Cities of refuge (Joshua 20)

The cities of refuge, six cities evenly distributed throughout the land of Israel, were designated centres of asylum for the “manslayer” – roughly the equivalent of the individual in our culture convicted of manslaughter, the person who had killed another human being without prior intent or premeditation (Joshua 20:3). These cities served as sites for fair and impartial trial to determine the intentionality of a criminal/crime (Joshua 20:9). Each such city was to become a refuge for the innocent from the “avenger of blood”, the victim’s next of kin, whose family obligation it was to even the score for the loss of life within his clan (Deuteronomy 19:6).

Typical ancient Nera Eastern law codes treated the loss of life in economic terms: The crime of murder was redressed by payment of damages to the victim’s family. Israelite law, however, with its high view of sanctity of human life, strictly prohibited monetary compensation for a life (Numbers 35:31). When an Israelite was murdered, a debit of blood had to be requited (offset by a “credit” of blood). If this deficit went unfulfilled, the land and community were defiled (Numbers 35:33, Deuteronomy 21:9). The rule for the punishment of homicide was unambiguous: “a life for a life” (Exodus 21:12, 23). In the case of unintentional homicide, there was to be a vicarious payment of blood, provisions for which would be made at the time of the natural death of the high priest (Joshua 20:6). Thus, the manslayer who had killed without intent was to seek asylum until the death of the high priest; if he did not, he could be killed without impunity.

The city of refuge, then, was at once a safe haven and a form of exile, protecting the manslayer from blood vengeance while effectively placing him under the death penalty in the event he were to leave the city prematurely (Numbers 35:26-28). Even though the manslayer was not guilty of premeditated murder, he was still held responsible for causing the loss of a human life. In a situation somewhat comparable to our house arrest, this individual served what amounted to the closest analogy to a jail term in the Old Testament.


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