Joshua 20

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1 Yahweh spoke to Joshua, saying,

2 "Speak to the children of Israel, saying, 'Assign the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you by Moses,

3 that the manslayer who kills any person accidentally or unintentionally may flee there. They shall be to you for a refuge from the avenger of blood.

4 He shall flee to one of those cities, and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city, and declare his cause in the ears of the elders of that city. They shall take him into the city with them, and give him a place, that he may live among them.

5 If the avenger of blood pursue after him, then they shall not deliver up the manslayer into his hand; because he struck his neighbor unintentionally, and didn't hate him before.

6 He shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, until the death of the high priest that shall be in those days. Then the manslayer shall return, and come to his own city, and to his own house, to the city he fled from.'"

7 They set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath Arba (the same is Hebron) in the hill country of Judah.

8 Beyond the Jordan at Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness in the plain out of the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh.

9 These were the appointed cities for all the children of Israel, and for the alien who lives among them, that whoever kills any person unintentionally might flee there, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until he stands before the congregation.


Exploring the Meaning of Joshua 20      

Napsal(a) Rev. Julian Duckworth

Joshua 20: The six cities of refuge.

Once all twelve tribes of Israel had received their inheritance, the Lord commanded Joshua and the Israelites to designate six cities of refuge, which were spread throughout the land on both sides of the Jordan. These cities would serve as safe havens, so that anyone who accidentally killed another person could flee to safety there. At the gate of the city, the refugee would declare his case to the city elders, and they would shelter him there until the high priest died. Then, the refugee could go back to his own city.

The six cities of refuge were evenly spaced throughout the land. In the north, Kedesh; in the center, Shechem; in the south, Kirjath Arba. Across the Jordan: Bezer, in Reuben; Ramoth, in Gad; and Golan in Manasseh. The three cities in Canaan are all said to be ‘on the mountains’, while the three cities across the Jordan are said to be ‘in the wilderness’ or ‘on the plain’.

There is a humanitarian purpose in granting safety when someone is accused of murder, a crime punishable by death. The spiritual meaning of this provision partly lies in the difference between justice and mercy. Justice has to do with the penalty of the law, while mercy recognizes that there could be more to the picture than just the intention to harm.

The Word acknowledges the place of both justice and mercy. Truth condemns, but love forgives. Ultimately, it is not we who know the real intentions of human hearts. This is something known only to the Lord, who will treat us justly, but also feel tender mercy and compassion towards us “for our low estate” (see Psalm 136:23 and Swedenborg’s work, Arcana Caelestia 6180).

In his work, True Christian Religion, Swedenborg writes: “We acquire justice the more we practice it. We practice justice the more our interaction with our neighbour is motivated by a love for justice and truth. Justice dwells in the goodness itself or the useful functions themselves that we do. The Lord says that every tree is recognized by its fruit. Surely we get to know other people well through paying attention not only to what they do but also to what outcome they want, what they are intending and why. All angels pay attention to these things, as do all wise people in our world” (see True Christian Religion 96[2]).

Innocence is the wish not to harm, and it is one of the cornerstones of heaven. We can easily begin to feel guilt when we cause harm to someone without intending to. They suffer and we suffer also. Reconciliation is needed for everyone in that kind of situation. Spiritually, these cities of refuge mean giving others and ourselves the time and space to let go of harmful feelings – which hell often plays on – and after finding refuge, allowing the Lord to bring us healing (Arcana Caelestia 9011).

There are six cities of refuge because the number ‘six’ represents all the labors of regeneration and spiritual temptation. ‘Seven’ follows after ‘six’ and refers to the Sabbath, the day of the Lord’s rest, when He has brought us through hardships into a new peace (Arcana Caelestia 8975).

The fact that the six cities of refuge were spread on both sides of the Jordan also holds a valuable spiritual meaning. Being in Canaan means that we are consciously living with a sense of the Lord’s guidance in our thinking and actions. This gives us a higher level of understanding, rather like seeing life from up on the mountain. Being across the Jordan means that we are more acutely experiencing the uncertainties of life, although we still try to do what is good because of our faith and trust in the Lord. No matter what situation we face, we need our personal cities of refuge where we meet the ‘elders’ of the city – the leading truths in the Word – who bring us in, and offer us sanctuary with the Lord (Arcana Caelestia 8578).

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