Summary: As we head out full bore into a victorious life in Christ, sometimes we forget the qualities of mercy and ownership. God reminds us of who He is and who we belong to.
One of the big problems in being in battle is that you don’t know when to quit. During World War II some Japanese soldiers holed themselves up on small islands in the Pacific and hid away decades after hostilities ended. Some were even told the war was over but did not believe it. Two years ago, reportedly, two former Japanese soldiers came out of the jungles on Mindanao Island of the Philippines and said they did not know the war had ended. In 1974 Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was found in the Philippine jungles and refused to surrender until his former commanding officer was flown over from Japan.
In a way, that is what the Children of Israel faced in this stage of their victory over the Promised Land. Open hostilities were over. No major opposition remained except for some small pockets of resistance near the coast. Now that the land was being divided up there was an important element to introduce, one that was starting to get foreign to these battle hardened troops; that quality is mercy.
When you are fighting for the Lord, it becomes easier to see everyone as an enemy who does not appear to wear your uniform and fly your flag. We can begin to see weakness as treachery and failure as opportunity to press the battle forward. God here in chapter 20 wants Israel to make room for mercy. It reminds me of something the prophet Habakkuk will say years later:
Habakkuk 3:2 O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. ESV
Those are good words for us as well. God did this in Israel by creating what are called Cities of Refuge; places to run to for those who had killed someone unintentionally but who faced the retribution of relatives out for blood.
Sometimes once we experience victory we hold on so tight that we leave no room for mercy. Furthermore, sometimes we keep the territory we have won so close that we fail to make room for God invading and giving it and us away.
We see this in chapter 21, where God literally gives away parts of the nation already allotted to the various tribes. This giveaway consisted of cities for the Levites and pastureland around those cities. The tribes had shed blood and fought hard for these cities and having God come in and just give them away might have stung.
What happens when God tells us to give up a ministry? I’ve known too many that hold on too hard to "territory" they think God gave them and don’t allow Him to do with it what He wills.
Verses 1 - 6
The legislation around the cities of refuge is found in Numbers 35. Manslaughter is defined as the accidental killing of another without premeditation. If someone commits manslaughter they were to run, not walk, to the nearest City of Refuge. There were apparently signs posted on roads that were well cared for with signs that said "Refuge, Refuge!" and even runners along the way to aid them.
Why? Because of someone known as the Avenger of Blood. This person was a relative of the person killed. Revenge and the avengement of blood was and continues to be a very powerful thing and here Joshua institutes the command of Moses from God to protect the innocent until trial. It reminds me of the Old American West. We had a lot of vigilante justice back then. When someone was accused of killing someone else sometimes they didn’t wait for a circuit judge to come riding through, they simply strung the person up from the nearest tree and called it good.
What happens is that the motivation for revenge can overwhelm the need for justice. I’m glad that God set this up, not just for protecting those people who needed it but as a principal. When someone wrongs us, like cutting us off on the freeway, we want to run them off the road, but is that justice or revenge?
We need to put our emotions in check and let our hearts lead us. When we find ourselves getting upset about something, do we want that person to become more like the Lord, or do we want to extract our pound of flesh from them. "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, I will repay" (Dt 32:35)
A provisional court would form of the elders of the city who would hear evidence, kind of like a Grand Jury, to determine whether the person was killed or murdered. If a premeditated murder took place the person would be turned over to be executed. If not, the person was allowed to live in the city of Refuge until a final court could hear the case or the High Priest died. One of the reasons for this is that at times there was not a strong central government that could provide legal proceedings such as this so it was up to the cities to fill in. It had to be a proper court though, with evidence and testimony by two witnesses in accordance to the Law (Numbers 35). We’re not sure why the death of the High Priest was involved. Perhaps it represented the statute of limitations.