JOSHUA 20-21

SEPTEMBER 27, 2009


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            A seventh grader asked William Bennett, the drug Czar during George Herbert Walker Bush’s presidency, a question.  The seventh grader asked, “Secretary Bennett, how can you tell a good country from a bad country?”

            That’s a challenging question and Bennett had a great answer.  William Bennett answered, “I apply the ‘gate’ test.  When the gates of the country are open, watch which way the people run.  Do they run into the country or out of the country?” 

            Now, if Bennet’s “gate test” is an accurate assessment, then we are living in one of the greatest countries in the world, and much of what has contributed to the greatness of our nation springs from our Judeo-Christian heritage, and this morning’s passage is an example of that.  In fact, the judicial principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty, comes right from these two chapters of the the book of Joshua.  Let’s turn to those chapters now.

            After conquering the Promised Land, and after dividing the land among the tribes of Israel, God establishes two kinds of cities in the newly formed nation.  God establishes six “judicial” cities in Israel, called “cities of refuge,” and God also establishes forty-eight religious centers or cities in the nation.  Let’s turn to the rationale behind those two types of cities ... judicial and spiritual ... and then let’s draw a couple of implications for our lives.

            First, God established six cities of refuge.  And let’s note their locale.  Follow along as I begin reading in verse seven of the twentieth chapter.


            So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali ... think of that as sort of Billings, Montana, that’s way in the northern part of Israel ... and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim ... that would be Denver, more centrally located in the land ... and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah ... that’s like Phoenix way to the south ... And 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 Gath, and Golan in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh ... those would be cities east of the Jordan River.  The Jordan split the nation in half just as the Mississippi splits our nation in half, and east of the Jordan we have three cities, one in the north, one centrally located, and one in the south, just as there are three cities of refuge west of the Jordan River, Billings, Denver, and Phoenix.


            In other words, three cities of refuge in the east, three cities of refuge in the west, two north, two south, and two centrally located.  So, if you lived east of the Jordan in the north, you could easily reach one of these cities, just as you could if you lived west of the Jordan in the south.  Wherever you lived in Israel, there would be no disadvantage in reaching one of these cities. 

            Not only that, but in addition to the convenient locations, each of these six cities were also built on top of a hill, so that they could easily be seen from afar.  Furthermore, the roads to these cities were clearly marked.  A law in Israel required road crews to go out every year to repair the roads leading to the cities of refuge, and to make sure the signposts to the cities were clearly marked. 

            Now, why did God go to such lengths to create these cities of refuge?  Well, maybe you recall the time Tarzan came home in the afternoon and asked Jane for a triple Jack Daniels.  After he finished it off, he asked for another.  Jane was appropriately worried about Tarzan’s alcohol intake, and she called him on it.  She said, “Tarzan, I’m concerned about your drinking.  Every afternoon you come home and have two or three drinks.  I think you ought to get some help.  I think you have a problem with alcohol.”

            Tarzan said, “I can’t help it, Jane.  It’s a jungle out there!”

            God went to such lengths in creating cities of refuge because he knew it could be a jungle out there.  God understood the violent propensity of humankind.  God understood the abuses of justice, and so our Creator established six strategically placed regional courts where one could go to get a fair trial in a murder case.

            For you see, the system in operation at this point was “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth,” and if someone was killed, accidentally or not, it fell to the nearest male relative to avenge the death.  They became “an avenger of blood” and it was their goal in life to kill the person who killed their relative. 

            Of course, there is a big difference between murder and a death as a result of self-defense or an accidental death, so God established these cities of refuge so that ... well, let’s read it about it in verse two.


            Appoint cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person without intent or by mistake may flee there; there shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood.


            So, here in this dusty old book of Joshua we have the underpinnings of the judicial doctrine, “innocent until proven guilty.”  

            That, then, was one type of city God established.  The other type of city were Levitical cities named after the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe of Israel.  Levitical cities were to be spiritual centers in the land.  God established forty-eight of them, spread across the land, and these Levites became the priests and religious teachers of the nation, and instead of receiving land as had the other tribes of Israel, the fruits of their service became the Levites’ inheritance. 

