BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 103 (1946): 411-17

[Copyright © 1946 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon College] 

              

       THE CITIES OF REFUGE

 

                                BY CHARLES LEE FEINBERG, TH.D., PH.D.

                                                      INTRODUCTION

 

The subject of the cities of refuge in Israel, though men-

­tioned prominently in the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua,

as well as in 1 Chronicles, has received scant attention at

the hands of investigators. Nicolsky1 claims that the prob­-

lem of the refuge cities belongs to that group of least investi­-

gated subjects of the Old Testament. For him it is one of

the few questions in the social history of Israel for which

the Bible offers definite, if not very considerable, material.

Klein2 makes mention of three specific treatments of the

subject. (1) In 1895 S. Ohlenberg took the ground that

refuge cities may have existed in the Biblical period. His

view was not well received by scholars. (2) Hoffmann, in his

opposition to the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, stated that

our original concepts in the matter were correct, and brought

forth indications of the existence of Levitical cities in the

period of the first temple, with the possibility of a few cities

for Levites during the time of the second temple. This view

did not find general acceptance. (3) In 1930 Max Lohr

issued his article on "Asylwesen im Alten Testament." He

sought after the historical foundations of the cities of refuge,

and held that according to scientific excavations in Asia

Minor the concept of refuge prevailed in eastern countries

a long while before the Israelites came to Palestine, and that

remnants of the primitive regulation are to be found in the

books of the law. With regard to the six refuge cities of

1"'Das Asylrecht in Israel" in Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissen­-
schaft,
1930, p. 146. The article is a German translation of the Russian original.

2 'The Cities of the Priests and the Levites and the Cities of Refuge (in
 Hebrew), 1934.

(411)

 



412                                Bibliotheca Sacra

 

Numbers and Joshua, he maintained that the context of the

passages may be of a later date, but that the essence of the

tradition, insofar as it deals with the names of the cities

and their functions, appears to be very ancient and to have

historical basis. He placed the time of the existence of these

cities in the reigns of David and Solomon. He agreed with

Ohlenberg that the Levitical cities served as refuge cities.

The phrase Flqm yrf is itself interesting. The only other
derivative from this root in the Old Testament is
Fvlq in
Leviticus 22:23: "Either a bullock or a lamb that is pro-
­longed [has anything, superfluous] or dwarfed, you may
offer for a freewill-offering; but for a vow it shall not be
accepted." It may mean a place of reception rather than
place of refuge, a place set apart for receiving fugitives.
Joshua 20:9 has
hdfvmh yrf, the cities of appointment or ap-
­pointed cities.

 

        DENIAL OF THE EXISTENCE OF SUCH CITIES

 

There have not been lacking those who claim these cities
never existed, while others feel the matter is doubtful. Gray3
holds: "But this history is fictitious. Levitical cities in the

meaning of the law never existed; they were merely the

objects of desire in certain circles. Like the strip of country

across the centre of Canaan which Ezekiel (48:8-14) designed

for the priests and Levites, these cities never passed out of

the realm of theory into that of fact." Moore notes: "Jewish

scholars, with some plausibility, maintain that, besides those,

all the other Levitical cities, of which there were 44, many

of them seats of ancient sanctuaries, possessed the right of

asylum in a lower degree. Whether this system was ever

actually introduced in its whole extent is doubtful. Neither

in the brief years between Josiah's reform and the fall of

the Judaean kingdom nor after the restoration did Judah

possess more than a small part of the territory contem­-

plated by these laws."' Bissell quotes Bernhard Stade as

 

3 The Book of Numbers (the International Critical Commentary Series),
 p. 465.

4 ”Asylum" in Encyclopaedia Biblica, Vol. I, p. 378.



