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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
What was the purpose of the cities of refuge in the Old Testament?
Cities of refuge were selected from among the Levitical cities as places of asylum for people who accidentally or involuntarily killed someone. They were under the protection of the Lord through the priestly system. There were six of them, located at central places throughout the land of Israel, thus allowing suspected murderers to find refuge in them until their cases were investigated and verdicts handed down (Deut. 19:2-4; Num. 35:23, 24). I will examine the legislation in order to comment on its fundamental principles and values.
1. Restrict the Role of the Blood Avenger (Go‘el): One of the functions of a close relative of a person who was killed (Heb. go‘el, “redeemer”) was to restore order within society. This was to be done by executing the murderer. The practice was common throughout the ancient Near East, and often the avenger indiscriminately killed several members of the other tribe in an act of revenge. Cities of refuge served to control this thirst for vengeance by requiring that the charge of murder be demonstrated in a court of law, where the evidence could be evaluated and a final decision made. If the person was guilty as charged, the blood redeemer/avenger was to function as the executor of the sentence by killing the murderer. In other words, the role of the blood redeemer was brought under the jurisdiction of civil law (Num. 35:12).
2. Established an Important Legal Distinction: Through the institution of cities of refuge an important legal distinction was established between premeditated and accidental murder. The court was obliged to examine the evidence, the instrument used in the murder, the mental state during the alleged homicide, the prior relationship between victim and murderer, and the circumstances that resulted in the murder (e.g., was the person pushed from a high place; was the person hit by the head of an ax that flew off; see Num. 35:16-23; Deut. 19:4, 5). The “assembly’s” responsibility was to judge “between the accused [the alleged murderer] and the avenger of blood according to these regulations” (Num. 35:24, NIV). If the assembly determined that the killing was unintentional, it was its responsibility to “protect the one accused of murder from the avenger of blood and send the accused back to the city of refuge to which they fled” (verse 25, NIV). This implies that an escort was provided for such persons to protect them in their travel to a city of refuge.
3. Address the Shedding of Innocent Blood: The shedding of innocent blood not only damaged the social and spiritual life of the people—it also polluted the land on which the blood fell. If the situation was not addressed, God, the owner of the land, would abandon it. Life was too precious; and the only way to cleanse the land was through the execution of the murderer (Num. 35:33, 34). Capital punishment affirms the value of life by requiring the life of the murderer. Therefore, there was a place for the role of the blood redeemer. But cities of refuge limited that role by preventing the killing of an accidental murderer and the shedding of innocent blood (Deut. 19:10). Such persons found refuge in the Lord and were untouchable unless they abandoned the place of refuge, in which case the blood avenger could kill them (Num. 35:26, 27).
4. Significance of the Law: Perhaps the most important detail in the legislation is that the person had to remain in the city until the death of the high priest (verses 25, 28). The implication is that taking a life is always a serious matter; and although in cases of involuntary murder capital punishment is not required, the crime has to be redressed. The death of the high priest is counted as the death of accidental murderers, making it possible for them to return home. The Christian significance is quite clear: Although we are guilty as charged, we find in the Lord our “city of refuge”; the blood Redeemer has become our Redeemer, and instead of His punishing us, His death is our death. His death makes it possible for us to go home.