            So there we have it.  Two types of cities.  One establishes an elementary system of justice and the other becomes a center for spiritual activity.  Now let’s turn to a couple of implications for our lives. 

            Implication number one, based on the cities of refuge: biblical faith is an exercise in reality, not pie in the sky. 

            Do you have any pet peeves?  I have a handful.  Some have to do with automobiles.  People driving slowly in the fast lane.  People taking up two parking spaces in a parking lot.  But I have others like people talking on cell phones in a restaurant, and people having eleven items in the ten items or less line of the supermarket.  I also have church related one.  It goes like this.  Someone leaves worship and says, “Well, I guess it’s time to go back into the real world” as if what we do here is sort of cute, and sometimes inspiring, but it’s not the “real world.” 

            The twentieth chapter of Joshua, however, reflects what it’s like in the “real world.”  It’s a place of violence and vengeance and injustice, and the chapter describes how we can live more justly and compassionately in the midst of that.

            If it’s anything at all, the bible is real and practical, not pie in the sky, unrelated to the world in which we live.  Think about it.  The bible teaches us about money and how to make it and what to do with it once we get it.  The bible teaches us about relationships and how to deal with them so they work.  The bible teaches us about sexuality, just thumb through the Song of Solomon in your spare time.  That’s the first Joy of Sex book known to humankind.  The bible is very earthy, very practical, very real, right down to how to treat the down and out, and how to be a great parent, and how to relate to those with authority over us. 

            If you are looking for good advice for real life, turn here not just to Dr. Phil.

            Implication number two comes from the twenty-first chapter, from the Levitical cities, and here it is: we can get there from here. 

            Let me say a little about the Levites, the priests of the day.  Let me remind all of us of how they got their start.  I’m going to read a bit about them starting in Genesis 49:5, but before doing that, I want to go back even a little further to Genesis 34, to the story of the rape of Levi’s and Simeon’s sister, Dinah.  After hearing of the rape, instead of going through the proper channels, Levi and Simeon killed the rapist, and not only that, but for good measure they also killed every male in the city in which the rapist lived. 

            In other words, they went a overboard.  They went beyond justice to irrational vengeance, and when it came time for Levi’s and Simeon’s father to bless his children, and we are going to read that blessing in just a bit, it’s in the 49th chapter, when it came to blessing Simeon and Levi, their father, Jacob, curses them instead.  And let me tell you, that sort of thing can put a person on a psychological trip for the rest of his or her life.  Imagine going to your daddy’s deathbed and he curses you, tells you what a disappoint you have been, rather than blesses you.  And listen to the curse.  Genesis 49:5.  Jacob says,


            Simeon and Levi are brothers;

                        weapons of violence are their swords.

            May I never come into their counsel;

                        may I not be joined to their company -

            For in their anger they killed men,

                        and at their whim they hamstrung oxen.

            Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,

                        and their wrath, for it is cruel!

            I will divide them in Jacob,

                        and scatter them in Israel.


            Notice those last words, “I will scatter them in Israel.”  That was meant as a curse, but here in Joshua 21 it becomes a blessing.  God turned the worst of the flock into priests.  The Levites were scattered, but in service of God.  The principle?  There is no curse so great that God cannot turn it into a blessing.  There is no failure so great that God cannot turn it into a victory.  There is not malediction so horrible that God cannot cannot turn it into a benediction.

            Some of you know that at one time in my life I travelled around the country doing seminars on small group life in the church.  One of my travels took me to the First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky where Jeb Magruder had served as pastor.  Does the name Jeb Magruder ring a bell?  Jeb Magruder was the second person in the Nixon administration to plead guilty to charges of involvement with the Watergate break-in.  He spent seven months in prison for his crimes, and after leaving prison he attended Princeton Theological Seminary, earned his Masters of Divinity degree, and ended up serving churches in Burlingame, California, Columbus, Ohio and where we crossed paths, the First Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Kentucky.  The church loved him so much they built a beautiful chapel for small weddings and funerals, and named it after him.  The Magruder Chapel.  God took the curse and turned it into a blessing.

            No matter what our curse, no matter what our failure, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how bad things are, if we want to get close to so that God can bless us, we can get there from here.