Lesson 9: Chapters 20-22
Designating the Cities of Refuge and Allotting the Levitical Towns
The Return of the Eastern Tribes

Lord of Mercy,
As the Psalmist wrote, "You are our refuge in times of distress," and "You will never abandon those who seek You" (Ps 9:9; 46:1, 7). You are also merciful when we fail and then seek Your forgiveness, becoming an asylum of hope and restoration for the humble and contrite. When there is suffering caused by the wickedness of men or the destructive powers of nature, we know that we can endure because You are our fortress and our shield. We thank You and praise You, Lord, for Your faithfulness. Please send Your Spirit to guide us in our lesson on the earthly Cities of Refuge You established in Israel and the Levitical cities of Your ministers who served You in Your Sanctuary and guided the people in their understanding of the precepts of Your Divine Law. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Anyone who by violence causes a death must be put to death. If, however, he has not planned to do it but it comes from God by his hand, he can take refuge in a place which I shall appoint for you. But should any person dare to kill another with deliberate planning, you will take that person even from my altar to be put to death.
Exodus 21:12-13

Chapter 20: The Application of the Laws of Asylum

Chapters 20-21 are one unit in which the cities of privilege were defined. Those cities were the Cities of Refuge that offered sanctuary and the Levitical Cities that were the residences of the chief priests and lesser ministers of the hereditary, ministerial priesthood.

The Cities of Refuge: The law forbidding the intentional taking of innocent life is found in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:13 and Dt 5:17), but the command against the shedding of innocent blood extends back to the first murder in the death of righteous Abel (Gen 4:9-12) and the penalty of death is imposed for homicide in Genesis 9:5-6. In the Sinai Covenant, the laws concerning homicide (intentional killing), manslaughter (unintentional death), personal injury cases and the deaths of animals are detailed in the Covenant Code in Exodus 21:12-36. In those laws it is stated that anyone who is involved in an accidental or unintentional death can seek refuge in a place selected by God to avoid blood vengeance by the family of the one killed (Ex 21:13). Detailed instructions concerning the establishment of Cities of Refuge are given in Numbers 35:9-15. Numbers 35:16-34 then defines the difference between what could be judged intentional and unintentional killing. Further instructions are given in the Deuteronomic Code in Deuteronomy 19:1-13.

Question: How many Cities of Refuge did God command through Moses were to be established prior to the conquest of Canaan? See Num 35:6, 13-15.
Answer: Six cities were to be designated cities of refuge throughout Israel "three on the eastern side of the Jordan River and three on the western side. They are to be given to the Levites as their places of residence within Israel along with other Levitical cities.

Question: What Cities of Refuge did Moses establish in the Israelite lands on the east side of the river before his death? See Dt 4:41-43:
Answer: He designated the city of Bezer in the territory of the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in the territory of the tribe of Gad, and Golan in the territory of the eastern clans of Manasseh. The cities are somewhat evenly spaced and listed from south to north in the Transjordan.

Joshua 20:1-6 ~ God orders the Israelites to choose Cities of Refuge
1 Yahweh said to Joshua, 2 Speak to the Israelites and say to them, "Choose yourselves the cities of refuge of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 to which anyone who has accidentally (unintentionally) killed someone else may flee, and which will serve you as refuge from the avenger of blood [go'el haddam]. 4 The killer must flee to one of these towns. He will stop at the entrance to the town gate and explains his case to the town elders. These will admit him to their town and assign him a place to live among them. 5 If the avenger of blood [go'el haddam] pursues him, they must not hand the killer over to him, since he has killed his fellow unintentionally and was not motivated by long-standing hatred for him. 6 He must stay in this town until he is brought to trial before the community; until the death of the high priest then in office. Only then may the killer go back to his own town and to his own house in the town from which he had fled."'

[..] = literal translation (IBHE, vol. I, pages 612-13). The key Hebrew words in this passage are go'el haddam. The translation "avenger of blood" is a poor translation of the Hebrew term go'el haddam, which literally means "redeemer (go'el) of the blood (dam)," referring to one related by blood who acts as a savoir for his family. The designated go'el had to be the nearest male blood relative willing to take on the obligation (see Num 35:12; Dt 19:6, 12; 2 Sam 14:11; Job 19:25). He could also act as the official protector of his family and was bound to restore balance to the family or to prevent the alienation of their ancestral lands (i.e., Lev 25:23-25, 47-49; Dt 25:5-6; Rt 3:12; 4:3). In Sacred Scripture Yahweh is called the Go'el [Redeemer] of Israel; for example see Ps 19:14; 78:35; Is 41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 49:7; 59:20 and Jer 50:34 (Woudstra, Joshua, page 299).

Blood feuds were the cause of much violence in the ancient Near East and also in undeveloped countries in the modern age. Any injury to a family member, whether accidental or intentional, whether real or imagined, could result in the murder of the perpetrator and possibly his family. God forbade such acts of injustice and demanded that even in cases where intentional injury or death occurred that the community must judge by the evidence presented by two or more witnesses and the punishment must not exceed the crime (Num 35:30; Dt 17:6; 19:15-21). The legislation limiting retaliation is also found in other codified laws in the ancient Near East and is called the "law of reciprocity," or in Latin "Lex Talionis" and is found in Sacred Scripture expressed as "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth..." (Ex 21:24; Lev 24:20; Dt 19:21) "meaning not that if someone injured your eye that you could injure his, but that the injury inflicted on the guilty party could not exceed the crime itself.(1)

However, unlike modern courts of law, it was not the state that prosecuted the one accused; it was the family of the victim. When a family member was murdered, or in other times of family distress, a member of the family accepted the responsibility as the Go'el Haddam, in Hebrew the "Blood Redeemer;" the word "blood" referring to the kinsman most closely related by blood who took on the responsibility for restoring justice and/or balance to the family. Some translations refer to this person as the "Kinsman Redeemer." He is the one related by blood who will avenge the death of his kinsman by seeking justice; he is not to act as a "blood avenger" who only seeks the blood of the accused without due process.

