CITIES OF REFUGE
Jehovah’s law on the sanctity of blood was very explicit. The shedding of human blood polluted the land in which the sons of Israel lived, in the midst of which Jehovah was residing, and it could be atoned for only by the blood of the one shedding it. (Ge 9:5, 6; Nu 35:33, 34) So, in the case of a murderer, the blood of his victim was avenged and the law of ‘life for life’ was satisfied when the murderer was put to death “without fail” by the avenger of blood. (Ex 21:23; Nu 35:21) But what about the unintentional manslayer, the one, for example, who killed his brother when the axhead accidentally flew off while he was chopping wood? (De 19:4, 5) For such unfortunate ones Jehovah lovingly provided cities of refuge, six in number, where the accidental shedder of blood could find protection and asylum from the avenger of blood.—Nu 35:6-32; Jos 20:2-9.
Locations. Before his death, Moses appointed three of these cities E of the Jordan. The first, Bezer, in the S on the tableland of the territory that belonged to the tribe of Reuben, was E of the northern end of the Dead Sea; the second, Ramoth, in Gilead, belonged to the tribe of Gad and was in about the middle of the eastern section of the land occupied by Israel; the third, Golan, in Bashan, was to the N in the territory of Manasseh. (De 4:43; Jos 21:27, 36, 38) After the Israelites crossed over to the W side of the Jordan, Joshua designated three more cities of refuge: Hebron, to the S in Judah’s territory; Shechem, in the central mountainous region of Ephraim; and to the N, Kedesh, in the territory of Naphtali, which was later known as the region of Galilee. (Jos 21:13, 21, 32) All these cities were Levite cities and one, Hebron, was a priestly city. Additionally, because of being set aside as cities of refuge, they received a sacred status.—Jos 20:7.
Legal Procedure. Upon reaching a city of refuge, the fugitive was to state his case to the older men at the city gate and was to be received hospitably. To prevent willful murderers from taking cover under this provision, the fleeing one, after entering the city of refuge, had to stand trial at the city gates in the city having jurisdiction where the killing occurred, in order to prove his innocence. If found innocent, he was returned to the city of refuge. However, his safety could be guaranteed only if he remained in the city the rest of his life or until the death of the high priest. No ransom could be accepted to alter these terms. (Nu 35:22-29, 32; Jos 20:4-6) Even Jehovah’s sacred altar provided no protection for murderers, as was illustrated in the case of Joab.—Ex 21:14; 1Ki 1:50; 2:28-34; see AVENGER OF BLOOD.
How different, then, Jehovah’s arrangement for the protection of unintentional manslayers was from the sanctuaries provided by ancient pagan nations and by Christendom’s churches down through the ages! Whereas the latter sanctuaries offered shelter for criminals along with the innocent, Israel’s cities of refuge gave protection only to the unintentional manslayer and then only under restrictions, and thus respect for the sanctity of life was promoted.
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CITIES OF REFUGE