The Cities of Refuge                               413

 

stating that the asyla and the Levitical cities are an abso­-

lutely unhistorical phantasy (ein vollig unhistorisches Phan-

­tasiestuck).5 Bissell himself tries to prove the existence of

the cities from a negative argument. Says he, "We may ask

how it could happen, in the supposed absence of this regula­-

tion, that there were in Israel no such deadly feuds as the

blood-revenge begat among the Arabs, and no such abuses of

the altar as an asylum as we find among the Greeks and

Romans.”6

                        THE BIBLICAL REFERENCES

 

The first mention of asylum in the Old Testament is

Exodus 21:13, 14. It reads: "And if a man lie not in wait,

but God deliver [his neighbor] into his hand; then I will

appoint you a place whither he shall flee. But if a man come

presumptuously upon his neighbor to slay him with deceit;

you shall take him from my altar, that he may die." The

passage cites the instance of one who has unintentionally

slain another; for such, a place is to be provided. But, on

the other hand, if he came with presumption and guile and

slew another, he is to be taken from the altar to die. In

Numbers 35:9-34 we have a more extended passage which

contains a number of interesting details. Among other

features this passage makes mention of the lxg. With this

word are bound up the concepts of the right of redemption,

the practice of levirate marriage, and the duty of blood­-

revenge. With the last only do we deal here. Blood revenge

prevailed as an institution among early peoples of all races.7

Jacobson notes that "the Arab is always in constant fear of

vengeance, for no tribe is without its hereditary blood feud.

. . . There is evidence that blood revenge is a universal cus-

­tom among all primitive groups."' It is found among nations

not at all related to the Hebrews or the Arabs. Blood revenge

  5 The Law of Asylum in Israel, p. 42,  footnote.
6 Op. cit., p. 73.

 7 A. P. Bissell, op. cit., p. 50.              

8 The Social Background of the Old Testament (1942), p. 250.



414                                Bibliotheca Sacra

 

rests on the basis that one who has willfully taken another's

life has forfeited his own. The nearest relative of the mur-

­dered person immediately becomes the avenger of the family

right. Bissell observes that "the Hebrew idea of God and

of man's relation to him gave a peculiar form and force to

this institution among them. Man is God's image. God is

the Creator, and consequently the Lord of human life. A

blow at this life is a blow at God himself.”9 Blood revenge

becomes a religious duty, not merely a matter of honor.10

God is also considered a blood relation, hence He is a

 lxg, Genesis 9:5 and 2 Kings 9:7, 26 (He avenges murder;

He avenges His servants the prophets).

Numbers 35:12 makes mention of hdfh. What is the
meaning of this term?
Moore thinks it is "the religious
community of the post-exilic
Jerusalem (Num. 35:12-24 f.)."
Gray holds that it is not clearly known of what the
hdf
consisted. Nicolsky gives us a more extended treatment of
the word. He claims that the
hdf in the Book of Numbers
must have had the right to demand the deliverance of the
culprit to them and must have possessed judicial and police
power to carry out its full authority. He thinks the
hdf
not the community of the asylum (Baentsch), nor that of
the manslayer (Weismann), because in the Bible the com-
­munity of a city is never so designated. In pre-exilic times
the term was seldom used and that in a special sense--of
the general gathering of feudal dignitaries at special occa­-
sions, like the choice of a king (1 Kings 12:20), the dedica-
­tion of the new temple (1 Kings 8:5); in the so-called Priest
Code the expression means at one time the whole community
(Gemeinschaft) of Israel, at another time a general assembly
(die allgemeine Versammlung) of all the children of Israel.
In the period of the monarchy, he contends, it was not cus-
­tomary to convene general gatherings, but it is applicable in
the nomadic period. It is possible that such mentions of the
congregation as in Judges 20:1 and 21:10, 13 (the conflict

 

9 Op. cit., p. 51.

      10 Instances in the Bible of blood revenge are to he found in 2 Samuel
  2:12-23; 2 Kings 14:5-6; and 2 Chronicles 24:20 ff.