Question: What are the qualifications that must be meant for one to offer oneself as a Go'el Haddam? See Lev 25:23-26, 48-49; Dt 25:5, 7-10; Rt 2:1 and 3:12.

  1. He must be related by blood to those he redeems (Lev 25:23-25, 48-49; Dt 25:5, 7-10).
  2. He must have the necessary resources to pay the price of redemption (Lev 25:25-26; Rt 2:1).
  3. He must be willing to redeem (Dt 25:7, 9; Rt 3:12).

Question: In what different ways might a Go'el Haddam offer his services? See Lev 25:23-26, 48-49; Dt 25:5, 7-10; Rt 2:1 and 3:12.

  1. He could offer to marry the childless widow of a kinsman and provide an heir to carry on the name of the deceased kinsman, thereby keeping that portion of the kinsman's ancestral lands within the family.
  2. He could offer to purchase ancestral lands that had been sold by a kinsman because of his debts.
  3. He could redeem a kinsman and his family from slavery.
  4. He could seek justice for the death of a kinsman.

In the case of the death of a kinsman, it was the Go'el Haddam's primary duty to seek retribution (a deserved punishment) for the perpetrator and justice for the victim, but not vengeance. Nowhere does biblical law condone private vengeance but in every case seeks to restrain and contain it.

Question: Whose responsibility is it to seek vengeance on the wicked? See Dt 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30.
Answer: Ultimately, it is God who will seek vengeance on the wicked.

Since human beings do not always model the most virtuous of motives in regards to seeking justice, God provided for Cities of Refuge as a means of avoiding blood vengeance in place of justice. Therefore, the kinsman is the "blood redeemer" but not the "avenger of blood."

Cities of Refuge are commanded to be established in Exodus 21:13, in Numbers 35 and in the Deuteronomic Code in Deuteronomy 19:1-13.

Question: The six designated Cities of Refuge were meant as sanctuaries for what group of individuals?
Answer: They were meant to protect those who had killed unintentionally and without premeditation.

The Hebrew term for "unintentional" used in Scripture is bisegaga, literally, "through error." That the killing is without premeditation (literally "without knowing") is stressed in Deuteronomy 4:42 and 19:4.

Question: Was sanctuary only extended to Israelites? See Num 35:15 and Josh 20:9.
Answer: No. The refuge was extended to everyone: to Israelites, foreigners and resident aliens of Israel who had accidently killed.

Question: When God spoke to Moses concerning the Cities of Refuge what three reasons did God give for establishing these cities among the tribes of Israel? See Ex 21:12-14; Num 35:9-12, 33-34 and Dt 19:13.

  1. The cities were to serve as places of refuge where those who had accidentally committed manslaughter can take sanctuary until a trial can be held before the community (Num 35:11-12).
  2. It was where fair judicial action can take place (either in the sanctuary city or the man's own city) and guilt or innocence determined with the cooperation of the elders who stood as judges and witnesses called to testify (Num 35:20-29; Dt 19:11-12).
  3. The cities were to help prevent blood vengeance in the shedding of innocent blood that would pollute and defile the land (Num 35:33; Dt 19:13).

Question: According to Joshua 20:4-6, what was the procedure when a person seeking asylum arrived at the City of Refuge?

  1. He was to request sanctuary at the gate of the town, presenting his case to the elders.
  2. The elders will give him a place to stay within the town.
  3. He cannot be given over to the Go'el Haddam of the person who has died.
  4. He must stand trial to prove his guilt or innocence.
  5. If found innocent of homicide, he must live in the town until the death of the high priest, at which time full amnesty will be given and he can return to his own town without fear of reprisal.

Question: What happened to the one seeking refuge after being judged by the community to be guilty of homicide? See Num 35:19-29; Dt 19:12.
Answer: If guilt was established, the murderer was handed over to the Go'el Haddam for execution.

If the accused was found guilty by the community after a just trial, the Go'el Haddam of the murdered family member took part in the execution by casting the first stone. One could only be condemned by the testimony of at least two witnesses and anyone who was proved a false witness in a trial that imposed the death penalty could himself face the same penalty (Dt 19:18-21 and see Jesus' challenge to the crowd in Jn 8:7). In addition, Numbers 35 makes it clear that only by forsaking the sanctuary offered by the City of Refuge did the person found innocent of homicide but guilty of manslaughter run the risk of being hunted down by a Go'el Haddam who did not agree with the elders' verdict.

Scripture teaches, and the Church maintains, that the life of an individual is sacred (CCC 2258), and the Church acknowledges that the law contained in the commandment against intentionally killing an innocent person is universal (CCC 2261). The Church also acknowledges that the law forbidding homicide, defined as the intentional killing of the innocent and the righteous (Ex 23:7), is defined in the Bible as an offense requiring the death penalty in Genesis 9:5-7. The penalty of death for deliberate homicide is repeated in the laws of the Covenant Code in Exodus 21:12 and 14, in the Holiness Code in Leviticus 24:17, Numbers 35:19-21 and Deuteronomy 19:11-13. A killing that results from the legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the commandment against murder of the innocent but is a legitimate act in defense of oneself or others (see CCC 2263). However, the Church believes that modern society has other more human alternatives for punishing a person guilty of homicide that allows for the opportunity of the individual to repent his sin and be saved from eternal damnation.

Question: What was necessary for a charge of homicide or a judgment of manslaughter according to the Law of the Sinai covenant? Could one who intentionally committed murder escape a sentence of death? See Gen 9:6-7; Ex 21:12-14; Lev 24:17; Num 35:11-34; Dt 17:6; 19:5-13, 15; 1 Kng 2:29-34.
Answer: If the killing was both premeditated and intentional it was judged a homicide and the penalty was death. The community had to decide on the guilt or innocence of the one accused based on the testimony of two or three witnesses. No one could escape judgment, not for money or even if they grasped hold of God's altar in the Sanctuary like King David's commander and nephew, Joab.

Question: According to the laws for Cities of Refuge, how is the community to treat someone seeking sanctuary? Can someone who has murdered another intentionally also find refuge? See Num 35:11-34.
Answer: Yes; the guilt or innocence had to be determined in a trial.

