Cities of Refuge: Mayes

                        Calvary Baptist Theological Journal 14.1 (Spring, 1998) 1-25

Copyright © 1999 by Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, cited with permission;

                                  digitally prepared for use at Gordon College] 


                        Cities of Refuge


                                        Preston L. Mayes



            Much of the Mosaic legislation contained in the

Pentateuch seems foreign to the modern reader. The laws

concerning the priesthood, the sacrificial system, and the

religious holidays are neither practiced nor paralleled in the

dispensation of the church. Though they do have didactic and

illustrative value as types of the work of Christ, they are often

rushed over or skipped altogether in personal Bible study.

            The Old Testament legislation concerning so-called

moral law has received greater attention.  Since it addresses

many issues which are also social problems in the twentieth

century, it is frequently lifted from its Old Testament context

and applied to contemporary society.  Provisions for dealing

with cases of adultery, homosexuality, theft, and murder in

Israel are a few of the regulations which commonly receive

such treatment.  Several minority political/religious groups even

advocate a complete return to Old Testament-style political

regulations and policies.

            It is within the context of this debate that the Old

Testament legal provisions concerning the city of refuge should

be studied.  These cities were designated locations to which one

who was guilty of accidental homicide1 could flee in order to

receive legal protection and a fair trial.  They were part of the

ancient legal system which recognized the right and even the


            l This paper will refer to an accidental homicide as

manslaughter and a deliberate homicide as murder.


2                                  Cities of Refuge


responsibility of the nearest relative of a dead victim to put the

murderer to death. Since modem society is again embracing the

death penalty, it will be wise to consider the function and use of

the city of refuge in order to determine if it is in any way

relevant for modern society.

            The legislation concerning cities of refuge is found in

Exodus 21:12-14; Numbers 35:9-34; Deuteronomy 4:41-43;

19:1-13; and Joshua 20:1-9. There are several relevant

examples from the historical books of the concepts of refuge

and blood vengeance found in n Samuel 21 and I Kings 1-2.

The goal of this paper is to summarize the Old Testament

legislation on this aspect of Israelite society, and then to

determine if it has any applicability to the current age. To that

end, the paper will first examine several critical theories both

which erode the value of the Old Testament as a historical

document in general and as a clear witness to the validity of

this legislation in particular, and which challenge the provisions

of the law as barbaric. Second, a brief summary of the teaching

of the passages mentioning cities of refuge will be made,

carefully noting the similarities and differences between them.

After synthesizing the passages into a summary of the Old

Testament teaching on the subject, its relevance for modern

criminal justice will be examined. The study will be limited

only to those aspects of Hebrew law which are relevant to the

legislation governing the cities of refuge and will not analyze

any of the other offenses for which capital punishment is

mandated ( adultery, dishonor to parents, etc.). Nor will it

systematically compare Old Testament law to other ancient

near eastern systems of law, except when relevant for the

present study. Finally, no attempt will be made to explore the

relationship between the six named cities of refuge in Joshua

20:7-8 and the 48 Levitical cities in Joshua 21.

Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        3


Critical Theories


Textual Development


The legislation concerning the cities of refuge does not

occur in one text of the Scriptures, nor are all the mandates

listed in one scripture text. Due to this fact, it is possible to

discover apparent "discrepancies" between the various pieces

of legislation. For example, Exodus 21:13-14 indicates that

God would appoint a place for the manslayer to flee, but that

this protection would not extend to the one guilty of murder.

The one guilty of murder was to be removed even from the

altar of God and put to death. Though this place is distinct from

the altar mentioned in verse 14, it is unclear exactly where it

will be located.2

Conversely, Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19 speak of

the establishment of cities of refuge for the one guilty of

manslaughter without mentioning any altar. These variations in

the texts have been exploited by source-critical scholars

holding to a late date for the book of Deuteronomy in line with

the theory that it was produced as a part of Josiah's reform

movement. Milgrom, for instance states,

What is the relationship between the asylum altar and

the asylum cities? Most critics hold that asylum cities

were designated by Israelite rulers to replace the

anarchic power of the altar to grant asylum, but they

are divided on when the change took place. Some opt

for the reign of David and Solomon, and some for



2 Moshe Greenberg, "The Biblical Conception of Asylum,"

Journal of Biblical Literature 78 (June 1959): 123.

3 Jacob Milgrom, "Santa Contagion and Altar/City

Asylm," Congress Volume Vienna 1980, ed. J.A. Emerton.


