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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
CITIES OF. In order to provide for the security of those who, without design, might happen to kill a person, in whatever manner it should be, the Lord commanded Moses to appoint six cities of refuge, Exodus 21:18; Numbers 35:11 , &c, that whoever should undesignedly spill the blood of a fellow creature, might retire thither, and have time to prepare for his defence before the judges: so that the relatives of the deceased might not pursue and kill him. Of these cities there were three on each side Jordan. Those on this side Jordan were Kedesh of Naphtali, Hebron, and Shechem; those beyond Jordan were Bezer, Golan, and Ramoth-Gilead, Joshua 20:7-8 . They served not only for the Hebrews, but for strangers also that should dwell in their country. These cities were to be of easy access, and to have good roads to them, and bridges wherever there should be occasion. The width of these roads was, at least, to be two-and-thirty cubits, or eight-and-forty feet. When there were any cross roads, they were careful to erect posts with an inscription pointing to the city of refuge. Every year, on the fifteenth of the month Adar, which answers to our February moon, the magistrates of the city visited the roads, to see if they were in good condition. The city was to be well supplied with water and provisions. It was not allowed to make any weapons there, lest the relatives of the deceased should be furnished with arms for the gratifying of their revenge. Lastly, it was necessary that whoever took refuge there, should understand a trade or calling, that he might not be chargeable to the inhabitants. They were wont to send some prudent persons to meet those who were pursuing their revenge for the relations, that they might dispose them to clemency, and persuade them to wait the decision of justice.
Though the man-slayer had fled to the city of refuge, yet he was not on this account exempted from the pursuit of justice. An information was preferred against him, Numbers 35:12; he was summoned before the judges, and before the people, to clear himself, and to prove that the murder was merely casual and involuntary. If he was found innocent, he dwelt safely in the city to which he had retired; if otherwise, he was put to death according to the severity of the law. The following texts of Scripture are not very explicit whether the affair was under the cognizance of the judges of the place where the murder was committed, or of the judges of the city of refuge to which the murderer had fled, Deuteronomy 19:11-12; Joshua 20:4-6; Numbers 35:25; and the commentators are at variance in this matter. But it appears, from a passage of Joshua, that the man-slayer was to undergo two trials; first, in the city of refuge, where the judges summarily examined the affair, and heard his allegations at his first arrival; secondly, when he was taken back to his own city, to be judged by the magistrates of the place, who took the cause under a more strict and scrupulous examination, If the latter judges declared him innocent, they had him reconducted, under a strong guard, to the city of refuge to which he had before fled. He was not, however, immediately liberated; but, to inspire the greater horror even of involuntary murder, it seems as if the law would punish it by a kind of banishment; for he was obliged to dwell in the city, without going out of it, till the death of the high priest; and if before that time he was imprudent enough to leave the city, the avenger of blood might safely kill him; but after the death of the high priest, he was at liberty to go whither he pleased without molestation.
It is a curious fact, that the North American Indian nations have most of them either a house or town of refuge, which is a sure asylum to protect a man-slayer, or the unfortunate captive, if they can once enter it. "In almost every Indian nation," says Adair, "there are several peaceable towns which are called old, beloved, ancient, holy, or white towns: (white being their fixed emblem of peace, friendship, prosperity, happiness, purity, &c:) they seem to have been formerly towns of refuge; for it is not in the memory of their oldest people that ever human blood was shed in them, although they often force persons from thence, and put them to death elsewhere."
Sanctuaries affording security for criminals are still known in the east, and anciently were established in Europe.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Refuge'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/r/refuge.html. 1831-2.