Question: Where did the trial to determine if the person was guilty of homicide or manslaughter take place and who were the judges? See Num 35:12 and Josh 20:6.
Answer: The trial took place at the entrance to the town gate of either the City of Refuge or the city where the killing took place and was conducted by elders from the community.

The town gate for most larger cities in this period were elaborate structures that were at least two stories high with twin towers and guardrooms that flanked a tunnel-like opening. There was usually a bench-lined court or courtyard associated with the structure. Most town business was conducted at the gate to the city (see Gen 19:1; Rt 4:1-12).(2)

Joshua 20:7-9 ~ The Israelites choose six Cities of Refuge
7 For this purpose they designated Kedesh in Galilee, in the highlands of Naphtali, Shechem in the highlands of Ephraim, and Kiriath-Abra "now Hebron "in the highlands of Judah. 8 On the other, eastern, side of the Jordan opposite Jericho, in the desert of the tableland, they chose Bezer of the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead of the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan of the tribe of Manasseh. 9 Such were the towns designated for all the Israelites and for foreigners living among them so that anyone who had accidentally killed someone could flee there and might escape the hand of the avenger of blood [go'el haddam = redeemer of the blood], until brought to trial before the community. [..] = Literal translation (IBHE, vol. I, page 613-14).

The list of towns runs north to south on the west side of the Jordan River but from south to north in the Transjordan.

It was the willing obligation of the Go'el Haddam to redeem his kinsmen/women in their greatest time of need. From the time of the fall of Adam and Eve, all of mankind was in need of a "blood redeemer" "a kinsman in the human family to save mankind from eternal death. God promised not to abandon humanity to sin and death but promised in Genesis 3:15 to send a Go'el, a Redeemer-Messiah, born from a woman, to save mankind.

Question: Who was humanity's promised Go'el Haddam and how did mankind's Savior fulfill the old covenant's definition of a Go'el Haddam?


He offered himself for us in order to ransom us from all our faults and to purify a people to be his very own and eager to do good (Titus 2:14; see CCC # 607-9, 802)




GO'EL HADDAM (Blood Redeemer)
Blood relationship

Deuteronomy 25:5, 7-10;
Leviticus 25:25;
Ruth 2:1
Galatians 4:4, 5 ~ ...but when the completion of the time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law, so that we could receive adoption as sons.

Hebrews 2:16, 17 ~ For it was not the angels that he took to himself; he took to himself the line of Abraham. It was essential that he should in this way be made completely like his brothers so that he could become a compassionate and trustworthy high priest for their relationship to God, able to expiate the sins of the people.

Also see John 1:14; Romans 1:3; Philippians 2:5-8
Necessary Resources

Leviticus 25:25-26;
Ruth 2:1
1 Corinthians 6:20 ~ Are you not your own property, then; you have been bought at a price. So use your body for the glory of God.

1 Peter 1:18, 19 ~ For you know that the price of your ransom from the futile way of life handed down from your ancestors was paid, not in anything perishable like silver or gold, but in precious blood as of a blameless and spotless lamb, Christ.

Also see 1 Corinthians 6:20
Willingness to redeem

Deuteronomy 25:7, 9;
Ruth 3:12
John 10:15-18 ~ ... just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep. And there are other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and I must lead these too. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be only one flock, one shepherd. The Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own free will, and as I have power to lay it down, so I have power to take it up again; and this is the command I have received from my Father.

1 John 3:16 ~ This is the proof of love that he laid down his life for us and we too ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.

Also see Matthew 20:28; Hebrews 10:7; Titus 2:14

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2012 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Question: If the community determined the killing was accidental, why did the person involved in the killing have to stay in the sanctuary city until the death of the reigning high priest? See Num 35:26; Josh 20:6
Answer: The innocence having been determined in regards to the charge of homicide, there was still the question of atonement/penance for the innocent blood shed. The time spent under "house arrest" within the walls of the city counted for the atonement of the shedding of innocent blood with full atonement for the sin of inadvertently taking another life being made by the holy death of the high priest. The high priest's death resulted in a general amnesty for all who had been found innocent of homicide but guilty of manslaughter.

It was also possible, if the kinsmen agreed, for the manslayer to make a reparation or guilt offering in which restitution in some part was paid to the family (Lev 5:14-26/6:6), as in the case of a man striking a slave and causing her to miscarry her child.

Question: Can a connection be made between the old covenant practice of the atoning death of the anointed high priest and the death of Jesus Christ who is both mankind's Go'el Haddam and eternal High Priest? See Heb 2:16-17; 7:23-25; 8:1-3; CCC 783.
Answer: Yes and no. Jesus came as God's supreme prophet, priest and king. It is in Jesus' sacrificial death as mankind's Blood Redeemer that atonement has been made for mankind's sins "saving man from eternal death. Jesus became man's eternal High Priest after His Resurrection and Ascension into the heavenly Sanctuary. Therefore, like the human high priest of the old covenant Jesus death does atone for sins, but it is in Jesus' continuing offering of that one perfect sacrifice of His death before the throne of God as our eternally living High Priest that allows men and women of every generation to continue to claim His death and resurrection in atonement for sin and His High Priestly offering of Himself as our hope for eternal salvation.

Question: What did the earthly Cities of Refuge prefigure? See Rev 21:1-4.
Answer: They prefigure the time after the Last Judgment when the new city of Jerusalem will come down out of heaven. It is in the new sanctuary city of Jerusalem that God will dwell among human beings who will live in His eternal city of refuge and justice.

