The first half of the book of Joshua details the ways in which the Israelite army entered the Promised Land and conquered its inhabitants according to the promises of God (Josh. 1–12; see Gen. 15:12–21). As the people obeyed the Lord and fought according to His commands, Joshua and the Israelites had victory after victory at cities like Jericho, Ai, and many others.
Despite Israel’s great success, Joshua did not lead the people into a total conquest of Canaan, and when he was close to death there remained “yet very much land to possess” (Josh. 13:1). It would be left to later leaders to complete the overthrow of the Canaanites, a feat that would not be accomplished until hundreds of years later under David, and then only temporarily. Nevertheless, since the land was certainly going to belong to Israel on account of God’s faithful promises, the Lord did have Joshua divide the land between the twelve tribes long before each of them actually owned any part of it (13:2–19:51).
Within the land of Israel, once it was conquered, there were to be cities established for refuge, as we read in today’s passage. These cities were actually included in the Mosaic law (Num. 35:9–15), and they demonstrate the grace of God that was evident even within the Law given at Sinai. In the ancient world, feuds could be a part of everyday life. If you killed my sister, even by accident, I might kill your brother. Then your family might kill my cousin, and so on. In setting up places for those who committed manslaughter to flee and find legal protection, a powerful check was placed upon blood-feuding and innocent life was protected from harm (Josh. 20).
Distinguishing manslaughter from premeditated murder also clears up misconceptions people may have about the old covenant. Many in both the church and culture think of life under the Mosaic law as harsh and unyielding, with people executed for even the “least” offenses each time they were committed. This was simply not true. Numbers 35:31 tells us the only crime where ransom could not be substituted for the death penalty was what we call first-degree murder. In other cases, the death penalty was the maximum punishment allowed, and it was up to judges to apply the Law wisely, sentencing people based on the particulars of each individual case.