4                                  Cities of Refuge


Proponents of the theory usually note that it was necessary to

eliminate the prominence of local altars as Josiah worked for

religious reform since they had become centers for idol

worship, and that the asylum cities were established in order to

replace this one particular function of the altar. The theory

holds that since Deuteronomy does not even mention the altar

that, "the sole conclusion. . . is that D[Deuteronomy] no longer

knew of the institution of the asylum altar. If the altar was

replaced by the city, it happened long before D”4 Since the

Bible clearly records Adonijah and Joab requesting asylum by

grabbing on to the altar in I Kings 1 and 2, the conclusion

supported by this critical theory is that Deuteronomy was

written no earlier than the time of Solomon.

This conclusion of critical scholarship is both wrong and

unnecessary. That there is a certain evolution in the concept of

asylum cannot be denied, but it is the product of progressive

revelation over a relatively short period of time instead of the

product of religious decline over many centuries. Exodus 21,

penned at the beginning of Israel's Wilderness wanderings, was

written to a group of people living as nomads gathered in one

central location. Presumably, an accidental murder might have

been committed, in which case the guilty party would flee for

protection to the altar within the camp. Exodus, therefore,

merely mentions that at some future time, God will establish

places for them to flee while leaving the function of the altar as

a place of asylum intact. In Numbers and Deuteronomy,

however, the people are on the verge of entering the land and

their manner of life is about to change. They are about to be

split into their tribal groups and spread throughout a large

geographic area. At this point, they receive instructions

concerning the number and location of the cities. They are also


Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, vol. 32 (Leiden: E.J. Brill,

1981), 297.

4 Ibid., 304.


Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        5


given laws concerning the determination of whether a killing

was a murder or a manslaughter. Since Moses the lawgiver

was present and acted as a judge among the people, these

principles were certainly followed by him when judging such

cases. Now, however, these laws are recorded in view of the

impending dispersion of the people through the land. Tigay

suggests this when he writes,


Exodus 21:13 -14 establishes a place to which

accidental killers may flee, but that intentional killers

are to be denied even the time-honored asylum of the

altar. . . . Numbers 35:9-34 fleshes out the law. . . . It

describes circumstances which create a prima facie

case that the killing was intentional and a smaller

number of conditions establishing that it may not have



In similar fashion, Craigie advocates that, Deuteronomy 19:1-



seems to be an expansion of the simpler law contained

in Exodus 21:12-14, where the altar (presumably that

in the sanctuary of the Lord) offered protection. . . . As

the Israelites took possession of the land, however, the

sanctuary and its altar would be located a considerable

distance away from the majority of the population”6


5 Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah

Commentary (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996),


6 Peter C. Craigie, Deuteronomy, The New International

Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976),



6                                  Cities of Refuge


Therefore, the variations in the legislation concerning

manslaughter and cities of refuge indicate the sociological

transformation Israel underwent during a very short period of

time. They indicate progressive revelation, not a slow,

humanly-produced process of religious evolution culminating

in a reform movement.


Status as a Humane Punishment


The second controversy stirred by critical theorists is to

consider the inherent morality of the whole concept of capital

punishment and the accompanying legislation concerning the

cities of refuge. The fact that someone's life is to be taken from

them has been assumed to be a barbaric vestige of ancient

civilization. The law, however, always fits the punishment to

the crime; and since murder requires that one lose his life, it is

indicative of the high regard which the Scriptures reflect for

human life. This high regard is especially evident when

compared to the punishments prescribed by other ancient Near

Eastern cultures for similar offenses. Greenberg remarks that

the insistence of life for life to the exclusion of monetary

compensation--a severity unparalleled in ancient Near Eastern

law and which had its counterpart in the refusal to consider any

offense against property worthy of the death penalty--was

equally unheard of in all Near Eastern systems but the Hittite.7

Other ancient systems of law allowed the family of the

victim to receive financial compensation from the murderer. As

Greenberg states,


Not the archaicness of the biblical law of homicide

relative to that of the cuneiform codes, nor the

progressiveness of the biblical law of theft relative to


7 Greenberg, "The Biblical Conception of Asylum," 129.


Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        7


that of Assyria and Babylonia, but a basic difference in

the evaluation of life and property separates the one

from the others. In the biblical law a religious

evaluation; in non-biblical, an economic and political

evaluation predominates.8


The Old Testament law, therefore, can in no sense be viewed

as an archaic and outdated barbarism. The fact that the most

valuable of all commodities, human life, should be prized and

protected in so many instances and taken away in other

instances is certainly paradoxical to the thought processes of

fallen human reasoning, but it is the only penalty for murder

which is just.

