Joshua 20 is about a unique concept called “cities of refuge.” Previously, we read about these cities of refuge in Exodus 21:12–14, Numbers 35:6–34, Deuteronomy 4:41–43, and Deuteronomy 19:1–13. This concept of “cities of refuge” is exclusive to ancient Israel’s justice system.
The highest form of punishment given to any person is the death penalty. Laws in ancient civilizations and most present-day laws impose the death penalty on anyone who has killed another man or woman. But God looks at our hearts, even in the face of the vilest of crime: murder. He searches our heart, mind, and motives (Jeremiah 17:10) to see if our heart, that is our motive, is pure and free from corrupt desire (Matthew 5:8). Jesus warned us that out of our hearts come evil thoughts, including murder (Matthew 15:19). God’s judgment begins not with our behavior but with our heart, our motive.
In Joshua 20, God comes to the aid of those who accidentally kill someone without any corrupt reason by giving them a place of safety, a city of refuge. But these cities also serve another purpose. They are inescapable physical structures that reminded every Israelite that God’s judgment began not with the outward behavior visible to everyone but with our inward motive visible only to God.