Chapter 21: The Cities of the Tribe of Levi

Order the Israelites, from the heritage they possess, to give the Levites towns in which to live and pasture land round the towns. You will give these to the Levites. The towns must be their homes and the surrounding pasture land must be for their cattle, their possessions and all their animals.
Numbers 35:2-3

Joshua 21:1-8 ~ The designated Levitical cities
1 The heads of families of the Levites then came to the priest, Eleazar, Joshua son of Nun and the heads of families of the tribes of Israel "2 they were then at Shiloh in Canaan. They said to them, Through Moses, Yahweh ordered us to be given towns to live in, with their pasture lands for our livestock.' 3 In compliance with Yahweh's order, the Israelites consequently and from their own heritage gave the Levites the following towns with their pasture lands: 4 Lots were cast for the clans of the Kohathites: to those Levites who were sons of Aaron the priest, fell thirteen towns from the tribes of Judah, Simeon and Benjamin; 5 to the other sons of Kohath, by clans, 6 fell ten towns from the tribes of Ephraim, Dan, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. To the sons of Gershon, by clans, fell thirteen towns from the tribes of Issachar, Asher, Naphtali and the half-tribe of Manasseh in Bashan. 7 To the sons of Merari, by clans, fell twelve towns from the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Zebulun. 8 The Israelites assigned these towns and their pasture lands to the Levites by lot, as Yahweh had ordered through Moses.

The tribe of Levi was denied a heritage in the land (Lev 18:20-24; Josh 13:14, 33; 14:3, 4; 18:7), but they were promised 48 cities with pasture lands within the hereditary lands of the tribes of Israel (Num 35:2-8). After the allotting of the tribal lands was completed, and the Israelites had chosen the sites of the 6 Cities of Refuge, the heads of the Levitical clans came to the divinely appointed commission to request their promised cities.

Question: How were the Levitical cities assigned and how was this different from the way the Cities of Refuge were identified?
Answer: The tribes of Israel chose the 6 sanctuary cities, but the Levitical cities were chosen by Divine decree by lot just as the tribal lands were chosen.

There were three main clans in the tribe of Levi, all descendants of Levi's three sons: Gershon, Kohath and Merari (Ex 6:16; Num 3:17). Aaron and Moses were the descendants Levi's second son Kohath and of Kohath's son Amram (Ex 6:18, 20).

Question: According to Numbers 26:62, how many Levite males one month and older were registered in the census prior to the conquest?
Answer: There were 23,000 males from three clans in the year of the conquest.

Joshua 21:9-19 ~ The towns allotted to the chief priests
9 From the tribe of Judah and the tribe of Simeon, they gave the towns named below. 10 The first portion was for the sons of Aaron, belonging to the clans of the Kohathites, to the sons of Levi, since the first lot was theirs. 11 They gave them Kiriath-Abra, Anak's father's town "now Hebron "in the highlands of Judah, with its surrounding pasture lands. 12 The fields and villages of this town, however, they gave to Caleb son of Jephunneh as his property. 13 To the sons of Aaron the priest they gave Hebron, a city of refuge for those who had killed, with its pasture lands, as well as Libnah with its pasture lands, 14 Jattir with its pasture lands, Eshtemoa with its pasture lands, 15 Holon with its pasture lands, Debir with its pasture lands, 16 Ashan with its pasture lands, Juttah with its pasture lands, and Beth-Shemesh with its pasture lands: nine towns taken from these two tribes; 17 and, from the tribe of Benjamin, Gibeon with its pasture lands, Geba with its pasture lands, 18 Anathoth with its pasture lands and Almon with its pasture lands: four towns. 19 Total number of towns for the priests, the sons of Aaron: thirteen towns with their pasture lands.

The cities and pasture lands are first allotted to the chief priests who are the most prestigious members of the tribe of Levi. Kiriath-Abra was the old name for Hebron (Josh 15:13). As you continue to read about the allocation of the cities, notice that the 48 towns will not be equally distributed among the tribes; however, cities will be allotted on both sides of the Jordan River. The Levites will not possess these towns in the sense that they have ownership over them "they are not to possess the Promised Land since God is their inheritance "they will only occupy these towns in the territory possessed by the various tribes.

Question: To what clan of Levi did the chief priests belong and what distinguished them from the other members of the same clan?
Answer: They belonged to the clan of Kohath of the tribe of Levi. To be a chief priest one had to be a descendant of Aaron, the first high priest. Every chief priest was a Levite and a member of the clan of Kohath, but not every member of the clan of Kohath was a descendant of Aaron and therefore not every member of Kohath was a chief priest.

Even Moses' sons were lesser ministers (see 1 Chr 23:12-24 and compare to the list of the chief priests in 24:1-19 and 26:23-28 where Moses' descendants are listed as administrators of the in the office of the Temple treasury).

Question: What distinguished the ministry of a chief priest from another Levite? See Ex 27:21; 28:1, 4; 29:29; Lev 4:20, 36, 31, 35; 5:6, 13, 16, 26; 6:7; 6:17-19/25-26; 7:31/21-34/24; 8:6-12; 21:10-12; Num 3:1-13; 18:1-7; 20:26.

  1. The chief priests could only be descendants of Aaron and were consecrated to their ministry.
  2. Only the chief priests could serve at the altar of sacrifice, forgive sins, and serve within the Tabernacle.
  3. The reigning high priest had to be a chief priest and was succeeded by his son/ a descendant of Aaron.
  4. Only the chief priests could forgive sins and eat a portion of the sin and communion sacrifices.
  5. All the other Levites were the lesser ministers who served the chief priests. They could not approach the altar or enter the Tabernacle on pain of death.

In verse 12 Caleb is mentioned again, and his status is increased with Hebron not only being selected as a City of Refuge but also as a town of the chief priests. There are total of 13 towns for the chief priests (the Kohathites will receive 23 towns total). Notice that the tribe of Simeon was encompassed within the lands of Judah.

Question: How are the cities of the chief priests assigned?
Answer: They were assigned by lot with 8 priestly cities within the lands of Judah, the tribal land of Simeon only had 1 priestly city, and the tribe of Benjamin had 4.