The legislation regarding the cities of refuge fit in as a

part of this high regard the Old Testament law holds for human

life. In many ancient societies, the administration of justice was

largely a private matter to be dealt with by individuals. The

"aspiration [of the laws] to control vengeance by making it

possible for public justice to intervene between the slayer and

the avenger has long been recognized as an advance over the

prior custom of regarding homicide as a purely private matter

to be settled between the families of the two parties”9 City of

refuge legislation, therefore, was the instrument by which each

accused killer had the opportunity to receive due process.

Before one could be put to death, he had to stand trial before

the congregation/elders and be declared guilty. It also removed

the automatic protection the ancient custom of grabbing the

horns of the altar provided to anyone, whether innocent or


8 Moshe Greenberg, "Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal

Law," A Song of Power and the Power of Song, ed. Duane L.

Christensen. Sources for Biblical and Theological Study, vol. 3

(Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns, 1993), 292-3.

9 Greenberg, "The Biblical Conception of Asylum," 125.


8                                  Cities of Refuge


guilty.10 Miscarriage of justice occurs when either the guilty go

free or the innocent are punished. The city of refuge legislation

has the specific purpose of avoiding either extreme.


Texts Relation to Cities of Refuge


Having examined the critical theories which challenge

both the historical development of the legislation and its status

as a moral and fair punishment, it is now time to examine the

various passages which established the cities of refuge.


Exodus 21:12-14

This passage occurs in a section of laws establishing the

death penalty. The general principle stated in verse 12 is that

one who strikes a person so that he dies must also be put to

death. The exception given for the law is in cases of

premeditated murder. If the killer did not lie in wait (Hebrew

hdAcA), thus indicating a calculated murder, then he was to have

the opportunity to flee to a place of safety. According to verse

14, the one who did act with treachery toward any comrade

was a murderer and would have to be put to death. The one

guilty of murder was to be taken from the altar itself and put to


Two curious features are present in the text. First, the

exact nature of the homicide is ambiguous. It may refer to a

crime of passion,11 which takes place in the heat of an

argument and is not premeditated. It may refer to an accidental

death. The Hebrew in Exodus 21:13 states:


10 Milgrom, "Santa Contagion and Altar/City Asylum," note

84, 309.

11 John I. Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary, vol.

3 (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 322.



Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        9


                        vdoyAl; hn.Axi Myhilox<hAv; hdAcA xlo rw,xEva


The English translation of the phrases reads "but if he did not

lie in wait, but God let him fall into his hand." The subject of

the first phrase is the third person "he," while the subject of the

second phrase is the third person "God." Thus the text

represents the primary mover in the death of the individual as a

different person in each case. As Sarna concludes, "the

theological assumption is that the death of the victim occurred

by the intervention of Providence; thus, the manslayer was the

unwitting agent."12 Verse 14 repeats the same basic premise

from the perspective of the one who is worthy of death. The

Hebrew, hmAr;fAb; Onr;hAl; Uhrere-lfa wyxi dziyA-ykiv; is translated "but if a

man acts presumptuously against his neighbor in order to kill

him with cunning." Smith defines the meaning of the verb dyz

as, "connected to individuals or nations who presume to have

authority or rights that are not legitimately theirs. This may

involve an attitude or behavior that ignores or rejects the

validity of God's authority to control Israelites by his laws."13

Thus the legislation involved in the verse is directed to anyone

who takes the life of another without having the judicial

authorization to do so, unless the death can be ruled an

accident. The legislation would also presumably apply to a

crime of passion. Even a crime of passion requires that one

person find a tactical advantage against another person which

he may exploit in order to kill the person. Furthermore, in the

same context verse 18 stipulates regulations for reparations to


12 Nahunl M. Sarna, Exodus, The JPS Torah Commentary

(Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 122, believes

that "Hebrew makom, like its Arabic cognate maqum, probably

means here 'sacred site,' a sanctuary"

13 Gary V. Smith, “dyz” in New International Dictionary of

Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willen A. VanGemeren

(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 1:1094.



10                                Cities of Refuge


be made when two men fight. If the injured man thoroughly

recovers, the other party is liable only for the loss of income

during the time the man recovered. The provision is valid,

however, only if the man does not die. If a death occurs, then

presumably the one who caused it is then liable to death. The

place of asylum envisioned in the passage then is for situations

of accidental, unpremeditated murder. It is not for cases of

premeditated murder, regardless of the time lapse between the

decision to kill another and the commission of the act.

