In Joshua 20-22, Israel enjoyed God’s blessing and began to live faithfully in Canaan. By establishing cites of refuge, Israel displayed a commitment to justice and mercy. By granting cities to the Levites, they showed devotion to God’s presence among them. By insisting on purity in the incident over the Transjordan altar, they revealed the degree of their zeal for the Lord.
In ancient Israel, retribution for murder was handled by the family of the deceased. Since emotional vengeance in this kind of a matter has a large margin of error, cities of refuge were established so that those who maintained their innocence could flee there and await trial (see Num 35:19-27; Deut 19:6-12). These cities were thus places of protection and legal procedure (Josh 20:1-6). Other cities were also noteworthy in the settlement of the Promised Land, especially the cities for the Levites (Joshua 21). After the distribution of land and cities was completed, the author paused for doxology saying, “The LORD gave them rest on every side according to all He had sworn to their fathers…None of the good promises the LORD had made to the house of Israel failed. Everything was fulfilled” (Josh 21:44-45).
When the Transjordan tribes returned home, Joshua dismissed them with great wealth (Josh 22:6-8) and the exhortation to love the Lord and keep his commands (Josh 22:1-5). Yet upon crossing the Jordan, these tribes, without statement of rationale, “built a large, impressive altar” (Josh 22:10). The Israelites living in Canaan immediately interpreted this as a brazen act of idolatry and gathered for war against their brothers (Josh 22:12). Phinehas the priest (introduced in Num 25:6-13) and the representatives of the ten tribes argued against the Transjordan settlers, reminding them of their solidarity as a people and that God would discipline all Israel for the sin of the Transjordan altar (Josh 22:18-20; see Joshua 7). The two-and-a-half tribes maintained their innocence, saying that the altar was built out of concern that future generations of tribes dwelling on the western side of the river might chastise and separate from the Transjordan Israelites (Josh 22:24-25). Phinehas and the leaders with him were pleased with the response, saying, “Today we know that the LORD is among us, because you have not committed this treachery against Him” (Josh 22:31).
Joshua 20-22 provides the opportunity to synthesize the concept of Sabbath rest in the storyline of Scripture. God rested on the seventh day of creation, signifying His satisfaction with His creative work (Gen 2:2-3). After the exodus, God tested Israel’s reliance upon Him by withholding manna on the seventh day (Exodus 16). In the ten commandments, God ordered Israel to rest on the Sabbath day because it was the day He rested after creation (Exod 20:8-11) and because the exodus itself testified to His ability to provide for Israel’s needs (Deut 5:12-15). All of these find their initial fulfillment in Josh 21:44, which says, “The LORD gave them rest on every side according to all He had sworn to their fathers.” Jesus told his followers, “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke upon you and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30). The author of Hebrews noted the temporary nature of Israel’s rest under Joshua and exhorted his audience to labor toward rest in Christ (Heb 4:1-2, 8, 11).