The Cities of Refuge                                415

 

with the tribe of Benjamin) reach back to the earliest period

of the use of the expression." In what sense is it to be taken

in our case? Is it a survival from an earlier usage when the

conflict between manslayer and blood avenger was settled at

a tribal gathering, or do we have merely a project for the

further restriction of the right of blood revenge and a regu-

­lation of the law of asylum, which provides in general form

the arrangement of a central legal authority which was to

be instituted after the restoration (that is, in post-exilic

times) for the decision of a whole series of law-suits? Un­-

doubtedly, in the latter sense, says Nicolsky. In the period

of the monarchy the hdf was employed to speak of a feudal

assembly for the determination of constitutional questions.

He thinks that so private and insignificant a business as

murder would not belong to the sphere of this body. In the

last analysis the hdf is part of a plan which could hardly

have been put into effect, because the community of the

second temple knew no hdf as a permanent judicial and ad-

­ministrative authority. The Sanhedrin served this purpose.

Indeed, Nicolsky asks whether all the regulations of Numbers

35 (with the possible exception of verse 15) are not to be

taken as projects, which never saw actuality. His conclusion

is that they are all projects or plans which remained only

on paper.

Gray finds that the law recorded in Numbers modified
previous custom in three ways:12  1. Life is to be taken only
in case of wilful murder. Distinction is made between acci­-
dental and intentional homicide. No such distinction, he
claims, was made before this; loss of life had to be compen-
­sated for in kind. Evidence of intention, which marked the
difference between murder and manslaughter, came from
(a) the nature of the instrument causing death and (b) the
previous feelings between the two parties involved.  2. By
implication the law holds that the life of the murderer
alone is forfeit. Previously any member of the family could be

 

11 N. M. Nicolsky, op. cit., p. 165.
12 Op. cit., pp. 464-476.



416                                Bibliotheca Sacra

held liable. Cf. 2 Samuel 21:1 ff. (the case of Saul and the
Gibeonites). 3. A forfeited life cannot be bought by money
(bloodwit). The payment of a  rpk (ransom) is allowed only
in the case of death by the goring of an ox (Exod.
21:29 ff.).

The legislation in Numbers 35:25 stipulates that the man-
­slayer must remain in the city of refuge until the death
of the high priest, after which he may return to his former
home. There are those who think the death of the high
priest marked the end of a legal period of limitation;13 that
is, "The accession of the new High Priest, like the accession
of a new sovereign, was regarded as the beginning of a new
era, into which many of the legal penalties incurred in the
preceding period did not reach."14 Morgenstern thinks the
death of the high priest was regarded as a substitute for the
death of the manslayer himself.15  Nicolsky, discussing this
feature of our subject at greater length, comes to the same
conclusion as Morgenstern. He asks how the land could be
cleansed (since any shedding of blood polluted the land, Num.
35:33) of the blood spilt by the involuntary manslayer. The
only natural answer is: a bloody, vicarious sacrifice must be
brought, just as in the case of the one found dead in the
field, slain by an unknown hand (Deut. 21:1-9). The view
taken is that a vicarious human sacrifice was also possible,
as in the case of Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14:45. He argues
from the close bond between high priest and people (Lev.
4:3, 12, 13-21) that the uncleanness of the land, caused by
the manslayer, is cleansed by the premature (vorzeitig) death
of the high priest, who is responsible to God for the sins of
the people." He cites the tradition of Rabbi Judah who told of
the material support of the manslayer by the mother of
the high priest, so that the manslayer might not pray for

 

13 J. D. Prince, "Avenger of Blood" in The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. II, p. 345.

14 A. P. Bissell, op. cit., p. 67.

15 The Book of the Covenant III" in the Hebrew Union College Annual,

Vol. VIII-IX (1931-32), p. 87.

16 Op. cit., p. 170.



                          The Cities of Refuge                                     417

 

the death of the high priest. His conclusion is: "The Deity
is not converted into a, even if but temporary, protector of

recognized criminals, but he punishes in a peculiar way even

the involuntary manslayer. Death for a death; and if the

manslayer does not die, then another dies for him--the priest

consecrated to the Deity, while he simultaneously liberates

the physical author of the bloodshed.”17

 

Dallas, Texas

(To be concluded in the January-March Number, 1947)

 

 

                17 Op. cit., p. 175.

 

 

 

 

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