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Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 7: Joshua, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at


Joshua 20:1-9

1. The LORD also spoke unto Joshua, saying,

1. Loquutus est autem Jehova ad Josue, dicendo,

2. Speak to the children of Israel, saying, Appoint out for you cities of refuge, whereof I spoke unto you by the hand of Moses:

2. Alloquere filios Israel, his verbis, Date urbes refugii, de quibus loquutus sum ad vos per manum Mosis:

3. That the slayer that kills any person unawares and unwittingly may flee thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood.

3. Ut fugiat illuc homicida qui percusserit animam per errorem, absque scientia: eruntque vobis in refugium a propinquo sanguinis.

4. And when he that doth flee unto one of those cities shall stand at the entering of the gate of the city, and shall declare his cause in the ears of the elders of that city, they shall take him into the city unto them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them.

4. Et fugiet ad unam ex civitatibus istis, stabitque ad ostium portae urbis, ac loquetur in auribus seniorum urbis ipsius verba sua, et recolligent eum in urbem ad se, dabuntque ei locum, ac habitabit apud eos.

5. And if the avenger of blood pursue after him, then they shall not deliver the slayer up into his hand; because he smote his neighbor unwittingly, and hated him not beforetime.

5. Quum autem persequutus fuerit eum propinquus sanguinis, non tradent homicidam in manum ejus: quia absque scientia percussit proximum suum, neque odio habuerat eum ab heri et nudiustertius.

6. And he shall dwell in that city, until he stand before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the high priest that shall be in those days: then shall the slayer return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house, unto the city from whence he fled.

6. Et habitabit in ea civitate donec stet ante coetum ad judicium, aut donec moriatur sacerdos magnus qui erit in diebus illis: tunc enim revertetur homicida venietque ad urbem suam, et ad domum suam, ad urbem unde fugerat.

7. And they appointed Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Shechem in mount Ephraim, and Kirjatharba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah.

7. Et addixerunt Cedes in Galil in monte Nephtali, et Sechem in monte Ephraim, et Cirjath-arba (ipsa est Hebron) in monte Jehudae.

8. And on the other side Jordan by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness upon the plain out of the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh.

8. De trans Jordane autem Jericho, ad orientem dederunt Beser in deserto in planitie, de tribu Ruben: et Ramoth in Gilead, de tribu Gadi: et Golan in Basan, de tribu Manasse.

9. These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourns among them, that whosoever kills any person at unawares might flee thither, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until he stood before the congregation.

9. Istae fuerunt urbes conventionis omnibus filiis Israel, et peregrino qui peregrinatur in medio eorum: ut fugeret illuc quicunque interfecisset aliquem per errorem, et non moreretur manu propinqui sanguinis, donec stetisset coram coetu.


1. The Lord also spoke unto Joshua, etc In the fact of its not having occurred to their own minds, to designate the cities of refuge, till they were again reminded of it, their sluggishness appears to be indirectly censured. The divine command to that effect had been given beyond the Jordan. When the reason for it remained always equally valid, why do they wait? Why do they not give full effect to that which they had rightly begun? We may add, how important it was that there should be places of refuge for the innocent, in order that the land might not be polluted with blood. For if that remedy had not been provided, the kindred of those who had been killed would have doubled the evil, by proceeding without discrimination to avenge their death. It certainly did not become the people to be idle in guarding the land from stain and taint.  172 Hence we perceive how tardy men are, not only to perform their duty, but to provide for their own safety, unless the Lord frequently urge them, and prick them forward by the stimulus of exhortation. But that they sinned only from thoughtlessness, is apparent from this, that they are forthwith ready to obey, neither procrastinating nor creating obstacles or delays to a necessary matter, by disputing the propriety of it.

The nature of the asylum afforded by the cities of refuge has been already explained. It gave no impunity to voluntary murder, but if any one, by mistake, had slain a man, with whom he was not at enmity, he found a safe refuge by fleeing to one of these cities destined for that purpose. Thus God assisted the unfortunate, and prevented their suffering the punishment of an atrocious deed, when they had not been guilty of it. Meanwhile respect was so far paid to the feelings of the brethren and kindred of the deceased, that their sorrow was not increased by the constant presence of the persons who had caused their bereavement. Lastly, the people were accustomed to detest murder, since homicide, even when not culpable, was followed by exile from country and home, till the death of the high priest. For that temporary exile clearly showed how precious human blood is in the sight of God. Thus the law was just, equitable, and useful, as well in a public as in a private point of view.  173 But it is to be briefly observed, that everything is not here mentioned in order. For one who had accidentally killed a man might have remained in safety, by sisting himself before the court to plead his cause, and obtaining an acquittal, after due and thorough investigation, as we explained more fully in the books of Moses, when treating of this matter.

7. And they appointed Kedesh, etc The Hebrew word Kedesh here used, signifies also to fit and consecrate. Accordingly, I interpret, that cities were selected according as common use required.  174 Hence it is inferred that matters were well arranged so as to make private yield to public interest. Moreover, we shall see in the next chapter, that Ciriath-Arbah, which was afterwards called Hebron, was transferred to the Levites, though it had formerly been the property of Caleb. Hence appeared the rare, nay, the incomparable moderation of this aged saint, who readily gave up to others both the city and suburbs, which he had justly claimed as his right, the moment the lot showed that this was pleasing to God. It was necessary to advert briefly to this change, because the Lord was pleased that asylums should be found only in the Levitical cities, that their innocence might be defended with greater fidelity and authority.



Calvin is somewhat singular in holding that the message communicated to Joshua was an indirect censure of the Israelites, for not having previously of their own accord appointed cities of refuge. Other expositors think that till now the proper time of appointing them had not arrived, as it could not well precede, but rather behooved to be subsequent to the allocation of cities to the Levites, inasmuch as the nature of the case required that every city of refuge should be Levitical. — Ed.


It may be observed in passing, how strikingly the humanity and wisdom conspicuous in the appointment of the Mosaic cities of refuge contrast with the manifold abuses and abominations to which the numerous asylums and sanctuaries of Popish countries have led. — Ed.


Latin, “Prout communis usus ferebat.” French, “Selon que le profit et l’utilite commune le requeroit;” “According as the common profit and utility required.” — Ed.

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