Cities of Refuge—God’s Merciful Provision
“These six cities will serve as a refuge, for anyone to flee there that fatally strikes a soul unintentionally.”—NUMBERS 35:15.
1. What is God’s view of life and bloodguilt?
JEHOVAH GOD considers human life sacred. And life is in the blood. (Leviticus 17:11, 14) Cain, the first human born on the earth, therefore incurred bloodguilt when he murdered his brother Abel. Consequently, God told Cain: “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.” The blood that stained the ground at the murder scene bore silent, though eloquent, testimony to the life that had brutally been cut short. Abel’s blood cried out to God for vengeance.—Genesis 4:4-11.
2. How was Jehovah’s respect for life emphasized after the Flood?
2 God’s respect for human life was emphasized after righteous Noah and his family emerged from the ark as survivors of the global Flood. At that time Jehovah expanded mankind’s diet to include animal flesh but not blood. He also decreed: “Your blood of your souls shall I ask back. From the hand of every living creature shall I ask it back; and from the hand of man, from the hand of each one who is his brother, shall I ask back the soul of man. Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed, for in God’s image he made man.” (Genesis 9:5, 6) Jehovah recognized the right of the victim’s nearest relative to put the manslayer to death when coming upon him.—Numbers 35:19.
3. What stress did the Mosaic Law place on the sacredness of life?
3 In the Law given to Israel through the prophet Moses, the sacredness of life was repeatedly stressed. For example, God commanded: “You must not murder.” (Exodus 20:13) Respect for life was also evident in what the Mosaic Law said about a fatality involving a pregnant woman. The Law specified that if she or her unborn child suffered a fatal accident as a result of a struggle between two men, judges were to weigh the circumstances and degree of deliberateness, but the penalty could be “soul for soul,” or life for life. (Exodus 21:22-25) However, could an Israelite murderer somehow escape the consequences of his violent act?
Asylum for Murderers?
4. Outside of Israel, what places of asylum have existed in the past?
4 In nations other than Israel, sanctuary, or asylum, was granted to murderers and other criminals. This was the case at such sites as the temple of the goddess Artemis in ancient Ephesus. Concerning similar places, it is reported: “Some shrines were nurseries of criminals; and it often became necessary to limit the number of asylums. In Athens only certain sanctuaries were recognized by law as refuges (for example, the temple of Theseus for slaves); in the time of Tiberius the congregations of desperadoes in shrines had become so dangerous that the right of Asylum was limited to a few cities (in the year 22).” (The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1909, Volume II, page 256) Later, churches of Christendom became places of asylum, but this tended to transfer power from civil authorities to the priesthood and worked against the proper administration of justice. Abuses eventually led to the abolition of this arrangement.
5. What evidence is there that the Law did not allow for negligence as a claim for mercy when someone was killed?
5 Among the Israelites, deliberate murderers were not granted sanctuary or asylum. Even a Levite priest serving at God’s altar was to be led away to execution for a crafty murder. (Exodus 21:12-14) Moreover, the Law did not allow for negligence as a claim for mercy when someone was killed. For example, a man was to make a parapet for the flat roof of his new house. Otherwise, bloodguilt would come upon the house if someone fell to his death from the roof. (Deuteronomy 22:8) Furthermore, if the owner of a bull in the habit of goring had been warned but had not kept the animal under guard and it killed someone, the bull’s owner was bloodguilty and could be put to death. (Exodus 21:28-32) Further proof of God’s high regard for life is evident in that anyone fatally striking a thief was bloodguilty if this happened in the daytime when the intruder could be seen and identified. (Exodus 22:2, 3) Clearly, then, God’s perfectly balanced regulations did not allow willful murderers to escape capital punishment.
6. How was the law of ‘life for life’ satisfied in ancient Israel?
6 If a murder was committed in ancient Israel, the blood of the victim was to be avenged. The law of ‘life for life’ was satisfied when the murderer was put to death by “the avenger of blood.” (Numbers 35:19) The avenger was the murdered person’s nearest male relative. But what about unintentional manslayers?