The towns assigned to the Chief Priests of Kohath (descendants of Aaron) Tribal land location
1. Hebron* Judah (15:54)
2. Libnah Judah (15:42)
3. Jattir Judah (15:49)
4. Eshtemoh Judah (15:50)
5. Holon Judah (15:51)
6. Debir Judah (15:50)
7. Ashan Simeon (19:7)
8. Juttah Judah (15:55)
9. Beth-Shemesh Judah (15:10)
10. Gibeon Benjamin
11. Gega Benjamin
12. Anathoth Benjamin
13.  Almon Benjamin

*also a City of Refuge

Question: What do you notice about the location of the cities of the chief priests as opposed to the six sanctuary cities?
Answer: The six sanctuary cities are located on both sides of the Jordan River and are placed more or less evenly from north to south. On the other hand, the towns of the chief priests are all located on the west side of the Jordan River and are all in the southern half of the confederation of Israelite tribes.

Perhaps this is because in God's long view of history He knows that eventually the northern and southern tribes will split into two kingdoms and the Ephraimite king of the northern kingdom will establish his own priesthood (1 Kng 12:26-31; 13:33). As for the eastern side of the river, those tribes will not only join the northern kingdom but will eventually be absorbed by their Gentile neighbors and into other Gentile nations.

Joshua 21:20-26 ~ The cities allotted to the rest of the clan of Kohath
20 As regards the clans of the sons of Kohath, those Levites still left of the sons of Kohath, the towns of their lot were taken from the tribe of Ephraim. 21 They were given Shechem, a city of refuge for those who had killed, with its pasture lands, in the highlands of Ephraim, as well as Gezer with its pasture lands, 22 Kibzaim with its pasture lands, and Beth-Horon with its pasture lands: four towns; 23 from the tribe of Dan, Elteke with its pasture lands, Gibbethon with its pasture lands, 24 Aijalon with its pasture lands and Gath-Rimmon with its pasture lands: four towns 25 and, from the half-tribe of Manasseh, Taanach with its pasture lands and Jibleam with its pasture lands: two towns. 26 In all: ten towns with their pasture lands for the remaining clans of the sons of Kohath.

After the cities are allotted to the chief priests, the other Levitical cities are not allotted in the birth order of the ancestral fathers of the clans: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Gen 46:11; Ex 6:16; Num 3:17). The Kohathites are given precedence because they are the clan of the chief priests who are the descendants of Aaron, and they have the honor and the danger of transporting the most holy furnishings of the Sanctuary. They are the first clan in the list of duties of the Levites (Num 4:4-20), followed by the duties of the Gershonites (Num 4:21-28) and finally the Merarites (Num 4:29-33).

The cities assigned to the remaining Levites of the clan of Kohath Tribal land location
1. Shechem* Ephraim
2. Gezer Ephraim
3. Kibzaim Ephraim
4. Beth-Horon Ephraim
5. Elteke Dan
6. Gibbethon Dan
7. Aijalon Dan
8. Gath-Rimmon Dan
9. Taanach Manasseh
10. Jibleam/Ibleam Manasseh

*Also a City of Refuge; (west) indicates the ½ tribe of Manasseh on the west side of the Jordan.

Question: What do you notice about the location of these cities?
Answer: They are all on the west side of the Jordan River and in north and central Israel.

Joshua 21:27-33 ~ The towns allotted to the clan of Gershon
27 To the sons of Gershon, the Levitical clans, were given: from the half-tribe of Manasseh, Golan in Bashan, a city of refuge for those who had killed, with its pasture lands, and Ashtaroth with its pasture lands "two towns; 28 from the tribe of Issachar, Kishion with its pasture lands, Dobrath with its pasture lands, 29 Jarmuth with its pasture lands and En-Gannim with its pasture lands "four towns; 30 from the tribe of Asher, Mishal with its pasture lands, Abdon with its pasture lands, 31 Helkath with its pasture lands and Rehob with its pasuture lands "four towns; 32 and, from the tribe of Naphtali, Kedesh in Galilee, a city of refuge for those who had killed, with its pasture lands, Hammoth-Dor with its pasture lands and Kartan with its pasture lands "three towns. 33 Total number of towns of the Gershonites, by clans: thirteen towns with their pasture lands.

The cities assigned the Levitical clan of Gershon Tribal land location
1. Golan* Manasseh (east)
<2. Ashtaroth Manasseh (east)
3. Kishion Issachar
4. Dobrath Issachar
5. Jarmuth Issachar
6. En-Gannim Issachar
7. Mishal Asher
8. Abdon Asher
9. Helkath Asher
10. Rehob Asher
11. Kedesh* Naphtali
12. Hammoth-Dor Naphtali
13. Kartan Naphtali

*Also a City of Refuge; (east) indicates a Transjordan tribe.

Question: Where are the cities for the clan of Gershon located?
Answer: All the cities are in northern Israel and on the west side of the river with the exception of those cities assigned to the half-tribe of Manasseh in the Transjordan.

Joshua 21:34-40 ~ The towns allotted to the clan of Merari
34 To the clans of the sons of Merari, the remainder of the Levites, fell: from the tribe of Zebulun, Jokneam with its pasture lands, Kartah with its pasture lands, 35 Rimmon with its pasture lands and Nahalal with its pasture lands "four towns; 36 on the other side of the Jordan opposite Jericho, from the tribe of Reuben, Bezer in the desert, on the tableland, a city of refuge for those who had killed, with its pasture lands, Jahaz with its pasture lands, 37 Kedemoth with its pasture lands and Mephaath with its pasture lands "four towns; 38 and, from the tribe of Gad, Ramoth in Gilead, a city of refuge for those who had killed, with its pasture lands, Mahanaim with its pasture lands, 39 Heshbon with its pasture lands and Jazer with its pasture lands "four towns. 40 Total number of towns forming the lot of the sons of Merari by clans, of the remaining Levitical clans: twelve towns.

The cities assigned the Levitical clan of Merari Tribal land location
1. Jokneam Zebulun
2. Kartah Zebulun
3. Rimmon Zebulun
4. Nahalal Zebulun
5. Bezer* Reuben (east)
6. Jahaz Reuben (east)
7. Kedemoth Reuben (east)
8. Mephaath Reuben (east)
9. Ramoth* Gad (east)
10. Mahanaim Gad (east)
11.Heshbon Gad (east)
12. Jazer Gad (east)

*Also a City of Refuge; (east) indicates a Transjordan tribe.