The second issue to resolve concerns the location of the

asylum which is provided as a refuge for the manslayer. Verse

13 indicates that God will appoint a "place" (MvqmA) to which the

manslayer may flee.14 The corresponding legislation of verse

14 states that one who does not meet the qualifications for

innocence because he committed premeditated murder is to be

taken from the altar and put to death. The perfect verb in verse

13 looks to the point in time when Israel is in the land and God

will have provided a definite place for them to go to deal with

such matters. Verse 14 indicates that even the time-honored

asylum given by an altar will not deliver a murderer from his

punishment. The passage, therefore, envisions a specific place,

whether referring to a holy site or a city, to which one guilty of

manslaughter must go for asylum. The exact relationship

between the altar and the asylum city is never specified.


Numbers 35:9-34

Numbers 35 is the next passage which addresses legal

provisions for places of asylum. This passage, which

introduces the term "city of refuge," expands greatly upon the

general provisions set forth in Exodus 21:12-14. Speaking of

this contrast, Ashley writes,


14 cf. fn. 12.


Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        11


The law of Exod. 21:13-14 allowed for temporary

asylum, but did not designate the place (except to say

that it may be at an altar) or define how long the

asylum may last. The current passage more carefully

distinguishes murder from unintentional killing. . . puts

responsibility for determining guilt or innocence in the

hands of the congregation. ..and defines the time

period of the guilty party's stay in a city of refuge.15


Apparently, the Exodus legislation sets forth the broad

guideline stating that God requires Israel to make provisions

for an asylum for the manslayer. God's instructions to Moses in

Numbers 35 are designed to be carried out at a specific point in

time as indicated by the temporal clause in v. 10 (yKi). The

details outlined are to be implemented when Israel crosses into

the land of Canaan.

Verses 11-15 indicate the purpose, number, and location

of the cities. The city of refuge was to be a place where the

manslayer who killed someone inadvertently might flee.16 The

manslayer was to go to the city so that he would not be put to

death by the avenger17 of blood until he had opportunity to


15 Timothy R. Ashley, Numbers, The New International

Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1993), 650.

16 The Hebrew word hgAgAw; , meaning "unintentional," is used

to "signify an inadvertant error or mistake arising form the routine

experiences of daily living" Andrew E. Hill, "hgAgAw;," in New

International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis,

ed. William A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997),

4:42. The word is used frequently in the Pentateuch (often with the

verb xFH, to sin) to refer to the sacrifice which must be made for sins

which were not committed in defiance of God, or high-handed sins.

17 According to Leviticus 25:47-49 the redeemer, who in this

case acted on behalf of an impoverished Israelite, was a near relative.

The responsibility of redemption or vengeance fell first to a brother,


12                                Cities of Refuge


stand trial before the congregation. Israel was to establish six

such cities, three on each side of the Jordan River. They were

to be for the use of any Israelite, resident alien, or sojourner.18

Verses 16-24 stipulate criteria for determining whether

a killing qualifies as accidental or premeditated. The criteria for

determining culpability concern the murder weapon and the

killer's mental state. Several types of instruments might be

used. Verse 16 states that if the killer used an iron implement,

then he is a murderer and must be put to death. At this period

in history, iron was employed only in the production of

weapons,19 which would be a certain indication that the killing

was intentional. Weapons or tools of stone or wood which

could be held in one's hand and were potentially dangerous

were also "considered. . . [to be] murder weapon[s] by

definition”20 The type of weapon was important because it gave

an indication of the killer's intent when he struck the victim.

Verses 20-22 indicate other possible means of death.

These are means of death which do not so obviously indicate a

hostile predisposition toward the victim, so the killer's

psychological condition becomes a factor. If the victim was

pushed to his death because of hatred, then the killing was

punishable by death. If something was thrown at the victim

from a concealed position (while "lying in wait"), then the killer

was again judged guilty of murder since a deliberate act was

involved. Verse 22 makes even the hands a possible murder


then an uncle, then a cousin, then finally any blood relative from his


18 The two Hebrew terms employed here, rG and bwAOT

may refer to resident aliens with varying levels of attachment to the

community, or they may function as virtually equivalent terms

(function as a hendiadys).

19 Jacob Milgrom, Numbers, The JPS Torah Commentary

(Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 292.

20 Ashley, Numbers, 652.


Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        13


weapon, providing that the killer struck down his victim

because of hate.

Conversely, verses 23 -24 indicate evidence which will

clear one of murder charges. If the death resulted from pushing

or a thrown object, but there was no history of hostility between

the individuals, then the killing should be ruled accidental. If a

stone object was accidentally dropped on a person so that he

died, then the killing was again ruled to be accidental.

