Six Cities of Refuge
1 The Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, 2 “Speak to the Israelites, saying, ‘Designate the cities of refuge (asylum), of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 so that the person (manslayer) who kills any person unintentionally, (a)without premeditation, may flee there, and they shall be your refuge from the (b)blood avenger.(A) 4 He shall flee to one of these cities, and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and (c)explain his case to the elders of that city; and they shall take him into [the protection of] the city and give him a place [to stay], so that he may live among them. 5 If the blood avenger pursues him, they shall not hand the offender (manslayer) over to him, because he killed his neighbor (d)unintentionally and without premeditation and did not hate him beforehand. 6 He shall live in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment [and (e)if acquitted of murder he must stay there], until the death of the one who is the high priest in those days. Then the offender (manslayer) shall return to his own city and his own house from which he fled.’”
7 So they set apart and consecrated Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. 8 Beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the plain from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh. 9 These were the appointed cities for all the Israelites and for the stranger sojourning (living temporarily) among them, so that whoever killed any person unintentionally may flee there, and not die by the hand of the blood avenger until he had stood before the congregation [for judgment].
a. Joshua 20:3: Lit without knowledge. The Hebrew terminology is not very precise, but adequate nonetheless to distinguish involuntary manslaughter from murder. In modern terms, the person who is guilty only of manslaughter must not have been aware at the time that he was actually killing a human being (like the hunter who mistakes a man for an animal of prey); or if he knew that his actions were affecting another human, he must not have been aware that those actions could result in the death of the other person. In v 5, it is also stated that the perpetrator must not have had hatred for the victim, and it is implied that if hatred was a factor, the killer is automatically ruled a murderer (cf Num 35:20, 21).
b. Joshua 20:3: Lit redeemer of blood, the idea being that the one who kills the murderer of a relative redeems the guilt of the crime. The avenger was ordinarily a male next-of-kin, and he had the right, or even the responsibility, to execute the guilty party.
c. Joshua 20:4: Lit speak his word in the hearing of.
d. Joshua 20:5: Lit without knowledge.
e. Joshua 20:6: If judged guilty, the killer would be put to death. Otherwise, the time he was required to spend in the city of refuge represented a less severe punishment for involuntary manslaughter. Afterward, he was entitled to return home and live in safety. If the blood avenger killed him then, the avenger would be guilty of murder.