Question: Where were the cities of the Merari clan located?
Answer: Only the cities of Zebulun were located on the west side of the river.

Question: Which tribe received the most Levitical cities and which tribe received the least? How many Levitical cities did most tribes receive?
Answer: Judah is the most privileged tribe, receiving 8 priestly cities. The tribe of Simeon received the fewest Levitical cities with only 1 priestly city. The other tribes received 4 Levitical cities with the exception of Naphtali. That tribe received 3 cities.

Joshua 21:41-42 ~ Conclusion
41 The total number of towns for the Levites in Israelite territory was forty-eight towns with their pasture lands. 42 These towns consisted in each case of the town itself and the pasture land round it. This was the case with all the towns.

The number of towns agrees with the total promised in Numbers 35:7.

Question: How many Cities of Refuge are also Levitical towns? Why? See Num 35:6
Answer: All 6 Cities of Refuge are also towns where the Levites lived. These towns were promised to the Levites in Numbers 35:6. The reason is probably because the Levites have the responsibility for teaching God's covenant laws to the people and are, therefore, given the responsibility for maintain justice in the cases of those claiming sanctuary and in determining the guilt or innocence of those accused of homicide or manslaughter.

Joshua 21:43-45 ~ Grateful recognition of God's faithfulness
43 This was how Yahweh gave the Israelites the entire [kol] country which he had sworn to give to their ancestors. They took possession of it and settled in it. 44 Yahweh granted them tranquility [rest] on all [kol] their frontiers just as he had sworn to their ancestors and, of all [kol] their enemies, not one succeeded in resisting them. Yahweh put all [kol] their enemies at their mercy. 45 Of all [kol] the promises that Yahweh had made to the House of Israel, not one failed; all [kol] were fulfilled. [..] = literal translation (IBHE, vol. I, page 618).

God's covenant name is repeated four times, and the Hebrew word kol "all," is repeated 7 times "6 times in the Hebrew text of these three verses and a 7th time in 22:2. The repetition in this passage emphasizes God's commitment to His covenant with Israel and His faithfulness in fulfilling His promises. He has put everything/all in place for their success. Now, all Israel has to do is to continue possessing the land and driving out the pagan inhabitants, none of whom are offering any real resistance.

The phrase "which he had sworn to give to their ancestors" in verse 43 echoes not only the promises God made to the Patriarchs but also God's opening promise to Joshua in Joshua 1:6: Be strong and stand firm, for you are the man to give this people possession of [to inherit] the land which I swore to their ancestors [fathers] that I would give them. The statement in verse 44 that God granted them "rest" (literal Hebrew translation) is a fulfillment of Deuteronomy 12:10: You are about to cross the Jordan and live in the country given you by Yahweh your God as your heritage; he will grant you peace [rest] from all the enemies surrounding you, and you will live in safety. The Israelites were also reminded of this promise in Joshua's address prior to crossing the Jordan River in 1:13 and 15. Notice the fulfillment of the promise of "rest" will be repeated again in 22:4. See the theological implications of the word in Lesson 2. The phrase "House of Israel" in verse 45 is only found this one time in the Book of Joshua. It emphasizes Israel's unity as a corporate covenant people.

Question: How is Israel's struggle to possess the Promised Land through God covenant promises and with God's assistance like our New Covenant journey to salvation?
Answer: Like our old covenant brothers, the battle has been won and victory has been promised. Jesus Christ has fought our great battle for us against sin and death, and Satan no longer has any real power over us. But, the struggle goes on "salvation isn't a one-time victory; salvation is a process just as securing the Promised Land of Canaan was a process. St. Paul wrote: The message of the cross is folly for those who are on the way to ruin, but for those of us who are on the road to salvation [being saved] it is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18). Like the Israelites, we must support each other in the struggle, and we must continue to fight against sin on our road to salvation so that we may secure our place in the Promised Land of heaven.

Chapter 22: The Return of the Transjordan Tribes

Joshua 22:1-8 ~ Joshua sends the eastern tribes home
1 Joshua then summoned the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh 2 and said to them, You have observed everything [kol] that Moses, servant of Yahweh, ordered you, and whenever I have given you an order you have listened to me. 3 You have not deserted your brothers, from long ago until today, keeping the observance of the commandments of Yahweh your God. 4 Now that Yahweh your God has granted your brothers the rest that he promised them, go back to your tents, to the country belonging to you which Moses, servant of Yahweh, gave you on the other side of the Jordan. 5 But take great care to practice the commandments and the Law [Torah] which Moses, servant of Yahweh, has given you: to love Yahweh your God, always to follow his paths, to keep his commandments, to be loyal to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.' 6 Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went home to their tents. 7 To one half of the tribe of Manasseh, Moses had given a territory in Bashan; to the other half, Joshua gave another among their brothers on the west bank of the Jordan. As Joshua sent them home to their tents, he blessed them 8 and said to them, You are going back to your tents with great wealth, with a great deal of livestock, with silver and gold, bronze and iron and great quantities of clothing; share the spoils of your enemies with your brothers.' [..] = literal translation (IBHE, vol. I, page 618; underlining added).

In verses 2-4 Joshua praises the obedience of the eastern tribes and announces that Yahweh now fulfills the promise He made in granting the Transjordan tribes the "rest" (verse 4) He promised them in Deuteronomy 12:10 "a reminder of which Joshua made in 1:13, 15 and repeated to all the tribes in 21:44.

Question: Joshua warns the eastern tribes to keep the commandments of the Law. What does he list as the ways in which they must remain obedient to the Law?

  1. To love God
  2. To follow the path God has set for them by keeping the commandments
  3. To be loyal to God and to serve Him with all your heart and soul

Question: What is Joshua's final warning?
Answer: Joshua's final warning is that they must be generous in sharing their spoils of conquest, which God has given them, with their brothers.