The type of the weapon used and the state of mind of the

killer are the key factors to determine for the adjudication of the

legal case. The provision might apply to modern cases as

follows. In a case where a pedestrian was shoved into a line of

oncoming traffic, the killing would be ruled accidental if the

killer merely stumbled and pushed his companion into a

dangerous position. Had, however, there been previous hostility

between the two, then he would be judged a murderer. A

contemporary illustration of this might be a death caused by a

gunshot wound. It would also be considered a murder because

a gun is a weapon. The only exception might be on the basis of

verse 23, which allows for an accidental death caused by a

deadly object of stone. A hunting accident in which the shooter

did not see an improperly dressed human would be an excellent


The congregation is the judge in such cases according to

the above mentioned ordinances (v. 24). Should the killer be

found guilty of murder, then he was to be put to death. If the

congregation determined that the killing was accidental, then

the killer was reprimanded to the city of refuge until the death

of the high priest. After the death of the high priest, the

manslayer would be free to return to his home. If, however, he

were to venture from the city of refuge, he could be put to

death by the avenger of blood, the next of kin of the deceased.

Verses 29-33 begin with an indication that the

statements given are considered ordinances or binding judicial

procedures. Verse 30 requires that the death penalty not be


14                                Cities of Refuge


carried out unless there is more than one witness. Presumably

this might include circumstantial evidence as well as verbal

testimony,21 although the text does not specifically state it.

Verses 31-32 disallow any provision for a monetary settlement

in lieu of the previously stated punishment for both the

murderer and the manslayer. Verses 33-34 indicate that

following the stipulations will be the only way to avoid

polluting the land in which Yahweh dwells.

These provisions raise two questions. First, since the

killing was accidental, why was the manslayer liable to any

punishment at all? Greenberg explains that,


it must first be recognized that whenever an innocent

man is slain, the law considers the slayer guilty in a

measure. The reason lies in the ultimate respect that the

Scriptures have for human life and for the land as the

dwelling place of Yahweh Himself. Shedding an

innocent man's blood, even unintentionally, involved

bloodguilt, and no manslayer was considered clear of

this guilt.”22


The city of refuge therefore had a punitive as well as protective

effect. This guilt is further borne out in that the man who was

convicted only of manslaughter was safe from harm only as

long as he stayed in the city. Were he to leave, the avenger of

blood could execute him without fear of reprisal. This might

also provide a necessary balance to the system. The system for

determining the level of culpability relied in part upon

determining the state of mind of the killer toward the victim. It

is possible that hate was involved, but that it was a secret hate

which was unknown to the congregation. It is therefore


21 Ralph D. Mawdsley, "Capital Punishment in Genesis

9:6," Central Bible Quarterly 18 (Summer 1975):22.

22 Greenberg, "The Biblical Conception of Asylum," 127.


Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        15


possible that a guilty person might erroneously be proclaimed

innocent. If this was indeed the intent of the law, then the

confinement of the city of refuge functioned as a probationary

period. Vashalz comments that,


The innocence of the accused and his willingness to

submit to proper authority was to be demonstrated

by his remaining in the city of refuge as long as the

High Priest lived. . . The Levitical city of refuge,

then, was not a prison but a haven for those who

could demonstrate a true regard for law and not a

murderous spirit.23


It must be noted that the text nowhere states that this was the

rationale for the legislation. Practically, however, the law would

have had this effect.

The second question concerns the rationale for the death

of the high priest marking the terminus of the confinement to

the city of refuge. The most prominent theory is based on

theological considerations. Since the shedding of blood defiled

the land whether it was accidental or not, then a death was

necessary in order to expiate and cleanse the land. Yahweh

could not be satisfied in any other way. Since a person, made in

the image of Yahweh, had been killed, an animal sacrifice was

inappropriate. Due to his position, therefore, the high priest

was the most logical candidate to secure this propitiation.24 It

should be noted, however, that the text does not specifically


23 Robert Vasholz, "Israel's Cities of Refuge," Presbyterian

19 (Fall 1993): 117. Vasholz believes this stems from the judicial

function of the High Priest in Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 17:9). His

death, then would signal "the end of a judicial era and thus signal. . .

amnesty for those confined to cities of refuge."

24 Ibid., 130.


16                                Cities of Refuge


state this and it is an exception to the provision for sacrifice that

God made for all other types of unintentional sins.