Jehovah’s Merciful Provision
7. What provision did God make for those who unintentionally killed someone?
7 For those who accidentally or unintentionally killed someone, God lovingly provided cities of refuge. Concerning these, Moses was told: “Speak to the sons of Israel, and you must say to them, ‘You are crossing the Jordan to the land of Canaan. And you must choose cities convenient for yourselves. As cities of refuge they will serve for you, and the manslayer must flee there who fatally strikes a soul unintentionally. And the cities must serve you as a refuge from the blood avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the assembly for judgment. And the cities that you will give, the six cities of refuge, will be at your service. Three cities you will give on this side of the Jordan, and three cities you will give in the land of Canaan. As cities of refuge they will serve . . . for anyone to flee there that fatally strikes a soul unintentionally.’”—Numbers 35:9-15.
8. Where were the cities of refuge located, and how were unintentional manslayers helped to reach them?
8 When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they obediently established six cities of refuge. Three of these cities—Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron—were located west of the Jordan River. East of the Jordan were the refuge cities of Golan, Ramoth, and Bezer. The six refuge cities were conveniently located on roads kept in good repair. At appropriate places along these roads, there were signs bearing the word “refuge.” These signs pointed in the direction of the city of refuge, and the unintentional manslayer ran for his life to the nearest one. There he could find protection from the avenger of blood.—Joshua 20:2-9.
9. Why did Jehovah provide the cities of refuge, and for whose benefit were they provided?
9 Why did God provide for cities of refuge? They were provided so that the land would not be polluted with innocent blood and bloodguilt would not come upon the people. (Deuteronomy 19:10) For whose benefit were the refuge cities provided? The Law stated: “For the sons of Israel and for the alien resident and for the settler in the midst of them these six cities will serve as a refuge, for anyone to flee there that fatally strikes a soul unintentionally.” (Numbers 35:15) Thus, to be fair and to serve the ends of justice while allowing for mercy, Jehovah told the Israelites to set aside cities of refuge for unintentional manslayers who were (1) native Israelites, (2) alien residents in Israel, or (3) settlers from other countries who were dwelling in the land.
10. Why can it be said that the refuge cities were a merciful provision made by God?
10 It is noteworthy that even if an individual was an unintentional manslayer, he was to be put to death under God’s decree: “Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed.” Hence, it was only by a merciful provision of Jehovah God that an unintentional manslayer could flee to one of the cities of refuge. Apparently, the people in general felt sympathy for anyone fleeing from the avenger of blood, for all of them were aware that they might unintentionally commit a similar offense and need refuge and mercy.
Flight for Refuge
11. In ancient Israel, what could a man do if he accidentally killed a fellow worker?
11 An illustration may well enhance your appreciation of God’s merciful arrangement for refuge. Imagine that you were a man chopping wood in ancient Israel. Suppose the axhead suddenly flew off its handle and fatally struck a fellow worker. What would you do? Well, the Law covered this very situation. Undoubtedly, you would take advantage of this God-given provision: “This is the case of the manslayer who may flee [to a city of refuge] and has to live: When he strikes his fellowman without knowing it and he was no hater of him formerly; or when he goes with his fellowman into the woods to gather wood, and his hand has been raised to strike with the ax to cut the tree, and the iron has slipped off from the wooden handle, and it has hit his fellowman and he has died, he himself should flee to one of these cities and must live.” (Deuteronomy 19:4, 5) Yet, even if you got to a refuge city, you would not be free of all responsibility for what had happened.
12. What procedure would be followed after an unintentional manslayer reached a refuge city?
12 Though you were received hospitably, you would have to state your case to the elders at the gate of the refuge city. After entering the city, you would be sent back to stand trial before the elders representing the congregation of Israel at the gates of the city having jurisdiction over the area where the killing occurred. There you would have an opportunity to prove your innocence.
When Manslayers Were on Trial
13, 14. What are some things the elders would want to ascertain during the trial of a manslayer?
13 During the trial before the elders at the gate of the city of jurisdiction, you would undoubtedly note with gratitude that much emphasis was laid upon your previous conduct. The elders would carefully weigh your relationship with the victim. Did you hate the man, lie in wait for him, and deliberately strike him dead? If so, the elders would have to deliver you to the blood avenger, and you would die. These responsible men would be aware of the Law’s requirement that ‘guilt for innocent blood be cleared away from Israel.’ (Deuteronomy 19:11-13) Comparably, in a judicial action today, Christian elders need to know the Scriptures well, acting in harmony with them while taking a wrongdoer’s previous attitude and conduct into account.
