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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible
Refuge, Cities of
REFUGE, CITIES OF
1. Origin of the right of asylum . The city of refuge was the product of two primitive religious ideas that were employed to neutralize one another, the sacredness of blood or life and the sacredness of locality; both were based on the presence of the Divine in the blood and the locality. There was a community of blood or life between the god and his people that made it an unpardonable offence to slay one of his people; it mattered not whether the slayer was within or without his people, whether the deed was intentional or accidental. A wrong had been done that could be atoned for only by blood (Robertson Smith, RS [Note: S Religion of the Semites.] ,  p. 32 ff.). On the other hand, the god chose certain places for his manifestation, and there it was customary for his people to meet and worship him. Within the precincts claimed by his presence all life was sacred, and so it came about that even a murderer, if he escaped to the haunts of a god, would be safe from those to whom he had forfeited his life, so long as he remained within their sacred limits ( ib . p. 148 f.). The murderer thus escaped the penalty of his wrong, but he remained an ineffective unit for his tribe; immediately he left the asylum of the god he was at the mercy of the avenger of blood , and so both tribe and individual were in a measure punished. This primitive usage still prevails in savage communities, and has been widened by extending the privilege of asylum to places occupied by former kings and to the graves of former rulers (Frazer, Fort. Review , 1899, pp. 650 654).
2. Development of asylum in OT . In this absolute form the right of asylum is not recognized anywhere in the OT. It is extended only to one who has without intention committed homicide ( Exodus 21:13 ). One who has treacherously sullied his hands with blood can find no refuge at the altar of God; he may be taken from it to death ( Exodus 21:14 ), or he may even be struck down at the altar, as was the fate of Joab ( 1 Kings 2:30-31; 1 Kings 2:34 ). The community came between the fugitive and the avenger of blood, and determined whether he should be handed over to death. This was likely the result of the fusion of different tribes and the necessity of recognizing one common authority. We can trace three stages of development of this right of asylum in the OT.
(1) Every altar or sanctuary in the land could extend its protection to one who had without intention taken the life of another. He had to justify his claim to protection by showing to the authorities of the sanctuary that his deed was unpremeditated. But after the fugitive had submitted satisfactory evidence, he was allowed to remain within the sacred precincts. He could not, however, return home, and had evidently to pass the remainder of his life in the refuge to which he had fled. He could not appease the avenger by money. His want of prudence must entail some punishment, and so he could not pass beyond the city boundaries without risk of death at the hands of the avenger of blood. What provision was made for his maintenance is not revealed, but very likely he had to win his subsistence by his work. Whether his family could join him in his asylum is a question that is also unanswered. This is the stage of development in Exodus 21:13-14 , 1 Kings 1:50; 1Ki 2:28; 1 Kings 2:34 . It is not at all likely that Joab’s death was brought about at the altar in Jerusalem because of some exceptional authority exercised over it by the king. Joab evidently knew he could be put to death there ( 1 Kings 2:30 ).
(2) When the provincial high places and altars were suppressed by Josiah in b.c. 621, the right of asylum there fell with them, and provision had to be made for the continuance of ancient usage on a modified basis. Very likely there was less need for it, as the power of the Crown had been growing. Cities of refuge, situated at convenient distances, were set apart for the manslayer ( Deuteronomy 19:2-7 ), and it may even be that the roads thither were specially kept and marked to make escape easy ( Deuteronomy 19:3; but cf. Steuernagel, Deut . p. 71 f.). The fugitive had to justify his claim to protection by showing to the elders of the city whither he had fled his innocence of murderous motives. Any one who failed to convince them of the validity of his defence was handed over to the elders of his own city, and they in turn surrendered him to the avenger of blood. Practically, then, the community administered justice, but when the death penalty was to be exacted, it was exacted not by the community, but by the avenger of blood in accordance with primitive usage ( Deuteronomy 19:12-13 ).
(3) In post-exilic times the cities of refuge established under the Deuteronomic Code remained, and the judicial procedure followed was very much the same, only the community presumably at Jerusalem and not the elders of the city of refuge (Numbers 35:12; Numbers 35:24-25 ) was to determine the guilt or the innocence of the fugitive. Joshua 20:4 , however, contemplates a provisional inquiry by the elders of the city before protection is granted. The law was mitigated so far that the unwitting manslayer was no longer doomed to spend all his days there but was free to return to his home on the death of the high priest of the time ( Numbers 35:25; Numbers 35:23 , Joshua 20:6 ). This points to the post-exilic origin of this modification. The high priest was then the only constituted authority that Jewish law could recognize.
3. Number of cities of refuge . The statements bearing on the number of the cities of refuge are conflicting ( Numbers 35:11; Numbers 35:13-15 , Deuteronomy 4:41-43; Deuteronomy 19:7-10 , Joshua 20:2; Joshua 20:7-8; cf. Driver, Deut . pp. 78, 233; Gray, Num . p. 469). Ultimately there were six, but at first there appear to have been only three ( Deuteronomy 19:2; Deuteronomy 19:7 ). They were established first in the time of Josiah when the boundaries and the population of the Jewish State would be comparatively small, and Jewish authority did not likely cross the Jordan to the east. In such conditions three cities would be ample. But when in post-exilic times the Jews covered a wider area, there would naturally be need for more cities; and so we find the number in Numbers and Joshua stated at six, and additions made to the text in Deuteronomy 4:41-43; Deuteronomy 19:3 to suggest that the number six had been contemplated from the beginning. These six cities were Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron on the west, all well-known sanctuaries from early times, and Golan, Ramoth, and Bezer on the east. Of the situation of these last we know nothing definitely; even the site of Ramoth, to which reference is made elsewhere in the OT ( 1 Kings 4:13; 1 Kings 22:3 ff.), is a subject of doubt (see G. A. Smith, HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geography of Holy Land.] p. 587; Driver, Deut . xviii, xix), but they probably shared the sacred character of the cities on the west.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Refuge, Cities of'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/r/refuge-cities-of.html. 1909.