Joshua 22:9-12 ~ The eastern tribes build an altar
9 The Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned home, leaving the Israelites at Shiloh in Canaan, and made for Gilead, the territory which belonged to them as a result of Yahweh's order given through Moses. 10 When they came to the stone circle by the Jordan, in Canaanite territory, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an altar there beside the Jordan, a large, imposing altar. 11 This came to the ears of the Israelites. Look,' the word went round, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built this altar on the Canaanite side, near the stone circle by the Jordan, on the Israelites' bank.' 12 At this news, the whole community of the Israelites mustered at Shiloh, to march against them and make war on them.

The eastern tribes cross over into to Gilead, a mountainous area in the Transjordan, southeast of the Sea of Galilee. They erect "a large, imposing altar" on what is probably the eastern side of the river (the text is confusing but see verse 15) that may have been a replica of Yahweh's altar in the Sanctuary at Shiloh. The altar that the warriors of the eastern tribes erected was at a pagan memorial stone circle probably similar to the one mentioned in Joshua 15:7 and 18:17 that was on the border of the lands allotted to Judah and Benjamin on the western side of the Jordan River.

Question: When the news of the altar built by the eastern warriors reached the other tribes, why were the Israelites of the western tribes ready to go to war against the eastern tribes? See Lev 17:8-9; Dt 12:5.
Answer: The altar built by the eastern tribes is condemned as a serious violation of the covenant. In the covenant with Israel, Yahweh established only one Sanctuary and one altar of sacrifice. Sacrifice offered on any other altar is a sacrilege that is to be punished by expulsion from the covenant community. The western tribes want to prevent a political and religious schism that could put the entire covenant treaty in jeopardy, and they are determined to go to war to prevent it.

That the whole community of Israel is determined to prevent a violation of the covenant is made clear in the repetition of "the whole community of Israel," 4 times in verses 12, 16, 18 and 20.

Joshua 22:13-20 ~ The Israelites send a delegation to the eastern tribes
13 The Israelites sent the priest Phinehas son of Eleazar to the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in Gilead, 14 and with him ten leading men [chiefs/princes], one man [chief/prince] from a leading family [ancestral house] from each of the tribes of Israel, each of them being head of his family [head of the house] in the clans of Israel. 15 Having reached the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh in Gilead, they said this: 16 The whole community of Israel says as follows, "What do you mean by this infidelity, which you have committed against the God of Israel by now repudiating your allegiance to Yahweh, and by building yourselves an altar with the intention now of rebelling against Yahweh? 17 Was the crime which we committed at Peor so slight "although we have not managed to purify ourselves from that even now, in spite of the plague which has ravaged the community of Yahweh "18 that you must now repudiate your allegiance to Yahweh? For since you are in rebellion against him today, tomorrow his anger will be aroused against the whole community of Israel. 19 Is the country in which you have settled unclean? Then cross over into the country where Yahweh has settled, there where Yahweh's Dwelling now stands, and settle among us. But do not rebel against Yahweh or involve us in your rebellion by building a rival altar to the altar of Yahweh our God. 20 When Achan son of Zerah was unfaithful to the curse of destruction, did not the retribution come down on the whole community of Israel, although he was only one man? Did he not have to die for his crime?" [..] = literal translation (IBHE, vol. I, page 619-20).

The confrontation between the tribal leaders took place in Gilead, on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Phinehas, a chief priest and son of the High Priest Eleazar, is the leader of the delegation of the western tribes and is probably the spokesman for the group.

Question: What point is made concerning the altar the eastern tribal warriors have built on the eastern side? Why is building the altar interpreted as an act of rebellion and as infidelity to Yahweh? See verse 16.
Answer: The point concerning the altar is that if they intend to offer sacrifice on it "even if the sacrifice is intended for Yahweh "they would be in violation of the law and in rebellion against Yahweh by offering unsanctioned sacrifice which can only be offered in Yahweh's Sanctuary and by Yahweh's ordained priests. Phinehas accuses them of "infidelity," which in the language of covenant means they are guilty of idolatry "the unsanctioned altar being the idol.

Question: What three rhetorical questions does the delegation ask?

  1. Have they forgotten the sin committed at Peor?
  2. Is the country they have settled unclean?
  3. Have they forgotten the retribution that fell on all of Israel in Achan's sin?

Two of the questions recall past events where Israel transgressed and was punished by God.

Question: What passed events are used as examples of rebellion that incurred God's wrath and His punishment on "the whole community" of Israel?

  1. Israel's apostasy on the plains of Moab at Baal Peor (Num 25:3-5).
  2. The sin of Achan of Judah in stealing from God (Josh 7:1, 10-26).

It was Phinehas who deflected God's anger and brought an end to the plague that was Israel's punishment for the sin of idol worship and sexual immorality at Peor (Num 25:6-13). The recalling of Achan's sin is another reminder of the corporate nature of the covenant where the sin of one can bring judgment on the entire community.

The question about the contamination of the Transjordan by pagan practices that might have led them to building an unsanctioned altar on the eastern side is interesting. The delegation wisely urges them to cross over to the west and be settled in the land in which God dwells in His holy Sanctuary to safeguard their salvation and their place in the covenant. History will show that they should have accepted the invitation. By the late 8th century BC, the tribes on the eastern side and their cities will no longer exist.(3)

Question: What comparison can be made to safeguarding our souls from the contamination of sinful practices in the world by abiding in close proximity to the "dwelling place" of God?
Answer: When one is surrounded by sin one cannot help but become susceptible to sinful practices. The more one is exposes, the less sinful those practices seem: i.e., unmarried couples openly living together (the sin of fornication), abortion defined as "a woman's right to choose," viewing movies or TV programs that promote/glorify sinful practices, etc. It is by living infused by the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the Living Christ in the Eucharist that we become the "dwelling place" of God and are both protected against sin in the world and are spiritually nourished on our journey to salvation.