The other possibility rests on a more practical

consideration. It is more in line with the nature of the murder

which was considered random in the case of involuntary

manslaughter. Whereas "the deliberate homicide is deliberately

put to death; the involuntary homicide who took life by chance

must await the chance of the High Priest's death in order to be

released from the asylum city.25 This in itself would have

tended to limit the claimants to the protection of a city of refuge

to those who really were innocent of murder. Anyone who

claimed the protection of the city of refuge was admitting his

guilt and his willingness to accept a confinement to the city of

refuge which might last for years. Claimants to this protection

might have done so merely out of fear for their own lives, but it

is more likely that the innocent, law-abiding citizen would have

done so. True criminals seek to avoid any punishment.


Deuteronomy 4:41-43; 19:1-13.


Deuteronomy 4:41-43 is a simple historical notation that

Moses set up three cities of refuge on the east side of the

Jordan River. The three cities, Bezer, Ramoth in Gilead, and

Golan in Bashan were assigned to the Reubenities, the

Gadities, and the Manassites respectively. Their geographic

distribution was therefore sufficiently wide to make them

accessible to anyone on the east of the Jordan needing to use


Deuteronomy 19:1 begins the next relevant section with

a temporal reference to the future time when Israel is settled in

the land.26 The command to set aside three cities of refuge on


25 Milgrom, Numbers, 510.

26 The Hebrew, identical to Numbers 35:10, uses the

subordinating conjunction yKi to indicate the temporal clause.


Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        17


the west side of the Jordan is reiterated. Verse 3 lays upon the

people the additional responsibility of preparing the roads

leading to the cities. This command, in conjunction with the

wide distribution of the cities throughout the land, insured that

they would be easily accessible to anyone needing asylum.

Verses 4-6 are a parenthetical statement of the conditions under

which one may be granted asylum in a city of refuge. The

information given is largely similar to that contained in

Numbers 35 with one exception. There is a danger that the

manslayer may be put to death because the journey to the city

of refuge is too long, and this is obviously meant to be a

justification for the number and location of the cities of refuge.

Verses 8-10 add another qualification, noting that if Yahweh

enlarges the territory of Israel in response to their careful

attention to the details of the covenant, then they are to appoint

three more cities within their territory to be cities of refuge.

Verses 11-13 repeat the qualification that one guilty of

premeditated murder must be put to death in order to secure

the blessing of Yahweh upon the land. Thus the major

contribution of this section is the responsibility of the nation to

provide adequate places for the manslayer where he could flee

to safety quickly. It was a national, not merely an individual,



Joshua 20:1-9


In a style reminiscent of His dealings with Moses, God

commanded Joshua to establish the previously prescribed cities

of refuge. The purpose for the cities is again stated in verses 3-

4 as providing a place of refuge from the avenger of blood for

one who is guilty of manslaughter. The additional qualification

is given that the one requesting such asylum must stand before

the elders at the gate of the city to present his case. Whether or

not an altar is involved in such proceedings is not stated. If they


18                                Cities of Refuge


determine that the slaying was indeed accidental, then he shall

be granted asylum within the city.

The text then reiterates several more of the provisions of

the law (the provisions protecting him from the avenger of

blood and the stipulation that he may return to his own city

after the death of the high priest). Verses 7-9 contain the names

of the cities which were appointed as cities of refuge, including

those which were appointed by Moses on the eastern side of

the Jordan River. The location of each city, with the exception

of the Reubenite city of Bezer, is fairly well established. They

were evenly spread throughout the land and located along

ancient highways. The distribution of the cities was in

accordance with the Mosaic legislation and provided easy

access for anyone who might need to flee to them.


References in the Historical Books


Unfortunately, the Bible contains no references to the

use of the city of refuge for a manslayer. It does, however,

contain several references to the concepts of asylum at the altar

and bloodguilt. The first mention of asylum requested at the

altar is in 1 Kings 1:50. After Solomon was crowned king, his

main rival Adonijah requested asylum by grabbing hold of the

horns of the altar. Though there is no loss of life involved,

Adonijah's flight to the altar is consistent with the recognized

use of the altar. Gray remarks that,


the fugitive from vengeance, having thus made contact

with the part of the altar where union with God was

effected by the blood of sacrifice, was regarded as . . .

the protected sojourner of God . . . The hand of the


Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        19


avenger was thus stayed till his case was considered

and settled if possible without bloodshed"27


Thus Adonijah was simply afraid for his life and claimed the

protection of the altar and the right to a legal hearing of his


1 Kings 2:28-33 records the second case. Here, Joab

requests asylum at the altar. It is possible that he requests such

asylum for the same reason as Adonijah: he was part of a rival

faction to the throne. If so, then the events are unrelated to the

legislation concerning the cities of refuge. It is, however,

possible that he feared Solomon would not hesitate as David

had to act against him for the murders of Abner and Amasa (2

Samuel 3 and 2 Samuel 20). Whatever Joab's motivation was,

Solomon's is perfectly clear.  He refuses to  grant asylum since

Joab’s case in no way qualifies him to receive the protection of

the altar. Though the events seem to be at variance with the

regulations to bring the accused before the elders and try him

there, it should be noted that a different system of government

existed in Israel at this time. The king functioned as a judicial

authority in the land,28 especially concerning matters of his own

court, and both David and Solomon have decreed that Joab

must be put to death as a murderer.

