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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature
Cities of Refuge
Places of refuge where, under the cover of religion, the guilty and the unfortunate might find shelter and protection were not unknown among the ancient heathen. The right of shelter and impunity was enjoyed by certain places reputed sacred, such as groves, temples, and altars. This protective power commonly spread itself over a considerable district round the holy spot, and was watched over and preserved by severe penalties. Among the Greeks and Romans the number of these places of asylum became in process of time very great, and led, by abuse, to a fresh increase of criminals. Tiberius, in consequence, caused a solemn inquiry into their effects to be made, which resulted in a diminution of their number and a limitation of their privileges.
This pagan custom passed into Christianity. As early as Constantine the Great, Christian churches were asylums for the unfortunate persons whom an outraged law or powerful enemies pursued. Theodosius, in 431, extended this privilege to the houses, gardens, and other places which were under the jurisdiction of the churches, and the synod of Toledo, in 681, widened the right of asylum to thirty paces from every church. Since then this ecclesiastical privilege prevailed in the whole of Catholic Christendom, and was preserved undiminished, at least in Italy, so long as the papal independence remained. The right acted beneficially in ages when violence and revenge predominated, and fixed habitations were less common than now; but its tendency to transfer power from the magistrate to the priesthood was injurious to the inviolability of law and the steady administration of justice. It has accordingly in recent times been abrogated by most governments.
Among the Jews the 'cities of refuge' bore some resemblance to the asylum of the classic nations, but were happily exempt from the evil consequences to which reference has been made, and afford, even to the present day, no mean proof of the superior wisdom and benignant spirit of the Jewish laws.
The institution was framed with a view to abate the evils which ensued from the old established rights of the blood-avenger [BLOOD-REVENGE], and thereby to further the prevalence in the nation of a mild, gentle, and forgiving spirit.
From the laws on this point (;; ) it appears that Moses set apart out of the sacerdotal cities six as 'cities of refuge.' There were, on the eastern side of the Jordan, three, namely, 'Bezer in the wilderness, in the plain country of the Reubenites, and Ramoth in Gilead of the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan of the Manassites' (); on the western side three, namely, 'Kedesh in Galilee in Mount Naphtali, and Shechem in Mount Ephraim, and Kirjath-arba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah' (). If found desirable, then other cities might be added. An inspection of the map will show how wisely these places were chosen so as to make a city of refuge easy of access from all parts of the land. To anyone of these cities a person who had unawares and unintentionally slain anyone might flee, and if he reached it before he was overtaken by the avenger of blood, he was safe within its shelter, provided he did not remove more than a thousand yards from its circuit, nor quit the refuge till the decease of the high-priest under whom the homicide had taken place. If, however, he transgressed these provisions, the avenger might lawfully put him to death. The roads leading to the cities of refuge were to be kept in good repair. Before, however, the fugitive could avail himself of the shelter conceded by the laws, he was to undergo a solemn trial, and make it appear to the satisfaction of the magistrates of the place where the homicide was committed that it was purely accidental. Should he, however, be found to have been guilty of murder, he was delivered 'into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he might die.' And the Israelites were strictly forbidden to spare him either from considerations of pity or in consequence of any pecuniary ransom. This disallowal of a compensation by money in the case of murder shows a just regard for human life, and appears much to the advantage of the Hebrew legislation when compared with the practice of other countries (Athens, for instance, and Islam), in which pecuniary atonements were allowed, if not encouraged, and where, in consequence, the life of the poor must have been in as great jeopardy as the character of the wealthy.
The asylum afforded by Moses displays the same benign regard to human life in respect of the homicide himself. Had no obstacle been put in the way of the Goel, instant death would have awaited anyone who had the misfortune to occasion the death of another. By his wise arrangements, however, Moses interposed a seasonable delay, and enabled the manslayer to appeal to the laws and justice of his country. Momentary wrath could hardly execute its fell purposes, and a suitable refuge was provided for the guiltless and unfortunate.
Yet as there is a wide space between the innocence of mere homicide and the guilt of actual murder, in which various degrees of blame might easily exist, so the legislator took means to make the condition of the manslayer less happy than it was before the act or the mischance, lest entire impunity might lead to the neglect of necessary precaution and care. With great propriety, therefore, was the homicide made to feel some legal inconvenience. Accordingly he was removed from his patrimony, restricted in his sphere of locomotion, affected indirectly in his pecuniary interests, and probably reduced from an affluent or an easy station to one of service and labor. The benefit of the protection afforded was common to strangers and sojourners with native Israelites.
What ensues rests on the authority of the Rabbins. In order to give the fugitive all possible advantage in his flight, it was the business of the Sanhedrim to make the roads that led to the cities of refuge convenient by enlarging them and removing every obstruction that might hurt his foot or hinder his speed. No hillock was left, no river was allowed over which there was not a bridge, and the road was at least two and thirty cubits broad. At every turning there were posts erected bearing the words Refuge, Refuge, to guide the unhappy man in his flight; and two students in the law were appointed to accompany him, that, if the avenger should overtake him before he reached the city, they might attempt to pacify him till the legal investigation could take place.
When once settled in the city of refuge, the manslayer had a convenient habitation assigned him gratuitously, and the citizens were to teach him some trade whereby he might support himself. To render his confinement more easy, the mothers of the high-priests used to feed and clothe these unfortunate fugitives, that they might not be impatient and pray for the death of their sons, on whose decease they were restored to their liberty and their property. If the slayer died in the city of refuge before he was released, his bones were delivered to his relations, after the death of the high-priest, to be buried in the sepulcher of his fathers.
In addition to this right of asylum, a custom appears to have prevailed from very early times, both among the chosen people and the nations of the world, of fleeing, in case of personal danger, to the altar. With the Jews it was customary for the fugitive to lay hold of the horns of the altar, whether in the tabernacle or temple; by which, however, shelter and security were obtained only for those who had committed sins of ignorance or inadvertence (;; ). From the two last passages it seems that state-criminals also sought the protection of the altar, probably more from the force of custom than any express law. Their safety, however, depended on the will of the king; for in the passages referred to it appears that in one case (that of Adonijah) life was spared, but in the other (that of Joab) it was taken away even 'by the altar.' Compare .
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Cities of Refuge'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/c/cities-of-refuge.html.