14 Probing kindly, the city elders would want to know if you stalked the victim. (Exodus 21:12, 13) Did you assail him from a hiding place? (Deuteronomy 27:24) Were you so heated up with anger against the person that you resorted to some crafty plan to kill him? If so, you would be worthy of death. (Exodus 21:14) Especially would the elders need to know if there had been enmity, or hatred, between you and the victim. (Deuteronomy 19:4, 6, 7; Joshua 20:5) Let us say that the elders found you innocent and returned you to the city of refuge. How thankful you would be for the mercy shown!
Life in the City of Refuge
15. What requirements were imposed on an unintentional manslayer?
15 An unintentional manslayer had to remain in the refuge city or within a distance of 1,000 cubits (about 1,450 feet) outside its walls. (Numbers 35:2-4) If he wandered beyond that point, he might encounter the avenger of blood. Under those circumstances, the avenger could with impunity put the manslayer to death. But the manslayer was not shackled or imprisoned. As a resident of the refuge city, he had to learn a trade, be a worker, and serve as a useful member of society.
16. (a) How long would the unintentional manslayer have to remain in the city of refuge? (b) Why did the high priest’s death make it possible for a manslayer to leave the city of refuge?
16 How long would the unintentional manslayer have to remain in the city of refuge? Possibly for the rest of his life. In any case, the Law stated: “He ought to dwell in his city of refuge until the high priest’s death, and after the high priest’s death the manslayer may return to the land of his possession.” (Numbers 35:26-28) Why did the high priest’s death allow the unintentional manslayer to leave the city of refuge? Well, the high priest was one of the most prominent persons in the nation. His death would therefore be such a notable event that it would become known throughout all the tribes of Israel. All refugees in the refuge cities could then return to their homes free from danger at the hands of blood avengers. Why? Because God’s Law had decreed that the avenger’s opportunity to kill the manslayer expired with the high priest’s death, and everyone knew this. If the next of kin were to avenge the death after that, he would be a murderer and would ultimately pay the penalty for murder.
17. What were the probable effects of the restrictions placed on the unintentional manslayer?
17 What were the probable effects of the restrictions imposed upon the unintentional manslayer? They were a reminder that he had caused someone’s death. Likely, he would ever after view human life as sacred. Moreover, he could hardly forget that he had been treated mercifully. Having been shown mercy, he would surely want to be merciful to others. The arrangement of refuge cities with their restrictions also benefited the people in general. How so? It certainly must have impressed upon them that they should not be careless or indifferent about human life. Christians should thereby be reminded of the need to avoid carelessness that might result in an accidental death. Then, too, God’s merciful arrangement for cities of refuge ought to move us to show mercy when doing so is warranted.—James 2:13.
18. In what ways was God’s arrangement for refuge cities advantageous?
18 Jehovah God’s provision for cities of refuge was also advantageous in other ways. The people did not form vigilante groups in pursuit of a manslayer under the presumption of his guilt before trial. Instead, they considered him innocent of deliberate murder, even assisting him to safety. Furthermore, the provision for cities of refuge was the very opposite of present-day arrangements for placing murderers in jails and penitentiaries, where they are financially supported by the public and often become worse criminals due to their close association with other wrongdoers. In the refuge city arrangement, it was unnecessary to build, maintain, and guard expensive walled, iron-barred prisons from which inmates so often seek to escape. In effect, the manslayer sought the “prison” and stayed therein during the specified time. He also had to be a worker, thus doing something to benefit fellow humans.
19. What questions are raised regarding cities of refuge?
19 Merciful, indeed, was Jehovah’s arrangement of Israel’s cities of refuge for the protection of unintentional manslayers. This provision certainly promoted respect for life. However, do the ancient refuge cities have meaning for people living in the 20th century? Could we be bloodguilty before Jehovah God and not realize that we need his mercy? Is there any modern-day significance for us in Israel’s cities of refuge?
How Would You Answer?
◻ How does Jehovah view human life?
◻ What merciful provision did God make for unintentional manslayers?
◻ How did a manslayer gain access to a city of refuge, and how long was he to remain there?
◻ What were the probable effects of the restrictions placed on the unintentional manslayer?
[Map on page 12]
Israel’s cities of refuge were conveniently located
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
KEDESH Jordan River GOLAN