JOSHUA Cities of Refuge

1 Then the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. 4 He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. 5 And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. 6 And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’” (Joshua 20:1–6 ESV)

The cities of refuge are laid out for Israel in Numbers 35:9–12 and Deuteronomy 19. Six cities in all are set aside for those who kill without pre-meditation or malice, places to flee and find safety from family members seeking vengenace:

9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. (Numbers 35:9–14 ESV)

It’s important to remember that the teaching given to Israel in the wilderness — especially the punishments for sins — are not carried out by some abstract state and its uniformed agents, but by family members, relatives of those aggrieved. This is why the protection of orphans, widows, and wayfarers (to use Qur’anic language) is so important in both the Torah and the prophets — because they have no family, no kin, to act as a deterrent to wrongdoers, no kin to seek revenge, to avenge the blood that has been purposefully or accidentally shed.

So it makes sense that these six cities of refuge — three east of the Jordan and three in Palestine proper — would be set up. Because some who kills isn’t fleeing the state, but a kinsman seeking vengeance.

Because of this, most of the laws about retribution given in the Torah (“But if there is harm, you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” Exodus 21:23–25, also Leviticus 24:17–23 and Deuteronomy 19:21) are designed to limit the damage done by vengeance-seeking rather than encourage retribution. You can take no more than was taken in order to avenge the wrong. No one-upping the damage, no scorched earth in response to a slight. Even Deuteronomy’s command “your eye shall not pity” is a reminder that this vengeance, that this “purging evil for your midst,” is a divine commandment. We may be inclined to flinch — taking limb and life is no small task, and we should never be comfortable with it even when we are right doing it.

This reminds me of story from time at The Saudi Gazette in Jeddah. In the far southwest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the mountains of Asir province along the mountainous border with Yemen, came a report of a murder. A young man from one family killed a young man from another family. The police, however, were not called, in part because the writ of the government doesn’t run very deep in that part of the country.

Instead, the patriarchs of the two clans agreed to work it out the value of the murdered man’s life according to long-held custom. The murderer was held safely by his family and the clans sat down to deal. Eventually, as I recall, the dead man’s life was determined to be worth two pickup trucks, six camels, and an unspecified number of goats. The negotiations — which everyone in the murdered man’s clan had to accede to — were capped off by big, public feast to solemnize the arrangements.

This is the kind of law that scripture is. Not statues for states, but customs for clans and tribes and an entire people, Israel’s sunnah if you will, it’s way of doing business that limits how much and what kinds of vengeance are acceptable. These are statues for human beings, that remind us who and what we are, rather than the impersonal and mechanistic laws of states and nations.

And the cities of refuge are part of this. A reminder that not all killings, not even all murders, are the same. That everyone is entitled to be heard, and mercy … mercy may not be an entitlement, but there is room for mercy.

There is room for mercy.

JOSHUA Sojourners

30 At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, 31 just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. 32 And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. 33 And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. 34 And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. (Joshua 8:30–35 ESV)

So here’s my question — sojourners? Who are these sojourners who are wandering with Israel?

The word in Hebrew here is גֵּר ger from the verb גּוּר gur which means to tarry as a sojourner but can also mean to attack or to strive or to be afraid. It is related to an Arabic word, جار jaar which means neighbor from the verb جور jawara which has as its original meaning to deviate or to stray or to wrong, persecute, oppress but in other forms (ask me later about semitic verbs and their wondrous and varied forms!) means to live nearby or next to or to seek protection or even to protect.

It’s important to understand just what is meant by a sojourner here. These aren’t visitors, people wandering around taking in the sights. They aren’t tourists. A sojourner is someone who “separated himself form his clan or home, and places himself under the legal protection of another man or group of men.”1 These are people who are not Israel but who look to Israel for protection and have attached themselves to Israel. They are foreigners, refugees, migrants. Another definition of גֵּר in other closely related semitic languages is client in the sense of someone in a subordinate relationship with a patron or a lord, someone who promises loyalty and service in response for protection and maybe some level of provision. (Vassal would be another way to describe this relationship.) These are people who no longer have the protection of their tribes, clans, or kingdoms, and have separated themselves — either voluntarily or because there was no other choice, their survival and existence was at stake — and attached themselves to a people they are not related to.

Think Rahab, the prostitute, who betrayed her people in Jericho and took Israel’s side in the conquest and destruction of her city. In this context, Rahab is a sojourner. Sojourners are non-Israelites who seek Israel’s protection and take Israel’s side in its struggles.

The Torah is emphatic that Israel have only one law for sojourners and Israelite alike. When God tells Israel, “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt,” God is reminding Israel that not only were they strangers in Egypt (non-Egyptians ethnically and religiously), but they also sought and worked for Egypt’s good. Egypt betrayed Israel, and not the other way around.

God is reminding Israel that it has an obligation to those who take Israel’s side, and seek Israel’s protection. They are no different from Israelites, even if they are not related by blood and do not share in the patrimony or the promise.

So who are these sojourners?

According to Louis Ginzburg’s The Legends of the Jews, they have been with Israel since the Exodus:

The cavalcade consisted of six hundred thousand heads of families afoot, each accompanied by five children on horseback, and to these must be added the mixed multitude, exceeding Hebrews vastly in number.2

To which Ginzburg adds the following footnote:

According to Philo, Vita Mosis, 1. 27, he mixed multitude consisted of two distinct classes: one was made up of bastards, the sons of Egyptian woman and Hebrew men; to the second belonged all those who out of love for the God of Israel followed His people. ShR 18. 1 likewise speaks of the pious among the Egyptians who even before the last plague had proclaimed their belief in the true God, and celebrated the Passover together with the Israelites.3

If Ginzburg is to be believed, the sojourners outnumbered the actual Israelites in the Exodus!

So, in this Joshua passage, I suspect most of these sojourners are Canaanites — individuals, families, clans, tribes — that have seen the handwriting on the wall and switched sides, throwing in their lot with Israel in exactly the way Rahab and her family did. Along with some others who joined Israel along the way.

And some … well, we’ll meet them tomorrow.


  1. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, 439–449 ↩︎
  2. Legends of the Jews, Volume II, p. 375 ↩︎
  3. Legends of the Jews, Volume V, p. 439 ↩︎

The Least in The Kingdom

It’s been a busy week, and I’ve not really had time to sit down and do any serious — or even casual — blogging. (But I have a long list of things to blog about. So, there’s that…)

I noticed something going over the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (chapters 5-7, beginning with the blessings and ending with the authority of Jesus), and it deals, I think, with the writing I’ve been writing about on the torah, the teaching God gave through Moses to Israel in Sinai (both in Exodus-Leviticus and Deuteronomy). Continue reading

Toward a Biblical Sexual Ethic

Nothing seems to be dividing the church (at least in the relatively wealthy West) quite like the matter of sex. Particularly homosexuality, and whether or not gays and lesbians can be included in the community of those called to follow Jesus.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put it starkly in a recent column when he wrote that church teachings stating homosexuality is a sin is a “choice” that “prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.” Continue reading