Several passages address the related concept of

bloodguilt. 2 Samuel 21 contains the record of a three-year

famine in Israel. When David inquired of the Lord concerning

the reason for the famine, he was told that it was because Saul

had massacred a number of Gibeonites with whom Israel had a


27 Jolm Gray, I & II Kings, The Old Testament Library

(Philadelphia: nle Westminster Press, 1976), 96.

28 For example, I Kings 3:16-28 shows the king acting as a

Judge. Solomon's decision regarding the two prostitutes is declared to

be a FPAw;mi. This word is used generally to refer to various aspects of

the judicial process.


20                                Cities of Refuge


non-aggression pact dating back to the time of Joshua. The

second reference to bloodguilt is made by King Solomon after

he orders the execution of Joab. He notes that the execution

will "'take away the innocent blood, which Joab shed, from me,

and from the house of my father" and that "'upon David, and

upon his seed, and upon his house, and upon his throne, shall

there be peace for ever from the LORD." The passages show

that it was generally understood that guilt, which resulted from

murder, would rob one from the blessing of Yahweh. One may

conclude, therefore, that godly Israelites understood that the

shedding of blood defiled the land in which Yahweh dwelled.

The primary motivation for the legislation concerning murder in

general and the cities of refuge in particular was theological

instead of humanitarian or social.


Summary of City of Refuge Legislation


It is now possible to summarize the legislation

concerning cities of refuge. Altar asylum was a time-honored

custom in the ancient Near East. It appears that the custom

continued at least into the reign of Solomon as a claim for

amnesty or protection for certain types of offenses. On the basis

of Exodus 21, however, it was never to grant asylum privileges

automatically. Such determinations had to be made on a case

by case basis.

The city of refuge was established for the manslayer.

Were one guilty of the crime, he had to immediately flee to one

of six so designated cities. He may have requested asylum by

grabbing hold of the altar and then being brought before the

elders of the city of refuge or he may simply have gone directly

to the elders as they sat in the gate (Joshua 20:4). If the elders

believed he had a case which warranted granting of asylum

privileges, then he was accepted into the city. He was to remain

in the city until he was able to stand trial before the

congregation, presumably of his own city (Joshua 20:6;


Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        21


Numbers 35:24), so that he would not be put to death by the

avenger of blood. The criteria used to determine the guilt of the

killer were the type of weapon he used and his mental state

toward the victim. Were he known to be guilty, then the elders

of his own city were to send to the city of refuge and have him

delivered to the avenger of blood so he would be put to death

(Deuteronomy 19:12).

If he were judged to be guilty of manslaughter, then he

was returned to his city of refuge, where he was to live until the

death of the high priest. There was not possibility of parole

from this banishment, nor was there the possibility of making a

financial settlement with the family of the deceased; only the

death of the high priest set him free. If he were to leave the city

prematurely, then the avenger of blood could put him to death

without fear of reprisal. The reason stated for the regulations is

not to act as a deterrent to come, although it certainly

functioned as such. Nor is it to maintain a sense of social

justice within Israel, although it certainly did that as well. The

specified reason is theological. Any shedding of innocent blood

would defile the land in which Yahwah dwelled. The failure to

execute a murderer would defile the land, for no other

punishment was fitting for this crime. The execution of a

manslayer would also pollute the land in which Yahweh

dwelled, unless he was put to death because he left his city of

refuge. This provision had the practical effect of a probationary

period to determine the true character of the accused.


A Tentative Modern Application


The provision for cities of refuge has most recently been

used as a justification for various sanctuary movements.29 Such


29 See D. Auckemlan, "City of Refuge," Sojourners 13

(January 1984):22-26, M. Mawyer, "Sanctuary Movements,"

Fundamentalist Journal 5 (October 1986):59-62, and William C.


