six in all, so situated that some one of them could be easily reached from any part of the land by one needing protection.

Do not be angry with a person who has done some wrong to you. Think that perhaps he or she did not mean to do it, perhaps not realizing that it would do harm. Perhaps he or she was not to blame. We must think such things and not let ourselves feel unkindly and do something hasty in revenge.


We learn of two things in this lesson, both of them the carrying out of instructions which Moses had given to the people before his death. First, where should the tribe of Levi live? We saw that the Levites had no allotment like the other tribes. Read in Num. 35:1-88 the instruction about the cities to be given to the Levites in all the tribes. Why were they placed in this way in all the tribes? Notice that the suburbs of each city were the fields about it, extending two thousand cubits in every direction from the city. In all there were forty-eight Levite cities, tribes which had many cities giving many, and tribes which had few giving few. Now the charge is carried out by Joshua, and the cities given to the Levites in the several tribes are mentioned. The chapter speaks of the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merarites. Do you recognize these names? They were the families of the Levites who camped at the south, the west and the north of the tabernacle, each with special duties in caring for the tabernacle and the sacred furniture. See Num. 3 and 4. Now each family is given cities in which to live.

Cities of refuge: Six of the Levite cities were appointed as cities of refuge and had a special use. This was also a carrying out of instructions given by the Lord through Moses. Moses himself appointed three cities of refuge in the country east of Jordan which was conquered before his death, one in the south, one in the middle country, and one in the north. (Deut. 4:41-43) What needed further to be done was faithfully carried out by Joshua. Three other cities of refuge were appointed in the land of Canaan: Hebron in the south, Shechem in the middle country, and Kedesh in the tribe of Naphtali a little north and west of Lake Merom. Read the instructions in Num. 35 and Deut. 19. You will find it interesting. Do you quite understand the purpose of the cities of refuge? Who was the avenger of blood from whom the fleeing person sought protection? Was the city of refuge to save from punishment everyone escaping to the city? It gave temporary protection until the case could be examined and it could be learned whether the killing was with deliberate purpose and evil intent or whether it was an accident and the person was not to blame. What was done if the person was found guilty? What if the person was found innocent? Be sure of your answers.

Do you see a lesson in the fact that the priests were given homes in all the tribes? Ought we to have cities of refuge? What do they mean to us?

1. Where did the tribe of Levi live in the land of Canaan? How many of these cities were there?

2. Why were some of the Levite cities called "cities of refuge"? How many cities of refuge were there?

3. What were the three "cities of refuge" on the west side of Jordan? Where were the other three cities?

Spiritual Study


The tribe of Levi was the priestly tribe. It represents love to the Lord and to the neighbor which unites us to the Lord and inspires worship. Should such love to the Lord and worship have a place all by itself in Christian life, or should it be present in every department of life, consecrating all and keeping all in touch with the Lord? Is not this suggested by the assignment of Levi not to one part of the land of Canaan but to cities in all the tribes? (E. 444, a beautiful number)

Six of the Levite cities were appointed as cities of refuge. This seems to say that one effect and use of love to the Lord and to the neighbor should be to make us kind in judgment of one who does us wrong. The old custom of the avenging of blood by the nearest of relatives was softened and made more just by this appointment of cities of refuge. They provided temporary protection for one who had killed another and sought their shelter. There must be no hasty revenge. A wrong doer must be given the benefit of the doubt and presumed innocent until it is proved whether the killing was done by accident or with premeditated and evil purpose. The possible injury by a stone or by the slipping of an ax head represents harm which may be done through misinformation or reason gone astray but with no intention of evil. A. 9011 is a full and interesting number. See also E. 1145; R. 774.

A natural reason for the appointment of the six cities was evidently that there might be a refuge accessible from every part of the land. Can we also see in general what spiritual states are meant by the different cities? We have learned that Judaea represents a state of childlike affection for the Lord. Many wrongs may be done innocently by children and others of childlike heart. This is Hebron. Shechem we have found represented a state of inquiry and first learning about heavenly life. People have safety in this city when they are faithful to such understanding as they have. The third city in the land was Kedesh, in Mount Naphtali. This was in the north in the tribe associated with the Lord's labors and temptations. It seems to represent a state in which people are innocent because they do right according to their strength. The cities east of Jordan represent more external states of knowledge (Reuben), strength (Gad), and love (Manasseh), in which people are innocent because faithful according to their ability. (A. 1441, 1616)

One who was found innocent of evil purpose must remain in the city of refuge to be safe. People are innocent so long as the ignorance or other cause which made them blameless in the first place continues. At the death of the high priest one might return safely home. The high priest represents the quality and degree of love to the Lord and the neighbor present and ruling in the life. The death of the high priest, like the death of Aaron of which we learned, does not represent the loss of all love to the Lord but rather advance to a fuller and higher quality of love, a radical change in our relation to the Lord, the end of the state in which wrong was innocent merely because it was ignorant, and the beginning of a new and stronger life.

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