Joshua 22:21-29 ~ The Transjordan tribes justify their action in building an altar
21 The Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh spoke in their turn and answered the heads of the clans of Israel: 22 The God of gods, Yahweh, the God of gods, Yahweh well knows, and let Israel know it too: if there has been rebellion or infidelity to Yahweh on our part, may he refuse to save us today! 23 And if we have built ourselves an altar with the intention of repudiating our allegiance to Yahweh and of presenting burnt offering and oblation or of offering communion sacrifices on it, may Yahweh himself call us to account for it! 24 The truth is, we have done this as a precaution: in the future, your descendants might say to ours, "What connection do you have with Yahweh, God of Israel? 25 Has not Yahweh set the frontier of the Jordan between us and you, you Reubenites and Gadites? You have no share in Yahweh." Thus, your descendants would be the cause of stopping ours from fearing Yahweh. 26 So we said to each other, "Let us build this altar, not for burnt offerings or other sacrifices 27 but as a witness between us and you and between our descendants after us, attesting that we too have the right to worship Yahweh, in his presence, with our burnt offerings, our victims and our communion sacrifices. And so, in the future your descendants will not be able to say to ours: You have no share in Yahweh." 28 And we furthermore said, "If ever it were to happen that they did say this either to us or to our descendants in the future, we should reply: Look at this structure, Yahweh's altar, made by our ancestors not for burnt offerings or other sacrifices but as a witness between us and you." 29 Far be it from us to rebel against Yahweh or now to repudiate our allegiance to Yahweh by building an altar for burnt offerings or oblations or sacrifices, in rivalry with the altar of Yahweh our God that stands before his Dwelling!'

The eastern tribal representatives use the word "witness" twice in their speech in verses 27 and 28 and it is found a third time in verse 34. The meeting between the tribal representatives may have been near the site where Jacob, the ancestor of the Israelites, and his father-in-law Laban made a covenant in Genesis 31 on the eastern side of the river. See Gen 31:22-25, 43-54.

Question: According to Genesis 31:47-48, what does the name Gilead mean?
Answer: Laban named it "witness" or "mound of witness," referring to the mound of stone he set up as a memorial of the covenant he made with Jacob-Israel.

Question: What explanation do the eastern tribal representatives give for building the altar?
Answer: They say that the altar was not intended for sacrifice but only as a memorial that stands as a "witness" to their part united with Israel in covenant with Yahweh.

Their defense appears to be sincere. They even offer a self-curse in verse 22 if their words are false. Whether what they profess is the truth is impossible to determine. It could be asked if they wanted a monument to their commitment to the covenant, why didn't they just erect memorial stones like the ones erected at Gilgal or on Mt. Ebal? However, the tribal representatives from the western tribes do not demand that they dismantle the structure and there is apparently no evidence of burnt sacrifices on the altar. Nevertheless, if their intent was originally to establish a ritual site of their own, the swift and determined reaction of the western tribes caused them to rethink their intentions and to reaffirm their unity with Yahweh and the western tribes.

Joshua 22:30-34 ~ Peace is restored between the western and eastern tribes
30 When the priest Phinehas, the leaders of the community and the heads of the clans of Israel who were with him, heard the words spoken by the Gadites, the Reubenites and the Manassehites, they approved of them. 31 The priest Phinehas son of Eleazar then said to the Reubenites, the Gadites and the Manassehites, Today, we can see that Yahweh is among us, since you have not been unfaithful to Yahweh in this matter; this means that you have spared the Israelites from Yahweh's avenging hand.' 32 The priest Phinehas son of Eleazar and the leaders left the Reubenites and the Gadites and went back from Gilead to Canaan and the Israelites, to whom they reported the answer. 33 The Israelites were pleased to hear this; the Israelites gave thanks to God and spoke no more of marching against them to make war on them and to ravage the country inhabited by the Reubenites and the Gadites. 34 The Reubenites and the Gadites called the altar ..., Because,' they said, it will be a witness between us that Yahweh is God.'

A much relieved delegation of the representatives of the western tribes graciously accepted the testimony of the eastern tribal representatives that the altar was only intended to be a memorial and a witness to their commitment to their union with the western tribes and to the covenant with Yahweh. The name they gave the altar in verse 34 has been lost or purposely struck out from the text, but the word "witness" must have been part of the name.

Questions for group discussion or reflection:

Question: What is the Catholic Church's stand on the death penalty for capital crimes? See CCC 2266-2267 and Evangelium vitae 56 (Pope John Paul II).

Question: Often those who support abortion as "a woman's right of choice" oppose the death penalty. What argument would you make to someone who accuses the Catholic Church of putting too much emphasis on abortion and not enough emphasis on opposing the death penalty? Information pertinent to your argument includes:

  1. 17 states have repealed the use of the death penalty while abortion has been legalized in every state since the Supreme Court decision in Roe versus Wade in 1973. Prior to the decision, abortion was illegal in 30 states and limited in the other 20.
  2. In 1996 statistics reveal that there were approximately 1.37 million abortions in the USA and over 42 million worldwide. That same year there were only 45 executions in the USA.

For the Catholic Church's firm opposition to abortion in any form see CCC 2270-75 and Evangelium Vitae, 73. Also see Ex 20:13 and Dt 5:15 in which the Hebrew word means the "murder of innocent life."


1. Laws limiting the scope of punishment equal to the damage caused expressed similarly to "an eye for an eye" are also found in the Code of Hammurabi and the Assyrian laws.

2. The city gate at tell Dan is a good example. It had a relatively spacious plaza with benches in the right angle formed by two walls and what appears to be the foundation for a ceremonial chair or throne that probably served as a "seat of judgment" (see such a "seat" mentioned in Mt 27:19 and Jn 19:13). There are several references to meetings taking place and judgments being rendered at the town gate in the Bible, for example see Rt 4:1-12.

3. It is the theory of some scholars that none of the Bible was written down until the 6th century BC. The Israelites on the eastern side and their cities will cease to exist and will be lost to history after the Assyrian conquest in the late 8th century BC, and yet that the cities on the eastern side, including the Cities of Refuge and the Levitical cities, are carefully listed in Joshua is another example that can be offered to repudiate their theory that what happened in Joshua wasn't written down until seven hundred years later.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2012 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Catechism references:

Death penalty: CCC 2266-67

Abortion: CCC 2270-75