22                                Cities of Refuge


movements have provided a place of safety for those who may

be in danger due to political, ethnic, or religious persecution in

their own countries. The desire to protect innocent lives which

motivates many members of the sanctuary movement certainly

corresponds to the regulations for the cities of refuge which

were designed to preserve the life of the manslayer and avoid

shedding innocent blood (e.g. the manslayer was protected in

the city; there were six such cities which also had to be easily

accessible). God has always placed a high premium on the

value of human life, so when it is endangered unjustly, it should

be protected. It should be noted, however, this principle has

been abused by those seeking to promote a particular political

agenda in the United States.30 Since the city of refuge was for

the use of the manslayer in a society where certain matters of

justice were left in the hands of the individual, it would seem

that the asylum city best supports the concept of due process.

The farther any application strays from this purpose, the more

likely it is to be in error.

The most obvious application comes in the realm of our

judicial system. Making such applications is difficult. It must

be remembered that the law was done away with on the cross

and that Israel and the Church are dissimilar in many respects.

It is also very unlikely that any modern government will pattern

its procedures after Biblical law, so much of what is suggested

here belongs to the realm of the theoretical. It should also be

remembered that as a small largely agrarian society this system

of justice worked better than it would work in modern


Ryan, "The Historical Case for the Right of Sanctuary?" Journal of

Church and State 29 (Spring 1987): 209-32 for more information on

these movements.

30 Mawyer, "Sanctuary Movements," 59-62.


Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        23


society.31 Yet the law was still the flawless revealed will of

God and contains many principles which are reiterated in the

New Testament. The theocracy as established by God qualifies

as the best government ever established. In the one instance

where God reached down into human history and established a

government, this is the government that He established. It will

encourage the individual Christian to see the order and justice

of God as revealed in the law, as opposed to the system man

has established. With these qualifications in mind, a brief

analysis of modem legal concepts in light of God's can now


Modern jurisprudence is built on the belief that the

accused is innocent until proven guilty. Every protection,

therefore, is afforded to him. The city of refuge afforded this

type of protection as well, but it was not automatic. The

manslayer had to first get himself to the city of refuge. If he did

not, or if he did not stay there until the death of the high priest,

then he could be put to death without the avenger of blood

incurring guilt. As such, confinement to the city functioned as a

probationary period. Violation of the period was incurred for

the simple act of leaving the city of refuge. This seems highly

preferable to the modern system. The system established by

God is fair to the accused without going too far to protect his

rights. It realized that certain rights might be forfeited and

perscribed a strong punishment if the defendant waived his

protection to those rights.

The second comparison applies to certain trial

procedures and the admissibility of evidence. The manslayer

had to represent himself before the elders of the city of refuge

and before the elders of his own city. Modern jurisprudence

seeks to avoid producing incorrect verdicts by finding people


31 See Gordan J. Wenham, "Law and the Legal System in

the Old Testament," Law, Morality and the Bible, ed. Bruce Kaye

and Gordan Wenham (Downer's Grove: InterVarsity, 1978), 44-46.


24                                Cities of Refuge


who do not know any of the details of a case and are

supposedly unbiased. This system required the participation of

those who knew the killer (the elders of his own city) and those

who probably knew nothing about him (the elders of the city of

refuge). The judges in this case were also the jury. Though

anyone is subject to rendering a false judgment, the men put in

charge of these matters were the ones who had the most

experience and the respect of their communities.

The major difference is seen in the motivation driving

the entire legal apparatus. Modern thought is tainted by the

belief in the supremacy of man. The system is built on the

concept that the highest good is to avoid punishing an innocent

man and in the process allows the guilty to go free. This Old

Testament system is driven from start to finish by the notion

that murder pollutes the land in which Yahweh dwells. This

system could and did break down. It could be abused as can

any system. If the people were not faithful to the God of the

covenant, then any system would not have worked anyhow.

That is perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned. Only one who

fears God will be scrupulous to punish the guilty with the

proper punishment while letting the innocent go free.




City of Refuge laws were designed to punish the guilty

and protect the innocent. It was important to follow the

procedures laid down in order to have the blessing of God upon

the nation. In practice, however, Israel probably followed this

law about as well as it followed the rest of God's laws. There

are ways in which the system could conceivably be abused.

Abuses, however, cannot be attributed to any weakness in the

system, but to the weakness of those who ran the system. On a

personal level, Paul noted in Romans 7:8 that "sin, taking

occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of

concupiscence." Israel's failures in the consistent application of


Calvary Baptist Theological Journal                        25


the law are an extension of the principle which is visible on a

much wider level. The main contribution of a study of the Old

Testament, then, should be to cause the believer to look

forward to the day when Christ reigns on earth and does apply

all of His laws consistently in order to establish justice on earth.





This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary

1380 Valley Forge Road
Lansdale, PA  19446


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: