Grace Journal 1.2 (Fall, 1960) 7-22.
[Copyright © 1960 Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission;
digitally prepared for use at Gordon College]
THE RELEASE OF HOMICIDES FROM THE CITIES OF REFUGE
A Critical Monograph on Numbers 35:25
Abridged by the Author
"And the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of
blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he
was fled: and he shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest, which was
anointed with the holy oil" (Num. 35:25).
Why were the homicides who were detained in the cities of refuge released upon
death of the high priest? The reason why this event of religious interest in
should be the terminus of the slayer's confinement, as indicated in Numbers 35:25,
has elicited a variety of explanations. First, however, the ancient customs regarding
kinsmen and the procedure in cases of homicide must be ascertained.
In some ancient eastern civilizations if a man were slain by another man, the duty
of avenging him lay as a sacred obligation upon his nearest relative. In the Biblical record
the next of kin is called a go'el, the active participle of ga'al meaning "to deliver," "to
redeem," "to buyback." Oehler describes the go'el as "that particular relative whose
special duty it was to restore the violated family integrity, who had to redeem not only
landed property that had been alienated from the family (Lev. 25:25fF), or a member of
the family that had fallen into slavery (Lev. 25:47ff), but also the blood that had been
taken away from the family by murder."1 The in the last named capacity is almost
inevitably known as go'el haddam, "the redeemer of blood." The Authorized Version
duty as "the avenger of blood," but
the go'el haddam under the Old Testament law was not vengeance but equity. He was
not an avenger, but a restorer, a redeemer, a balancer.2
Genesis 9:6 expresses generally the precept that he who sheddeth man's blood, by
man shall his blood be shed. The first indication of the redemption of blood is to be found
in Genesis 27:45. The words of Rebekah, "Why should I be deprived also of you both in
one day? 'I mean that if Jacob were slain by the hand of Esau, then Esau would be slain
by the redeemer of blood. We cannot be certain how long blood-redemption existed
among the people, but it is clear from II Samuel 14:6-11 that it was still in existence and
in full force in David's time. The performance of the duty itself was probably regulated
by the closeness of the relationship and corresponded to the duty of the redeeming from
bondage (Lev. 25:49) and to the right of inheritance (Num. 27:8).
The order in which the nearest relative was considered is given in Leviticus
25:48-9; first a brother, then an uncle or an uncle's son, and after them any other relative.
While God Himself would avenge the blood that was shed (Gen. 9:5), He withdrew its
execution from subjective caprice and restricted it to cases of premeditated homicide or
murder. But to whom or where was the unintentional homicide to flee? The cities of
refuge were instigated for this express purpose.
8 GRACE JOURNAL
The directions for the institution of the cities of refuge are to be found in Numbers 35:9-
34. These are the fulfillment of the original promise God had given in Exodus that
He would appoint a place for a man who should unintentionally slay his neighbor to
which he might flee from the "redeemer of blood." These cities were available to both the
(Num. 35:15). Levitical or priests' towns were selected for all these free cities. Jamieson
This was partly because it was to the priests and levites that the people would
all look for an administration of justice and partly because these cities were the
property of Jehovah. It was no doubt felt that they would be the most suitable and
impartial judges and that their presence and counsel would calm and restrain the
stormy passions of the blood avenger.3
The number of cities was fixed at six; three were to be "on this side Jordan," and
selected by Moses himself; they were Golan in the
gilead in the tribe of Gad, and Bezer in the lot of Reuben (Deut. -3). The three cities
they were Kedesh in Naphtali,
Deuteronomy 19:1-13 with a special exhortation that they be carried out.
In Numbers 35:24-5 and Joshua 20:4 we find the procedure incumbent upon the
manslayer who had fled to a sanctuary city. He was first of all to state his cause before
the elders, no doubt at the gate.
The elders were those who, by common consent, were granted a superior
position because of their descent, age or ability. They formed a local authority for
the transaction of judicial or other business.4
The preliminary decision of the elders had to be given in the manslayer's favor before he
could be admitted. If the avenger of blood appeared they were not to deliver up the
person whom they had received, but they were to hand him over on the charge of the
redeemer of blood to the congregation to which he belonged.
The trial then commenced. The manslayer could only be convicted of murder by
the evidence of at least two witnesses. One witness could not only be more easily
mistaken than several, but he would be more likely to be partial than several persons who
were unanimous in bearing witness to one and the same thing. Also, the judiciary was not
ecclesiastical in this instance, but the people themselves were in charge. The intentions of
the manslayer had next to be determined; the criterion regarding the determination
whether the homicide was guilty or not will be dealt with at length later on. If the
manslayer was declared a murderer, the elders of his city were to have him turned over to
the avenger of blood (Deut. ,12). If the manslayer was declared innocent, he was to
be escorted to the nearest city of refuge to which he had fled and remain within the
confines of that city until the death of the high priest. If he decided to leave the city of
refuge before that time, the redeemer of blood could take hold of him and slay him
outside the borders of the city, and "he would not be guilty of blood." (Num. 35:27)
THE RELEASE OF HOMICIDES FROM THE CITIES OF REFUGE 9
after the death of the high priest he might return "into the land of his possession," that is,
his hereditary possession (Num. 35:28) without the redeemer of blood being allowed to
pursue him any longer.
The problem, then, is: Why were the homicides who were detained in the cities of
refuge released upon the death of the high priest?
VARIOUS INTERPRETATIONS WITH EVALUATION
The Expiatory View
This view is held by those who would explain the release of the manslayers at the
time of the death of the high priest by assigning expiatory or atoning value to this
significant event. They point out that human blood has been shed, though inadvertently,
and demands expiation (cf. Gen. 9:5, 6; Num. 35:33). God in His mercy made provision
for cities of refuge so that the offender could flee the wrath of the redeemer of blood.
The blood of the homicide was not required to be shed because he had not sinned
willfully. Inasmuch as the release of the homicides was "coincident with the high priest's
death, great value is placed upon the death of the high priest himself. Keil states:
The death of the high priest had the same result in a certain sense, in relation to
his time of office, as his function on the day of atonement had had every year.5
Great emphasis is placed upon the appositional clause in Numbers 35:25 which
refers to the high priest "who has been anointed with the holy oil." Keil holds that this
definitive clause makes this viewpoint "unmistakably evident," and "it would appear
unmeaning and superfluous on any other view."6 He further elaborates this point by
This clause points to the inward connection between the return of the slayer
and the death of the high priest. The anointing with the holy oil was a symbol of
the communication of the Holy Ghost, by which the high priest was empowered
to act as mediator and representative of the nation before God, so that he alone
could carry out the yearly and general expiation for the whole nation, on the great
day of atonement. But as his life and work acquired a representative signification
through this anointing with the Holy Ghost, his death might also be regarded as a
death for the sins of the people, by virtue of the Holy Ghost imparted to him,
through which the unintentional manslayer received the benefits of the
propitiation for his sin before God, so that he could return to his native town,
without further exposure to the vengeance of the avenger of blood.7
The strength of this view is supposed to be enhanced by the fact that its tradition
goes back to the earliest days of church history. Keil points out that many of the Rabbins,
fathers, and earlier commentators maintain that the death of the high priest was regarded
as expiatory. Both the Talmud and Mekelta agree with Philo in holding this view, and
they are followed in general by Jewish commentators. Some modern commentators who
would concur with this view are Barth, Gossman, Lange and Williams.
10 GRACE JOURNAL
The word kipper whose primary meaning is "to cover" is usually found in the piel
and constructed with be'ad, le, and 'al meaning "to expiate an offense" or "to make
atonement for an offender." The word "atone," then, is a translator's attempt at
interpreting the meaning of kipper. This word, however, has been seized upon and used
in a theological sense to express the entire work of Christ upon the cross, and it is used to
represent the work of the lamb of God taking away the sin of the world. The Standard
Dictionary defines the meaning of expiation thusly: "The active means of expiating, or of
making reparation or satisfaction, as for offense, or sin; the removal of guilt by suffering
punishment; atonement, or an atonement."8 In its Old Testament usage, atonement is
thought of as a covering for sin while expiation deals with reparation or satisfaction for
wrong done, although both have to do with removal of guilt for sin. Although "expiation"
is not to be found in the Authorized Version, it is used as a translation of kipper in
Numbers 35:33 (ASV) in the sense indicated above. Commentators use "atonement" and
"expiation" as synonymous so the writer will regard them as such and view them in their
Old Testament sense.
Although several commentators hold the Expiatory View, Keil clearly is the chief
representative with the others merely following his lead. He goes back to Genesis 9:5
which asserts generally the precept that he who sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his
blood be shed. This fundamental truth is based upon the idea of man's being created in
the image of God, and murder being primarily a transgression against the Creator and
Lord of human life (Gen. 9:6). The shedding of blood pollutes the land and to allow the
blood of man to go unexpiated amounts to defiling the land (cf. Num. 35:33-4). The
explanation that appeals to those holding this view is that the high priest, who has
received a representative significance due to his anointing, satisfies the demands of the
law himself when he dies. The similarity between this function of the high priest and the
"heavenly One, who through the eternal (Holy) Spirit offered Himself without spot to
God, that we might be redeemed from our transgressions, and receive the promised
eternal inheritance" is often pointed out. 9
Numbers 35 clearly delineates between two kinds of killing in reference to which
the avenging of blood is commanded; verses 16-21 describe willful murder while in
verses 22-3 accidental homicide is discussed. In verses 16-21 two kinds of activities are
described as murder. Verse 16-18 is a case where one strikes another in such a way that
death may be seen as the probable consequence; that is, if an iron instrument were used,
such as an ax, hatchet, or hammer; or a stone "which filled the hand" meaning no doubt a
stone large enough to kill someone; or a wooden instrument, a thick club or a strong
wooden instrument, the suspected person was to be declared a murderer. "The suspicion
would rest upon anyone who had used an instrument that endangered life and therefore
was not generally used in striking."10 Verses 20-21 give a case where one has hit another
in hatred or threw at him lying in wait, or struck him with the hand in enmity, so that he
died. In this case the means by which the actual murder is effected is immaterial. He is
declared a murderer in both instances; and if he flees to a city of refuge, the elders of the
city are to have him thrown out and delivered over to the avenger of blood (cf. Deut. 19:
11, 12). In this instance even the altar couldn't protect (cf. Exod. 21:14). Clearly, such a
premeditated act is a sin committed "with a high hand," i.e. defiantly and deliberately; the
law provides no opportunity for a sacrifice (cf. Exod. 21:12, 14; Num. 15:30-31).
THE RELEASE OF HOMICIDES FROM THE CITIES OF REFUGE 11
On the other hand, the law provided for six cities of refuge in order to shelter the
one who had slain a man not out of enmity from his heart. Numbers 35:22 and Exodus
21:13 cover the case in which hurt was not intentional, while Deuteronomy 19:4 deals
with inadvertent or unintentional manslaughter. An example of the last mentioned case is
given in Deuteronomy 19:5 where a man accidentally kills his neighbor in the forest
while chopping wood when the head of the ax being used slips off and strikes his
neighbor so that he dies. The action on the part of the man-slayer in this case would be
the same for anyone who sinned "unwittingly." He was to bring a she-goat one year old,
without blemish, and the animal was to be made a sin-offering for the sin which had been
committed. After the atonement had been made, the offender was promised that he would
be forgiven (cf. Lev. 4:27-31; Num. 15:27-28). That accidental homicide is classed and
treated as sinning "unwittingly" or "through error" and is definitely stated as such in
Numbers 35:11 and Joshua 20:3, 9.
An example of an atonement to be provided for an untraced murder is to be found
in Deuteronomy 21:1-9. If a man be found murdered in the open country, and there be no
indication who the murderer is, the elders of the city who are nearest to the spot where
the corpse was found are to procure a heifer which has never been used for any work.
They are to take it to a running stream, and having there slain it in the presence of the
priests, to wash their hands over it. At the same time they solemnly avow before God that
their city is guiltless of the murder and entreat Him to forgive His people for the crime
that has been committed in its midst. "Blood innocently shed defiles a land or people
until some recognized atonement be offered for it."11
The writer concludes that the homicide who is admitted into a city of refuge
would have made atonement for the blood which he had shed inadvertently and which
the law as stated above. This would, of course, render the Expiatory View as
unnecessary. Lange's contention that "the great event of the death of the high priest
covers with respect to God a mass of sins which have risen from ignorance or
mistakes"12 is nullified and completely out of order. The errors of the Expia-
tory View need now to be exposed and answered.
As already noted, Keil asserts that the death of the high priest was regarded as
expiatory unmistakably from the addition of the qualifying clause, "who has been
anointed with the holy oil." The instructions for the preparation of the holy oil are to be
found in Exodus 30:22-38. The specifications for the ingredients that are to make up this
oil are in verses 23-25; the tent of meeting, the articles that are included in the tent, and
finally Aaron and his sons are instructed to be anointed with this preparation. Verse 31
"and thou shalt speak unto the children of
anointing oil unto me throughout your generations."
Similar qualifying words or clauses relating to the high priest are to be found
interspersed throughout the Pentateuch. For the phrase "the anointed priest" see Leviticus
4:3, 5, 16; 6:22. See Leviticus , 12 and for such clauses as "who shall be
anointed" and "upon whose head the anointing oil is poured" etc. Gray states,
"Occasionally and chiefly, as here (Num. 35:25) when no reference has been made by
name to the person intended, more distinctive terms or descriptions are used; these most
frequently refer to the distinctive anointing of Aaron and his successors"13 (cf. also Exod.
29:7, 29; Lev. 8:12). Weinel considers such passages to be additions, while Gray calls
them "redundant definitions." It seems to the writer that the addition of
12 GRACE JOURNAL
qualifying words, phrases or clauses is used by the writers of the Old Testament to point
out that which is distinctive and most significant concerning the man or his office.
Jeroboam I, for example. "Jeroboam, the son of Nebat,
is repeated over and over again. Later wicked kings were described often as "walking in
the sins of Jeroboam" or "following the sins of Jeroboam" or "departing not from the sins
of Jeroboam." That for which Jeroboam was chiefly remembered was his defection from
Jehovah worship and the leading of subsequent kings in an idolatrous direction. Such a
literary custom would explain the presence of such a phrase in Numbers 35:25.
Unquestionably the significance of the phrase under discussion is that the
anointing of the high priest set him aside in a special way to carry out the functions
incumbent upon his office. This is clearly evident in Exodus 30:30 where we read, "and
thou shalt anoint Aaron and his sons, and sanctify them, that they may minister unto me
in the priest's office." Keil gives an excellent statement of this fact:
The anointing with the holy oil was a symbol of the communication of the
Holy Ghost, by which the high priest was empowered to act as mediator and
representative of the nation before God, so that he alone could carry out the yearly
and general expiation for the whole nation, on the great day of atonement.14
Unger broadens the anointing to cover prophet, priest, and king; and he gives
references to show that the coming of the Spirit in connection with the office and the
anointing are closely related.
Kings, priests, and prophets were anointed with oil or ointment. . . oil was a fit-
ting symbol of the Spirit, or spiritual principle of life, by virtue of its power to
sustain and fortify the vital energy; and the anointing oil, which was prepared
according to divine instructions, was therefore a symbol of the Spirit of God, as
the principle of spiritual life which proceeds from God and fills the natural being
of the creature with powers of divine life. The anointing with oil, therefore, was a
symbol of endowment with the Spirit of God for the duties of the office to which
a person was consecrated. (Lev. ; I Sam. 10:1, 6; , 14; Isa. 61:1)15
The addition of the clause "who was anointed with the holy oil," therefore, has to do with
the setting aside of the high priest for his priestly functions, being a symbol of the
endowment of the Spirit of God. Of course, the death of the high priest was hardly a duty
of the office to which he was consecrated, and the above interpretation of this clause
would exclude the Expiatory View.
The proposition of a man other than the God-man, Christ Jesus, being offered in
any sense as an atonement for sin presents a startling innovation, to say the least. As
Watson puts it, "Although many of the Rabbins and fathers held this view as to the
expiatory nature of the high priest's death, there is absolutely nothing in scripture or
reason to support it."16 The high priest himself could not become an acceptable
atonement for the sins of anybody, including himself. Although he was to be one who
had no physical blemish (Lev. -24), yet, being a descendant of Adam, he had a
sinful nature. We find provision for a sin-offering to be made for Aaron and his sons
when they were consecrated to the priesthood (Exod. 29:10ff), and on the yearly day
THE RELEASE OF HOMICIDES FROM THE CITIES OF REFUGE 13
of atonement the high priest was to "make atonement for himself and the people"
(Lev. 16:24). This utterly refutes the contention of Philo that "the high priest was
immaculate and sinless."17 Of course, it is impossible to speak of an atonement without
the shedding of the blood as he value of the sacrifice was due to the life of the victim
being shed. Needless to say, the high priest was not offered up as a sacrifice when he
expired. His only hope was the substitutionary sacrifices which were made on the yearly
day of atonement for himself and the people which looked forward to that day when the
Lord Jesus Christ, the lamb of God, who would with one offering perfect for ever them
that are sanctified (Heb. ); but in the meantime the high priest would have to pay
the penalty binding upon all mankind, lithe soul that sinneth, it shall die."
Keil, in attempting to bolster his position, maintains that many of the Rabbins,
fathers, and earlier commentators regarded the death of the high priest as expiatory. The
writer has been unable to find any comment whatsoever from the Anti-Nicene or Post-
Nicene fathers and has traced the modern commentators who hold this view as far back
as Keil himself. Quite evidently, this view dates back at least to Philo and has come
down to the present time as a part of Rabbinical theology. Ginzberg says:
The phrase, frequently recurring in the Talmud, 'the death of the high priest
atones' (Mak. 11b) really shows that, according to the opinion current among the
Rabbis, the chief factor was the death with its atoning power. This is easily ex-
plainable from the point of view of rabbinical theology, since in general the death
of the pious acted as an atonement for
the more possesses power of atonement.18
The practice of Keil and his followers of using extra-Biblical sources and Jewish tradition
to support their view is precarious to say the least. The writer emphatically rejects this
view as being unbiblical and foreign to the doctrinal teaching of the atonement as set
forth in the Scripture.
The Typical View
The commentaries that set forth this suggestion are divided somewhat in their
emphases; one would call the death of the high priest directly a typical atonement while
the other would say that if the high priest's death held a general typical significance in
looking forward to the day when Christ, the great high priest, would releast those captives
from sin who trust in Him. The typical atonement position, although possibly traceable to
Keil, is set forth by Ellicott in the following eloquent manner:
As the high priest, by reason of the anointing with the holy oil, became
qualified to act as the representative of the nation, and in that capacity acted as
their mediator for the great day of atonement, so the death of the high priest
assumed a symbolical or representative character, and became a type of that great
High Priest who, through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God,
and who by His death made a propitiation for the sins of the world. Thus, as by
the death of the Jewish high priest a typical atonement was made for the sin of the
Israelitish manslayer, and he was restored thereupon to "the land of his
possession" amongst his brethren, so by the death of our
14 GRACE JOURNAL
High Priest they who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before them,
are restored to the inheritance which had been forfeited by sin, and made joint
heirs with Christ of those mansions which He has gone before to prepare for those
who love Him.19
Others who concur with the typical atonement view are Keil and Gossman.
Those who would see a general typical significance in the death of the high priest
reason something like the following elaborate statement from The Bible Commentary:
The High Priest, as the head and representative of the whole chosen family of
sacerdotal mediators, as exclusively entrusted with some of the chief priestly
functions, as alone privileged to make yearly atonement within the Holy of
Holies, and to gain, from the mysterious Urim and Thummim, special revelations
of the will of God, was, preeminently a type of Christ. And thus the death of each
successive high-priest presignified that death of Christ by which the captives were
to be freed, and the remembrance of transgressions made to cease.20
concur with this view are Ainsworth, Barth, Benson,
Edersheim, Wordsworth, and James M. Gray.
In regard to the subject of types, there are two schools of thought as to what
constitutes a type. Bishop Marsh is the representative of the older school and set forth his
famous principle in his Lectures on the Criticism and Interpretation of the Bible where he
held that a type is only a type if the New Testament specifically so designates it to be
such. Ramm says regarding this tenet:
This is a very strict principle and was advocated to curtail much of the fanciful
and imaginary in typological interpretation. Because it is a stern and precise
formula it has exerted to great influence on theological thought. Many Protestant
exegetes if not adhering to the very letter of Marsh's principle certainly follow it
Needless to say, such a view would immediately negate the possibility of any kind
of typical view regarding the death of the high priest as there is nothing to be found in the
New Testament relevant to this event. Such an outlook is the safest possible position and
the writer is greatly prone to adhere to this view; however, it is a position taken largely in
reacting from the abuse of a good thing. This is not always a healthy outlook and may rob
us of precious truth.
Such men as Glassius, Fairbairn, Terry and others would go along with Marsh in
saying that the New Testament is the point of departure in typological studies; but they
insist that Marsh did not dig out the full teaching of the New Testament on the subject.
Glassius propounded the view that types were of two sorts, innate and inferred. An innate
type is a type specifically declared to be such in the New Testament. An inferred type is
one which has no specific designation in the New Testament, but its existence is justified
by the nature of the New Testament materials on typology. Fairbairn would say that the
Old Testament and New Testament contain the same basic system of theology; they run
side by side like two parallel rivers. Their parallelism is indicated by occasional channels
or types which connect them. These channels or types are possible only because the two
rivers run parallel. The Marshian principle for him fails to realize that other channels may
be cut through which are not specifically named in Scripture; otherwise the rela-
THE RELEASE OF HOMICIDES FROM THE CITIES OF REFUGE 15
tionship of the two testaments is rather mechanical.22
The fact that Aaron as the high priest was a type of Christ is clearly attested to in
the book of Hebrews. Unger presents the following summary of the high priesthood of
Aaron and Melchisedek, which is substantially the view presented in the Scofield Bible:
Aaron as high priest is a type of Christ. The functions, dress and ritual
connected with the high priest's anointing are minutely instructive of the Person
and work of Christ as a Priest. Although Christ is a Priest after the order of
Melchisedek (Psa. 110:4; Heb. 5:6; ; ), He executes His priestly office
after the pattern of Aaron. The order is expounded in Hebrews, chapter 9. Death
often disrupted the Aaronic priesthood; therefore, Christ is a Priest after the order
of Melchisedek as "King of Righteousness" and "King of Peace" and in the
perpetuity of His priesthood.23
Scofield makes the following added comment:
The contrast between the high priesthood of Melchisedek and Aaron is only as
to person, "order" (or appointment), and duration. In His work Christ follows the
Aaronic pattern, the "shadow" of which Christ was the substance (Heb. 8:1-6;
However, even though the Aaronic priesthood is set forth in the New Testament
as typical of Christ, not every facet concerning the high priest necessarily has a New
Testament counterpart. Ramm wisely points out an imperative caution which should be
exercised in deciding what is typical:
Great care must be taken to lift out of the Old Testament item precisely that
which is typical and no more. There are points of pronounced similarity and
equally so, points of pronounced dissimilarity between Christ and Aaron or Christ
and Moses. The typical truth is at the point of similarity. One of the cardinal
errors in typology is to make typical the elements of dissimilarity in a type.25
We must, therefore, in all fairness examine those areas which are divergent in order to
ascertain whether we should declare the death of the high priest as being typical of Christ's death.
The Typical Atonement View, which evidently finds its origin in Keil's writings,
is based squarely upon the Expiatory View. Keil states:
But inasmuch as, according to this view (Expiatory View), the death of the
high priest had the same result in a certain sense, in relation to his time of office,
as his function of the day of atonement had had every year, the death of the
earthly high priest became thereby a type of that of the heavenly One, who,
through the eternal (holy) Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God, that we
might be redeemed from our transgressions, and receive the promised eternal
inheritance (Heb. ,15).26
The writer rejects this view as being untenable and holds that the arguments
propounded in refuting the Expiatory view immediately negate the possibility of a typical
atonement. It is im-
16 GRACE JOURNAL
possible to discuss the word atonement without having the necessity of efficacious blood
being shed. Lange, who regards the death of the high priest as a "peculiar method of
atonement," helps to refute his own position in pointing out a glaring weakness in the
typical atonement view by saying:
Still we must emphasize the fact that this dynamic or moral efficacy of his
(high priest's) death is not mentioned among the definite types of the Old
Testament, and could not be so mentioned, since the death of the high priest was
not always edifying.27
Watson points out what has already been emphasized in the discussion under the
Expiatory View; namely, that the expiation provided for under the sacrificial system of
the Mosaic law was pertinent only as far as the functions of the office of the high priest
were concerned, and was entirely inefficacious regarding the person himself. He says:
All the expiation, moreover, which the Mosaic law provided for was ceremon-
ial. If the death of the high priest was efficacious only so far as his functions were,
then there could be no atonement or appearance of atonement for moral guilt,
even that of culpable homicide for instance. The death of the high priest was
therefore in no sense a type of the death of Christ, the whole meaning of which
lies in relation to moral, not ceremonial, offenses.28
Although a goodly number of commentators see the death of the high priest as
foreshadowing the death of Christ, in effect they are advocating the same thing
propounded by the advocates of the Typical Atonement View. They fail to see one of the
most glaring points of divergence between the death of the high priest and the death of
Christ; namely, that Christ didn't die as the high priest. This is positively stated in
Hebrews 8:4; "Now if he (Christ) were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, seeing
there are those who offer the gifts according to the law." We must remember also that
there was a high priest functioning under the Mosaic economy while Christ was on earth;
and, besides, Christ could not have received His anointing as a high priest as He was of
appointed time subsequent to His ascension. Such points of difference force the writer to
reject any typical view put forth regarding the significance of the death of the high priest.
Habershon holds that there must be either a New Testament passage giving authority to
call something a type or some expression or analogy which indicates the antitype. She
states: "We cannot state with certainty that anything is a type unless we have some
warrant for doing so."29
The writer is loath to divest the Bible of typical truth when such is present to bless
and instruct in the things of the Lord; nevertheless, the attempt by the advocates of this
view to find typical significance in the death of the high priest does violence to the entire
study of typology.
In the final analysis, it is the opinion of the writer that as far as the problem with
which we are confronted is concerned, no typical view can offer a satisfactory
explanation as to why the death of the high priest released the homicides from the cities
of refuge. We must seek somewhere else for an immediate reason why the Lord God
settled upon such a unique feature. Patrick, after affirming that "it (the death of the high
priest) might represent our deliverance only by the death of the Son of God," reverses
THE RELEASE OF HOMICIDES FROM THE CITIES OF REFUGE 17
. . . of which many great men looked upon this as a type or shadow; though it
must be confessed, there is not the least signification of this in the New
Testament. And since the great expiation, which the high-priest made every year
on the day of atonement, did not procure such men their liberty, I cannot look
upon it (the release of the homicides) as the effect of the high-priest's death, but
only of that which followed upon it, by virtue of this law.30
The Grief-stricken View
This view explains the release of the homicides from the cities of refuge in terms
of the extreme sorrow which was supposed to swallow up all personal regrets and
resentments occasioned by the high priest's death. The impact of such a national calamity
is supposed to have so overcome and shocked the avengers of blood that they would
naturally have forfeited any future hostility toward innocent manslayers. Jamieson clearly
propounds this view:
But the period of his (the manslayer's) release from this confinement was
not until the death of the high priest. That was a season of public affliction, when
private sorrows were sunk or overlooked under a sense of national calamity, and
when the death of so eminent a servant of God naturally led all to serious
consideration about their own mortality.31
Other commentators who rely solely upon this view or incorporate it into their overall
explanation are Lowth, Lange, Matthew Henry, and Scott.
Unquestionably, this view can be traced back to the 12th century Jewish Rabbi
Maimonides. His eloquent explanation is as follows:
It (the city of refuge) is a prudent charity to the manslayer, and to the
relations of him that was slain; for by this means the manslayer was kept out of
the sight of the avenger of blood, who might have been tempted, some time or
other, to fall upon him, if he had come in his way: but by long absence his anger
might be mitigated, at least by the death of the high-priest, the most excellent of
all other persons, and most dear to everyone in the nation. Which made the public
grief so great when he died, that men forgot their private resentments: for nothing
could fallout more grievous to all the people than the death of the high-priest,
which swallowed up all other grief. (More Nevoch. par. iii. cap. 40).32
In setting forth such a view, Maimonides departs radically from the traditional
rabbinical theology. Although all Jewish commentators have an extremely high regard for
the person of the high priest, Ginzberg curtly disregards this view with the following
words, "Maimonides' explanation that the death of the high priest was an event that
moved the entire people so much that no thoughts of vengeance could arise in the
avenger of blood, conforms as little to the spirit of the early rabbis as to that of the
18 GRACE JOURNAL
There is no question but that this view is foreign to the Scriptural passages dealing
with the cities of refuge. Moreover, the question of retribution performed for blood
having been shed was not based upon an enraged temper or even family honor; but the
avenger of blood was required under the Mosaic law to requite the blood that had been
shed by shedding the blood of him who had shed the blood (cf. Num. 35:33). Oehler
succinctly states the matter, "The avenging of blood becomes a divine command; it is not
merely a matter of honor, but a duty of religion."34 It is because the protection of the
integrity of the family is also at stake that the incumbent to redeem the blood shed is
chosen from the nearest kin. There is no question but that feelings would soar as the
result of blood being shed and revenge would be apt to be taken "while the manslayer's
heart is hot" (cf. Deut. 19:6). The whole point of the cities of refuge was to protect the
manslayer who slew his neighbor "unwittingly" and "was not worthy of death" (cf. Deut.
19:6) before injustice was performed from an uncontrolled temper. (Compare the
needless blood feuds that are to be found among the Arab tribes even to this day.)
Maimonides' contention that the long absence of the manslayer might mitigate the
anger of the avenger of blood is open to grave doubts. A lapse of time could cause such
resentments to be abated and often forgotten, but in some cases we can be assured that
the initial heat of revenge could eat at the heart like a canker so that it became more
inflamed instead of subsiding. We must remember also that there was the possibility of
the high priest dying the day after the acquittal of the homicide so that the memory of the
event would yet be fresh in the mind of the redeemer of blood. Some of the
commentators have wondered at the equity of this law whereby one man might be
separated from his family for many years while another for but a few months, weeks,
or even days. The basic point is that the provision set down by the law hinged upon the
death of the high priest himself, and God in His wisdom and grace had provided a refuge
for the innocent manslayer.
We can be assured that the death of the high priest, while no doubt causing a
period of public grief, would not change the heart of a man set upon revenge. Moreover,
the homicides had to be declared innocent before they could be admitted to the cities of
refuge in the first place. We must assume that they would have made an atonement
provided for their action and consequently satisfied the demands of the law. The only
possible legal way in which the avenger of "blood could seek vengeance upon the
homicide would be if the homicide forsook the protection of the city where he had been
instructed to stay. Then the avenger of blood could slay the manslayer if he chose, and
"not be guilty of blood" (cf. Num. 35:26-28). Actually we cannot even assume that every
redeemer of blood carried such resentment in his heart in view of the fact that his relative
was slain "through error." The fatal weakness of this view is that if such a phenomenon
were even possible it describes the supposed result of the death of the high priest and
does not explain what significance is inherent in the law itself which effects the release of
the manslayers; actually, it explains nothing.
The writer regards this view as the true solution of the problem. This view regards
the administrative term of the high priest as constituting a definite epoch which is
terminated at his death. The cases of the homicides in the cities of refuge are so vitally
incorporated into the administrative life of the high priest that their cases are expunged
from the record and considered as null and void upon his decease. Savile states the matter
THE RELEASE OF HOMICIDES FROM THE REFUGE CITIES 19
One thing all knew respecting the anointed high-priest, viz. that he was the
head and representative of the whole community in matters pertaining to life and
death; and as some limitation would evidently require to be set to the restraint laid
on the manslayer, the thought would naturally commend itself to the people to
make responsibility for an accidental death cease and terminate with the death of
him who stood nearest to God in matters of that description. In the general re-
lations of the community a change had entered in that respect, which touched all
interests, and it was fit that it should specially touch those who had been casually
bereft of the freedom of life.35
Higher critics of a certain type take this view, as they look on the passages
regarding the institution of the cities of refuge, as being a late development coming from
"the Document P." They see a gradual conflict between civil and priestly interests, with
more and more influence accruing to the high priest until he had become the political as
the religious leader of the people. McNeile in the
The high priest was the head of the religious affairs of the Jewish church,
and rose, in the popular estimation, to a higher importance than the civil gov-
ernor who was appointed by a foreign power. So that "unto the death of the
high priest" would have almost the same force that the words "until the death
of the reigning sovereign" would bear today.36
Other commentators holding this view are Aarton, Dummelow, Genung, Henry, Patrick,
Reihm, and Winterbotham.
In this view, the duration of the high priest's office is treated as the cessation of an
epoch where certain questions that have remained open are to be regarded as now settled.
Baudissin uses Numbers 35:25, 28 as verses which indicate that "the high-priestly
dignity is clearly thought of as conferred for life."37 At the death of the high priest,
therefore, a completed period of the theocratic life is effected, and all of the cases which
have detained the homicides in the cities of refuge are considered as null and void. The
manslayers are permitted to return to their inheritance without fear of coercion from the
avenger of the blood and a new period in the life of the nation begins with the
inauguration of the next high priest. This is the singular secular authority ascribed to the
high priest, and it arises out of his official position as high priest of the land. The six
cities of refuge formed a part of the forty-eight Levitical cities; both Numbers 35:9-34
and Joshua 20:1-9 are joined to passages which record the inheritance of the land as
distributed to the Levites. The priests received as dwelling-places thirteen of the towns
which were given to the Levites (cf. Josh. 21:4, 10ff). Of course, the priests had no
inheritance in the land; they were to be sanctified solely to the Lord and were his portion
(Num. 18:20). The priests were partially supported through the tithes of the Levites
(Num. ), and the Levites rendered various services in the tent of meeting (Num.
). The Levites would have heard the case of the manslayer when he first arrived at
the gate. They would have been in charge of escorting this person to his congregation in
order to hear his innocence declared. Finally, they would place the homicide in one of the
six Levitical cities where protection would be available from the avenger of blood. The
writer feels, therefore, that the close connection both in function and Scriptural context
between the priests, Levites and the high priest plus the fact that the nature of
20 GRACE JOURNAL
the homicides' detention was a legal issue, makes the connection between the high priest
and the cities of refuge a natural and intimate one. Henry states the case emphatically:
The cities of refuge being all of them Levites' cities, and the high-priest being
the head of the tribe, and consequently having a peculiar dominion over those
cities, those that were confined to them might properly be looked upon as his
prisoners, and so his death must be their discharge; it was, as it were, at his suit,
that the delinquent was imprisoned, and therefore at his death it fell.38
Patrick also stresses this aspect:
For the high-priest having a great power everywhere, and particularly in these
cities of the priests and Levites, over whom he was chief, it is possible that
manslayers might be confined here by some act of his authority; which expiring
with himself, he was released.39
The significance of the appositional clause, "who has been anointed with the holy
oil" as pointing up the distinctive and official nature of the high priest's calling; namely,
that of representative of the people before God has been indicated above. The stress
which is laid upon the fact of the high priest's death (Num. 35:28) plus this solemn notice
of his having been anointed with the holy oil, seem to point unmistakably to something in
his official and consecrated character which made it right that the rigour of the law
should die with him.40 Henry describes the matter as Actio moritur cum persona-the suit
expires with the party.41
The significant parallel of this situation and the year of Jubilee is mentioned by
Winterbotham. He states, "What the Jubilee was to the debtor who had lost his property,
that the death of the high priest was to the homicide who had lost his liberty."42 Not only
did the homicide lose his liberty, but he was deprived of his inheritance for a period of
time; perhaps even for the rest of his life. Inasmuch as both the year of Jubilee and the
death of the high priest are vitally related to the inheritance of the individuals involved, it
seems that this comparison is valid and points to the consistency of the principle behind
these laws (cf. Lev. 25 and Num. 35:28). Those higher critics who can manage to say
anything at all constructive regarding our problem after they have labored diligently to
prove this law to be post-exilic inevitably adopt this view. Actually, by assigning the high
priest the role of the reigning authority in their evolutionary conception, their view of the
authority of the high priest is substantially the same as those of us who regard this law as
being pre-monarchial. We can, therefore, use with profit the comparison which George F.
beginning of his administration. He says, "The sojourn in the city of refuge is regarded as
a species of exile, a punishment which was removed by a general amnesty at the
ascension of the new high priest, the real sovereign."43
The writer concurs with this view which seems to be the most natural and obvious
explanation of the problem. The problem is one fundamentally of Jewish jurisprudence in
which an administrative change in the high priest begins a new era as far as the cities of
refuge are concerned. This statute of limitations is succinctly summed up by
Winterbotham: "When he (the high priest) died all processes of vengeance lapsed,
because they had really been commenced in his name."44
THE RELEASE OF HOMICIDES FROM THE CITIES OF REFUGE 21
1. Gustave Oehler, cited by C. F. Keil and Delitzsch; Biblical Commentary
on the Old Testament (Eerdmans) , III, 262.
2. H. Clay Trumbull, The Blood Covenant (Wattles), 260.
3. Robert Jamieson, A Commentary, Critical Explanatory (Zondervan), 119.
4. G. T. Manley, "Deuteronomy," New Bible Commentary (Eerdmans)" 214.
5. C. F. Keil and Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, III, 265.
8. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (
9. John Peter Lange, "Numbers," A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures
10. Knobel, cited by Keil and Delitzsch, op. cit., 263.
11. S. R. Driver, "Deuteronomy," The International Critical Commentary (Scribners),
12. Lange, loc. cit.
13. George Buchanan Gray, "Numbers," The International Critical Commentary
14. Keil, op. cit., 265.
15. Merrill F. Unger, Unger's Bible Dictionary (Moody), 805.
16. Robert A. Watson, "Numbers," The Expositor's Bible (Funk & Wagnalls), 405.
17. Louis Ginzberg, The Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk & Wagnalls), II, 259.
19. C. J. Ellicott, "Numbers," A Bible Commentary for English Readers (Cassell), I, 574.
20. T. E. Espin and J. E. Thrupp, "Numbers," The Bible Commentary, ed. F.C. Cook
(Scribners) , I, 787.
21. Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Wilde), 200.
22. Ibid., 201 .
23. Unger, op. cit., 889.
Holy Bible, King James Version, ed. C. I. Scofield
25. Ramm, op. cit., 209, 210.
26. Keil, loc. cit.
27. Lange, op. cit., 188.
28. Watson, loc. cit.
30. Symm Patrick, A Critical Commentary and Paraphrase on the Old and New
Testament (Scofield), I, 741.
31. Jamieson, op. cit., 120.
32. Patrick, loc. cit.
33. Ginzberg, loc. cit.
34. Gustav Friedrich Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament (Funk & Wagnalls), 237.
35. B. Wrey Savile, '"Manslayer," The Imperial Bible-Dictionary, ed. Patrick Fairbairn
(Blackie and Son), II, 157.
36. A. H. McNeile, "Numbers,"
(Cambridge University Press), 187.
37. Wolf Baudissin, "Priests and Levites," A Dictionary of the Bible, ed. James Hastings
(Scribners), IV, 83.
22 GRACE JOURNAL
38. Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Holy Bible (Funk & Wagnalls), I, 421.
39. Patrick, loc. cit.
40. R. Winterbotham, "Numbers," The Pulpit Commentary (Funk & Wagnalls), 448.
41. Henry, loc. cit.
42. Winterbotham. loc. cit.
43. George F. Moore, "Asylum," Encyclopedia Biblica, ed. T.K. Cheyne and J.
Sutherland Black (Macmillian), 1, 377.
44. Winterbotham, loc. cit.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: email@example.com