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published: 10/8/13

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Cities of Refuge in the Bible



What were the Cities of Refuge?

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Six cities, three on each side of the Jordan, were set apart and placed in the hands of the Levites, to serve as places of asylum (or refuge) for such as might shed blood unwittingly.

1. Location:

On the East of the Jordan they were Bezer in the lot of Reuben, Ramoth-gilead in the tribe of Gad, and Golan in the territory of Manasseh. On the West of the Jordan they were Hebron in Judah, Shechem in Mt. Ephraim, and Kedesh in Naphtali ( Numbers 35:6 , Numbers 35:14 ; Joshua 20:2 , Joshua 20:7 ff; Joshua 21:13 , Joshua 21:21 , Joshua 21:27 , Joshua 21:32 , Joshua 21:38 ; Bezer is named in Joshua 21:36 , but not described as a City of Refuge). An account of these cities is given in separate articles under their names. Deuteronomy 19:2 speaks of three cities thus to be set apart, referring apparently to the land West of the Jordan.

2. Purpose:

From time immemorial in the East, if a man were slain the duty of avenging him has lain as a sacred obligation upon his nearest relative. In districts where more primitive conditions prevail, even to this day, the distinction between intentional and unintentional killing is not too strictly observed, and men are often done to death in revenge for what was the purest accident. To prevent such a thing where possible, and to provide for a right administration of justice, these cities were instituted. Open highways were to be maintained along, which the manslayer might have an unobstructed course to the city gate.



3. Regulations:

The regulations concerning the Cities of Refuge are found in Numbers 35 ; Deuteronomy 19:1-13 ; Joshua 20:1-9 . Briefly, everything was to be done to facilitate the flight of the manslayer, lest the avenger of blood, i.e. the nearest of kin, should pursue him with hot heart, and, overtaking him, should smite him mortally. Upon reaching the city he was to be received by the elders and his case heard. If this was satisfactory, they gave him asylum until a regular trial could be carried out.

They took him, apparently, to the city or district from which he had fled, and there, among those who knew him, witnesses were examined. If it were proved that he was not a willful slayer, that he had no grudge against the person killed, and had shown no sign of purpose to injure him, then he was declared innocent and conducted back to the city in which he had taken refuge, where he must stay until the death of the high priest. Then he was free to return home in safety.

Until that event he must on no account go beyond the city boundaries. If he did, the avenger of blood might slay him without blame. On the other hand, if he were found guilty of deliberate murder, there was no more protection for him. He was handed over to the avenger of blood who, with his own hand, took the murderer's life. Blood-money, i.e. money paid in compensation for the murder, in settlement of the avenger's claim, was in no circumstances permitted; nor could the refugee be ransomed, so that he might "come again to dwell in the land" until the death of the high priest (Numbers 35:32 ).

A similar right of refuge seems to have been recognized in Israel as attaching to the altar in the temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 1:50 ; 1 Kings 2:28 ; compare Exodus 21:12 f). This may be compared with the right of asylum connected with the temples of the heathen.

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Source:

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).