Joshua 20

Joshua 20,
Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Today’s discussion group spent extra time on this chapter, excited by its surprising relevance – once we sorted out what a ‘city of refuge’ (NRSV) or ‘asylum cities’ (Message), asylum-cities (NIV) ‘Towns of Asylum’ (Schocken) might mean.
 
My reading of Joshua defies its glib dismissal as a genocidal tract, since it acknowledges throughout that predecessors were either dispossessed by divine providence, then simply occupied by Israel, or that the people in the land remained among and around the 12 tribes in an ebb and flow of prosperity or comparative good management.  
 
The occasional battle references are like boasting and sports bar ‘trash talk’ about how the competing team was ‘annihilated’ and will ‘never recover from that trouncing’.  Surely the constant diplomacy of trade and commerce and cultural interaction was perpetual, and occasionally, ‘war is diplomacy continued by other means’.  
 
At a more personal level, conflict can come to a head in physical violence.  In our law, assault is ‘unconsented touching’, usually arising in the context of conflict. As a criminal law prof taught us over 40 years ago: “the only difference between assault and murder is that the other guy dies.”  The dimension of intention is also critical.
 
Torah, particularly in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, set out overlapping legal codes covering a range of matters, some of which we would class as crimes against a person, others as torts of battery, or negligence or carelessness, or frauds and breaches of contract.  Some provide for exile or banishment as consequences.
 
‘O sinner man, where you gonna run to?’  When the young hothead in a commercial or cultural conflict escalates the fight to physical violence and assault, and ‘the other guy dies’ – he can run. Nobody in the village, particularly the bereaved relatives, will offer him a fair trial, just vengeance through a ‘blood redeemer’.  Let him run!
 
This chapter implements a plan of cities of refuge, where a fugitive can be given sanctuary and refuge while the aggrieved and bereaved cool off back home.  The killer has to satisfy the asylum that his act did not meet the intention, our mens rea, for first degree murder, but was either accidental, negligent, careless, a crime of sudden passion or of self defence.  Then he is given asylum.
 
There are only 6 cities named here, north, central, and south on each of the west and east sides of the Jordan.  These are gated cities or towns, not wee villages, and the reference to ‘the high priest of the time’ suggests a Josiah era edit.  Snowden holes up in an embassy for Wiki-leaks. Any number of political asylum seekers facing trumped-up charges until regimes change back home: 
 
Then the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying,
 2‘Say to the Israelites, 
“Appoint the cities of refuge, 
of which I spoke to you through Moses,
 3so that anyone who kills a person
 without intent or by mistake
may flee there;
 they shall be for you a refuge
from the avenger of blood.
 
4The slayer shall flee to one of these cities
and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city,
 and explain the case to the elders of that city; 
then the fugitive shall be taken into the city, 
and given a place, and shall remain with them.
 
 5And if the avenger of blood is in pursuit, 
they shall not give up the slayer,
 because the neighbour was killed by mistake,
 there having been no enmity between them before.
 
 6The slayer shall remain in that city
until there is a trial before the congregation, 
until the death of the one who is high priest at the time:
 then the slayer may return home,
 to the town in which the deed was done.” ’
 
7 So they set apart 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.
 
 8And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, 
they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland,
 from the tribe of Reuben, 
and Ramoth in Gilead, 
from the tribe of Gad,
 and Golan in Bashan,
 from the tribe of Manasseh.
 
 9These were the cities
designated for all the Israelites, 
and for the aliens residing among them, 
that anyone who killed a person
without intent
could flee there,
 so as not to die
 by the hand of the avenger of blood,
 until there was a trial
before the congregation.